Outdoor Cob Kitchen Project Spring/Summer 2009
The idea of us building an outdoor kitchen, using cob, blossomed in early March. Chris and I (Jenn) had recently returned to the states, ending our first year’s journey of living on the road, learning the ways of sustainable living wherever the wind guided us. We studied the art of natural building at an 8 day workshop held at White Oak Farm in Williams Oregon last June. There we helped to build a home using straw bales, adobe bricks, light clay straw, and my favorite, cob. Three years ago was our first natural building project, a three-story home built with straw bales. This past January in Thailand, we attended a permaculture design course at The Panya Project where we learned to make adobe bricks and helped to plaster a shed. We also visited Second Home, an organic farm owned by a monk where we helped to build an adobe, composting toilet. Spring was just weeks away and no plans had been made of where we would spend it. A year prior, during the early days of our sustainable living tour, we met a kid at a festival who talked of some hostel in the forest. I decided to give them a call and let fate handle the rest. I told Zak of our travels and knowledge attained and he asked if we could build an outdoor kitchen. Excited to lead a project and practice what we had learned the past year, we headed to Southern Georgia.
Cob is a mixture of clay (25%) and sand (75%) that water is added to and then stomped on with bare feet until it becomes a good consistency to build and mold with. You then add a fiber, usually rice straw or wheat straw, to add strength to the material that will eventually become your walls. I had a difficult time finding straw so decided to go with what I could find locally, pine needles, known in the south as pine straw. This same mixture can be put into a form and dried into bricks called adobe. I prefer cob because it is so versatile and fun to sculpt.
When we arrived here we discovered there was already a structure built. A roof and a skeleton of a prior project, which was once an oven or smoker, had become an area of storage. On top was a cob oven that, after years of baking love, had begun to crumble. We spent a week trying to design the new kitchen around the already existing structure, but felt constrained and after a rainstorm came to the conclusion that the existing roof would not work for a natural building project, as it did not provide adequate protection. Demolition began. The roof became multiple roofs for our compost, the cob oven returned back to the forest, and the rubble was saved for the foundation.
The digging of the foundation began in early March, during spring break. A special thanks to Twigs and Berries, and his crew from Florida, who woke early one morning to remove an old tree stump and a saw palmetto from the building site. With help from many beautifully willing and eager guests, we dug 6 inches below the frost line, giving us a foundation depth of 14 inches, and then filled the trench with rubble from the demolition as well as rubble from a neighbor’s yard and topped it with sand.
I had a difficult time finding urbanite for the stem wall, so we put the foundation on hold and focused on building the roof. Urbanite is a term used for broken pieces of concrete that were once driveways or sidewalk. The stem wall is what is built to raise the natural building material off of the ground, which prevents moisture from entering the walls and breaking them down. A good roof is essential when building with natural materials for the same reason of protecting the walls from moisture. Clyde returned to the forest at the perfect time to take on the project, with an extra challenge of making it suitable for growing ferns. The birth of a living roof began. Many thanks to Southwood, Matchew and Hanook who also arrived with perfect timing to help Clyde with the project. Once the structure was complete the hunt for urbanite ended with a phone call to the Jekyll Island State Park Authority office. Doc Brown, head of maintenance was happy to let us take all of the broken concrete we needed as it saved him the hassle of calling and paying someone to haul it away. We build the stem wall knee high and left the bottom layer without mortar so if the water table raised it could flow freely reducing the amount that could wick up into the walls.
It was now time for the fun to start, but we were still without clay. Georgia is known for their clay so I thought, simple, but we discovered that the famous red Georgia clay resided 3- 5 hrs north of here. We dug on different areas of the property looking for gumbo clay that was rumored to be found here in the forest. We discovered a jackpot by the pond, but the rains set in and the level of the pond raised. Treasures once found were now lost. A few holes were dug by the firebreak and thin layers of clay were found but not enough for our project. I hated the idea of driving so far, using so much gas, when one purpose of this project was to show an example of using natural resources found close to home, with very little footprint, to build. It seemed contradictory to me. I started placing phone calls to every parks and recreation department from Savannah to Jacksonville hoping someone had left over clay from a baseball diamond. A bit of worry was starting to sit in as I had planned to teach a cob-building workshop the following day and still no clay. At 11am a call from an angel came, a man with Glynn County gave us permission to take what we needed from an old pile at the school.
The cob workshop was fabulous. We couldn’t have asked for more perfect of a weekend. Perfect weather, no mosquitoes, and a wonderful group of people eager to learn and stomp in the mud. Ah the pleasure of mud squishing between the toes. We saw some great dance moves, a bit of horseplay, lots of laughter and smiles.
In the weeks to follow many came through and stomped batches of cob or sculpted, adding so much love to the kitchen. The most fun was when we began to add glass bottles. It made the kitchen truly come to life. Wine, beer, and liquor bottles that were once considered garbage have become sparkling jewels in the kitchen when the sun shines upon our walls. We also used glass bottles as filler in the interior of the walls as well as a few old bricks so save on the amount of clay we needed. I stopped by Tile and Stone Inc. in Brunswick and told them of the project we were working on and asked if they had any broken tiles in their dumpster we could have. They offered 3 boxes of discontinued tiles in perfect condition. Beautiful stone, clay, ceramic and slate tiles. The counter tops are finished, shelves have been put in and we are on our final phases. We will be building 4 rocket stoves that are fueled by small sticks, and finishing our cob oven in the next few weeks as well as adding earthen plaster to the walls for protection. We will use linseed oil as extra protection on counter tops and splash walls for easy wipe down. Many thanks to all who have put their feet, hands, and hearts into this project. We are all so excited to cook the first meal and of course to taste the bread and pizza that will come from the wood fired oven.
More pictures here.