Tag Archive: Green Building


The finish line for being done with the cob house is starting to feel in reach. We have been working away on the floor and ceiling insulation and progress is visible. It is not all easy work; you already know my opinion on laying stone and stuffing straw into ceiling panels is probably equally frustrating in a different way. Imagine itchy, dusty straw down your shirt, in your hair, up your nose and in your mouth.  Like many things in a house, only those actually involved in building it will probably ever appreciate the amount of work that goes into something as simple as stuffing a single ceiling panel with insulation.

The ceiling panel before being stuffed with straw: A piece of lathe fixed on one side with screws or nails. We would fix both sides before beginning to stuff it with straw. To make sure the lathe hangs evenly its best to use a taught string as a line on which to put all the screws.

Our homemade tamping tool for stuffing the straw. The key was making something sturdy but light. But beware, even with the best tool tamping something above your head sucks.

The ceiling panel completed after a day and a half of arduous stuffing and tamping of the straw. Switching off frequently was key to not totally burning out. The straw has to be nice and compact to create a firm enough surface on which to plaster later.

We are done (!) now with putting straw in the ceiling panels and the rest of the ceiling will have rigid foam (basically styrofoam) insulation which will be much easier to handle. You might ask what is styrofoam insulation doing in a natural cob home? Well, there are many perspectives on so called “green” building and many would argue that if you are taking anything out of the waste stream and getting it back into circulation even just a little bit longer then you are doing the world a huge service. All the styrofoam insulation we will be using in Ryan’s house was on it’s way to the dump so we both feel that we are doing a good thing by using it.

Styrofoam that was about to be shipped to an off island landfill (out of site out of mind), dumped instead in the cob house living room.

Half way through sorting through and cleaning up the styrofoam.

And finally, a tidy pile of usable styrofoam. We should have enough to do the rest of the ceiling in the kitchen and bedroom! Thats a lot of free styrofoam diverted from the landfill.

The living room all clean again, thanks to our wonderful Shop Vac.

Using salvaged materials is not always easy. For example, much of the styrofoam we have is in odd shapes and sizes that we have to patchwork together to create an insulated ceiling. But once the ceiling plaster is up it should look as good as any ceiling. This is what some would call taking Trash and turning into Treasure; a worthy cause. For more on this concept I suggest checking out Garbage Warrior, a film about the Earthship Architect, Michael Reynolds.

Some of the foam insulation being utilized in the ceiling. This will have lathe and plaster over it so it won't be visible.

Well thats it for now on the building front!

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Man, I’ve fallen behind on blog posts due to the holidays…. Well, back tracking a bit, lets first go to my last week in Seattle with Penny ( Dec. 12th – 19th)…

This week has been a week full of exciting opportunities, connections, and learnings.

First, Penny got me in the door of one of the largest architecture firms in Seattle; Callison. Although the work that this firm does is, in many ways, on the opposite end of the spectrum from the kind of work I see myself doing I am always interested in learning about the other side and hearing other perspectives. And I was pleasantly surprised to find that at least some of the people in this firm were equally interested in hearing about my side of the building spectrum and what I am interested in doing. John, a wonderful Principal in the firm, was incredibly unassuming and talked with me with great interest for almost three hours! I showed him a bit of some videos about earthship building in Haiti as part of disaster relief efforts, some of my own drawings of houses I hope to build one day, and just shared my knowledge about the natural and alternative building world. It was quite an empowering experience to realize that I could reach across the lines of the building world and find a receptive audience.

After my visit to Callison Penny and I took a break from our architecture/building focused tour of the Seattle area and took a trip to Fidelity where I learned a bit about investing and money managing. Money is something that makes many people, including myself uncomfortable. Often I wish I just didn’t have to deal with it. But Penny has been really helpful in talking very frankly with me about money and walking me through things like why it might be important to start building a credit history or investing, and how one can make the system work for you. One thing Penny does, which I think is quite brilliant, is she uses a zero APR credit card to get miles for almost all her purchases and bill paying which has allowed her to travel on many of her trips practically free. And since she is good about managing her money she has never paid a cent in interest or other fees to the credit card company.

