Photos and Story by Lissa Alexander
The concept for Dave Olsen’s dream house was born out of a disaster.
The Cob house that he and his 13-year-old daughter Anicca now live in sits atop a craggy hilltop on Lasqueti Island. It is 900 square feet, built with sand, clay and straw. Lasqueti is off-grid, which means there’s no BC Hydro or other public utilities that take care of your water or sewage. Life is simpler on Lasqueti, and that’s why Olsen has spent the last 18 years there.
Not only has Olsen built his home and the other structures on his property with his hands, but he’s installed everything else to make life comfortable. He collects, stores and filters his own water, which is heated by solar panels. Electricity is harnessed from the sun and stored in batteries. He uses a cob oven and a sun oven for baking, and heat is provided by a wood cook stove and a rocket mass heater which has in floor heating ducts…but life wasn’t always this comfortable.
Olsen took his first cob workshop in 1996, and from that moment, he was hooked. “It’s great all year round,” he explains as we park our bikes at the bottom of his wooded property and follow his daughter and their three dogs up a pathway that winds through the thicket. “In the summer it’s naturally cool, because it absorbs the heat out of the air, and makes the interior space cooler than outside,” he explains. “And then in the winter it will suck up the heat from the wood-stove, and when the wood-stove is done for the night, it will release it, maintaining a constant temperature. So it’s easy to live.” Olsen adds that in 10 years, he’s only done 15 minutes of touch-ups to the plaster and no other maintenance on his cob buildings.
Near the bottom of the pathway, Olsen points out one of the scarce flat areas on the property, and explains that he tented there for about eight years, and built the nearby cob outhouse. A few minutes later, as we reach the crest of the trail, a large, rounded earth structure emerges, its wood and metal roof jutting out high above us. As we get closer, a number of smaller cob buildings also come into view, and it’s as if I’ve stepped into another time.
Cob House construction is an ancient technique of building, and many structures are still lived in around the world, some purportedly 300 to 500 years old. Olsen says the buildings will stand for a minimum of 300 years as long as the roof is replaced when necessary.
His Lasqueti Island property includes a chicken coop, angled on the steep landscape, which Olsen explains is very easy to clean and doesn’t allow water to pool.
The cob greenhouse is brimming with greenery behind expansive windows and doors. Olsen admits that the greenhouse design was far from perfect, in fact, it was more of an experiment to see how thin he could go with the walls, he explains. Back when he built it, he was still developing his Fast Cob technology, so it was much more time-consuming. A few years after he built it, he was topping a nearby tree when it came crashing down onto the greenhouse. To Olsen’s surprise, the structure held up.
“I thought for sure the whole thing was coming down, I had no doubt,” he recalls. “…But not a crack. I just couldn’t believe it, so that really put some big faith into cob for me.”
THE BIG CRASH
Next he shows me his guest house, where his mother sleeps when she comes to visit. The exterior is cantilevered so there is a four-feet overhang, overlooking the garden but avoiding a babbling brook that rolls through in the winter. Inside it’s small and cozy with a wood-stove that Olsen explains can be up against the wall, because cob is fireproof.
Finally we get to the their current home, but as we approach, Olsen begins to tell me the disastrous story of what came before this structure. It took him two and a half years to build a 2,000 square foot home, 50 feet wide, and 35 feet deep with 14-foot ceilings. Looking back, he reveals, he made some mistakes.
“I didn’t think it through, I didn’t design it from the whole picture first, it was like
piecemeal,” he says.
He explains that he built a tunnel for the Ondol heating system, which allows heat from wood smoke outside to travel through the tunnel and heat the floor, before it passes through a chimney. He had a couple of apprentices who wanted to build benches, so they decided to put the benches on either side of the tunnel to soak up some of its warmth. Olsen says he thought the benches would act like support buttresses, so the main support wall would work well between them. But that meant having to build the support wall over the tunnel. “Well I thought, it’s never going to get wet, so it’s going to be fine,” he remembers.
Two years later, as he’s putting the finishing touches on the house, his metal order to complete the roof is delayed. After being delayed a number of times, a huge storm blows in, inundating the complex with rain.
“Two days later at six in the morning, I heard a crash, because the main support wall was on this tunnel made of cob,” he says. Eventually the rest of the tunnel collapses, and the support wall above it, leaving a huge pile of destroyed,
“For three days I was in shock. It was two and a half years of my life down the drain. And then I dreamed up this house,” he beams. “And I was so excited.”
Over the 13 years that Olsen has been hosting workshops, he has taught well over 100 people how to build with cob. His technique has evolved over the years, particularly when a Korean man attended and said he didn’t want to do the mixing part anymore.
He came up with a technique to make bricks, and with some fine tuning, Olsen can now build 30 times faster than the technique he was initially taught. Olsen calls his method “Fast Cob!”
His current 900 sq foot home only took him five months to complete, and that was working part time for the first couple of months, and doing 80 per cent of the work himself. “This technique I’ve developed, you don’t need machines and it’s comparable to the speed of conventional building with wood,” he explains.
His home boasts an open concept kitchen and living room, heated bed platforms and floors, a bathroom with a pedestal sink on natural stone, and the shower, which will have tiles and drainage rock, is almost complete. The spiral staircase leads upstairs, where there are hand carved design elements which hold books and other trinkets, and glass bottles and wood have been incorporated into the wall for hanging items. Large windows bring in plenty of natural light, and a string of tiny lights along the ceiling add to the ambiance.
Bob Gates has been living on Lasqueti part time with his young family and took Olsen’s workshop to open up their options.“It’s a neat medium to work with,” he explains. “You don’t have to use any machines, no gas powered tools, it’s completely fossil fuel free.”
Cob is becoming more appealing to people, he explains, because it’s “dirt cheap” among many other benefits. He cites an Airbnb Cob rental house on Mayne Island that was listed as the most sought-after listing in the country in 2017.
Olsen agrees that the price is a huge factor in the appeal of cob, and says that it’s also rodent and insect proof, low maintenance and is the healthiest choice for building.
“Health-wise, I’m not enveloping the building in plastic and then therefore having to put in ventilation systems to bring fresh air in, it just naturally breaths,” he says, adding that he doesn’t have to worry about the toxins that come with conventional living. “It’s helping me be a healthy being.”
Olsen offers 6-day workshops on Lasqueti
Island, and day tours if people are interested in learning more. Visit his website for photos, videos and more information at cob.lasqueti.ca.