"I was flying by the seat of my pants...."

How Lois Lewis, 72, Built Her Own Home

Interview by Becky Bee

Becky Bee: What inspired you to build a house?
Lois Lewis: I needed to do something Iíd never done, and I needed a real change from what I was doing, which was taking care of my father. I saw your newspaper ad about workshops on building mud houses, or as you call them, Ďcobí houses. I was free for a week, so I went to the workshop, never dreaming what it would lead to!
We worked hands-on in the mornings and attended class in the afternoons. I took copious notes, and made up my mind to build one. I was 68 years old. I knew that if I was going to do it, I had to do it now, because who knows how much time I had, or how long my health would hold.
I started looking immediately. It took a while to find my land. I bought it in the spring, and didnít wait for the year around to see what was going to happen on the land. I felt an urgency to just get going. My daughter and I bought the land together. She has three children and needed a three-bedroom house. The piece we bought had a whole acre, plenty of room for me to put my house on it, too.

BB: How did you pick the site for your house?
LL: I picked about ten different sites before I finally settled. I was thinking of nestling it in a hillside, but I couldnít build that close to the property line. So I looked on the other side of the hill.I asked you to come out and look, and you pointed out some things about my plan that wouldnít fit on that side of the hill. Finally I just built it on top of the little knoll.

BB: Do you get lots of sun?
LL: Yes, I do. Too much in the summer time. Someone suggested I plant kiwi fruit, said it bushes out leafy in the summer, for shade, and dies down to nothing in winter, for sun.
I got the roof last summer, so now Iím seeing it through the first winter.

BB: Tell me how you designed the house.
LL: I did so many plans! And I kept getting hung-up on straight lines and squares, because all houses are! One of the things that sold me on cob was that you can be curvy. I didnít feel knowledgeable enough to do curves, so I listened too much to others. Then you reminded me that a straight wall is harder to stand up than a curved one. So I just threw all the other plans away and started over again, made lots and lots of curved plans. I finally came up with one that I liked, a heart-shaped floor plan. Except at the pointed end of the heart, I made it smile instead of point. I decided I could live with that.
I planned four buttresses in the sides to help stabilize it and had fun putting seats on two buttresses, and a cat on the other one.

BB: Had you had any experience designing or building houses?
LL: No. I had helped build a building. Not a house, more of a shack, for my husbandís shop. But he did most of it. I was the go-fer. The two of us did work together on the cement.

BB: How long ago was that?
LL: About 55 years ago.

BB: Wow! So you designed the house by yourself.
LL: Yeah, because when I tried to get help, it didnít work. I ended up doing it myself, remembering things you said both in the workshop and that day you looked at the site. Its been a lot of work, but as I went along I just told myself, I donít care if I never get it done. Iím getting some good exercise. Its fun. So, why not? I Just take my time and not be rushed.
I had a lot of fun getting the heart-shaped window in. Putting a star-shaped window in. Putting in wine jugs for little green windows. Glass bricks for diamonds. A lot of things didnít get decided until right on the spot. It was just kind of, I think Iíll do this. And did it!
Now, Iím plastering. The first part of the plastering looks like an amateur did it. Thatís true. I am an amateur. But you can see on the wall that itís getting better as I go along. Iím learning.
When I started, I found out right away that I didnít have enough notes from that one-week workshop. The workshop house already had the foundation in, the door in, and the threshold. So, we worked on the walls. We did put in a window. I got notes on all the things we didnít do, but not enough. I was flying by the seat of my pants and making some pretty big mistakes until finally your book came out. The Cob Builders Handbook.Oh, that was a big help! It was easy to read and understand. That became my Bible, my Builders Bible.

BB: Tell how you started out. What was the first step?
LL: The first step was deciding where to put it. The second step was designing the floor plan.

