A house to call my own - Lillooet's cob house

Nearly five years ago, Sandy Gauer mentioned to a neighbour about a long-held dream of building a cob house.

That neighbour, Jim Traynor, who happens to be a retired architect and expert in cob construction, soon became Sandy’s dear friend and mentor in this process. The two have worked steadily over the years building a unique and original structure on Rick and Sandy Gauer’s property on Victoria Street.

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However, while the house may seem quite different, its ancient roots can even be traced right back to Lillooet’s own history.

After spending time on Pender Island and seeing the cob constructions, which were being built literally from the ground up, Sandy was inspired. After she met Jim, she learned that he discovered cob construction many years ago and had traveled to Oregon when the cob revival happened to learn about this ancient and sustainable building technique. From there he took his practical knowledge, his passion for environmental sustainability, and his newly acquired skills and began building cob houses and teaching courses on their construction. Sandy couldn’t have moved next to a more perfect person to help her dream come true.

Her appreciation for cob first comes from the practical as the cost is quite low because the materials are readily available and all around you. She says the real investment is the “sweat equity.” The second reason she was drawn to this structure is much more emotional since she sees such beauty in the sculpting and design of these curved buildings. She sees them as artful reflections of nature as they are based of natural curves, and actually derive their strength from the curves, she explains. 

The cost to build a cob house is quite low as all of the materials are sourced locally and the structure is built primarily of sand, soil, clay and finally straw.

In the end, the entire structure can return to the earth from which it came, making the impact zero.

Passive solar and zero impact housing is something that has been important to Jim Traynor for a long time because he could see the environmental impact that modern construction was having on the environment simply based on how materials are sourced, processed, and shipped at an ever increasing environmental cost. This was occurring even though governments and municipalities were and are enacting building codes which call for more energy efficient housing and construction.

For him, cob is a return to an old way of building, but a way that should be more widely explored and employed for its natural ability to be strong, lasting, efficient and low impact.

People have been building with the earth for more than 10,000 years, and the pit houses which surround the Lillooet area are an example of this. There is another example of this type of building in Lillooet’s past, when Jim was presented with the gift of two adobe clay bricks which date back to 1861. The bricks came from a home which was being renovated. According to Jim, they were made by Mexicans working here during the Gold Rush.

The clay bricks were baked in the hot Lillooet sun, and have small animal paw prints to prove this, says Jim. As an expert, Jim says that clay is the magical ingredient and that Lillooet has plenty of clay.

For Sandy and Jim, this process has been more than just building a structure. It has been about building connection, friendship, reviving an old skill and art, and passing that down to the next generation.

Sandy was able to build the home of her dreams, but what is very special to Jim, is the impact the process and the build has had on the Gauers’schildren, the youngest of whom has been involved in building the home since she was a toddler. She is now five years old and has plans to build more cob homes herself; according to Jim, she already could.

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