Cobbity Cob!

Okay, you either already know that cob is merely a lump of what would become a brick – if you dried it first – or you just found out. Clay, water and straw, like any other brick only the drying step is skipped – the ‘brick’ is laid while still wet.

The advantages are that your materials can be delivered onsite with a dump truck and unloading does not involve a forklift. Form can be traditional or free form – pretty much anything that you can think of, you can do with cob.

Disadvantages include longer build times (courses dry somewhat in place to allow the next to be laid – mind you a ‘course’ is two or three feet high) and really susceptible to water until the roof is safely on.

However, cob buildings have been successfully built in even the worst environments. There are location issues to be considered – no building material is perfect for every site – but on the whole, it’s cheap, easy to work with and durable as all get out once done and properly maintained.

Okay, enough boring stuff – let’s look at the pretty buildings!

Nifty Homestead

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Doesn’t look a thing like a giant mud pie, does it?

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Okay, I grant the thatch roof isn’t passing code on our side of the pond – but it is pretty!

Build Something Beautiful

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Kevin McCabe was actually the builder on the first two above – this is a repair job on an 18th century home he also did.

Houz Buzz

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I like the frontal view on this one – obviously not quite finished in this picture.

 

Of course, we have to visit Cob Cottage.

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This one is a traditional style that I love! Isn’t it gorgeous?

But since we have dropped by, we may as well tour the more imaginative side:

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Nice combination of cob and wood – very inviting.

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Okay, house as sculpture – nice relief.

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A bit Hobbity for my taste – but to be honest, the snow clouds my judgment. Snow is evil! Still, a nice aesthetic.

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Okay… eh

Seriously, it’s a cute little structure and it’s wonderful that the homeowner got to build something that expresses the home owner’s personality. Not a thing wrong with that.

But yes, I keep wondering if the home owner’s last name is Baggins…

Well, we may as well visit the other ‘must see’ – Pinterest…

You know what – no. There are a thousand pics on Pinterest of site built cob structures ready for Bilbo and his buds to move into. There’s nothing wrong with that – if you’re gonna put in all that work you should danged well get a building that suits your fancy. But the Hobbiton crowd makes using cob look somewhat comical at times – nothing actually wrong with that either but it’s not the sustainable, economic and resalable model that can actually eliminate homelessness and break the strangle hold of rental in this country (USA – yeah, a lot of the pics above are UK – I’m so jealous!).

Let’s go back by Houz Buzz

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That’s more like it – let’s take a peek inside!

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Forget Bilbo – when can we move in?!

Seriously, it looks like something out of an architecture magazine – yet the ‘cob aesthetic’ is still reflected in the fireplace and divider wall.

And I grant ‘affordability’ went out the window with both the size and the interiors – but it gives a glimpse of the real possibilities of cob.

Real houses, comfortable to live in, inexpensive to build (as long as you don’t go crazy – true of most homes, huh?) – this has real potential as a material/method for the future as well as the past.

 

And if you have that do-it-yourself urge – and read a little too much Tolkien growing up…

 

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Lovely Dwelling

After all – we all have a little whimsy in us!

Home For Everyone

Beware: Approach with Caution: Preachy Girl on the Loose!

When I started this blog, I had in mind to look at buildings I like, make the occasional observation from the ‘look guys, this does not work for me’ POV and mostly just have fun with cool buildings, mostly of yore.

 
I still want to do those things, but now I have a different objective in mind. I want to change the housing market for the low end – those without 20% down and whose employment is retail/service oriented which means a 30 year mortgage isn’t a good option – if it’s an option at all.

 
I want to explore why housing costs as much as it does – and how we can bring down costs not for the middle class (they have their own concerns and I don’t want to sound like I object to reducing their costs but they also have more resources than the folks most likely to end up homeless – I’m a big believer in both/and – I don’t see why we can’t reduce the costs on both ends of the housing market – but I want to focus on the low end here) but the lower class.

 
Radical concept alert: a minimum wage earner, working forty hours a week, should be able to buy, NOT rent, a home that is adequate, comfortable, and secure.

 
No, that’s not possible in the mortgage model. But mortgages are not the only model of home buying, either. Mortgages, due to the need to protect the bank’s investment, discourage or prevent innovation in housing (and to a degree, in most modern architecture – can you imagine Wright getting a mortgage on Falling Water or the Johnson building?). They need to insure resale value – often without consideration of possible added value (try buying Falling Water at its build price – ha!) because it is so hard to project (hey, let’s be fair here).

 
But homes built at a cost low enough to give the low end access have resale value to that same end of the market. Here consideration has to be given to location – a LOT of consideration. Building inexpensively in Detroit is foolhardy in today’s market – but Huntsville is desperate for low cost housing to provide for the service workers the city is begging for.

