Cobbing my cottage

Thursday, 23 August 2012

A Dragon In The Belly

The rain is pouring down, then eases into drizzle, then picks up strength again - and I listen to the drops hitting the roof of my parents' house, making nature's music. There hasn't been many days this summer I have heard that song, fortunately, the clouds have often parted or disappeared altogether and the sun has said a friendly hello to me and the other people working on the cottage. In fact while everyone else in Finland has been complaining about the awful summer weather, for most days I have been basking in the sun in this forest corner of my childhood landscape. For that I am thankful.

My son flew back to London last Friday, along with few of my tears in his blonde hair. It was lovely to have him around while I was building, to share the experience with his child's eyes and heart. For him to see how much this place and this cottage I am building means to me. A seed of love planted in his heart, for trees, nature, Finland, Earth and universe itself. Next time we return, I am hoping we can already sleep inside the cottage and see the stars through the roof window. Or at least have a nice cup of hot chocolate in there, which is more likely if it's below -20C and Winter...

Before my son left for UK, I had also a class of local primary school (same where I used to go as a child) children visiting the site and cottage. Their teacher, Teija, had visited the place earlier and so I had planned and organised some natural building activities for the 11-12 year old children, including digging the clay pit, mixing cob and building with it. Those children not wanting to get muddy, I put out paints and brushes to paint some stones and pebbles, to integrate into my cottage, possibly as part of my dragon, inside the external wall surface. Even though the group of children were girls by majority (19/4), most of them were very keen to jump straight into whatever was offered to them, some spent most of their time in the very muddy pond, or excitedly jumping on the cob mix, after screaming: yuk, disgusting! :) Some of the children were so keen on the activities that they didn't want to leave, and a few asked if they could come back again. All in all a good day - and I hope that another couple of seeds of Earth love were planted inside small big hearts x

On Saturday my volunteer Beez (Carla) left also, so suddenly it was quiet again. My mother tried to fill Beez's boots by making some cob mixes for me and my father was working on the strawbale wall and the top plate, trying to get it ready for plastering, which should really be done as soon as possible. On top of all that, my parents were going away for their summer house, so it was going to be only me, myself and I working on this project for several days... But, just as the sun and luck has so often shone on this little cottage, on Sunday my lovely London friend, Michelle, asked if I needed any help with the building work. Did I? Well, just maybe perhaps. So, Michelle is arriving to Helsinki tonight... :)

Last week while Beez was working on the cob side of things, I was re-stringing bales and building the wall up with my father. Here are some photos of the progress.

My father made a square window frame for my round window frame (as it is easier to secure and install than a round frame.)

Internal view, with the top plate in place. However, since there was so much space at many places on top, we managed to put full or half bales on top of most of the plate. My father then secured them with long stakes from the very top (he had to temporarily remove some roof planks) to the rest of the wall.

As luck would have it, my father found a round, thick glass from his shed, which had been sitting there for ten years at least. Our neighbour Jani, cut the glass to size for my window and voila! My father then fixed the round window into the square frame and yesterday I filled the gaps up with bundles of straw and cob.

The cottage seen from NE with completed strawbale wall and the cob oven and gap in the wall above and around it, which still needs to cobbed to the ceiling height before I leave.
Once the balewall was standing, I needed to start cobbing the remaining wall next to it, including the cob oven; which I thought would become a dragon's head. My very first experience of cob - was building an oven in Kate Edward's workshop in Norfolk almost a year ago. Now armed with the snippets of information (oh how we forget!) remaining in my brain and Kiko Denzer's great book: Build Your Own Earth Oven, I set out to work, to finally wake up my dragon....

Sometimes, when I work with clay (or other natural materials), I have very little idea of what I am doing. I may have a seed of an idea, I may even know what I would like to do, but what the clay in fact becomes, is very much up to organic process, intuition, if you will. So, I started making the oven form with sand and strawless cob and realised that this form cannot make a head, because it just isn't meant to be a head. What could it be? And when I run my fingers on the shape, almost as if blind, I realise it is becoming a wing. Well, dragons do have wings, so...

The whole process of building the oven is too lengthy to describe in detail here, but I am happy to say the work was successful and I have since then lit few small fires inside the oven, to help it dry out. Since the oven is on the North-East side of the cottage and only gets limited sunlight, it is quite useful to speed up the drying in that way, before I leave for the Winter. I was even hoping to get a pizza fired in it before next weekend, but that may be wishful thinking, as I don't want a proper fire lit inside the oven, before the dry strawbale walls are plastered securely....

