Life’s hard. Ask Machel Piper and Febe Dancier. Machel, a young elementary school teacher, had her spirit shattered by a divorce. Cancer ravaged Febe, robbing her of her hearing and forcing her to sell her natural food store. The two best friends, one with a broken body, the other with a broken heart, decided that they needed a place to contemplate the paths that had led them to the shores of such misery. “We wanted a place to heal,” Machel told me as she led me along a sawdust covered path. “So, we built this place.”
Machel Piper (left) and Febe Dancier unkowingly embarked on the adventure and uproar of their lives in northern Wisconsin—all in the name of serenity.
“This place” is a 175 sq. ft. cob home tucked away in woods of northern Wisconsin. Cob is a rudimentary mixture of sand, clay and straw. It is the least expensive of all the alternative building materials and the most controversial, as Machel and Febe found out the hard way. This is the story of two best friends who thought their battles were over and went looking for a place to heal, only to find yet another battle waiting for them.
Preparing the way
The young women decided purchasing the property together would strengthen their friendship, so Machel and Febe started looking for land they could afford together. Between the two of them they had enough money to buy a small parcel of land and have a well dug.
While they were scouring the nation for just the right piece of land, they began to move away from their technology-dependent lifestyles to a more self-reliant existence. “During that time we were preparing,” Machel said, “studying, buying healing herbs, candles, food, getting rid of things that we weren’t going to need.” They got rid of everything that needed electricity to function. They were preparing to row far away from the shores of misery, and they were traveling light.
They understood the terrain would be rugged. With that in mind, they purchased quality supplies.
Machel showed off the ax they bought, “You need a good ax out here,” she told me as she brought it down hard on a piece of firewood. They collected mason jars and kettles for canning outdoors. They had everything they needed, almost.
Machel and Febe needed a home, but didn’t have thousands of dollars to build one. The two friends were determined not to let the lack of funds sink their dreams. They found a book about alternative building materials and quickly found a solution to their problem—an abundant and nearly free building material that has been used in England and the Mideast for centuries.
It took Machel and Febe six months of 12-hour days to build their 175 square foot cob house, which was considered too small by Wisconsin building codes.
Instant house: Add water and mix well
Cob is a rudimentary mixture of earth and water, much like adobe, but with long pieces of straw meshed into the mixture to add strength. The “recipe” for cob varies, depending on soil type. Machel and Febe used one part clay to two parts sand. The clay was available in abundance on their five acres; they purchased the sand. They bought a half-dozen or so straw bales and experimented until they had the right consistency.
Because of its weight, cob construction requires a sturdy foundation. Machel and Febe dug a three-foot-deep trench and lined it with stones, also available in abundance on their property. Once the foundation was laid, it was time to mix the cob and build the house. With the ingredients assembled on a tarp, the friends abandoned their shoes and used their feet to mash the cob. Both agree mixing the cob was physically demanding. “But it feels good between your toes,” Machel offered.
At that comment, Febe rolled her eyes and signed, “Not that good.”
Febe (above) and Machal were told they could get away without a permit for their 175 sq. ft. cob home—they later found out they were told wrong.
Cob can only be applied one square foot at a time; otherwise the structure becomes unstable from uneven drying. Each day the two friends added a six-inch-high, one-foot-deep layer of cob. It was slow going, taking the pair nearly six months of 12-hour days to complete their home. “All we did for six months was work, eat and sleep,” said Machel with Febe nodding in agreement.
They were so busy working that there was little time for cooking. “We ate the same thing every day for six months,” Machel said, “vegetable stew.” They kept a pot of it cooking over a fire, adding herbs, store-bought vegetables, dandelion greens and other edible wild plants as they found them. At night, they slept in a conversion van which also held most of their possessions. It was a tight fit.
“After sleeping in that van for six months,” Febe signed, “this place felt like a mansion.”
They salvaged windshields from junked cars, pieces of odd glass and empty wine bottles and molded them into the walls. The scrounged windows allow plenty natural light into their small home, making the space feel larger than it actually is.
At less than five-feet high, the Dutch-style door is much smaller than a conventional door. The door is purposely small in order to make the pair more aware of their space.
When the walls were about six feet high, Febe and Machel put in a loft which would serve as their sleeping quarters. Using reclaimed lumber and wood they cut by hand, they constructed the floor, leaving a small opening. Since the home of 175 sq. ft. was much too small to accommodate a staircase, the pair built sturdy pegs into the home’s walls that serve as steps up to the loft.
