October 6, 2011

Cob and Straw Bale Building in WV: Montani Semper Liberi

Cobing in the hills of WVWild and Wonderful West Virginia

Teresa and I had an amazing time visiting West Virginia this past weekend. We stayed at the Guest House at Lost River with our great friends Bob, David, and Tammy. We had so many wonderful conversations over breakfast and dinner including a chat with Christina who spins and paints her own wool. She gave us some great advise about where to potentially find wool for insulation. We also stopped in to the Lost River General Store a couple of times for lunch, beer, a lavender cookbook, and some more great conversation with Toni and some other folks who were staying at the Inn at Lost River and folks staying at the Guest House.

Cob and Straw Bale Builings

It wasn’t all fun and relaxation for us though! We also visited two natural building projects and even spent about an hour helping to cob in the rain at one of the building sites on Sat.

A Mountain Bale Cob Cottage

Once the rain got too bad and the wind got too cold we needed to quit cobbing. You can see all the photos I took of our cob building adventures here on Facebook. Aside from helping we learned a ton and had even more great conversations. Unlike our plans to use cob for nearly all of the walls (though there is some flexibility there and we might do some straw bale walls) Joelle and Alexor are building with an interesting technique whereby they are using the cob (and empty bottles) as a thick mortar for some of the walls and using the bales almost like bricks between these layers of cob. They’ll have less mass in the walls and more insulation but it should prove to be a great idea considering their building site.

Joelle says they’ve not have a lot of helpers but we’ve talked with several friends from Pittsburgh who are interested in the techniques that they are using and are willing to come play in the mud so come spring time we’ll go back to help and we’ll bring a load of friends too!

Querencia: The Straw Bale Studio

On Sunday on the way back to Pittsburgh we took a detour to Capon Bridge and stopped at Taproot Farm. We met and talked with Beth about a large studio that she is building mostly out of straw bale with a serious amount of cob add-ons and features (such as interior walls, benches, and other great sculptural finishes). The photos of Beth’s studio can be seen here on Facebook.

Straw Bale Studio

We didn’t do a lot of physically helping but they had to cancel a living roof workshop planned for Saturday and with the cold and rain Beth said that our visit on Sunday and the photos helped to energize her.

Querencia is already beautiful even without being finished and we’ve made tentative plans to return in the spring to help with the earthen floor.

Cob Is

I had a very vague idea of cob before this trip. I knew I wanted to use it. I knew it was easy to build with, and I knew that it had thermal mass. What I didn’t know was that when we make monolythic cob structures what we are really making is essentially sandstone. The dry cob walls at Joelle and Alexor’s felt like sandstone because that is basically what it is.

I’ve known that the lime plaster, once it hardens, is limestone but I did not understand that the cob is sandstone. We came out of the trees and we found that we could survive in colder places by living in caves. Cob and earthen or “mud” homes should not be thought of as dirt dwellings but as stone dwellings. Mud and dirt or even soil is the organic material that we, and animals, and plans turn into. Clay and sand are the remains of stones, rocks, and mountains.

Just like the materials that we consume which come from the soil help to sustain our lives and are then returned to the earth after we die (or should be) the sand and clay that once was a mountain is again formed into stone when we make cob and when we apply lime plasters. If we allow it to that stone will once again be turned back to sand and clay dust and as the earth spins it will eventually be turned back into compressed rock and maybe even into a mountain again.

Montani Semper Liberi

The motto of the state of West Virginia is Montani Semper Liberi which translates to Mountaineers are Always Free. I was born in the mountain state and have always found this motto comforting. Not because I believe it 100% but because I see examples of how the ability to craft a life seems to be tied to the DNA of West Virginians. It’s probably there in all of us but in West Virginia those genes are switched on. Mountaineers are always free because they can create things and by creating their own lives in the way they feel fits them best these folks are more free than most.

The freedom to build oneself a shelter and to be sheltered in a structure of one’s one making was becoming a lost art. Now it is now on the rise again. Toxic homes built of foreign hardwood that carry heavy cost for both the environment and foreign peoples and that are outrageous priced are still the norm. These homes are not sustainable financially, environmentally, physiologically, and psychologically. This lack of sustainability has pushed many people out of modern industrial buildings and caused them to question the sustainability of our entire culture. We are rediscovering smaller space, more intimate spaces, and more natural less toxic spaces.

Our homes of the future are not the homes of the past but they are a combination of what has worked since the dawn of time which includes the industrial age. Post industrial homes will still have mechanized comforts but they will be comforts that are both human scale and less damaging.  When we become free of the constraints of industrial building we can create homes that serve our purpose instead of signing a “death pledge” (mortgage) on a home that we conform to.

Thank you to everyone who we met and got to know this weekend! Our lives were improved by each and every one of you that we met and spent time with and we are grateful for that and for you all!

October 6, 2011 | W.D.Orkoskey
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