Yesterday, working alone on the cottage, with only music as company, I continued sculpting the rest of the dragon, including her head, to which I formed nostrils and to them, just as a curious test, pierced few narrow channels all the way through to the fire pit. I then lit up the oven and waited anxiously - and suddenly - and ever so gently, few swirls of smoke started flowing out of my baby - a dragon is born!

Sculpting the rest of the dragon is still under way but judging by size, it is a baby dragon. In a way this is quite apt; since this cottage IS my baby and I am a baby of this forest. I took my first steps within about 20m radius of this cottage and in many ways my own dragon came from this forest. In fact we all have baby dragons inside of us, just waiting to be born, awakened and breathe fire. The magic within... :)

I am here only for another 1.5 weeks and there is plenty to do. Strawbale walls need to be (lime) plastered, green roof set up (well, at least covered properly), cob walls built, front door finished and fitted (our neighbour Jani is working on that), wind boards installed and stone facade continued. This is only the exterior work and I am not even considering the interior work here, as I am assuming I have no time left to finish it this time around. But we'll see... now that the dragon has awakened, anything is possible!

Until next time -

Tuesday, 14 August 2012

Time is speeding up

The more I do, the more there seems to be to do - but at the same time I can see real progress and bright light at the end of the tunnel. Luckily the tunnel I am walking in, is not dark itself but a happy natural alleyway (at most times) that is encapsulating me in its organic embrace...

Days turn into nights, nights into vivid dreams, Tuesdays into Fridays, everything gets mashed up in a strange, abstract way, which bends time and my understanding of it. Only particular appointments and pre-planned schedules root me back onto a 'normal' human time. Big events like the cordwood (or cobwood) reaching the ceiling height, windows going in, getting a front-door frame, installing a roof make me realise that real progress is taking place - a livable space is being built, which I will eventually inhabit. I have no silly dreams about the timescale of when that will happen; when will everything be finished - because I know slowly but surely that day will come. It will most likely not be this summer, unless a miracle takes place - not that I don't believe in miracles - but I am not pressured to fully finish this build in three weeks - the time it takes is the time it takes... the day I can step inside, close the front door and look around me and see a finished space, may, in fact, never happen. My cottage was always going to be a journey. Why should it have a particular end-point, a date of completion? Isn't life a flow, a wave, a spiral, a continuous shifting of energy?

Beez (Carla) making a cob mix.
My lovely new volunteer Carla, or Beez, as she likes to be called, came last week from Grimsby, England, to help me with my build. She learnt the ropes pretty quickly and the cobbing side of things has really progressed since, she has been working hard on digging clay, making mixes and cobbing walls. I have also been cobbing with her but because of the extra help, I have also had some time for designing, re-stringing bales, mortaring stones and acquiring the most annoying summer flu, which would have been a disaster if I had been here on my own. While writing this I am still ill and struggling to breathe and talk (I have asthma so flu makes it worse) but slowly starting to feel a bit better, which is good considering I have a full class of local primary school children coming over on Thursday to try out a hand in some very muddy natural building.

On Friday I will also be parting company with my sweet little son, who flies back to London to be with his father for the rest of the school holidays. I will miss him dearly but being on my own will give me time to fully focus on the build (read: most likely go insane) for the remainder of the time I am here, until early September. And for him to have fun with his father and friends that he has been missing while in Finland. But of course, he has had lots of fun, through his explorations in the nature and forest, finding toads, lizards, dragonflies, ants, butterflies, birds and other wonderful little things. Inspired by nature just as much as I am, he is one of my greatest inspiration - him and his wonderful child's way of being and seeing. When I look at him jumping around, trying to catch grasshoppers, I can feel my own inner child jumping around with him (when I am not physically joining him). To build this cottage is only possible through my connection to my inner child, cherishing little pleasures, living in the moment and having no fear. Or having the fear, but doing it anyway. :)
My son on the roof looking through the skylight.

Since photos are said to be worth more than thousands of words, and it will save me some time to keep writing them out, here is a sequence of things in pictures that have been going on at the site throughout the week. As usual, I find it hard to remember what happened in the week, so I refresh my memory by looking through the pictures, and sometimes even through my Facebook updates... as I said, time speeds up and blends into one and my flu filled head doesn't seem to retain a lot of coherent information. Not sure if things blending together is a good or a bad thing, but it often happens when I immerse in my art...

