Cobbing my cottage

Friday, 11 November 2011

Visiting My Dream

On Tuesday I returned from a short trip to Finland, where I dug up the soil in the forest next to my parents house in order to find out whether this whole project is viable or not. Not finding enough sand or clay in the ground would mean that the whole point of building ecologically and economically is lost - and my dream - well, it would remain just a dream... so it was important for me to test the soil, digging while all fingers and toes crossed - not very easy as you can imagine...

Digging test holes up to 80cm in depth

To begin with, I had a dream. A dream about where the hut will stand. So I marked it out roughly and started digging. My father was pretty certain that I would only find sand, this is because the house they built, in which I spent my childhood in, was built ten metres away on a sandy soil, even at 2-meter depth there was only sand, no clay. Which of course is a better scenario for building foundations on, because groundfrost doesn't really affect foundations in a sandy soil, the opposite of which is true for clay-heavy soil. Having read that the frost line in Southern Finland is at 1.5metres and not intending to dig my foundations that deep, I was relying on finding a sandy spot to build my dwelling on.

So enthusiastically, I start digging, and after lifting the dark topsoil aside, I discover this really lovely rust coloured sand beneath, just perfect for using in a cob mixture. So happy. My dad's watching me and saying, 'I told you, it's only sand there.' But I am determined to go deeper, just because. Yeah, I am a stubborn taurus too. And all goes well, until in about 50cm depth I hit something hard, and grey. And there I discover the other stubborn matter called clay, which is so incredibly packed and solid, that digging becomes impossible.

Clay - no go

Not good. My dad is surprised. So I move two metres up the gentle uphill and start making another hole. The same story repeats, except this time I find the clay in about 70cm depth. Another hole. Another hole. Another hole. Here I am inspecting one of them...

Looking for my gold (and eventually finding it)

After a few days of digging, the ground within 10-15 metre radius is full of several holes and I realise that the hut location (of my dream) wasn't quite as exact as I had thought. But eventually I do manage to find a spot which fills the criteria - lovely golden sharp sand and no thick clay at least up to 80cm depth - wahey!! We change the positions of the posts with my parents to roughly mark the outline of the area and I take a deep breath. There is one young fir tree in the way of my hut, but as I venture to the grocery shop, on my return dad is holding a warm chainsaw in his hands and the fir tree has fallen...

One issue is that there are many large tree stumps from last year's felling close to my marked area, the thick roots of which crisscross the soil deep within - all that has to be dug out with some form of machinery, as there is no way I can manually shift ancient silver birch stumps without breaking my back and losing faith in life and this project. But that's a worry for next summer - I have enough for now.

Then it's soil testing time. I dig soil samples out of the pits into glass jars and mix them with salt and water, shake vigorously and let set overnight, to see how much sand, clay and silt is in the ground. It is fairly quick to tell this by colour and texture alone - and even though the tests show varying amounts of clay and sand, none of the samples would make good cob on its own, so I realise that I will have to make some experiments. Getting hands dirty time..

Lower down my parent's plot, I find a really wet, swampy bit and start digging. The exposed muddy clay is making moist kissing sounds as I dig, which is funny but doesn't make the digging easier. My mum has an idea of making a natural pond out of my future clay hole and I think that sounds fantastic. Anyway, I eventually find a really lovely clean clay few metres away and slight excitement fills my heart.

Now I have: a) lovely, rusty coloured sand  b)sticky, grey clay in abundance c) some oat straw
 - and that's all I need for making cob! 

Getting a big tarp out, I make a mixture of about 1 part clay to 3 parts of sand and mix it altogether using my feet power, turning the mix inside the tarp fairly often for even consistency. I just love the colour of this mixture and it feels almost magical to be mixing something so basic to make something so fantastically interesting! I am again in love but hey, loving nature is easy, particularly as it doesn't argue with you!

Mixing cob (sand and clay)
Adding straw
Doing the cob dance

I add some straw my mother had bought few weeks previously and jump on the mixture, digging my heels in, getting all my frustration out, dancing to a silent tune inside my head, thinking about doing this over and over again for two months and the slowly descending madness that follows.... it is truly a lovely, warm feeling!

