A Modern Ancient Home

Ziggy's cob home is now completed and occupied. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia
After nine months of full time labor, Ziggy's cob home is now completed and occupied. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia

The first thing that attracted me to this cottage was the way it seemed to grow out of the earth.

The walls of the home in northeastern Missouri, recently featured on TreeHugger, are built out of cob, “a building material consisting of clay, sand, straw, water, and earth, similar to adobe,” according to Wikipedia. “Cob is an ancient building material, that may have been used for construction since prehistoric times.” The roof is of the living, breathing and growing variety — called reciprocal — capable of producing juicy strawberries.

So my first impression wasn’t that far off.

The second thing that I found appealing was the almost exclusive use of natural, recycled or donated building materials in an off-the grid setting. Not much new material went into the 360 square feet cottage, affectionately called GOBCOBATRON by owner Brian Liloia. Mr. Liloia, in turn, is affectionately called Ziggy by his friends.

Third in the list of favorite features was the per-square-foot cost: under $9.00 or about $3,000.00 for the one-room dwelling. This is not a typo. The actual cost was Three Thousand Dollars. The owner accomplished this by working himself full time (“I stomped 219 batches of cob for the walls of my house by foot…”) on the project for approximately nine months. Ziggy also secured the assistance of over 75 work exchangers, visitors, and friends. Here’s a list of materials and their costs:

Foundation wall was made out of recycled concrete. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.
Foundation wall was made out of recycled concrete. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.
  • sand (just over 30 tons total) – $507
  • gravel (about 13 tons total) – $177
  • straw (16 bales) – $36 (most straw I used was free)
  • black walnut scrap lumber – $100
  • misc. lumber – $20
  • windows – $220 (two casement, one double hung window)
  • electrical – $28
  • galvanized wire – $30
  • nails – $100 (I couldn’t believe how expensive nails are)
  • raw linseed oil (for floor) – $72
  • EPDM pond liner $622
  • polycarbonate for skylight $400

plus $70 for firebricks and $228 for a flue pipe for the rocket stove.

A satisfied -- and tired -- homeowner/builder after the completion of the cob walls. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.
A satisfied -- and tired -- homeowner/builder after the completion of the cob walls. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.

I asked Ziggy a few questions about his experience via email.

JM: What is your background/experience in design and construction?

Ziggy: I have had little experience with natural building and construction before building my house. When I moved to Dancing Rabbit, I helped other members with work on their cob kitchen for three months, so I picked up some good experience there, but that was pretty much the extent of it.

JM: How did you hear about Dancing Rabbit?

Ziggy: As a senior in college, I conveniently stumbled upon a link to Dancing Rabbit’s website and was pretty immediately hooked on the concept of living in an off-the-grid community. (In fact, I was almost sure I would end up living at Dancing Rabbit or a similar community within the future during that initial visit.)

JM: Do you have a lease on the land under GOBCOBATRON?

Ziggy: All 280 acres that Dancing Rabbit owns is set up as a land trust, so no one individual owns the land. As a member, I am indeed able to lease a small portion of that land. I pay about $23 a month to lease a “warren” (plot of land, with my house and garden) that is roughly 2500 square feet. (Pretty good deal!)

Reciprocal roof framing. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.
Reciprocal roof framing. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.

JM: How did you come up with the name for your place?

Ziggy: The name “GOBCOBATRON” came about during a pretty silly conversation about my house with two of my work exchangers last year. I wish I could remember the exact flow of events that lead to Dan uttering GOBCOBATRON, but it definitely stuck! (I think we were imagining the house as a massive earthen robot god, maybe…?)

JM: How much time planning your home and how much time actually building–from groundbreaking to moving in?

Ziggy: I did all of the design work over the winter of 2008, and broke ground on April 19, 2008. I moved in on July 11, 2009. I calculated that I spent about 9 months of full time labor doing actual construction during that timeframe. No small task! (I was fortunate to literally have all of my time last year to devote to building, so it went rather quickly, as far as cob goes… many people have been surprised at how quickly it all happened.)

Interior view of cob cottage. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.
Interior view of cob cottage. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia.

JM: What’s your favorite thing about your cob home and what is the least favorite?

Ziggy: Favorite? Well, I have no single favorite thing about my house itself… other than perhaps the living reciprocal roof (which is great to climb and watch the sunset from), but do I love to remember the building process itself and all of the people that have helped during construction as I look around my home. I have many fond memories that I doubt I’ll ever forget. Least favorite? I’ll get back to you on that.

JM: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

Ziggy: Well, I’d like to say something about the choice of materials for my home. It was of utmost importance to me to use nearly entirely local and natural building materials — clay from our soil, straw from local farmers, lumber from our woods, etc. I am happy to say that almost all of the materials in my cob home are either natural or reclaimed, with the exception of the EPDM pond liner (and a few other small exceptions like the skylight material), which acts as a waterproof membrane under the living roof. If it was something synthetic, it was otherwise probably recycled (like my recycled concrete foundation). Another goal of mine was to use zero new concrete. (Concrete is the second most consumed material on the planet — second only to water! Scary stuff, especially since the manufacturing process is so toxic.)

I think it’s of absolute importance that we start to think about building in relationship to our immediate environment — using materials that are actually available to us without traveling across the globe, or cutting down huge swaths of precious forest. And obviously, we need to consider building with more natural materials. Let’s look to vernacular architecture for inspiration! Besides that, there’s nothing quite like living in a home that you’ve built with your hands, using materials that you dug from the earth.

Mosaic offers artistic welcome. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia
Mosaic offers artistic welcome. Image courtesy of Brian Liloia

If you have any interest in learning more about Ziggy’s experience here’s a link to his very detailed-well documented website The Year of Mud: Building a Cob House. He’s currently at work building a cob oven to go with the cob house.

You can learn more about Dancing Rabbit EcoVillage right here.

Learn more about the community land trust concept from the originator of the idea, the Institute for Community Economics here.

And if you’re interested in the Small House Movement, the Tiny House Blog is a good resource.

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