Last summer, Mentor Graphics in Wilsonville, OR wanted to bring the natural world into their classroom.

Sarabel and I

Sarabel Eisenfeld and I arrived for a design meeting and listened to the ideas of Dawn Kenney and Gillian Brune, the lead teacher and program director, respectively. Inspired by a cob tree in another preschool’s basement classroom, they were unsure what design would be most appropriate for their own school. It wasn’t so much a tree that they wanted, but the allusion to the natural world using earthen building materials, the opportunity for the children themselves to get dirty and build with us, and the introduction of more visual height amidst surroundings that were mostly low and uniform.

Plastered and finished

So, using sketches and our bodies to feel out the space, we ultimately chose a structure that acted somewhat like a wall, working in conjunction with a bookcase to form a separate play area within their larger, open space. We created a structure of curving, swooping topography, with lots of nooks  to hide within, get small inside, run toys along, and an arch to crawl through.

Although during the year the children using the room range from infants to preschoolers, our building helpers were a group of 6 to 10 year olds in the last week of their summer camp. Their contribution is intended as a gift of service to the younger kids who are usually in the class space, some of whom are their siblings.

Sarabel introducing the kids to clay slip

At Mentor Graphics, they emphasize experiential, explorative learning utilizing many styles. They value moral and personal development, beginning with the basis that children are already whole and competent.

Half-way done

As we brought a mess of mud and straw into the classroom, it was interesting to observe the parent’s reactions. Some were fascinated from afar, some confused, “Why not just buy a wall?”, but my favorite parents walked up to the structure, examined it all over and asked their child which part they’d built.

Kids Cobbing in the School-yard

While the footprint and shape that it took were almost exactly what we had envisioned, our methods of building actually dictated their own organic form.

Side image of the cove

On the left, we used cob- great for creating nooks and windows. However, the other side of the arch, was made using straw wattles woven around sticks chosen from the nearby forest by the kids.

The straw wattle wall (using red clay slip), half-way done

This caused undulations in the walls of what became a hiding cove, and formed odd shapes for windows.

Once we cut off the remaining sticks and plastered it, the top had a way of smoothly rising and falling, inviting touch and all kinds of imaginitive play.

Thanks to Sarabel for many of these pictures and Auguste Mann for connecting us with the job and giving guidance along the way!

Last month, my mom, my aunt and I hopped in the car and visited Carole Crews on the mesa outside of Taos, NM. Mom and I attended her workshop on fine natural finishes. (It was my second visit to see her. Here’s last year’s post about her dome and artwork.)

Carole Crews

Carole brought her version of the modern day Alis coat to the natural building community back in the 90’s.  Treat yourself to her knowledge and read her book on the subject, Clay Culture, which also covers restoration, and adobe history in Taos.

carole applying alis

An alis coat blends her pursuit of ease and beauty.  It’s so much less work, Carole will assert, to just paint over a wall who’s color you don’t like, or cover its fine cracks, by using something thin that can be painted on with a brush rather than doing an entirely new coat of plaster.  You can be more economical with your pigments and precious clays too. A person can use up a lot of pigment to tint an earthen plaster that will probably just get muddied down by the soil color, and will need to be 1/4 to 1/2 inch thick. Whereas, make an alis or make a paint, and you’ll need much less pigment and have further coverage on a smaller amount. She’s also spent time developing how to do one coat plasters.

Mica Flakes

Carole is in love with mica as well.  Nearly every wall sparkles with small and big flakes. And why not? There’s a depth to the walls achieved. Natural micaceous clay can be found in the region, and old mica mines have supplied her with some.

workshop participants

The workshop explored this and more. Generally, it was attended by women already building, and looking for inspiration, tips, and a sense of confidence in progressing to finer materials. They also came with their own innovations. One woman, Julie Southerland, showed the group an infill system which she had recently used at her house. She took old clothes that people had discarded, slipped it with a cement mixture, and tamped it in between studs on her walls, creating a highly insulating system, which utilized what would otherwise be a waste resource.

building block made of free box clothes slipped in cement

Another woman, Judith Williams brought us an example of her pumice-crete blocks that she’s been making and using to build her own house. You can follow the blog of her experiences here.

mom scraping old plaster for repair

exterior refreshed with a buttermilk, clay paint

We did repairs on the outside of her dome and on her outdoor bathing area. Because of the extreme exposure that some parts of the building get, in some cases, we were touching up what had been worked on many times before. Nobody’s quite certain how many face lifts the goddess has received.

