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Intuitive Design: Sculpting Cob Cottages and Natural Homes As A Sacred Process

Designing a cob cottage or other natural home through sculpture can be a personal and sacred intuitive process. Creating one's relationship to place can have a profound effect on one's life, relationship to the environment, and to the world. This paper is a simple reminder to notice the obvious and use your intuitive tools — a natural way of designing.

Home is our birthright. Every human being was born from a natural home. We took our first space and place in our mother's womb. Most of us spent the first nine months of prenatal life in this authentic place; emerging at birth from a place of stillness. The womb is a sacred and natural home, providing a connected, loving, protected, nourishing, and sacred place to grow and thrive. Our psyche knows this womb-like place very well, and often seeks for its qualities and comfort in relationships and in the world.

As children we were all intuitive designers, place-makers, and natural builders. We each have woven a lifetime "memory blanket" of places. Every thread, rich in color and texture, symbolizes a place that has had a powerful impact on our lives. We can unfold this memory blanket anytime to integrate these sacred qualities it contains into our designs as natural builders.

You can begin to unfold your memory blanket by remembering the very first place you designed. Recall the indoor "forts" in the living room built using anything you could find. Remember the spaces you created in closets, basements, rooftops, garages, backyard tree houses and forts, or through transforming old outbuildings or chicken coops into your own special spot. Recollect the places you explored with natural materials by building rafts, beaver dams, bird nests, driftwood beach huts; through being in tunnels, rock caves, rock quarries, ice caves and igloos or through making tepees and forest forts. What about the places you explored in and under the water, in oceans, lakes, ponds, rivers, streams, bathtubs, hot tubs, and in swimming pools?

We can integrate nature as a tool and teacher in therapeutic environments through sculpting internal sacred spaces. Children, youth, and adults can all experience healing effects on abusive family traumas. Finding a special place in the world, and creating magical spaces is a natural way of healing, growing, and learning without interpretation from others. Similar to art therapy, this act of creating and sculpting space is a healing and sacred process in itself. Through this magical and playful art form we explore our boundaries in relationship to ourselves, friends and family; solve problems, heal emotional wounds, and experience joy.

The Heart House

An intuitive design process begins in your heart. Frank Lloyd Wright evokes this spirit with his statement, "Architecture is born in the heart." This heart-based process allows the designer to gain awareness through sculpting "home" with earth and natural materials. When we designed our heart-shaped cob cottage, we weren't fully aware at the time of its embracing hug, its womb-like shape and qualities, nor were we aware of the powerful effect this space would have on our daily lives and relationships.

Moving out of our first cob cottage was the saddest time of our lives. Our hearts had been broken as the result of a lawsuit, so we chose to leave our home and work to build a new cob cottage and start a new life. My dear friend Joan Levine was meditating one day on generosity of the heart, and later she and her husband, Lew Bank, invited us to build Cob Cottage II on their property at Cerro Gordo Ranch. We built Cob II, healing our broken hearts with a heart-shaped cottage. This was the birth of the Cob Cottage Company and the "Cob Web" of wonderful new friends and colleagues. In our new cottage, my husband Ianto sculpted a heart-shaped window into the cob wall over our sleeping alcove as a symbol of love and my Valentine's Day birthday.

The shape of the floor plan was not based on the concept of "heart." We didn't intentionally design a "heart" as such; specific geometries are antithetical to the shapes of the human dance. Nor did we build the 10' x 12' box so easily suggested by 120 square feet. A design grew, like lilies on a pond, from response to the activities we needed to have enclosed. Need space to cook in? Well, standing at an imaginary wrap-around counter, we spread our arms. You really can't stretch easily beyond that span, so for a solitary cook, the kitchen ended there. Within my reach, without walking, are fridge, stove, sink, dishes, pots, food, storage, and counters. "Desking" space, directly above, turned out to be the same plan with a lower ceiling, as I prefer to sit rather than stand when working at my desk.

We designed by verb and adjective, the activity and the qualities of the place. Nouns have relevance mostly to realtors — you can't snuggle up in square feet. The spaces fitted the activity as the shell fits the snail. And what emerged was an odd sort of quirky heart with a step, a buttress, and a loft edge separating this tiny space into two tinier places.

The Heart House was a lesson in abandoning classical notions of "design," in which every last detail is figured out in advance and drawn. The Heart House was the prototype for what is now becoming a new school of design thinking — design more like Nature does it. Nature begins with a template, which is a fairly rigid idea of what's possible, then creates endless diversity by responding to every nuance of the surroundings. In a similar, parallel way, once the foundation was built, nearly every design decision was made by intuition — how it felt at the time and how we imagined it would feel when finished.

Serendipity tweaked our well-laid plans: an oval window became a yin yang symbol, but only from exactly one spot on the approach to the cottage; dawn sunrise on Lammas quarter day, August 1, sunlight floods through the east window and hits above the woodstove for only seven minutes, then is gone completely by August 4. This Lammas window was designed by being on the building site at the right time and noticing the Lammas light shining through the trees. With a little careful pruning of tree branches it was clear where the window needed to be in order to bring this sacred light into the cottage.

