Cobbing my cottage

Tuesday, 17 July 2012

The beautiful smell of wood

While I am building my cottage, it seems that it is my heart that is mostly in control. For the last 2.5 weeks I have worked and worked and worked, and even though my body is very tired, my heart has only grown fonder of the place I am creating, together with my family and some occasional visiting volunteers. When I sit inside the half-finished structure and watch the long blades of grass and hay sway in the wind, with the forest behind them, lit by the summer sun, I know I made the right decision to let my heart be crazy and free...

Now back in London again, for a short, 8 day respite, I realise that while in Finland I am so consumed by the act of working with my hands, that it is difficult to use that side of my brain, which forms coherent meaningful sentences about what's happened... i.e. the reason for not updating this blog for a month! It seems I always need to come back to my little London nest to regurgitate what's going on inside of my head, yet by the time that happens, my head is usually overflowing and the thoughts are often an abstract trickle down the stream of subconscious alleyways... :)

The main thing to say is: I am happy. I am happy how it has gone, how it is looking, how much I have been blessed by the help of others and especially my father, whose input in the cottage has become immeasurably important. Even though he never had much faith in himself to be building something so unusual like my cottage, and felt really out of depth to start with; together we have pondered on my design, the choices and funds I have available, the materials we use - with that, he has managed to build a wonderful wooden structure for me, tirelessly working, even in his retirement age, on the top of my roof, while the rain showers in the last few days soaked him through. It brings a tear to my eye, honestly, even though as a typical, modest Finnish man, he is the last to take much credit on his work. Or speak about it. It has also been lovely to hang out as father and daughter, something I don't normally get much chance to do, and maybe, to be honest, never really have. Men are often doers, not talkers, so it's been nice to have a point of interest, which is doing, but doing with a meaning that doesn't require too many words.

My father working on the roof yesterday.

It hasn't been plain sailing of course, sometimes I have even been sad and distressed, wondering whether I really have it in me to finish this little place and whether I am able to find a balance between 'getting on with it' and mindful creating and decision making. Plans change, because things don't work out, volunteers are suddenly unable to come, pains take over the body, strange chemistry between people makes atmosphere tense, materials cost more than expected or are not available etc etc - the list goes on and on. But for some reason, when I look out of the kitchen window at my parents house, I see this little unfinished house under the tarp, standing in the sun, wind and rain, born from my dream, on my childhood land. How could I not love it? How could I not build it? Never thought I could love a pile of wood, mud and sand so much! :)

I am adding photos from the last 2.5 weeks here, with some captions to detail the process that the cottage has gone through since the last time you read this blog. Apart from the last day, I took no days off, and even though I worked on the cottage constantly, at times, it was hard to see any progress. Yet, when I myself look back at the photos I have taken, it is very plain to see that a lot has happened in quite a short time (four weeks). A piece by piece this little earth tree house is coming along. I have no idea whether it will end up looking like the one in my sketches or dreams, but that is the beauty of creating: the neverending wonderment of  life unfolding and changing the outcome of every moment, every day. It's an organic process - so I will see when I get there. :)

This is what I went back to in the end of July. My father is peeling logs from the forest for my cordwood cob wall.

A view from inside the cottage, while I was filling the earthbags, with earth, sand and clay. I love this view, looking out to the sunny green. This will also be the view from the two windows, which will sit on the wall in front.

Where I got to by Sunday, before my German volunteers arrived.

Nora and Mathias working on the earthbag mix.
Nora and Mathias joined the build from Germany for about 4 days. For them it was a different kind of experience as they had never done any natural building. However, even in the heat of the sun, they seemed to get into the swing of things pretty quickly. It was great that while they were doing mixes and completing the earthbag stemwall, I could then dedicate some time to planning the reciprocal roof with my father. 

A small reciprocal roof test model we made with branches in the woods. Just to see if/how it works, before attempting to move the 4 metre long roundwood poles on the roof... it was lovely to discover it does work :)

Twin birch trees that my father checked to have some internal rot and promised for firewood for Jani, his neighbour, as long as Jani would take them down and that I could take the bark off them for my use.

