As I write this, I am sitting in a 320 sq. ft. classroom I’m building in Central Florida out of pallets insulated with straw and covered in an earthen cob plaster. It has been a journey for me to develop this building technique that is super affordable, quick to build, well insulated, and natural. Let me introduce you to the “Palletable Cobin.”
A pallet structure classroom in Florida that Miguel is building
It all started back in 2010 when I was living at a retreat center in northern California called Isis Oasis. One of the staff members of the center named Z had built a shed framed entirely with used pallets. I was building an adobe abode next to it to rent out on AirBnB. Z had abandoned his pallet shed, and I asked him if I could finish it for him so that we could rent it out as well, and he said yes. I covered the shed in an earthen cob plaster followed by a lime plaster, and decorated it with stained glass, colored bottles and some interesting light features.
Folks who came to visit said it looked like a gingerbread house, so that is what we named it. It was soon a huge hit as a vacation rental and within a month of renting it out, we easily made back the money we had put into materials for the structure. And so my journey with pallet structures began.
The following year while I was in El Bolson, Argentina to visit a school I had worked on 10 years earlier, another opportunity for a pallet building arose. The natural building movement had blossomed in the village since I had been there, with over 450 structures built out of cob, adobe, strawbale, straw clay, and wattle and daub. These structures were mostly built during work parties or what they called, “mingas”. Despite this, my friend Pastor’s sister was still living in a tent with her three children and the winter rains were just a month away. They had no funds to build a house for themselves so Pastor and I decided to build a “Palletable Cobin. ” We worked together to frame a structure with scavenged pallets, then packed clothes, cardboard, and straw into the pallets as insulation, and finally covered the walls in a cob plaster. Of course the children were delighted to help with the cob and decorative sculpting. In a month we had built her a home for less than $1000 in materials and she moved in just as the rainy season began. Other people in the village were inspired by what we had done and began to replicate the process.
Upon returning to Sonoma County, California, I resumed work with Living Earth Structures, the natural building company I had started which specializes in building cob ovens, benches, and small cob huts I call “Cobins”. Since my work on the gingerbread house and the house in El Bolton, I began building Cobins out of pallets, calling them “Palletable Cobins.” Folks were attracted to the look of these Cobins, particularly my round Cobins, and hired me and my crew to build them in their backyards. We have built at least 20 of them to date in varying sizes. I was eventually commissioned by the Solar Living Center in Hopland, California to build a guest house Cobin. We went through the process of getting engineered drawings for the round 120 sq. ft. Cobin so that it could be built to code and legally habitable, but decided not to use those drawings since we were building at a demonstration center that was exempt from typical permit requirements. This Cobin became a popular vacation rental and demonstration attraction.
After years of building numerous Cobins around the county, I became involved with an organization called Essential Food and Medicine out of Oakland, California. They were offering healthy food to different homeless encampments in town, particularly the Wood Street encampment with over 250 residents under the Interstate 880 freeway. In September of 2020 an event was organized called “What’s your Medicine?” inviting different healers to offer treatment to the residents of the encampment. As a part of this event, I led an earth art therapy activity “Eartherapy” where some residents and I built a cob oven. This was a huge hit and two weeks later when we were firing up the oven for pizzas, a discussion started about building some community amenities and sleeping spaces. The residents present were asked if they had any suggestions on how they could be built, and the typical ways of building tiny houses were suggested: wood framing, insulating with fiberglass, and covering in drywall. As I was cooking the pizzas, I offered an alternative solution: building them with pallets, insulating them with trash and used clothes from the piles around the camp, and covering them in an earthen cob plaster. A week later, we began building Cob on Wood. The intention was to create a community plaza to serve the residents of the encampment, and also to serve as a model for what super low cost housing could look like.
Part of Cob on Wood, home to 250 people in downtown Oakland
We began building on December 15, 2020 and worked solid every weekend, rain or shine, for four months. Being under the freeway helped to protect us during strong rains. Hundreds of volunteers organized by Artists Building Communities came out to help, and many of the residents of the camp came to help and learn the process. The land that the Wood Street encampment sits on belongs to CalTrans, California’s transportation agency, because it’s under the freeway. During construction CalTrans employees seemed fascinated by what we were creating, often getting out of their trucks and touring the project. We never asked permission to build, knowing that if we had they would most likely say no, so it was a somewhat clandestine project. When they saw what we were doing, the fire and police department seemed to like that the walls of the structures were fire resilient, as fires at the encampments were a constant issue.
We had to take into consideration from the beginning that the structures could be torn down at any time. With this in mind we built the Cobins on skids so that they could be forklifted onto a trailer and hauled away if necessary. The structures are all 8’ x 12’ so that they can fit on a trailer. We used 2x4s screwed together to create makeshift 4×4 corner posts, and just one 2×4 upright in between the pallets. We sourced most of the pallets from a roofing company up the road who were happy to give them away. When sourcing them, we made sure the pallets were Heat Treated, having a HT stamp on them, and not chemically treated, and we always wore dust masks when working with them. The back sides of the pallets were missing boards, so to fill in the gaps we added old scrap fence boards to make it an even 3 ½ inches thick, and then screwed them onto our posts. We insulated the first course of pallets with clothes, plastic, and foam boards we found in a dumpster. We then started incorporating the shelving, windows, decorative glass blocks, and stained glass into the second course. Most of the framing was done in just a few days, and then we put the cob on the wood.
To make the cob stick, we made a thick clay slip which acts as a glue over the pallets. There were concerns about the local earth having toxic residue in it, so we got the earth mixture from a local recycling center for just $10 per truckload. We made the cob mix a little on the sticky side, about 60% sand to 40% clay so that it would stick easier to the wood. We added straw chopped with a leaf shredder to the mix, and mixed it in mud boxes and tarps on site. We applied the cob about an inch thick on both sides of the pallets, using a flat trowel to get it on the wall evenly and smoothly. While the walls were drying, we built the roof using 12 ft. 2×4 rafters with generous two foot overhangs on all sides. We put used donated plywood over the pitched roof, then laid down a thick membrane and put a couple yards of planting soil on top to have a living roof. Once the walls were dried, we applied a layer of hydraulic lime plaster to the inside and outside with a nice oxide to give the desired color.
With drying time and all, it took about a month to build each structure. While they were drying, we would be framing another structure and working on the landscaping around the plaza. We were very resourceful, using mostly salvaged windows, doors, and lumber, so the total cost for each structure was no more than $1000 in materials. We also paid a stipend to the residents who worked on the structures to give them an added incentive to help.
In all, we built a community kitchen, a composting toilet, a health clinic, a free store, and a sleeping Cobin. The kitchen is complete with solar panels (to power the fridge), a propane gas stove, and large water tanks to supply the sinks. We attached a shower to the kitchen with an on demand hot water heater that drains to a greywater system. The composting toilet includes a large 50 gallon drum with peat moss and saw dust for bulking. The health clinic is used for private treatments, and is stocked with healing herbs and remedies. And the free store (aka “Cobissary”) is for people from outside the encampment to donate clothes, food, medical supplies, and other essential items. I have also parked my mobile cob hut there for folks to sleep in.
Cob on Wood