Excellent interview and photographs by Ashan of Anarchitecture "conducted in early January 2006 with the then-86-year-old British godfather of cob, Alfie Howard, at his home in Devon, England."
(Transcription by Julie Haddow)
Quid Nobis Ardu - Nothing Is Too Hard
AH: In 1936 they got a church wall, and after a few years, the weather weakened it, and it came down. They insisted that it had to be put back as it was before, because it was listed. My eldest brother, me and my father had a building business, and they got hold of us to do it. My father got us up there doing it and he taught us how to do it, 'cause he’d learned it from his father –that’d be my grandfather. And that was how we came to start in cob and that was in 1936. And then the war came, and nothing was done then. After the war a lot of buildings went to ruin, didn’t they? And my father was in the building business. He used to keep about seven or eight blocks here in work, and he taught us what to do, and said we had to put it back as it was before. That’s how it came about that I got into cob. I mean I learned from my father, and my father learned it
from his father going back through the years.
DS: And so no cob building happened between the war and 1980, really?
AH: Well between the First World War and 1918 nothing happened then, in fact money was very scarce then. Towards the end of the war and before the next war started, that would be 1936, they started putting these things back. So we started picking it up again in 1936 when people got more money to spend. Yeah God! I’ve been involved in some things I have.
DS: What was the method? How did you build the cob wall?
AH: Oh it’s the simplest thing of all. You’d be surprised what you can put up in a day, it really is. Obviously that’s all they had years ago, wasn’t it?
DS: So what tools did you use?
AH: You don’t want a lot of tools. All you want is a dung pitch fork, a four-pronged pick to put the cob on the walls and somebody up there treading the cob. What you do is cut down the cob walls whatever shape you want them. True it all up and what you cut off, you put back on the top of the wall again. You don’t waste anything. But treading cob when we had a
big job on, we used to make a little pen and put two bullocks in there and get somebody to keep them walking around you see – they tread the cob.
The bullock – he’s got four feet, hasn’t he! And he’s got a cloved hoof. So when he goes down he presses the straw into the clay. You don’t use oaten straw, you use either winter barley straw or wheat which are both tilled [sown] in the autumn, and that’s stronger than what the spring corn is. The straw has got to be tough enough. Because all straw does in cob is bind it together while it’s setting. Once it’s set, dried right out, it doesn’t do anything, it keeps it bound together while it’s setting. If you used ordinary clay and didn’t put any straw in it you would find that it would crack. If you take down an old cob wall you’ll see there isn’t any nature in it, it’s gone in about twelve months, or at least the strength of its gone.
DS: Could you tell me again the story about the bus shelter?
AH: Yes, what happened was the chaps that were working for me, I used to keep about 8-10 guys building for me. And what happened was we were putting a doorway through an old cob wall so they could go from the house into the toilet without having to go outside. Of course she didn’t want to do down the garden path to the outside toilet any more. We were digging through this cob wall one day, and the boys said to me, "Cor Alf –however did they build with this old stuff?" I said, "Tell you what, chaps, before I go to the rest camp [retire], we’ll build a building from start to finish in cob."
In 1980, I decided to give up building, and I thought to myself, I’ll keep my promise. I over up to Down St. Mary one morning, and there was a load of school kids waiting for the bus on the crossroads. I thought to myself. if only I can get that corner of land I could put a bus shelter there built with cob. So I came back and saw the owner of the land. and I told them what I wanted to do, and he said, "Alf, if you’re gonna do that, I’ll give you the land." So he gave me the land, and I went to County
Hall in Exeter and told them what I wanted to do, and I got planning permission there and then. So that’s it, and that’s how it all started off again in 1980. And so here people have been using the bus shelter, the kids use it, anyway.
DS: So after the bus shelter did you go on to do any more cob building, or was that the end of cob for you?
AH: Well, that started it off and people used to come here to find out exactly what to do. Yes, I used to restore a lot of old buildings after that, especially with the Society for the Protection for Ancient Buildings (SPAB). They advise and educate people in how to repair old buildings sympathetically, using the same materials and methods that the building was built with.
I got a wall out there built with cob for the SPAB. A coach-load of people came down here and I had to build a wall to show them what cob’s all about.
DS: Oh, you have a little greenhouse here – you're putting the cob wall to good use.
AH: Yes – cob walls have got the greatest insulation values, and what happens is when the sun’s shining that cob wall becomes like a night storage heater. It takes in the heat and during the night the temperature doesn’t in the green house. Not the same as it would if was a completely glass greenhouse. It’ll still stay the same temperature. When I retire, that's where I’m going to have my morning coffee… The worst enemy cob has got is cement, it’s too dense. As I told them -
cement should cost a guinea an ounce! Do you know what a guinea is? Well its 21 shillings in our old English money and it was a lot of money back then. If cement cost a lot of money that would stop them using so much of the damn stuff, wouldn’t it? They’d be more likely to build with cob. Cement is the worst thing, cob and cement don’t go together. There’s only
two things that go together and that’s oak / timber and cob – both are natural materials you see. The structure will ‘breathe,’ expand and contract.
Back then they were building churches, cathedrals, bridges and god-knows-what using natural materials and lime mortars. There isn’t a handful of cement in any of them. Cement is the worst thing you can use on an old building, the cement will crack and let the water in but won’t let it out again - but you don’t get that with lime mortar