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Restart Podcast Ep. 66: Ancient cob building, part of a low-tech future

Cob building by Kate Edwards

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As summer gets into full swing, we get down and dirty with a craft that is all about unlocking the natural resources that we are standing right on top of – cob building.

Kate Edwards runs Edwards Cob Building where she teaches complete beginners how to build a cob house – literally – from the ground up. In addition to her teaching, Edwards also works on many original buildings and renovations, historical restoration and art pieces. We talked to Edwards about the sustainability of cob and why this ancient practice is the future of building. 

The real ‘green’ building

So why is cob building so sustainable? Well, for one, you might be able to find all of the resources to make cob in your own garden. Cob is a mixture of clay, subsoil, gravel and straw which dries naturally in the sun. As a result, for many builds no fuel is used in transporting resources and there is no manufacturing involved. 

“Cement alone is responsible for about 10% of global carbon emissions. And the modern building industry is responsible for 45% of CO2 emissions. So you just feel like, wow, what if I could do something more friendly to the planet?”

It’s also completely repairable and reusable. Edwards tells us about buildings made with natural materials that have stood in Jericho since 8,000 BC.

Cob buildings are remarkably easy to maintain and repair. If a part of the wall chips off, all you have to do is slap a handful of cob back on there. Even if a cob building needs to be knocked down, the materials can just be used to build another! Edwards says this is why other types of ‘green’ building methods cannot even compare. 

How cob can be empowering

We’ve discussed the potential held in low-tech before on the podcast and cob mirrors many of these benefits. It also gives autonomy and power back to the builder. Edwards relates that many people who come on her courses are making an effort to reconnect with the natural world.

Making things with our hands affords a type of autonomy and fulfilment that is not gained through conventional building practices. Edwards hopes that we can unlearn the ways that industrialisation changed building. Hopefully, more people will gain the confidence to build their own homes from the materials around them. 

“It literally changes people’s lives because people have this utter realisation that they can do it and they can create something that’s valuable from nothing – from mud. It’s utterly transformative.”

While Edwards jokes that these reasons for loving cob may seem “hippy-dippy”, there are also legitimate structural and health benefits to this practice.

Since cob houses are built from natural resources, these materials do not contain the same chemicals as more conventional modern builds. As a result, houses will not develop issues like damp and the damage that comes along with it and inhabitants may be less likely to develop asthma or similar conditions. 

Art, culture and “CobBauge”

It’s clear that the resurgence of cob building is only going to continue to grow. It isn’t just houses or renovations that Edwards builds either. She loves cob partly because of her passion for sculpture and is regularly involved in art commissions and historical restorations.

She tells us about a few of her upcoming projects alongside other builders and sculptors from across the UK, France and India. Despite the barriers to cob becoming widespread in its use once more, the work that Edwards does is proving its power. 

Links: 

[Photo courtesy of Edwards Cob Building]

0 responses

  1. Steve Spreadborough

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts on how scalable this is. What would happen if all the 63M people in this country did this?

    1. Janet - Restart

      Great question we do not have the answer to!

      Assuming also you mean those who don’t live in built-up areas or cities, which is not 63M. That’s about equal to the pre-industrial population of Britain. So perhaps part of the answer lies in the history books.

  2. Fascinating episode as I had never heard of cob buildings before.

    Just read this newsletter, about rediscovering how to make domes and vaults in mudbricks: https://wrathofgnon.substack.com/p/reading-architecture-for-the-poor which reminded of this podcast episode

  3. And also this post from the same blog: https://wrathofgnon.substack.com/p/the-human-scale-part-iii

    ‘Human scaled materials are those that can be sourced, used, maintained, dismantled, and reused by hand.’

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