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New to Cob and my dirt is all wrong!? Oh please help!  RSS feed

 
Gillian Owens
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I've read on cobbing until I can't sleep without dreaming of it, almost 4 years. I've watched YouTube videos and downloaded handbooks. Yet still I am in a brain fog... I have some land to start building on that has been passed on through generations in my family. I've had so many complaints about how hard it is to garden there. The ground is full of rocks. The soil isn't very rich. I'm in southeastern Kentucky on a mountain that was an old coal mining strip job. Gorgeous place but rocks everywhere. I see that I can get some sand off the bank of the mountain, and I'll have no shortage of stone and rubble. But I don't want to get into heavy expenses by importing a bunch of soil for clay. There is a pond a few acres away that may have some better soil, I'm not sure. But if I couldn't get to it is there a way for me to add something to this dry unappealing dirt to help it form cob? Like maybe manure? Or maybe I am just a clueless newbie and don't know where to look for correct soil or what I am doing lol! Someone out there please help me This is going to be an epic job for two sisters.
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Miles Flansburg
master steward
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Howdy Gillian, welcome to permies. Love that statue !
Tell us more about what it is you will be doing with the cob. How much do you need?
Have you done a jar test of your soil?
In permiculture we have a saying that the problem is the solution. It may be that instead of cob you may need to build out of rock?
 
leila hamaya
pollinator
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if you know where theres any rivers, its a good place to find clay. the rivers move the clay down the mountains, or along hills, and then deposit it in pools and clumps.... as it goes....so look along the river bank...you can often see it in clumps within the soil along the edge....
 
Gillian Owens
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Thank you for replying! Miles, I am going to build a house, and not a very small one either, so I'll need a lot of whatever I end up using. It will also have a greenhouse. I haven't done the jar test as of yet. I will try to drive out there today and do it. I didn't know I could build a house out of rock.....?....hmmmm....
Leila, there's is a river that isn't too far away. I wonder if I need permission. Things are so informal and "backward" out in this part of the world . I may end up with a shovel and a pick up truck by the river bank.

Thank you both!
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hell Gillian,

Welcome to the world of Permies!

Look to your local vernacular traditional architecture for you first inspiration.

Rock is of course a wonderful medium to build with and only a tad more labor intensive and technical that good cob architecture.

I'm in southeastern Kentucky on a mountain
How far are you from Red River Gorge? I have spent probably close to a few years of my life there climbing, guiding, and teaching.

Or maybe I am just a clueless newbie and don't know where to look for correct soil or what I am doing lol!
We are all clueless and that is good. "I don't know mind," is the best place to be on most things, as it keeps you humble. Even if I think I know something, I still listen and question.

Give us some bullet point goals for the architecture in question you would like to build.

How much land may you take from?

Regards,

jay
 
Gillian Owens
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Jay, I'm about 2 hours away from there near Tennessee. I have a little over 3 acres of land of my own but I can use up to 15. My family has it sectioned off to different members but I'm welcome to whatever. For the actual house I am not interested in a tiny cottage. More like the larger cob homes you'd find in England. No one around here has even heard of cob, much less tried it. My land is far enough away from others and I won't have any trouble. I do not need a permit for what I'm doing. I'm so lucky.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Gillian,

If you have standing timber and stone, that is the medium I would turn to. Cob is very labor intensive all by itself without the extra burden of trying to go get it somewhere, and if you are building a structure over 2000 square feet, it will be even more so. If you can find a small vain on the property or very close by (less than a half mile) or you have the fiscal resources to have it shipped in you could use it with a slip forming method called "clay chip" or "clay straw." I lean toward traditional and do not typically experiment too much, try to reinvent the wheel, or fix a method that is not broken. What I am saying is go with a known method for you area, and leave the experimenting and pondering for smaller projects that you can always do over if unsuccessful.

Regards,

jay
 
Gillian Owens
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From all I am reading it seems that any method I use is going to be labor intensive. Good way to get fit and these extra few pounds off me lol! I'm thinking of using all this rock to build my walls up 3-4 ft of fieldstone and cob up from there. I know that you build cob on top of a rock stem wall, so why not start it from 3ft upwards? It will get quite a bit of that rock out of the way and give my home a great amount of strength. Maybe a couple of stone fireplaces as well. Everyone thinks I'm nuts. I'm 35, my sister 40, (both 5'3") and that's it for help unless you count my 9 year old little boy. I doubt I'll work him very hard I have no savings and no experience. I have willpower and land. I can little by little buy tools. The first thing I'll build is a shed to store all my tools in. It will give me some practice building and if I start whining at a shed then I'll know to stop right there. I doubt that will happen though. When you don't have a large income but you have a lot of will and absorb info like a sponge there is no reason to not use it. I could have a gorgeous home and never rent again. This website is very inspiring.
I am going to have to learn to deal with these snakes though...shew!
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Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Gillian,

Get use to seeing snakes in your area Gillian, and protect them as they are part of the land. The one in the picture is a brown snake (Storeria ssp) and a key player in the ecosystem for you environ.