We experimented with varying plaster needs (more straw to fill out rough walls before finer plaster).

Slipping up Burlap

Wrapping wood with slipped burlap

Different pieces in the process of being sculpted

Applying paint to boards

Michele Pike and her finished product

We also had the option to make our own art pieces. This was a process that involved coating burlap in a clay slip and wheat paste mixture, then folding it on to a piece of wood and letting it dry for our base. The second day, we used a sculpting mix with paper pulp to give it relief. The third, we used clay paints to give them color. I’ll be documenting this more in my book.

Buckets of Material

She has piles of good materials, as most builders tend to have, and one of the goals of the workshop was to delve in and use them up. The participants had the chance to explore all sorts of fine clays, various sands, and fine pigments.

Ultimately, I returned to the dome for another week. This time, all alone. Without internet or company, I found myself finally able to focus on learning the InDesign program that I need to know in order to create this book.

So that’s what focus sometimes takes, complete isolation. it was a beautiful place to be with myself.

To know a space, dance it.  Roll on its ground, do a head stand against its walls, climb into its windows sills.

Inside of Dome

I did this on my second to last night at the Lama Foundation, outside of Taos, New Mexico. Nothing but deep indigo came through the star shaped opening in the ceiling of the central dome, one of Lama’s first buildings. I joined three other women, our forms not much more than shadows and sound. Our feet occasionally stomped out the same rhythm. Air through the screened window was cool, and the mountains in the distance were faint smudges. We softened into sighs and lay down on the wide, wooden floor boards.

One of two Hermitages- built entirely without nails

The Lama Foundation is known for its dome. It’s also known for Ram Dass, who authored Be Here Now while there. It’s a place to go for hermitages, and for retreats of all kinds (this week they have a women’s singing retreat). After the 1996 fire that swept through and burnt many of their structures, it became a place for learning to build with natural materials. Currently, they’re focused more on permaculture, but eventually they’ll probably start building again to house the growing number of winter residents.

Entrance to Meditation Space

Inside the Meditation Space. People sit in two concentric circles on the earthen floor.

The culture is one of intention, and openness. The community sits together in meditation in the morning, following that by coming together in “heart tuning” before starting their day- forming a circle in the dome, and sharing where they’re at emotionally. From this, they eat a fabulous meal and go into their daily seva, which means selfless service.

While I was there, I helped Michele Pike  with the Cottage Industries building, which houses their business ventures such as the screen printing of their prayer flags. On the light-straw-clay walls we did a scratch coat, and an alis, which is a very fine layer done with a brush over finish plaster.

Michele and Roya Mixing the Alis

A light green alis

Before doing any job together, (be it kitchen cleaning, or plastering), the small group takes hands and someone leads the setting of an intention- bringing in people’s focus and energy. There was a nice balance of work with a sense of place in community- knowing how others  feel, and hearing them speak to their own process of seeking spiritual awareness. The atmosphere was of self-questioning combined with peace.

A perfectly kid sized cob playhouse

Mostly though, I was inspired by the little touches that were everywhere. It’s obvious that when people create there, they do it to the best of their ability, with a sense of  beauty and time in what they’re doing. Everywhere a person looks, they’ll see attention and care in the form of details.

I enjoyed finding my place in the community, if only for a week and a half; singing together before meals and dancing in the spaces created.

One of many stained glass panels

Good Cob Gone Wrong

Let’s be honest. Cob can both look terrible and perform poorly. This is not its fault.

south wall- before

Trillium south wall after plaster and roof

Much of the work in natural building really comes down to finishing it, both helping to define the structure’s beauty and protect it.
And when that’s not properly attended to, it finds itself getting a mighty bad rep.

