« It made sense and fit into how we wanted to live. »
Interview Katy Bryce & Adam Weisman, Clayworks
Tuesday, 29th October 2013, Cornwall, South West England.
It is a beautiful day, driving through the landscape of Cornwall, the infinite blue sea in the horizon. The weather is calm and sunny. Two days ago, the country was hit by a devastating storm, one of the worst in the last 26 years, as reported by the local media.
Katy and Adam are an English-American duo based in Cornwall. They completed a training in natural building on the West Coast of America. Since their return to the UK, they have been looking for ways to bring natural buildings into modern living. They have also published two beautifully illustrated books, and are now producing their own clay plasters. In this interview, we found out more about the evolution of their thinking on the pursuit of a viable business in natural building.
« Wow ! This is amazing ! »
How long have you been building with earth?
KATY : We first did a natural building apprenticeship in Oregon [USA] with the Cob Cottage Company in 2001. That was twelve years ago.
ADAM : We were working in London and we wanted to get out of the city. We simply said, « Let’s find some land and build our own house ! » We were quite naive. We thought about [moving to] Hawaii or the West Coast of America but we didn’t have any money. So when we eventually left London and went on a trip across the West Coast of America, we visited and interviewed at some graduate schools, although we weren’t convinced that studying more and ramping up more student debt without the promise of a job at the end, was the best path forward. We really wanted to build our own house. In a bookstore in Portland, Oregon, called « Powell’s Books », we found a handmade pamphlet about cob building. This pamphlet was written by the Cob Cottage Company.
We thought, « Wow ! This is amazing! » We thought maybe they were from the 1970s, as we had never heard about cob building before. The Cob Cottage Company was located just half an hour from where we were, so we went to visit. What we saw was really inspiring. That was when we started to think that this was something we wanted to dedicate some time and energy to.
KATY : We were very taken by it. Both of us were on a trip and we were just open, really, to seeing what the next stage of our lives would bring. We were very interested in sustainability, alternative living and environmentally-friendly living. We were in our early twenties and just starting out on a journey together. We chose to go specifically to the West Coast of America, because we knew there were numerous alternative things going on there. Cob was being used in new and exciting ways. Ianto Evans from Cob Cottage Company was very into doing round buildings, not the conventional square buildings. For me, personally, cob felt very grounded, because it was this ancient English building material.
I know that there are traditions all over the world, going back centuries, of using mud in building, but cob is specifically an English building technique.
Were you aware that there were cob houses in England, before you met Cob Cottage Company in America?
Katy : Well, not really. I didn’t really know there were earth houses in England. We just started to read about it.
Adam : I didn’t know about cob houses in England. I had heard of adobe houses in New Mexico.
Training in natural building instead of going to graduate school
You trained at the Cob Cottage Company with Ianto Evan. Can you tell us a bit about Ianto and your training ?
KATY : Ianto is originally from Wales. [He later moved to the West Coast of America, where he started the Cob Cottage Company].
So he is a living proof of this thread of this old British building tradition, that he pushed into new territory.
After we had a chat with the Cob Cottage Company, we both realised that this apprenticeship would allow us to gain practical skills that we could use in the future. It made sense. It fit into how we wanted to live as well. So we decided that instead of going to graduate school, we would do an apprenticeship at the Cob Cottage Company. We came back to the UK, and signed up to do an apprenticeship the following year, in Oregon.
Living in the woods and using its surroundings : an eye-opening experience.
ADAM : The natural building apprenticeship organized by the Cob Cottage Company is an intensive course. We learnt how to build a structure from the ground up. We learnt about foundations, footings, walls, timber work, roofs and finishes.
KATY : The idea behind it and what Ianto was really trying to teach, is to use local materials. Practically everything that we used [and needed] was from the surrounding area where we were living. We collected the stones for the footings from the woods.
This meant that we physically went into the woods, looked for suitable stones, found them, rolled them out and took them to the site. The clay for the walls was underfoot. The sand was maybe the only material that was brought from the outside. The trees were felled from the woods. We used the turf from the area and we really only used hand tools and our hands and feet. No electricity. It was a very empowering thing to do.
ADAM : It was a magical time too. We were actually living in our tents for about four months, in the woods! I’d never lived like that before, so it was really an eye-opening experience, just experiencing living like that, in such a different way.
How did you realise that England holds a large heritage of earth houses ?
KATY : Well, just before we went to do our apprenticeship in Oregon, we were WWOOF-ing – Willing Workers On Organic Farms – in Truro, a town quite near here, in Cornwall. People knew we were going to do this apprenticeship in Oregon, so they introduced us to a man called Matt Robinson who used to do some cob building work locally. By spending a day with him, we realized that Cornwall was full of cob houses.
Cornwall’s earth houses and how it all started
KATY : A year later, after we had completed our apprenticeship in Oregon, we moved back to Cornwall, and we worked on a project with this gentleman. And really, we just saw a hole in the market. After working with Matt for a time, we set up ‘Cob in Cornwall’, which was our first company. That was about a year and a half after we came back from America. We started really small, just working locally, because there were so many cob houses.
