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Cob: Gettin' Down and Dirty with Natural Building

Updated on May 5, 2011

For the Love of Cob

What I did with summer 2008: spent a week covered up to my knees in mud, built walls out of said mud, had a great time getting to know about fifteen other people working with the mud, and generally fell in love with cob.

Earthen building has been used all over the world to build shelter for mellinia. Cob, the technique described in this lens, became popular in medieval times and is most widely known as a traditional building method in the British Isles. This June I took part in a week long workshop discovering for myself why mankind is so crazy about building houses out of...well, mud.

Cob Workshop - Fun in the sun...well, in the shade of a tarp, mostly.

A pic and video slideshow of the workshop I attended. And loved. To see a cob house being built by the instructors, Sarah and Jared (as well as other natural builders), click here.

Components of Cob

So, it's just mud, right?

I swore I would never do this but here goes:

The Marion-Webster dictionary defines cob as: a mixture of unburnt clay and straw used especially for constructing walls of small houses in England.

Whew, glad that's over. So, what is cob, really? It's a fairly sticky mixture of clay, sand, water and straw that is stacked to create a form, such as a wall or bench. Unlike adobe, where the mud is dried into bricks before use, cob is stacked while still wet. As each layer is added to the wall it is pressed down into the layer below to create a solid, seamless mass.

Pass The Cob, Please

The word cob comes from an old word for lump or loaf of bread, because cob is often passed from person to person in bread-shaped handfulls. Check out the young cobber walking across the bottom of frame to see what I mean.

Cob Dancing - Human powered mud mixing...it's a good thing!

Cob can be mixed in a variety of ways. Before industrialization, it was popular to mix a big batch in a pit by leading livestock through the cob, churning and mixing it with their hoofs. Now, professional cobbers often use tractors to turn out large amounts. For DIY projects (including building your own house), though, all you need is yourself. Oh, and a tarp is handy, too.

The most popular way of making cob these days is to mix the ingredients in small batches by stomping them (aka "dancing in them") on a tarp. Why a tarp? It's not strictly necessary, but it's a great help when trying to fully incorporate all of the materials.

Here's a quick run-down on how to mix cob:

First, mix your dry soil ingredients on the tarp. You can turn it by lifting one side of the tarp at a time, like the videos below show. Or, if you have two people you can each grab two corners, lift the tarp off the ground and rock back and forth, combining the dry ingredients with the rocking motion.

Second, add water and dance! Stomp on the cob until the water is incorporated. While stomping, stop every so often to turn the cob by lifting one side of the tarp at a time.

Third comes the straw. Sprinkle it on the wet mix in handfuls and stomp in a bit at a time. You may need to add more water. You'll know you have the right mix when it stays together in a rolled-up shape when you turn it. The technical term for this is "the burrito." You think I'm kidding?

Check out these videos to get an idea of the stomping and turning. For a good introduction to mixing and building with cob, read this partly-free-on-the-web book, The Cob Builder's Handbook.

Hula Cobbing! - Kind of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. In mud.

Hula Cobbing! - Kind of like patting your head and rubbing your tummy. In mud.

Thinking about building your own cob house? For a good intro on the subject check out the partly-free-on-the-web book, The Cob Builder's Handbook, for ideas about site planning and passive solar design.

Building with Cob - Watch out for "splooging"

Cob is sometimes referred to as "monolithic adobe." Like adobe, it is made from earth. Unlike adobe, though, cob walls are built without drying the earth into bricks first. Just plop some cob on the wall and press it in.

Ok, so it's not quite that simple, but almost. Be sure to build level all the way across the top of a wall. Press your fingers into the top of the wet cob when you are building, to give the next layer a rough surface to key into. Oh, and splooging? That happens when you press too hard on the top of the wall and the wet cob smooshes out on either side. This can be fixed, but don't let it get out of hand.

Here's a video that shows some mixing and some building with cob.

Cob, anyone?

Have an first-hand experience with cob?

See results

A Good Hat and a Good Pair of Boots... - ...and a good rain coat.

Many of people want to know what keeps a cob house from just melting back into the ground when it rains. After all, it's just dirt and straw, right?

In the UK, where centuries-old cob houses are still housing people today, they say to give a cob house "a good hat and a good pair of boots." I threw in that bit about the rain coat.

So, what does that mean? It means that a cob structure can last for a looooooong time if it has a well-constructed roof to protect it from falling rain, and a well-constructed foundation to protect it from ground water seeping up into the walls. That's the hat and boot bit. The rain coat? A good, weather resistant plaster, such as lime (as in "limestone", not the citrus fruit) or earth, is a good choice to protect the cob walls from water that does hit the side of the structure.

This house has a good example of all three. The roof has a good overhang to protect the upper walls, the stone foundation stops water from wicking up into the lower walls, and the white lime plaster is weather-resistant. (Photo found on GerryT's photostream on flickr.)

Recommended Reading

The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage: The Real Goods Solar Living Book
The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage: The Real Goods Solar Living Book

Here's the book that the workshop instructors suggested we read. It is published by a couple who founded the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon, where our instructors received their training. It's very indepth and leads you through everything from choosing your site to different roof options.

 

Get Muddy! - Workshops, apprenticeships, internships and jobs dealing with cob.

Opportunities to gain and give some learning on cob. Some you pay for, and some you get paid for.

Cob All Over The World - er, um...I mean, Building With Cob Worldwide. Or something like that.

Youtube is a great resource to see what people are doing with cob all over the planet. Here's some videos proving just that.

