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Press: New Times | Apr. 13, 2019

By Camillia Lanham


Gathered On Site:

LABOR OF LOVE Although cob building is labor intensive, Franco said there's something about working with your hands from found materials that makes it all worth it. Photo by Jayson Mellom

Dirt rains onto a tarp as Chad Franco trims the last layer of cob he applied. Using a hand saw, he carves out the excess around the edges so this layer is flush with the previous one.

The gigantic white walls of the new BMW dealership on Calle Joaquin loom behind him, as does the chatter of auto service professionals. A fence and less than 100 feet separate that property from this one, which belongs to City Farm SLO.

On the plot of land that Teresa Lees rents from City Farm for the Our Global Family Garden, Franco is building a cob structure that will eventually become a children's playhouse. Lees designed her garden with each of the continents in mind, and this structure is part of the Africa space.

"I was in Africa, and we lived in buildings like that," she says. "Instead of being a white woman visiting the Third World ... [I thought] I'm going to bring back what I learned there to the First World."

With a degree in international agriculture from UC Davis and an agricultural teaching credential from Cal Poly, Lees worked in small villages, connecting with people who lived off the land, and doing the same herself. That connection, and the world's interconnection, is what Our Global Family Garden is all about. It's a teaching space dedicated to showcasing permaculture, compassion, connection with the land, and the diversity of what can be grown around the world.

Next to the fence, a smaller hole than you would expect is evidence of the clay soil that was incorporated into the structure. Depending on how much clay the dirt holds, the cob mixture of soil, sand, and straw is unique to each building site. It has to be the perfect consistency. After making some test bricks, Franco says, they dropped them to see which ones held up the best. In this case, the mixture was 25 percent clay soil and 75 percent decomposed granite before the water and straw were added.

ALL HANDS ON DECK During workshops in November, Chad Franco taught kids the art of cob, a form of natural building. It's labor intensive and workshop participants jumped right in, mixing clay, sand, straw, and water with their hands and feet to get the right consistency. Photos Courtesy Of Chad Franco

And it was all mixed by feet. Some of those feet belonged to kids who attended two weekends of cob workshops at City Farm SLO in November.

"It's been a long journey. In the future, I probably won't start a project in November," Franco says, referring to all of the rain San Luis Obispo weathered over the winter.

The structure has spent a lot of time under the cover of a blue tarp, waiting for dry days—not just for the cob itself, which needs dry weather to cure, but to schedule workshops. Building cob, because it's so labor intensive, is really a team activity.

This project is a labor of love for Franco, though, who has been cobbing since he took a six-month permaculture workshop at UC Santa Cruz a couple of years ago.

"I worked in a warehouse for 10 years and realized how much waste we have, and I just wanted to break away from that lifestyle," Franco says. "I started thinking about how can I find another career that I could be proud of."

The teacher who taught the portion of the permaculture course on natural building caught his attention, and she was teaching another workshop in Portugal.

"I was ready to go on a big journey ... and I went ahead and just booked it," he says. "I just really got into it because I'm mechanically inclined and I love working with my hands."

READY FOR ANOTHER LAYER Trimming the latest layer so that it's flush, Chad Franco with the Cobber's Delight gets the playhouse ready for the next application of cob, which is partially made from the clay soil found on City Farm SLO's property. Photo by Jayson Mellom

To read the full New Times article, click here

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