Cobbing my cottage

Thursday, 14 June 2012

Back in London, I am now attempting to collate my thoughts and experiences from the last two weeks in Finland. I still remember the feeling sitting inside the wooden skeleton of my to-be-cottage yesterday, in the warm sun, hearing the little insects all around me, the busy bluetits, pretty blackbirds and one tireless cuckoo somewhere in the forest. My mood elevated, I was thinking: I can actually sit inside this thing! It is a THING - not completed, not even close - but - it is a shelter! Built with my very own hands, and the hands of my family members. How special is that...!

My work in progress cottage covered by a tarp, ready for my next working trip to the forest.

It may not look like much yet, but has so much heart for me already. When I flew to Finland two weeks ago, I really didn't know what to expect. In some ways it was, and still is, much like guesswork. I have lots of ideas but have no ideas on how long it will take to make them into reality... :)

The site in the Spring time, after the foundation hole has been dug and some large tree stumps removed from the area.

The foundation trench, or rather a big gaping hole, had already been dug when I got to the site. It was  about 70cm deep and I could see that the bottom of the foundation was partly on hard clay, partly on sand. It wasn't sloping quite enough downhill to my liking, considering that I wanted it to be able to drain well in case of a heavy rain.

The first few days in Finland I spent ordering and buying tools and supplies, opening builder's accounts at local hardware stores and thinking things through. The gravel ended up costing much more than I expected but I did order about 18tonnes of it, because most of the soil in the foundation was replaced by it (and sand). Maybe I'm daft but it somehow made sense, to improve drainage, stop moisture from getting to the walls, roundwood poles or the floor.

In regards to the other main building materials, I was lucky that just around the corner from my parents house, there is a disused sand-pit, where we used to play as kids - I got permission from the elderly owner to take some sand for my building needs from there. My parents' friendly neighbour was kind enough to help us out with his pick-up/trailer combination to get the sand from the pit to the site. Even the heavy rain showers and us workers getting completely soaked, didn't stop us from shoveling the sand, tired, on a Friday evening. Just a small problem, which sauna will ultimately cure... which seems to be the thinking with most Finnish ailments. :)

I have added a compilation of photos here, to show you the progress so far. I have tried to write captions for the photos instead of writing the entire story, because it would take me the other two weeks I have in London and not get anything else done! I still have a life you know... ;)
Strawbales were delivered, only for me to discover that they were far too loosely baled! Many bales fell apart when we were transferring them to storage. Which means in order to use them in my cottage wall, I will need to re-string most of the bales (those that are used in the cob mix obviously do not matter).

Regardless of the first setback of the poor bales, I set to work and started working on improving the drainage of the site. Here I am, shoveling away, with my son showing me his Lego creation in the latter photo. :)
I dug a drainage channel from the foundation trench downhill, for the rain water to run away from underneath the house. 8cm perforated drainage pipe was installed at the bottom of it.

After the digging, we started filling the hole with all that gravel. Wow, the amount of work involved, particularly as the gravel was located about 50-70metres away. I feel my biceps have definitely grown! :) I hired a light-weight compacting machine, which I used regularly over the gravel, to compact it nice and tight. Much better result than doing it by hand, although it was not exactly any easier on my muscles.

Round and round we go :)

A digger came for the 2nd time to dig a clay pit in the woods. After excavation, this pit was covered with tarp until later use and will become a natural swimming pool in the future (well, I would like to think so at least).

Because I was too worried about the quality and strength of my strawbales, I consulted few professional natural builders and decided to build a wooden structure for my cottage- so rather than using the bales as supporting walls, I would have the wooden skeleton to support the weight of the roof. As it happens, Charlie Jespergaard from the Natural Building Company, whom I visited in Fagervik during my first week in Finland, showed me how the bales could be re-compressed, re-strung and in fact used as I had initially intended, but I still decided it would be less risky to build the wooden frame and use the bales more as an infill material.