 
Low cost need not mean low quality – IF we use alternative methods of construction that have proven track records. Cob is literally dirt cheap, impossible to burn down, and there are 5 and 6 hundred year old buildings still used as residences – that’s a track record! Concrete has been in use longer and if the aqueducts are any indication, wears pretty well. Modern three D printing has brought a new twist – the printed concrete home – which harkens back to Edison’s poured concrete home. The material cost is still fairly low – tech needs to prove itself a bit – but the possibility of making a livable, inexpensive home from concrete that isn’t a bad block construct is real.

 
Auburn’s Rural Studio has been doing experimental architecture for decades – student driven. Granted, they get some mixed results – the 15 foot paper retaining wall coming immediately to mind. I don’t know what happened with the giant planter project -but as the support for several tons of wet dirt was to be provided by nailed in shakes – nailed from the outside – I don’t imagine that went well.

 
But at least they had the guts to try. And more of their projects have worked than not: houses constructed of concrete and whatever happened to be on hand; houses constructed of carpet; pretty much anything they had enough of, they gave it a try – and a lot of them worked.

 
That’s not a model for housing a large number of people – but it is a resource of materials and constructions that might be more useful than believed. So are the many ‘do-it-yourself’ folks – tons of projects that have been constructed and can be examined (with the owner’s consent, of course) to see how well the materials/methods worked and what, if any, corrections/alterations need be made to make them work better. There are probably other organizations/schools out there that have done similar experiments/constructions – the point is we need not re-invent the wheel in order to scale up!

 
I am not a believer in the ‘entry level job’ – take a trip down to Wal-mart. Are most of the faces you see young? Sometimes – and sometimes you see a heck of a lot of older, middle aged and even elderly doing a lot more than saying ‘Welcome to Wal-mart’. Your entry level job is whatever job you land first. That’s the one that teaches you what the work world is like – and it makes no difference if it’s minimum wage or Fortune 500. The days of working your way to the top of one company are gone – most employers are looking for people who have left jobs in the last three to five years and wonder what’s wrong with those who work for a single employer longer.

 
So, if the employment model is changing, then the housing model has GOT to change with it. Let’s look at Huntsville. Hit Indeed and you can find thousands of available service/retail jobs – many offering decent pay and benefits because it is very much a seller’s market. But look over at the classifieds – housing rentals are astronomical. The jobs might support them – most probably not – but they absolutely won’t support the moving into the area that the job market desperately needs. No one working for Wal-mart in Troy is going to be able to afford the rent/down payment on a house, even very low end, in Huntsville.

 
Employers remain desperate for workers. Outlying communities take up some of the slack – but that requires a good car. Workers want to move there – they want the jobs – but you can only commute so far and Huntsville is not likely to fill its employment needs any time soon.

 
What would happen if workers could buy houses instead? Now they have equity toward a move if the job market fails. Starter homes – not the cheap nonsense we think of today but real homes – make it easier to transition to new job markets, even if the house they are leaving can’t be sold right away.

 
More to the point, buying a home begins the process of building wealth.
Imagine a minimum wage worker who buys a home and has it paid for in five years. Unlike the car, it won’t need replacing unless the job market becomes unworkable. Now he has a little expendible income. Part of that no doubt goes into other necessities, little luxuries and household expenses – but it opens the possibility of actually saving money, too. Over time, as income increases and savings acrue, investment becomes a real option.
Maybe our guy never becomes manager at Wal-mart – maybe he just happens to be the best danged stocker they ever have – or maybe he moves on to a series of similar jobs – so what? He works for his living like anyone else – why shouldn’t he have the same options, if not the same resources? So he never buys a yacht – few of us ever will – but he should be able to house, clothe, feed and grow his family and his wealth so that the state doesn’t have to support him. We need a model for housing that starts him on his way.

 
With a concrete mixer, a dump loader, a few tons of clay, straw and water, I can build a house that will be structurally stable, comfortable to live in and roomy enough that the bathroom isn’t under the staircase. With the same mixer, a really, really big three D printer and a lot of concrete, I can build a house more quickly with the same features.

 

There are even more ways than those – what we need now is a way to take them off the drawing board and build houses normal people, college kids ($350 a month for a bedroom is INSANE), minimum wage workers, and anyone who is has an income can afford to buy.

Making Your Building Part of Your Marketing: The Necessary Evil – Bathrooms

I honestly think that small business owners and the architects that work with them think these things are the spawn of the devil. It’s invariably shoved in a corner that was probably originally on the plans as ‘storage’ until the contractor pointed out that if they didn’t put a bathroom somewhere the building inspector wasn’t going to pass them.

