Cob Walls Going Up!

It has been a little difficult to keep up on a blog posting about the building of the walls, because so much is happening in such a short time that photos of progress quickly become out dated.  Most of my own time has been spent working alongside the cobbers, helping my mom to prepare and make meals, or collapsing in bed at the end of the day.  The walls are now very close to their final height, and we will soon be able to install the rafters before we continue with the cobbing up and around them.   I thought it would be a good time to review what has been done, and then follow up with the roofing later on.

We had three people from off-island join us for four days, and a continuous stream of friends and neighbors each day to learn and help out.  Colin’s mom from Florida was visiting, as well as our friends from Vancouver who sold us the property and are building the little cabin on the property.

clay slip on the foundation

We started with learning the art of foot mixing on tarps, but then moved on to using the huge pile of bobcat mixed cob.  Tracy Calvert, our cob building expert from Cobworks, showed us how to apply clay slip to the stones of the foundation to help adhere the cob to the stone, and then we started laying down the first handfuls of cob.  We focused on building up one of the wall sections that would have windows in it, so that within the four days, our cobbers would have the opportunity to set the glass in place and cob the sills and edges.  Tracy spent time each day after lunch discussing different areas of the building process, including foundations, techniques for windows and doors, plumbing and electrical, and roof structures.  On the last day, we had a small ceremony to celebrate our work together by placing objects in a jar that have a personal connection and burying it into the wall of the workshop.  We did that again with the second group of cobbers on the next weekend, and Colin and I were very touched at the honesty and words of appreciation and inspiration that everyone had regarding their experience building and learning together.  Everyone had a different reason for being here learning about cob- some of which were specific to cob and some were seeking personal empowerment.  We come together as strangers and leave each other with new friendships and new gems of knowledge to integrate into our lives.  I was reminded of the time when Colin and I traveled a lot and met different people from all sorts of paths, knowing them sometimes for a short time or a long time before parting ways, but always taking something of the experience of knowing them with me.

It is also wonderful to have friends and fellow islanders stop in for a day or more to help out.  Having the support of our community means a lot to us.  We have come to see the building of this workshop as another example of building stronger community ties with experiences of working together and deepening relationships and memories between us.

Colin and I had drawn out a general sketch for a sculptural design on the outside of two flowing lines coming out from the sides of the main door and sweeping up into a raven on the left, and diving down into the roots of a tree on the right side of the door.  We wanted to have bottles placed in the wall along the pathways of the two lines, so as we went we taped two bottles together to span the width of the wall and cobbed them in place.  We also have some circular thick glass port windows, about 8 inches across, that we wanted to have in the walls, so we put buckets that were slightly smaller than the glass in the place where we wanted the windows and them cobbed all around them.  By turning the buckets each day we ensured that they will pull out easily when we want to set the glass in.

placing corbels for the arches

We also made corbels with long lengths of straw covered in clay and layered together to build a strong protruding window sill and arches over the tops of the tall windows that we cobbed in place.  Celine, our neighbor, brought us a beautiful tall blue glass bottle that we placed in between the windows, adding more dimensions to the width of the wall.  We added a framed opening window on the east side, hammering old nails into the wooden frame for the cob around it to grab onto.  We did the same with the door bucks, creating a network of wire and nails that the cob will harden around.  There is no plumbing in the workshop, but there are a few light switches that Colin mounted near the door bucks, running an electrical conduit up to the rafters where all the wiring will run.  Other electrical outputs will be built into an interior wall that will frame in a utility room and backing for Colin’s work bench.

Trimming is a big part of cobbing.  Every day, before more cob is loaded on to the walls, the splooges that occur while building up with wet cob is trimmed off with a saw and remixed to be put back on the wall.  It is important to make sure that the walls remain plumb, so that the strength of the weight of the cob is kept directly above the foundation.  It is easy for the wall edges to wander in all directions.  It is also easier to trim excess splooging than it is to add to dips that may occur, so it is important to keep the edges as plumb as possible and allow the splooging to happen.

We had the bobcat return in the days between the first weekend of cobbing and the second, to mix more cob and to remix the leftovers as it was getting dried out.  We had two cobbers from off island join us for the second workshop, and again a continuous flow of islanders coming by and spending time working with us.

niches built into the sides of the window and bottles framing the door

By this time, we were also getting two or three groups of people stopping by every day just to see what was going on, asking questions and watching the process.  We are fairly visible to the road, so walkers would stop, cars would slow down, and our neighbor across the street sent anybody who came to see her and her road side stand over to check out our building.  After the weekend, Shawn (one of the workshop participants)  decided to stay an extra three days and keep cobbing before flying back to South Korea, and we had two more people arriving after that who were not able to make the workshop dates but wanted to learn while we were still getting it finished up.  That is where we are now- working up in the top few feet, making deadmen for the rafters to sit on, feeding Marco and Nick alongside our family, and enjoying the continued company of our community.  Cobbing so far has proved to be a lot of physical work, work that is energizing and fun with a group of people working together and learning from each other.  New creative methods of building are developed, and artistic touches are discovered.  It would be too lengthy for me to explain details of the cobbing techniques, so I will recommend a book that Tracy recommends for anyone interested in learning more.  Check out The Hand Sculpted House, by Ianto Evans, Michael Smith and Linda Smiley and Cob Cottage Company in Oregon.  I also recommend a hands on experience for a better understanding of the process, and as a way of feeling out whether cob would be the ideal method if you have a project in mind.