We need to avoid this.

finished bench with roof and mosaic

Plaster it! Roof it! Factor this in! In my increasing experience as a City Repair coordinator, I’m finding it ever more important to be clear with hopeful projects from the start. We need to be upfront and fully explain that plastering and roofing are a necessity. Both need to be included when budgeting time and costs.

bench before plaster

I had the chance last spring to lead the replastering of a 74 ft cob wall built during the VBC  ’10 at Trillium Charter School in Portland. Simultaneously, Auguste Mann, and Fezzo were busy roofing benches built into the wall, allowing the blue tarps to finally come down. Meg Klepp, a talented artist and parent at Trillium, led the mosaicking of two of the benches.

Trillium is a high profile spot. It’s on Interstate, a four-lane street where a major transit line runs. Built to create more play space, and shield students from the sound and danger of a very busy street, it’s the first thing one sees when arriving at the school.

A Medley of Volunteers Building During VBC'10

Last year, their community came together with direction from the Mudgirls (a building cooperative from Canada) in the kind of way that makes VBC so worthwhile. It was one of the most successful projects.  The school has an incredibly supportive and involved faculty and parent team.
Luckily, the need to finish the  wall was felt by everyone, both as an important act of completion for Trillium and to uplift what was truly a beautiful wall underneath it all.

scraping the wall by the light of the street lamp

It had been plastered by kids at the school in the fall, but due to crumbling and coverage, needed a coat made of finer material. I scraped off the crumbling plaster, opened up some of the window niches, did a bit of repair, and knotched out the edge where the foundation meets the cob. One of the most important aspects of finishing a building is creating well defined transitions between materials.

This work of cob repair, protection, and beautification is one that I passionately feel is essential. In the effort of to make natural building seem viable to a curious public, the structures speak for themselves.

north wall plastered

Many people helped and supported this process, especially Mark Lakeman, James Thomson, Auggie, Fezzo, Meg Neal, Polly Christopher, Johanna Norton, the New Seasons Green Team, Tim Lundholm, Don Noe, Knoll Gambone, Sarah Frances Michaelson, Hannah Poirier, Sarah Svati, and Joshua Klyber. Thanks so much. And thanks to Fez for the finished wall pics.

We’re converging! Yesterday, folks began convening in their neighborhoods, at their schools, and on their streets to realize visions that they’ve planned together since January. This VBC, the theme  is “Urban Alchemy: Transforming Spaces into Places.” What do people create when they take on magic together? They’ll be painting streets, planting gardens, building benches and ovens, repairing walls, and mosaicking color into their space.

Arleta Triangle in '05

Arleta Triangle '10

It isn’t always about beginning something new. The annual reality  of the VBC, means that projects will have the opportunity to refresh their paint and revisit what hasn’t been finished from before. In other cultures, it’s perfectly normal to replaster every year. In fact, whole festivals are created to celebrate this. In the new culture that we envision, cycles and commitments are equally as important. This means that we have sites like the Arleta Triangle Project, which has been working for six years to transform an abandoned lot into a intersection in which to gather, play and rest. This week they’ll do cob repair on their bench and build a community kiosk and toolshed, topping it off with a pie social on the fifth.

This is my second year as the Natural Building Coordinator. This time around, it’s the aspect of project renewal that I’m finding myself most interested in. I’m particularly invested in the 70 ft long cob wall at Trillium Charter School that the mudgirls led last year. I’m replastering this wall, and on the second weekend I’ll lead the plaster of a large flower bench that they also built last year.

I have so much more to say about the VBC, so look out for more posts. In particular, I look forward to catching up with the women natural builders of last year…Eva Edleson, Molly Murphy and Auguste Mann of the Mud Girls, Erica Ann, and this year, Erica Ritter Wisner is building an oven with her husband Ernie. (In fact that’s where I’m headed today.)

So, take a look at which sites are near you, and all of the amazing evening presentations that we have planned, and then converge with us!

my room

So much traveling. I thought it might just keep going forever. And while the truth is, I’m hitting the road again for Christmas, this last month I’ve been living officially in the place that I’ll return to come New Years.