Awareness And Healing Through Cob Art

At the Cob Cottage (as we now call our business) we hear a common phrase from our more than 500 workshop alumni: "This workshop has changed my life." What is this change that is happening so frequently? We have found it takes many forms.

Oregon cob building, a process that incorporates building as a meditation, gives the natural builder direct physical contact with the Earth. Primal and tribal work begins to happen. The mud dancing, body reflexology, and the sense of community-building that occurs during a workshop, strengthens, opens, relaxes, and adjusts people's bodies, minds and spirits in often mysterious and unexpected ways. The work tends to generate the healing power of love, and the healing of chronic illness, as well as changes in career and life attitudes. The process of building with natural materials, in relationship with place and spirit, speaks for itself.

Intuitive Tools For Designing Natural Buildings

Closely sense your body reactions to different places. What is your reaction to oceans, streams, rivers, lakes, mountain tops, and rock bluffs? How do you feel in sand dunes, meadows, forests, crowded cities, streets, winding country lanes, open fields, churches, temples, shrines, or ancient ruins? Do you feel differently in fast food restaurants, commercial streets, prisons, court rooms, hospitals, universities, schools or libraries? What is the embodied energy of these places? What qualities of these places do you wish to integrate into your design?

As a designer of natural buildings and cob sculptor, I carry in my "tool kit" four tools for designing natural buildings: intuition, dream work, meditation, and sculpting, all of which are major skills which I continue to develop. I call the process of using these tools "sculpting sacred space and awareness through cob art."

Follow your intuition. When children design their magic spots, they are not consciously aware, but emphasize the qualities that make them feel good. They follow their intuition or gut "hunch" of what feels right. Caroline Myss states in her book Anatomy of the Spirit that, "Intuition is the ability to use energy data to make decisions in the immediate moment. Energy data are the emotional, psychological and spiritual components of a given situation. They are the here and now of life." The owner-builder can integrate messages from the unconscious into their design through a process of dream work, meditation, and authentic movement.

"Sculpting Sacred Space" Meditation and Design Process

The following two design exercises involve a four-part process of:
·  Guided Visualization and Meditation
·  Journal Writing
·  Model making — Cob Art/Sculpting of Sacred Spaces
·  Storytelling and Awareness Through Cob Sculpture

The exercise can be extended by celebrating your creative work of cob art and your Spirit, through singing it, or dancing it.

In a workshop or group setting each exercise may run two hours or longer, so give yourself plenty of time to complete the whole process. If you are doing this exercise on your own, you can read the exercise into a tape recorder and play it back to yourself at a leisurely pace if you cannot find someone to read it to you.

Sculpting Sacred Space Meditation

Find a place you feel drawn towards. Let your intuition be your guide. Sit in a comfortable position. If you find you need extra support for your back, find a back rest or lie down. You may wish to bend your knees and place the soles of your bare feet in direct contact with the surface upon which you sit or lie. Feel your feet rooted downward towards the earth. Feel your body contact the surface upon which you sit. Allow yourself to notice the qualities of the space you have chosen to be symbolic of feeding your spirit.

Allow your eyes to soften. When you're ready, close your eyes. Relax deeply with each breath into a new sacred place within yourself.

Tune into your sensory channels. Allow breath, body sensations, feelings, visualizations, hearing, movement, kinesthetics, relationships and world phenomena to unfold without preconditions or expectations.

Body Feeling: Notice how you feel in your body. Does this place make you feel well or sick, happy or sad? Feel all the sensations, starting with your feet and working your way up your body. Feel anything which comes to your attention. Do you notice hot or cold spots, tension, or pressure? Allow your attention to come to your heart. Be still and feel.

Visualization: Allow yourself to see the shapes that surround you. How do they hold you in this space? Notice the colors. Notice the floor or ground of the space, its walls, roofs and eyes (windows and doors). Are you facing the sun or light, or avoiding it? Is the space embracing you and protecting you, or are you exposed to the sun and wind? What spectacular qualities do you see? See it all even more clearly and exactly.

Hearing: Notice when you hear things. Are you hearing internal or external sounds? Listen carefully. Turn up the volume. Listen to what happens. Notice the subtle and faint sounds, distant and close sounds. Amplify the sounds even more: louder, clearer, more beautiful, or horrible, melodious, staccato, rhythmic or non-rhythmic. What are you not hearing?

Movement or Kinesthesis: Allow yourself through this still space to move authentically, an immediate expression of how you feel in the moment. Wait for an impulse, a felt sensation to move. What part of you wants to move? Let your dance unfold. Notice your urge to move or not to move.

Relationship: Notice your relationship to other people around you, or your relationship to the place as if it was as entity in itself. Notice any conflict.

The World Channel: What is your connection to the world while being in this space? How is this space physically and psychologically just the right space in time for you to learn ways of living and working on yourself? See being in your sacred space as a vision quest, experiencing the earth as a wise teacher sending you messages.

