Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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Best Books on… Cob Building (2000)

**The Walnut Books Reviews Page By Rob Hopkins. (2000).** *This was one of a series of Best Books On… which appeared in Earthwatch Magazine. This was pre-The Hand Sculpted House, which really took over from all of these.*

*In this issues Walnut Books page, Rob Hopkins reviews some of the books available from Walnut Books on the subject of cob building (clay wall construction). The books reviewed are; ‘The Cob Builders Handbook’ by Becky Bee, ‘The Cobbers Companion’ by Michael G. Smith, ‘The Natural Home’ by Daniel D. Chiras, ‘Building with Earth’ by John Norton.*

America is an odd place. Such extraordinary extremes. On the one hand it is home to probably the most conservative thinkers in the world and the most resource hungry population on the planet. On the other hand it is also home to the most extraordinarily vibrant and inventive groups of people seeking practical solutions to the problems of our times. Organic gardeners, permaculturalists, home birthers, eco-villagers and natural builders. The whole natural building thing in the States is growing at a pace. Strawbale building has become pretty widespread and has begun to make inroads into the mainstream. Cob building, that is building with earth, is strawbale building’s younger brother, and is also starting to grow.

Cob building is the tradition of building with earth that began in the south-west of England hundreds of years ago, as distinct from the other techniques for building with earth found in other parts of the world; pisé in France, adobe in southern America and South America and rammed earth in Africa and the Middle East. Devon and Cornwall still contain over 50,000 earthen buildings which are still inhabited and are very sought after. Ireland also had a strong tradition of earth building, ‘clay wall’ building it was called here, many buildings still exist, mainly in the midlands, around Dublin and up into Monaghan. It is often seen as a relic from poorer times, when people had to live in ‘mud-huts’. However, earth construction is going through a revival, it is becoming seen as probably the most sustainable building material available, with a stability and strength which allow it to be used to build a 13 storey hotel in Australia! The new solar study centre building at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Wales, one of the ‘greenest’ buildings built so far, features rammed earth walls.

Cob building had all but died out in the UK when a Welshman living in Oregon in the USA decided to use it to build his own house. Using a mixture of traditional techniques and new practices of his own devising he created a beautiful building, and was so enthused by the results that he went on to fine tune the techniques and set up The Cob Cottage Company, which then began training others and building more buildings.

Two of the people trained by the Cob Cottage Company were Becky Bee and Michael Smith, both of whom have gone on to become teacher/builders in their own right. Their books, ‘The Cobber’s Companion’ (Smith) and ‘The Cob Builders Handbook’ (Bee) are, in many ways, very similar. After all, a book about cob building has certain ground to cover and they both cover it. The history of the material, designing the house, site preparation, mixing cob, building with cob and so on, there’s not much scope for anything radically different. Both books stress the practical, how cob ‘feels’, how to deal with problems that arise, basically passing on the wealth of their knowledge. If you want to start building, both books will bring you up to speed and both books have the same strong foundation in the experience of their authors.

If there is a difference between them it is in the writing styles. Bee teaches many women-only workshops and ‘The Cob Builders Handbook’ was initially written as a manual for these workshops, and as such avoids much of the know-all ‘no-actually-it-IS-a-bit-more-complicated-than-you-think’ tone which makes many self build books completely useless to anyone other than professional builders. Bee’s book inspires, it encourages, it nurtures, it constantly assures you to trust what you are doing, “you will soon get a feel for the consistency you’re after