By October of 2007, their home was almost finished. The only thing left was the roof. They had planned to put a living roof on top of their hand-crafted earthen home, but winter was approaching fast. Instead, they constructed a temporary roof from plywood and tarps. They secured the plywood to the structure with cob and then hoisted the tarps across the plywood using a system of pulleys they cleverly concocted.
By late October the two friends were ready to hunker down for winter. A friend gave them an old woodstove that fit perfectly in their home. They had cut enough wood and purchased enough supplies. Although they did lose their stash of peanut butter and chocolate chips to a hungry bear. The pair put their treats in a covered plastic bucket and buried it in the ground for safe keeping. Or so they thought. One morning the two awoke to find a bear digging in the exact spot they had buried the bucket. By all accounts, the bear enjoyed the treats immensely.
Machel and Febe were once again counting their blessings. They began to feel better, physically and emotionally. Things were finally looking up. Then, a county building inspector showed up.
Hitting the fan
“He asked us if we would tear it down,” said Machel. “He said it half jokingly, but he meant it.” When the leaves started to drop from the trees, someone noticed their earthen hut in the woods and called the authorities. The county inspector was beyond perplexed by the free-form structure the pair had built. He had never heard of cob before and wasn’t at all familiar with alternative building materials like straw bale or cord wood. Machel and Febe didn’t have a permit and the county wasn’t about to issue them one for an untested building material.
Not only was their home constructed out of an unapproved material, it was too small. Inhabitable dwellings in Wisconsin must be at least 500 square feet. Their home would have to come down. If the owners wouldn’t do it, the county would do it for them and send them a bill. The two friends flat out refused to tear down what they had just built. The inspector left, but that wasn’t the end of it.
The plank ceiling is decorated with beads, and serves as the second floor bedroom, accessed by sturdy pegs in the wall (see arrows, bottom). A car window above the pegs allows light into the space.
“The book we read about building with cob said we shouldn’t get the permit,” said Machel. “It said just to go into hiding.” When they realized how much trouble they were in, they decided to contact the author of the book. Machel was able to reach him from a friend’s phone.
“He told me some people bribe building inspectors to get them to look the other way,” Machel told me. “Thankfully, we didn’t take any more advice from him.”
I tried to contact the author at his business to confirm the pair’s story, but couldn’t reach him. Instead, I spoke with his assistant. When I asked him about obtaining a permit to build a cob home he readily admitted, “It’s impossible to get a permit. The laws are written to protect the building industry. We tell people to go around the permit if they can. Like, here in Oregon, if the structure is less than 200 square feet, you don’t need a permit. So keep it small.”
When I explained the nature of the trouble Machel and Febe were in, he replied, “We only know the laws in Oregon.” I left my contact information along with a request for an interview with the author. No one returned my call.
I was able to get in touch with Kelly Hart, an expert in alternative building materials from www.greenhomebuilding.com. I gave him a brief overview of the situation, and he responded: “I am always sorry to hear about such ugly stories, and this is one of the reasons that I wouldn’t advocate ignoring the law. We obviously need to work within the laws of the land in regard to building and make every attempt to educate both the public and the building authorities about the ecological reasons for considering many alternative techniques. Most building codes do allow alternatives to the conventional, as long as the underlying safety concerns are met, and the officials have the authority to accept these. If the codes are no longer appropriate regarding sustainable architecture, we need to change those codes, not disregard them.”
The ladies were summoned to court, where they lost big-time. They were ordered to pay a fine of $2,000, which they refused to pay on principle; they believed the building codes were unfair. If they didn’t pay, their home would be torn down and they would be removed from the property and not allowed to return—ever.
Then things went from bad to worse. The editorial section of the local paper erupted with letters from concerned citizens. Some were worried that the composting toilet system the pair was using would contaminate the woods. “They tried to make us out as the polluters,” signed Febe.
Others questioned their minimalist lifestyle, decrying their decision to do without electricity as extreme and dangerous. The two friends responded by digging in deeper. The battle lines within the community were drawn. A few brave souls openly supported Machel and Febe. Even more expressed their support in hushed tones, fearing retribution from the community if word of their approval should get out. But most were just outraged that these two impudent young women would even conceive of living in a hut made from mud without the benefits of electricity. In their not-so-humble opinions, it was out-and-out subterfuge. They pointed accusatory fingers at Machel and Febe, who pointed right back.
As the cold winds whipped in from the north, the bickering rose to a fevered pitch until Machel and Febe found a county sheriff at their door. Machel had been ordered to serve 36 days in jail for not paying the fine. “We were terrified,” she said. “We were both crying, and I was trying to sign to Febe what was happening.”
