Living the temporary dream

28 August 2008, from Writings

Five years ago I was living at Cerro Gordo, a semi-intentional community outside of Eugene, Oregon. I call Cerro Gordo ‘semi-intentional’ because the community has never been able to get to the level they planned. Its founders envisioned a self-sustainable eco-city, nestled in the hills of a 1200 acre former cattle ranch, with school, local jobs, and up to 2500 people.

Instead, because of bad luck in land-use planning and not a little arrogance, the community is a patchwork of a dozen or so houses, about half of which are rented out to people like me. Most of the residents commute to nearby Cottage Grove or Eugene to work; the social life at Cerro Gordo, at least when I was there, was minimal to non-existant.

One of my neighbors on the ranch happened to be Ianto Evans, who is known as one of the folks who brought cob building into the modern natural building movement.

One day I decided to walk through the mud and pay Ianto a visit. As we sipped tea in his cozy tiny cob house, the dreary Oregon winter rain thrumming on the roof and dripping among his huge field of leeks, I told him of my ideas of building my own house. With his lyrical Welsh accent, he gently gave me his advice.

Refuse to use the usual construction materials, he said, for they are largely toxic. Avoid the trend of constructing over-insulated, weather-tight buildings, for they will simply trap those same toxins in your living environment. And give up not only a mortgage, but indeed the idea of needing to own the land on which your house sits. Rather, set up a long-term lease with a landholder, and build a house that is easy enough and cheap enough to build yourself, so that if the worst (?) happens, you can leave it behind without much trauma.

In fact, that’s exactly what Ianto and his partner Linda Smiley had done: this beautiful little cob enclave where we drank our tea, surrounded by rolling, hand-built cob walls and the garden full of leeks, was indeed simply rented land. Linda & Ianto had built their ‘dream home’ (as we Americans like to call it), but had let go of the idea that it was permanent.

A rolling, portable house feels like one possible manifestation of this idea. By building a small house that can be moved without much trouble, the concepts of ‘right home’ and ‘right location’ can be considered separately and perhaps more appropriately.


And sure enough, Linda & Ianto have indeed moved on. They now run their cob-building workshops in Coquille, a hundred miles southwest of Cerro Gordo, on the rainy side of the Coast Range, where the raindrops comes even harder and the winter is even darker.