Interview: Brian "Ziggy" Liloia on How to build your own Hobbit House

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Brian "Ziggy" Liloia is a 26 year old member of Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage, where he lives in his own handbuilt cob house, tends large gardens with friends, builds with natural materials, keeps bees, makes cheese and butter, blogs, and strives to live the good life. He is the author of "The Year of Mud: Building a Cob House"

Avi Solomon: Tell us a bit about yourself

Brian Liloia I grew up in the hyper-suburbs of northern New Jersey, in the shadows of New York City. In college, I learned what a huge mess civilization was making of the planet, and I realized, over the course of several years and through reading lots and lots of stuff about environmental and social issues, that I wouldn't be satisfied with a conventional kind of lifestyle. I was never excited about a mainstream career, or living in the city or suburbs, and now I had a better explanation for my lack of enthusiasm. I found out about Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage as a senior in college and immediately thought I would find myself moving there, or someplace similar, in the future. I visited less than a month after graduating, and realized that I didn't want to wait: I wanted to live a sustainable kind of life in a community setting as soon as possible. In order to learn how to live more ecologically and to provide more for myself, including my own food, shelter, and energy, I settled into Dancing Rabbit in 2007, a year after college graduation.

Avi:What prompted you to go build a house by yourself?

Brian: When I visited Dancing Rabbit, I was hugely inspired by people that were building their own homes, without professionals, and with little money. Not only that, I was taken with the style of homes that were built largely of natural and reclaimed materials. As a new resident, I spent the summer helping work on a hybrid straw bale and cob kitchen that friends were building, and I was hooked on that process of construction, and especially working with cob. It was during my second year that I started to build my own home, largely out of necessity, since Dancing Rabbit does not have homes that you can simply move into, but also out of an intense desire to learn how to provide more for myself. I was (and am) interested in self-sufficiency, and living locally, and with a small impact, and I imagine building with natural, local materials as a big piece of that puzzle.

Avi:How did you deal with the building code in your location?

Brian:Thankfully, there are no building codes or zoning laws in this very rural part of Missouri, so I did not have to finagle with local bureaucracy in order to build my home. Not all are as fortunate, I realize.

Avi:Why did you select Cob as a building material? What are the economics of building with Cob?

Brian:There is something very primal about building with cob. You take your shoes off, pile up a bunch of sand and wet clay, and stomp it together with your bare feet to make a sticky, pliable, sculptural building material. It takes no heavy machinery, and the ingredients are completely natural, local. It's been practiced all over the world (in slightly different forms) for thousands of years.

I love the sculptural qualities of cob: you are not confined to squares, and you can embellish along the way as your wall goes up. For me, the process of building a wall and seeing the progress is intensely satisfying, and addictive. In addition to all of this, cob is extremely accessible: anyone can learn how to do it in a day. I chose cob for all of these reasons, plus it's incredibly cheap. I have spent less than $4000 on building materials for my house and improvements. I spent another $1000 on labor.The walls for my 200 square foot home cost less than $500 in materials. The clay came straight from our land. Straw came from the fields of local farmers.

Really, though, cob building is just a lot of fun, especially with the help of other people.

Avi:What was the hardest thing about the project? How did it change you?

Brian:There were moments early in the process when I was designing my home that I got very hung up on "how am I going to do this"? I tried to imagine every detail of construction in advance, and I occasionally got stressed that I wouldn't be able to figure it out. I've since learned that you cannot possibly know everything in advance of building -- that the answers will come to you as you progress. This was a big relief, and I've tried to embody that idea in other aspects of my life, too. Things will unfold naturally, even though you might not know the answers right away.

Avi:How communal was the experience?

Brian:Very much so. I had the help of more than 75 people over the course of a year, including friends, family, work exchangers, visitors, and fellow Dancing Rabbit members. I was fortunate to be surrounded by many builders who I could approach with questions, and during specific parts of building, I could call upon the help of dozens of people to accomplish a big task. Over a dozen different people came out to help me get the topsoil loaded on top of my roof, for example, when I called for a work party. I am extremely fortunate to live in a community that values cooperation and helping one another out in time of need.

Avi:What would you do differently if you had to do it over again?

Brian:Well, the biggest lesson of this past winter has been that cob really isn't that appropriate for this cold Missouri climate. Cob is not an insulative material, and despite the tiny size of my home (which I thought would be more to my advantage than has actually been the case), it is not the most efficient home to heat, because the walls become very cold when they are constantly exposed to winter temperatures. Not only that, there are condensation problems when warm air comes into contact with a cold cob wall. Ideally, I would have only built cob in conjunction with insulation. In fact, my partner April and I have decided to build a second house, converting the current cob house into a three seasons dwelling, so that we can try to build a more efficient, winter-appropriate house, with highly insulative walls, that will not have the same moisture problems. I still love my house, though, despite some of these problems that have popped up.

Avi:What advice would you give to someone who wants to build their own house?

Brian:Get your hands and feet dirty. Look for people that are building their own homes in your area. The best introduction to building is building. Soak up any experience you can get. Natural building practices are spreading more and more, and many people who are constructing their own homes are often looking for help. Search for natural building work exchanges, workshops, and internships. Cob building courses are often very expensive, and if you can afford to take one, great. If not, there are plenty of ways to learn by simply trading your time and labor for the experience of building. Of course, an internet search will lead you to all sorts of places. Again, the experience is invaluable, and will prove hugely important and inspirational in your own quest to build a home.

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