Building A Small Cob Wall

While we have used the basic mixture for cob in many places of the house- in the floor, as rough plaster coats, and for sculpting – we have only one small wall that pays tribute to the building techniques of cob.  It is a short barrier that separates the back of the wood stove from an area that will one day be a staircase leading down to the rest of the house.  Only 8 inches wide, it does not have the usual girth of a supportive wall, and rests on a ledge of concrete that was poured with the rest of the foundation and connects to the back of the two foot tall stone hearth.  We embedded an air vent pipe that opens from the outside wall to behind the stove, allowing the stove to draw in fresh air as it burns.

We started the wall with a work party, inviting families, neighbors, and interested friends to lend a hand or foot in stomping, wheel barrowing, and shaping.  Children and cob are a perfect mix and add such a joyful presence to the job!  We used clay from our huge pile gathered for the previous plastering and floor sections, clay that originally came from a farm down the road that dug themselves a huge pond and discovered clear blue clay.  The sand is pit run sand from the island, (a silty and rough sand with lots of rocks – just fine for cobbing with) and straw leftover from the bales we got for the house.  Stomping includes mushing the mix together with your feet on a tarp, adding water as needed and rolling the mix in the tarp once in awhile to help move the bottom stuff to the top.  Inside the house, we took handfuls and pushed it into the growing ledge of the wall, using thumbs and sticks to really integrate each handful.  The work party got us up about 2 feet, at which point the weight of the cob began to cause the wall to slump out the bottom.  We let this part of the progress dry out for a day, then used a saw with large teeth cut into it to trim off the excess cob from the bottom until it measured the right width again.  We could then continue to add on to it until it began slumping again.  The lowest part of this wall reaches just over three feet, and then arches gracefully up another foot behind the hearth and the wood stove.  Then my mom got her hands in there to sculpt a draping vine along the top and dangling down the sides, smoothing out the top of the wall in a rounded curve.  After letting the wall completely dry out (about a month!)  I could finally mix up some green colour samples for the final plastering.  (See my previous post, Final Plastering, for details on mixing and applying natural clay plaster).  Working around the sculptured vine took lots of patience and forgiveness, but in the end the natural quality of the plaster reflects and brings out a beautiful ease and grace framing the hearth.

vine detail before being plastered

The Living Roof

The gently curving south side of the roof was designed to be covered in a carpet of succulents.  We had  the size and structure of the timber frame approved by our engineer to hold the weight of six inches of soil, plus a calculated weight for snow and water.  We were inspired by other green roofs we had seen, and by numerous pictures in natural building books, and by the relative easiness of the construction of layers required.  We also liked the idea of our roof being an absorbing entity, making use of the sun and rain that tumbles down from the sky onto every surface area.  The decision to use succulents came from the idea that we wanted the coverage to be drought tolerant and spreading easily to avoid too many weeding sessions.  We also saw that the rocks upon which our house was going to be built were covered already with the native stonecrop, so I lifted them in their clumps and put them aside until I could finally plant them into the soil of the roof.

On top of the rafters, we put  down plywood and building paper as in the construction of a regular roof, but on that we rolled out a rubber pond liner out to a built up lip that went all the way around the outside.  Then, we put out a call for old carpets, to act as a drain mat and protector from roots wiggling down.  It was important to use the kind of carpets that had a burlap or jute backing, instead of the rubber backing, as we wanted to make sure that water could drain through it and towards the edges.  We lay down some drain rock around perforated pipes along the side lengths to allow water to collect and flow into the down spouts.

We did a final layer of landscape cloth before we began to bring up the soil.  With a pile of local pit run sand, a pile of soil that was excavated earlier when we dug out our pond, and the help of many many friends who came out for a work party on a fine June day, we managed to fill the roof with 4 inches of soil one bucket at a time.

It was a fabulous day, we had lots of enthusiastic shovellers, diggers, bucket haulers, pulley operators, dumpers, and rakers.  Families came and took turns relaxing and swimming in the pond.  We had lunch for everyone, and cake later on to celebrate Cedar’s 5th birthday.  (Last year we had a plastering party for his birthday- imagine a bunch of kids with buckets of clay plaster and a green light for slopping it all over a bunch of bales…)

Workparties are a definite for natural building, providing the task at hand is fairly easy to monitor.  It would have taken Colin and I a month of hauling buckets up there… and we did it in one day and provided lots of community members the chance to participate in an aspect of natural building which is fun, positive, and an example of creating healthy environments.  We are so glad that we have such a supportive community of people who share our values and visions of a vibrant earth, and who in turn have skills for us to learn from.

So then we started putting the plants in, some that I had began propagating over 2 years ago.  Hens and chicks, sedums, and echverias, plus all the stonecrop from the rocks that are now buried under the house.  Taeven and Cedar were excited to help, and we came up with the idea to plant the stonecrop in a big infinity symbol along the center spine of the roof, with the darker green hens and chicks inside the loops, and the burgundy sedums around the outside.  It will be interesting to see the shapes that we created with the different colours of the plants as they get established and fill out, sending their tall stalks of flowers out at various times of the year.

Right now, it is a weedy mess.  It is yet another task on my list of fall jobs- weed roof.  I am sure that a few weeding sessions will be needed until the seeds that were in the soil will have all sprouted, and until the carpet of succulents fills in the spaces.  So far it is functioning well, and catches my eyes softly as I move around the property.  There is beginning to be lots of information out there on the construction of living roofs as well as their benefits, and I encourage anyone to try it out as a retro fit or as an option for a new building.  One thing we did discover… there is lots of ready made, manufactured products being offered and promoted, usually at very high prices.  Our research indicated that all we really need is already around us in the form of recycling!  (Pond liner exempted, you really don’t want any leaks in a living roof).  The creative possibilities are endless, and open to any situation.

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