BB: Then what?
LL: Then, I was about to dig my little trench for the foundation, and use the dirt in the middle to build with, when my son suddenly appeared with a Cat, and said, ĎHi Mom! Happy Birthday! Iím going to help you out.í So he dozed off a spot for me. That just threw me. I sat around for days, asking ĎWell, now what?í My plan had disappeared. Instead of a little ditch and the middle dirt to use for mud, there were piles of dirt around a flat spot.Finally I realized that I had to dig the foundation deeper than he had dozed it. So I starting digging it by hand.
Then it got close to the end of the summer, and I wanted to get the cement poured before bad weather. So I hired a couple of girls to help me finish getting it ready, not just the ditch, but the forms, too. I just kind of freaked out when it came to forms, because they are so straight. So I went running to you and you said, ĎUse straw bales. They will bend in a curve. And plastic, to keep out the cement.í So, I bent the straw bales into the shape I needed, covered them with plastic and staked them down.
Then my son, who was experienced with concrete, told me I needed wires across the ditch, from one bale to another, to help hold it. He helped me do that. It didnít take long, because the bales were solidly in place. Then we called the cement truck. When the cement guy came up he just took his hat off and looked bewildered at the strange sight. My son, grinning from ear to ear, said, ĎI didnít do it! I didnít do it.í Then the fellow looked again and said, ĎWell, it looks like itís going to work.í So he dumped the cement.
I hired the same two girls to help me that day because I knew that pouring cement was a big job and you had to work fast. We worked hard. It was a warm day. That cement set up so fast, we didnít get it quite all the way to where we really wanted it. And we didnít get the form off quickly enough on a couple of spots. We live with it. Itís alright! It worked.So thatís what I did that first summer. I got the foundation in.

BB: And that year you were still taking care of your dad, right?
LL: Oh yes! I was still taking care of dad, spending a lot of time with him. I was it, the only caregiver.

BB: How old was he then?
LL: Ninety-four. Two days a week I would take him to day care and come up here and work like crazy. Other times I would hire a lady to stay with him. A couple of times I brought him with me for a little while and he stayed in the car. Then he fell, and was in the nursing home until he healed. I worked like crazy while he was there. But I had to spend a lot of time in the nursing home, because he was very unhappy there. It was winter, the weather was bad. I wasnít going to do anything on the place anyway, so I brought him home.
But by the end of the winter, he wasnít sleeping, which was hard on me. The doctor told me, ĎYouíre going to die before he does. Besides that youíre not being kind to him to take him home.í I said, ĎWhat?!í I was sure I had been, because he wanted to be home so badly and I wanted him home. The doctor said, ĎWell, heís going to fall again. And then heíll be in the nursing home again, and heíll be mad and have to get all used to it all over again, because itís not home. Make the nursing home his home now, so that he wonít have to readjust over and over again.í
My kids were about ready to clobber me anyway, insisting that it was too hard for me to take care of him anymore. So I moved him into the nursing home. But I spent half a day with him every day, trying to keep him happy. The other half I worked on the house.
This was the second summer. I wanted to get going on the mud, and wasnít sure where to start. Then I realized, from my notes and Beckyís book, that I needed to establish the threshold for the doors first, which I really should have done before I poured the cement.
Then I realized that I didnít know how big my door was going to be. So I built the door. That took a while, because I had never done it. I took cedar 2 x 6s, thinking that cedar would make a light door, but it turned out to be heavy anyway. I glued them, and used dowels and clamps to hold them together.
The first time I put the door together it was a mess. I had to take it all apart. Then my neighbor-friend told me, ĎThe clamps have to be this way. One on top across the board and one on the bottom, to hold them together properly.í He helped me sand off all the old glue and put it all back together. Then I glued it and clamped it again. It was still a little rough because by this time my boards were not true. So he suggested we rent a belt sander. He helped me learn how to use the sander, and we took turns. When my arms would get tired he would take it, and vice versa. We got that thing sanded front and back. It wasnít perfect, but it looked pretty good. Then I painted it with linseed oil.

BB: Could you please tell the readers what it means to make Ďcob.í
LL: Cob is a combination of clay, sand and straw. The amounts of sand and clay depend on the kind of dirt you have.
My dirt is all clay, so I had to put lots of sand with it. I didnít know that when I started. I looked in my notes. In the workshop we used ten shovels of clay to seven of sand, because it was sandy soil. So I thought thatís the formula to use! So I started with that, but then someone said I needed to use more sand.