We did a lot of restoration work, repairing old cob structures, using unfired cob bricks and cob blocks. We also did lime work, taking off cement.
ADAM : We did a lot of lime work ! We removed cement finishes to apply lime instead. We also built some new cob buildings, but very small projects, and progressively we started to do bigger restoration projects, which built up our confidence. We then started to do larger cob projects.
Did you take any courses on restoration in the UK?
ADAM : You know what, I’ve had previous experience in stone work, but I’ve never had any experience in plastering. It was really just from learning from other people.
KATY : And learning ourselves on the job!
ADAM : We were lucky too, because we fell in with people who were about the same age as us. We were probably about 27 when we started our own company.
There was a group of tradespeople, who were thatchers, timber framers, plasterers. We learned from each other. There were also older skilled craftspeople who had been working in that game for a lot longer – twenty years – and we were able to pick up pointers from them as well. But it was really trial and error.
KATY : The industry we came into was mostly a restoration industry and a traditional building materials industry. We fell into that world, because that was where the work was. But we worked hard – consciously or subconsciously – to maintain our core essence in what our training was in, which was natural building.
From restoration to natural healthy building
We strove to bring the natural building philosophy into the traditional building industry, and to progress the movement in the UK. We linked up with other people on a national scale, because it was quite
a small world then. These people were also working hard at attempting to bring the natural building movement into more of an understood capacity.
ADAM : The healthy building movement was trying to promote the use of natural materials and benefits. Healthy living was really important to us. That’s why we decided to write books, to put that message down, and also do the research ourselves. In Germany, the Baubiologie has been around since the 1970s. We were really inspired by it and we wanted to raise awareness here, in the UK.
How did people respond ?
KATY : It was very positive. I think people are always inspired by things that are simple and grounded. Earth building is a very leveling experience among people. Through our workshops and training, we have observed a wonderful transformation happening among the participants. No matter who they are, how old they are, what they do in life, as soon as people are an hour into it, covered in mud, we see this wonderful transformation happening in them.
ADAM : Especially kids, that’s the most magical thing. At first, they seem a little reluctant : « Oh, I can’t be bothered with this ! I don’t want to get my new trainers dirty. » But then, we see them getting out of that and just being a kid, just having fun. That’s really nice.
KATY : For people – kids, as well as adults – to actually see something that they built with their feet and hands, we see how empowering that is for people. It is a wonderful sense of achievement that they carry away with them. I think that has inspired people to want to be involved with building and want to do it themselves.
« We wanted to show people how to build a house simply. »
KATY : That was where our first book, “Building With Cob: A Step-By-Step Guide”, came out of. It is a very practical hands-on book. We wanted to show people how to build a house simply. That book was written very much from the heart.
It was an expression of everything we believed in at the time, and still do, as well as the techniques we knew and wanted to pass on. We found that a lot of people, who owned a building or a barn, wanted to do the work themselves. They didn’t want to get builders or tradepeople in. We had a great response from that book.
So we went on to write our second book, “Using Natural Finishes”, which was about finishes made out of clay and lime. It was still a ‘how-to’ book, but had a much more scientific approach.
Through a combination of making our own on-sire clay plasters and the research on plastering with clay that we carried out around the world for the book, our passion for clay plasters grew. We then decided to create our own clay plaster product, to bring clay plasters more into the mainstream.
Cob building and the industry
KATY : When we first started building with cob, we very much believed that it was the building material of the future. We couldn’t understand why everyone wasn’t using cob. We soon learnt the reason : Cob building is very labour intensive and in this day and age, it’s the labour that costs money.
ADAM : It’s not just about labour itself, but also the organization of that labour and the fact that people wouldn’t be getting paid high wages for that labour.
KATY : It is also about making it commercially viable. Because with anything in the building industry, time is money, and cob building doesn’t go with that. We worked on a lot of conventional building sites, where there was quite a friction between the time that it took and the weather conditions you needed for building the cob, and the actual building schedule.
I know that there are other cob builders that would maybe disagree with us – but we decided that instead of trying to get cob building into the mainstream, which seemed very difficult to do, we would rather take the material, which is unfired clay, and make it into a plaster. That seemed far easier to translate into mainstream building. That way, if you have a conventional build, you can still use unfired clay in the form of clay plasters and still get some of the wonderful benefits of clay, which is humidity regulation, thermal regulation, toxin neutralisation, and just creating a really healthy internal environment.
Do you still build with cob?
ADAM : Yes, we do, but just not like before. It’s not our full-time job. Now we spend a lot of our time getting our ready-mixed clay plasters out into the market, training people up and providing information on clay plasters. But yes, we accept cob building projects – we have a project right now – it is probably something that we’ll always do, because we love it, but not on a full-time basis.
KATY : As we were maturing, we felt like we had taken cob to the farthest place we’d wanted to take it. As you know, building with cob is an incredibly labour-intensive job. When you are very physically tired all the time, it doesn’t leave much space for energy or for creating new ideas. We really felt like the moment had come to make more time for creativity. So we cut down on our cob building.
