Miguel Elliott has been on a journey to develop a building technique that is super affordable, quick to build, well insulated, and natural. What he has come up with is the “Palletable Cobin.”
Back in 2010 Miguel was living at a retreat center in northern California and someone had built a shed framed entirely with used pallets next to an adobe abode he was building. Miguel ended up finishing it with an earthen cob plaster followed by a lime plaster, and decorated it with stained glass, colored bottles and some interesting light features. Folks who came to visit said it looked like a gingerbread house, so that is what they named it. It was soon a huge hit as a vacation rental and within a month of renting it out, they easily made back the money they had put into materials for the structure. And so his journey with pallet structures began.
The following year, in El Bolson, Argentina, a friend was still living in a tent with her three children and the winter rains were just a month away. She had no funds to build a house so he decided to build a “Palletable Cobin.” They worked together to frame a structure with scavenged pallets, then packed clothes, cardboard, and straw into the pallets as insulation, and finally covered the walls in a cob plaster. Of course the children were delighted to help with the cob and decorative sculpting. In a month they had built her a home for less than $1000 in materials and she moved in just as the rainy season began. Other people in the village were inspired by what they had done and began to replicate the process.
Back in Sonoma County, California, Miguel resumed work with Living Earth Structures, the natural building company he had started which specializes in building cob ovens, benches, and small “Cobins”. Folks were attracted to the look of these Palletable Cobins, particularly the round ones, and hired him and his crew to build them in their backyards. They have built at least 20 of them to date in varying sizes.
After years of building numerous Cobins around the county, Miguel became involved with an organization called Essential Food and Medicine out of Oakland, California. They were offering healthy food to different homeless encampments in town, particularly the Wood Street encampment with over 250 residents under the Interstate 880 freeway. In September of 2020 an event was organized called “What’s your Medicine?” inviting different healers to offer treatment to the residents of the encampment. As a part of this event, Miguel led an earth art therapy activity “Eartherapy” where some residents built a cob oven. This was a huge hit and two weeks later when they were firing up the oven for pizzas, a discussion started about building some community amenities and sleeping spaces. The residents present were asked if they had any suggestions on how they could be built, and the typical ways of building tiny houses were suggested: wood framing, insulating with fiberglass, and covering in drywall. While cooking the pizzas, Miguel offered an alternative solution: building them with pallets, insulating them with trash and used clothes from the piles around the camp, and covering them in an earthen cob plaster. A week later, they began building Cob on Wood. The intention was to create a community plaza to serve the residents of the encampment, and also to serve as a model for what super low cost housing could look like.
They began building in December, 2020 and worked solidly every weekend, rain or shine, for four months. Being under the freeway helped to protect them during strong rains. Hundreds of volunteers organized by Artists Building Communities came out to help, and many of the residents of the camp came to help and learn the process. The land that the Wood Street encampment sits on belongs to CalTrans, California’s transportation agency, because it’s under the freeway. During construction CalTrans employees seemed fascinated by what they were creating, often getting out of their trucks and touring the project. They never asked permission to build, knowing that if they had they would most likely say no, so it was a somewhat clandestine project. The fire and police department seemed to like that the walls of the structures were fire resilient, as fires at the encampments were a constant issue.
They built the Cobins on skids so that they could be forklifted onto a trailer and hauled away if necessary. The structures are all 8’ x 12’ so that they can fit on a trailer. They used 2x4s screwed together to create makeshift 4×4 corner posts, and just one 2×4 upright in between the pallets. They sourced most of the pallets from a roofing company up the road who were happy to give them away. When sourcing them, they made sure the pallets were Heat Treated, having a HT stamp on them, and not chemically treated, and they always wore dust masks when working with them. The back sides of the pallets were missing boards, so to fill in the gaps they added old scrap fence boards to make it an even 3 ½ inches thick, and then screwed them onto our posts. They insulated the first course of pallets with clothes, plastic, and foam boards they found in a dumpster. Then they started incorporating the shelving, windows, decorative glass blocks, and stained glass into the second course. Most of the framing was done in just a few days, and then they put the cob on the wood.
To make the cob stick, they made a thick clay slip which acts as a glue over the pallets. There were concerns about the local earth having toxic residue in it, so they got the earth mixture from a local recycling center for just $10 per truckload. They made the cob mix a little on the sticky side, about 60% sand to 40% clay so that it would stick easier to the wood. They added straw chopped with a leaf shredder to the mix, and mixed it in mud boxes and tarps on site. They applied the cob about an inch thick on both sides of the pallets, using a flat trowel to get it on the wall evenly and smoothly. While the walls were drying, they built the roof using 12 ft. 2×4 rafters with generous two foot overhangs on all sides. They put used donated plywood over the pitched roof, then laid down a thick membrane and put a couple yards of planting soil on top to have a living roof. Once the walls were dried, they applied a layer of hydraulic lime plaster to the inside and outside with a nice oxide to give the desired color.
With drying time and all, it took about a month to build each structure. While they were drying, they would be framing another structure and working on the landscaping around the plaza. They were very resourceful, using mostly salvaged windows, doors, and lumber, so the total cost for each structure was no more than $1000 in materials. They paid a stipend to the residents who worked on the structures to give them an added incentive to help.
In all, they built a community kitchen, a composting toilet, a health clinic, a free store, and a sleeping Cobin. The kitchen is complete with solar panels (to power the fridge), a propane gas stove, and large water tanks to supply the sinks. They attached a shower to the kitchen with an on demand hot water heater that drains to a greywater system. The composting toilet includes a large 50 gallon drum with peat moss and saw dust for bulking. The health clinic is used for private treatments, and is stocked with healing herbs and remedies. And the free store (aka “Cobissary”) is for people from outside the encampment to donate clothes, food, medical supplies, and other essential items.
Around the Cobins they built a large cob oven and a circular canal to float pizzas that come out of the oven around on a little boat similar to a fancy sushi bar. They planted gardens with veggies, flowers, and large water towers encased in pallets and cob. The community plaza is now active, and every Sunday evening there is a community potluck with an open mic talent show.
Often City of Oakland officials came to visit and showed great interest, because they saw Cob on Wood as a potential alternative model to the toxic tool sheds they were housing people in. But not everyone saw the project this way. CalTrans has threatened to demolish the structures since they are illegally built under the freeway.CalTrans is currently attempting to evict everyone from the encampment based on their claim that recent fires there could potentially weaken the freeway structure overhead. There has been a tremendous amount of public support for the Cob on Wood project, so it is not likely that CalTrans will move forward with their threats to demolish the plaza, and will most likely eventually move them to a more permanent site sanctioned by the city.
Once various media outlets heard about the project, they were eager to learn more. Cob on Wood was featured on the front page of numerous large newspapers, including the Guardian and the San Francisco Chronicle, and many TV News channels gave extensive coverage. At Living Earth Structures they began getting calls and emails from groups all over the U.S. who wanted to do something similar in their city, and wanted to know the process to make something like this happen. Overall, it has been a fantastic experience to introduce this form of natural building in the heart of an urban setting, and to have it enter mainstream conversations about potential solutions to provide super low cost, all natural housing to those in need. All while giving the people living in them the opportunity to be involved in the Cobins’ construction, which is the ultimate form of self-empowerment.
To learn more about how to build a Palletable Cobin, Miguel aka “Sir Cobalot” has a YouTube channel with many instructional videos and his website is www.livingearthstructures.com.
You can read the original article at www.thelaststraw.org
There is an older blog post about this community: naturalbuildingblog.com