Deciding to Build with Cob, or Explaining to My Mother* Why I Want to Live in a Mud Hut

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We are not outdoorsy people. We are geeks. By we, I mean me, my husband Casey, and our 12-year-old daughter Lili. We like LOTR, Game of Thrones, D&D, Big Bang Theory, Legos, dragons, reading Star Trek novels on our Kindle (unlimited membership, of course), and debating on the best OS (Linux and Android, duh).

We are not outdoorsy people. We have allergies to pollen, cedar, hay, and numerous other things. We think 68 degrees is a “smidge chilly” and 74 degrees is “way too freakin’ hot” to go outside. We are out of shape, easily fatigued, and drink too much caffeine.

So why on earth would we want to build our own home? Out of dirt? With nothing fancier than a shovel and a level? Out of dirt? Outside? By ourselves? Outside? With no knowledge of construction or engineering beyond the scope of the aforementioned Legos? Out of dirt?

For every reason mentioned above, and so much more. We are out of shape geeks who need a lifestyle change. We need simplification, a route to common sense financial independence, and a return to good health and living in tune with the land. We need an extreme nerd makeover.

Casey and I (and to a lesser enthusiastic sense, Lili) have been exploring the idea of “alternative” housing and energy for a couple of years now. We decided last year we wanted to build tiny. We also saw that even in tiny housing, the costs and impact on the environment  can be large if you outsource materials that are not local and have others do your building.

So then our thoughts turned to, “Could we really do this ourselves? And how inexpensive (cheap) could we make it?”

And then a few months ago while reading before bedtime, something we normally try to do to wind down, Casey came across a chapter in a tiny house book on cob houses. Now given, Casey had just taken his back pain medicine and was a little loopy. He started rambling about wanting to live in a mud hut, and spent the next 2 hours boring me with this idea of cob housing, until finally I told him to just go to sleep, and not very politely.

Then I spent the next 2 hours thinking about this idea of cob housing and did a little research on my phone and thinking and not getting my brain to shut up. The next day I told Casey I thought the idea of cob housing was brilliant, to which he replied with a bewildered look, “Cob housing? What’s that?”

After I explained to him what he had oh-so-eloquently slurred to me the night before (those are some good pain meds), he thought it was a great idea too. Leave it to Casey to come up with a good housing option while doped up on medication.

Here’s the rundown on why we chose cob:

1) Much of the building material comes right out of the ground you are building on (can’t get much more local than that). The rest of it is either free or nearly free, and can usually be found locally.

2) Although pretty labor intensive, it is relatively easy to build, requiring no special skills or equipment.

3) It’s labor intensive, so it’ll get us into shape.

4) Did I mention how cheap it is?

5) Two-thirds of the world live in earthen housing of some type, and have for centuries.

6) Cob housing can last hundreds, if not thousands of years.

7) It brings us back to our roots, both Choctaw, who lived in wattle and daub housing, which is like cob with sticks, and European, who built with traditional cob and thatched roofs.

8) Cob housing can be beautiful. There is no mistaking the finished product for a mud hut.

9) The materials are all natural, and less likely to cause health issues, in comparison to the chemical laden commercially available materials.

10) We get to build and design and literally shape our house with our own hands, being as creative and geeky as we want. (Can we say cob dragon pizza oven?) And since cob lends itself so well to natural curves and out-of-the-box shapes, I’ve already picked out my hobbit door.

So, no, Mama, I will not be living in a mud hut. I will have electricity (wind-powered, most likely), running water (but not to the toilet, as there are much better options than wasting fresh drinking water on doing your business), and all the comforts of a modern home, without the need for central heat and air thanks to passive solar design.

Progress Update:  We broke ground last Sunday on our new home site. We’ve almost cleared the site of grass. We’ve designed the floor plan and are working on a miniature clay model of the house to get an idea of wall and furniture dimensions. We’ve done some testing of soil samples and hauled in some urbanite and gravel from a local construction site (all for free). See pics below. Top: Casey staking out our floor plan to get an idea of the space. Middle: Jenny (our dog, the perfect size for a tiny house) checking out the first day of digging. Bottom:  Our jar of soil sample using the shake test. It’s hard to tell, but there are 3 separate layers: a chunky river sand, roughly 60%; silt, 20%; clay, 20%. This is probably an okay ratio, but we’ll do a lot more testing to make sure we don’t need to add more sand (easy to get in this area) or more clay (not sure yet on a source for this, so we may need to harvest clay from another part of the land by doing large-scale shake tests and scraping off the clay). Once we get more subsoil dug out, we’ll be able to run more tests with straw to make sure.

Casey staking out foundation First day of digging Shake Soil Test in Jar

Money Spent:  $4 for twine and $11 for tent stakes to map out the footprint on the ground

Total Cost to Date: $15

*Once I explained the idea to her, my mother is actually very supportive of this plan. She’s all about living green and values the artistic but low environmental impact that cob housing can have on the land. Props to my Mama for teaching me how to save money, reuse, reduce, and recycle!