The two friends didn’t know it at the time, but the sheriff could have taken Machel into custody on the spot, but for some reason, he chose not to. That small act of grace helped to bring the situation under control.
Believe it or not, this story has a happy ending. The situation had taken its toll on the two friends as well as the community. Despite all the heated rhetoric, everyone wanted the situation resolved. State and county officials agreed to drop the fine and the jail time. Machel and Febe paid for a building permit, and agreed to construct a home that met the 500 square foot requirement. The county even extended the deadline for the work to be completed.
The two newcomers are slowly gaining acceptance in the community. Machel has a part-time job at the co-op in town and visitors are starting to stop in on a regular basis. They faced some stormy seas, but they feel they are stronger and wiser for the experience.
In hindsight, Febe is adamant that the pair bear some responsibility for the situation, “We broke the law,” she signed. When Machel hesitated, Febe signed it again, more animated and determined.
“Yeah, she’s right. We broke the law, “Machel said. “We should have got a permit.”
They admit they could have done some more research. “The book we read was not based in reality,” said Machel. “It had information on how to build the structure, but it didn’t prepare us for the realities of this.”
So, could they have gotten a permit to build with an unapproved building material? Are there resources for landowners who want to build affordable, sustainable homes using alternative building materials? The answer to both of these questions is a qualified “yes.”
Light shines through glass bottles and scrounged windows, into the interior of the mud hut.
You want to do what?
According to Scott Schiefelbein, a building inspector in Sawyer County, Wisconsin, each state has a list of approved building materials. Builders can get a copy of the approved materials by contacting their state building inspector’s office. If a proposed material isn’t on the list, it can still be used as long as the builder can prove it “meets or exceeds the State’s requirements for structural integrity.”
Scott Schiefelbein rejects the notion that the building codes protect corporate builders, “We don’t want to discourage unconventional practices. The bottom line is health and safety. The material has to provide equal or greater structural integrity than what the rules require.”
He points out that the building codes vary depending on regional weather conditions. “What if a homeowner in northern Wisconsin decides he doesn’t need to use the required grade of plywood for his area, and instead uses plywood approved for use in the southern part of the state? Then he gets a heavy snow and the roof collapses on his family and kills them while they sleep. Then what? Or what if a homeowner decides to use 3-penny nails instead of hurricane clips?”
“I want you to know,” he said, “I admire what those two gals did out there. You don’t see many young people willing to work that hard at anything these days. But they should have gotten a permit. It’s about health and safety.”
So, how exactly does someone go about getting a building permit for an unlisted material? They contact a state-licensed structural engineer who specializes in alternative building materials. I went looking for such a person and found Ian Smith of Odisea, LLC an engineering firm in Boulder, Colorado. The engineers at Odisea are experts in natural building materials. They helped start the Colorado Straw Bale Association in 2002 and are regional advocates for natural building.
Machal gives their new ax a workout.
Ian has a degree in Civil Engineering with an emphasis in Structural Engineering from the University of Colorado. He understands the challenges of designing and building structures made from alternative building materials, “With any new material, the engineer has to test and compile data to show that the material will be structurally sound, that it will meet or exceed existing standards.” How the material will be used, the size of the structure and weather conditions are all factors that have to be studied and considered before the engineers can assure the building inspector that the finished building will be up to code.
Ian recalled one building inspector who had never heard of a straw bale home, “He demanded it be reinforced with rebar. We had to show him quite a bit of literature and test results. It’s our job to educate the building department about what the goal is and how the structure is supported.” In the end, the firm was able to get the required permit without using rebar to support the home.
The engineers at Odisea have years of experience designing natural homes, “We haven’t done anything with cob here,” explained Ian. “In this area we use adobe. Adobe isn’t much different from cob. Both use varying degrees of straw and clay. Adobe has less straw. Cob is halfway between straw and adobe. It would definitely require an engineer to get a permit for it.”
Structural engineers are professionals; their fees reflect years of schooling and experience. Odisea offers a free initial consultation. Their hourly rate is $115 per hour for engineering services. For more information visit them online at www.odiseanet.com.
Of course, determined builders might be able to defray some or all of the cost by hiring a newly licensed structural engineer, like a recent graduate or an immigrant just starting out in this country. It also helps if the local building inspector is familiar with alternative materials. If there is already a natural building in the area, things are bound to go much smoother.
Time to heal
Febe and Machel are in good health and good spirits these days. They’re looking forward to building their new log home, this time with a little help from their friends. They have time to pray, meditate and be thankful for the bounty around them. As their paths wind away from the shores of misery, they have found the time and the place to heal.