Mother Earth Living

A Cob-Constructed Retail Store in Portland

People's Food Co-op, in Oregon, expanded its space with this sustainable building method.
By Lori Tobias
November/December 2002
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Co-op and community members mix cob “by foot.”
People’s Food Co-op

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Natural building techniques may not be so hard to come by in rural areas, but in urban settings green remains rare. That is, except in Portland, Oregon, where this past summer the People’s Food Co-op became the first urban retail space in the city (and quite possibly the country) to expand using cob construction.

The idea was born six years ago when talk of expansion first began. Back then, says project manager Miles Uchida, natural building techniques were just beginning to emerge and the concept of using cob as a building material was clearly pushing the envelope. “We’re trying to be a sustainable business,” says board vice president Pedro Ferbel. “We have a high commitment both in terms of product selection and business decisions. We wanted to be sure we used the most earth-friendly building techniques, materials, and labor practices available. Cob is a remarkable intersection of sustainable building materials, labor practices, and culture. It’s a community-building activity. I think that’s what really attracted us to it.”

It’s also guaranteed to turn a few heads. The city building inspector, for example, “came out for the first time, looked around, and was like, ‘What the...?’” says Uchida. Despite its generally progressive attitude, the city drew the line at using cob for load-bearing walls. “The city bureaucracy just doesn’t know what to do with it,” Ferbel notes. “Portland at this point does not have any building code for load-bearing cob, even though cob has been used in walls for centuries in Europe, the Southwest, and in Yemen.... They allowed us to use the cob, but in most areas it’s used as infill. We filled in with steel beams even though the steel beams are not necessary. It’s a bit of an irony, but we figure it’s a step we have to take to get cob into the public sphere and gain more public knowledge of it.”

The city apparently doesn’t object too much: It awarded People’s two $15,000 grants toward the expansion and a few kudos for a job well done. “They are probably doing the most of all the businesses we know of in the community in green building practices,” says Rob Bennett of the City of Portland’s Office of Sustainable Development. “They’ve made a commitment that connects their cooperative membership to the practices. They did a very good job creating a sort of demonstration project out of their building and doing so out of a tight budget.”

And, as Ferbel suspected from the start, the cob addition turned out to be not only an eco-friendly move but a community-builder as well. “As you work together, you develop trust because you literally have to communicate with each other in order to do things like mixing cob and building walls. Through building together we realized what we have in common and in this way we learn from each other and we build our culture together,” Ferbel explains.

For more information, call the People's Food Co-op at (503) 232-9051.

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