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Building with Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide

Building with Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide

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by Adam Weismann, Katy Bryce

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With detailed illustrations and photos, this manual features step-by-step instructions for creating cob structures. Information on natural finishes is provided, including lime plasters, renders and washes, homemade clay and casein paints, and earthen plasters. It details how to construct a cob building that complies with modern building standards, and gives


With detailed illustrations and photos, this manual features step-by-step instructions for creating cob structures. Information on natural finishes is provided, including lime plasters, renders and washes, homemade clay and casein paints, and earthen plasters. It details how to construct a cob building that complies with modern building standards, and gives guidance on restoring and repairing old cob structures. A comprehensive list of resources and suppliers is also included.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

“This has got to be the most practical and beautifully illustrated books on earth building ever published!”  —Keith Hall, editor, Building for a Future magazine

Product Details

UIT Cambridge
Publication date:
Sustainable Building Series
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
8.00(w) x 10.00(h) x 0.70(d)

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Building with cob

A Step-by-Step Guide

By Adam Weismann, Katy Bryce, Ray Main

Green Books Ltd

Copyright © 2010 Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-907448-27-0


Earth building around the world

Vernacular buildings record lifestyles of the past, when people had to find a sustainable way of life or perish. Just as we will have to now. The new importance of vernacular building is that it has vital ecological lessons for today.

David Pearson, Earth & Spirit

vernacular traditions and natural building

Mud has been used to create dwellings and structures since human beings first created shelter 10,000 years ago. It can be found in the simple shelters made of woven sticks covered in clay, the remains of which were discovered on the Nile Delta in Africa from 5,000 BC, to the rammed earth sections of the great wall of China, the majestic mud brick mosques of Djenne and Mopti in Mali, and the humble cob cottages of the British Isles. And before this, humans must have watched and learned from the swallows who weave their nests out of twigs held together by mud, and the termites who create huge mounds out of particles of earth piled delicately on top of each other.

The people making these buildings were (and in some societies continue to be) the children, women and men of the rural communities around the world. They were also the finest craftspeople of the world's most ancient civilisations, as well as the peasant tenant farmers of pre-industrial Europe. Mud has always been, and continues to be, the most available, democratic and adaptive building material on the planet.

Vernacular building practices around the world

"Quietly and almost without notice, they outwit the might of modern machinery with simple tools and materials that welcome, encourage, and amplify the use of the human hand." Bill and Athena Steen and Eiko Komatsu, Built By Hand: Vernacular Buildings Around the World.

Earth has predominantly been used for building by the indigenous peoples of the world, who live in pre-industrial societies, who work and live off of the land, and have little or no access to our so-called 'modern' technologies. Vernacular building techniques are used for the homes of ordinary people.

They are designed and built by the people who live in them, using the natural resources available locally, and using simple hand tools and a low-tech approach. They are designed to respond intimately to the local site on which they are built, and serve as an expression of the community's and the individual's cultural and social human needs. As Hughes and North said in 1908, regarding the vernacular buildings of Wales: "Just as the many-branched Welsh oaks are peculiar to the principality, so are these buildings the natural product of the country, the true growth as it were of the soil, and show as clearly as any written history the development of the life of the people." – Eurwyn William, Home-made Homes: Dwellings of the rural poor in Wales.

Vernacular buildings can be thought of as the equivalent to folk speech, local dialects, folk art and folk music – they are unique, specific, and their beauty lies in their simplicity, functionality, humility, and the fact that they respond intricately to the world in which people live. Much of modern housing – often necessarily erected hastily, as a response to the need to house an ever-increasing population – is lacking in this sensitivity. Often it would seem that modern developments are the product of visions created by designers and architects, who act on theories about how they perceive people should live. This can be seen in the tenement high-rises that were erected in the 1960s and 70s. They were born out of a social housing theory which, as everyone can now see from the ghettoes of the inner cities, was horribly wide of the mark.

30% of the world's population live in homes built of earth

50% of the population of 'developing' countries live in earth buildings

Vernacular buildings are literally made by hand. Their beauty lies in their imperfections, irregularities, specific nuances and idiosyncrasies. It is ironic that most vernacular buildings, in which we find so much beauty, have often been made by people who have little money, no specialist knowledge, and who are simply striving to create shelter and protection from the elements with what materials they have got.

Most of the features that we find so desirable and beautiful in vernacular buildings, and that we strive to imitate in many modern 'designed' buildings, were born out of practicality and inherent common sense. Vernacular buildings are generally extremely efficient, and no feature emerges that does not serve a function – there was no room for embellishment.

