The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth September 1, 2019

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

 

Tar Sands Oil Pipelines Update – Restoration Planning at Strawbale Studio May 22, 2014

Site of decomissioned earlier pipeline

Site of decommissioned earlier pipeline; next to where the new pipeline is being dug.

The question of how to respond to events beyond our control, the broader events and decisions that continue shape the world, is an important one. So much destructive and exploitative human activity is taking place (fracking, mountain top mining, tar sands oil) and its hard to respond when we feel so powerless. Its even harder to respond when we know that we are complicit in these events’ creation–by driving cars, heating our homes with gas, and so on, we are shaping the events that take place.

 

The kinds of responses we generate in the face of such events is an issue well worth pursuing.  Each area has its own local challenges, my area being no exception. As I’ve discussed on this blog before, the area in South-East Michigan where I live (less than 3 miles north of my house) has a tar sands oil pipeline being put in (this line is an alternative to Keystone XL, which has generated substantial attention in the media).  While there is nothing that the citizens can do here to prevent the pipeline from being completed due to the history of this particular pipeline and previous permission being granted, we can certainly decide how we respond, how we work with the land, and what we do after the pipeline crews leave.  How we choose to respond can shape conversations about these activities for decades to come, and can demonstrate that there are many ways to work with the land and address change.

 

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Pipeline site (where trees used to be)

Last fall, I discussed the Enbridge Oil Pipeline digging project that was going through my good friend Deanne’s land at Strawbale Studio. In the fall, I went and worked with the trees and documented what was happening on her land.  At this point, the land has been cleared for the crews, and the pipeline will be dug within the next few weeks.  Those of us involved with Strawbale Studio been thinking about what to do when the crews leave, how we might encourage sustainable thinking and practices.

 

Last night, 35 members of the Oakland County Permaculture Meetup spent time looking at the site in its current form and brainstorming ideas for restoration once the pipeline project is done. I wanted to post an update about some of our ideas and suggestions to A) document the progress of this project and our response and B) share the ideas if others are facing a similar challenge in their communities.

Exploring Strawbale Studio

Exploring Strawbale Studio

 

We began with a tour of the Strawbale Studio property, ending at the pipeline.  Using principles of permaculture design (observe and interact) we examined the site, explored the margins, noted the existing flows of energy (like a wetland area on the western part of the pipeline and a rising slope on the eastern part of the pipeline).  Deanne also pointed out the existing resources, including a huge pile of mulched wood chips from the trees that were cut (which will likely become a compost water heater in the fall) and numerous logs and stone piles which could be used for various natural building projects. After reviewing the site, we went back to the house for discussion about possibilities. We also noted the distance from the house (about a 3-5 min walk) and noted the severity of last winter would mean that the site might not be accessible year round.  We also noted which areas needed to remain clear of large trees (where the pipeline is) and which areas could be “anything goes” areas (the staging areas where they cleared to have their equipment move in and out around the area where the pipeline is being dug).

 

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Permaculture Meetup members at the Oil Pipeline Site

Its incredible what happens when you get 35 people in a room who want to make change.  We came up with a number of good and worthy suggestions–short term and long term. I’m not sure yet which ones we’ll decide to move forward with, but I think a number of these are worthy of consideration.

 

Short term suggestions:

Our short term suggestions focused on the immediate needs to restore the land and how to make use of any resources the pipeline company might be willing to provide:

  • Seeing if the construction crews would create swales for water trapping and the like, be willing to shape the landscape so we could more effectively catch and store energy (this would be a first response)
  • Seeing what kinds of resources for restoration the company offers (they are required to offer some, based on Michigan Department of Natural Resources and EPA guidelines).
  • Once the crews leave, we need to immediately get something immediately planted in the bare soil to help restore the land and rebuild the soil ecology.  Ideas ranged from  a cover crop of rye, clover, alfalfa to something with a tap root.  This suggestion is particularly important because the soil ecology has been largely destroyed and now the soil will have substantial amounts of compaction due to the heavy machinery going over the site.  A tap rooted crop will help break up compaction and add nitrogen and other minerals back into the soil.

These three areas are the first we will address in the action plan.  Once we see what resources we have, what, if anything, we can do to shape the land, and how to get something in the soil to restore it, the longer-term projects can get underway.

 

Group discussion indoors about site

Group discussion indoors about site

Long-Term Potential Projects:

The long-term projects ranged substantially, and many have a lot of merit!  Which projects end up taking place depends on the community, the resources, and Deanne’s vision for the site.

