In March of 2005, after finishing up work on our cob project in Mexico, I went to teach a cob workshop in Guatemala. The project took place in the town of Rabinal, a small rural community about 4 1/2 hours North of Guatemala city. I was met at the bus by Sarah Montgomery, one of the co-organizers of the project; she had no trouble picking me out of the crowd assembled at the bus station (me, tall and white; everyone else, short and Guatemalan). The town itself was small and pleasant, with two large churches at either end of the main street. We walked back to Sarah’s house, where I met her partner Aaron, and after settling in they took me out to the building site just outside of town.
Sarah and Aaron run an NGO called “Proyecto de produccion de alimentos y semillas” or “food and seed production project.” They work with local communities to teach organic gardening, irrigation and permaculture. Recently they had purchased some land near town for a demonstration and community garden: They hoped to grow organic produce, make compost, and teach classes about these (and other) techniques. We would build a small cob garden shed, or “Bodega,” to store tools in. In Guatemala, as in Mexico, traditional earthen building techniques are being abandoned in favor of concrete block and mortar. Even though concrete is more expensive and less comfortable than earth, concrete structures are seen as a sign of progress and wealth and are thus more desirable. Sarah and Aaron hoped that this project would help people realize that there were much more attractive alternatives to building with concrete block.
The challenges of the project became apparent right away. The primary problem was getting materials: I was well aquainted with the challenges of getting construction materials in Mexico, but here in rural Guatemala it was even more difficult. There was no straw available, and no other fiber that we could purchase in bulk. So we harvested our own fibers, by cutting wild grasses on a hillside with a hand-sickle. It wasn’t an ideal material, but it worked. Sand was somewhat easier to get, we could actually order it by the cart-load. And I do mean “cart”: it was delivered on an ox-drawn cart! We did have to sift the sand, as it was hand dug from the local river and contained many rocks and pebbles. Fortunately, good clay was abundant on the site. In fact there was no topsoil at all, just pure dark clay right a the surface.
For the foundation I planned a urbanite (recycled concrete chunks) stem wall on a gravel trench. Urbanite was easy to find, though gravel was not: we ended up covertly “borrowing” some from a municipal gravel pile; in order not to raise suspicion we had to collect it at 5 in the morning.
Once the materials were finally gathered, other challenges presented themselves. Sarah and Aaron had hired 8 men and women to help with the project. No one in this area could afford to take time away from their farms or jobs to participate in this workshop, so they could only be there if they were paid. They were all friendly and enthusiastic workers, but the language barrier was a challenge. I spoke a little spanish, but for many of them Spanish is not their first language anyway: they first learned A’chi, a Mayan language (it sounds a lot like Navajo). Many went on to learn Spanish in school, but some only learned a little or none at all. So when I would teach, I would first say something in English which would be translated into Spanish, and then someone else would translate from Spanish into A’chi. It was like a bizarre game of telephone, and I could never be sure what the people at the end of the line were hearing. Another challenge was around the issue of design: many of the locals wanted a rectilinear building with straight walls and no windows, because that’s what concrete block buildings look like. I had to work to convince them to try something a little different. Finally, it was not common for men and women to work together: the women were at first reluctant to build along side the men but would instead carry cobs over from the pile or gather other materials.
In spite of these challenges, the building progressed well. During the first few days, I could sense a real suspicion about what I was doing. Though they were familiar with adobe construction, the idea of mixing on tarps with bare feet was unfamiliar. And they were wary of the absence of cement and concrete. But once we had a few feet of cob on the wall, I could feel people’s attitudes begin to change. Some began to make design suggestions and even talked about how they might use cob at their homes.
After 5 days of cobbing, the walls of the small bodega were mostly finished. Our project attracted quite a lot of attention in the town, and neighbors often dropped in to see what we were doing. The most satisfying aspects for me were seeing the men and women finally working alongside one another, and watching them explain to the visitors about the project, how it worked, and why it was superior to concrete block! I don’t know whether anyone in the town will ever build a cob home, but I feel confident that our work had a positive effect: it taught some new skills and opened some minds to the possibilities of building with earth.