|cob ball test|
Having taken down several oak beams and with new, engineered I-beams on order, I have to chisel out pockets in the wall for them to sit in. The dry earth that’s been removed gets remixed—with the addition of water and some straw—to seal them in. I’ll also need this “cob” to fix a new oak window frame. I’ve only ever worked with this material at friends’ houses (most recently on Bruno’s and Mélanie´s straw bale house build) and have never been in charge.
The weight of responsibility is heavy: the mix must be right. Too much clay and I’ll have cracks, too much sand and it won’t hold together. My reference guide is Building With Cob: A Step-by-Step Guide by Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce. Perhaps I’m worrying too much, as I’m reusing the earth from a wall that’s already stood for over a hundred years but I ran a couple of tests anyway. The standard one is to half-fill a jar with the soil and top it up with water, shake vigorously to thoroughly mix the contents and leave to settle out. The other one involved making a fist-sized ball and then dropping it from waist-height. If the ball breaks up, there’s not enough clay and if it pancakes, too much. Mine held its shape (see photo at top). I then left it while I attended to other things, with the intention of taking a photo later. This abandoned ball of mud in the middle of a path caused nine-year-old neighbour Camille to laugh as she came to see what we were up to: another example of the eccentricities of her English neighbours.
|"double carré en bois"|
And, as if that wasn't enough for one day, I had to design the stairs. One works out the “total rise” from finished floor height of the entrance hall to the same upstairs and divides it by 220mm (maximum individual rise for each step). One then rounds up to the nearest whole number (each step must be the same to avoid tripping and falling) and recalculates to obtain the actual rise, which will be less than 220mm.
|where the stairs will go|
Have in mind a ceilidh or barn dance caller, this is how it goes: one step, three winders to the right, two steps, three winders to the left, two steps, do-si-do and take your partner by the hand. I then phoned Simon at stairbox.com, gave him the dimensions and my credit card number and relaxed. Being of a nervous disposition though, having scoffed lunch, I dragged Gabrielle out to the barn to confirm I had everything correct. I hadn’t! I might have remembered the thickness of the floor but I’d forgotten 200mm of floor joists … oops! A hurried phone call to Simon and we recalculated and added another step and all was well. A cold feeling ran down my spine as I imagined getting the stairs back to France, offering them up and finding them short.
[An aside: why am I buying stairs in the UK when we live in France? Buying local is ethical, I know, but the price difference on some things is astonishing and it fits it (by the skin of its teeth and the help of Simon) with a planned trip to see my mum.]
So, you see, the eco-renovation of our cob barn is well under way to provide further holiday accommodation but not without some tears and tantrums!