  • A camping area (perhaps combined with a yearly gathering) where interns or visitors can camp.
  • A pollinator sanctuary with native wild grasses, plants, flowers, etc., as well as beehives for honey and a cob beehive for wild bees (like mason bees).  We like this idea a lot because it doesn’t require a lot of daily maintenance (like animals would, see below), and it contributes back to the land.
  • The use of the land for natural building materials for other strawbale projects–establishing trees for coppicing (hazels, willows), perhaps other materials
  • Some kind of co-op: wine/grapes, orchard/fruit; goat/sheep; chicken/egg; or herbs.  The idea is that the community would contribute to the work of the co-op and reap some of the rewards.
  • An education area for children/school groups to come and learn about energy and restoration–it would have signs about oil pipelines, what was done and how the oil is used, encouraging reduction of fossil fuel use and teaching about sustainability (this could be done with any number of our ideas)
  • Orchards of fruit and nut trees (Hazels and Apples were specifically discussed)
  • A grazing area for chickens, goats, horses, or the like (we decided that if this were to be, someone would need to be down there in a little cob building as a caretaker!)
  • Alfalfa as a cash crop that can be baled and sold to nearby farmers (to bring in steady income for other projects)

These are just some of the ideas the community came up with.  This was a wonderful meeting, to see so many people invested in planning for the future, in reclaiming the land and in working to put something in that encourages a different worldview.

 

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Deanne at the planning board taking notes

Final Thoughts

Throughout our country and world, there are a lot of bad things being done to the land in pursuit of cheap fossil fuel energy.  Any of us who participates in modern consumerist society (myself included) is contributing to the problem of the exploitation of our lands for oil.  And most of us live near some kind of activity–from mountaintop removal to fracking to oil pipelines (and many of us live in areas were multiple kinds of activity are taking place).

 

While we can reduce our fossil fuel use and look for alternatives (as many of us are doing), how we respond to these kinds of issues, especially when we are directly confronted with them can empower us and bring about broader change in the world.  That we will turn the oil pipeline site into a sustainable, model site for other kind of restorative work is empowering–and its something we *have* the power to do, while stopping the oil pipeline is something that we really don’t have the power to do (this one was leased in the 1960’s, so its a done deal as far as any of us can tell).  I’d be interested in hearing of any other communities’ responses to these kinds of issues.

 

Strawbale Studio and Tar Sands Oil Pipelines – The Clash of Worldviews, Part I October 17, 2013

Staked out pipeline

Staked out pipeline

As I’ve discussed a few times on this blog, we have an oil pipeline going through our immediate area in South East Michigan. The first “phase” of the project went 1/2 mile north of my home in 2012-2013. This was “Line 6B, phase I” according to Enbridge’s site, and was an upgrade/replacement project for one that they originally put in in the 1960’s to send oil from Canada to refineries in Michigan, Ohio, and Indiana. The 2nd phase of the project began a few months ago and will continue into 2013-2014; it will create a new, much higher volume pipeline and decommission the old pipeline currently in that area. One of my goals with this blog, as I have done in the past, is to document such issues and their spiritual and environmental consequences (and long-term readers might recall my coverage of some North Dakota fracking last year).  I’m going to start with an overview about the larger oil pipeline and some environmental consequences–then I’ll get into details about how its affecting one local place, Strawbale Studio.

Tar Sands Oil and Environmental Impacts: This is a short (5 minute) video that provides a good overview of the pipeline in the Great Lakes region, specifically, at Mackinac Bridge (where it crosses the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan).  Mackinac is about 4 hours north of here. Its worth the watch:

 

 

I also have mentioned in an earlier post that this same pipeline was responsible for the Kalamazoo Oil spill in 2010, which put somewhere around 1 million gallons of oil into the Kalamzoo river. The pipeline spill is still not entirely cleaned up and just a few months ago the EPA ordered Enbridge back to clean up more of the oil still in the river and surrounding areas. Given Enbridge’s history of environmental ethics in this state, the fact that they are making a larger volume pipeline now is particularly concerning.  One of my colleagues, who has the Line 6B coming through his property on my road, has been blogging about a lot of this at his Line 6B Blog.

 

Also of concern is the source of the oil–the Alberta (Canada) oil sands. This oil sands methods of extraction are particularly damaging to the peat bogs and boreal forests that make up much of Alberta. Water usage, and the release of oil-tainted water, very harmful to wildlife, occurs with tar sands oil extraction. Substantial carbon dioxide emissions are also on the rise (which have increased Canada’s emissions in the last 20 years rather than decreasing them, as per the Kyoto Protocol). In all, these oil sands, and the resulting pipelines, represent serious environmental and ethical challenges.

