By Michael Howell
The house that Daniel and Katherine Ray built is a philosophical statement as much as it is an abode. It bespeaks a devotion to the basic and simple things in life, to the organic, to an eco-friendly lifestyle, and to the ultimate in thriftiness. The couple was able to build their livable, energy efficient, Hobitt-like, sod-roofed home, in Dan’s parents’ backyard near Stevensville for a cash outlay of only $4,000. No, it’s not a typo. And the cash outlay did not have to come “up front.” The cash was put down piecemeal as the project moved along.
Of course, the flip side of the miniscule cash investment is the labor that goes into it. Lots and lots of labor. But for Daniel and Katherine, it’s a labor of love and that makes all the difference in the world. And they ended up with a home without a mortgage! That’s a big deal for any young couple. Or even any old couple.
The basic building materials for what is called a “cob house” are fairly inexpensive. They consist of clay, sand and straw. According to Daniel, the ratio is 20 or 30 parts clay to 70 or 80 parts sand and “as much straw as you can get.” It’s the straw that costs. The sand and clay you can probably get from the place you build on. He said the soil at the site is usually good enough in the Bitterroot, but it can be tested to be sure.
His house is a little taller than one story and has a small loft. He said cob houses are usually one and half stories but in England there are many two-story cob homes and in India they build cob structures up to eight or even nine stories tall.
The building starts with a rock and gravel foundation to provide good drainage at the base. The foundation needs to extend fairly high above the ground. The house also needs a greater overhang than most stick homes. It needs a good two to three feet of overhang to ensure that the walls are not going to get dripped or splashed upon.
The clay, sand and straw used on the Ray house was all mixed with water and foot stomped until elastic and then put down in layers on top of a gravel and rock foundation. The house is round but covers a little under 350 square feet. Daniel said the walls went up about four to six inches per day. It took four or five months to complete. The floors, benches and counter tops are made out of the same stuff and plastered over. They used a little horse manure in the finishing plaster and finished it off with a coat of elise, a hard finish paint.
Once the walls were up, Daniel got some trees off his neighbor’s property to use as roof rafters. Waste lumber from building sites was used to finish the roof. The result is a roof strong enough to hold a pond liner and a lot of sod.
The pond liner was one of the biggest out-of-pocket expenses for the house. It cost $1,000, one quarter of the cost of the entire house. Daniel said it has a 50-year guarantee in the sunlight, but it won’t be getting any on his roof because it’s covered in sod and grass.
The windows and doors were purchased from Habitat for Humanity. Another good deal.
But the main cost was simply for the tools. Daniel said this was a bit unexpected. But the cost of shovels, a circular saw, a screw gun, a lot of tarps, all adds up.
Daniel said that by camping on his parents’ property while they built the house they saved $1,000 per month in rent. It took about five months to build the house.
“By camping out we saved more than what it cost to build the house,” said Daniel.
Another cost saving measure was that no septic permit was required because there is none. No plumbing and no drainfield. A person could look at this as a drawback, but Daniel doesn’t. Keep it simple, remember. Daniel notes that most people have been brainwashed into believing that you need gallons upon gallons of fresh water to deal with your excrement. But he says you don’t. All you really need is a good composting toilet. He made his own. He used hard wood for the toilet seat and structure and a five gallon catch basin. Next to the toilet is a bin of sawdust and a bucket full is dumped on top of the excrement instead of flushing it. Daniel swears that the sawdust actually works and that their bathroom doesn’t smell any worse than anybody else’s. The toilet contents get emptied into a compost bin out back made out of wooden pallets. It can be used as fertilizer.
If you aren’t convinced, go to www.montanacobcottage.blogspot.com and Daniel will explain it in more detail, complete with pictures.
He and Katherine haul in water for drinking. They have plans for a solar heated shower and bath.
The house is heated by a rocket mass heater that Daniel built himself. There is a burning chamber about as big as an oil barrel but the chimney does not come out the top. It comes out the side of the stove and, in this case, runs through a bench constructed along the walls and back before exiting the house. The stove burns at an extremely high temperature, about 800 degrees. The bench collects and releases that heat into the home.
A propane camp stove was installed for cooking. He said one five-gallon tank of propane lasts them a few months.
Things worked out so well at the experimental house they built on their parents’ property that the two began to look for some property of their own. It had to be affordable. It took a lot of looking. But they found it. Five acres with lots of water. They built a woven fence around it and planted some fruit trees. Plans have already been drawn up for a 600 square foot house built out of a combination of cob and straw bale construction. The walls will be about three feet thick. Of course, they will take their time. And of course, it will be a whole lot of work. Construction is set to begin next spring.
Daniel is excited about the move. He is also interested in sharing what he knows.
“A lot of people don’t know that you can buy a half acre of land and then build a house on it for just a few thousand dollars,” he said. “They just don’t even think it’s an alternative. But it is.”
He said cob houses are cheap and can be built without getting into debt. They are long lasting and easy to clean and repair. They are environmentally friendly and can be built almost entirely out of locally available material.
Daniel said that it was more than just having a house without a mortgage though, it was a whole lifestyle.
“There are a lot of things that people think they need just in order to get by, but they really don’t. It’s nice to know what you really need.”
Daniel and Katherine plan to document the whole process of building their next home and, hopefully, come up with a good book and video that can be used for educational purposes.
“I’d like to see this kind of building take off around here,” said Daniel.