The Hand-Sculpted House

The 21st Century Mud Hut
by JJ Ark

Standard house construction has a problem, and it's wooden.

Traditional wood framing--"stick framing"--provides a skeletal structure--the hip bones and rib-cage, if you will. Drywall affixed to the ribs provides a skin over the bones, enclosing the electrical and circulatory systems as well. The framing used is all based upon 90° angles. Everything is based upon every other element being at a position relative to 90° from the first element. Uniform and square, these layers of drywall, wiring, insulation, plumbing and paint are what keep the wind from blowing right through your living room. It is what most people think of when they think of the word, "HOUSE."

With the price of wood skyrocketing, and the ecological impact of all that wood, glue, nails, gypsum, Tyvek, fiberglass, paint and primer on the landscape, the cost of a house is quickly becoming more than just the price of the land and a few 2x4s.

The modern home building biz would like you to think stick framing is the only style or type of construction out there, but it isn't.

The Hand-Sculpted House is the where, when, how and why--written by the "who"--of cob construction, an ancient building style undergoing a big revival. It explains everything, from the right consistency of soil to the best dance-moves to use when mixing up a batch of cob. Yes, I said soil.

I can hear the howls now: "A house made of DIRT?!?!? What, are you nuts?" Nope.

Cob is one of humanity's oldest construction methods. While "rammed earth" compresses dirt into a semi-resilient construction material, cob takes that same base element, dirt--or more specifically, clay--and then adds in sand for aggregate. Then we add structural integrity in the form of straw.

Walls aren't so much built as they are "knitted," or squished into place. Once dry, it is covered in plaster or mastic, and then painted. You have seen these houses before; you just didn't realize that that old English countryside house dated 1544 was actually made out of clay, sand and straw.

The authors of this book, Ianto, Michael and Linda, are all associated with the Cob Cottage Company out of Cottage Grove, Oregon (not far from where I grew up in Eugene.) A good friend of mine and her grandson recently attended a 2 week class with them and both report that not only is this method easy peasy, the grandson of the pair says that it's perfect for kids. And my friend reports that though the dancing part of construction was a little rough on her knees, it's accessible for everyone in the family.

This is NOT an answer to everyone's housing needs. Not by a long-shot. Here in Oregon, the home of the Cob Cottage Company, a cob building isn't even code, despite its inherent fire-proof qualities and superior insulation. But municipalities are slowly coming around, as they did with straw bale construction in the previous decade.

As with any construction method, cob has its limitations. No highrises shall be made out of dirt, but two and three story buildings are fine provided they are engineered carefully. For all its faults, cob also has considerable charms. Since the forms are not tied to the rectilinear shapes dictated by the dimensions of boards, plywood and right angles, homes and outbuildings can be round, heartshaped, ovoid or even wavy. You can build niches and literal sculptures right into the walls. If you can do it with play dough, you can do it with cob. Perhaps even more interestingly, benches and beds can be built right into the house's structure, and designed to incorporate a chimney flue. No more cold sheets in January! Space can be tailored in a fashion impossible under traditional construction.

While this book is beautiful to look at, it's also an in-depth and thorough look at cob construction by longtime pros, the only glaring omission being that tools are not described or sourced well enough for me. The book covers soil types, soil testing, drainage, methods of construction, different types of constructions, timelines, suggestions for jobsite structure and site layout--pretty much anything anyone who wants to try building with cob needs to know. Just add land and good sources of straw and sand.


Lynn's picture

Reading the journeys of the three authors into cob mastery is fascinating, especially Ianto's. He went from traditionally trained British architect (which means he was never allowed to sully himself with actually building anything--a trait shared by many architects) to cob godfather. It's not just a handbook, it's a fascinating read on its own.

A story that resonated with me immediately was a time when Ianto came upon a well-dressed older woman sitting in her car in his drive, looking at his cottage. He invited her in, she came in reluctantly. Ianto looked up from making tea and she was sitting there with tears running down her cheeks. She said she'd always dreamed of a house like this since childhood, that in her heart a house like this was her home, and she didn't know it was actually possible.

Reading "The Hand-Sculpted House," I feel like that woman. And maybe it's menopause, but I almost feel teary, too. I yearn for a little house like the ones described in this book. The authors say that this is such an old building method--very probably one of the first permanent ones we as humans used--that it may be in our genetic memory. I believe it just may be so.

Full disclosure: One of my best friends is one of Ianto's close friends, though he and I have never met.

Lynn Siprelle, Editor

Zillah's picture

We would LOVE to do this, and were planning to before we moved north. However, Scottish architects strongly advise against cob construction up here. Apparently the special wind/rain combo 'enjoyed' in Scotland makes cob impractical unless you want to be redoing your walls once a year. Humph.

It looks like a wonderful book, but it might be cruelty to husbands to buy it when we can't build that way.


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