Journal Writing

This is an option to clarify qualities of place as symbolic seed concepts of your design. When you feel ready, write in your journal the special qualities of what you have just experienced in the meditation. Pick out qualities as though selecting seeds that you wish to grow to become your home or sacred space. List the central feeling or symbolic seed concepts.

Anthony Lawlor, in his book Temple in the House, introduces a clear way of integrating into your design the special qualities of place as seed concepts and themes:

I sit in a well protected cove at Face Rock at Bandon Beach on the Oregon southern coast. My back rests against solid support of basalt rock. My body is warmed by the morning sun positioned in the Southeast. The cove embraces me on three sides with basalt rock. My feet soothe my soul by contact with silky sensual sands. I hear the sounds of power in the ocean waves. I smell the salt of the sea and taste the blowing gritty sands. I feel the movement of the wind blowing sand across my body. I see to the West the spectacular view of Face Rock in the ocean. The Indian legend of Face Rock is a tale about chief Siskiyou's beautiful daughter Ewauna, keeping her face toward the friendly moon. The image of her face lies still solid and peaceful amongst the chaotic swirling waters around her. I feel nourished, uplifted and inspired.

My unconscious prescribed to me, through my choice of place and my relationship to my spirit, exactly what I needed for this personal healing retreat weekend. The symbolic seed concepts I experienced from this sacred space meditation process to be integrated into my day and into my life were: protected, restful, warmed, embraced, soothing, powerful, salty, windy, tribal myth.

Listening to our body signals and our spirit signals we can integrate our symbolic seed concepts into the designs of our homes, our lives and into our relationship with self, family, friends, and in the world.

Nature prescribes exactly what we need to heal ourselves. By listening to our relationships to place and space, we can consciously build and create places that will lift our spirits, soothe our soul and create relationships with self, spirit and others that will free us from self-destruction, allowing us to heal our illnesses and transform conflict into awareness.

Cob Sculpture and Model Making

Next, integrate your symbolic seed concepts into a design model for your dream home as sacred space. Choose from your symbolic seed concepts and list those qualities that are the strongest for you. How will you sculpt these symbolic qualities metaphorically and physically into your design and into your life?

Collect and prepare your materials as follows:
·  Cob Sculpting Mixture: Prepare in advance screened materials for stiff earthen plaster mix, (basically a refined cob mix. See page 115 in The Cobber's Companion by Michael Smith). Form into a ball the size of a medium cantaloupe melon. Modelling clay will work as well.
·  Collect miniature natural building materials found around your magic spot.
·  Geological materials — small pebbles, stones, sand, mica.
·  Biological materials — drift wood, round wood sticks, bark, sod, bamboo, and straw for thatch.
·  Mood setters — landscape plants and flowers.

Prepare a platform for your model for ease of transportation. Make or find a base using a piece of 1/4" plywood, a rock, or some durable material. I suggest the size to be approximately 2' x 2' to 4' x 4'.

Have your journal and plenty of drinking water at hand.

Take your ball of cob sculpting mix or clay and sit still. Trust your hands and sculpt your seed concepts right into your model. Observe what your hands want to do. See what wants to happen. If you are at the beach, feel free to work with wet sand.

Use other natural materials that you have collected. Remember to place an object or cob figurine to represent yourself and give scale.

Allow your model to feel like it is growing out of the landscape.

Remember to build your foundation, floors, walls, windows, doors, and roof. You may want to choose to sculpt a single quality of your sacred space instead of sculpting an entire model of your dream cob cottage. If you don't finish, don't worry. Sculpting a home takes loving time. Come back to it again and again.

Share your model with someone, or if this exercise is done in a workshop setting, share as a group, telling stories about your sacred space or magic spot. Take a tour to each person's spot. The person's chosen space and how that person relates to that space is a story in itself, all to be respected. Notice how you and others approach the space, notice what is getting dreamed up around you. How is it in alignment or opposition with what the sculptor is creating. Notice what symbolic seed concepts are trying to be expressed through this sculpture as if in a dream.

I will close with a quote from Joseph Campbell:

Sacred space is a space that is transparent to transcendence and every thing within such a space furnishes a base for meditation... When you enter through the door, everything within that space is symbolic, the whole world is mythologized.

To live in a sacred space is to live in a symbolic environment where spiritual life is possible, where everything around you speaks of the exaltation of the spirit.

This is a place where you can simply experience and bring forth what you are and what you might be. This is the place of creative incubation. At first you might find that nothing happens there, but, if you have a sacred place and use it, something eventually will happen. Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.

Linda Smiley is a co-founding director of the Cob Cottage Company in Cottage Grove, Oregon. She has taught cob and natural building since 1993 in the USA, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, Sweden, and Denmark. Linda has worked for the past 20 years as a recreational therapist and environmental educator. She helped found the first Alternative Building Colloquium in Oregon in 1994. Linda and her husband and partner in Cob Cottage, Ianto Evans, live in a heart-shaped cob cottage in the Oregon rain forest.

Linda Smiley
The Cob Cottage Company
PO Box 123
Cottage Grove, OR 97424
ph (541) 942-2005


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