Over the past year or so I have been dreaming of building my own cob house. Every time an idea comes to me I write or draw it, leading to the accumulation of many possible house designs. The designs are still rather rudimentary as I consider all of this part of brainstorming, an important part of any design process.
The design process that I do my best to follow is the one used by many permaculture designers (if you want to become a certified permaculture designer click here to see info on the amazing course I took with living routes at the Sirius Ecovillage in Shutesbury, MA). Below is a diagram of this process taken from the blog of AppleSeed Permaculture (click on the link for a more in depth explanation of the design process)- a blog that has a lot of good info on permaculture.
Based on this diagram I have been working on articulating my goals. As of now here is my goal statement for what I am calling my evolving dream. Keep in mind this is my big, long term vision. I hope it will one day manifest!
” My land has all the necessities to sustain a community; a clean water source for drinking and bathing, woods and open space with good solar exposure for growing food and siting buildings. It is surrounded by a vibrant, progressive community and natural beauty.
My home is small but sufficient for me, a partner, and a child. I designed and built it with my own two hands and it is made of all natural and non toxic, sustainably harvested materials. It blends into the land and exemplifies sustainable design. It gets good natural light, and provides for my heating, cooling, cooking, and other needs at little or no cost to me or my environment. It has the ability to evolve over time as my family, needs, and means change.
There is at least one large common space on the land that can be used for small retreats and for educational purposes, including creating and doing art, both visual and movement based. There is also a common dining area with a kitchen, and simple accommodations such as tent platforms, and small dwellings. All structures demonstrate sustainable design, showcasing a myriad of natural and green building techniques, and were built through community builds and workshops.
The whole land exemplifies permaculture principles and is filled with an abundance of wild and cultivated edibles and medicinals. It is a safe and holding space for all people of any race, age, gender, faith, orientation, and culture. We try our very hardest to make everything that we offer at, and through this place, as accessible as possible to all.”
Phew…. That is a long goal statement and, I realize, a tall order. But why not dream big!
So I have my goals articulation, but I don’t yet have a site, making it hard to analyze and assess the site. In permaculture the site often dictates, or at least strongly shapes one’s design so one might wonder why I have already begun to brainstorm building designs when I don’t even have a site yet! Well, part of it is just pure excitement and impatience and a desire to do something while I wait for the time when I feel ready and am able to commit to a site. And also, I have found that through my designs I am beginning to clarify my vision and therefore what I would look for in a piece of land. When I started I did not realize I really wanted land with it’s own water source, including a place to bathe in such as a natural spring, river, or pond. I also did not realize that I really do want land that is big enough to one day house more then just my family and become an educational retreat center. All of these realizations have been immensely helpful and so I am glad that I have started to think about the design possibilities before committing to any one location or site. And who knows! If I am part of a small eco-village or retreat center maybe more then one of these designs will manifest into reality! It has also been fun to see what themes and similarities have emerged as I become clear as to what I like and want, and it has also been interesting to see what has evolved and changed as I have more information and knowledge to inform my design process.
So, for a few of my designs. I think this is the very first one I did, back in fall of 2010. South in this design in up. I will try to always make it clear which way is south as, at least in the Northern hemisphere south the direction in which you want to orient all major windows on a building if you are following passive solar design principles. Passive solar maximizes the natural light you receive and helps to heat your house naturally during the winter and keep it cool during the summer. You will notice the benefits of being south facing if you look at hills or mountains near you. Notice that the south facing slope is always warmer then the north, appearing sometimes even a few weeks ahead in springtime then north facing slopes!
In this design the front entrance opens up to a patio and greenhouse on the south side. A south facing greenhouse will optimize your ability to grow food in winter months and, if it is attached to the house as in this design, it will help to heat your house in winter months. The shower and bath are also in the greenhouse allowing for the steam and moisture created by these facilities to be released into the green house, which should be a warm and moist environment. Also, it would make for easy creation of a greywater or wetland purification system.
