- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 9, 2003

STANNARD, Vt. — Ben Graham remembers the way he felt the first time he stepped into an earth house.

The house was in Oregon. The floor was made of earth, and the walls were clay, sand and straw, with big chunks of stone in them. The roof was wood, mostly from trees cut down around the home site.

The handmade home built from natural materials integrated his two passions: building and community.

“The feeling I got in there was something I’d never experienced before. It wasn’t a subtle energy; it was big-time,” Mr. Graham said. “I said, ‘This is what I want to pursue … this is what the world needs more of.’”

Pursue it he did. Today, Mr. Graham and his partner, Amber Wiggitt, teach others how to build their own earth — or cob — homes. They offer workshops that cover all aspects of cob construction, from the drainage in the floor to the logs of the roofing.

Cob means a small lump or mass, and cob builders use the word to describe earth mixed with sand and straw into lumps that are pressed into place by hand to form thick walls. Cob builders enhance structures with other natural materials such as straw bales, stone and local wood.

Cob’s proponents say it’s an ideal alternative to materials like the lumber, concrete, fiberglass and drywall common in the building industry because earth is free, readily available and organic. Plus, builders can sculpt cob into appealing, fluid shapes instead of the straight lines and sharp angles demanded by many mass-produced ingredients.

“This ancient technology doesn’t contribute to deforestation, pollution or mining, nor depend on manufactured materials or power tools,” says the Web site (www.cobcottage.com) for the Cob Cottage Co. of Cottage Grove, Ore., whose founders study and teach natural building. “In this age of environmental degradation, dwindling natural resources and chemical toxins hidden in our homes, doesn’t it make sense to return to nature’s most abundant, cheap and healthy building material?”

Mr. Graham thinks so. Born into a commune in Cleveland in 1975, he’s hoping to recreate the kind of community that surrounded him as he grew up.

“I got a lot of values from that,” he said.

Mr. Graham graduated with an architecture degree and then traveled for a while, visiting cob homes that were hundreds of years old and still in use in Scotland. He learned about alternative building methods besides cob.

Today, Mr. Graham and Miss Wiggitt live in Plainfield, where he and several others are looking for land nearby where they and the nonprofit group they founded, Spiralworks, can start a commune. They want the families to use renewable energy and grow as much of their own food as possible — and teach others who want to live that way as well.

Building with indigenous materials fits right into the plan.

“First of all, it’s about the quality of life,” Mr. Graham said. “Look at the decision between building a toxic, lifeless space to live the rest of your existence in by yourself, or building a beautiful structure made with natural materials that are healing and integrated with the web of life.”

Cob is affordable. About $5,000 can build a 450-square-foot cob home (though Mr. Graham uses the term “round feet” because there are no straight lines).

“One of the main reasons it’s cheaper is because we encourage people to be a part of their building process, so there’s sweat equity,” he said.

Although building by hand takes time, Mr. Graham points out that there is no need for an architect or engineer.

This past summer, Mr. Graham and Miss Wiggitt offered for the second time a number of cob-building workshops around the country. In a five-day course at the Sky Meadow Retreat in Stannard in mid-July, students helped build a large round free-standing cob room that will be used for meditation.

Like Mr. Graham, they see cob construction as a way of life — not just a building method.

“I feel that there’s a better way to live,” said 24-year-old Mike Tokarz, a new builder from Raynham, Mass.

Mr. Tokarz, a college graduate, works in the service department at Tweeter, a Massachusetts home electronics retailer. But he and some friends dream of starting a commune where they can build their homes of natural materials, grow their own food, work together and avoid the agonizing repetition of commutes and a 40-hour workweek they see around them.

“Where I live, not lots of people know their neighbors and the history of the area where they live. That doesn’t seem right,” he said. “People walk through life with blinders on.”

Cob construction has enjoyed a resurgence in the Western states in the last decade or so, and now Mr. Graham and Miss Wiggitt are working to bring it to the East. They’re not yet sure how well that’s going to work in a climate as cold as Vermont’s. They’ll probably combine cob with other materials such as straw bales, because cob alone is not a very good insulator. An earthen house that Miss Wiggitt helped build in Brownington has polystyrene insulation in the floor.

“It’s a lot to heat up when it gets really cold,” Mr. Graham said of all-earth homes. “There’s certainly a lot of useful applications for cob in building and design in this climate, but there are limits.”

Still, because of the cob seminars, there could soon be more cob homes.

Mikhael Yowe, a 45-year-old truck driver from Irasburg, said he is looking for land in the Duxbury area to build a cob house.

“For $65,000 you get a contractor building your house, and it’s not really your house,” Mr. Yowe said as he patted a mixture of earth and straw into brick-sized lumps for a crew pressing them into place on the Stannard project.

“When you create a space that you live in, you’re connected to it,” he said.

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