Take a tour of local cob structures this weekend
Sebastopol builder Miguel Elliot is less of a spokesperson for cob — a humble building material made of earth and straw — and more like a devotee or a guru of cob.
His devotion to this once common, but now almost forgotten building material is at once philosophical, spiritual, environmental, artistic and surprisingly down to earth, which probably comes with the territory when you spend a lot of your job up to your calves in wet mud.
This Sunday, July 28, as part of his life’s mission to spread the gospel of cob far and wide, Elliot will be giving a tour of the cob structures he’s built in west county — including cob benches, cob ovens, cob saunas and cob cabins (which he calls “cobins”).
“Cob is a mixture of sand, clay and straw,” Elliot said. “It’s the same material as adobe. It’s just not made into individual separate bricks. It’s considered to be monolithic so it’s a lot more sculptable than adobe. Then it gets plastered, either with an earthen plaster or a lime plaster,” which is what keeps it from breaking down in the weather.
According to Elliot, there are three rules of cob.
“To insure its longevity, cob needs a good set of boots, a good jacket and a good hat, which translates into a good foundation, good plaster and a good roof. If it has all those three things, there’s no reason why it shouldn’t last forever,” he said, noting there are earthen structures built 700 years ago that are still being used today.
“It’s very, very strong,” he said, though it does need to be regularly maintained.
“There are several benefits of building with cob,” he said. “It’s fireproof — fire just makes it stronger. Also, it’s a good insulator. On a hot day, it’ll be much cooler inside. Finally, it’s super affordable because you’re using earth right from your yard,” he said. “Sonoma County has great clay for building.”
Hands in the earth
Elliot said he’s been interested in earth-based building since childhood.
“Growing up in Petaluma I was exposed to General Vallejo’s old adobe fortress on a field trip when I was 9 years old. And I remember being fascinated with the concept of using earth as a building material. I also remember experiencing natural air conditioning for the first time — how on a hot day, it would be much cooler inside.”
Elliot grew up working for his father’s tile company. “I grew up being familiar with the idea of mixing up the sand and the clay and cement, but then I discovered the more sculpting aspects of cob.”
In 1995, he saw video by the Cob Cottage Company, and his path was set.
“The video goes into the philosophy and the techniques and the concept of natural building and that resonated so clearly to me,” he said.
He began working with cob while teaching for AmeriCorps in Arcata. Since then, he’s built a cob preschool in Argentina, cob cabins for an orphanage in Indonesia after the Tsunami, and a cob nightclub and yoga studio in Chicago.
He returned home to Sonoma County in 2008 and started Living Earth Structures.
“I’ve been working full time with cob ever since,” he said, joking that his nickname is “Sir Cobalot.”
He’s built several small cobins for people, as writing studios and playhouses.
“If they’re under 120 square feet, you don’t need a permit,” he said.
He’s also built a large circular cob bench for Montgomery High School, which he calls “the cobversation bench.”
“The trick is it’s meant to inspire conversation,” he said. “The students are encouraged not to use their cellphones on it, but to actually just converse. I’m going to be doing something like this at Coffey Park as well.”
Elliot said the most common things that people hire him to build with cob are ovens and benches — or a combination of the two, like the one at Hardcore Espresso. He also built a combination oven and bench for Community Market in Santa Rosa, but they recently took it out because the homeless found it an irresistible combination.
Which gave him an idea.
Striking a blow for affordable housing
West County residents are probably familiar with one of Elliot’s creations — the cob gingerbread hut, which was in this year’s Apple Blossom Parade and can often be seen on local roads as Elliot drives it from one event to another.
With its steeply pitched roof, it’s a quixotic little habitation — like something an elf might live in. But Elliot has bigger plans for cobins like these. He sees them as a possible solution to the affordable housing crisis and homelessness.
“I call the gingerbread hut a ‘palatable cobin’ because it’s built out of palettes, encased in cob, and usually has edibles on it. I’m pretty sure this is one of the best solutions I’ve come across for super low-cost housing,” he said. “It uses all recycled materials; the cost is very low; it’s very well insulated, and you can have a lot of fun with sculpting artistic creative features on it.”
“I envision a village where you have a whole bunch of these where the residents can actually be involved in helping to build them themselves,” he said.
Each cobin cost about $12,000, he said: $2,000 in materials and $10,000 in labor.
Want to learn more about cob structures? Elliot will be giving a tour of 10 different cob structures built around Sebastopol this Sunday, July 28, from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. The cost of the tour is $22. Find out more at 707-320-3609.