Sep 17, 2005

Built Like A Shit Brick House

Since I last wrote we added a couple feet to a Cob wall on Tim and Robins new home. Cob is basically adobe, a building material composed of clay, straw, sand and (if you are lucky) cow manure. It is made by hand sifting the clay, then mixing these three ingredients into a big pile on a tarp and dancing on it, preferably to some music with a fast beat and hopeful tone.

Clay sifting for Cob, Cob dancers in the background

We then rolled them into more manageably sized bricks and carried them over to the house. From there we slapped the bricks onto the two foot thick wall and then used a 5" long stick, called a cobbers thumb, to work them into the existing wall. The more we poke into our wet mud bricks in the more the straw is sewed together with the rest of the wall.

Tim and Robin Cobbing their new home

Once it's done it'll be strong as a rock, so it can easily support a roof. That's done by making a deadman, a T made out of two pieces of lumber linked together by a piece of rebar and a ton of nails sticking out from every direction. It looks like some cruel medieval weapon but when it's buried in the cob it gives a very secure patch of wood to attach a rafter too. After leaving it for a couple days to dry we used a machete to trim the walls. The inside has a 5 degree slope and the outside of the wall is plumb. The walls are solid after a few days and after a couple months it will be one large monolithic wall that'd take a bulldozer to move.


Waddle and Daub is a related technique to Cob but in this case you add cow manure into the mix and build it around a framework. It makes the cob bricks smoother, stickier, and far easier to shape which is great for adding in little sculptural details to a wall. Before this month I never thought I would say "I miss the texture of cow manure" but alas it has come to pass. It also is a handy mix to use when you don´t want to build a wall with the full 2 foot thickness by just using it to glom onto an internal frame. Tim and Robins had a traditional Cob wall built around their bedroom, but for each of the other walls in their home they had a 6" wide waddle and daub wall built around a bamboo lattice work. And now, to answer the questions you all are anxiously asking. Yes, it does smell a bit while you are working with it but it will smell less and less as it dries. And Tim and Robins final step will be to coat the whole house with a brightly colored lime plaster which will forever lock away the odor.

Dan hanging out next to Tim and Robins house in progress

Cob can be really artistic too in an organic and smooth sort of way. Straight lines are optional, and in fact quite challenging, so it's simple to make smooth organic curves. It's easy work to carve in nooks, shelfs, and by adding a simple wooden frame we made windows and doors. Like, for example Dan and Andy are showing off how we recycled some old gallon tin cans into imbedded moon shaped window vents that go all the way through. Also, check out the candle sconce that Tyler shaped into the same wall.

Andy and Dan, Cobbing machines

A budding sculptor can shape figures or add stones in the cob that instantly become part of the wall. By adding a coat of limestone putty in the end with natural ochre tints on the outside it's easy to get a variety of colors.


Cob is a great building material for many reasons. First of all, if done right it's about as sustainable as could be. The clay comes from a nearby farmers land, the straw was growing wild on the side of a hill and the sand came from a nearby river bank. Some fortunate cobbers discover the perfect blend of clay and sand on the very land they're building on but here it will only cost the earth a few gallons of gas to truck over everything Tim and Robin will need for their home. The wall itself could last centuries, as testified by the ancient adobe homes of Native Americans still standing in the American southwest, but in this climate if this home is abandoned for a few decades it'll eventually melt indistinguishably into the earth. While used, however, it's still profoundly sustainable. Because there is so much mass to it the house itself acts like a big heat battery. At high noon on a hot, hot, Costa Rican summer day the walls will keep the house cool because they cooled all night. On a slightly chilly night, conversly, the building will slowly let out the heat it stored that afternoon. It works great in a huge variety of climates. It's ideal for someplace like a dessert with cold nights and hot days but even if it was built somewhere with a cold winter the occupants would find this moderating effect takes a bite out of a brutally cold week. It makes a woodburning stove very viable because it absorbs the heat while a fire is too burning bright and hot and holds that heat if the owner lets the fire go out in the middle of night.

Cob isn't limited to walls, its simple to make any durable structure like a bench:

Mastatal Bus stop (made out of Cob)
a shower
Cob, Bamboo, Waddle and Daub shower
or even an oven
Cob Horno

Not only is it inexpensive, attractive, healthy for the earth and highly efficient but Cob is simple to work with. The basics could be taught to any one, particularly someone with a childs heart who enjoys playing in the mud. Mistakes are remedied by either slapping on an extra layer, or scraping one off. One could justifiably ask why humans build with anything else. The reality of it is, while easy and fun it is hard work. And there is a lot of it. We were fortunate to get involved on the final couple feet of Tim and Robins house and its taken us weeks of working nearly every day to do that. It's satifying for us to finish the wall and put on the roof but I can imagine how daunting it was for an earlier crew, six months ago, to spend a couple weeks to make little more than a large mud doughnut in the shape of what would someday be a home. Tim and Robin can afford to do it here because manpower is what, by virtue of what they do, they have plenty of. People like Tyler and I, as well as this U Washington class, come here looking forward to getting dirty building something sustainable. Cob works well for big groups like ours because a lot of people can work on various jobs without too much coordination. It's ideal if one can get together a mess of friends for a messy workparty. But you'd need a lot of beer to fuel morale after the first day or two, let alone for weeks. Before long an aspiring homebuilder will find their friends don't RSVP party invites until it's for the long awaited housewarming party.

