There is an exciting new architectural form being built on the West Coast that is particularly geared to community formation and simpler living. Really an ancient form of building traditional to Western Europe, parts of the Middle East, Africa, and the American Southwest, cob houses are composed of earth, sand, and straw.
A group of people, mostly from the construction industry, learned how to construct a simple cob cottage and began construction of one at Breitenbush Conference Center (east of Salem, Oregon) in August 1994. We literally foot mashed a combination of earth, sand, and straw until it was smooth and free of rocks and lumps. Then we lobbed it by pitchfork to form walls.
Because earth and straw are readily available in most parts of the world, they are much more environmentally benign and cheaper sources of construction materials than are expensive lumber and steel, etc. Inexpensive windows, light sockets, and other "essentials" can be added during the building process.
Cob construction is much quieter than conventional Western architecture, with no whirring saws or pounding hammers. Cob is also ideally suited to family and community life as women and even children can participate in the construction process, making the building of a cottage or house a group effort. The cost of materials is kept minimal, too, thus making cob construction ideal for low-cost housing.
Our instructor at Breitenbush was Ianto Evans. Ianto is Welsh by background and has been working in earthen construction for almost 20 years. Ianto believes that each of us are teachers and learners of one another and believes that we learn best by doing. So, we students in the Alternative Construction class, along with many interested onlookers, began construction of a one-room cabin. Ianto pointed out that despite western people’s obsession with right angles and "angularity" in general, "There are no right angles in nature!" Instead, there are more natural, often curvilinear lines.
Because of strict western building codes, and the powerful lumber and steel lobbies in the US, Ianto has done most of his building in Third World countries. However, if western builders could overcome their addiction to money and be truly concerned for peoples’ welfare, I believe cob architecture could help solve the need for reasonably priced humane architecture for the 21st century.
For more information, contact: The Cob Cottage Company, P.O. Box 123, Cottage Grove, OR 97424 .Telephone: (503) 942-3021