As I do my silly moves and look totally ridiculous, even my 8-year old niece warms up to the cob, gets wellies out and jumps on the pile (she had initially looked at me very disapprovingly), so we do a little jig on the mix and she has a chance to get her hands and feet dirty. I keep turning the cob mixture around with the help of the tarp, which is the best way to do it when one is working alone, and finally, I can see it - the perfect mix. I grab some of the stuff, form it into a ball and throw it on the ground. The ball flattens a bit due to the mix being slightly too wet but doesn't break. Me thinks that's purfect!

I shift all the mixture into a wheelbarrow and I suggest to my niece that we make a little sculpture with it, since it doesn't keep (due to the straw being in it). In any case, I might as well experiment how easy it is to build with this and perhaps even how well it survives over the harsh Finnish winter - the ultimate test of fire (or ice rather)! My little animal lover niece says I should make a cat and I agree. I start building the cat on top of a tree stump but quickly realise that the cat is taking the shape of a bear. Well, considering my niece doesn't mind and bear being the national animal of Finland, I let the hands do their work and the result - a hybrid of a mole, cat and a baby bear... Good fifteen minute effort though, playing with the cob, and of course I was over the moon about how easy it was to build and sculpt with the mixture. Now it's up to the nature to take care of the rest...

My animal cob sculpture

After these busy five days, I sigh of relief - I now know that the project is possible, as far as cob is concerned! THE JOY!

Tuesday, 25 October 2011

Getting a morale boost

Last Saturday morning I wandered into the well hidden Meadow Orchard Project in North London and was greeted by a happy, smiling organiser Linda from Cob in the Community and a number of chirpy volunteers ready to take part in the eco-hut build. Chatting with people, many originally from other parts of the world, yet all excited about the same thing, the weather being so sunny and lovely, I couldn't help but smile most of the day while working on different things; mixing cob, making earth plaster and carrying straw bales.

Linda working with a volunteer.

I told Linda and the rest of the group about my own eco-build plans and she was really brilliant in answering all my questions about different issues and techniques I should be considering. That's all you sometimes need to get a real morale boost, a friendly face to talk to, whose heart is in the same place as yours! I will definitely be back in North London to watch the progress and take part in this wonderful project, as in my opinion learning is best by doing and even better when done with a lovely bunch of people all pulling together just for the love of it all! :)

Strangely enough the to-be Meadow Orchard meditation and community eco-hut is very similar in design to the one I am planning, so it will really help me to visualise my cottage and understand how to best tackle the building process. So excited about stumbling on this Meadow Orchard project - a truly lovely coincidence!

Working on the Meadow Orchard Eco-Hut

Adding Earth plaster/slip onto the strawbale wall

In about a week's time I am flying home to Finland and there is a lot of sketching, research and mental preparation to be done before then. I have bought and read few more books, including Tony Wrench's 'Building a Low Impact Roundhouse' and Nigel Dunnett's 'Small Green Roofs', as well as 'The Straw Bale House' by Athena Steen. All worth a read, but I would still say that there is one book above all others: 'The Hand-Sculpted House' by Ianto Evans, which I have found most useful and inspiring out of the many books I have bought on the subject. His is a truly wonderful book, which covers not only the technical aspects of cob building but also the spiritual side of it all, including how to best respect the land and environment as well as considering the natural cycles of the Earth, all things, which for me, as a learning, spiritual entity, are really important.

Sometimes the first snow falls quite early in Southern Finland, even as early as October, which for my inner child is lovely of course but for my soil testing purposes I am hoping for a mild, nice autumnal 'digging weather' for next week. I will report back here with photos and few video clips after I return on what my excavations into the land of my childhood reveal. Until then, sweet (day)dreams! :)

Tuesday, 18 October 2011

Recovering and making plans

I have been ill for over a week now with what started as a little cough and a sore throat and then developed into an acute bronchitis so irritating and painful that for a day or two I lost the will to live. While I was unable to do much else than think, all kinds of fears started to take over, like: 'Am I really crazy to believe I can build this cottage? On my own? How is it all going to happen, practically? Time-wise, money-wise, health-wise? I am just a silly dreamer with no building skills...' Listening to all this nonsense floating inside my head, I finally ended up sticking my head deep into some inspirational books; trying to flush out the negative thoughts, because that's all they are, thoughts.

