Often, when discussing the pros and cons of building with cob, or earthen materials in general, it is brought up that it is such a labor intensive way of building. Because this comes up so often I believe it is interesting to look at this statement carefully and see what it suggests about who we are as a culture in relation to work, time and building.
My parents taught me that doing physical labor was something to be left for poor and/or uneducated people. In other words, “you better do well in school, otherwise you may be stuck digging holes for the rest of your life.” A life of farming, road building, coal mining or truck driving was simply not a reasonable option for me, according to my parents. In many ways, I think they were right: there are a lot of demeaning, damaging, monotonous jobs out there, that I’d rather not do for a living. However, it also instilled in me the general principle that “doing physical labor” is something to be avoided.
But what if the labor becomes so pleasurable, so health giving, so rhythmic, so full of joy, that you actually want to do it? “Labor intensive” would then be considered a positive statement. Why would you want to do less of something you enjoy! This is the overwhelming experience of the people who build with cob, assuming they have given themselves the time it takes to build by hand and foot.
Which leeds me to the next issue, that of time. Our obsession with speed and getting things done gets in our way of living our lives. Why? Because we are never done! Once your house is done you will move on to the next thing that needs to get done. “Being done” is an illusion, rather than an absolute thing. If enjoyed, the time spent cobbing a building together, is time well spent!
Aside from these philosophical considerations, it is valuable to look at the practicality of building by hand and foot. By harvesting and processing our own building materials, we do the work which the lumber mill (and scores of other factories) do for the conventional builder at a ﬁnancial cost. If those builders had to go out into the woods and make their own 2×6 lumber, cob may not seem that labor intensive anymore. Many cob builders enjoy having time rather than money and use that time to hand-build their house.
In this process, it is more likely that the house will be “crafted”, rather than “assembled” (or stapled together) as is the case with conventional building. Consequently, cob houses tend to be more creative, beautiful, and loved. Craftsmanship in the conventional building world comes at a high price; with cobbing, novice builders can be craftspeople as the wall goes up.
The “de-industrialization” of the building process also means that the we can pay closer attention to the impact we have on the earth. The harvesting of materials can be done locally and carefully. The labor intensive methods become a key ingredient toward sustainability and care for the earth. Lastly, many hands make light work. Often people imagine that they are alone in the world and therefore have to be able to do everything by themselves. This is a choice, but it doesn’t have to be that way. Building with cob is an invitation for people to connect with one another by building together.
So, the stigma that the term “labor intensive” has, may not serve us well. In fact, I think that we should seek out more labor intensive activities and crafts rather than less. Labor can bring us health, beauty and community and reduce our dependency on oil and industry. Of course, with enough machines and diesel fuel, I can cob any size house in the same time as the conventional builder staples his or hers together. But why would I?