Lakewood couple teaches how to build with mud

LAKEWOOD — Darin Deitz and Brina Burke have a dirt-cheap shed in their back yard that grows one lump of clay at a time.

Looking fit for a hobbit, the structure is adobelike and has pieces of cord wood set into its walls. In its form and function, Deitz and Burke see beauty.

The Lakewood-area couple have attracted others interested in alternative building materials and methods to their weekend workshops, or building bees, as Burke likes to call them.

For lunch and lessons, workshop participants help construct the 113-square-foot round shed from what is called “cob.”

Cob is an old English word that means lump, loaf or rounded mass, Burke said. Cob consists of clay-rich soil mixed with sand, straw and water, which is formed into lumps that are used like malleable bricks to build a variety of structures. Wood and other materials add filler, stability and artistic elements.

While working with cob is ­labor-intensive, there is no lumber to buy, and if your cob shed needs repair you don’t head out to the nearest big-box improvement store for repair materials, Burke said

“You just add more mud,” she said. “We love it that people are getting out of the consumer loop with the natural building movement. We’re proselytizers for the cause.”

Burke, 40, and Deitz, 39, first met when they were in high school in Homer, Alaska. The friends connected again in the late 1980s and then married.

“We’re not super-hippies, but we shared an interest in green technology,” Deitz said. “As a child, my science fair projects always dealt with alternative energy and alternative building.”

The couple bought their property, complete with a manufactured home, about eight years ago, thinking that someday they would build a house, or perhaps several, by hand.

A few years later, Deitz, a potter and former draftsman, took a class in British Columbia on the art of using cob in construction. Burke, who works as an administrative aide at the Sno-Isle Libraries office, took a similar class in Oregon.

Armed with knowledge about their newfound passion, they began to scrounge materials.

They were given clay by a fellow cob enthusiast in Bothell, found tree limbs blown down by the windstorms of 2006, salvaged lumber tarps from hardware stores, bartered for straw, and purchased sand and busted-up concrete, called “urbanite,” off to use for the foundation.

The couple is in their second year building the shed, after having built a large, covered outdoor bench that looks back to the wooded area of their property.

“We still have dreams of building a cob house,” Burke said. “But whatever happens, I’ve got mud in my blood now and I’m not stopping.”

There are plans for a glass door, windows, shelving attached to the cord wood and another cob bench inside the shed. They plan to plaster over the cord wood to add weather-proofing and make it a smooth, curvy surface, Burke said.

At the couple’s recent workshops, volunteers including enthusiastic children worked the cob with their feet and lifted gobs of the goo into the unfinished walls of the shed.

“The clay is like cement and the straw is like rebar,” Burke said. “The rounded shape is more seismically stable than other shapes.”

The biggest problem with the use of cob is the difficulty in getting building permits for such structures. It’s not a conventional building method, but some people get around it by filling the cob around traditional post-and-beam frames, Deitz said.

“If I could turn cob construction into a career, I would,” he said.

So would Samantha Morin, 21, of Everett. A young artist, Morin recently worked on the Burke-Deitz shed and she has attended several alternative building workshops, including straw-bale construction, in Oregon.

“The way the world is going now, the way we mass produce homes, we can’t keep going like this,” Morin said. “Cob is really not a new building method. It just needs to be renewed.”

Earthen structures house most of the world’s population, Morin said.

Deitz and Burke said they are happy to become acquainted with young people such as Morin.

“It’s all very exciting,” Burke said. “I want to tell people about it all the time.”

Reporter Gale Fiege: 425-339-3427 or

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