Yesterday I got a course of antibiotics from my GP and am slowly starting to feel better. I only have about two and half weeks before I fly to Finland to stand on the land where I am intending to build next year. And by then I want to have some plans, some drawings, not just to show my parents but also myself. I want to be able to sit down on the ground, close my eyes, meditate on the smells, sounds and sights and see the cottage as it will be standing around me, in a year's time. So that whatever feels right, I will put in the plans and whatever doesn't feel right, I will take off. And then I will get the shovel and start digging....

Waiting for my own recovery and spending too much time in front of the computer, I discovered about The Meadow Orchard Project in Haringey, North London. They run all kinds of environmental courses for the community and are also building an eco-hut on their premises with cob and straw bales. As it happens, for the next two weekends they are running eco-build courses, so I am intending to volunteer this coming Saturday for their project, which will be a great opportunity for me to help a community as well as learn more cob-building skills and gain invaluable insight into my own project. I may even take my son along to do some mud dancing...

I will be adding sketches and blueprints for my cottage here soon, even though they are bound to change in the coming months. However, I still feel it's interesting for me and for others to see the entire process of the project, from some random thoughts to actually making something touchable. After a dark week, I am  starting to see light at the end of the tunnel - my spirit is hearing the beating of my heart more than the fearful mutterings of my mind. I just have to follow my heart and go with the gut feeling, because as always, it never lies.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

The Dreamer In The Woods

As the Autumn sun sets behind my urban London garden, I start writing this blog about dreams and about making those dreams into reality. I am hoping that my story will inspire someone to follow his/her dreams, heart and intuition - as in my own humble experience, it is the only real truth you have at any given time.

Depending on how one looks at it, this particular story starts about thirty-seven years, or alternatively, about six weeks ago, when I returned to London from a two week summer holiday in Finland, my mother country, where I lived for the first 23 years of my life, before moving to UK (where I still live).

Forest of my childhood

I originally come from a small village in Southern Finland, which, even though only half an hour drive from the capital city, Helsinki, is a rural area of sleepy countryside, filled with open fields, small lakes and deep forests. In that environment, I grew up as a care-free child, roaming freely with my older brother and our friends, crossing streams, climbing trees and stealing apples from abundant trees. My love for the nature was nurtured by trips to the forest with my parents, to forage bilberries, lingonberries and many delicious wild mushrooms.

From early age, I would find it very comforting to listen to the trees, the restless fluttering of their leaves, the creaking of their ancient bodies and feeling their breathing between my small, extended arms. I particularly liked one tree in the small plot of woods my parents have, an old aspen tree, which seemed too different and big for the forest in order not be special somehow. I named the tree my Wishing Tree and started using the tree as nature's confession box, circling it ritualistically three times, making it wishes, telling it secrets and asking it advice that only such a wise, old tree could have an answer for. This for a young child seemed completely natural thing to do and I can't remember minding about the fact that the answers never came out in the form of human language. I now think that guided by a child's intuition, I consulted this totem tree, which in turn let me silently meditate and listen for the answers within. And of course that is the best advice anyone can give you, whether a tree or a person.

Over twenty years and many many travels later, I sit in my crammed London bedroom, surrounded by my art, my ideas, my photos, my memories, my films, my crystals, my scribbles and all kinds of scattered parts of my life in random order - yet in my mind's eye I am back in that childhood forest, next to that beautifully stocky wishing tree, sitting on the mossy floor. I tell the tree that next summer I am going to make a full circle and come back home and once again, consult the magical aspen about the truths that lie within.

With a lot of courage and a bit of luck, this time next year, a cob-hut, built with the soil beneath my feet and the wood from the surrounding forest, will stand at a viewing distance from that wise, old aspen and when I look out of the window, I will be able to say hello and thank you to the tree that knew all my dreams.