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August 6, 2008 7:07 PM   Subscribe

The first little pig built his house out of straw [previously]. The second little pig built his house out of sticks. The third little pig built his house out of bricks; but the relatively unknown fourth little pig built several structures of all sizes out of mud (and straw), and he wasn't a hippy.

Cob building is relatively simple, inexpensive, sturdy and beautiful. It allows you to create free-form structures, it doesn't require a lot of knowledge and, best of all, everyone (including the kids) can get involved.

The canonical resource for cob building is probably The Cob Builders Handbook, available directly from the author, or via Amazon if you're so inclined.
posted by 5MeoCMP (24 comments total) 13 users marked this as a favorite

 
Obligatory Christopher Walken version.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:17 PM on August 6, 2008


I'm not sure I buy the "inexpensive" part, a 24 inch thick wall built by hand sounds pretty labor intensive. Anyone know how quickly the building progresses?
posted by jeffburdges at 7:24 PM on August 6, 2008


Thanks for the post.

But cob (I am informed) is hugely labour intensive and not simple, if you want sturdy. While they are beautiful, they do tend to look a bit all the same. A bit like straw bale really.

My current building material of choice is rammed earth (a.k.a. pisé) - load bearing, quick, durable, sustainable.
posted by wilful at 7:27 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


I have to admit that I haven't built cob myself -- yet. We're planning to start small, building a kid's playhouse this summer in the backyard of our existing home.

We do know that it's not fast, but there's little labour cost because we're doing it ourselves.
posted by 5MeoCMP at 7:32 PM on August 6, 2008


um, it may be off point, and i know they SAY it's safe but...

a LIBRARY housed by STRAW. really?

anybody have a match?
posted by MsCoco@6:58 at 7:44 PM on August 6, 2008


Semi-obligatory lost cause spelling remark: hippie is the people/lifestyle, hippy is zaftig.
posted by mdevore at 7:46 PM on August 6, 2008 [2 favorites]


Hurrah for building with mud! I was lucky enough to find an affordable adobe house done the pre-1950s way -- a stacked stone foundation, two-foot-thick walls, and funky off-plumb walls, floors, and ceilings, most likely built by hand by the (unknown) original owners. I think it's really great... the thick walls give me a sense of security and warmth, and they do a pretty good job of regulating the temperature inside. On the other hand, it's a total bitch to do anything with the walls -- putting up a picture is a ten-minute process which involves a power drill.

There's a pretty good article on building your own adobe home from scratch, taken from the classic The Owner-Built Adobe Home... it looks like a lot of work, but the results sure are nice. These days, real adobe (as opposed to stucco'd cinderblock-or-concrete-based "fauxdobe") adds quite a bit of added value, at least around here.
posted by vorfeed at 7:53 PM on August 6, 2008


um, it may be off point, and i know they SAY it's safe but...

a LIBRARY housed by STRAW. really?

anybody have a match?



I hope to build a straw bale house, someday. Believe it or not, properly built bale houses are practically fire and vermin proof.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 7:57 PM on August 6, 2008


...little paid labour cost...

fixed that for you.
posted by wilful at 8:05 PM on August 6, 2008


a hippy

hippie - a play on the word hipster, meaning a minor/small hipster. To the late 1950s/early 1960s Beat Generation, the flood of mid-1960s youths adopting beatnik sensibilities appeared as a cheap, mass-produced imitation. By Beat Generation standards, these newcomers were not cool enough to considered hip, so they used the term hippie with disdain (cf. poser). Now generally archaic. Subsequent pejorative usage by modern conservatives to mean liberal/left leaning.
posted by stbalbach at 8:06 PM on August 6, 2008


um, it may be off point, and i know they SAY it's safe but...

a LIBRARY housed by STRAW. really?

anybody have a match?


Extensive studies have been done which have shown ad infinitum that straw houses are much more flame-resistant than wood houses. They've actually held blowtorches up against exposed straw walls (in real life, the straw would also be covered with some sort of plaster) for ten to fifteen minutes, only to watch the fire go out almost instantly when the blowtorch is removed. It's nearly impossible for them to burn.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 8:25 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]



um, it may be off point, and i know they SAY it's safe but...

a LIBRARY housed by STRAW. really?

anybody have a match?



Extensive studies have been done which have shown ad infinitum that straw houses are much more flame-resistant than wood houses. They've actually held blowtorches up against exposed straw walls (in real life, the straw would also be covered with some sort of plaster) for ten to fifteen minutes, only to watch the fire go out almost instantly when the blowtorch is removed. It's nearly impossible for them to burn.


OK, let me rephrase this one to illustrate the facts from the trope:

and i know the facts ">SAY it's safe but...

that's some pretty entertaining imagery! anybody have a match?
posted by MsCoco@6:58 at 8:46 PM on August 6, 2008


proper link for SAY

sorry guys!
posted by MsCoco@6:58 at 8:49 PM on August 6, 2008


A Straw Bale House (in Wilmington, VT) designed by a close friend of mine.
posted by ericb at 8:49 PM on August 6, 2008


I've worked with cob. It was fun, in spite of our team leader, who derided me for wearing boots during the mixing process. Later he invited us to search the empty lot for rocks of spiritual significance to add to the clay in an excruciatingly long improvised ceremony. The next week there was glass in the clay and another volunteer sliced her foot open. Yes, it took two weekends for a team of five people to build a bench. It's either since fallen apart since or been demolished by local residents unhappy with the look of our free-form blob.