Almost all of my designs, including this one have a proportionally large kitchen. This is because in my experience the kitchen ends up being the center of the house. It is where people congregate, and often where the most time is spent, especially in a household that actually cooks its food. Also, in a household that cooks their food from fresh or preserved (canned, dried, etc.) local food and is trying to be sustainable a root cellar is an invaluable thing. This design has a root cellar in the lower left (NE corner) of the design. Placing the root cellar on the north side of a building is best as that side of the house will naturally be the cooler side with the least sun exposure. It is a bit hard to see but the stairs in this design also lead to a small loft that is above the desk and day bed area. This loft would act as the bedroom.
Another thing I tried to design into this house was the ability to built it in stages. The kitchen is almost circular and I thought could be built first. It is large enough that I could sleep and live in it with my basic needs taken care of until the rest of the structure was built. The patio and greenhouse would be built last, although a outhouse would be built earlier on of course.
Below is my third design and still one of my favorites. It is the house that inspired the image I call home, which has come to symbolize many things to me. I often call this my yin yang design.
In this design South is down. It is a bit hard to tell but the upper half of this yin yang is the structure while the lower half is actually a garden. The diameter of the circle I figure to be about 30 feet, making the area of house, if assumed to be half of the circle, to be about 350 square feet. For most in America this might seem incredible small but I would want the first house that I build to be small and manageable as the one thing about building by hand with cob is that it does take time. Also, as proof that living in such a small house is possible and people are doing it by choice, I have seen a family of three living quite comfortable in a yurt with a 25 foot diameter. That is only 490.625 square feet! And that was in Canada, not some third world country mind you. (I talk a bit about their lifestyle in another post, The Dream)
As an artist I like the contained wholeness of this design. It is elegant and simple. The shape of the upper half of the yin yang in the orientation that it is also maximizes the surfaces of the house facing South and gives both the bedroom area and the kitchen great south eastern exposure. I love the morning light so this is something that I like about this design.
Once again, there is a root cellar on the northern side of the house and this time the toilet and bath area is also attached on the north side. This would be good for cold winters when you don’t want to go outside to use the bathroom. This house could also be a single story or include a small loft above the bedroom area for storage or for a child to sleep.
Because I likes this design so much I also started to play with possibilities for the roof. Below are two possible roof designs I came up with.
On the left is a more conventional roof design and honestly a design that appeals to me less. On the right is I design I did after seeing some pictures of beautiful cob houses with curved ridge beams, including one on page 232 of the Hand Sculpted House. These curved ridge beams give the house a beautiful, organic shape and I actually think this design would be relatively easy to build. The ridge beam would run pretty much east to west (with east being up in this picture) and the eastern end would be higher, allowing for a loft. Also, I realized that on the SE side of the house you could extend the beams creating a nice trellis over the patio that would be a natural extension of the house. I also tried to figure out where approximately one would need support posts. In The Hand Sculpted House they recommend that you do not span more then 12 to 14 feet without support, and so I drew in some support beams airing on the conservative side with spans no bigger then 10 feet.
My next few designs are for more typically shaped rectilinear plots. These design came after some thought during my green building course given to the need to start creating sustainable designs for cities and the need for houses to be flexible and able to evolve over time. Much of this thinking came from watching a fascinating movie called How Buildings Learn. One of the beauty’s of cob is the ability to design furniture and individuality right into your structure often making a house that fits like a glove to the lifestyle of it’s inhabitants. But this does not always lend itself well to the possibility of the house changing owners. And so I decided to play around with a few more rectilinear designs that could more easily evolve and contain conventional movable furniture, etc.
The one below I designed specifically with San Miguel de Allende in mind. The houses in this beautiful spanish colonial city are filled with color, interior courtyards, and gardens. It is also a city filled with artists and the creatively incline and so an art studio felt like a must to me. I cannot imagine going to San Miguel and not doing art!
In this design South is up again. It is a bit confusing to know what is the open courtyard and what are encolesed structure so I will do my best to walk you through it. The main entrance to this plot on on the lower North side. You enter into a garden/courtyard space with a structure on either side of you. On the left is the root cellar, kitchen, main area, and a bedroom. On the right is a studio space and a screen in patio for when it is rainy or buggy out. Above both the studio and the bedroom could be a second and third bedroom, giving this design the potential to hold quite a few people, which seems fitting for a San Miguel house which is often rented out to vacationers or passing through many hands. The upper right (SW corner) is where the bathroom and bathing area is, as well as a compost operation from which soil for the gardens could be taken.
