Today is Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Barefoot Builder praises cob

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She walks the talk as she lives in a cob house she built on her parents’ 144-acre Birdsong Hollow Farm barely inside Cannon County, about a mile from where the Cannon, DeKalb and Wilson County lines intersect.

Ott recently taught a nine-day workshop, “Building With Cob Off Grid,” near the Cannon County community of Gassaway. She had about 31 adult students from more than five states and three countries.

“I taught and introduced them to each step involved in cob building, from foundation to framing the roof. We did not produce a finished building, but we were able to cover every step,” she said, about the workshop in which the students constructed a small bathhouse at Daffodil Meadow, a Short Mountain retreat center.

The bathhouse stands 12 feet high on the outside and 8 feet high inside with 18-inch-thick walls and six windows. The cob walls consist of approximately 70 percent sand, 25 percent clay and 5 percent straw.

It features a rounded corner which holds a step-down shower and two shed-style rooms that will be heated by a wood-burning stove. The water will be provided from a tank which catches rain water off the roof. The structure rests on a rubble trench foundation and limestone rocks. The wooden floor is pier and beam style, and 2-by-10-inch rafters support the steel roof.

Tools used by the eager-beaver cobbers, besides lots of elbow grease, included a level, modified hand saws, buckets, shovels, pitchforks, gloves and machetes. They labored three hours each morning and three hours each evening with an hour lecture in the afternoons.

“We’ve learned so much as we go along. I can’t imagine doing this from just reading a book,” said Corné Stone of Bethlehem, South Africa, but now living in Inverness, Fla.

“We want to go back to South Africa and build a cob house. The last time I went back to England, I went to Anne Hathaway’s cottage (Hathaway was wife of William Shakespeare). It is a beautiful old wattle-and-daub (an alternate form of cob) building. It‘s very impressive and has been there for centuries,” said workshop participant Narottama Tester, a young man about 30, a native of Hereford, England, now married and living in Gainesville, Fla.

“Hathaway’s cottage is an incredible showpiece of how strong and long-lasting cob is. It has this kind of amazing quiet about it and creates peaceful, tranquil atmosphere. In these small villages there will almost always be one old cob house with a thatched roof. It’s not so much a wow thing there as it is in America, where it is just catching on,” he said.

Tester and his wife plan to build their own cob house in Florida in the next few years.

“A few people can do this. It’s alive, it’s like living history, but it’s contemporary. Like taking the best from the past and making it contemporary,” he said. “We have a blueprint (for a cob house) and look at it every morning and evening. It’s how we want to live, not just make a natural building but grow our own food, the whole lifestyle. It’s such a wholesome way of living with the land and feeling connected to it.”

Those are precisely the words Ott likes to hear. The cob mentor grew up in Pensacola, Fla., where she was home schooled and entered college at 15. (She intends to return to Florida State this fall to complete her degree in sociology.) She got sidetracked by pottery.

“I thought I might want to be a professional potter, and I needed a place to do it,” Ott recalled. “I looked online at buildings and saw you could build a building out of clay very much like you build a pot out of clay.

“In 1999, I took a five-day workshop in Vermont. I found it online and took it and I was absolutely hooked. I built my own pottery studio and met a whole lot of nice people doing it and had a lot of fun. Then Hurricane Ivan came through and wiped out the neighborhood around it. My studio was the only place undamaged,” Ott said.

“Then I went out to Oregon to do a year-long apprenticeship with Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley at the North American School of Natural Building. Evans and Smiley, a husband-and-wife team, are pretty famous. They are the people who pioneered cob in this country.” (Evans and Smiley co-wrote the book The Hand-Sculpted House.)

In 2005, Ott and her family relocated to Cannon County.

“My family is from Middle Tennessee at least five generations back. Even though I never lived here before, I knew it was a beautiful place, and after Hurricane Ivan hit Florida, my whole family decided to move north.

“Cob does not rot, grow mold, get eaten by termites or melt in the rain, but it needs a good roof and wide eaves,” Ott said, returning to her favorite topic.

“The walls are coved with a clay or lime or gypsum plaster and look like any other wall. The only difference is where you have windows and doors, there are very thick window sills.”

One of the great assets of a cob house is that it stays cool in summer and warm in winter.

“Cob is not actually well insulated, but there are other ways to achieve a stable temperature. What cob makes use of is the principle called thermal mass. The walls absorb heat all day long from the sun and never make it all the way inside, and at night it radiates heat back off,” Ott said. “In winter, the sun comes in through the windows and heats from the inside. On winter nights, the walls heat the building. The cob walls act like a battery for heat. They store it and release it over time.

“My cob house does have an air conditioner, but I rarely need it. The house usually is 20 to 15 degrees cooler than outside in summer. It has a very different feel that is hard to describe. It feels solid. There is a real sense of calm in a cob house, and the walls are slightly curved too, so it is sort of a more natural and comfortable space to be in,” she said.

As for what it costs to build a house of cob, Ott answers, “It depends a lot on what kind of house. You can build a shack or a mansion. But per square foot it is about the same as a conventional house if you hire someone else to build it. If you do all the labor yourself, you can save a lot of money and make it almost free.

“There are a few historic examples, but it is not a common building method here because lumber has been so easily available. I think it is becoming a lot more popular now, because with cob you can add a lot of architectural details that are harder to do with conventional buildings, and it is much easier to learn,” said the very hands-on instructor and businesswoman who runs Barefoot Builder.

Writer Ken Beck may be contacted at

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