Guys, speaking as a woman with a very opinionated bladder – this is DUMB! Bathrooms can make a difference in where customer’s chose to spend their money. A customer with mobility issues – even if they can walk – isn’t going to chose a business where the bathroom makes it difficult or impossible to do their business! The first time they encounter a difficulty will be the last time they shop there – or stay long enough to make a few impulse buys.

A lot of the big retailers have caught on. Wal-mart’s bathrooms are showing a lot of improvement – gone are the stark white walls and the impossible to turn off sinks. Similar changes are being made in other major retailers as they update their stores.

Granted, a small business can’t update the bathroom just because – but when you are planning a new building or otherwise remodeling, it’s time to think about making that necessary evil into an asset.

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Number One: We Ain’t All Size Zero

Join the 21st Century – most Americans are significantly larger – both in height and waistline – than their ancestors. The building codes haven’t always kept up. If you want to increase you maintenance costs – and you shouldn’t – then by all means make tiny stalls so you can stuff more stalls in the same space. Just do NOT be surprised that toilets have to be reseated on a regular basis.

In truth, toilets that have been properly seated shouldn’t need to be reseated for several years and then only if something goes wrong. What happens instead is that the stalls are too small and customers end up using the toilet itself to push off of in order to get up. All that extra wiggling plays havoc with the bolts and the wax ring. Eventually, one if not both fail and you’re calling a plumber.

And you’re probably having to rehang paper dispensers and trash cans for the exact same reason.

Make stalls large enough that even large customers can get their feet under them – they will be less likely to use your toilet and fixtures as handrails!

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Number Two: Accessibility is for Everyone!

One handicapped stall just doesn’t cut it – there are a lot of people with money in their pockets and mobility issues. They can’t use the tiny stalls with no handrails – or if they do, they are having a heck of a time getting the job done.

Of course, only a small number of people are in wheelchairs even temporarily – so while it might not make sense to build more than one wheelchair accessible stall, the remaining stalls can be made accessible for those with less significant mobility needs. Handrails where they can be reached and used will save enormous wear and tear on the fixtures! They will also encourage shoppers to hang around and shop – knowing that if nature calls they can answer without learning new gymnastics!

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Number Three: Every Part Counts!

Your building’s bathroom is as much a part of the store as the storefront glass windows – and it can contribute to your marketing!

A person with mobility or medical issues needs to be able to use the facilities like anyone else. But they will frequently judge a retail business by its restrooms. If the restrooms are accessible but ugly they will win out against a similar outlet with gorgeous restrooms of limited accessibility.

But you are trying to appeal to as many potential customers as possible –  the able bodied and not so able bodied alike like nice things – a comfortable, good looking and accessible bathroom is a selling point. Even healthy people have to go sometime – and knowing that your company cared enough to make even the restroom appealing may well make the difference between shopping with you or shopping with your competitor!

This is a good time to mention the men’s room in particular. Guys may not be shy but they do like a little privacy – consider adding small stall walls between urinals just to make it a little more comfortable.

 

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Number Four: It’s WHERE?!?!

Look at what major retailers do and follow suit. Wal-mart builds football field sized stores – and puts restrooms on both ends. Frankly, the largest box stores need to up their game and add a few more locations but the point is that they recognize that their customers need to be able to get to the facility.

Your store may not be that big but don’t make going to the restroom into an adventure. No customers appreciate a maze just to get where to go when they need to go. And whatever else you do make sure that the hall/access way stays clear! You customer may climb over boxes once out of desperation – but they will go to your competitor’s nice, open, and accessible store the next time.

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Number Five: Ack, there’s no _________!

You can install a residential toilet paper holder – but unless your business has no traffic at all you’ll never keep up with maintaining it. Spend the money and get good retail dispensers – and not just toilet paper. Hand soap, towels, seat covers – whatever supplies you are going to provide make sure the fixtures for them are large and accommodate a good supply. A beautiful, well lit, accessible bathroom with no toilet paper is not going to win you customers. A beautiful, well lit, accessible bathroom with tiny residential fixtures looks cheap – and defeats the purpose of all the money you spent making it a nice bathroom in the first place.

If you opt for hand dryers, get good ones – customer’s don’t want to walk out of your bathroom with wet hands – or hand prints on their pants. Also, spend a little time checking out the manufacturer – unreliable machines are just maintenance headaches and annoy customers on top of it.

You don’t need to cover the walls in marble – but you do need a comfortable, accessible bathroom if you are open to the public. A little extra effort will pay off in customer retention!