Here is another design I did with San Miguel in mind for a friend’s plot. It turns our I got the orientation on the plot not quite right but it was fun anyways to play around with some real dimensions.
In this design South is to the left. The lower left and the right hand side of the plot are outdoor garden/courtyard spaces. It definitely was a bit more of a challenge to design to real plot dimensions and I am honestly not sure that I love this design. The biggest challenge was that I knew there were some big trees on the north side of the plot that the owners did not want to cut down, but that left the south side, where one would usually put the gardens as the logical place to build. I did get to actually see the plot after I did this design and there are definitely things I would do differently, but it was a good exercise and drove home the importance of knowing your site and designing for what already exists in terms of landform, solar orientation, and other things.
Here is one last rectilinear design I did, with more of a temperate, Northeastern climate in mind.
In this design South is up, on the side of the greenhouse. Once again, I don’t know if I love this design as I honestly think I prefer more rounded shapes and spaces. Despite that, I was playing around with another design tool, a book called A Pattern Language and I think I learned some important things from this design. One of the things I paid particular attention to in this design was the need for transition spaces, especially when entering and leaving the house. Therefore the entryway is either through the greenhouse, shade room, or pantry, all of which provide a moment for transition before entering the home life.
A Pattern Language is a fascinating books that uses patterns that the authors found in what appeals to people and makes people feel good in a space. These patterns are then used to guide the design of everything from a room, a house, a garden, a neighborhood, a school or even a city. The book is a big fat book but is set up in an easily usable way where you literally can start in one spot, say the bedroom of a couple, and read about what such a space should include and then at the end of that short little section it will suggest other spaces that often go along with a bedroom for a couple, such as a family kitchen or a house for a couple. And by this method you can slowly work your way through a design piece by piece, leaning about what makes a sitting spot in a garden attractive, and why shifts in lighting between spaces can be important. If you are a designer, architect, or planner I would highly recommend this book.
Ok, getting close to the end of my designs I promise. This next one though, is one of my favorites.
South is the lower right corner here. I love this design for similar reasons that I love my yin yang design. It is rather simple and feels very contained. This design was inspired by both the yin yang design and the yurt that the family in Canada was living in. I was amazed at how spacious their yurt felt, which only had a 25 ft diameter. This circular design could use the simple roof structure of a yurt and would have about a 30 ft. diameter, including the thick outer cob walls, so the total square footage would be right around 700 square feet. Only some of the inner curved walls would be full walls, while some would be more like space separators with the height of maybe a countertop or a a privacy screen. There is the potential to attach a wrap around green house on the SE side as well.
As you can see, I have stuck with the theme of having a large open kitchen that is the main gathering and social area. In this design the kitchen is also divided from a sitting area by a peninsula like countertop. Then in the NE is the bedroom, placed so that it will receive good morning light and in the North you once again have the root cellar/pantry.
And lastly, here is one possible design for a common space.
Here the entrance faces south, which is in the upper left corner. The center space would be particularly well suited to movement, dance, yoga and things of that nature but could be used for other things as well. I thought it would be nice to have the side spaces as changing rooms or mini sitting areas but they could also serve as offices, art space or some other purpose. I thought the space in the north though should be bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms.
As you can see I have also drawn in some of the outdoors, including an outdoor amphitheater, and my thought was that in good weather the structure could turn into more of a gazebo like space with large doors thrown open on all sides, providing additional seating space for the amphitheater and bringing the outdoors in.
So that concludes my designs for now! I hope they were of some interest. There are many details that I left out, such as the placement of internal thermal mass to store heat, the placement of wood stoves, and other illustrations of sustainable design principles, but I did my best to illustrate some. Hopefully these give you some idea of my designs and the possibilities when doing natural building with cob, an incredibly sculptural medium, or other materials.