Cobbing my cottage

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.


  1. The creativity....the build, the sculpting, the photos, the writing... is incredible. Wonderful, inspiring stuff Heidi. I hope others will be inspired to build their own Earth House according to their own vision.

  2. Thank you Angela - if through my experiences I can inspire anyone to consider the importance of nature in the way they live and maybe build - is wonderful. All while I make my art with heart filled with love, I can't really ask for more.. :)

  3. love your blog :)
    please check out my blog Vegans Living off the land where I discuss gardening, living self-reliant, and building my own cob home @ http://veganslivingofftheland(dot)blogspost(dot)com