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What is “Cob?”

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Cob Home

Does it ever seem to you like the old solutions are really the best solutions? After years of promoting the use of baby formula, we find that breast milk is healthier. After decades of trans-fats, we discover that natural fats are better. Hanging your clothes out on a line leaves a smaller carbon footprint than using a dryer. Now, after almost every home you see has been stuffed with pink fiberglass, we discover that insulation made from recycled newspaper is more eco-friendly. It’s also more fire-resistant!

mud and strawLet’s consider a very old solution to the problem of finding a cheap, durable, and “green” building material. The solutions is as old as dirt. In fact, it is dirt! More specifically, it is called “cob.” Cob is a mixture of clay, straw, and sand. It’s been around for thousands of years. Have you seen pictures of those cute little cottages in Ireland and parts of continental Europe? They are made out of cob. Some of those have been coated with a white lime mixture to improve resistance to wind erosion. Just scratch those white surfaces and you will discover that those cute little homes are actually made of dirt. Some of them are over 500 years old and look just great.

The construction technique and business model might be something the Lexus-driving real estate agents might have a hard time wrapping their minds around. To make a cob home, you just need earth, loose straw, and some water. Then you and your clients assemble about a dozen or so of their friends and family. Roll up your sleeves and take off your shoes so you can mix the material up with your hands and feet. Add some reggae music. Then scoop up the material into balls called “cobs.” Now you start packing them into shapes like domes or curved walls, window nooks, window seats, built-in wall benches, or anything your imagination can come up with. Make sure you get your windows, wires, and pipes, stuck into the wall, before you get to far. The experience is highly aesthetic, and almost “spiritual” in quality. Instead of listening to power saws and hammers, you can talk and sing! After a week of partying, you will have a house that is sort of something like your ancestors might have lived in. After all, people have lived in dirt wall homes for centuries in places like New Zealand, Africa, Central America, Europe, and just about everywhere.

cob wall
You may have seen a cob home in the movie “Angela’s Ashes.”

Will you have financing issues with your cob home? Probably. Will you have appraisal problems with it? You bet. Re-sale issues? You can count on it. What about problems with local inspectors or codes? Maybe. It’s hard to say. There are cob builders out in the Pacific Northwest that are getting away with it. But I guess this is a chance for the great minds and innovators in the real estate industry to prove their salt. Agents could collect a commission on the lot sale. But how would you charge commission on mud, straw and bare feet? Somehow I don’t expect the NAR to jump all over this idea! It’s hard to imagine agents in my Minneapolis real estate market embracing this either. But I could be wrong. It is interesting to note that relief organizations are helping promote the construction of homes in third-world countries. Apparently, the economic model is not a hindrance in poor countries.

OK, so the business model isn’t quite there yet. But what about the quality of the product? Do they feel damp? People who have lived in cob homes say they feel warm and dry. Are they durable? Yes. As stated before, some of the cob homes in Europe are hundreds of years old. (How long do you think your stick-built split entry will last?) Will they withstand rain? Well, British Columbia and Ireland are rather wet places, wouldn’t you agree? Also, cob construction is seeing a revival right now in rather damp places like Devon, England. There are older cob homes in England that have lasted for hundreds of years without requiring significant repair. If you have wide roof eaves and an impervious foundation, water should not be a problem.

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