Here I am fetching one piece of wood to be used in the wooden frame structure. These logs my father had cut down from the surrounding woods a few months earlier and peeled and stacked them up to dry.
Measuring the wood poles to correct size.
My father cutting the poles with a chainsaw.
Here I am placing the roundwood poles in their final positions. The shape of the cottage won't be exactly round, more like oval shape, with a larger gap between the logs in the south facing wall, to accomodate the window frame or frames (as I haven't decided which way the windows are going to lie, vertically or horizontally...)

My father working on the wooden frame. We used Tony Wrench's book 'Building A Low Impact Roundhouse' as a rough guide and reference book. My father was a bit unsure about the whole procedure at first but after a day or so, he really got into it and the quality of his work improved massively. I am very proud of him and happy to have been able to have worked and assisted him. :)
The completed wooden structure (without roof obviously).

Here I am tarring the logs that were used in the wooden frame. We attached the ends of the poles onto watertreated wood panels along with some tarred roofing paper and then the 'legs' were set onto compacted gravel base and more gravel was spread over them and compacted well (the ends of the logs are therefore not in direct contact with soil and hopefully never too much water either, to prevent them from rotting). The tar smells wonderful, although I must admit, whilst applying it, the smell was slightly OVERWHELMING! ;) I could have used concrete and steel posts with the wooden poles to avoid all this hassle, but I don't want to pour concrete into my sacred space (which this for me is, as a place where I grew up as a child)
While my father was working on the wooden frame, I kept on filling the area around the wooden poles and compacting the gravel and sand that was added in the central area (which is to become the internal floor). The wooden roundwood poles are the internal dimensions of the cottage, which will be about 3.70-3.80m in diameter.


When the wooden frame was joined to form a uniform, stable structure, I had only few more days left in Finland. This meant that the whole structure needed to be covered, to be protected from elements but also to enable me to keep working in dry conditions underneath. To be honest, until then it had only rained briefly on few occasions but the idea of attempting to build cob and strawbale walls in rain, with swarming mosquitoes around (there are many!), didn't appeal to me too much.

Preparing to get the tarpaulin on the structure.

Here I am on the top of the ladder, trying to maneuver the massive blanket of plastic on this thing (with my brother and father)!

I started filling the first rows of earthbags with gravel (the same that was used for the floor).There will be in total of four rows of bags in the stemwall, on top of which the cob, cordwood cob and strawbale walls will be built.

I managed to fill the first row of bags, almost all of them with gravel. When that run out, I filled the remaining bags with clay/sand/earth mixture, which I left to dry and harden under the tarpaulin, while I am away. This will also give me a good indication of whether the mix I used has a good ratio and consistency for the remaining earthbags.

So, here we are. There is so much else to say and write but I am still quite exhausted from the first episode of build and want to focus on the next time I get to go there. I have done some video filming also and my friend and regular cameraman Mikael will come and visit me in the next few months to do some dedicated filming of the progress (with me included in the footage, which doesn't hugely appeal to me as a director...)

I am so very grateful to my family in Finland, who have worked so hard on this with me, particularly my father, without whom getting to this point in the build would have been incredibly slow, difficult, maybe even impossible. But, I still believe, as I have done before, that nothing is impossible where dreams and heart are involved. Not with me, not with anyone. Even though this cottage is far from finished, it is incredibly satisfying to be able to work with one's hands - and see, touch and smell the results.I kid you not, it may be one of the best experiences in the world!!! So, please try it, if you haven't... :)

A few days ago, on the last evening of my first two weeks in Finland, I poured a glass of red wine for myself and went out to the cottage, sat in front of it and watched the forest in the evening sun, with my giant wishing tree and its leaves fluttering in the gentle breeze. I was so loving the look and the sound of it. It brought a tear to my eye to think that I am allowed to be here, to dig up this earth, to use this wood, to work with people I love, to listen to these birds, to participate in nature, to feel gratefulness, to witness beauty, to feel with all my heart, to learn, to appreciate, to be grateful, to be human. To be part of it all. Part of nature.

That is all I ever could have wished for. Thank you tree - for listening to me.

My giant wishing tree (aspen) in the background, as seen through two conjoined birch trees.

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