 

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Enbridge Workers (out of state plates)

Going after tar sands oil is an indicator of the fact that oil is a finite and quickly depleting resource, past its peak of production.  Companies wouldn’t have considered mining these patches for oil years ago when other oil fields were still easy to access and full of oil.  These tar sands oil fields are now mined, despite their environmental consequences, because few other options exist to keep oil flowing at the rate of demand. The energy returned on investment (EROI) on tar sands oil is somewhere between 2.9 to 5.1 by more liberal estimates (so for every 1 energy unit we put into the process of mining, we extract 2.9-5.1 units of oil). (Some have suggested its closer to 1:1 if one considers the whole lifecycle of the production of tar sands oil, and things like the upkeep of pipelines). Compare this to conventional oil fields, which today offer a 25:1 EROI (fields of years past offered much higher EROI). In other words, this tar sands oil cruising through pipelines in South East Michigan isn’t even worth much investing in from an EROI, even if one were to overlook the substantial environmental impacts.

One example of strawbale studio's work!  Here is a living roof/wood shed

One example of strawbale studio’s work! Here is a living roof/wood shed

Strawbale Studio in the path…..Back to the matter at hand. Endbridge is now moving onto their 2nd phase of the pipeline project, and this is very unfortunately intersecting with a place near and dear to my heart–Strawbale Studio and Sustainable Living Center (run by Deanne Bednar). Strawbale Studio is a place that, from a sustainability perspective, is doing everything right: teaching and empowering people who want to learn how to live more sustainably, building community, and sharing skills. I’ve been honored to take numerous workshops there and have learned a great deal of information on more sustainable living skills, such as cob building and artwork, strawbale construction and natural building, growing mushrooms, barn raising, rocket stoves, composting, food preservation, candle making, and so much more.  I’ve also been excited to meet so many people from around the world who are interning or taking classes at Strawbale Studio.

Another example of Strawbale Studio's work - A composting toilet!

Another example of Strawbale Studio’s work – A spiral chamber!

On the back part of the Strawbale Studio property spans the old oil pipeline that Enbridge built in the 1960’s; now they are decommissioning the old line and destroying more land for their larger, new pipeline.  A few months ago, we got the word that Enbridge would be clearing the trees near the existing pipeline–about 80 or so feet of trees, 4 acres long. They also required Deanne to dismantle one of the natural buildings that was nearly finished–it was an amazing, quirky guest house. I hate to think how many thousands of hours of labor went into building that guest house.

 

A few weeks ago, Deanne got word that the tree clearing would be occurring at a rate of 1 mile per day, and that it would be occurring soon at Strawbale Studio. I went out to the property to honor the trees and document what was occurring before the crews were to come through. Here are some photos of this patch of lovely forest, thick with many kinds of sacred trees and plants: hawthorn, apple, oak, maple, cherry, brambles, and so much more.

Guest house taken down before logging

Guest house taken down by volunteers before logging

Tree line happy and vibrant

Tree line happy and vibrant; these trees are all gone now

Path through the woods

Path through the woods; most of these trees are gone too

Hawthorn and Apple

Hawthorn and Apple; these trees are no more

I must say, that this was one of the hardest visits I ever had made to a forest.  Why? Because I knew it was doomed and had no hope of survival.  Nothing that any of us could do would permanently stop the great wave of oil that would wash through its path. The trees knew it was coming and had already accepted their fate with a dignity that few humans can ever achieve. They waved at me in the gentle breeze, knowing that they were experiencing their last sunsets, their last ever fall equinox.  When I arrived, I immediately noticed that the workers, in marking up their areas for clearing, had knocked over a small living hawthorn tree, a very sacred tree; we gathered up the berries and will dry them and use them this winter.

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

Hawthorn torn down to make path for workers

There is another part to this visit though, the darker part.  This visit was also very hard because I drove there, using fossil fuels that very well could have been extracted and sent down that same pipeline, and I was contributing to the problem even in order to make my visit.  The contradictions were rooted deep within me as I spent time there with the trees.  I’ve been seriously reading on how to reduce my dependence on fossil fuels in an efficient and cost-effective way, but I haven’t yet come up with a solution that I can afford and enact.  So knowing that I was using the oil that is driving this project was particularly difficult.

 

Enbridge clear cuts: A week and a half later, Enbridge did their initial “clearing” of the trees in order to make room for their pipeline. We weren’t sure when exactly was happening when (Deanne was out of town) but when I came back later that week, I was able to document what had occurred this far. Here are a number of photos:

Former oak

Former oak

Machinery clearing "brush"

Machinery clearing “brush”

Former life....

Former life….

