Straight from the Source

Build a house with your bare hands


For a home to be truly sustainable, beyond the type of materials used, the method and process of building must also be sustainable, yes? Reason tells us that the means must be in service of the end. Cob builder Jamie Manza laments that this is often not the case with green building. “Many people, including permaculturists, justify using fossil fuels while they still exist, the idea being that with a machine you can make very significant impact in service of future sustainable living.”

Manza builds structures out of all sorts of materials. “You can vary the recipe for different buildings. A lot of it depends on the climate and also the local resources.” Cob is a mixture of clay, straw, and sand. Manza explains, “Sand is what is actually holds the weight—like stones do in a real stone building. Clay holds all the material together and the uniform matrix of straw inside acts as tensile force—like rebar in concrete. Cob is natural concrete, but concrete pollutes and this doesn’t pollute at all.”
“Building by hand without fossil fuel NOW prepares us to build that way when we need to—if you believe in the ticking time bomb theory, which I’m feeling more hopeful about lately.”
Much of what Manza builds in the Northeast are strawbale homes with a cob covering. These are usually built using post and beam construction, where the stacked bales of hay actually constitute the core of the walls. Strawbale buildings provide double the legal requirement for insulation value. We’re talking super insulation—that means cooler in summer and warmer in winter.

Manza explains how to improve insulation and efficiency even more with some simple design modifications, “Ideally, you have south-facing glass and a thermal mass that can absorb heat from the sun.” The important thing to understand here is that cob is essentially a slow-drying masonry building. That means it absorbs heat and then slowly emanates it into the surroundings for a consistent, pleasant temperature. “Air temperature has very little effect on your comfort compared to the thermal heat of your surroundings.”

But he doesn’t stop there, “You could also build down into the earth, call it ‘lo-fi geothermal.’ You can berm whichever side most of the wind comes from, thereby protecting the house.” At depths below four feet, ground temperature stays at a constant 50 to 55 degrees Fahrenheit year-round—a largely untapped resource, in Jamie’s opinion.

“Permaculture is about not using fossil fuels. Translate the slow food movement to building—think building miles, material miles,” he says, referring to the machines and tools, truck deliveries, and material processing that goes into making the standard home.

The cob structure he was working on when we met was being built with stone, clay, and wood from the property itself; local straw bales; and sand from down the road. Manza concedes that he did use a truck to move some of the bigger rocks for the foundation, but the majority he transported by wheelbarrow and placed by hand. Overall a pretty nominal carbon footprint.
The trouble is the short-sighted conception that we’re being more efficient by using heavy equipment.

As he speaks I watch him perch atop a strawbale, molding the cob to form a new segment of wall. Kneading and pulling, he deftly coaxes the clay, rendering the surface smoother and more defined with each pass. The process is surprisingly sensual and intimate I think how it would feel to sit in my home knowing that my own hands touched and sculpted every inch of wall. There is something primordial about it—man builds his shelter.
“Machines break; they need maintenance. Speed rarely improves quality. People use power tools to speed up their process. But the hand is the greatest tool, the most finely tuned instrument.”
The connectedness of this process has an integrity that transcends any standards of sustainability. As there is with all things done by hand. And for this very reason, Manza and his business partner Sean King prefer to teach workshops to people who want to build their own homes than to work as contractors.

“If you can teach people to build their own house and grow their own food, they will live with a level of independence they never knew was possible.”
Photo by Eraj Asadi
For Manza cob building is not a trending market, a crunchy niche. It is an expression of his philosophy and ideals, and it is his solution to the catastrophic state of our environment. “Construction and maintenance of buildings account for about 40% of the CO2 in the atmosphere. Vehicles have a similar footprint, but they only have lifespan of 10 to 15 years, whereas buildings are doing what they’re supposed to for 100 to 200 years. So you get more return on the embodied energy. It’s our envelope. Think about what you want to make your envelope out of. Does any animal go out of their way to make their nest out of plastic and toxic glue?”

Toxicity is a big issue driving the shift to sustainable building. These days every manufactured thing out-gasses—furniture, mattresses, paint, fabric, insulation—you name it. As people get more educated about this process and its health consequences, they are demanding improved indoor air quality. Manza also attributes the heightened interest in green building to the increasingly egregious lack of quality in manufactured goods and their lack of sustainability.
And of course facilitating this whole shift is the resurgence in value for handmade goods, championed by makers, artisans, and craftsfolk. “From an aesthetic point of view, I’d like to have an artist tell me that they can create something more beautiful than nature can. I give the credit to the materials for this, I’m just stacking it up.”
For Manza, the necessary key to better homes and a greener world is working together. “You can replace machines with people, with community. Sustainability will be much more likely when we shift from a system of competition to a system of cooperation. Hire humans instead of machines—people can be taught these building skills as they work, and there is a return on your investment because they learn. With people cost goes down over time as they become more efficient. Machines are the opposite.”
Buckminster Fuller, architect, systems theorist, and inventor of the geodesic dome (among other things), is an inspiration of Manza’s. “He was a radical because he was convinced about human potential.” In 1938, Fuller wrote a book called 9 Chains to The Moon. At that time, the population of the world (then 2.25 billion), standing on one another’s shoulders could make nine chains to the moon. “Nine chains to the moon—by supporting each other and cooperating. Now we have the population to make 27 chains to the moon…”

Jamie Manza is an architect and itinerant cob builder. He studied sustainable building at the Asheville Institute in North Carolina. Manza and his partner Sean King hold cob building workshops throughout the Northeast United States.
Hire humans instead of machines—people can be taught these building skills as they work, and there is a return on your investment because they learn. With people cost goes down over time as they become more efficient. Machines are the opposite.”


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