Our friendly neighbour, Jani, sawing the trunk into manageable pieces for me to remove the bark from.
Here is some of the bark I removed from the birches. The better quality ones I have put under a weight and use for crafts and the ones with more 'scabs', I am using over the earthbags, underneath the cobwall and strawbalewall, to create a naturally waterproof barrier to prevent moisture from the earth and bags wicking up to the walls above.

Building the roof was one of the bigger decisions I took but I figured it would make life so much easier later on. It is nice to be non-dependent on the weather when building, to have some shade from the sun (the site is very sunny) and also, to properly 'feel' that one is actually building a dwelling, rather than some elaborate wall structure. It is so very true that the minute the reciprocal basic structure was completed, the cottage was officially feeling like a cottage, finished or not. It had dimensions!

This is how we started the roof, with one top of the felled birch trees in the middle as a 'Charlie stick', on which all the roundwood poles of the roof would rest, while piling them on top (after which the charlie stick was removed). To be honest, even though we had tried the design out in small scale, it was at times pretty hard to imagine we would ever manage to make a working roof using this method. In the end, we ended up shifting and shoving the Charlie stick around a bit, to change the dimensions of the central skylight hole (which was tiny at first). The fact that the cottage is not a complete circle also made it more tricky to get the spacing between poles right. With my forgotten maths skills, I attempted to calculate the angle that the poles would have to lie in, so that the roof wouldn't have too steep a pitch for a green roof, yet have some space underneath for me to build a sleeping platform on.

Well, we managed to build the structure in the end. To the primary eight poles, another 16 secondary roof rafters were added. An interesting choice, to provisionally tie the poles together that would have some give, as well as grip on the slippery wood poles, was to use strips of real leather from my mother's abundant fabric stash. But hey, it worked! :)
This is how the cottage looked after a hard working Friday. What a beautiful weather too. A glass of wine and I felt very happily tearful looking at this sweet little fairie house. :)

My volunteers left on Saturday, but of course for me the work continued. I continued building the cob wall, which Nora and Mathias has started and tried out where the windows would be and how they would be set into the wall. Even though covered under the tarp, the earthbags were drying fast, and I hammered metal rods through the five completed rows of bags, to increase their overall, uniform stability (as I decided not to use barbed wire, which is normally used for this purpose). I had decided to make 5 rows of bags instead of the original four, because I thought they will raise the wall further off the ground for the strawbales particularly. In the end, we ran out of bags at the end of the wall. I counted how many we needed. 10. I knew how many I had left in London (which I didn't take as I didn't think we would need them): 10.
Nothing like a meticulous guesswork at planning stage.... :)

Because I was now working on the cobwalls on my own, my mother felt sorry for me and came to help. She found it hard to form cob loaves crouching down on the ground but wanted to help to make and mix the cob for me. It's not rocket science exactly (after all, my mother just said the other day while mixing: good god, one could be pretty much braindead and still be able to do this job) - but I must say that after few days of mixing, my mother managed to make better and stronger mixes than me - so I generally just concentrated on building the walls and thanking the universe for my mother! This also includes the heavenly blueberry pies that she kept making, while disappearing into the kitchen from time to time. :)

My mother sorting bilberries she picked in the woods around the cottage. The bushes are brimming with blue - and you can see the thrushes and other birds like them too - judging by their deep blue poo...
A Forest Mandala I made from the wild flowers and moss from the woods.

