Beams, posts and walls oh my….

In between our second and third MudGirls workshop, my brother in law Andreas came over to help Christian start building the loft and heft a couple of posts and beams up.

Christian and Andreas being stubborn did manage to lift one large beam up on their own, but thankfully they came to their senses and called Bob of Galiano Freight to come place the rest. We purchased the beams locally from Sandy Moody who owns and operates the local mill.

Each of the beams had to be connected by Timberlinx which we ordered from a company out of Ontario. They have excellent customer service and were able to get this to us very quickly when we needed them within a short timeframe. Website:

Timberlinx are connection tubes, inserted equally in both members of the joint and linked by two expanding cross pins. They are easily installed using only an electric drill and jig and when complete are embedded. An example of this is below.

What the Timberlinx look like installed

Most of the posts came courtesy of our local beaches. Finding logs off the beach was quite the adventure and often took many people to heft them from the beach: over other logs, slippery sand and rocks into the back of the pickup truck. Our plans called for each of the posts to be at least 8.5 inches in diameter and over 10 feet long. Although the length was a generous estimate and the final length was less than 10 feet in some instances.

My brother in law Andreas testing out the beam

Andreas’ dog Bowie being a back seat driver on the way to the hardware store

The day of the third workshop finally arrived and again much fun was had with a little hard work thrown in. As before, Lindsay our awesome childcare person was there to watch the little ones and entertain us in the evening.

These participants worked just as hard as the other two workshops participants and the walls just kept on going up. At this point people had to climb on scaffolding and up ladders to get to the top of the slip straw and the cob walls.

We also started to put some of the glass bottles in the walls. Remember all those Bombay Sapphire gin bottles I was asking for? Well this is why.

MudGirl Clare showing how to install one of the bottle bricks into the cob

By the end of the week another two or three feet of the cob walls had gone up and several bottles had been placed in the walls as well.

The pieces of wood embedded in the wall are called dead men and will hold our kitchen cabinets in place

How else to celebrate a job well done…jazz hands of course

As always a huge thank you to the MudGirls and all the participants for helping us to build our dream cob/slip straw house. Onwards and upwards….

Workshopping it….

“Success isn’t just about what you accomplish in your life. It’s also about what you inspire others to do.” – author unknown

Part One

If you’ve been to the MudGirls website (or attended a workshop) you know all about the workshops they hold each year to teach and facilitate natural building. If not, never fear I’m going to explain it all to you.

When we hired the MudGirls to help us build our dream cob/slip straw hybrid house they asked us if we wanted to hold workshops on our property. We said yes. It was really a no brainer. Part of what drew us to the MudGirls is their philosophy of community, facilitation/teaching and activism. After all they’re building a revolution! How do you accomplish that? On the grass roots level of course. Which means workshops. It gives people who are interested in natural building an opportunity to learn in a fun supportive environment; and it provides an opportunity for the person who’s house it is to have people help build their house. It also helps the individual MudGirls to earn a living doing what they love most…building with natural materials and supporting other people to learn more about how they too can build their own home with their own hands. It’s a win/win really.

Together with MudGirls Molly and Amber we discussed and agreed upon three weeks of workshops to be held over the summer of 2019. Two weeks in June and the third in July. We were given a list of what was needed by way of infrastructure before the workshops started.

1. We needed to make sure we had sufficient sand, clay and straw for the building materials

2. We needed to provide a shelter for the children who would be coming to the workshop

3. We needed to have outhouses, an outdoor shower and a “chill out area” for everyone to eat meals and relax at the end of the day

4. We needed to create areas for the participants to camp.

5. We needed to have a space for the cook to do her thing.

Our shelter which we will use later after the workshops as a greenhouse
The outhouse thanks to Amazon.
Christian and Paul built the shower from old wood fencing and slabs of wood cut from a felled tree

We went to work. We knew we would need to source out a shelter. We could have just built one with tarps; but Paul thought it would be a good idea to find a ready made one that would serve another purpose after we finished the workshops. Hence the shelter that will be our green house grow tent. We didn’t want to build outhouses that were permanent so we sourced out these green pop up tents.

Note: These turned out to be too small for most and we understand they aren’t ideal but we did our best.

Paul and Christian are two of the most resourceful men I know. Hey they learned from the best. Both have fathers who are just as resourceful. They repurposed some old wood fencing and cut some slabs from a log we had to build the lovely outdoor shower seen above. Paul found an RV hot water on demand shower that could be powered by propane. Yay! An outdoor shower that has hot water.

Note: Feedback was positive from participants on the outdoor shower.

Just an FYI when bringing straw on a BC Ferry; over 5 bales is considered dangerous goods.