When Penny found out that I also knew nothing about investing she decided to invite me to come with her to Fidelity and learn a bit. I was a bit hesitant at first, and still have my questions and doubts about the world of investing, but I must say that the whole investing process seems much less scary and intimidating now. Here is how I understand it (beware, I am NOT and expert, so don’t take my word on any of this money stuff); there are four “pots” that people generally put their money into: 401k’s, IRA’s, Taxable accounts, and emergency money.

A 401k is always attached to an employer. It is money that you ask your employer to take directly out of your paycheck, before taxes, and put aside to invest in a pool of mutual funds that they have already chosen. Often employers will match what you put in your 401k up to a certain percentage of your total paycheck. This match is basically free money that you can now use to invest, so I can’t see a reason to not at least put as much money as they will match into your 401k. But, this money cannot be touched until you are 59, at least with current laws.

Then there is an IRA: an Independent Retirement Account. There re two main kinds of IRA’s: Traditional and ROTH IRA’s. Traditional IRA’s are money you set aside to invest that is not yet taxed. So when you reach retirement age (59) and take that money out you will have to then pay taxes on however much you now have. A ROTH IRA, on the other hand, is an account in which you put money to invest after taxes. So, lets say you put $5000 in that account. Then you would pay taxes on that original $5000 but when you go to take the money out at age 59, even if that money has now grown to 1 million through investing, you do not have to pay any additional taxes. That is kind of incredible, if you ask me. Any money put in an IRA cannot be touched until you are 59, but one could at a certain point decide that you have made enough money and do not want to risk a market crash and pull the money out of all stocks, bonds, etc. and just let it sit in your IRA. Or, you could put the money in lower risks investments, such as only bonds and CD’s. There is also something called a SEP IRA which is for people that are self employed. These work like a traditional IRA, so they are before taxes, but one thing I am not clear on is why a self employed person cannot have a ROTH IRA since as far as I can tell IRA’s in general are independent retirement accounts and not attached to an employer.

Then there are your taxable accounts, which are just things like your savings and checkings account from which you can invest money at will and take money whenever you want (You don’t have to wait until you are 59 to touch this money).

The last pool is your emergency money, which is money you will not invest and is basically always available. Remember, money invested is not really available for your to spend until you sell the stock or bond. So your emergency pot is the money you keep under your mattress for hard times, if you know what I mean. And it seems that it would always be smart, if possible, to have at least 1 year’s worth of saving in this pot in case you lose your job and/or the market crashes, or both happen at once….

So those are the four pots of money. And then you have the different kinds of investments you can make with money from each of these pots (except the last, emergency pot. That stays out of the volatile hands of the market).

First there are mutual funds, which are a portfolio of companies or stocks that change in order to maintain the goal of the mutual fund, which, for instance, could be at least 5% returns annually. These are generally pretty low risk but also somewhat lower returns.

Then there are Index funds. These have a predetermined set of companies rather then a predetermined goal of a certain amount of returns. So, for example, an index fund might consist of 5 of the largest companies in the world, or it could be focused on socially responsible, small businesses, or businesses related to the computers software…. My understanding is Index funds can be higher risk then mutual funds but they can also have much higher returns if chosen carefully.

Then there are Bonds. A bond is basically an amount of money you “loan” to a company that they then pay back to you over a set amount of time with a set amount of interest. So you generally know exactly how much you will make if you keep your bond for the life of the bond. These are low risk for exactly this reason. But you could still be screwed if the company from which you bought the bond were to tank.

Lastly there are CD’s, or certificates of deposit. These are like bonds but you buy them from the bank, so they are even more secure. They are actually government insured so even if the bank were to fail, for some reason, to pay you back the government would pay you. But the interest rates are also generally much lower so the gains are much smaller.

