Resilient Ideas: A Hand-Built Home

No fortune? No skills? No problem. How a novice builder used mud–and teamwork–to make a house from scratch.
SPREAD Cob House

Before arriving at Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, 25-year-old Brian Liloia had never built anything in his life. From a conventional perspective this might not have been the best resumé for constructing a home from scratch, but the community’s penchant for inventive thinking and mutual support gave him the confidence to take the project on.

“I learned about cob building through helping other DR members construct their cob kitchen when I first moved here,” remembers Liloia.

Dancing Rabbit (DR) calls itself an ecovillage because its members hope to create a small town with sustainability and environmental awareness central to everything that happens there. Community is the glue for the project, founded in 1997 on 280 acres in northeastern Missouri. But local, natural materials hold together most of DR’s buildings: straw bale, clay, lime, and plaster.

One of the most common building materials at DR is cob, an adobe-like mixture of straw, clay, and sand. Liloia says it’s ideal for a beginner: “Learning to build with cob is very simple, and the basics can be taught to just about anyone in a short period of time. It’s intuitive and doesn’t take a lot of technical know-how or fancy tools.”

Over the course of a year, Liloia progressed from setting the urbanite (salvaged concrete) foundation to building and installing his firebrick stove. He and his work-exchange friends—people from outside DR, or new residents, who exchange labor for the chance to learn alternative building—spent many days and a few full-moon nights stomping on wet clay and sand, then combining it with straw to produce the material for sculpting the massive walls.

building cob house roof
Photo Essay: Watch our slideshow to see how Brian did it.

Finally, last summer, Liloia moved into “Gobcobatron,” a name that arose during one of those wacky conversations you have while mushing mud with friends. “There’s nothing quite like living in a home that you built with your own hands,” he says. The house is also home to girlfriend April Morales, who arrived on the scene in time to do her share of the construction, and a pug named Pug.

It’s easy to imagine Liloia’s creation on the cover of a modern home-design magazine. The massive walls shut out noise and help keep the space at an even temperature year-round. While cob and earthen building techniques aren’t new—cob houses in Europe more than 500 years old are still in use—natural building is gaining momentum. People are interested in treading more lightly and relearning traditional skills, and you don’t need a mortgage to build a cob house. Liloia figures Gobcobatron, which measures a little under 200 square feet, set him back a whopping $3,000 plus labor.

“Building your own home is definitely within reach if you have the time, energy, and inspiration.” Efforts like Liloia’s bring DR closer to being fully resilient and sustainable. He and other ecovillage residents are currently building a straw-bale and cob kitchen designed to serve six to eight community members. 


Sven Eberlein wrote this article for A Resilient Community, the Fall 2010 issue of YES! Magazine.  Sven's writing on ecocities was included in the Daily Kos “Greenroots” series. His website is

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