Clay from the bottom of our property

Galiano Excavating helped us bring the clay up to our build site. We also had them deliver concrete sand for our cob mix.

Part Two

The day of the first workshop arrived, and we eagerly awaited the participants. Organized chaos is how best to describe it. We showed the participants to where they could camp and where the outhouses and shower were. The MudGirls were also there to greet the participants and get a light dinner ready on the Sunday night.

Lindsay the most amazing childcare provider and all round fabulous person arrived last with her motor home

Having now hosted two workshops on our property I can say with confidence that a MudGirl workshop is like the best summer camp ever for adults. So much fun and laughter was had by all.

The way the MudGirls facilitate is by teaching by example. Their goal is to build and enhance the capacity of every single participant. As an experiential learner this worked well for me. Each morning we started by sitting in a circle on straw bales; each saying our name and how we were doing that morning. Then one of the MudGirls would discuss a natural building topic based on questions brought up by the participants.

Amber discussing something on our architectural drawings

We stomped cob each morning to have enough to start working on the walls. We also learned how to mix slip straw as well. As Steve, one of our participants described it this way:

“You start with piles of sand, clay, bales of straw and water. You put them through the black box of natural building and end up with a house.”

Amazing stuff and as I write this I have chills. It truly is a miracle.

Over the two weeks the cob and slip straw walls went from foundation to actual walls. In fact to a point where you had to use the back door to get inside the foundation. There is nothing so satisfying as building something with your own hands. Whether it be sculpting and making sure your cob walls are plum to stomping slip straw into the forms of slip straw walls.

Christian showing off our marvellous cob wall to all the adoring fans

There are always teachable moments along the way. Molly showed everyone how plaster is made and applied to walls.

Amber took everyone for a field trip down to the bottom of our property to show the participants where the clay came from.

And when the day was done we had fun. Did I forget to mention that one of Lindsay’s other jobs was hosting karaoke?

At the end of two crazy overfull weeks we have much to be proud of. I can’t wait for the third workshop in July. I want to say from myself, Christian, Paul and Meredith we are incredibly grateful for the MudGirls, Lindsay, and all the participants for helping us build our cob/slip straw hybrid house and for being just all round amazing people. We’ve made some great friends, enlarged our natural building community, shared many laughs and love.

Until next time…..

So this is how you frame it….

Before I discuss the framing I want to first explain why the north and west sides of our cob cottage are different from the east and south facing walls. If you look at the pictures below you will notice a difference between the curved walls and the straight walls. The curves stem walls will be supporting the cob. They will be 18 inches thick.

The straight walls will be constructed using another alternative natural building method called slip straw or light clay construction. Why you say? Why not make the entire house from cob? Well it would be nice, but not very energy efficient in our climate here on the Gulf Islands. Whereas our west coast climate is by no means as cold as Alberta, or eastern Canada; it’s not warm enough year round to have a house/cottage built entirely from cob.

Cob walls provide thermal mass (the walls warm up and gradually heat the house as they absorb the heat and release it). The cob walls will take advantage of the solar sun being on them for most of the day. The slip straw or light clay walls are insulating and will provide an R-value of 24.

In order to build those slip straw walls you have to build the appropriate frames to hold them. This is where the “Larsen trusses” come in. A Larsen truss is a type of wall truss used to build a thick wall – thick enough to provide room for above-average amounts of insulation. In this case slip straw. It was developed in 1981 by John Larsen, a builder in Edmonton, Alberta. It’s since been adapted by alternative natural builders to hold slip straw instead of traditional fibreglass insulation.

Now you’re probably wondering what is slip straw? Slip straw or light clay is made up of a clay slurry drizzled over straw and the straw is tossed (like a salad) to just coat the straw in the clay. It’s then pounded down between the trusses. You’ll see that done later. It’s insulating and it breathes too.

The Mudgirls are a talented bunch and as such they have members who have experience framing. Mudgirls Molly, Amber, Rose, Nina and Annalise came to get the job done. Of course Christian and Paul did their share too.

Some of the posts (like the post pictured) were sourced from trees felled on our property.
This post was sourced from one of the Galiano beaches.

The foundation is a good place to start…

I’m sure that anyone who has ever built a home of their own no matter how big or small will understand how things can very quickly go sideways. We thought we had found someone to do our foundation, but alas it was not to be and soon we were scrambling to find someone to take pity on us and help us out.

We emailed Molly (one of the MudGirls) to ask her advice. It was a tight call. The foundation needed to be done within a certain time frame to make way for the framing that the MudGirls were going to do at the end of April beginning of May.

With lots of discussion back and forth and some pleading we managed to get Molly’s husband Will to come over and Christian’s brother Andreas as well. Both are builders. Then we roped in MudGirls Amber and Molly and our son Julian. We will always be so grateful that this all came together. A big thank you to all of the above and of course to Christian, Paul and Meredith!