Overall, it seems that most people recommend maintaining diversity with all these different kinds of investments; having some in lower risks investments and some in higher, and also diversifying in the kinds of companies and stocks you invest in; large, medium, or small, and once focused more on value, growth, or a blend of the two. And, on a site like fidelity.com you can look at all these different kinds of investments and buy and sell them on your own right from the site if you hold an account with fidelity.

Ok, enough talk about money. Back to architecture, building, and design….

A few days later Penny and I met with Martha Rose, a woman who is doing her part to make an impact on the building world. Martha comes from a construction background but now designs and builds extremely tight homes in the Seattle area. She strives to build homes that are highly efficient, comfortable, and use as little chemically treated materials as possible. Her homes are in many ways catering to those who experience chemical sensitivities. For me, the most inspiring part was to see a woman builder who does not have an architectural background but is designing the homes she builds and is succeeding in making a living building these homes and marketing them to the mainstream.

After receiving a tour of Martha Rose’s latest project, City Cabins,  we went to meet with Terry Phalen, who is the founder of living Shelter Design, a small architectural firm. Terry is a licensed architect but she got her license not by going through an architectural program but by apprenticing with architects and then taking the licensing exam. This is something that can only been done in some states, Washington being one of them, and an architectural license obtained in this way is also only recognized in certain states.  As I learned about Terry’s alternative path to becoming an architect I also found out that another possible way to become an architect is to do a 2 to 3 year master’s program rather than go through the usual five year programs. These were all interesting alternatives that I will keep in mind for myself if I find that a license or degree in architecture is something that I want. But it was also interesting sitting at a table with Terry and Penny and hearing from both of them that hands on building experience is not something that most architects have and both of them seemed to agree that an architectural degree or license may not be necessary for the kind of work that I want to do. They also pointed out that with an architect’s license comes increased liability and responsibility, so in some ways less freedom to be creative or take small risks. Its like being a doctor; once you have an MD you are also liable for malpractice and expected to deliver a certain quality of care.

The finale of our day was meeting Sam, a friend of Penny’s that I knew from way back in Boston and getting a tour of Sam’s kung fu teacher’s place. Johann, Sam’s kung fu teacher, has a sweet set up on a piece of land that he has been working on for years. He has created a maize through an edible forest garden that he has been growing for over 15 years! In this maize he has many different species of bamboo, fruiting trees, and little boardwalks, to name just a few things. His land also had lots of out buildings that demonstrated creative ways to build alternatively but still to code, including a yurt, a beautiful little “god house,” which is basically a little temple, and and kung fu training room with a rope ladder up to a second floor!

For now, I think continuing to gain hands on building skills through apprentice like programs is what interests me most. Two “schools” that I have bookmarked in my mind as possibilities for my future are Yestermorrow, and the Earthship Biotecture Academy.

Yestermorrow especially intrigues me. It is a design and build school in Vermont  that offers over 15o different hands on courses and a range of options for how one can enroll, from taking individual courses that range from a day to 2 or more weeks long when one has time and money to do so, or doing a certificate or semester program, or interning and obtaining a certain amount of class hours for free in exchange for “work,” which really sounds in itself like a hugely educational experience.

So there are my highlights from my last week in Seattle with Penny. It’s amazing how much you can learn without actually being in school when you have a little bit of time on your hands and the freedom to follow your own interests.

My travel luck seems to be continuing. My bus from Seattle to Anacortes, where the ferry’s leave the mainland for the San Juan Islands, got to the dock just minutes before the 2:40pm ferry left. Had I missed it I would have had to wait until 4:30 for the next ferry, which would not have been the end of the world but given that I was filled with excited anticipation it felt good to make the earlier boat and be on my way.

