Images of a cob house built for under $250 in England two years ago have been re-circulating the internet lately, inspiring tiny-house-enthusiasts and back-to-the-landers with hope that living off the grid on a low budget might not be too far out of reach.
While this does appear to be a true story, beautifully captured in this Telegraph.com slideshow, it might not be quite that easy or cheap for the average American to build.
Alexander Sumerall of ThisCobHouse.com says it’s a misconception that cob homes are always “dirt cheap.” While the cost of materials – clay, sand, straw and water – is low, the “prices for earthen buildings vary dramatically around the world,” he writes.
“Luxury earthen homes in the American southwest can cost hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars. At the low end of the price spectrum, somewhere on the other side of the world, you might be able purchase a smaller earthen dwelling for about the cost of your Starbucks latte and afternoon meal.”
Sumerall says you can save tons of money by building it yourself and keeping it simple, but he likes to give people realistic expectations. While he’s seen several cob homes built for $500 to $800, he says they are either tiny “tiny homes” of less than 200 square feet or are of such a “low standard” they wouldn’t be up to most Americans’ comfort level.
For example, here’s a couple who spent $4000, plus 9 months of their own full-time labor, on a pretty basic 195-square-foot cob house.
Even so, to Sumerall, cob homes are the best bang for your buck and the wisest choice for your health and the environment. In addition to being relatively low cost to build, they are energy efficient – keeping you cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter; durable – termite-proof, fire-proof and earthquake-resistant; and non-toxic – no off-gassing from paints, carpets, glues, plastics and other synthetic materials used in industrial housing.
Cob (also known as adobe in Spanish) is an English word for an ancient building material that has been used since prehistoric times. Cob houses last far longer – hundreds of years longer – than conventional stick-frame houses. Some have lasted more than 1000 years.
Though time-consuming and labor-intensive, simple cob homes are very easy to build. You don’t need a degree in architecture – or even any experience at all – to do-it-yourself. But you might need an architect’s signature!
One of the biggest obstacles to building a cob house are building codes. There are no codes for cob in the U.S., so depending on where you decide to build, it could get tricky.
“It really comes down to the people in the local building department, how they interpret the code, and doing what it takes to satisfy their concerns with an unfamiliar material,” said Mike McDonough, an experienced cob builder with the Cob Cottage Company. “This can mean having the building engineered or stamped by an architect, which removes the building department’s liability in case of failure.”
“Just be ready to fork over some mad cash” for that stamp of approval, Summerall said.
Summerall said he’s never had any interest in building in a city or suburban are, and therefore hasn’t had to worry about the building permit process so much. In many rural counties across the country (except in the Northeast and California), you don’t need to get a permit at all.
If you don’t live in an unincorporated part of one of those counties, there are other ways to exempt yourself from the permitting process, such as keeping the building small (usually 12×12 or less) or designating it for agricultural or storage use. Sumerall’s written a guide called Cob to Code for more tips on jumping through building code hoops.
He also recommends a book called The Hand-Sculpted House, as the ultimate guide for anyone considering buying or building their own cob house:
Learning from the past how to build a better future
For Sumerall, cob homes are more than a trendy hobby. They are a lesson from our ancestors on how to create a sustainable future.
“As we face societal collapse, people are banding together and moving outside the cities to start new lives for themselves,” he said in a video on his website. “Lots of people can get a piece of land, but they can’t always afford a house to live in.”
“Many people resort to living in trailers to start off, or spend all their money on industrially built homes. We need to start learning how to build our own homes again.”
While he’s not advocating tossing out all modern conveniences, he thinks our current dependence on “heavily processed, highly industrialized, energy intensive materials,” which have been available relatively cheaply for the last hundred years or so, is going to change. “As energy becomes more expensive, as materials become more expensive, it’s going to make simple economic sense for people to be building with clay and straw.”