Thu | Dec 8, 2016

The art of cob

Published:Sunday | February 8, 2015 | 12:00 AM

Paul H. Williams, Sunday Gleaner Writer

From time immemorial, shelter from the elements has always been one of mankind's basic needs, and in primitive times, we turned to nature to provide a roof over our heads. Caves, then, were popular abodes. Prehistoric people dwelled within, and even today, there are still cave dwellers all over the world.

Yet, people have evolved from being cave dwellers to architects using man-made/synthetic materials to construct humble, flattering, magnificent dwellings. But in this postmodern era of architecture, people are still using only natural materials such as cob. It is produced through a process called unburned clay masonry to make their homes, some of which are quite artistic and attractive.

Cob, also spelt cobb, is a composite of sand, clay, and fibrous materials such as straw, grass, animal droppings, or coir (coconut husk fibre). Buildings made with cob are fireproof, resistant to earthquake activities, and cost-effective. They also lend themselves to much creativity as the wet composite can be fashioned and sculpted into thought-provoking, eye-catching works of art.

LONG-LASTING STRUCTURES

Cob buildings dot the globe, even right here in Jamaica. Some have been around for more than 500 years. Some of the oldest man-made structures in Afghanistan are composed of rammed earth and cob. Many old cob buildings can be found in Africa, the Middle East, and some parts of the Eastern United States. A number of cob cottages survive from mid-19th century New Zealand.

And as with every type of construction, there are techniques that are applied to the making of the cob itself and the buildings. Traditionally, English cob was made by mixing the clay-based subsoil with sand, straw, and water, using animals to trample it. The mixture was then ladled on to a stone foundation in courses and trod on to the wall by workers in a process known as cobbing.

The construction would progress according to the time required for the prior course to dry. After drying, the walls would be trimmed and the next course built, with lintels for later openings such as the placement of doors and windows as the walls took shape. And recently, Arts & Education got the chance to see the process of making cob.

The construction would progress according to
the time required for the prior course to dry. After drying, the walls
would be trimmed and the next course built, with lintels for later
openings such as the placement of doors and windows as the walls took
shape. And recently, Arts & Education got the
chance to see the process of making cob.

The occasion
was a tour and demonstration at the Durgas Den Farm at Orange Hill,
Breadnut Hill, St Ann. It's an organic farm, where the use of
non-organic material and nourishment is prohibited. Even the buildings
are made of natural materials. There is a cozy cob cottage and a
functional cob oven. To note, there is also a structure that is made
partially of wattle and daub.

Mario Luna, the man who
did the wattle and daub bit, was present to help show how the cob was
done.

The process started with clay, which is sourced
from the property, being mixed with sand by tossing them in a piece of
tarpaulin. Water was then poured on to the compound, which was trampled
on by shoeless feet for quite a while. Then coir is added. It, too, was
trampled into the compound. After much trampling, the wet cob was placed
into moulds to make 'bricks'. After the bricks were set, they were
removed from the moulds and left to dry.

But making
cob is not a cut-and-dry matte as intimated earlier. The amount of
water, clay, sand, fibre, and trampling is very important. And soon,
Durgas Den Farm will be offering workshops on the art of making
cob.

Photos by Paul H. Williams