Friday's progress from outside.
Fridays progress from inside - I inserted four pieces of red sandblasted glass I made in the Spring.
Sandblasted (water) glass pieces inserted into the cob over the window.
A Detail of one sandblaster glass piece with a spiral shell form
We started piling up the strawbale wall in the weekend, which is taking time while I am restringing the too loose bales.
A cob (shoe and hat) shelf with a blue bottle at the entrance.

My son was getting restless, so I built him a quick teepee around one of the birch trees, with a view to the building site.
Jani planning the doorframe.
Our neighbour, Jani, came to the rescue once more, and swiftly built me a doorframe in few hours from bits and pieces we and he had. I am very grateful for his help, and it feels great to 'step inside' my cottage, even though like most men, he was struggling to make 'wonky' (but I think he's enjoying the process of allowing it to happen) :) My job is now to cob an arch over the doorway and attach some natural wood forms onto the uprights to make it all look more organic. Notable maybe is that the door height will be about 170cm, which is tall enough for me, children, childminded adults and hobbits. And that's about the only kinds of beings, who are allowed in this building. :)

Carla reached the ceiling height with 'cobwood' part of the wall on Sunday, so she is now cobbing other parts of the cottage. This is the internal view from the cottage this morning. At the background there is also a glimpse of my brand new doorframe.

Last progress photo from 'behind' the cottage, taken last night - my father was working on a wooden window frame for the strawbale wall as well as attaching wooden stakes into the rows of bales with me. I am struggling to get six rows of bales on top of each other, so may have to settle for five and figure out how to fill the top gap later - yes, the joys of making the eaves all wonky and different angles. I can only blame myself... but hey, I am not blaming!

This is the way the cottage looks at the moment. Carla started cob plastering the earthbags in the front and adding some more cob over the windows. On the other side of the cottage I have started building the base for an experimental cob/pizza oven which will sit inside the wall and have an opening only to the outside. Continuing with this, is my task for tomorrow, along with building up the strawbale wall, which needs to be finished for plastering, ideally as soon as possible. As usual, after a day off, I am itching to get my hands muddy again - I leave you with a photo from Monday that Beez took of me outside the cottage. Until next week. x

Wednesday, 8 August 2012

Art - at last!

In the last week, I have been mainly building up the cob walls, both the cordwood cob part, as well as the cob entrance on both sides. Because of the wooden logs used, the progress with the cordwood cob wall has been quickest and is now missing only about 40cm at the top and the last few logs from the actual design. Somehow I just started to run out of steam and ladder height about a week ago while building it and was desperate to do something else. In fact that something else was why I fell in love with this project in the first place: art! That is not to say designing and building in itself isn't creative, because it is; imagination, intuition and planning is required with most tasks to do with this build - but - some sort of magical, childlike and immediate joy of creating shapes, forms, stories - with cob, the magical material - was still gravely missing from all the fun!

Cordwood cob wall, windows and the cob tree design.

Natural builder Paul Lynch from Inkoo came round last Thursday to bring me some heavy-duty baling twine in order for me to crack on with the re-baling. We also talked about the technical aspects of the build and I got a bunch of tips from him on how to proceed with the strawbalewall. Sometimes it actually helps to talk to a person, who has some real life building experience, although my experimental approach to this cottage is in many ways something Paul hasn't done in his own work before either. Which for me makes it a bit daunting but also a bit more interesting task - taking the risk of 'learning as I go along' seems to be the name of the game with my little earth dwelling. :)

On Friday a friend came to cob with me for few hours during the day and in the afternoon it started raining, after many days of dry and hot weather. My parents disappeared inside the comforts of their house and I stayed under the tarp with the cob mix next to me. Right, should I keep building the wall or maybe start sculpting? Didn't have to ponder on that question for too long...

Even though it was getting a bit dark, I set to work,grabbed some sticky cob and started forming shapes out of it with my eager fingers, that have been in love with clay for several years by now. Admittedly, cob is a bit different than pure pottery clay but it has a lot of similarities. With the mental image of my magical tree design I started working the now fairly dry surface of the cob wall, first scraping and roughing it, then re-wetting it, and then finally adding my spiral forms of fresh cob intuitively to it. Listening to music and raindrops on the tarp above me, I zoned in to what I love and know best; creating. Art. It was just what the doctor ordered - I felt so happy! :) After several hours, I finally tore myself away and stopped work for the night. But I had started something - even if some bits would fall out (while drying), I had the beginnings of the cob design there. One thought also came to my mind, that maybe this cottage will be called 'Elämän Puu' - Tree of Life. It sounds wonderful in both languages and has many layers of meaning to me. Trees give us life - they definitely have given me life. This cottage has the life of many trees within. The  tree I am sculpting is a metaphor for my appreciation for natural trees as well as the trees of my imagination that twist far and wide, creating new ideas, new pieces of art. Both kinds of trees (the real and the mental) are absolutely crucial for my creative work.

