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wattle and daub home

Natural Building as a Pathway towards Autonomy, Health, and Happiness

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Oct 6, 2019

As a writer for Rise, I have had the privilege of researching and writing about the latest developments and best practices for making homes more sustainable. I have also been able to peer into the dwelling places of dozens of homeowners who have graciously let us feature their homes on our website. I have thoroughly enjoyed the process of bringing our readers inspiring household ideas, practical energy efficiency upgrades, and novel suggestions to help us transition into a more sustainable society. The past years of researching and writing for Rise have offered me practical and tangible benefits, which I would like to share with our readers.

El Salvador house

Over the past eight years, my wife and I have built thirteen small homes/cabins whose walls we built with little more than the building site's mud. It all started as a timid experiment to determine whether or not we might be able to find an alternative path to homeownership. Today, it has grown into a borderline obsessive hobby that drives us to imagine new possibilities for earthen homes every time we find a source of quality clay soil.

An Inconspicuous Background

I grew up in a traditional suburban neighborhood of 2,500 square foot homes. Neighbors would seemingly compete to see who could mow their chemically-soaked green lawns most often. The once-beautiful and productive farmland surrounding our rural Kentucky subdivision was slowly sold off to the highest-bidding contracting companies. These homebuilders proceeded to out-do each other to see who could build the biggest, flashiest houses at the lowest cost per square foot.

At the time, I never really thought twice about my childhood home. Like most suburbanites, I took for granted that the roof would keep me dry, that clean water would always flow from the tap, and that hot air would blow from the vents when I turned up the thermostat in winter.

My mother´s side of the family is the type of person who seemed to be born with a hammer in their hands. However, my father's “Fix-it-up” genes, which I inherited, usually equated household repairs and renovations with a search through the Yellow Pages for the cheapest contractor. Suffice it to say that I indeed did not inherit any natural abilities or inclinations that would lead me into the world of home construction.

An Earthen Encounter

And then, by a serendipitous coincidence, I found myself doing volunteer work in the mountains of Venezuela, offering my poor Spanish translation abilities for a rural health clinic. After one long day of work, a local older woman invited me to her farm, where one of her grandsons was in the process of building her a new home. In the eyes of most, that simple wattle and daub homemade from sticks, mud, and rusty nails would exemplify the hardships and adversities of people living in places where “home” doesn’t come with a $300,000 mortgage. For me, however, the finished product was a simple, beautiful, incredibly functional living space.

El Salvador house exterior

The home was warm during the cool evenings and pleasantly crisp during the hot afternoons. The earthen plaster's freshness contrasted sharply with the formaldehyde-ridden air that characterizes too many homes in the United States. Best of all, the house didn’t come with a 30-year mortgage—or any debt for that matter. I didn’t instantly decide to become a full-time natural builder. However, my mind often returns to that simple mud home that offered a sense of dignity and beauty to a person in need.

Finding a Canvas for Rehearsal

Several years down the road, and closer in age to when homeownership begins to become an aspiration, I took a cob building workshop from an inspiring woman named Diane Jennings. Cob is an ancient earthen building technique wherein clay subsoil, water, and straw are mixed to build solid, fireproof, and low-cost home walls. Throughout that seven-day workshop, an eclectic group of eight participants built a lovely little cob cottage nestled into the central Kentucky hills.

The thought of building massive earthen walls that would be mixed with my feet, raised with my arms and back, and kneaded into the wall with my fingers was menacing. (I imagine that even Van Gogh's “Starry Night” came as the result of several canvases initially trashed in frustration.)

My wife and I had spent hours drawing and designing our dream-cob home. Fortunately, we were smart enough not to jump into a massive project without gaining a bit more experience.

El Salvador house wood oven fires

We started building a few cob benches and wood-fired ovens as part of a development project to help Guatemalan youth start small bakeries in their communities. Eventually, we could get funding (and enough resolve) to build three small cob cabins that would function as youth centers in three rural villages. Over the next two years, we spent every weekend barefoot, mixing mud, moving rocks, and smoothing plasters together with local youth. 

El Salvador house view

Finally, a Home of our Own

Our first daughter was born at the beginning of 2015. Shortly after that, my wife and I moved onto our small farm in the mountains of El Salvador and (finally) began the process of building our home. Caring for a six-month-old child while mixing an enormous amount of earthen material for our home walls was a challenge. In hindsight, however, we wouldn’t change a thing. Though there were long days and nights with an aching back, we were able to share with our daughter the process of literally hand-crafting our home.

El Salvador house cob construction

Despite the labor intensity involved with cob construction, we settled on this building method because of the sense of permanence that it offers. Our home walls are 21 inches thick and sit atop a three-foot deep rubble trench of stones that we hand-picked and laid to allow for maximum foundational strength and drainage. There is a sense of security in knowing that if we keep the roof from leaking, our home walls should still be in perfect condition to pass on to our great-grandchildren. If our descendants don’t like the home we've left to them, it is comforting to know that the walls of our house will disintegrate back into the soil where flowers will once again bloom.

El Salvador house cob house interior

We also chose to work with cob because of the freedom for artistic creativity that it offers. My creative skills end with stick figures, so my wife gladly spent hours carving, molding, and sculpting our home walls. The result is that virtually every square foot of our walls shine with creative niches for candles and keepsakes, hand-sculpted bookshelves, relief sculptures, and unique earthen plasters.

El Salvador house earthen plasters

Cob was also the best material option for our circumstances and climate. We sourced the clay subsoil for our home's walls from a neighboring 80-year-old adobe home whose roof had fallen in. Essentially, we knocked over the walls of that home, re-wet and stomped the soil, and “recycled” the walls into a new life. The walls of our house, then, had virtually no embodied energy footprint. The thick cob walls also act as an excellent thermal mass that sucks up the afternoon sun's heat to subsequently slowly release that heat into our home in the cooler evenings. Supplemental heat from our cast iron wood stove keeps us warm enough during our mild winters.

Sharing Our Passion with the Community 

Shortly after finishing and moving into our cob home, we realized that we weren´t quite ready to be “done” with cob. We had some leftover soil and wood and immediately started building two small cob cabins that we planned to rent out on Airbnb. Some of our younger neighbors, who were quite intrigued by this novel building method, asked us to help them design and build a home of their own. Four years later, our small village at the base of El Salvador´s highest mountain has turned into a unique little cob cottage community where we also rent out cabins as part of our growing ecotourism cooperative.

El Salvador house cob construction exterior

There is something undeniably liberating that comes with building your own home from the dirt underneath your feet. In our case, it allowed us a path to homeownership without taking on any debt. Despite our increasingly globalized economy, a warm, comforting home can still be built from materials sourced from within a 100-meter radius of the building site. Sharing the hard work that building with cob entails also provided us with a stronger sense of community and friendship with our neighbors.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2021-11-26T17:20:41+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.