I quickly camped myself at the very front of the boat where I could stand in the wind, looking eagerly out over the beautiful water at what lay ahead; a much anticipated opportunity to work one on one with a skilled natural builder.  I had heard lots from Peter about Ryan and his cob house that he has been building on his own for the last three years, but now I am finally going to get to meet Ryan and see and work along side him on this house!

A beautiful afternoon on the ferry from the mainland to the islands

The ferry ride over was beautiful. Islands dotted the horizon in front of me, the sun was out and the water was blue. A seal poked its head out and said hello, and out of the corner of my eye I saw a pair of dorsal fins disappear under the water.

As a lone traveler it has always been easy for me to make friends on my travels. On the bus ride over to the port I met a man who was on his second sail around the world! He had gone to University in Binghamton, NY, not too far from Ithaca but had gone to the virgin islands after graduating and had ended up staying 6 months longer then he intended, learned to build boats, and has been doing that ever since.

On the ferry ride over I talked with a woman who was a holistic veterinarian. She was headed to the islands to learn from and film this woman who works with horses, developing an equal partnership with them rather than having a domineering relationship over them. I love hearing the stories of people I meet while traveling.

Upon arriving at Friday Harbor I sling one back pack on my back an the other on my front and head out to meet Ryan. There he is waiting for me right at the top of the ramp, with unmistakable shoulder length blond hair. This is our first actual meeting, although we have exchanged e mails and skyped a bit, but we give each other of hug hello and my adventure on the islands has begun!

The first evening we drove around the island a bit and went on a short hike near and old limestone mine. The views are breathtaking and conversation is easy. My first lesson in plants begins with learning about the beautiful Madrona tree that has an unmistakable red-purple bark that contrasts with vibrant yellow wood. Apparently this tree has the ability to photosynthesize through its wood so it often purposely sheds its bark where the sun is hitting it to make use of the light. So cool!

Rocky outcroppings right in front of the beach house.

He treats me to dinner and then after running a few errands we head to his parents beach house. The approach to the house is long and windy but then we arrive. The house is sitting just a couple hundred feet from the water, with huge glass windows that face southwest. The waves crash on rock outcroppings and you can hear the wind blow through the open fields.

Over the course of the week I  learn that much of the grasses growing around the house are not native. There is also a Himalayan Blackberry that seems to be aggressively taking over, and although the berry’s are yummy, the thorns are vicious and they choke out all other plants. Ryan has been working to cut back some of these Himalayan Blackberry bushes and give some of the native species a competitive advantage. The native species include a type of rose and a shrub called snow berry.

The view from the beach house porch.

After calling it a night I retire to my loft that will be my home while I stay here. It is a nice big open loft from which I can see right out the big windows to the ocean. I wonder if I will be able to sleep as I am so excited to see the cob structures the next day!

Indeed I find myself awake at 4am with anticipation. I manage to fall back into a light sleep but am up as soon as I hear Ryan moving about downstairs at about 6:30, before the sun has even risen.

So we are up before sunrise, drinking tea and making eggs with some beans a cheese for breakfast. We eat a relaxed breakfast, pack some lunch and are on our way out the door by about 8:30 or so.

First stop is GD cat. I soon learn that Ryan is responsible for taking care of his parents cat, who stays at their town house (which I am thankful for as I am allergic to cats).  This means each day begins and ends with a stop at the town house to feed the cat and let it in or out. The abbreviation, GD, stands for a not so affectionate term that Ryan occasionally uses when the cat is being particularly difficult.

Then we are off to The Pump House. The pump house is exactly that, a cob pump house that Ryan is building for someone on the island whose old pump house had partially burned down. When we pull into the driveway I am amazed to see an almost finished, adorable little round structure with a cedar shingle roof on it that makes me think of an owl’s wings. Yes, something about the structure makes me think that it is just going to lift off and fly away! It is absolutely wonderful.

The pump house from the front.

