Cob houses are very dear to me. Having a degree in architecture does not mean that all of us fancy reflecting facades, huge steel structures and skyscrapers braking the height record of one another every six months. Nope. There are many architects out there who find building with natural materials much more fascinating. And -you guessed it- I am one of them. Cob houses are made out of clay, sand, straw and water. And as fragile as that might sound, there are cob houses that have been built 500 years ago and are still standing. Here is a photo of a cob house built in Devon in 1539 and still proudly smoking through its chimney.
The great thing about cob houses is that they can be built in many different climates. Great Britain, Ireland, New Zealand, Afghanistan, several places in Africa and the Mediterranean are just a few places where cob houses have been built since ancient times. And as clay is quite common, it is pretty easy to source the materials for your cob house locally. What is even better is the fact that if you decide to build a bigger house elsewhere or you move away, your cob house will just go back to earth in a couple of years.
An additional benefit of cob houses is their low cost and -depending on where you live and what the building code is- the fact that you can form them in any shape you like. If you are a Lord of The Rings enthusiast, think of those extremely cute hobbit houses. That is one version of what I am talking about, but there are many more, that are less -how shall I put it?- extravagant. You can click here to see many ideas about how your dream-cob house could look like. And if you have not fallen in love yet, click here as well.
Now, back to the “low cost” part. There are quite a few American websites that have detailed how-to instructions on how to build your own cob house. I have found prices ranging from $3000 to $7000 in the low end of the scale. Of course, you can make it as huge as you like and line the walls with gold leafs and add chandeliers and spend a fortune on it. (But why on Earth would you do that?) The beauty of cob houses is that their organic form can also continue in the inside. The walls can become sinks and seats and benches and tables. They can form cavities that will hold kitchenware or your bathing water. They can be pierced to let natural light in and fresh air as well. Think of it as the mud castles that you used to make on the beach. Remember how everything was made out of wet sand dripping on top of more wet sand and you ended up with a “real” caste in the end? Well, building a cob house is not much different.
There are different ways that one can use the basic materials in order to construct a cob house. Hay balls, sacks filled with dirt, sand and clay molded into squares are just a few of the building units of cob house walls. In this website I found a cob house that is being built now in Greece. It will cost in total 5.000 euros and is expected to be finished this spring (2013). The founders of this website, as well as cob professionals around the world, offer workshops teaching everyone how to build with cob. Even little kids can understand how it works, as it is a very intuitive building method. And as the more people the better, if you are planning to build a cob house, involving the young ones does not hurt! They can help mixing the hay with the clay by jumping on the mix. Or they can help build an outdoor bench or a clay oven!
A cob house can be built is 6 months (during the warmer months of the year) if you have 5 to 10 volunteers to help you out. Of course you can hire professionals to do it for you, but that would make the cost higher. Once the house is complete -and if it has been properly designed- you will not need additional heating or cooling devices. Thick clay walls are a great insulation and openings that allow for air flow will keep the air in your house circulating during the colder months. Adding a green roof can help keep the temperature even lower, if you live in warm climates.
Housing is becoming a great issue for countries that are nowadays faced with the financial crisis. In my homeland, Greece, many people in their 30s had to move back with their parents, because they got fired or their salaries got reduced and they cannot pay a rent. Could cob housing be a solution? Maybe. This is a very complex issue, as there is not much space left in the modern metropolis to build new structures, thus building a cob house would mean moving to the countryside. Is it a good or bad idea? Let us know what you think in the comments section.