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Improving cob

During the first day of a cob workshop it doesn’t take long for someone (usually a man) to start making suggestions about how cob building could be improved. “Couldn’t we use a cement mixer?” or “can we build forms?” are two common questions, and there are a host of others. I think the question they are really asking is “How can we do this faster?” The motivation behind this question is that they want to finish as quickly as possible, so they don’t have to mix cob or put it on the wall anymore.

But rather than asking how we can make the process faster, the question I believe we should be asking is “How can we make it more enjoyable?” After all, we may spend weeks, months, or even years building a house; we might as well enjoy the process.

Eduardo Galeano, the Uruguayan author, wrote: “I am not particularly interested in saving time: I prefer to enjoy it.” And to prove his point, he wrote a three volume history of Latin America by hand, with pen and paper. It took him eight years. This same approach should be applied to building: what can we do to make the process as enjoyable, as pleasant, as fun as possible? With this goal in mind, here are 9 ways to “improve” the cobbing experience.

1) Wear gloves. This may sound like unnecessary advice, but I am always surprised how many times I see people building cob walls without gloves, myself included! The clay in cob is very drying, and the sand is very abrasive. Together these ingredients can wreak havoc on your hands, leaving them dry, cracked, and scraped. One little cut on your finger will make the whole experience very painful. So wear some gloves! I like the cloth gloves with rubberized palms and fingers: “Atlas” makes a nice pair. And if you see me working without gloves, please remind me to put some on.

2) Go barefoot. There is no doubt in my mind that mixing cob is much more pleasant in bare feet: it is almost like getting a wet foot massage! Also you tend to make much better cob when mixing barefoot, because you are more aware of the consistency of the mix. Of course mixing barefoot has some hazards. Most of us are not used to walking around barefoot, so it takes some time to get used to the abrassiveness of the mix against your feet. Rocks and sticks in the mix and on the ground are a constant threat to tender, un-calloused feet. With this in mind, the 2 suggestions that follow are meant to “improve” the experience of going barefoot.

3) Prep the site for bare feet. If you are going to mix with bare feet, you will be walking around the site with bare feet. So you should carefully remove all sharp rocks, sticks, roots and other objects from the site. Even if it takes a week to do this, it is time well spent. One painfully stubbed toe or cut in the heel can set you back several days.

4) Sift and soak your materials. If you clay or sand is rocky, it is well worth the extra effort to sift them out. You can do this by building a large (3’ by 6’) screen, using 1” mesh or chicken wire, and setting it up at about a 45 degree angle. Throw shovelfuls of material onto the screen: the sifted material will pass through, and the rocks will roll down to the bottom. If you have a good system going, you can sift enough material for a day of mixing in less than an hour. Soaking your clay is also a good option, especially if it is very chunky and hard. Make a large soaking pit with a tarp, fill it with clay and add water until the clay is covered. After a day or two the clay will be nice and soft. You will find that it is much more pleasant to mix with, and probably that you can mix faster, too.

5) Mix smaller batches, carry smaller buckets. There is no sense in hurting yourself by mixing giant batches or lugging too heavy buckets of material around. Fill your buckets only half way, or better yet get smaller buckets. I have a friend who only uses small 3 gallon buckets for moving clay and sound around; it makes a lot of sense! Mix batches only as large as are comfortable for you. And if you like to make large batches, make sure that you get at least 2 other people to help you move it. Tarps have four corners for a reason: one person per corner!

6) Find shade, or make it. Working in the hot sun will quickly drain your energy, never mind burn your skin. Find a shady spot to mix in, or if none is available take the time to hang some tarps over your site. Every hour spent making your site a more comfortable place to work will pay off tenfold or more in the long run. If you’re building a house, you can expect to be on your site for a while… make it a pleasant place to be!

7) Listen to music. It is amazing how a little music can make the whole experience much more enjoyable. Now with an iPod and a couple of portable speakers, you can have a library of music available to suit your every mood. I like to play relaxing and more meditative music in the mornings, and something with more energy and rhythm to get me through the afternoons.

8) Take breaks, drink water, eat snacks. Regular breaks are important, and it is also important that everyone take them together! Designate someone to keep track of the time, and take a 10 minute break every couple of hours. Make sure that there is always something cold to drink and snacks to eat. These things will keep you and your team energized and happy.

9) Work with other people. It is not only more efficient to work with others, but more fun too! We feed off the energy of those around us: if one person is feeling a little tired, there is always someone else there to keep you going. And generally speaking, the more people, the merrier! Good conversation, stories, and jokes really make the work day so much more pleasant.

If you follow all these suggestions, you might find that your cobbing experience will be so enjoyable that you may never want it to be over! The building will be almost an afterthought, a pleasant reward for a pleasant day’s work.

I really like Eduardo Galeano’s statement about time, that it is better to enjoy it than to save it. It is a good lesson to apply to everything in our lives. The next time you find yourself rushing to get through something so you can be done with it, try to change your perspective. Rather than focusing on how to do it faster, try to focus on how to do it better, that is how to make the experience of doing it better and more enjoyable. Life, after all, should be for doing things, not simply for finishing things.

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