Epilogue

In October 2008 I spent one very fun day cobbing on a garden wall. Here's the slideshow I made of the pics and video I took. It's kind of short, but there are some good clips of people cobbing and trimming.

Thanks for visiting my lens! I hope you liked it. If not, that's ok, too. Feel free to leave me a comment either way. :)

Thoughts, anyone? - So...what did you think about this lens?

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    • EmmaCooper LM profile image

      EmmaCooper LM 6 years ago

      Looks like fun :)

    • profile image

      anonymous 6 years ago

      What an awesome site! Thanks for all the good info, I was actually researching earth covered homes when I stumbled onto this, and it seems this would combine with that element and be very efficient. I plan on building a home with my own two hands in the not too distant future, and this information will help a lot. Keep up the good work.

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @anonymous: That's a great question! Unfortunatley, I don't know the answer. Have you tried seeing if your local building codes are available online? If you are planning on building, it's good to get in touch with natural builders in your area, as they'll have up to date info and be familiar with local inspectors. Try checking out the International Green Construction Code, too. Even if it hasn't been adopted where you are, you'll have a base of knowledge to start from. http://www.iccsafe.org/cs/IGCC/Pages/default.aspx

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Can you get a permit to build your house out of cob in California? (bigger than 120 sq. ft!)

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @anonymous: Glad I could introduce someone new to cob. :) As for not being up to it, I've personally seen five year old children cob, and videos of people on crutches stomping cob! There are also less labor intensive ways of mixing it, too. So, if it's something you really want to learn, don't let that fear stand in your way!

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      Never heard of "Cob" before, thank you for introducing me. It looks very interesting, I don't know if I would be up to it though.

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @Heather426: Ooo, I bet you would have fun with natural building, especially with earthen plaster. There are some people making amazing art right on their walls!

    • Heather426 profile image

      Heather Burns 7 years ago from Wexford, Ireland

      fantastic lens! Makes me want to get into the clay and have fun. I'm a potter, so clay play is natural to me. 5*****

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @Home Interior D: Thanks!

      Isn't it amazing? You can definitely tell that a lot of thought went into the design of it. I especially like the little covered entrance area. Perfect for closing an umbrella during the rain, or kicking your muddy shoes off before walking into the house.

    • Home Interior D profile image

      Home Interior D 7 years ago

      Excellent lens. I love the picture under the sub-title 'A Good Hat and a Good Pair of Boots... '. I can just imagine living in that building or rather using it as a country retreat during the weekends.

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 7 years ago

      @Ramkitten2000: Wow, what an inspiration. That's awesome. Cob really is a beautiful way to build. Not just the beauty of the materials, but the beautiful way it empowers people and brings them together. :)

    • Stazjia profile image

      Carol Fisher 7 years ago from Warminster, Wiltshire, UK

      Building with cob looks like really messy fun and practical too. Lovely lens blessed by an Angel.

    • Ramkitten2000 profile image

      Deb Kingsbury 7 years ago from Flagstaff, Arizona

      My husband and I did some cob work years ago, while we were living on a farm. We built a beautiful, outdoor cob oven and baked many a loaf of bread in there. Then, when a friend of ours came to stay on the farm for a while, we introduced her to cob and she fell in love with is. So much so that she traveled to Vancouver for a cob workshop and never left. Kit and her husband now design and build cob homes and teach cob workshops together.

    • profile image

      anonymous 7 years ago

      So so cool. Like wattle and daub without the wattle. Lensrolling this one, too. Thanks!

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      Great lens - you've been blessed by a squidoo angel :)

    • planetweaver lm profile image

      planetweaver lm 8 years ago

      SO happy to find you here and swiftly made your the first link in new Suidoo Lens I am constructing for this season;s cob house building with Lakota http://www.squidoo.ISendAVoice

    • MerryChicky profile image
      Author

      MerryChicky 8 years ago

      [in reply to EchoTarpeian] Gosh, thanks! I'm honored to have my lenses featured in the group. :)

    • profile image

      Echo Phoenix 8 years ago

      WOW!!!!!!!! I continue to be amazed by you and appreciate your contributions to Planet Earth: Our Garden of Eden:) I have featured this lens along with two of your other building lenses in the Build It! module in our group.

    • RawBill1 profile image

      Bill 8 years ago from Gold Coast, Australia

      I Love Cob!!! Thanks for another great lens. You rock!!!

    • steveffeo lm profile image

      steveffeo lm 8 years ago

      Great lens and TY for adding to my Cobbhouse Plexo module 5 stars

    • OhMe profile image

      Nancy Tate Hellams 8 years ago from Pendleton, SC

      Very educational as I had never heard of Cob. Thank you for the info.

    • profile image

      SadieCope 8 years ago

      My children have always wanted to build a fort. I'm going to show them this lense and maybe they'll be able to build something for themselves!

    • TopStyleTravel profile image

      TopStyleTravel 8 years ago

      Different but interesting subject matter. Liked the 'African Earth' picture. Thanks for sharing.

    • MatCauthon profile image

      MatCauthon 8 years ago

      To much to learn, not enough time. I sure would like to own a cob house.

    • profile image

      CleanerLife 8 years ago

      Never heard of Cob before, I honestly thought I was going to read about building with corn cobs!

      (Sounds odd, but I was envisioning model homes made of dried corn cobs)

      This was interesting, I've learned a lot!

    • DAD1104 profile image

      DAD1104 8 years ago

      I have celiac disease so I can eat COB but not GLUTEN (wheat), Thanks for lens

    • religions7 profile image

      religions7 8 years ago

      great lens :)