Ryan begins with a bit of an orientation to the site, the project, where he is at and what he has left to do. He points out to me the little stone borders he has used to create walkways, reminders to himself

and others to stay on the path and minimize impact to the area. He shows me how he decided to build the pump house right on top of the water tank, which already had a cement top, there giving him a pre-made floor and preventing him from having to create much more disturbance to the site. Then we get down to business and do a bit of cobbing, just adding a few more inches around the windows and the door. You can’t put too much on at a time without giving the cob time to dry because the wall will slump with all the weight. Because Ryan is pretty far along now he likes to do just a little bit of actual cob work each day, sealing up holes around windows, doors, and ceilings, and doing finishing work.

The pump house from the back.

Now it is off to the “Mud Hut,” or the real cob house that I am SO excited to see. After a short drive we are there. Before we pull into the driveway Ryan asks me if I can see the house. I look, but all I see is woods. This is what he hopes for as he wants his houses to blend into the landscape. Then we pull into the driveway and walk down a short little windy path, also bordered by stones. And there it is! Tucked back into the hill, an adorable little cottage!

 

Although it is not quite finished it is beautiful, with a living roof, earth bermed in the back, and as inviting as any little cottage in the woods I have ever seen. As I enter the house there is a large blue stone inset into some beautiful sunburst woodwork in the floor – quite impressive. On the right is what will be the kitchen area, with a water and electrical line already coming in, and a large wood stove that Ryan obtained for free from someone

Approaching the cob house from the path.

replaces theirs. Then in the right back is what will be the bedroom; a kind of raised loft with a partial wall. This structure wraps around a little atrium that Ryan calls the tree room; a little out door room with a tree standing in the middle. He thinks the tree will have to be cut but he may put a little table and an outdoor hearth there. From a separate entrance a root cellar wraps around the back of the structure helping create an air barrier between the cob structure and the living roof that becomes the hill. Lastly, the roof extends a bit on one side giving Ryan a bit of a covered shed where he can store stacked wood and other things.

The cob house from the front, in all it's glory.

But before I go too much into the building itself I must tell you that Ryan spent three months on the land just deciding where to site it. He wanted the building to blend in and he wanted to create as little additional disturbance as possible. He tells me how he knew the site had been quite disturbed previously from looking at the soil horizons, the plants that are growing, and some of the clearly chain sawed stumps that are around. Ryan also has an amazing ability to see and anticipate succession. He points out a few pines that he says aren’t very happy and are probably on their way out. Also there are a few deciduous that he anticipates will be shaded out soon by the Douglas Firs  that dominate the island. He explains how the fact that the trees are rather small and still growing quite close together means that it is a young forest in which it is basically a free for all race to see who can survive. But as the forest matures it will thin out and probably lose some of its diversity in trees as early transitional species get shaded out and die.

All of this is fascinating to me and as the week goes on I find that I will be learning lots about not just cob, woodworking, and building, but also plants and ecosystems. By the end of the first week I am learning to be able to tell the difference between a Douglas Fir, Grand Fir, and Pine up close and even at a distance as we drive by. Ryan is also really good at identifying what kind of tree a piece of driftwood came from – that one is more difficult for me.

Working on the mud hut and pump house is slow and steady work, but it feels like it is

Sunburst woodwork in the floor. I can't wait to see what it looks like when it is sanded, stained, and varnished!

feeding my soul. I like the rhythm of our days a lot. We go to bed early and get up before the sun rises. We eat a big breakfast, take a lunch break and eat yummy dinners. Each day we probably do a bit of cob mixing (two buckets of sand mixed with a bucket of wet clay, add more of each to taste and then some straw. All mixed with your feet of course.) and a bit of cob laying on one part or another of the wall. Right now the priority is to try and get all the holes filled before winter really sets in we have been working on getting windows how we want them and installing them. Ryan is a perfectionist who values craftsmanship so we work carefully, seeing how each modification to the window framing and the cob affects the light, the aesthetics of the window etc. At the end of each day we try to do a reflection, noting everything that we did that day and giving ourselves a pat on the back for our hard work. We also seem to work really well together, bouncing ideas off each other and trouble shooting together. I find myself not wanting to stop and we often work past sundown.

