We stretch in the mornings: lazy lunges that are started spontaneously in the middle of a sentence, the conversation carrying on unbroken; looping arm rotations that summon a dull click from my right shoulder; a standing half lotus, one foot in the air, this performed more quietly as we all chucklingly concentrate on our balance.
We’re out by the fenceline at Tiny Tree Herb Farm, at a gap in the hedge that wears a tangle of tree limbs for a hat and looks onto a thin ribbon of a road just opposite. The movements and the conversations change, but over the five weeks of our Natural Building class this stretching becomes important routine, an anchor for the day.
Natural building employs systems and materials that are less energy-intensive, better regionally adapted, and – as the name suggests – generally simpler and less yoked to industrial processing than those used in conventional construction. Fossil fuels, which replaced low-energy firewood and helped propel the mechanization of the Industrial Revolution, have been intrinsic to modern construction, which consumes them thirstily and continues to rely heavily on logging and mining (in particular limestone, gypsum, and iron ore) as the source for its base materials.
Combatting pollution, deforestation, and energy use: these are ideas that we’ve taken up before, on field trips and in our Energy Systems class. But this isn’t the whole of it. As the venerable Welsh builder Ianto Evans says, “We need to do more than avoid toxic materials. When we take on construction in a natural way, we will assume a whole range of new activities and ways of interacting with a building […] doing less, buying less, building less, but thinking, feeling, and observing more. It’s what you don’t do that makes natural building easy.”
For us in the class, all novices, the jury’s still out on the easy part. Our plan is to build a farm stand at this spot beside the road, employing a range of different natural building techniques and, as much as possible, using materials found here on site. It helps that our instructors are savvy, creative, and relaxed: Bryce, a founder of the Dreamweavers Collective, apprenticed under Patrick Hennebery at Cobworks. Stephanie, a coordinator at the UVic Campus Community Garden and Vic West Food Security Collective, studied at the Cob Cottage Company and has been teaching cob workshops for years.
Even in the prep stages, there’s an element of resourcefulness and serendipity that lends a pleasantly chaotic feeling to the project. Tarps are sourced from the throwaway heap at a lumber store. Windows and bits of timber sitting disused under the stairs will be repurposed for the framing. There’s a pile of good-looking clay sitting in a lot down the road, but we ask around and nobody seems to know who it belongs to. Sometimes these efforts are fruitful, and sometimes they aren’t, but wherever possible our instructors seek to close waste streams by noticing where resources are being wasted or misused and then redirecting them.
On the first day, we dig holes that will be filled up with rocks from the site to form rubble footings for the pad-and-pier foundation. I push a wheelbarrow over to a strand of trees across the farm, whistling, a piece of grass in my mouth. The ground slopes gently and I relax my grip, letting the front wheel carry the momentum. We’re going to build a dry stack stone half-wall as a base for the cob, and there are some rugged-looking boulders here that will be good candidates for the bottom of it. I muscle a couple of them into the wheelbarrow, and start back – and then, panting, sweating, have to stop a few short paces later. These rocks might be low in embodied energy (a good thing), but they’re durable and lasting, and I can feel every ounce of it.
Over the next few days, we build a deck using conventional stick framing, and then frame the door with driftwood salvaged from a beach in town. The stonework is pieced together after a few more trips huffing and puffing with the wheelbarrow. Rafters are raised and a roof tacked on. And then it’s cob time. Cob, which has ancient roots as a building material, has enjoyed something of a resurgence in North America starting in the late 1980s and early ‘90s. Assembling it is a bit like baking, in the full-body Sendakian sense: we combine clay and sand on a tarp, add water, and then knead the mixture with our bare feet. (The “Canadian method”, used on cold days, involves flipping half the tarp over to sandwich the cob, and then mixing with your shoes on.)
Cob-making has been called a “peaceful, meditative, and rhythmic exercise,” and while it definitely can be, we discovered that depending on the volume and type of music playing on the radio, it can also be a recipe for a dance party. Whatever your approach, it’s a profoundly inclusive undertaking – and a therapeutic one, as I can well attest after a couple of days with my feet in the clay.
On the front and back walls, we opt to insulate with “straw clay”, a mixture of chopped straw and clay “slip” that is packed between forms and then left to dry. June brought some cool days, and so we’ll leave the cob and straw clay for a couple of weeks to make sure they dry out completely. Eventually we’ll finish the walls with a coat of sand, clay, and a fibrous mixture of cattail down and finely sifted chopped straw.
Ianto Evans has said that “we respond at a deep level to unprocessed materials, to idiosyncrasy, and to the personal thought and care expressed in craftsmanship”. There’s undoubtedly something to this: in using materials that are close at hand and are cheap or freely available; in expressing shifting moods and emotions and creativity by engaging your hands and feet with the material; in dispensing with “experts” in favour of building with friends. All of this serves to break down preconceived ideas about what’s “right” – say, a square box with drywall – and instead opens up new ideas about what’s possible.
Words and photos by Dylan Roberts, a student in the Permaculture Design and Resilient Ecosystems Diploma at Pacific Rim College.