I don't really know when next Tyler and I will get to use our freshly minted cobbing skills but I think we will. It's a valuable way to build homes for people without many resources but lots of time or could simply be used to make a really distinctive backyard barbeque.


Sep 12, 2005

Understanding Underlying Utopian Universe

Tikal Sunset, Great Pyramid of the Lost World

When talking about her life our Mom often uses an analogy of walking along a path along the ridge of a high mountain at night. It's wonderful if she has flashlight, or a full moon, to show her the way all along. But all she really needs is for God, an insight, or a bolt of dry lightning to illuminate the path right in front of her. As long as she can trust that she'll get more guidance when she gets a little farther on she can confidently step into the blackness without plunging off a cliff.

The few times in my life I've been given a clear sense of who I am, where I'm going and what I'm doing have illuminated the path for me when things got dark again. My last post was about some key epiphanies of this trip, most notably the insight that it's been really dark for a long time and I no longer have an idea where I am nor if my next step will be the wrong one.

Travel for me has always served as a well needed flash of light. By the time I'm home, or a little while afterwards, I know clearly where my next steps should be. So it was no coincidence that Tyler and I timed this trip to bridge the gap between one life and another. I wrote a bit about what I discovered in the last blog post. The essence of which was that I need to come up with a life vision and use that as a guiding light to leap in whatever new life I come across upon our return. I've had a clear guiding vision in the past, mostly in my blissfully idealistic later undergrad and grad years but lost it along the way to the "real world" of career, bills, and settling in to a new place.

My post on destinations versus directions wasn't really unique insight. Choosing ones dream and following it is a common theme in great literature, cheesy self help books, hollywood storylines and countless articles I myself wrote in my life as a college journalist. The big insight was really a personal one. That it applied to me. I'd had a clear enough vision for long enough that I trusted it to always be there and knew myself as one who had a broader sense of the big picture. Then, as it slipped away it took a long time to register it being gone. I could still readily fake it, I'd held onto the vision so long it was easy to describe to strangers what I used to be guided by and act like I still was. I was particularly convincing because I still believed it myself. It took burning out at what I was doing for me to really get a sense that I wasn't really on a path anymore. And the only meaningful solution I could come up with was abandoning the pleasant life I was building to come down here to figure out what went wrong.


It took the first part of this trip to fully step out of the headspace of the life I'd lived. We studied spanish on a mountain sea, celebrated life with likeminded travelers and breathed with fish. It took two deliriously fun months before we reached a point where we earnestly started looking for something beyond fun. In the tail end of Honduras and throughout Nicaragua we discussed and pondered the destination and direction dilemma. It's not that it's bad to live without a goal in mind there is a solid school of thought that emphasizes the journey over the destination. For example, one of the most magical and enlightening parts of this trip is it's lack of any fixed itinerary. What was causing me trouble is that I was convinced I was on a clear path, that I had a goal, when in fact I'd long since lost my way.

My situation crystallized for me while writing that last blog post, and with that came what I needed to do. I needed to recapture a sense of what I was doing with my life, who I wanted to be and what my next steps should be. But that, alas, is far easier said than done. Much has changed in me, and the world, since I last knew who I was. It's not easy to recapture dreams long since lost, nor find the idealism I'd had years hence. By the time I finished that post I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the task ahead of me. How on earth could I find myself, lost in a different country, when the last true marker I had was as an idealistic college kid with wild ideas of sustainable living several years ago.

Then, the very next day, there was a huge flash of dry lightning that lit up my path. After a couple busses and the cute little town of Periscal Tyler and I finally arrived to Rancho Mastatal. It's very existence is due to a couple from upstate New York, Tim and Robin, who had a vision and followed it. They wanted to start an ecotourism destination deep in the jungle of Costa Rica and after much planning, saving, and a courageous leap they did exactly that. It's still being built, a process that is actually more important than it being "finished", so we came to help. It's a beautiful spot with waterfalls, exotic animals and a friendly house organized to facilitate. They cook communal meals, work with the small town full of wonderful locals to build an ultimately sustainable way of life.


but I found that there is little more inspiring to find ones vision and work towards it than to find a pair of idealists and help them work towards theirs. And the fact that their goal, sustainable living, so closely mirrors memories of my own goal it makes it all the sweeter. Upon arriving, and checking out such a beautiful place, I thought it couldn't possibly get any better to pick up the trail of my idealism where I'd lost it.

And I was wrong. Within an hour of our arriving a bus of students from the University of Washington arrived. They are a diverse group of environmental studies students who came here on a study abroad program to spend a month helping out and learn about sustainability. So, right when I decided I needed to find the path I last remembered we stumbled upon the ideal place and became surrounded by a large friendly group of likeminded idealistic people. What have I done to be so lucky?