You have a lot of reading and studying to do to pull this off. I would start with the shed, as I think you will soon learn that a big house is not as wise a choice as a small one, at least in the beginning. Good design, careful planning, and patients (do not rush) will lead you to success. "Do not bit off at one time more than you can chew." With your limited skill sets, don't settle on any design parameters just yet; you have too much to learn and consider before doing that if you plan on doing this all yourself and not hiring a contractor.

I will stay with you as long as I can. I am starting to now select more critically projects here on Permies where I can do the most good. If a design is outside my normal facilitation standards or style, I will probably fall silent for the most part, and only share where I think it is of use.

I want to be encouraging, but also honest. Without a tool arsenal and the skill sets to go with it, plus not practical or tangible experience in traditional-natural building, and limited fiscal resources; you are going to be very challenged to even build a small home well and safely. I think at this juncture, you should really study traditional styles that are vernacular for your area, and come up with a "rough plan" and design. Then you can focus on what books to buy, web sites to read, and possible courses to take.

Good Luck,

jay
 
Miles Flansburg
master steward
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Location: Zones 2-4 Wyoming and 4-5 Colorado
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Yep, start slow. I think If you design the house so that it can be built one room at a time , slowly, over time, you will be better off. Gather up lots of rocks in one place, get the cob ingredients together. Do some small experimental builds to get the feel of it.

Maybe you could ask for help on the woofers forum when you get everything planned out. Could be some folks nearby that could help with a barn raising, maybe ask in the regional forums.

If you are real lucky maybe even find someone who could put together a workshop sort of setup.
 
Lucas Harrison-Zdenek
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Location: Southeast Michigan, Zone 6a
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Gillian,

Depending on what kind of timber growth you have on the property, I would consider looking at Paul Wheaton's wofati house ideas. You should also consider picking up a copy of mike oehler's book on "underground houses". Timber and earth construction may be a better way to go and you don't have to have a house that is too small for your needs. I'm currently in the planning stages of my future house and I am planning on piecing a bunch of different proven methods together to get my ideal final result. Good luck!
 
allen lumley
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Gillian Owens : Jay is giving you lots of good advice,Look at your name and l@@K at mine, please go to the permies toolbox at the top of this page, and clickon> My Profile
and add a general location and your 'climate zone if you know it it will help you get better, more specific answers ! Consider posting your building intentions in the projects
area and the regional Forums, you may have a near neighbor -transplanted- with Cob experience

If you build it they will come, and set on your front porch and lie about the good old days !

Google soil sediment tests, sample all over your families property, look for boggy ground with no exit streams.

Moving out from there check with Town, County, and State highway departments in your area, Someone will know where they have problems with Mudslides after a heavy
rain. Something that would need a front end loader and trucks.

Call an excavation contractor -yellow pages- and say you want clean fill, As it costs money to truck it away, if you are near where they are working, they will offer to
deliver, especially if they think they might also be selling and transporting sharp, or masons sand to you too ! G'luck For the Good of the Craft BIG AL !
 
kim Duncan
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We are nearing completion of our Rock and cob home. We were told you cant do that! They were wrong. Our budget ran out so we looked at what resources were around us. We have built a rock/cob decagon home. We have a tree in the middle and terracotta cob for our internal walls. cost to date 35k. All is recycled items from steel ibeams, granite and mahogony kitchen. Cob floors. I love my home. Highly recommend building this way but oh it is extreemly hard work. We purchased a bobcat and concrete mixer which made things so much easier. importing foundational building products can increase build costs excessively, but in saying this if you must it is very rewarding and dont compromise on your desired end result.
 
Patricia Ramirez
Posts: 19
Location: Sioux Lookout, ON
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Jay C. touched on this as well, and I would like to stress the point of 'material location'. If you plan on gathering the materials, all by hand, then that in itself, is a labour of love. I remember driving out to the bush and loading the truck up with stone (for the stem wall). Then unloading it at the site. And then moving them a third time to put them in the wall. Three times we handled those stones! And sometimes it was half a dozen or more, depending how many times it took to make a good fit. The clay was dug up right on site, but we still had to move it around three times to get the final product. The rubble and sand were trucked in by a local landscaping company, so that was a nice break.