Still, I have hope for cob. I mean, look what the Yemeni have built. (It's not true cob, but wow!) But there's a lot of work to be done before we've got economically viable applications, in terms of both labor cost and resale value.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:03 PM on August 6, 2008


I think I saw this on Dirtiest Jobs once and I thought they used doo doo as one of the ingredients, not positive though.
posted by BrnP84 at 9:32 PM on August 6, 2008


Spent four very happy 1970's years in mostly adobe/mud straw/stone and log houses, in Manali, India. Come springtime, when the walls were grey from the smoke of winter indoor wood burning stoves (tandoors), my neighbors and I would each collect fresh cow plop in a bucket, nice and steaming, fresh out of the sphincter, some clay, straw and water, stir it up and re-mud our houses, walls, floors, ceilings, insides and outsides. Spring mudding. Fresh as a daisy.

In the wintertime in the Himalayas there are often earthquakes, adobe/cob housing is very earthquake friendly.

The only con, imo, is the dust. Sweeping the floor in the morning is dusty.

Some fancy schmazy earth houses, these by Swiss architect, Peter Vetch. wow. And this cute little Hobbity one. aww. A grassy, leafy roof after my own heart. The elegant Adobe Alliance, which has courses in Texas.

Fun, sustainable post. Thanks 5MeoCMP.
posted by nickyskye at 9:35 PM on August 6, 2008 [1 favorite]


I think I saw this on Dirtiest Jobs once and I thought they used doo doo as one of the ingredients, not positive though.

It's "Dirty Jobs," but otherwise you are not wrong. Mike Rowe helped build a cob house that used manure as part of the core material. His experience (beyond the normal icky-poo jokes he's supposed to make for the show) was that building cob houses is really fucking hard work.

I also have a man crush on Mike Rowe. I'm not afraid to tell you, internet.
posted by middleclasstool at 9:37 PM on August 6, 2008


Dunno about cob, but I've had friends who worked on a crew building rammed earth houses.

The costs work out about the same as conventional timber construction - the materials are cheaper, and you don't need as much skilled labour, but it takes a lot more person-hours.

I would love an earth house if I didn't live somewhere with a high rainfall and a big earthquake risk. Lovely wobbly wooden houses are best around here.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 12:03 AM on August 7, 2008


So basically this option is for NGOs with limitless local unskilled labor, not western nations.
posted by jeffburdges at 1:53 AM on August 7, 2008


Alternatives
posted by Kirth Gerson at 7:26 AM on August 7, 2008


In some places in rural England at least up to the industrial revolution, if you could build a cottage in a single night, you gained ownership (or at least rent-free life tenancy) of the structure. It had to look like a house-- four walls, roof, door. Niceties like floors, fireplaces and windows were added later. These were called "cob cottages" and I've read about them in 18th and 19th century english literature and histories, but I don't recall every reading exactly what "cob" was. Thanks for filling in a gap!
posted by nax at 7:34 AM on August 7, 2008


All earthen construction is brutally heavy. Earthen walls weigh about 100 lb per cubic foot. As a general rule of thumb you can count on using at least 200 lb of mud per square foot of floor space. If you make thick walls, small rooms, and use earth for the roof it can be much more than that.

Cob excels when you are adding on to the place where you are already living so you can devote a few hours a night to it, gradually building it up in spare time you'd have spent watching TV anyway. If you try to do the whole job at once it's brutally hard, and if you are doing this instead of something you'd get paid for it's brutally expensive.

The advantage of adobe over cob is that you can break up the brickmaking process into small steps or even automate it and then when you have enough bricks build the house all at once, in "only" about twice the time it would take to frame and enclose a normal house. Again, if your labor is worth anything it's very expensive.

If you plan on stabilizing your walls against water damage (a must if you use an earthen roof) then you will use nontrivial amounts of asphalt emulsion and/or portland cement and you must mix the mud much more thoroughly.

A typical small cottage will require about a quarter to half a million pounds of earth. Typically you will get to dig all of that up, move it around at least twice (from staging area to mixer and mixer to wall), mix it to make mud (bonus points if you plan to do this by hand instead of using a power mixer), and lift those parts of it that are off the ground into place.

I've run the numbers on most alternative building techniques, and between the moisture situation where I'm looking to build and the weight of the materials, earth was the first one I scratched off.
posted by localroger at 9:35 AM on August 7, 2008


The comments here are brutal. Have any of you read The Hand-Sculpted House? I've read it, probably 2-3 times in total (lots of skipping around), I've read just about everything the internet seems to know about cob, and I've talked a little bit to a guy who regularly built cob. From all of these things I've gathered that it's totally reasonable for a couple of people to build a cob home. Yes, it requires a great deal of work, but many couples and even lone individuals have built their own cob homes.

You can also hold workshops where people help you build your home for free, in exchange for you giving them a valuable learning experience. Hell, post on craigslist every day that you're building and I bet you'd get a gentle trickle of curious people coming by to help.

Personally, I enjoy designing and building things, so I don't understand this aversion to putting work into building a home instead of paying someone else to. I also like to keep my debt to a minimum. I'd be very happy to take some time off to work for myself, building my own home just the way I want it, than spend that time working for someone else to pay off a loan to a bank plus tons of interest.

Moisture is not a problem; in fact, the old English/Welsh cob homes are uh.. in England and Wales. And the cob resurgence happened here in rainy Oregon. Moisture is not a barrier to building cob, although it's certainly a consideration in the design. As for calculating the total weight of the earth used, I frankly don't see why it's relevant. I wouldn't weigh the amount of wood used in a typical home and then use that as a tactic to scare myself out of trying to self-build. The important thing is that regular people can and do build cob homes in reasonable time frames. It's hard work, but building any home is. Cob is not a drop-in replacement for a stick frame McMansion; it's more of a shift in mentality. To ignore that is to miss the whole point.
posted by mackstann at 10:41 PM on August 18, 2008 [3 favorites]


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