BB: It goes to show that you can get away with not knowing everything, and build yourself a beautiful house. How do you do the next thing?
LL: You dump the clay and sand on a tarp and roll it round to mix it up and then you start putting water with it and tromping it with your feet. You fold the tarp over itself like you were kneading bread, until you finally get a good mix. If youíve ever worked with clay, like doing pots, you know you want it not too runny and not too stiff. When you get it just about right you start throwing the straw in and tromping that in. The strawís your rebar. Then I put it in buckets and carried the buckets around to where I was working.

BB: And then you just mush that on to the foundation?
LL: I had left rocks sticking up in the foundation. When we poured the cob, I went around with a bucket of rocks as fast as I could and stuck them up for something for the cob to grab onto. Then I put mud on there and walked on it, and stomped it down on that foundation. Then I kept building on top of that. When it got too high for me to stand on, Iíd stand beside it and pound on it with my fists or elbows.

BB: Did you mix up all of the cob for your house with your feet?
LL: No, I got a bone spur on my heel that first summer. So I bought a cement mixer. That saved me a lot of tromping on that heel. Eventually the bone spur disappeared.

BB: Did you build the whole house by yourself?
LL: Mainly itís been me. I spent lots and lots of days with just me here. But lots of curious people came by. Some wanted to help me and some just wanted to look. At first I wouldnít ask anybody to help me, only if they offered. Sometimes they would give me ideas, which was helpful, but then leave. But some wanted to learn how. So they would help. Some stayed a day. Some stayed an hour. One or two stayed a week.
My nephew brought his wife and daughter and niece and camped here for four days. Thatís when I put the four big windows in. I knew they were coming. So I piled up a bunch of cob. I must have had 20 batches all made up. I had the windows all lined up. I had the level spots ready. We put those four windows up in those four days. That was quite a chore, but it was exciting, too, because that was a lot of wall going up in a hurry after my slow-poky mud building wall.
Itís been quite a creative project. A lot of decisions I made as I went along. I had no idea it was going to end up like this. I did know I wanted a heart-shaped window, and about where I thought it would be. And I knew I wanted four big windows, because Iím nearly blind in one eye, and need lots of light. Some of the rest of it was pretty hazy. Once I made a decision and got it built, I would think, ĎWell, thatís it! You donít change your mind now!í But a couple of times I did change my mind and did some tearing out, and it worked.

BB: You tore out the cob and rebuilt it?
LL: Yes. When I was getting the wall up, my friend Laura was helping. I didnít notice that she was filling up a spot I had designed for a ledge. I even helped her build it up! A few days later it dawned on me what we had done, so my grandson helped me tear it out. The cob was still damp enough that we could just wet it a little and reuse it and continue our wall.

BB: How did you tear it out?
LL: With a claw hammer, a sledge hammer and a long cold chisel. Since the clay was still a bit soft it wasnít too hard. We sliced it off in chunks with a big big machete, and used those to build another part of the wall. Another place I tore out was a lot harder to do because it was cement-hard. But by hammering and chiselling and using a hatchet I got what I wanted.

BB: Itís so much work! Had you been exercising and working before you started this?
LL: Well, I never was one to sit around. But, I didnít have a pet project to work on, so I did aerobics with aerobic tapes.

BB: To get you ready to build?
LL: No, Iíve always wanted to stay healthy. But it griped me to be spending all of that energy on something which wasnít producing anything. So, when I decided to build I thought well, that could be my aerobics. Iíll get my exercise in and accomplish something at the same time.

BB: How has your body held up?
LL: Itís doing fine. I have a degenerated disc in my back that gave me fits for almost a year. I finally found the right doctor and he gave me the right exercise. Itís great now. I can walk on the rock ground again and go up and down hills. Now Iíve found out I have a heart problem, but by being careful and not hurrying and getting over-tired, Iím doing fine.

BB: How long have you been working on your house?
LL: Five years this spring.

