The Dirt on Mud Houses

by Janet Nicol

(LASQUITI ISLAND) “It changes our ideas when we see a women-built house,” says Jen Gobby. Gobby is a member of the Mud Girls collective, whose mandate is “to stop harming and start healing the Earth and ourselves.”

On an August morning, the Mud Girls are building a cob studio in the woods of Lasquiti Island, a 22-kilometre strip of land off mainland British Columbia. A buzz of human activity fills the air as earthen materials are mixed and moved around by wheelbarrow. In the past five weeks, the stone foundation and post-and-beam framework have been completed. The women are now working on the partially built cob walls alongside volunteers, including their client, relatives and assorted neighbours and friends. Four pet dogs are tied up nearby.

“Working with clay is like being at the spa,” according to Claire, a member of the collective. “I feel cleansed at the end of the day.”

The muddy cob mixture is made from island-found sand and clay and “imported” straw from Vancouver Island farms. The materials are doused with water and stomped on by foot, then made into mud balls and applied by hand to build two-inch-thick walls. (Cobbing is contagious, and even this writer puts down pen and paper to help out.)

“The great thing about cob building is you can do more with the shape of the structure,” says Gobby, “like using rounded walls and arched windows.”

The two-storey cob studio is designed like a four-leaf clover. Assorted glass bottles are occasionally inserted into the walls, as are conventional glass windows.

“We empower the clients to take charge of the designs, and we show them how to care for the cob home when it is completed,” Gobby says.

The building withstands West Coast rainfalls with its long overhangs, high, dry rock foundations and wide gutters.

“There are cob homes in Britain that are 500 years old,” assures Gobby.

Cob homes today also have composting toilets and reuse grey water for irrigation. And, according to the Mud Girls’ website, cob building is safe for people with chemical sensitivities and for pregnant women.

It will take another week to finish the walls, then another to build the roof. After holding training workshops, the Mud Girls return in September with their trainees to plaster and paint the walls.

The collective has 20 full- and part-time members who earn $15 an hour. Business is conducted via the Internet, as both members and clients are scattered throughout the Gulf Islands and Vancouver Island.

The Mud Girls also take on smaller building jobs, such as cob ovens, outhouses, cabins and garden walls.

“We have more work than we can handle,” according to Gobby.

So why has cobbing become so popular?

Gobby believes the shift in perspective is because of climate change. “People are desperate for alternatives,” she says.

The idea of a feminist builders’ collective began on Lasquiti Island-which comes as no surprise, considering the 400 island residents decline BC Hydro’s services and use alternative energy.

Gobby bought 10 acres of island land with friends after taking a hands-on building course in Winnipeg. Even though she shares an island home with her partner, Jen wanted “a room of my own,” so she built a cob studio with a garden-top roof with the help of 15 friends.

Soon after, the Mud Girls were born. They bartered their labour for other services. The four-year-old bartering collective still exists on the island, along with the wage-earning collective formed earlier this year.

“The collective is symbolic, by showing women can take matters into their own hands,” Gobby says as she picks up a garden hose. The Mud Girls’ tasks and visions seem as clear as the water she sprays on the drying mud walls.

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Reprinted from Herizons magazine, 2008.


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