I’m not going to lie….there were tears.

So you saw the plans…this foundation was like no other. It had lots of curves. I had no idea what would need to go into building both the footings and then the stem walls with curves like we had; but I soon learned. Let’s just say there was a lot of measuring and measuring and for good measure more measuring. Some swearing and sweating. But they did it!!!!

The excavator cometh…..

With a roar and a rumble Fred Steven’s large excavator rolled through the forest like a huge mechanical monster. The driveway next to the existing house is too steep so he had to come through the path from the Galiano Rod and Gun Club.

It’s amazing what a machine that size can do. In no time at all he had cleared the area of trees and dug the hole that would become the foundation for our cob cottage.

So now we have a two story pile of debris.

And check out those rocks…

Here’s the hole that will become our cob house.

And while you’re at it Fred, why don’t you just make a whole new driveway.

So now the digging’s done…the excavator goes away and on to building that foundation…yep not so fast. Sometimes on the Wet Coast we do get some of the white stuff! Just after Fred finished digging our foundation and driveway it decided to snow….and snow and snow and it didn’t go away for over a month.

Clearing the land….

Please do not try this at home.

So we had our plans for our house and we had the site picked out. Only problem…it’s covered in trees and some dense brush. My husband and Paul (Meredith’s husband and co-owner of the property) decided that they had the skill and know how to cut those trees down. Meredith and I weren’t so sure. However, we had to trust that when they said they could….they could. So over several weekends of work they managed to cut all of the trees down that we felt we needed to so that the person who was going to clear the land and dig the foundation could do so. I’m going to tell you right now; I was nervous and I often didn’t go out to the site when this was happening. I let them get it done.

Our dog Lucy decided to do some investigating of the trees recently brought down and got stuck.

You need a plan….

If you do any reading about building a cob cottage/house please start with The Cob Builders Handbook: You can Hand-Sculpt your own home – By Becky Bee, published 1998. I really enjoyed reading it and it made me appreciate that I could come up with a design by myself for my home.

Many people in the cob building community would say stop right there…you need only design it yourself. I understand where they are coming from. I had ideas, but I felt more comfortable hiring an architect to realize the pictures I had in my head.

Here is an initial drawing I did to show Christian and Meredith and Paul how I imagined the cob cottage to look like.

So we set about finding an architect. Again what did I know about finding an architect? Nothing! But I was looking through The Active Page (Galiano’s local community magazine) and saw an architect advertised. It seemed like a good place to start. After several meetings with Gerald Longson we hired him. We appreciated his local connection and the fact that he knew all the players on the island that we would need to work with to build our house.

After even more meetings, and emails shooting back and forth he came up with a design that we liked. Gerry had never designed a cob/slip straw hybrid house, but he captured all the elements of what I had originally envisioned.

We have 11.5 acres of land, but some of it is not appropriate for building a house on. With a cob house you have to also take in the slope and drainage, and situating it where the house will get the most passive solar sun. We had a location scoped out that was on the same ridge as the main house, but just down the path from it. We had showed it to Gerry so that when he was designing our house he could take that into account.

The owner builder exam andpperpermitting process

Gerry told us that he would assist us in applying for the permits, but since we did not have a general contractor building our cob/slip straw hybrid house one of us had to take the owner builder exam.

The Province of BC enacted a new ruling in 2017 that is overseen by BC Housing that says if you are building your own permitted home you have to take an exam and have the authorization document included in the package you send your local regional permit office. In our case; the Capital Regional District. Christian volunteered to take the exam. I told him I would but he said he would do it. Such a nice guy.

First Christian had to go on the BC Housing website and apply to take the exam. There is a fair bit of paperwork you need to fill out this application; so make sure you have all the details of your property on hand. And guess what? There is a fee to pay for this honour….$425.00. If you don’t pass the exam the first time you get $375.00 back and you have to take it again. Yay!

Then you have to study. You have 3 months to complete the exam from the time you apply and BC Housing accepts your application. Having a copy of the local building code (ours is the BC Building Code) available and a friend/family member who knows something about construction is a valuable asset. If you search online you will also find that others who have taken the exam have created a study guide to help you along the way.

Exams are scheduled online but as Christian learned there can be some flexibility. He had 100 minutes for 100 multiple choice questions and you can review as many times as you want. You must score 70% or above to pass the exam. No they won’t tell you your score. You’ll just get an email notification that you passed with a certificate that you then attach to the permit application.

Most of the questions will not relate to building with natural materials, but this is a huge hoop you have to jump through if you want your alternative build to be permitted to code.

Now to clear the land….