Trailer tracks

Trailer tracks

Devastation

Devastation where life once stood

Giant pile of brush

Giant pile of brush

Patch of cleared land

Patch of cleared land with stumps and logs

Where do we go from here? There are ways to be reactive to what is happening and there are ways to be proactive.  This is not just the story just of destruction.  I’ll continue to document what is happening at Strawbale Studio, and talk to some of the people there about the “clash of worldviews” as I am calling it; the sustainable living skills that are attempting to be taught while the heavy machinery rolls ever onward and oil pipeline is built within earshot of our workshops.

 

What this story will hopefully be, however, is a story of what we do with this space after they clear out.  How this space is transformed into something new; how the wood is used, how the land is regrown, and how we all grow in the process.  As they continue to put this pipeline in for the next year or so–and as we brainstorm our next moves in producing something amazing in this space that has now seen such suffering. I hope you’ll follow us and see what happens next.

 

Barn Raisings: Building Sustainable Structures and Communities of the Future July 23, 2013

I’ve been blogging a lot about sustainability and community–and this is for good reason. I’ve come to understand, as I worked my way through the AODA’s 3rd degree (where I investigated the relationship of druidry as a spiritual practice and sustainability, much of which I talked about on this blog), that community is a critical part of sustainability and that efforts in community building are critical to the success of such efforts.  I talked about this a bit with regards to our Oakland County Permaculture Meetup; but I also wanted to talk about it in relationship to natural building and creating the sustainable structures of the future today.

 

When I was a child, I spent a lot of time reading and re-reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder books.  In those books, I was struck by her descriptions of things like “barn raising” and “community roofing” but never quite had a sense of what it would be like (as very few children growing up in the latter part of the 20th century would know).  When our own family home was built at the age of seven, we hired contractors out to do the work, and came in nearly every day to check in on their progress.  But after being exposed to natural building through the Strawbale Studio, I started understanding more about what these old processes used to be like–and how transformative and powerful they can be.

 

Let’s start with the first natural building project I was able to take part in, a rocket stove, built at Strawbale Studio through the rocket stove workshop. Each time I visit there now, I see that stove and think about the 4 of us who had the pleasure of designing and building it. I feel like I’ve contributed to something important, something that my friend Deanne and her many interns and visitors now get use out of.

 

The same is true of my garden fence.  When I called in two friends to help me put up the fence, and later dig a trench around it and sink in chicken wire to keep out the woodchucks, the fence takes on new meaning because it was done with the help of friends.  That fence continues to protect my veggies each day, and now, it also contains my two new chickens who are too young to be in my main flock.

 

A friend of mine recently hosted a timber framing workshop.  They didn’t get as far as they wanted to get during the workshop, so the timber frames didn’t get raised during that weekend.  In the last few weeks, he called a bunch of us (about 12 in all for the 1st frame, and 6 for the second frame) in to raise the first timber for his outdoor kitchen project.  I’ll walk a bit through our process of raising the timber.

 

Prior to this, few of us knew anything about how to raise a timber.  This isn’t a common skill these days.  But we brought our heads together, took some guidance from the one person who had done it before, and set to work.

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue)

Here we are getting ready to pull the ropes! (I am in blue in the window!)

The timbers are prepped and ready to go.  What we need is a bunch of muscle to lift it to attach to the side of the house (see the board below the window?).  Four of us, myself included, went into the house and had thick ropes to help pull it.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

Everyone is lifting the timber frame; we pull with the ropes into the house.

We thought it was going to be difficult to get the timber frame up–we were kind of intimidated with the whole thing, since not a single one of us had ever done it before.  We psyched ourselves out, thinking about how heavy it would be, how hard to lift, etc.

Securing the posts!

Securing the posts!

The timber frame went up much easier than we expected–we didn’t even break a sweat!  Here we are holding it in place while my friend Mark drills it into the wall.  Just this past weekend, we raised the second of three frames–I’ll report back when the outdoor kitchen project is a bit further along.

This idea of barn raising was again illuminated for me this past evening.  I went out to Strawbale Studio for a Full Moon Potluck (I should blog about this sometime too!) and it was time to raise the frames on the Hobbit Sauna Project. This is an intensive natural building project….if I didn’t have to work, I’d be there!  They realized they needed some additional hands to get the heavy timbers on top of the sauna. Again, you can see the value in this teamwork as a group of guys lifted the frame.

Moving the frame

Moving the frame

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

Lifting the frame onto the Hobbit Sauna

 

The value of teamwork, of community, and of directing human efforts collaboratively towards goals can be clearly seen in these photos. These are also quite sustainable projects–both are using local materials and human power (rather than fossil fuels) to get the job done.  These are the kinds of projects that I think we will be seeing more of as fossil fuels become more expensive and scarce.  Building knowledge now about the kinds of building that doesn’t depend upon heavy machinery and the kinds of communities one needs to build them is an important step in terms of sustainability.

