A young couple live debt-free in an off-grid house made from muddy straw using their hands and feet in Montana

Karen Madej

About 14 years after seeing a cob house and ten years of researching and dreaming up designs for one, a young couple built their own straw bale cob house in Bitterroot Valley, Montana.

Yes, it is possible to build this type of house in the United States of America!

Danny and Katherine share their knowledge and experience of building their second cob house on a piece of land generously donated by Danny’s parents. They learned a lot from the mistakes they made in their first cob home. They lived in a small, simple hut-like structure with a green roof while building their second attempt.

At first, their main objective was to stop paying rent every month, but they soon realized they wanted to build naturally. The estimated total cost for the couple’s 700–800 square feet home is $15-$20,000. Danny and Katherine are debt-free. They managed to live in their small cob while they built their large one.

At 3:00 in the video, scroll down to find it, the young couple demonstrates how to make the cob they used to make the house and a love seat outside their house. They get their feet dirty doing it!

To make the bench took them a day to build and a week to cure. How long it takes to dry out depends on the weather in your area. If it rains a lot, you’ll need to keep it protected. Yet, if it’s sunny, it’ll dry a lot quicker if uncovered.

Danny and Katherine built their natural cob house with straw bales strong enough to support the roof. The interior bales have 4–8 inches of cob for thermal mass, where heat or cool air is stored.

The couple managed to buy all recycled windows, which saved a lot of money on one of the most expensive new items on a self-build cob house. Recycling depots or salvaging windows from dumps kept their costs low.

For decorative patterns in external (internal) non-loadbearing walls, they used the same techniques used by Earthship builders. All you need is a tile cutter with a water tray to cool the blade, set the measurement for where you want to cut, and cut through the bottle to remove the neck. Rinse and dry to remove any glass dust. Then duct-tape the openings together.

Suppose you want a dark color. Use colored glass for one half and the other clear glass. You can also make a darker shade by taping two bottles of the same color together.

Katherine talks about the use of bags filled with earth for the foundation and how they used rows of rocks plastered over with cob to make a feature on the outside of the house. She also used her artistic skills with sticky cob to sculpt a design on the corner of her house.

We go inside the house to find a bark-stripped tree propping up the roof. They found that tree and one other on their land, killed by beetles. The ceiling is clad with the second windfall. Visitors have commented that the house looks bigger on the inside, which Kathryn explains is due to the ten years she and Danny spent designing it!

Another major cost of building your own house is the cost of labor. Luckily, Katherine has four siblings who came over to help put up the other trees that provided the main pillars of support.

One of the lessons learned from their first house was wooden cupboards did not sit well on uneven cob walls! With this house, they made sure to get the kitchen wall as flat as possible. They also knew to buy some timber and a butcher’s block to cut to measure around their awkward non-straight walls.

The creative couple saved on expensive shop-bought living room furniture by building their own out of — you guessed it — cob! Their sofas are covered with sheepskins, blankets, and pillows for comfort. The young woman shares her pleasure of such wide windowsills possible thanks to the width of the straw bale walls. She also created a framed feature she calls a truth window, an unplastered section of the wall revealing straw bale to prove the truth of the wall.

Danny introduces us to their Rocket Mass heat source, much needed for cold Montana winters. This thermal mass heater is super efficient at getting the most energy out of wood and then stores that energy to release inside the house slowly rather than funnel all the heat and methane up a chimney. Another important thing they do is to clean out the ash build-up once a year.

The house’s floors are earthen or poured adobe, smoothed with a trowel, and oiled when dry. You can mop it, sweep it, vacuum it — anything you’d normally do with a floor. If any cracks appear, you can make a feature of them or cover them up with a rug.

In the bathroom, the shower wall has a special waterproof plaster called Tadelakt. It can be dyed the color you want. This ancient plaster, thought to originate from Morocco, lasts for years and is easy to maintain.

The composting toilet uses sawdust instead of water.

The couple’s reflections on the benefits of their beautiful Montana home include freedom from a mortgage and the ability to sit back and enjoy what they have built. They made their video for sharing what they learned and show the world that alternative living is possible.

They did it, they made mistakes, but they owned them, and as Danny said:

It’s an amazing accomplishment!

If you care about building a home that you and future generations can live in that works in harmony with you and nature, a cob house could provide everything you need.

Some amazing comments from the video produced by Jenna Kausal for Tiny House Giant Journey

I’m 24 years old and my heart knows, has known for a long time, that the alternative lifestyle is for me. I spend my days figuring out how I’ll get access to the right land, the right capital to start, and the right partner / tribe to do this with. I know one day I’ll have a natural home of my own. Danille S.
“…alternatives exist and are reachable. You don’t need to just do the things that everybody else is doing. You can build your own home. Anyone can do it.” Beautifully said. Thanks for sharing. Loved this one! YouTube commenter Cruz Party of 5

More information about materials and techniques

Cob (or adobe in the US) is all-natural, made up of easily accessible topsoil from your land. Plus, you’ll need a fibrous organic material — something like straw — which has grown out of naturally fertilized (manure and decomposed animals and plants) soil. And, depending on the type of soil available, you may need lime, sand, or clay.

Cob is the most incredible natural building material you could imagine. Its main features include fire and earthquake resistance, plus low to no cost. The one thing you will need plenty of is physical energy!

A green or living roof provides insulation for humans and habitats for wildlife. It absorbs water and gives a feeling of well-being, which helps reduce stress in the people who see its beauty.

Some major US cities have green roofs. In New York, for example, 1% of buildings have green roofs. The advantages range from protecting the building from excessive heat, providing habitat for wildlife, and some are so large they have farms on them! The Javits Center now has a one-acre working farm on its roof.

Nature tells us green roofs have superpowers. Tended with care, they will feed and create jobs. Their ability to absorb excess rainwater helps stop sewers from overflowing. They reduce air pollution and save energy costs because they act as an insulation layer, efficiently increasing cooling in summer and heating in winter.

Another type of thermal mass you can include in your self-built home is a Trombe wall. Danny and Kathyryn’s is a solid all-cob column built in front of large windows in the greenhouse. The column soaks up all the passive sunlight and releases it slowly back into the house when the temperature drops later in the afternoon/evening.

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Passionate about climate change and living a debt-free, sustainable life. Determined to learn how to and build an adobe house or Earthship. The goal is to live off-grid and off the land. Energy for heat and to power electrical devices and appliances will use solar, wind, and hydro-powered electricity. No trees will die to make my home.

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