When we arrived at Hap and Lin's cob cottage in Fairfield, Iowa, we were greeted by a barefoot woman happily pottering around her outdoor kitchen. After shaking our hands in warm greeting, Lin told us she was putting the finishing touches on supper. Instead of letting us help, she urged us to wander around the property as if we owned the place, like Goldilocks would do.
We complied with her suggestion, pleased that we would be free to explore on our own, as pokily as we pleased. There were several homes of various materials and sizes on the family homestead (a large strawbale house, a minuscule cob "room", a tiny wooden beach-style shack on stilts, etc). Ignoring most of them, we quickly set our sights on the 400-square-foot cob cottage that drew us to the place to begin with.
As we walked through the creaky blue door it was like entering a storybook cottage, or like stepping back through time in the most comforting of ways. The slightly uneven, hand-built earthen walls felt cool and welcoming; the dwelling immediately evoked within us a deep feeling of peace. It was less fanciful and more spacious than the cob houses we saw on Salt Spring Island, and it reminded us of the thick, lime-washed cob cottages of Devon and Cornwall.
For a good half an hour, we explored, entranced, poking our heads into every nook and cranny. We snapped photos (that didn't really succeed in capturing the feel of the place) and brainstormed about the house we'd have one day, talking non-stop about our favorite details: the cozy window seat, the staircase (as opposed to a ladder), and the spacious loft. In the words of Goldilocks, the house was just right.
Eventually, after we'd had time to explore to our hearts' content, dinner was ready and we rejoined Lin in the outdoor kitchen/eating area. She had made millet burgers with almond gravy, and a heaping salad of greens picked from the prolific greenhouse on the property. Over supper with our generous hostess, we were able to ask our many questions, and hear the story of why she and Hap built their cob house:
Like us, Hap and Lin were enamored with cob after taking a workshop—their's was at Cob Cottage Company in Oregon. They, too, had learned that cob wasn't "ideal" for cold climates, but they didn't care because they loved it so much. So, about five years ago, they built it anyway, living in a tiny tent for the first few weeks of construction (eventually, they switched to a camper they purchased on eBay).
Lin said that they love their little cob house, and that they don't regret their choice of building material. However, there was one small wrinkle: they move to Florida in the winter. Apparently, the place is freezing in the wintertime. All of the heat generated by their woodstove is sucked straight out of the uninsulated walls if they don't keep the fire going continuously.
"It's a great three season home", Lin told us.
We were crestfallen.
After we'd eaten, Lin gave us a guided tour of the rest of the property. We saw their other, tinier cob cottage, a much larger strawbale house, and an itsy bitsy timber frame structure with slipstraw-infill. We even got a tour of one of the houses in the adjacent intentional community: a humongous, modern, and very particular house, built according to every law of vedic architecture.
The sun was setting over the Iowa plains when we returned to Lin's home, heads full of new ideas about natural building. Though she graciously invited us to camp on the land, we declined the offer, opting instead to finish the drive to my parent's home in Champaign, Illinois. We spent the entire four and a half hours of our drive planning our future home.
By the time we arrived, sleepy and travel-weary, our minds were made up. We decided it simply would not be practical for us to build a cob house in Vermont. Sure, we could do it, and yes, we could make it work, but we'd rather choose a suitable material from the get-go, one that will make sense in our climate.
And thus, we set our sights on strawbale.