Patching the Playhouses

October 11, 2011 at 4:25 pm 3 comments

Here is the story of a natural building project I love…

If you aren’t familiar with natural building, it is, basically, using natural, non-manufactured materials to create soul-soothing, sculptural structures.  My favorite is earth-building, which uses in various combinations, a mixture of clay, water and sand, along with a fibrous material (grass, straw or wood fibers) for tensile strength.  A method called “Cob” combines clay, sand and straw and builds with wet bricks called cobs because they are about the size of a cob or loaf of bread.

I discovered cob about 7 years ago and tried increasingly ambitious projects (first birdhouses, then a garden wall) before diving into a natural building project that was a pretty life-changing experience for me and for Sandra Redmore.  Sandra is the director of the Clarendon Child Care Center, home of the sweetest pair of playhouses you can imagine.

The CCCC Cob Playhouses, built in 2005 by many loving hands (and feet).

One of the coolest things about natural building is that it can be done using no power tools and for very little cost which makes it perfect for natural playspaces.  It takes time though.  Sandra and I spent countless hours that year, from early April till late in the fall, almost every weekend, organizing dozens of generous volunteers and participating in workdays to get these little houses built.  By that cold fall we had built the playhouses and also a friendship of the deep sort that comes from hours spent together, toes in the mud.

Yes, toes in the mud!  Another cool thing about natural building is that the traditional way to mix that clay, sand and straw is with bare feet.  And what could be more perfect when building with children?

Who can resist that ooshy squooshy-ness?!

Cob is incredibly durable and long lasting as long as it has what cobbers call “dry feet and a dry head” which means a good foundation that keeps the cob off the ground and a solid roof with good overhangs.  There are cob houses in Great Britain, where the technique originated,  that are more than 500 years old.  It does need occasional repairs though, such as when a crack develops and little fingers start to chip away at the cob.    But that’s a good thing because the community that develops around a natural building project like the one Sandra and I embarked on is rare and special.  Patching the playhouses (as we did a few weeks ago) is an opportunity for the children (and teachers and families) who come after the project is done, to understand where the houses came from and to get their toes in that magical mud!

A whole new group of toes.

Patching the playhouse with mud.

And our little patching project was filmed for Arlington Cable TV!!

There are lots of great books on cob and natural building.  Here are a few of my favorites:

Dig Your Hands in the Dirt by Kiko Denzer

The Hand Sculpted House by Yanto Evans


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3 Comments Add your own

  • 1. Abbey  |  October 11, 2011 at 7:17 pm

    If I wanted to learn more about natural building, what are some good books and websites to look at?

  • 2. Beth  |  October 11, 2011 at 8:46 pm

    I love seeing your photos of those grown up and little one toes all mixed up together in the mud. Priceless. And I know what you mean by a community “of the deep sort” once you have built something together with your own hands and feet. I built myself an artist cottage this summer utilizing many workshops (like a barn-raising)- the people who came to those workshops to learn and help were the best sort of people- resourceful, positive folks who are not afraid to get dirty. It is a great place for kids to experience the best of human nature. I’m hooked on this way of building!

  • 3. kristin jordan  |  October 21, 2011 at 7:44 pm

    i actually saw these playhouses and they were wonderful! they reminded me of forts that i would have liked to have built in the woods when i was a child.


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