This week on CBC Radio One’s Alberta at Noon I’ll be talking about a company called Dirt Craft Natural Building and the courses they give on
in Alberta and across Western Canada.
What is a cob oven and why would you want one? Read on.
Cob is a kind of masonry and a term for buildings and structures made of a mix of clay, sand and straw. Throughout history humans have built many forms of earthen structures on every continent. In fact, it is estimated that one-third to one-half of our planet’s population still live in dwellings made from the dirt that is our dear Earth. England is quite famous for its cob homes and though nearly all the craftsmen capable of building them died between WW2 and the 1970’s the craft never died out completely. There was just enough knowledge passed down to keep it alive because existing homes, though incredibly durable and low maintenance, needed occasional repair. The skill of natural building using cob is experiencing a global revival now as people have broadened their ideas about what are sustainable or natural building materials. Though it sounds primitive when done correctly the result is beautiful walls, structures and ovens. Cob structures not only lovely to look at but they are non-toxic and energy-efficient.
Here’s a video of Heather Noakes and Ashley Lubyk, the owners of Dirt Craft Natural Building describing the how and the why they began a company focused on using natural building products.
Lubyk has a degree in environmental sciences, worked for a non-profit called Green Calgary, developed a green healthy home program and taught and consulted for seven years in that industry. All the while he was researching ever more sustainable building materials. He reached the conclusion that just because something is energy-efficient it doesn’t mean it is good for the environment. His search for the healthiest most natural materials led him to finding dirt or cob as the most favourable. He has traveled the world working with the foremost teachers and both he and Noakes spent six months training in this building technique in New Zealand. Both Lubyk and Noakes are also certified in permaculture design; a system that applies principles of nature to design of gardens and buildings. Noakes has a degree in Fine Arts and loves the beauty of the product and the chance to create with her hands. She also loves the art of cooking in the cob ovens their company creates. Now we get to the point of this story – the why and the how Dirt Craft Natural Building started offering Build your own Cob Oven workshops.
The couple built their own cob oven and were enjoying it immensely as a social vehicle. It became a place for friends to gather and they felt their community growing around it. One friend, Rob Avis, owner of Verge Permaculture (you can read more about Verge here) asked them to give a workshop on building wood fired cob ovens. The original cob oven workshop sold out quickly, they began to believe they could make a living teaching people about natural building techniques, formed their company and they now offer sold-out workshops across Western Canada.
Yesterday I ran into Lubyk and Noakes at the Ramsay Farmer’s Market. I asked them when the first available workshops are that Alberta at Noon listeners and my social media friends could sign up for? They told me that the response has been overwhelming and that there are only a few spots left in their summer workshops around Alberta. I congratulated them and they told me that if people email them and indicate interest they will gather the information and add more workshops in areas where there is a demonstrated cluster of interested individuals. Isn’t that a great response to the work they are doing? They are very encouraged so don’t you be discouraged if you want to attend a workshop and can’t get in right away. One fun note about the workshops is that if you attend a workshop and then offer to host one, the group that comes out to your workshop actually builds your oven your backyard! Get on the wait list for the next round. You can build a cob oven for less than $500 including the workshop. An al forno oven imported from Italy or California has a starting price of about $8000.00.
Here’s an outline of what the workshop process entails. The Dirt Craft Natural Building website summarizes the process as follows: First, a brick base is laid.
Sand is piled to create a form which they say reminds them of building a giant sand castle. Here’s where it gets messy – cob, that mix of sand, clay and straw, is built up around the form with walls about 9 or 10” thick. Next a door is cut and the sand is removed. Straight away a fire is built-in the cavity to allow heat to be absorbed by the thick cob walls. The fire and coals are removed and the cob is set. Here are a few pictures of what that looks like as follows:
Once your oven is cured, the food that can be prepared is varied and delicious. You can make pizza, bread, roasts, veggies, fruit leather, and the idea is to use the oven sequentially until no heat remains. There will be three to six hours of intense heat to work with. Because a good firing will bring the oven up to 700F its perfect for baking pizza in a few short minutes.
Lubyk and Noakes say that a three-hour firing will generate enough heat to cook up to six pizzas, a round of bread (up to 6 loaves), a couple of pies and maybe some muffins. As the heat dies down the oven can be further utilized for dehydrating foods, leavening bread, starting yogurt, and even drying your next round of firewood. In theory, if you had practice and were organized you might spend a weekend afternoon cooking and have enough prepared food to re-heat and eat for a busy work week.
Here’s a few pictures of food I’ve had the pleasure of tasting during a demonstration I attended with Noakes and my Calgary Food Tours Inc. associate Tilly Sanchez. These will whet your appetite and my next post will have the recipes to go with these photos. You can find that here.
I love the cool thing that is going on here in Alberta and I love that this couple’s work is now spreading these natural building skills across Western Canada. Using our earth to take better care of our earth and making great food while we are at it; these things really help me savour food and savour life.