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


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.


  1. (literally) dirty hippies!

    No, seriously, I’ve visited Dancing Rabbit and was quite impressed with not just the variety of building methods employed (and the web of embedded expertise chronicled in the article that makes it possible) and the extremes of affordability (even among intentional communities, DR has relatively low barriers to entry and ongoing costs).

    What really inspired me was the gumption of a bunch of Stanford EE grads among the founders who were both willing and able to relocate to the middle of nowhere (about equidistant to Chicago, St. Louis, and Kansas City) for next-to-nothing and build from scratch while continuing to earn CA consulting fees through telework.

    The amount of leverage you get from a move like that is amazing – it is kind of like outsourcing yourself, no passport required. The resulting carbon profile/net environmental impact from the community they’ve built, with the relative quality of life, is a ratio you’d be hard-pressed to find anywhere else in the world – it goes way deeper than the “sticks and bricks” of green building. And the personal effort and time that might otherwise go into paying for all the accoutrements of mainstream living becomes available for personal development and community connection– and doing so in group process means there’s always ongoing opportunities for growth (meant here in both the positive and negative/euphemistic senses of the phrase).

    While I recommend a visit to DR if you’re in the Rutledge, Missouri area (there’s now a regular-walls-and-all B&B, Milkweed Mercantile, featuring a noted SF Bay Area chef), you can also meet several folks from the community in Chicago the weekend after next at the Art of Community one-day conference in Chicago 5/21 (I’ll be speaking there, then bringing back a report to Maker Faire/San Mateo on Sunday 5/22 – hop on my roving Cohousing Coach quadricycle for a ride around the site). And in September at the main Art of Community gathering in the woods in the North San Francisco Bay area– mentioned now because early reg. is about to close. Learn more about both at .

    My own community-building work is primarily with folks choosing more-conventional paths to weave community into their lives: cohousing condominium neighborhoods built with experienced developers by ordinary contractors (although as green as we can find), with traditional materials, financed by the same mortgages everyone else is carrying, from the same lenders, paid for by the same jobs. But every innovation painfully pioneered or rediscovered at Dancing Rabbit helps us all, sooner or later, on our journey to living once again in sustainable community.

    Raines Cohen, Cohousing Coach & Community Organizer
    Planning for Sustainable Communities (Berkeley, CA)

    Full disclosure: I volunteer as a board member for Fellowship for Intentional Community (FIC), the national umbrella nonprofit supporting all sorts of communities nationwide through the Communities Directory and Communities Magazine, alongside folks from DR and other nearby communities. But this represents my personal opinion, not necessarily that of FIC.

  2. It’s a shame Brian didn’t check this out before concluding that cob construction isn’t appropriate for colder climates. There are many ways to alleviate the low R-value of cob, so-called “bale cob” being just one of them.

    Some friends and I are planning a cob house in central Ohio. The Hand-Sculpted House is the most useful resource we’ve found so far.

    1. First of all, Ziggy’s blog clearly shows that he’s read The Hand Sculpted House.

      Secondly, solar insolation only goes so far in making a cob house livable in cold-winter climates. Ianto Evans himself admits that cob isn’t right for all areas (page 36 of The Hand Sculpted House). He also discusses ways to counter climate effects using insulation.

  3. It sounds a lot like sod houses, which were built by settlers in the northern prairies. These worked fine in -40 winters, but were halfway underground, which helps.

  4. Hi, Raines! (It’s me, Liz, from Southside Park Cohousing) You’re so very awesome.

    I feel like all of the work those of us living in intentional community have put in over the years is really paying off for the greater good of everyone. Our knowledge and experience is creating a morphogenetic groove for those of us who are finding that regular employment and a huge mortgage are NOT going to be sustainable (for the masses) forever.

    Next big step is getting zoning and codes changed for alternative building methods and smaller house sizes. Is anyone making any headway there? I see only isolated folks. We need massive zoning reform!

    1. Hi, Liz! (blushing) long time no see! I count you and your community experience among my inspirations for doing this work, every day — so your work is definitely paying off.

      The National Cohousing Conference is coming up next month in DC, and we’re taking advantage of the location to organize some lobbying and partnering with aligned organizations to do some education and outreach among policymakers. The more books like the one referenced in the main post here that demystify and document the movement, and the more research that quantifies the benefits, the stronger our case for change becomes.

      Next year’s national cohousing conference will be here in NorCal, and I think there’s opportunity to work on statewide issues in the meantime right in your Sacred-Tomato hometown. Because so many condo-buyers have been defrauded by developers or fight through their homeowner associations (HOA’s), and lenders have been caught holding the bag in the last crash, increased regulation and tightened lending criteria have made it more challenging to create more of the communities you and I love and live in.

      Because so many pioneering intentional communities over the past half century developed and survived “off the radar” and were able to innovate through absence of enforcement rather than engagement with their surrounding counties and neighbors, it has been hard to find strong examples willing to “out themselves” and join in the movement pushing for change – with cohousing’s visibility and mainstream enmeshment being one notable exception.

      The small/tiny house movement has been covered on this very blog, but by and large it remains a tool used in isolation, or at best for in-law cottages, not in community. Ross Chapin’s new book “Pocket Neighborhoods” makes a beautiful case (visually speaking) for the potential of living smaller, lighter, richer lives in community.

      The new documentary “Happy” (directed by Roko Belic of “Ghengis Blues” fame) features cohousing in Denmark in a matter-of-fact way as one of many paths to better living, no chemistry required. Here in the Oakland/Berkeley area, East Bay Housing Organizations (EBHO) is hosting many events for this “Affordable Housing Week” weaving the linkages between green and permanently-affordable intergenerational and senior housing.

      Raines (off to register a domain based on a phrase you used)

  5. unbelievable! Boingboing has managed to be hyper-relevant for me again, even 10(?!) years after I first started reading it. My partner and I just returned from a 3 week visit at DR yesterday and we can verify that it is totally awesome and inspiring and we are doing our best to figure out how to move there ASAP.
    Ziggy’s house is beautiful, it is a shame there isn’t a real photo of it in the interview.
    For people who are really serious about doing something radically awesome towards sustainability and a sane way of life, but don’t have the bucks to hire a developer/contractor/architect or whatever to build something green, this is the most achievable way we have found (we’d be happy to hear of any others)

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