I cannot remember the exact moment when I first learned about cob. I do know that when I came across a description of a building material composed of sand, straw and clay, all my senses took notice.
I can still feel the sense of anticipation, of being about to quench a deep thirst, as I began to contemplate the possibilities of cob in my life. That thirst was a desire to build, and was something that had been only partially quenched in all those years of helping my dad build our house, or of doing sewing projects on my own.
As I realized the malleability of cob, I understood then that I had been missing the ability to sculpt and mold, to shape, consider, and shape again, until the creation felt right. I also understood the subversive nature of using the very dirt beneath my feet to build, leaving me beholden to no one for my shelter besides the earth herself. Only a generation before, those in my family had been intimately connected to the earth, digging in the dirt to grow their food, and living in houses made of sod. I could feel the re-enlivening of my connection to my immediate history and to my history as a human being. This sense continues to grow.
My first couple of projects were done mostly solo, allowing me to understand the breadth of work and organization involved. It quickly became clear to me, however, that cob was something best done with friends, and was ideally suited as a medium for community engagement. Research showed me that it was being used all over
North America in this way, and that there were plenty of models I could follow.
It is my incredible good luck to live down the street from
First I set about winning over the park’s advocate, Jutta Mason, with drawings and descriptions, as well as with inspiring pictures of cob walls, benches and houses that I had seen on the web. She suggested that I may have lost my toque if I thought that I could entice a hundred people to come and work for free, squishing mud with their feet to build something they didn’t even own. Two hundred, I assured her, with bravado. Cob in the Park was born.
Once we had completed the process of gaining permissions, we got to work. I designed the wall in broad terms, set the footprint, and started amassing materials. Our first foundation dig attracted thirty enthusiastic people, many of whom kept coming back until the rubble trench was laid and the urbanite foundation puzzled together and mortared. Several core volunteers emerged as well, guiding aspects of the project and offering me extra help where necessary. I also had recreation department staff support: one person helped me direct the build; and another minded the children of any adult who wanted to help out, but whose children did not. That included my children, who quickly tired of cob but who enjoyed playing in the playground, wearing the yellow t-shirts that signified them as cob kids.
A sandwich board advertising free, ongoing, no fee, no sign up, no commitment earthen building workshops was out most days and most daylight hours. The wall rose steadily, taking the general shape I had forecast, but influenced and enhanced by the individual wishes and interests of workshop participants. Each day, more people came, eventually counting more than 500 attendees. Even the plumbers and electricians, used to straight lines, studs and drywall, seemed beguiled by the project, and we made good friends of several of them.
While we were working, I’d often pause to hear the sounds of cob construction: laughter, silence, conversation, more laughter. It was the sound of a community inventing itself, through the quiet, shared work of cobbing. That they could hear each other and not be drowned out in the din of saws and hammers was, to me, revolutionary. That they could all be involved in building, regardless of age, size, ability, amount of free time or cash flow, was subversive in the best way. That all these people could now imagine creating their own shelter from the dirt beneath them, with their own hands and feet, was the best gift I could ever offer them. Sharing this knowledge and work was, with the exception of having children, surely the single most soul-nurturing experience of my life to date.
By the time the summer ended, the kitchen and baby-changing stations were operational. The cooking fireplace was a smoky work of art, the green roof was sprouting barley, the cedar shakes were installed, and the mosaics and lime plaster were completed. With the project wrapped up and the celebration party over, I cried often, and skulked around the wall until it snowed, finishing off details and inventing things to do while my kids played in the park.
The next year, Cob in the Park started a new project in the park: a composting toilet that would provide much needed toilet facilities to the children’s playground. Sheltered by a cob building with an earthbag foundation, the toilet would convert human waste into valuable compost for use on the park’s many ornamental gardens. Permissions were obtained and construction started, using the same principles of free, open participation as before. However, some neighbours were determined that there be no more earthen building in the park, much less something as scandalous as a composting toilet. Their complaints delayed the project and halted its progress by the end of summer 2006. More money has now been spent on architects and engineers than will be spent to build the structure, but I remain determined to finish the project, thereby dragging
kicking and screaming towards a slightly more sustainable future. Toronto
To keep our spirits up, much to the annoyance of the afore-mentioned neighbours, Cob in the Park has led the creation of a number of benches in the park, enlisting school children in what has been described as “the best field trip ever”. (Making their own pizza at the bread ovens was included in the trip, which might have something to do with the enthusiasm as well.)
We are also supporting the creation of cob structures in other parts of the city, lending our expertise to schools and parks that are trying to make participatory art in their localities. This too, is the subject of pushback, as authorities find reasons to disallow this most ancient but unheard of art forms. But people are resilient, and I am confident that, once they get a taste for working with earth, it will be hard for authorities to dissuade people through simple obfuscation. The earth can wait a long time.