Adventures with mud

How Kate Edwards's cob building business inspires a love of nature and healthy eating.

Adventures with mud

Words: Dawn Francis Pester

Simple and sustainable, a cob oven won’t leave you feeling hungry for long. Once the oven is hot, home-made pizza will cook in less than a minute, and a loaf of bread can be baked and crusty within half an hour. Add a few vegetables freshly picked from the allotment and baked with a drizzle of oil, or slow-cooked in a casserole, and the feast will be complete.

Trained as a sculptor and art therapist, Kate Edwards had already worked on house renovations when she enrolled on a short cob building course five years ago. Feeling restricted by the hideous cement-based building projects she kept coming up against, she was looking for a building material that was environmentally friendly as well as creative.

Kate soon realised cob ticked all her boxes, and saw this mixture of earth, sand and clay as her future as well as the future of the planet. With just 10 days training behind her, she bought a 400-year-old cob cottage, set up Edwards Eco Buildings and accepted her first commission to build a cob studio. Armed mainly with inspiration and enthusiasm, she began teaching herself about cob, as she built up the business.

‘I treat it as my PhD, learning more about the practical and creative side as I go along, as well as the red tape such as building regulations and planning permission. Whether you are building a bench, a pizza oven or a whole house, the process is the same. You dig a hole, take out the earth you need, trample the mixture under foot and start building. Costs are extremely low, as everything is there in front of you. There’s no need for any machinery or transportation. You can’t get greener than that.’

Working with schools

Just a year after the business began, Charlotte Eve joined Edwards Eco Buildings and took on the role of education manager. While Charlotte has worked with Kate on some impressive commissions, she believes anyone can build with cob.

‘You don’t have to be strong or even practical. We teach tiny children as well as adults – right through to their seventies. It’s cheap, accessible and massively fun. If it goes wrong you just chop a bit off and slap some more on. People can be hesitant at first, waiting for the catch, but after a while they start to relax and their faces light up. That’s the energy that powers the project.’

Charlotte used to be a teacher and then worked in a media office, so she describes her current outside life as ‘extremely liberating’. Working with schools as well as other community groups, she finds cob ovens are popular, and have many curriculum links.

‘Cob is the ideal building material for children, encouraging their physical and creative development and teaching them about textures and the natural environment. As the next generation, children need to know how to adapt and survive in a changing world.’

But it’s not only the children who benefit. Charlotte gives an example of a school they worked in last year.

‘When we arrived everyone seemed stressed and grumpy. One key teacher was eating her lunch alone, and you could sense a bad atmosphere. As the day went on people got muddy and started to smile. All the children and teachers were really interacting and learning as well as having fun, including those at the lower-ability end of the scale. By the end it was clear everyone had bonded, and teachers told me they had noticed children who had never stood out before.’

A chain reaction

As the business has grown, Edwards Eco Buildings has become more focused on training others to build, rather than taking on commissions for them. Kate feels this is more practical, as well as empowering.

‘If you teach a local builder or enthusiast to do it themselves, they can then go on to train and inspire others. If you do it for them, that’s the end of the chain. Cob is a whole way of life – a deep, powerful material that binds people together in a beautiful, sensual building process – so it’s very enriching for the whole community. On all our courses we provide fresh vegetarian food, cooked in a cob oven too. People are always surprised at how good it tastes, and how much energy it gives them.’

While cob building dates back thousands of years, it’s catching on again all over the world and Edwards Eco Buildings have work trips planned to Texas, Norway and Austria this year.

‘My verdict is that cob can’t be beaten on any level,’ Kate enthuses. With five years of research and hands-on experience now added to her oodles of enthusiasm, she’s well qualified to judge.

• To find out more about Kate and Edwards Eco Buildings, visit www.edwardscobbuilding.com.

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