Some beautiful, young oak leaves in a tree (or rather a bush) next to the cottage.
My feet in the mud, on a cloudy day under the tarp.
So, a lot of mixing, stomping, forming, patting, poking later, I was still working on getting few centrimetres added to the cob other words, slow going. While my parents enjoyed their 42nd wedding anniversary and took a break from helping me, I decided to try my hands on mortaring the base of a cob/pizza oven with natural stones I had picked up from the close-by sand pit. Not really knowing what I was doing, I started piling stones on one another and slapping some sand/lime putty mortar in between them. After two half days, the result wasn't pretty but was still standing, so who knows, it may end up being an oven one of these days... :) I am still yet to find a good place for rocks and stones, without having to buy them, as I am intending to cover the whole external earthbagwall with natural stone (for visuals and rain protection). Well, things seem to have a way of sorting themselves out, so maybe my stone pile treasure is also waiting for me at the end of a rainbow somewhere...

Here are some photos of the last week's slow cobbing progress:

Beginnings of the entrance and cob walls, the other wallspace will be for strawbale (North and NE walls)
Here you can see a bit of the natural stone foundation around the to-be cob oven. In the clay base of the oven, I am using a normal cob mix, without the straw and some ceramic leca-gravel added for insulation. All this is trial and error type of building, guided by what I am feeling could work rather than any professional understanding or skill... we shall see.
My father is sawing the planks for the roof, which all need to be individually measured to match the 'organic' design, shape and pitch of the roof. Thank you dad for your love, endurance and patience. :)

This is how I left the cob wall yesterday. I have started to extend the cob over the earthbags and it makes quite a bit of difference visually. I have no idea whether it will actually hold, since the earthbag material is quite slippy, but I have tried to poke it in with a 'cobber's thumb' ie. a piece of root I am working with for a tighter fit.

And below is the progress of the beautiful reciprocal wooden roof being built. I have so far bought 200metres of lumber to cover the area and I will need to buy some 70 metres more to fully cover it. I had seen some photos of people only loosely covering the spaces in between the roof poles but thought that despite of the added cost and time factor, the roof will be stronger to take on the heavy snowloads in the winter if it's tightly planked together. One of these, MuTu- moments, which in Finnish means roughly 'I feel it through', rather than actually knowing it. :)

The roof being decked out, I very much like the look of it.

Detail of the roof.
Me thinks it's pretty - and the fresh wood smells delicious!
My father in the process of nailing planks in.

Right, here we are, after another period of working in the forest, I have the foundation, the beginning of the walls, the basic roof structure. I still have to: fix the design of the cordwood cob wall and start building it, place the windows in the South wall and 'cob them in', finish all the walls, make a door, re-string 60 strawbales, order plastic for the roof, build the green roof, build base and top plate for the strawbale wall, complete the oven, make space for the round window, build the stone exterior stemwall, lime-plaster exterior walls, make internal floor and all internal work, including building a sleeping platform high up towards the roof. And this is without any actual design aspects which I am so keenly been waiting to work on... In fact, I have pretty much given up on the idea of finishing this cottage this summer. I mean, it may be possible but - I don't want to rush it, hurt my body in the process and get stressed. I didn't set on this journey to have a sour face.I set on it because the thought of this cottage made my heart pound and jump with joy. The journey has begun but is far from finished.I hope to finish it with a smile on my face and the forest in my heart.

In the meanwhile, the forest of my childhood looks as pretty as ever, even with a threatening thunderstorm in the distance. I love this place. The more I love it, the more I live it. The more I live it, the more I fall in love with it. It pays to go away, in order to return. Sometimes it's the only way - even for a forest fairie. x


  1. Hi Heidi, I just had a thought for the earthbags. What if you fix something like chicken wire or strong plastic netting to the earthbag wall? That should be a better key for the cob to grip to than the slippery earthbags. You could put lengths of wire in between each course of earthbags to fix the chicken wire or netting to, and that would strengthen the entire wall.

  2. Hiya, thank you, yes the same idea crossed my mind, about chicken wire but I thought to try out without some first, because I'd rather not use any more metal (or plastic) than absolutely necessary. I can't really put anything in between the earthbags anymore though, as they are pretty much rock solid, heavy and unmovable by now.
    I will see how firm the cobbed earthbagwall looks and feels when I return to Finland next week. :)