An ancient comeback
Sacramento man brings sustainable cob building to the Golden State
Brian Baker removes his boots and socks, rolls up his pants, steps into the muddy mess and begins his version of the chicken dance. With his bare feet, he works through the composite of clay, sand, straw and water before he and his partner grab the ends of the tarp on which the mix sits and toss it back and forth, creating a consistency thick like peanut butter. Baker lets the pile sit and stiffen. Soon, the group will form bundles of cobs, which will be used to build a planter.
Several years ago, for an apprenticeship in Jacksonville, Ore., Baker learned about cob building from a Dutchman. For six days a week, for six labor-intensive weeks, he worked the earth.
“Your feet go through some interesting transformations,” Baker tells the six people gathered in the back yard of his Sacramento home during a cob-building workshop.
Baker promotes urban eco-living through earth building, an ancient tradition that can be traced back 11,000 years. The oldest remaining cob house sits in Devon, England, dating back to 1539.
Cob building is the “granddaddy of green building,” Baker says. Cob (an Old English word) is nontoxic, natural and sustainable; meaning with regular minimal upkeep, a house built with this material likely will outlive its occupants by hundreds of years. The durable building material continues to be used for home construction throughout the world—but cob structures in the United States? Those are few and far between.
On a recent bright, chilly Saturday morning, Baker prods the group to remove their shoes. They hesitate. Straw covers the yard and large wooden planks hide deep pits where Baker dug up the soil. A vegetable garden occupies a sizeable portion of the yard, and Baker plans on eventually creating a rainwater-harvesting system, reusing the grey water he captures. Four sculptures of silly-looking boys made of cob hearken back to the start of it all for Baker—his love of ceramics. Near the back fence, smoke emits from the cob fireplace he fired up for the first time that morning, in preparation for the pizzas he’ll cook for lunch.
The eclectic yard is an homage to a man who figured out how to make eco-urban living work for his family in an American society that would have little of it.
Born and raised in Kansas City, Mo., Baker headed off to Baltimore when he was 30 years old, earning a bachelor’s and master’s degree in fine arts from the Maryland Institute College of Art. He specialized in ceramics, experiencing the meditative qualities of working with natural materials.
In 2005, he and his wife moved to Davis, and a year and a half ago, they bought a house in Sacramento. Baker spends his days caring for his young son, creating and selling earthen plasters, and sculpting, every once in a while exhibiting his artwork at a gallery in Davis.
As Baker shares his story, the group gets to work. Recent rainfall had saturated the soil, making it easier to mold but heavier to lift. The group breaks into pairs, loading and unloading two and a half buckets of sand to one bucket of clay soil. A pair of friends pours in water, then adds in straw—the strong fiber helps bind the composite; twist a strand and it won’t break. The two women do the chicken dance and tarp toss—unlike the olden days when people used animals or pitchforks—and struggle a bit, debating the mix’s consistency.
“It’s intuitive, like baking,” Baker said. “You may need a little more of this, a little more of that.”
Sacramento’s soil is ripe for cob-building because it’s clay heavy, and the women add in more soil drawn directly from Baker’s own yard. That’s how it was done for hundreds of years. Materials weren’t shipped across oceans or transported thousands of miles to a site; everything was local—which can still be done today, Baker says, by gathering dirt from construction sites and concrete slabs from torn-up driveways.
After two hours of mixing, the group bundles the cobs, kneading the mix like dough into the shape of bricks, making a couple hundred little cobs by the time they’re done.
Back in the day, building took time. The whole community would come together to build a single house.
“The philosophy behind this is not about how you can make your building easy and quicker,” Baker explained. “It’s about how you can make it more enjoyable.”
The Earth Building Association of Australia estimates that one-third of the world’s population lives in earthen homes, and the United Kingdom’s Low-Impact Living Initiative puts its guess at two billion people. Cob walls are massive—typically two feet thick—and with a good foundation and drainage system, a cob building literally stands the test of time, demonstrating a fundamental principle of sustainability: longevity. On the other hand, the average life expectancy of a modern house is 50 years, Baker says.
People build permitted cob homes in Canada, England and other parts of the world; but in the United States, not so much.
“The American building-inspection industry is unfamiliar to the material and building techniques, so they fear it,” Baker said. “Because cob mixtures are not consistent units and vary from batch to batch and location to location, it is hard to engineer-test cob, making it hard to make regulated building codes.”
Some counties permit structures less than 200 square feet without following code regulations, but generally speaking, people fight tooth and nail to get a large cob structure built.
“They forget about how cob was used for centuries before modern building materials,” Baker said.
He doesn’t dwell, though, and keeps doing his thing, hoping it catches on. He shows the group a slide show of earth-building examples, including the famous Butterfly Social Club in Chicago, a restaurant with walls, tables and seating all made of cob.
The crew gets back to work, aligning the cobs and weaving them together with a stick. A planter starts to take shape. Baker will not need to fire the cob, as the material hardens naturally. The group laughs and chats, and an hour later the workshop ends and the people depart, taking plenty of mud and a piece of ancient eco-living along with them.