BB: And will you be done at the end of this summer?
LL: No, I hope to have the plastering done and the floor in by then but if not, so what? I had no idea I was going to get this far. We got a lot done in the two workshops here, to the point where it was time to do the roof. I had to hire the roof on, because I couldnít see myself teetering around up in the air anymore. I used to! But now Iím not that secure on my feet. That roof cost me a bundle! Itís wonderful to have a roof, instead of tarps overhead and trying to work in the shade or sun or rain.
Now here I am, moved in, even though I still have a dirt floor and the walls arenít plastered. I donít have a single cupboard in my kitchen. I donít have plumbing, though itís started. I just have two more lights to put in. Thatís all the wiring, except for lights above the kitchen and bathroom sinks.

BB: Did you do the wiring yourself?
LL: Mostly. I bought a book called Basic Wiring. I read and reread it and talked to people where I bought the wires, and put them in as I cobbed the walls. I made a few mistakes, but to fix them I chiselled a groove in the wall and redid a couple of wires that werenít quite the way they should be. Then filled up the crevasse with cob.

BB: Have you always been a real ĎCan doí sort of person?
LL: When I was a kid, I was a scaredy cat. I wouldnít tackle anything. I was afraid of every little bug and critter. I gained some confidence when I read in a book how to do something, and then try to do it, but never anything very big.When I got married, my husband just laughed if I acted like I couldnít do something. Heíd say, ĎOh, if I can do it, so can you! If itís possible to be done, why canít you do it?í I was 18 when I got married. Living and working with him for 27 years rubbed off on me. I finally got courage to realize that I could do some things.

BB: So, even though heís not here anymore, you still are a ĎCan do person. Obviously! How has this project changed you? Or has it?
LL: You canít work on something like this without it changing you. You learn as you go. Discouraging things happen. Iíve learned patience with the process and with my self. While it was hard to leave here and go to the nursing home to sit and listen to my dad complain all afternoon, I kept my priorities straight. I loved my dad very much. I knew that was the way it should be. So I swallowed and let the project languish. Then, when he died things went much faster. So those first two years were pretty slow. There were days when I thought, ĎAm I crazy or what?í But I decided, well, Iím getting exercise. Iím out in the fresh air. Itís something that I made up my mind to do. Iíve always been the kind of a person who, if I decide for sure that Iím going to do something, I follow through.

BB: Well, building this cob house certainly did take some stick-to-itiveness.
LL: Oh yes, it did. Sometimes I look around at the things I could have done better, but Iím learning not to do that. Iím learning to say, ĎWell, this is what I did, and itís wonderful.íCob has helped me not be so critical of myself. What kept amazing me was that I could make so many mistakes and still fix them! Nothing is ever a total loss! Just because you didnít do something right, doesnít mean you canít do it again or fix it or learn to live with it!

BB: Iíve noticed that youíve lost weight. You move more quickly.
LL: I lost 22 pounds this last year. I donít know whether that was from the cobbing or because I decided that every time I lost a pound I was going to make sure it didnít come back. Iím sure itís better for my health.

BB: Do you get lots of visitors coming to check out what this crazy old lady is doing?
LL: I sure do! Iíve had people from Indiana, from Canada, from California, from Wisconsin, from South Africa.

BB: Do you get a lot of people telling you how inspiring you are?
LL: Some do. They say, ĎThat gives me courage to try it.í Some are just curious. Some want to know how, when they see it they realize they could do it too.

BB: So youíve ended up being a teacher.
LL: Yes. Many who came to help for a day or two learned how to do it. It isnít all that hard, but I always warn them that when they get their own place the first thing they need to do is to determine the ratio of clay and sand for their dirt! I always warn them that their recipe will be a little different than mine, but the process is the same.

BB: Do you have other suggestions for people who are thinking about building their own house?
LL: Keep an open mind. Donít stay in a box! Realize that nothing is impossible! And, start small!
When I started, I marked my plan out with stakes, and strung string between them to make the outline. I looked at that, and with no walls, just bare ground, the house looked so little that I pulled up the stakes and moved them out. I shouldnít have done that because it turned out to be much bigger than I needed. It didnít hit me how big my building actually was until I got the walls up with the roof on it. So when you mark it out with string and pegs, donít be misled. It looks little then, but when the walls and the roof get on, it will loom up bigger than life!

