We began construction on our project May 1, 2010. Of course, there was a lot of research and planning work that went into it in the year leading up to this. (Check out the About Us page to learn a bit about our lives before we began this project).
We wanted to build a vacation spot which provided the 3 things we were always looking for in a Vancouver Island getaway, but could never seem to find. First and foremost, it had to be truly eco-friendly; both in its building construction and in the utilization of off-grid systems. Next, it needed to afford the kind of privacy that you can’t find at a B&B, or one of those resorts where the cabins are as close together as the houses on your street. And finally, it must be in a location which showcased the natural beauty of the west coast, with spectacular views and inspiring hikes right outside the door. It took a year of searching before we were fortunate enough to find all of these things at Stoltz Bluff: Eco-Friendly, Private, and Breathtaking.
Our overall vision for this project was to create a place which would open people’s minds to the many possibilities for living a sustainable lifestyle. We wanted to prove just how beautiful and comfortable eco-living can be by offering a space where people could stay to experience it first-hand. When our guests leave with new ideas and inspiration, we have accomplished this goal. Living off-grid in an earthen home may not be right for everyone, but our hope is to encourage people to be conscious about how they live and to spread this consciousness far and wide.
When it came to deciding what style of construction we would use to make the building as eco-friendly as possible, we researched and considered many options. For Christmas 2009, all we wanted was books on eco-building and off-grid systems, and we got our wish. In the end, of course, we chose to build with cob; a mixture of clay, sand, and straw. We compared all our options with a logical and open-minded perspective, and cob building won out for a number of reasons. We were aware that this style of building is not very well accepted in most of North America and that many people attach a certain stigma to “mud” houses. We knew that our development and building project was ambitious in itself (considering we had never done anything like this before!), and that choosing to build with cob would add a great deal of challenge and risk to the project. We wanted to build a load-bearing cob home, meaning that there would be no wood frame, or post and beam structure, just the “mud” walls to support the roof. From the research we had done, we knew this was something which had only been code-approved once before in a seismic area in Canada (and likely North America). That project, eco-sense, had to overcome many challenges in the areas of building code, structural engineering, and insurance – and we are very thankful that they did! Along with these major obstacles, we also had to worry about acquiring a mortgage for our home; something which we could find no precedent for in this country. Financing turned out to be the most difficult aspect for us to overcome, but with the help of other open-minded and dedicated people, this all-important piece came together and we were finally able to breathe a bit more regularly again and begin our return to a “normal” life.
Of all the options, why in the world did two “regular” people such as ourselves choose to build a vacation getaway on a beautiful piece of property out of mud? Many people who came to the site during construction were curious about this. Of course, at that point, who could blame them? If you don’t know very much about cob, it is hard to visualize that the muddy-walled structure with straw sticking out and sprouting all around could ever make a desirable home. We heard comments such as… “well, if that’s the way people want to live…” (with a raised eyebrow, head-shake, and seriously confused look on the face). So, for those who can’t fathom how we could consider this a “logical” choice, here are the reasons…
- Sustainable Materials – Cob is made from natural organic materials which are locally available, require no processing to use, and can return straight to the earth at the end of a building’s life. It also doesn’t take decades or generations to re-grow like trees, and load-bearing cob buildings use much less wood than conventional wood-frame construction.
- Indoor Air Quality – Cob walls are completely free from the many chemicals which are all too common in wood-frame wall systems. They do not have plastic vapour barriers and are naturally breathable, so there is no need for expensive HVAC systems (which can harbour mold) to keep the indoor air fresh.
- Energy Efficiency – Cob has excellent thermal mass properties, which means it can hold heat and cold for a long period of time. This property naturally keeps a building warm in the winter and cool in the summer when combined with proper passive solar design. In conventional houses, it is the air that we attempt to keep hot or cold, then we do our best to seal everything in. Air cannot hold heat nearly as efficiently as mass, and so this becomes a losing battle, which again forces us to rely on HVAC systems for fresh air exchange.
- Humidity Control – Cob is hygroscopic, meaning that it absorbs and holds moisture in the surrounding environment. This property allows it to naturally regulate indoor humidity to a healthy and balanced level. Unlike other materials, such as wood and drywall, moisture in the walls cannot grow mold.
- Seismic Performance – Tests have shown that cob structures perform incredibly well in earthquake conditions. Cob is a very strong material, and the straw in the mixture acts like tiny “rebar”, doing an amazing job of holding the wall together under force and pressure. The curvilinear architecture found in many cob buildings further improves it’s seismic performance.
- Fire-proof – It’s very simple… clay and sand will not catch fire; wood and many other materials will. The straw in cob is coated by clay, which makes it resistant to fire as well.
- Quiet – The solid, two foot thick walls of a cob building and the sound-absorbing properties of earthen materials create a peaceful indoor environment.
- Comfortable – There’s something about cob buildings… it’s difficult to define, but many people find them very relaxing and enjoyable to be inside of. Maybe it’s the natural lines, as opposed to the hard and angular ones found in conventional construction. Maybe it’s the way earthen material cleanses the air. Maybe it’s the solid strength of the walls and the feeling of permanence that they evoke. Whatever it is, there’s a unique sense of well-being that can be experienced in these structures.
- Artistic – Since cob is a free-form material which you mold with your hands, the creative possibilities are endless. It easily lends itself to artistic expression through shapes and features which would be impossible and/or expensive and time-consuming to create with other materials. Building with it also makes you “feel” like an artist or a sculptor, as you create a structure which is one-of-a-kind.
- Do-It-Yourself – Making cob and building with it does not require extensive training and can be done by almost anyone. This point is a bit misleading though… the “low-skill-level” aspect of cob building was a prime reason why we chose this style, since we felt we did not have enough knowledge of conventional construction methods. While people of all ages can build with cob, there is definitely a lot to be learned to perfect the technique. It is also hard labour – there’s a reason why western societies switched to light, wood-frame construction!
- Affordable – Clay and sand can often be sourced for free, either from the site itself, or a nearby one where it’s being excavated in order to get at a more valuable resource. Straw is an agricultural waste product, and so can be purchased at very low cost. Compared with the lumber, insulation, drywall, vapour barrier, rain screen, and other materials which are required for a wood-frame wall system, cob walls are very affordable; especially when you add in the ability to do-it-yourself… if you’re not afraid of some hard labour!
- Long-lasting – There are cob buildings which have survived for thousands of years, and some in Europe have been continuously occupied for over 800 years. One of our favourite aspects of cob is knowing that what we’ve built will last for many, many generations to come. So much of our modern day architecture is not built for longevity; especially our homes, which have an average lifespan of 50 years before they require major renovation or demolition. A city without variation in the age of its architecture is a city without character. The desire to leave behind something that will outlive us is just human nature. It can take the form of producing offspring to carry on our genes, or building a monument to remember and preserve a person or event in history. We feel that beautiful, long-lasting architecture, whether it be the great pyramids, or your own family home, also has the ability to pass on something meaningful for future generations to enjoy and treasure.