Claudine Désirée, locally known as the “Santa Cruz Cob Queen,” is the proud creator of Santa Cruz’s first legal cob house. Cob is a natural building material made from Earth, sand and straw, and cob houses have been around since at least the 15th century. Since cob buildings are fireproof, resistant to seismic activity and inexpensive, Désirée says they should also be the future of housing in California.
Until a few years ago, Désirée lived in a vintage streetcar house nestled in downtown Santa Cruz, with her three sons. Search “Claudine Désirée” and “cob house” online and you may find a video of her wandering around the property in her purple crocs. “It’s a she cave!” Désirée exclaims, gesturing to her cob house and ducking under an avocado tree. The video has nearly 365,000 views and 400 comments praising Désirée’s homemade urban paradise.
Cob’s uses aren’t just limited to structures. People use cob to build ovens, benches and saunas because of its heat-retaining properties. After attending a cob building course in 2003, Désirée says she fell in love with its affordability, beauty and durability.
“It’s quiet, gentle, sensual construction. There aren’t any right angles. It’s very intuitive,” Désirée tells GT. “I just loved it. I had this property in downtown Santa Cruz and we had a 500 square-foot house. We needed space, but I didn’t like regular construction and didn’t have much money, so this was the answer.”
With the help of friends, family and workshop students, Désirée eventually built two cob houses on her property, plus a compost toilet, chicken coop and wooden barrel sauna. It was an “urban eco village,” she says, that she’d spend years growing and building. But when her youngest son turned 18, she decided it was time to sell the property, which meant legalizing the cob houses.
It’s currently legal to build a cob structure up to around 120 square feet without a permit and with the help of a state-licensed engineer, but it cannot have any running water or electricity. Désirée was the first person to legalize her cob residences in Santa Cruz. They cost around $500 combined to build, but around $16,000 to modify and permit, she says. She had to make several adaptations and modifications in the process, including installing wire mesh on the inside and outside walls and adding window rebar reinforcement.
“If you were to go to the city today and say, ‘I want to build a legal cob studio,’ they would say you have to get an engineer,” Désirée explains. “Then you would go to an engineer and have them design what you wanted. It would be much less than what I had to do, because I had to retrofit stuff.”
In 2014, the cob queen sold her property for about $500,000, including the legal cob houses, to bike around the world teaching cob building workshops, she says. She often returns to California to teach workshops. She says her dream is to build an eco-village of cob houses behind the Homeless Garden Project with the help of volunteers.
Already, Désirée says, “There are quite a few around Santa Cruz that are not permitted. There was around a dozen when I was there and probably more now.”
Several California state laws now make accessory dwelling units (ADUs) more viable and attractive for homeowners, and they’ve helped eliminate many zoning barriers to building cob cottages in backyards. Now, the main obstacle for cob dwellings is the lack of a cob building code and understanding of structural safety. New Zealand and the United Kingdom have building codes that permit cob houses, but the U.S. doesn’t, so cob building is often sailing some uncharted waters for local building departments.
But the Cob Research Institute (CRI) hopes to change that. The Berkeley-based CRI is in the process of submitting a proposed section on cob construction to the International Residential Code (IRC), a model code that serves as the basis for virtually every residential building code in the United States. Model codes already include adobe, light straw-clay and straw bale construction.
Longtime Santa Cruz resident Yosi Almog is a board secretary for CRI, and he says the group is running tests on cob structures to study their resilience for various climate and seismic zones.
CRI’s proposed cob code is open source, meaning that it is available to anyone and isn’t privatized. The group is on a tight deadline to complete the proposal this month with the goal of drafting laws that could go into effect as early as 2023.
After Désirée moved out of Santa Cruz in 2014, her students and friends continued the legacy of cob and related educational efforts. Two of her students, Miles Taylor and Tree Rozelle, started MuddBums in hopes of filling a void that Désirée left in the Santa Cruz cob community. MuddBums offers hands-on cob building classes, or “work-parties,” around Central California.
Aside from the structural regulations, cob making is a very physically demanding project. Supporters emphasize the sense of community that cob builds. One of the most important traditions is a “cob dance,” where cob is mixed by foot in a big, muddy party of stomping and dancing around.
“If you are paying someone to do cob and you outsource, the cost generally equates to what a conventional house would be,” Taylor says. “How a lot of people approach it is they get friends together and get everyone to come and help create the structure themselves. But that’s not a connection that we are able to make as a society anymore. We shuffle off our duties to a contractor, and next thing you know there’s a house. To involve yourself in the creation of your own space is a sacred thing, and that’s what cob lends itself to.”