BB: What about psychologically and emotionally? Itís not everybody, especially at your age, who builds their own house. Do you have any other tips?
LL: What gave me the courage to start was the fact that cob could be done a little at a time. I had learned, while taking care of my dad, there were a lot of things that I could do on a drip-drop method. Cob would work that way. I made up my mind when I started that whenever I was tired, I would stop. I didnít want to hate it, so I made sure that I kept it fun. When anyone was helping me, I didnít let them get too tired. I would say that I didnít want tired thoughts going into my building. I have to pull myself up short and remind myself every now and then when I get anxious to finish something. Just stop. You can do that tomorrow. Youíre tired, so quit!

BB: When you were building, did you gain more endurance as time went on? Did you work longer and longer before it got hard?
LL: Oh yes, and especially after I didnít have Dad anymore, that was a big difference. I could get a lot more done. I didnít have to rest as often. One day, I had this young girl helping. She was 20 or 21, fast, even hyperactive. I had the cement mixer going when she came, with one batch done. I thought, ĎWell, Iíll just keep up with her. She can pile it on, and Iíll keep mixing it.í I overdid. I wound up having to lay off for about two weeks. So from that I learned that I cannot hurry. I just canít.
After that happened, I decided that when I canít keep up with people who help me, I will stand around and watch them do it! During the workshop here, I could hardly join in because everything was happening so fast. I just kept walking around, saying ĎWOW!í to everything. I did a lot of looking and answering questions like, ĎHow do you want this, Lois?í and ĎHow do you want that?í

BB: How did you make decisions?
LL: Well, my old childish fears crept in a lot. When I was worried about something, I would take a long time to get started on it. Like the wiring? I donít know how many times I read and reread that book. Then I laid out my wires. Then I went back and read the book some more. I really was slow.
Now Iím slow-poking on the plumbing, because again Iím afraid to do it wrong. And of course right now, Iím getting settled into living here. Also, I have to get my ditch going because I have a water problem on one side. Since I came back from my vacation, Iíve been digging that ditch and thinking about the plumbing. So thatís what I do, work on something else until Iíve thought about the other thing so long that Iím tired of thinking about it and just do it.
In the meantime, people give me pointers. There was a fellow here yesterday who does house repairs. He looked at my plumbing and said I have the wrong traps for the bathroom and kitchen sinks. He showed me what to get instead. Do I believe him or do I believe the fellow who told me to get the ones I have? I have to decide. But, sometimes by just slow poking and digging my heels in and not being too quick to do something, somebody comes along and gives me more help or knowledge.

BB: So, youíve met a lot of people from this project.
LL: Yes. And everybody that put in a little pat of mud here or there feels a kinship to my house. They came, and what they did they wanted to do. It was fun for them and fun for me. So I like to feel itís partly theirs too. Anytime somebody comes back, and gets excited to see what Iíve done since they were here, that gives me a boost, too.
I decided before I ever started, that my house was going to be wheelchair accessible. I was getting older and my dad planned on being here. In our little apartment, he was constantly banging into things with his wheelchair. Heíd get so frustrated trying to get around corners and through doors. So I make my house quite open. I have the secure feeling that even if I get to where I have to be in a wheelchair, I can still live in it.

BB: You said that the plumbing is not in. What do you do for a bathroom and kitchen?
LL: I have a composting toilet outdoors. And a potty-chair by my bed at night that I empty in the morning.Iím going to put a composting toilet in my bathroom. I am still working that out in my mind. Thatís another one of the things Iím slow-poking. I could buy one already made. It looks really pretty and white and looks almost like a regular toilet. But Iíve heard they have problems, and are so expensive! Like $1100 or $1200. In the meantime, Iíve found a book that explains all about composting toilets and I realize that I can build one myself. But since I didnít know then what I know now, my bathroom isnít arranged for it. So I have to decide. Do I try the one thatís already made? Or, do I dig some more and make my own and get an outdoor access for my inside composting toilet. Since I have the outdoor one, I donít have to decide right away. I just bought another book, written by an elderly lady whoís doing things with solar power and composting. I intend to read that before I make up my mind for sure on the toilet.