All in all it has been a fabulous week. I am a bit sad to leave honestly and excited that I will be coming back after the holidays. The first week, which was meant to be sort of a trial week, has been a huge success. Maybe I could do this for a living….!

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.

The Dream

Hello! Below is the first articulation of our dream from my old blog:

The Dream: Our very own, hand sculpted, cob house

1/13/2011

“Work is Love Made Visible”

Welcome to Sculpting Earth, a blog documenting the story of a young couple and their journey to create a wholesome, low impact, simple and joyous life. Our first step in this journey is the creation of a home. We have chosen cob as our primary building material.

It is the beginning of 2011, a new year, a time of change and transition. Tomorrow Peter and I will leave Gainesville, FL to drive all the way to Ithaca, NY, where we will start a new chapter of our lives together, in the same place. Finally! As I have spent the last two weeks in Gainesville with Peter, helping him get ready to close this chapter of his life, both our minds have been buzzing, as busy as bees, with our dream to build a cob house. But it is no longer just a dream. We are going to actually do it!

The book, The Hand-Sculpted House, by Ianto Evans, Michael G. Smith, and Linda Smiley has not left my bag in the two weeks I have been in Gainesville. Peter has bought a measuring tape to take the dimensions of spaces he likes; what height ceiling feels good? How wide should a counter top be? How high up should the cabinets be? We are starting the process of collecting information, taking notes, and brainstorming possible layouts. And, in preparation, this summer Peter and I will be taking a 6-week course in permaculture and green building at the Sirius community in Western Massachusetts.

Cob is simply amazing. It’s both of those things, truly; simple and amazing. It’s simply sand, straw, clay, and water. All things that come from the earth and can go back to the earth. And it’s really quite amazing. Its warm in the winter, cool in the summer, yet aesthetically beautiful and will withstand the test of time. It’s also accessible to all. Anyone who is interested enough can have his or her own cob house. They can cost as little as $500 and they don’t require expertise. They are not exclusive to the rich, the progressive, or the artistically inclined. Ancient mansions have been built with cob, and modern architects have used it too. But also nine year olds have built their own playhouses with this simple, elegant, time-tested method.

We plan to break ground for our cob house as soon as the weather gets warm enough in 2012, somewhere in the Ithaca area. Come December 22nd, 2012, both my birthday, and the possible “end of the world” (or more hopefully a time of great energy shift), we hope to be moved in for the cold winter months.

What do we still need? This is our dream, but we want you to share it with us! We want your support and your help and we will give you stories and pictures and opportunities to learn and be inspired. Join us! We will send out periodic newsletters, probably less frequently this year and more frequently come 2012, and we will keep a corresponding blog where the latest updates and pictures will be posted. Whether you are rich in money, time, or materials you want to get rid of, there is almost certainly a way you can help us.

As of now we still do not have a site picked out, and we would love your help in finding a building site. We are considering many options; buying a cheap plot of land, using a friends piece of land, making an agreement with a landowner that we will build them a beautiful house that will eventually be theirs if we can have it rent free for the first ten years… there are many possibilities so for now we wait for an opportunity to present itself.

We are also looking for donations. Cob houses are cheap but there will still be expenses. Our goal is to raise at least $15,000 to go towards building the house. Its a fair amount of money but for a house?! That’s nothing. And we will show you how beautiful a house can be with just $15,000. Cob houses are a multifaceted expression of sustainability, ecology, values, harmony, permaculture, ethics, and love through functional art.

