By Jessica Kirby, Senior Editor –
“Strong, connected, easy on the planet—these are the qualities of cob houses and of the astonishing group of women who construct them: the Mudgirls Natural Building Collective.”
These words are straight out of a review of The Mudgirls Manifesto, a compelling and informative book released this year by the all-female work crew that has created beautiful, functional homes on BC’s west coast since 2007.
Mudgirls Natural Building Collective constructs healthy, eco-friendly homes out of natural and recycled materials as an active act against the parts of conventional construction that cause pollution, wastefulness, massive biodiversity loss, climate change, and growing economic inequality.
Their material of choice is cob, which is made from sand, clay, water, and straw and hardens into a durable, weather-proof building material that can withstand the elements and that can be found in nature, more or less for free. This is an important component of the Mudgirls’ mission, because the group is about more than alternative housing and natural building. The all-women collective provides a functional model for living in harmony with the Earth and each other by teaching, building, and organizing in a way that defies social inequalities and systems of oppression such as patriarchy, hierarchy, and capitalism.
“The Mudgirls are structured non-hierarchically and practise consensus-based decision-making, challenging top-down, inequitable power structures by practising ways of working together in which all voices are valued and have equal decision-making power,” says Mudgirl Clare Kenny.“They are challenging the capitalist paradigm of business by keeping their wages lower than market value and by practising bartering systems of exchange.”
Mudgirls was founded by a close-knit gathering of women who sought real solutions to the systemic problems faced by many Canadians, says Kenny. These women wanted affordable and eco-friendly housing, low-cost childcare options, a workplace culture free of hierarchy and driven by meaningful labour, and equal employment opportunities for women, especially in the male-dominated fields of construction and landscaping.
The group got to work, first acquiring the skills necessary to house themselves and their families and then teaching workshops and delving into private construction projects. They developed an organizational structure rooted in democracy, equality, and feminist values.
“In an era when overcoming societal and environmental issues can seem more daunting than ever before – and when activism is often practised on social media – [Mudgirls represents] the journey of an empowered group of friends and allies who formed a sustainable way of life in accordance with their values and convictions,” says Kenny. “They offer a clarion call for applied activism: only by action and risk-taking did the Mudgirls begin to create real, long-lasting change in their communities—one cob house at a time.”
Cob building is a form of community building because the materials and techniques are accessible and intuitive, and the process doesn’t require loud, smelly machinery—it can all be done by foot or hand. It also doesn’t require any expert skills or muscular physique—it is possible to sing a song or hold a conversation while stomping mud with a friend or your child.
“Cob is empowering and liberating,” says Kenny. “It puts the possibility of building your own home back into your hands. It opens up the possibility for people who perhaps otherwise had no hope of doing so, to exercise their birthright to be able to provide themselves with shelter.”
Cob houses are incredibly durable, non-toxic, and breathable. They are hand-sculpted and meant to be designed around how the occupants live and move, in communication with natural, non-commodified materials, and around seasons and the movement of the sun, rather than around where the appliances need to go.
Sand comprises 60–85% of the cob mixture and should have particles varying in size from raw sugar to pea-sized or bigger, with rough-angled sides so it clicks together. Clay acts as the mixture’s glue. It consists of small, platelet-shaped particles (as opposed to grains, like sand or silt) held together by the friction of their surfaces, plus a slight magnetic charge.
“Clay expands when wet and shrinks when dry, which is why you have to limit the amount of this magic material in your cob mix,” says Kenny.
The required sand-clay mix could be available anywhere underfoot beneath the topsoil layer where the organic material grows. To test subsoil, take a 16-oz jar, fill it almost halfway with subsoil, and fill the rest with water. Shake it up to break up all the clumps, and then sit it down on a flat surface, paying attention to how long and in what order the particles fall to the bottom.
“Your sand/silt will fall quickly; your clay will take its time settling on top,” says Kenny. “If your water clears in under a minute, there’s no clay in your sample. Once you have a feel for the sand-to-clay ratio in your subsoil, you will know how much sand or clay you need to locate and add to your subsoil to amend it to get something more like a 70%ish sand to a 30%ish clay ratio.”
Of course, the process is not without challenges, especially when designing and building homes for others.
“Building a cob house is like building any house in that the stakes can feel high when you are building a home for someone to live in with their family, and you don’t want to mess it up and have to scrap a bunch of hard work because you didn’t forsee certain things,” says Kenny.
For example, because all kinds of natural building are susceptible to weather, it is important to have the natural wall system complete well in advance of the rainy, cold season.
“This gives it a chance to dry out enough to accept a protective coat of plaster, and/or to dry fast enough to avoid any possibility of mold setting in,” says Kenny. “Once they’ve dried, they can get superficially wet and will naturally breathe and dry out again easily.
“There are ways to protect unplastered walls, but we feel like respecting the seasons instead of needlessly fighting against them is the way to go.”
The Mudgirls Manifesto shares the collective’s success story and describes the steps to building one’s own democratic work culture. Additional materials include how-to instructions for constructing cob houses, a thought-provoking discussion of women-only workplaces, and beloved recipes from the Mudgirls’ cob kitchens: from energy-boosting bars to home-cooked meals.
Learn more at www.mudgirls.ca