A glass piece that I made and wake up to

I’ve hung my stained glass, stretched a clothes line ‘cross my ceiling, shelved my books, created an office nook and called myself home.  My bed faces the sunset, and big windows let in the morning light.

I technically live with five other folks, but it’s been a rolling band of guests and closet dwellers, bringing us to numbers more like 10-13, feeling like one big, lovely, community house.

We share all of the food. Everything. Haven’t seen a labeled name since I’ve been here. We catch sink water to use for flushing toilets. There are ducks and chickens and dance parties, and a sleeping garden, though we did just use some rosemary from it this morning.

bit o' garden, and the chicken house

And with all of that, my room still feels peaceful. I’ve set myself up with a good place to focus on furthering my book with the material that I have.

When it warms up, I hope to be traveling again. Sometimes I feel like a spider as I go…a long, silken thread in my mind, weaving together these people and places as I work on a net to hold it together.


On one wall of my room, a poster (left behind by the last dweller), reads, “We are not afraid of ruins…We carry a new world here, in our hearts…” -Buena Ventura.

Tracy Calvert

It’s been days and weeks since writing about the last inspiring interview, time to update once more. After visiting Dawn Smith, I went on to stay with and interview Tracy Calvert. She, along with Patrick Hennebery and Elke Cole, began Cobworks on Mayne Island. The three came together during a Cob Cottage Co workshop back in 1997. After dotting the islands with dozens of structures, using workshops as their model, they have somewhat gone their various ways. I was lucky enough to get a tour of some of the buildings that Tracy had done with Cobworks, and then also on her own, for the final day of my Canadian visit.

Tracy and I talked about the intangible aspects of the building process. The feeling of knowing from a tingle in the body, how it is to work with certain materials and the original impulse to explore the craft. As an intuitive woman who worked as a massage therapist for ten years before building, what Tracy finds most intriguing has been her own process in learning how to build- and the way that such an experience can inform a person, and help them transform as they face their own issues.

First house built by Cobworks

Spiraling Staircase

Curved Ridge Beam Ceiling Top

Long cob house at Deacon Vale Farm

Interior, lit by pretty bottle lights

Windows and Niches

“There has to be room for our personal growth and the needs of our heart,” she told me. “There’s nothing more important than self-growth and self-actualization, to me. You know, if I’m having trouble because ‘I can’t get this right, god-damnit,’ it’s not about what I’m doing, it’s about my own interior work…I’m having issues about, well, any number of things. To me, that’s a beautiful opportunity for somebody to come along and say, ‘I see you. I see you having trouble here. What do you need?’ Instead of, ‘Okay, well forget it. Don’t touch that anymore. You go over there and do that.’ There needs to be room to be real and of course, there’s a lot of complications that go with that…with being real in this world…I would like to work with people that have experience [in counseling] and we could use natural building as metaphor, to work in that way, and I think one day it will happen when the right people want to get together and create that.”

Tracy's Strawbale House

Her own house was a transformational experience, giving her the chance to treat details with as much care and time as she desired, and to approach the workshops in her own personal way. She crafted something that gives her a deep feeling of accomplishment.

Lots of Windows

Thick strawbale interior hallway

Cob Kitchen and Guest Space on an Organic Farm

“I want people to know that I love natural building, I think it’s fantastic, and yeah, there’s lots of parts to anything that are difficult, and you could philosophize on, and you could wonder about, and you could wish it was a different way, but really ultimately, it’s an incredible medium. You can sculpt a house, you make it out of the earth, and you house yourself based on what you do. You don’t just have culturally embedded ideas of – this is what a house is. You create your space based on what you do and what you love. That’s the most fantastic thing! To create your space where you live, and love, and cry, and just be. And you make it out of the earth. And it’s fantastic.”


Tracy is following a path now of self-scripted happiness. She spends time particularly in her garden and on her stained glass. She spoke to me of how it was to get into the state of creation, and surrender the thinking mind, “I’m just following the places where I get more of that contentment, feeling like I’m close to the creator.”