 

There are other lessons in these kinds of “barn raising” projects.  These projects would not get completed without the help of many hands.  Through this work, those of us who work on them are transformed. I’m finding that when you participate in the building of a structure with others, doing the work with your own hands  you really have a different relationship with the space.  Each time you visit the structure, the object, you think about those who helped you create it, to bring it into being.  You see its value as more than a structure, but as a site of collaboration and community.  You realize how much we really do depend on each other for survival; how our relationships matter and should not be treated lightly.

 

I also think that this concept of “barn raising” can apply more broadly than just to physical structures. These demonstrate the force that community can bring to any project–be it transforming our communities, building a garden, or sustaining ourselves and our lands into the future.  It is through this work of community that real transformation can happen.

 

 

 

 

Natural Building I: The Strawbale Studio October 14, 2012

Yesterday, I attended a rocket stove building workshop at the Strawbale Studio and the sustainability-focused work of Deanne Bednar. In this post, I want to spend time highlighting the Strawbale Studio and Deanne Bandar’s work as an excellent example of permaculture and sustainable living.  In this first post, I’ll highlight some of the Strawbale Studio and other projects; in a later post this week, I will talk specifically about the rocket stove concept and what we learned and built!

I want to start by saying that site visits to places like the Strawbale Studio are really important and inspirational for anyone who is interested in natural building/sustainability/permaculture.  These places can bring us inspiration, joy, and ideas for transforming our own landscapes.  I’ve read about all of this in books and spoken to people, watched videos on Youtube, etc.  But its not till you really get to see it, and build it, that you really understand its power.  Its through being able to put your hands on the cool cob, or see the thatched roof from different angles, that you really appreciate the value of natural building skills.  I have been inspired by the Strawbale Studio and Deanne’s positive energy, and I can’t wait to get started on some of my own projects.

The Strawbale Studio

Deanne runs the Strawbale Studio on her rural property outside of Oxford, Michigan (in South-East Michigan).  Deanne runs regular monthly workshops, full moon potlucks, and regular volunteer days on natural building.  She has learned from a number of excellent teachers, including Ianto Evans. I feel incredibly fortunate to live so close to someone with such expertise on natural building–she is truly a wealth of knowledge and an inspiration.

I didn’t get to take pictures of everything because we had quite a rainy day, however, I did get some photos to share and will return for more when the weather is nice!

The Strawbale Studio

 

Strawbale Studio Back

The first two photos are of the strawbale studio.  Its a fully functional living space built out of natural materials–namely, cob (which is a mixture of clay, sand, and usually straw) and strawbales.  It also features natural thatching from phragmites (which are what many consider an invasive species in the area; its nice to see what Deanne was able to do with these reeds!).  These next three photos are of the inside of the strawbale studio. One of the things I really like about cob building is how you are able to be so creative with it!

Strawbale Studio Tree!

 

Inside the Studio #1

 

Strawbale Studio Loft

Sleeping Spaces, Living Roofs,  & Building Materials

Deanne brings in interns from all over the world to live and work at the site, learning natural building along the way.  They get to sleep in really neat places, like this natural lean-to and the strawbale studio!  And in the house… if they really want to. (But seriously, who would want to when you can sleep in these kinds of places?)

Thatched Lean-To

 

Living Roof – In progress

 

Natural Building Materials

Cob / Earth Oven

The next photos are of Deanne’s earth oven.  I’ve been planning to make my own for some time, so seeing a live one and being able to look at it and talk to her about the process was super helpful!

Small oven mockup!

 

Earth Oven!

 

Awesome Stick Spiral above Oven

Cob as a natural building material has so much potential. In Michigan, we have a really nice balance of sand to clay (which is about 75/80% – 25-20%) so we have great materials for cob here.  I am looking forward to making some of my own here next year :). Here are two more shots of what you can do with cob–as a decorative feature and as a building block:

Cob spiral

 

Brick of Cob

Food Forests

Deanne also uses permaculture principles to grow food and medicinals. Here’s a photo of her front “lawn”.  Love it!  This is a front yard that produces rather than consumes. And in the fall, its so beautiful with all of the colors and plants!

Food Forest!

 

Food Forest!

I am truly inspired by Deanne’s property and all of the projects happening. I think its important to remember that this  is the product of thousands of hours of work, many helping hands, and a woman with a clear vision for a sustainable future.  Her projects and presence in this community is something worth aspiring to. This is the power of community, knowledge, and action!