Most importantly, we want you to come help us build! We guarantee it will be an experience filled with learning and enrichment for the soul. The hardest part of building a cob house is having the time and the labor. But the building of cob also lends itself easily to bringing people together and forming community through shared experience. This is a hand-sculpted house. We will literally be sculpting the house as if it were one big clay sculpture. You don’t need to be artistic or have skills in construction to come help though. Whether you decide your place is in mixing the cob with your feet, laying cob loaves to help us build a 3-foot thick wall, or sculpting the archway to heaven as our front door, I am sure you will discover something profound for you. It’s fun and therapeutic work. Come for an hour or two if you are curious, come for a day if you are dying to come but have a tight schedule, or come for a week or even a month. We will probably be living in tents or possibly yurts, and we would love for you to join us.

****

We have now both completed the permaculture course and the green building course (such valuable courses for anyone on this earth!) and, of course, with new information to better inform our decisions are dream has been evolving. We probably will not be breaking ground in spring of 2012, but who knows, it is still a possibility.

I have now embarked on a journey to continue gaining knowledge and experience, exploring all facets of the homesteading lifestyle, which from what I have seen so far, encompasses a wide spread of possibilities. The image that this lifestyle is, by nature, all consuming and generally occurs only on the fringe of society, in rural, isolated areas by people who look like the stereotypical image of a hippie has been shattered once and for all for me. Of course I had my suspicions that the these stereotypes did not have to define the homesteading lifestyle but now I am seeing with my own two eyes that homesteading can be many things. One particularly illustrative experience was my almost two week stay at a small, off grid homestead just a ten minute drive from downtown Guelph, a city in Ontario, Canada. Here I met a woman (whose name shall remain anonymous) who had tired of the upkeep, bills, and clutter of her large suburban house that she felt was keeping her from doing what she really wanted to do. Finally, in her mid thirties she ended her lease sold and gave away most of her belongings and began to live in a nomad’s teepee. Now, almost 4 years later, she lives in a beautiful, clutter free, 25 foot diameter yurt, and pays no bills other then her car insurance and cell phone bill. Her only electricity comes from a single solar panel that allows her to have a few lights and charge her computer and cell phone. Her food is kept very simply in a ice box that is half underground, accessible through a trap door in the floor of her yurt. This simple method requires no electricity; they simply put a block of ice in the bottom that lasts almost a week in even the hottest days of summer! Their water for washings and cooking comes from rain barrels or the stream, and the drinking water they bring in in carboys that they refill from a friend’s well in town. All food is cooked on either an indoor or outdoor wood stove and they grow some, but not all of their vegetables on site. The site is only accessible down a 1/4 of a mile path through a beautiful cedar forest, so all materials are brought in by wheelbarrow.

And yet what amazed me was that this life did not feel like a lifestyle for only the most extreme. Let me explain; First, the yurt itself felt amazing spacious, clean and homey. Second, this woman, rather then being consumed by this homesteading lifestyle, did indeed seem freed by it. Since leaving her suburban home she had founded a non profit that worked on water issues, was the executive director of this non profit and was a very respectable professional woman by any standard who got up and went to work every day. She also had a beautiful, incredibly articulate three year old daughter (who yes, she had given birth to and raised in her yurt) and was pregnant with her second child. She was a normal woman who had deeply questioned the way she had been living and started living by her values. And the result was beautiful.

This stay in Canada, where I was helping to insulate a second, 11′ by 10′ wood cabin with slip straw and earth plaster, is just the beginnings of my explorations and learnings, but it was an excited start after having completed by permaculture and green building course. Here are a few pictures of the project I was working on in Canada:

Mixing the cob. All it is is 1 part clay, 3 parts sand, some straw, and a bit of water.

Mixing clay slip. We found and dug the clay from a local swamp!

We stuffed the walls with straw tossed in clay slip (a straw salad). Its all help in place with chicken wire. Then we use earth plaster (also just finely cut straw, clay, sand, and water in slightly different proportions) to plaster onto the chicken wire.

A close up of the wall. On the left you can see the base coat of earth plaster while on the right is the straw still exposed.

Here it is getting close to done! It will still probably get a finish layer that may be a lighter color earth plaster or lime finish.

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