BB: What about the kitchen?
LL: My kitchen is going slow. I need to plaster the kitchen walls before I put the cupboards in. I also need the floor in. In the meantime I have a table and some shelves. Iíll just camp until I get to that point.
So far, Iíve been able to use my daughterís kitchen. But, yesterday, I finally took time away from my ditch to set my table up and get a shelf up. I think I can start doing my own cooking here now, as soon as I get in a few supplies.
My daughter doesnít like that idea. She wants me to eat with them, because she says I eat so little and otherwise it will all go to waste. I appreciate that. I really do, but I want to be on my own.

BB: What about the economics? Have you worked out how much itís cost you per square foot?
LL: Not yet, but you wonít find another house of this size for anywhere near as cheap as mine. The roof was the most expensive, but then it was a special design that my son and this roofer came up with together. Iím estimating that when Iím totally finished, including the bath tub and the kitchen sink and the cupboards and appliances and tools I used to build it, I should have around $20,000 in this 900 square foot house. I have a little windowseat out of cob, so that saved me from buying a chair, and I can build other things out of cob.

BB: Like what?
LL: I want to finish my cob oven. I let two kids build it, because they wanted the experience, but they didnít finish it. The oven is usable, but the top isnít insulated enough. I have a wonderful sculptress granddaughter, and Iím trying to get her to come down and sculpt a dragon on top of it.If she wonít come, Iíll sculpt the dragon myself, even if it might not look nearly as good.
When it comes to landscaping, I might want a cob wall someplace. Or a bench. Iím going to have a porch, and am thinking about pillars and an archway, and will make my own roof on that, I think.Iím going to try for a bathtub outside. Not right away. I need to get the house done first. So Iíll just start some compost, and maybe grow some herbs and vegetables.

BB: It sounds like youíre addicted to cobbing, Lois!
LL: I am, because it is! Itís addicting. You get going, and you learn more all of the time what it will do. Thereís not much that it wonít do.The circular driveway here was pure clay. So I put big rock in and that all sunk, right away. Then I put more big rock in, but it had gouges in places, so I fixed up some cob and put in all of the sunken spots, and then ordered some more rock and put it in. It worked!
When the cement steps down to my daughterís house started to give away, I grabbed a bucket of cob and fixed them up. Itís been three or four years now, and Iím going to take a little cob down and refix them in a place or two. My granddaughter wants a dog. If I ever get through with the house and work on a fence so that she can have a dog, Iíll help her build a little cob doghouse.That will be fun for the two of us to do together.

BB: Sounds like youíre going to be busy!
LL: I intend to stay busy. On rainy days, I donít go out there and suffer, I do something inside. Variety is the spice of life. Sticking your nose to just one thing deadens the spirit. Building a cob house, there is no one thing that you stick with forever, except mud. You learn real fast to have your mud clothes in one place and your go-to-town clothes in another place.

BB: Do you want people to write you?
LL: Of course. Iíve a letter right here right now that somebody wants me to answer. Theyíre welcome to write me, but Iíd say that the first thing to do is buy your book and read it from cover to cover. Then they will have a better idea of whatís involved. Where they should start. If they already have their land, how to test their soil to see what theyíre going to need. Then they need to sit down and ask themselves whether they really want to do this. How big do they want to start with. You can start small and add on later. Or build a dog house, or a kidís playhouse, so you get the feel of it, and then decide, do I really want to do a whole house? Some things you donít have to decide until you get to that point in the process. You have to decide your floor plan first, because you have to have that before you can do your foundation. After you get your foundation in, then you can go two or three feet up before you have to decide where you want your windows. But it is nice to know where your windows and doors are going to be. Especially your doors.
I did my door to start with, but I was going to have only one door. But people clamored at me that I needed a second door. I had to do some chipping and cement work there to get the second door in, but Iím glad I did. This is too big a building to have one door. I really didnít realize that I was making such a big building.

To contact Lois Lewis, email her at mudfoot1@yahoo.com.

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