Your proposed building will be hard work for sure, more-so if you're gathering the materials by hand. But if you're like us, you wouldn't have it any other way, hehe.

(*SNAP* Next time, I'll have to remember to make note of my weight, before and after. That would have been great to know the first time!)
 
Erica Wisner
gardener
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If you look at the classic, historic English farmhouse, you will usually find that it was built over several generations, a room or two at a time. Sometimes a wealthy generation might add an entire wing.

So I might look at building in stages.

I'd start by using some of your timber, or whatever local lumber you prefer, to make a 'pole-barn' roof. Give yourselves a big shelter to work under. You can build right up to this and let it become the roof of the building, if you like. Leave wide eaves on all sides of the walls (3 or 4 feet for a walkway if possible).

Do some research to learn about drainage and footings. You want a naturally well-drained site, and slopes or perimeter drains to daylight (someplace naturally downhill of the drain trench). I might grade the entire area to a well-drained level, but build each set of foundations as I needed them rather than staking out the entire future building at once.

Plan out the first room at one end as the 'practice shed,' which can attach to the next room(s) if you like how it turns out.
If you get discouraged or find a better method, the stone 'shed' can always become the root cellar for a different type of house. So I might build it on the north, east, or shady side of the future-house footprint.

I like the idea of a 3' or 4' tall rock wall, you can keep going up with rock if your skill and supplies allow. Practice a couple of times to figure out whether you can build vertical, or whether you need a wide base so your wall can taper a bit (depends on your skill, mortar, and shapes of rocks / ability to cut and dress them).
Once you collect all those rocks you very well may find some sticky clay-like soil underneath some of them, or get a good local source for "ready-mix" clay/sand soils.

The mineral soil you want does not need to be all clay. We have found "sand" on some places with enough clay in it to make great cob. What you want is an area that gets rock-hard if compacted, and doesn't dust off or crumble once it dries out.

It is entirely possible for two little ladies to build a house that suits them. But it's definitely a fair amount of work.
Whether this will be a 'modern' large home, or a more traditional country cottage, depends on your time and resources.
If you have the social capital to recruit a bunch of help, a few 'barn-raising' sessions could be a big boost.
If you don't want to hand-dig the drainage, or raise the roof without help, you might look into swaps with local tradesmen. Don't be afraid to use lady-like skills like baking killer pies.
Do be aware that help tends to do things their way, and it's hard to make them fix it even if you're paying them. So choose areas for this kind of community boost where you are really stuck without it, and/or you can tolerate the quality of help you get.

Taking a cob workshop, or helping on someone else's project, is a very good idea to get a sense of how it's done, and how much work you are committing to with a given size of building.
If possible, get some hands-on practice repairing someone else's mistakes, it's one of the best ways to learn.
Here's an English website about repairing and proper detailing for traditional buildings: Mike Wye & Co
Here are a couple of other English sources: http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/earth/earth_buildings.htm, http://www.buildingconservation.com/articles/wattleanddaub/wattleanddaub.htm

It's also worth noting that a cob house is not likely to be the most affordable building in this day and age.
Many of the historic cob structures that survive are examples of excellent architecture, not cheap "mud huts," and would have been very expensive in their day. In modern times, the cheap fuels for shipping manufactured materials make it even harder for cob and earthen building methods to compete. Earth Block building article.
The only context in which an earthen building is 'cheaper' is if you are committed to using no carbon-emitting processes for your project, you have materials locally available, and you provide all of the labor without counting the cost of those labor hours and resources toward your project. e.g. if you hire workmen for pie, and don't count the cost of the pie.
Otherwise, the costs can be 10% to 25% more than with conventional, contemporary housing (such as wood-frame or manufactured homes).

Building with cob, like building with stone or masonry, is an investment for the ages. Rare nowadays. Sounds like your roots are deep enough in your local soil that you might just pull it off.
You might see if your 9-year-old son is excited about some aspect of this 'castle', and get him involved at least to the extent that he can build his own room (or detached cabin) when he comes of age.

Yours,
Erica W
 
I've got no option but to sell you all for scientific experiments. Or a tiny ad:
Permaculture Playing Cards by Paul Wheaton and Alexander Ojeda
https://permies.com/wiki/57503/digital-market/digital-market/Permaculture-Playing-Cards-Paul-Wheaton
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