Cob, also known as earthen building or natural building, is a mixture of sand, clay, straw and water. It is mixed by hand (and often by foot) and is applied by hand. That makes it sculptable and takes imaginative esthetics to another level. People around the world have been building with cob for centuries. Although the method is ancient, it works perfectly in modern times as well, especially with its use of natural materials and its environmentally friendly premise. This creative way of building is what a group of industrious, “outside the box” Central Vancouver Island women have adopted as their livelihood and as the focus of their community. They’re called Mud Girls.
The collective began in the Spring of 2006 when 22 women organized a boot camp at Lasqueti Island that lasted 10 days. In that crucible-like environment, they taught each other cob construction, developed a work plan that included childcare and created a consensus model for doing business. According to Chelsey Braham, spokesperson for the Mud Girls, their focus was to, “Work out a non-hierarchical way to work together and distribute work evenly.” Their mission statement has become to “Empower ourselves and others through sharing skills and knowledge that promote healing and living in harmony with the Earth.”
By the second year of operation, the group had gelled to 13 in number. They’re an eclectic mix of sincere, committed workers. Ages range from early 20s to 40 plus. Some have children and some have partners/husbands. And they’re accomplished craftspeople. Thirty year old Braham has developed her skill in construction over 10 years.
“Some people pigeon hole us. But we’re all really diverse, with different values and different reasons (for doing this). That’s what makes us so strong – our diversity. We all bring different things to the collective.”
The work is full-time and ranges from creating designs, networking and studying natural building techniques to making policy, organizing childcare and conducting cob workshops. They get their own projects done by bartering with each other. “Barter is the way we build our skills.”
The earthen building method consists of seven basic steps. First, clearing the area means chopping down trees with axes and moving rocks. The work is very physical since they do almost everything by hand. So the Mud Girls have to use their wits to get the job done. “We leverage to lift safely. You have to know your body. We create a supportive environment where you can ask for help.”
The very earth-friendly approach includes, “Don’t take out more than you need. We use wheel barrows.” Next, more rocks are brought in, hopefully from surrounding fields. The idea is to use as much from the immediate environment as possible. “We’re trying to re-use different material and use whatever is on the property. It keeps material costs to almost nothing.”
Step three is to position the stones for the foundation and build the dry stack stone. No mortar is used at all. Obviously, this skill takes time to learn. “Every rock has to bear down on what is underneath so it doesn’t slip out of place. Most people get excavators, bob cats and tampers. We generally have a dance party so children can get involved too.”
Step four is to erect the post and beam roof. These logs are often salvaged beach logs or trees cut down from the property. “We take down trees in a sustainable way so that it nurtures the forest rather than clearing the land.” These logs are pulled around by hand, cut by hand (using various types of saws, including Bow, Swede, Back, etc.) and peeled, notched and fitted by hand (using chisels and mallets). The pole and roof frame has to be erected as a community. It’s put up in segments in general, yet each project has different requirements according to varying designs. The fifth step is finishing the roof. If it’s a living roof, it can be made of moss, herbs, grass, etc. Other materials that are used include cedar shakes and recycled tires. There are no shingles in sight.
Next comes constructing the cob walls. That takes many hands and feet so chances are you inevitably enjoy the bonus of a sense of community. Finally the seventh step is the decorative finishing. “That’s the fun part.” The walls end up coated with clay based plaster with earth pigments. This finish seals the cob while it maintains the breatheability of the walls. The kicker is that it doesn’t show dirt and is maintained by light dusting and sweeping only. “It’s a different way to clean your house.” To add to the fascinating look, furniture is built in. The rooms have no nooks and crannies. Everything is smooth. “It’s completely non-toxic and is safe for folks with chemical sensitivities and pregnant women.”
Although the basic steps are the backbone of everything, “There are a million different ways to do everything.” The only real rule of thumb is to build a high foundation and wide overhang. In the business that’s called, “Good boots and a hat.” Their comprehensive product line includes garden walls, fences, greenhouses, gazebos, cob ovens, outdoor kitchens, guest cabins and full-sized dwellings. You might also want to “renovate (your) existing home in ways that are healthy, natural, sustainable and beautiful.” Yet another alternative is to design an earth oven (wood fire heat), “To be a beautiful back yard art piece by sculpting it or painting and mosaicing it. Each one is unique functional art.”
It’s clear that the Mud Girls are serious about making a living at their passion. “We’re trying to create employment for ourselves in a traditionally male dominated field.” That gets them all sorts of knee-jerk reactions, including being called, “unshaven witch dykes.” Braham coolly responds, “I don’t know if everyone shaves or not, but sexual orientation or religion doesn’t play a part in the collective.”
Yet mostly people are impressed and seek them out from around the world. They’ve been asked for advice and to come and build in the likes of United States, Tibet and Mexico. Braham finds that, “They’re people with guts who can really envision what they want and have the strong commitment to building as sustainable as possible.”
Beyond the earnings, “It’s an empowerment thing. We all share the desire to be able to build our own shelters; shelters that are born from the immediate environment. We want to contribute to our families on all levels.” For Braham it’s about going beyond the traditional gender mired boundaries on who can do what. “I had a realization that I could create my own way of building a home. I realized that I have the skills. It has a lot to do with self esteem for women.”
At an hourly $17.00 per worker and low materials costs, the option of building with cob is a viable alternative to the traditional way. If the building is less than 100 square feet, no permit is required. It’s durable and is almost as hard as concrete when it’s mixed in the proper ratio. Plus it lasts a hundred years longer than wood.
Although Braham and the gang are now building mostly in the Gulf Islands, their vision is to, “Bring cob into the city.” The Mud Girls have grown the business to where they receive emails daily and are in demand. Yet the construction depends somewhat on the weather so you are urged to call as early in the year as possible.
If you’re interested in learning an empowering, very hands-on trade, they’re holding a two day workshop at the Community Gardens on June 6th and 7th where they will be building a cob bench. It’s an adult workshop but childcare will be provided. “It’s a chance to feel cob and to get your hands and feet dirty.” For more information, check out www.chelseybraham.com or www.mudgirls.ca.