The Cob Shed

 A touch of Tolkien emerges at Kits demo garden

By Justin Beddall
Westender newspaper
July 17, 2003 

If John Freeman's dented blue pick-up truck had a bumper sticker, it might read: "Cob builders do it with their hands and feet."

Today, Freeman is demonstrating the ancient method of cob building. But the lanky builder has to take off his Blundstones first.

Cob building, he explains, uses a mixture of clay, sand and straw, to form lumps - or "cobs" - that are used as a primary building material.

The cob recipe calls for 70 per cent sand, 30 per cent clay and some added straw, but it must be mixed properly by foot for about 15 minutes.

"You put the dry ingredients on a tarp, add water and mix it with your feet like you're crushing grapes," he says, otherwise, "You don't get a good mix."

In June, Freeman, his staff, and several volunteers started building a cob garden shed - a far too humble name for the structure straight out of Tolkien's imagination emerging at City Farmer's Demonstration Garden in Kitsilano. The project came out of one society member's failed attempt to find a shed that blended with the community garden's environment. She decided to contact Freeman instead.

John Freeman works on the roof. Sculptress adds relief to the building.

John Freeman works on the roof. Sculptress adds relief to the building.

For Freeman, a green builder who studied landscape architecture at the University of Toronto, there is one important criterion for sustainable building: "It should last for a very long time. And this shed should last a long time." In England, he explains, there are cob buildings that have been lived in continuously for more than 600 years.

Using local materials - thus minimizing transportation costs and pollutionÑis also essential to "natural building."

For this project, the clay came from a City Works excavation project a few hundred feet away, the sand from a local gravel pit and the stones from Squamish.

Freeman first was introduced to cob at a workshop in Victoria back in 1997. "It just made a lot of sense to me. It struck me as the right way of dealing with issues of sustainability and aesthetics and blending them together."

Now, his company, ERTH Design Consultants, specializes in design and construction using cob and other natural materials. So far, he's spearheaded several green projects across the province, including a cob garden shed for an environmental group in Victoria and a 1,700-round-feet cob house on Denman Island.

He hopes that the 80 round-foot tool shed at 6th Ave. and Maple will serve a practical and educational purpose for the many visitors to the community garden, especially young children.

When completed, the tool shed will have a living green roof, a surrounding bench area and an impressively sculpted cob cooking oven. It will be festooned with a relief sculpture depicting the stratification beneath the topsoil surface: rocks, roots, old fossils, shells and some gnome-like creatures. The door to the structure is a work of art itself, resembling a rounded ship's hull, and several inches thick.

Although his latest cob building will be the first in a public space in Canada, Freeman says there are dozens of cob dwellings from Bella Coola to New Mexico, ranging in size from 300 to 700 round-feet.

City Farmer executive Mike Levenston believes that the new cob shed will be popular amongst community garden-goers.

"It's going to be a focal point," he said Thursday.

Freeman, meanwhile, hopes the new Hobbit-like shed will plant a seed of interest in cob building around Vancouver. (The cover feature of the latest Cottage magazine reveals that cob buildings are popping up all over Mayne Island.)

"It's just a matter of time," Freeman says, sliding his Blundstones back on.

More information about the cob shed here.

Michael Levenston