Traveling around the world, I am always amazed at how cool - literally comfortable - farmers' homes can be. On a trip to Cote d'Ivoire, on a project with the Rainforest Alliance, I accompanied farmers to fetch water from a neighboring diversified cocoa farm. While cocoa farms are known for their shade, the trees need regular care and pruning, so it's common for farmers' homes to not have as much shade as they might need during the heat of the day in West Africa. That day when we stepped from a hundred degree sun outside to the interior of an adobe brick hut, though, it was more than ten degrees inside. Later, back in the small town where I spent the night, my concrete hotel room was unbearably hot.
Earth building is not new. While small farms have made shelter and homes out of clay, straw and sand for years, there are still habitable apartment buildings dating back not just hundreds, but thousands of years, and still inhabited. Earth building, commonly known as cob, is taking off in the United States. From pioneers such as the Cobb Cottage company in Oregon, to our network of friends around the United States, there is a growing community of natural builders helping demonstrate that we can have useable structures, spaces, and homes that do not need to be expensive or rely on the industrial economy. While a typical US home might last a lifetime, for many Americans, owning a home can trap us in a cycle of debt.
Precisely for this reason, our own fascination with natural building, and a connection with farmers who utilize this incredible proven technology, we recently traveled to Quail Springs to take an earthen oven building workshop. While I've helped in using natural materials to construct shelters for farmers in Africa and Asia, nothing beats more hands on experience. While we intend to construct some cob buildings on our farm in the coming years, we cannot wait to build an oven. When our friends put out the word they were hosting a workshop to build an earthen oven, it was easy to decide we'd make the journey to California. We jumped at the chance.
Basic cobb building is an approximate mixture of 1 part clay, 2 parts sand, and straw (though the ratios change depending on the texture of each of your materials). For building walls or for adding layers of thermal mass and insulation, you vary the ratio. While in our cold climate of Montana, we may need more insulation, the basic building materials and methods vary only slightly.
Now that we are back in Montana, we are planning on building our own farm oven later this spring. We're itching to get our hands back into that earthen mix, but have to face up to the deeply frozen days coming our way, and will have to content ourselves with a few test-bricks mixed indoors, until we have the land and weather to work with in the spring. We've already talked about building some ovens with some great local partners. During our last night at Quail Springs, we cooked lamb we brought from Montana in one of their ovens. It could not have been a better way to end our trip.