We respond so deeply and positively to these features because we can feel and see the understanding that their creators had of the materials used and the environment in which they were building. It is ironic also that we now look to these buildings as models of 'green' practice in everything from siting, design, materials and methods. We have come full circle, and can begin to re-learn all that we have forgotten.

Earthen vernacular building in the UK, and the effects of the industrial revolution

"Probably indeed there is no county in the (United) Kingdom that has not considerable areas where the soil would, if tried, prove well adapted to cob building." Clough Williams-Ellis, Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay.

The simple labourer's cottage could be said to be Britain's indigenous, vernacular building. It was always built with materials specific to the region, but was predominantly made out of stone and mud from the fields to make up the foundations and walls. Local trees were used for the roof timbers, and the grasses and reeds from the surrounding area for the thatch roof. It was generally built by its owner with the help of the pooled labour resources of the community, which comprised the poor, rural workforce that served the local estate, owned by the landed gentry. These made up the homes of the ordinary people in pre-industrial Britain.

The onset of the Industrial Revolution in the 1800s brought dramatic changes to all aspects of life. These directly affected how, where, and with what materials the homes of the 'ordinary' people were created. It brought about the beginning of the decline of vernacular building practices, and the onset of mass-produced housing. The Industrial Revolution created new factories in cities. They produced the standardised, machinemade and pre-fabricated materials that were used for all aspects of life, including buildings.

"Their pictures tell the story of a disappearing world of buildings that have been constructed by ordinary people who as builders and homesteaders have given artistic, modest, and sensible form to their daily needs and dreams. Sometimes accidental, often asymmetrical, and utilising materials that are naturally close at hand, these buildings, with their moulded curves and softened lines, convey a personal and human beauty."

Athena and Bill Steene and Eiko Komatsu, Built by Hand: Vernacular Buildings around the World

These factories provided a draw for much of the rural workforce; people moved from the country to the city in search of perceived improved living conditions and a hope for financial gains. The new factory workforce was provided with housing by the industrialists, which was pre-built using the new industrial materials such as brick, steel, and cement. These mass-produced houses consisted of back-to-back, identical structures that lacked the regional idiosyncrasies and individuality of the vernacular buildings. Artificial communities were created, and the rhythms of nature disrupted. Here began the decline of the owner-built home, and the ability of people to provide for themselves in all aspects of life. A new generation of specialists rapidly emerged, who began to lose touch with the well-rounded skills and practices of the generation before them. A new model of progress began to consume people's lives. Consequently, earth building in pre-industrial Britain began to fall out of favour. People began to have higher economic expectations, and the concept of modern architecture was born. A new set of social rules was established which gave way to style and fashion over pragmatism, and appearance over practicality.

Earth as a building material began to be considered as inferior, and the product of poverty. It fell out of fashion due to social reorganisation – not because it was less durable than the new modern materials.

Earth building as a solution to providing sustainable and environmentally sensitive building methods around the world

We are now more than 100 years on from the Industrial Revolution, and as a society find ourselves far from the practice of the vernacular building tradition of the pre-industrial era. The housing industry, with its highly processed, modern materials, now contributes to around 50% of all pollution in the world, and cement processing alone creates 8% of total greenhouse gases. The structure of society too has changed dramatically, and the once common practice of building your own home has all but disappeared amongst the majority of people living in the 'industrialised' world.

We live in a world of consumer abundance, and our inclination to be resourceful like the people who lived and continue to live off the land, has been temporarily eroded from our psyche. The changes that began to take place with the Industrial Revolution gained such rapid momentum and lulled us into such a false sense of 'progress' that we forgot to notice how deeply out of balance it was causing our planet to become.

The majority of processed building materials produce huge amounts of pollution at all stages of their production and life. Precious energy such as fossil fuels is consumed in vast quantities during their extraction, manufacturing, transportation and disposal. Their effects on the health of those who produce, install and live with these materials is being felt, as well as on the beautiful living creatures who have to deal with the toxic wastes that flood into the waterways, and seep into the earth.

A new generation is now emerging, of people who are engaged in a global search for alternatives and solutions to the state we find ourselves in; and these solutions are not proving hard to find. Some of these solutions can be seen in the buildings of the past, the structures of the still-existing rural tribes and communities around the world. They are in the very ground beneath our feet, and the grasses blowing in the wind, the sun that warms us, and the hands and feet that we are born with. Sometimes, the simplest solutions can be the hardest to fathom.