One of the reasons why it’s challenging to bring cob building into the mainstream is that when something is in the mainstream, it always needs to be measured and consistent and it has to have statistics.
Whatever you bring out of the bag has to be the same each time. Whereas what we love about building with cob is that it is ad hoc and always different. Every bit of clay, even taken from the same building site, is different. So you always need to adapt.
What we’re trying to do is to bring the best of the natural building world into the mainstream, and provide a product – clay plasters –
that could be measured, that would be the same every time you took it out of the bag, and that had some research, statistics and tests done on it from universities. That is essentially what we’ve done with our clay plasters, without compromising on its function and its beauty.
Teaching the industry to use clay
You organize a one-day course on clay plaster once a month, right ?
ADAM : Yes, we do. During our one-day course, we discuss the basics of clay – why you want to use clay, how you use clay, the finishing techniques, the environmental impact, etc – and then the participants can go off and feel confident about applying clay plaster. The course takes place in our workshops here in Cornwall. People learn to plaster on boards. It is usually a fun day. I would say that about 60% of the participants are conventional plasterers – gypsum plasterers – and clay is new to them. Sometimes you hear, « What is this clay stuff ? This is weird !»
Some of them come because their clients asked them to apply clay plaster, so they didn’t really have a choice, they come because it’s their job. But it is really satisfying to see their confidence and satisfaction they get from finishing a panel with a very good finish. They understand that they don’t need to work fast ; They can take their time, because there is no chemical set in the mix.
Most of these plasterers have been using gypsum for 20-30 years, so clay is a completely new experience. By working with gypsum with the same techniques for so long, people tend to have their way of applying it, so it takes a little time to actually shift this attitude. But once they see how it works, they become very enthusiastic about it.
Do you take on apprentices as well ?
ADAM : We used to take apprentices. We had three apprentices. The longest was for two years, and we had two others for one year each. But the way we are doing it now is through our one-day course.
What happened with your three apprentices ?
ADAM : They all started their own cob and lime businesses, which is great !
Clay seduces interior designers
Has your business evolved?
KATY : Definitely.
ADAM : It took a couple of years for our clay plasters to get their own momentum. Today we understand the demand from people and how and where to reach them.
KATY : What we really set out to do was to tell people : You can put clay plaster on your wall, such a thing as clay plaster exists, and also it can fit very well with the design of a modern house. It can be as rough and rustic as you want, or it can be made incredibly straight and polished. That’s been our mission, to show the flexibility [of the material] and, definitely, a lot of designers are using the product because they see the potential for creativity with it.
I’ve never seen anyone who’s not responded to a building that has been plastered with clay in a positive way, even if they don’t know why. When you walk into a building that has been plastered with unfired clay, there are reasons why the atmosphere feels really good. It’s because it’s regulating the relative humidity in the atmosphere, it is regulating the temperature, and it creates a very soft ambiance, so it’s got really good acoustic properties. Even if people don’t know that, when they walk into a room that is plastered out of clay, you can see something wonderful come over them– people would say « Oh, that just feels good, I don’t know why but it just feels nice !».
ADAM : Our clients have told us this a lot. It is really rewarding. When you feel something inside, it is the most rewarding thing when other people get it as well.
KATY : The welcoming feel could also be emphasised by colour range. We favour the use of earth-inspired pigments. They are natural pigments from the earth. They make a very nice palette, which echoes nature.
Most people really like and respond to these colours. It’s quite soothing and calming, especially when we spend a lot more time inside buildings than we have ever done in history. By applying natural plasters on your walls, you are bringing a part of nature inside your house. I think that’s why people really enjoy living in clay buidlings as well.
Get the tools and try it !
What would you say to someone who wants to start using clay plaster?
KATY : I’d say that it’s an excellent place to begin any kind of building work. It’s non-toxic, so you can put it on your hands and splash it on your face.
When you start plastering, you’re going to get messy but clay is a friendly material to use. It feels good on your hands, it’s nice to work with, it’s a lovely place to begin, getting to grips with using your hands, building up your hand-eye coordination, and building up skills by using your hands.
When you work with lime, cement or gypsum-based plasters, you’re often against the clock, because you have to get your finish before your plaster sets, and when it sets, there is no going back. Clay plasters, on the contrary, don’t have a chemical set, they only go off by going hard, by losing their moisture. It means that you have a lot longer to get your finish. And if you mess up and you don’t get as good a finish as you want, just by re-wetting it, you can rework it, and bring it back to life again, almost like starting over again. So it is a very friendly place to begin any kind of building work.
ADAM : For somebody who’s never plastered before and who really wants to get involved with it, I would suggest first getting the tools – a trowel and a hawk – and just experimenting.
Get some clay plaster and have a play around. `don’t worry about doing a bad job. This is how you learn. You can also find people who have been doing it for a couple of years and ask to spend a day or two with them.
KATY: Or go to a training course. Wherever you are in the world, I think you’ll find somebody who is plastering with clay and offering up courses.
Interview Katy Bryce & Adam Weisman, Clayworks, Cornwall