The initial cobbing I did under the tarp in the rain.

This is why I came here really :) - I know I needed the walls first but I suppose I didn't think that decorating and sculpting would come so far down in the list of things needing doing - otherwise I might have been put off... However, I have learnt so much about the structural and technical aspects of the build up to this point, which I didn't even consider to be learning, or, to be that interested in. But, my heart is creative, filled with fuel of imagination, so I am happy I get to do this finally - the decorating now feels like an icing on the cake, and a very tasty one too!

A Cobbed Tree of Life - work in progress from yesterday, with natural stone facade integrated into the design.

Yesterday I started organising the natural stones I had piled up for the stone facade, which I am making to hide the earthbags. Call it fake if you will, but I think it will look nice, and definitely nicer than just putting lime plaster over the earthbags. Although if I run out of stones, that is what I will have to do anyway. But as long as I have enough stones, I will use them to hide the bags and to integrate the stone covered stemwall into the design somehow. When I intially designed the Tree of Life on paper, I was thinking about the Ta Phrom temple in Angkor, Cambodia, which has been taken over by giant trees. There is something really wonderful about this contrast between man and nature, the differences and destruction but also the harmony and beauty of nature. In a way I want to achieve something similar with my cottage; to show my dependency on natural world and materials to make this dwelling but also to integrate those materials with my personal and unique artistic vision. Something that is of and from nature but filtered through my human hands into a unique form. I suppose that is consequently my overall artistic statement too... :)

Ta Phrom temple overtaken by trees  in Cambodia.

Meanwhile, elsewhere: My father had finished the decking on the roof, so he picked up some 150mm wide lumber for the fascia boards, sawed them to size and attached them into the eaves. It is all looking good now and apart from the skylight window, which I am still trying to find as cheaply as possible (but to fit my wonky roof surface), everything is pretty much ready for the installation of a green roof. I even had my large 8x7m plastic sheet with underlay delivered the other day.

I have also been re-stringing my bales, and consequently started the first layer of a strawbale wall, set on a layer of birch bark and a thin layer of cob. I dipped the bottoms of the bales into runny clay and stick them onto the wet cob, with some steel rebar ends buried within that were sticking out from the earthbags (I used rebar instead of barbed wire to attach the rows of bags together). Now, some days after the clay and cob has dried onto the bales, the first row of strawbalewall feels very solid indeed.

Birch-bark layer on the stemwall.
Cob layer on birch bark.
Bales dipped in runny clay and set on the cob.

I ended up using eight bales in the strawbale part of the wall, and after measuring, I may be able to squeeze six bale rows to make the height required. It will be a very tight fit and still be left with a gap at the top of the bales, as the wooden structure with the roof is angled so that it is impossible to fill the wall space snuggly with full bales alone. I also had to learn how to make a half bale with a long 30cm upholstery needle my mother had stacked away from her working days. I added some copper wire into one end of it to make a bigger loop and using the tips Paul gave me, managed to successfully create two halves of bales, which I will be needing on every other row in the wall. Small victories like this always seem like huge victories to me - just like managing to successfully insert the window panes into their frames, that had a week earlier been attached to the cob wall. Sounds pretty mundane to most people but it could have gone very wrong - if the frames had become twisted and distorted - however, I now have functional windows - with glass! :)

Here is how the cottage looks after yesterday.
A local reporter came to do a story about my build, which came out in the local paper in the weekend. The ex prime minister of Finland, Matti Vanhanen, who happens to live very close-by, had read the story and contacted me to say he was interested to come and see the build and volunteer on it (as I had advertised for volunteers). Despite of his busy schedule, he found some time to visit us on Monday evening and we had a nice chat and I could introduce him to my little house, while my loyal cameraman, Mikael, was filming our chat. It is great to see that there is a real interest to natural building projects as well as alternative art even on higher levels :)). I may still see Mr. Vanhanen helping out at my building site before the cottage is finished... until then, the work continues.... tomorrow with the help of an English woman, Carla, by my side. I am now starting to feel this cottage may actually get finished!! :)

The story about my build in the local paper.