Earth building, along with other natural building techniques, is once again being noticed and valued as a practical and life-enhancing solution to the state we find ourselves in. Clay is a healer on all levels. It can heal physical trauma as a receiver of toxins, and can address all levels of society – the academic can analyse it, the scientist and engineer can test it, the poet can lyricise about it, and the child, woman and man can hold it in their hands and build their own home together, to suit their needs, to enjoy for a lifetime.

Imagine a building material that can be dug from or near the site; needs only the addition of locally grown straw, locally sourced aggregate and water; can be mixed with your feet and built with your hands. And when the building is no longer needed, it can fall to the ground, ready to be re-used by the next generation of natural builders. This is cob.

The case for natural building and a whole systems approach

If we look to our past to inform our future, we can begin to appreciate and be inspired by the values and practices of our vernacular inheritance. Our pre-industrial ancestors were comes to building. But nature and people are dynamic, and we accept that we live in a very different world from how it was 150 years ago. Society is structured very differently, and it is impossible to deny the impact that the luxury of choice has on the decisions that we make. Thus, we do not advocate the return to an idealised and romanticised past, but we can adapt and improve the best practices that can help enhance our quality of life and lessen the load on our ailing planet. To simply try to rehash the past would be to miss the point altogether. Christopher Alexander, architect and author, talks about what makes a building alive or dead, and the conclusion that he models of efficiency and resourcefulness, and in a time of dwindling resources and planetary poisoning we can begin to study and utilise many of their practices, especially when it draws is that the buildings that are alive and feel good are those that "... are adapted, deeply, to land and to people ... for it is not style that makes a building living or dead, but the freshness of its response to its surroundings." [Christopher Alexander, The Nature of Order]. We are therefore far from suggesting that imitating the cob cottages of the 1800s is the only desirable way to build. We are proposing a whole systems approach to building, which can be found within the principles of natural building, a movement that is gaining in popularity around the world.

"We are seeking, learning, dreaming of the simplest and most beautiful form of human shelter made by human hands from the mother earth."

Nader Khalili, architect and earth builder Natural building involves not just what materials you build with, but how, where, and why. As natural builders, we are interested in both environmental and social sustainability. Central to the movement are many of the defining characteristics that we have discussed in regard to vernacular building practices, only this time we have made the decision to choose these elements, whereas our forebears had no other options. These elements include:

• An emphasis on the minimisation of the environmental impact of the building materials, practices and the building itself.

• A simple, low-tech approach wherever possible.

• A simple, low-tech approach wherever possible.

• The nurturing of a broad range of skills instead of specialist knowledge in just one area of building.

• The use of as many locally available and renewable resources as possible.

• A respect of the local environment on which the building is sited, and a unique and regional design that corresponds to this.

• The encouragement of the owner-built house.

• The use of predominantly natural building materials, i.e. those that have not been industrially processed, such as stone, mud, straw, and wood.

Out of these will emerge a natural house that is comfortable to live in, healthy, beautiful, and life-enhancing – more than just shelter. Out of the natural building and whole systems approach come benefits for the planet and for people. A reduction in the contribution to pollution is high on the list of positives, and so also are the benefits it can have on human health for the builders and for those living in the buildings.

With natural materials it is possible to avoid the chemicals that are now commonplace in most building products, such as formaldehyde, glues and fibreglass products that can create cancers and chronic respiratory disorders. Also, the positive psychological impact of living in a natural home is derived from our response to the textures, shapes, irregularities and beauty inherent in the materials such as cob, lime, straw bale, thatch and timber. Finally, participating in the creation of your own home and with your friends, neighbours and community, no matter at what level, whether you are cooking sumptuous feasts to sustain the workforce or stomping cob, is incredibly empowering. To have handled and known every piece of a building, and to understand how all these pieces fit together, is about getting back in touch with our ability to provide for our families and ourselves. In this way, cob and natural building can begin to subtly and powerfully enhance ourselves, society and hence the world.


Excerpted from Building with cob by Adam Weismann, Katy Bryce, Ray Main. Copyright © 2010 Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce work with lime and clay on a daily basis through their company, Cob in Cornwall. They learned these skills through restoring ancient vernacular buildings in Cornwall, and then began to apply the traditional techniques and materials to contemporary eco builds. They are the authors of Using Natural Finishes: A Step-by-Step Guide.

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Building with Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide 3.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Building with Cob is a very inspiring how to book. It thoughtfully and clearly guides the reader through every aspect of building with a most sustainable resource, cob. The stunning photos of cob structures from ancient times to the present illuminate this beautiful book. It's a treasure!
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