For Practical Tools to Build Better Worlds


A few clips from HOWL, the Halloween benefit party for City Repair.


The Village Alchemy Project will be intermittently uploading and updating our site with useful resources such as this manual for natural building cob care.

Click here to download the Natural Building Mini-Cob Care Manual in .pdf.


text of the document:



All buildings require regular maintenance. A house that is no longer inhabited quickly begins to deteriorate. When we build ‘things’: benches, houses, furniture etc. we are engaged in building not only the thing itself, but also relationships. These relationships are not only with the other people involved in the process but include the relationship to what has been created. A relationship with out energy going into it will eventually fade away, or worse. What we create needs us or someone to take care of it. If you are constructing anything that is out in the Northwest weather, be it concrete, wood or cob, it will require extra attention. Water ( aka: the universal solvent) can do a lot of damage in a little time if left unchecked.
There are many details to think of when building a structure out of cob. Ideally, good design has taken place either prior or during the construction phase with the notion of longevity in mind. Though, natural building lends itself to intuitive building and is relatively easy to do, it takes years of experience to really become familiar with a material and how it sustains itself in any given environment. For folks with limited experience in construction or natural building there are some simple principles to good building: ‘Good hat and good boots’!

Hat: make sure that your project is sufficiently covered with a roof that has large overhangs appropriate for the weather conditions of your site, is well attached and, of course, water proof. When in doubt build a roof! A good roof is the best protection against weather, and it if it is for a bench then you can sit on it all year round! If you are not incorporating a roof (not recommended) make sure you and your builder go over the details so that your project does not invite water into it. Example: for benches (with roofs and without) make sure that the seat slopes away from the back to shed water, there are no concave impressions in horizontal surfaces, mortar between stones is not cracked, landscaping around structure does not touch cob at base, if there is a roof how does rain falling off the roof behave (splash back) etc…Make sure that you have a reliable sealer to make it water proof and the time and commitment to maintain it. That means every summer you will oil and wax it.

Boots: Make sure that what ever you are building is at least a foot above the earth on a material that does not absorb moisture. This prevents moisture from wicking up in to the building, bench or kiosk. It also prevents water from splashing onto the wall or bench. For structures that are to be bermed into a hillside, it is very important to make sure you have designed the drainage behind the structure to deal with a great volume of water and that measures are taken to prevent it from silting up. When you have questions as an experienced builder, or better yet ask a few.


An ounce of prevention goes a long way in the cob world. Regularly oiling your cob project is important if it is regularly exposed to water and rain. It’s is important to oil your project when it is thoroughly dry. The thicker the project the longer it takes to dry. Most projects done in May are dry by July or august. Each builder has her own recipe for oiling and waxing cob.


As a preliminary warning Linseed oil is extremely flammable, smoking is bad for you so you shouldn’t do it, let alone while you are working with linseed oil. Any rags used or brushes for this oiling process should be kept away from any flame source and left in a safe and ventilated place to air out after use. Orange oil and turpentine are solvents. If there are surfaces that are painted these fluids will melt the paint off. As good as orange oil smells- do not ingest!!!

  • One coat of pure linseed oil (a good slathering!), followed by a coat of 75% linseed oil, 25% turpentine (or orange oil).
  • Then a coat of 50% linseed oil and 50% turpentine (or orange oil).
  • Then a coat of 25%linseed oil and 75% turpentine (or orange oil).

All coats are brushed on with sufficient time between coats for absorption (6 hours +is ideal, but not totally necessary).

There are a variety of mixes for wax and the following is a simple one: 25% linseed oil and 75% turpentine (or orange oil) that is warmed in a pot (BE VERY CAREFUL) not too hot, just warm to the touch.

In a double boiler melt a pound of beeswax for every gallon of liquid mix. When the wax is melted pour it in to the linseed oil mix that is warm. Take it off the heat and it is ready to go. You can either brush it on the surface or use a rag (usually easier after the wax has set up a bit). What ever is left over can be stored in an container and used the following season.

This wax mix is also good for patching any cracks that might form later on. If you have a lot of cracks to patch- double the beeswax in the recipe.


  • Cracks
  • Plaster peeling off
  • Change in color

If your project is showing signs of water damage like those above, protect it from the rain. Throwing a tarp over water damaged cob only increases the water issue by trapping moisture. If the tarp or plastic is in direct contact with the cob it will act like a band-aid in the sense of a band-aid on your finger while you do the dishes. It isn’t a pretty sight! Cob, like skin, needs air. If you need to tarp the structure use sticks or wood or stones or what have you to elevate and create an air space under your tarp or plastic covering. Prolonged moisture in the cob will rot the straw and significantly reduce its tensile strength. For structures with extreme corbels or overhangs this can be very hazardous. Also, if there is a lot of moisture in the cob and a freeze comes to town, you can expect some pretty hefty damage.


Cracks anywhere in a cob structure leave openings for water and life forms to penetrate the structure. Cracks in cob that are 1/8 of an inch or greater are of great concern as they represent serious movement within the cob, ie there may be a structural problem. Cracks that are hairline or just the depth of the plaster can indicate a few issues, ie too much clay in the plaster, plaster over too dry a surface, over troweling, or cob shrinkage. Cracks between different materials are also important to take note of. Anytime you have dissimilar materials that are joined they will expand and contract at different rates. Where wood protrudes out of a cob structure to carry the roof, or where the foundation meets cob, or anything that may be inlayed in to the cob- these are all areas where you can expect to find hairline cracks. This includes concrete caps or cracks between mortar and stone on any surface. If a significant amount of cob is built in a short period of time it could be the result of mass shrinkage, since cob will always shrink. If the crack appears after the structure has already been built and oiled it could mean that there is water getting in and expanding. Usually, these cracks appear in cob structures that have been plastered. If found soon enough filling with a thick mix of beeswax and oil can remedy it for a season. A small or multiple small undetected cracks can result in plaster peeling off. Cracks in a cob project that has been burnished, instead of plastered, could indicate some bigger problem is the cracks are deeper than just the surface. However, in order to protect the project until a more complete examination or time for repair, fill those cracks with the aforementioned thick mix of beeswax and linseed oil.

Plaster peeling off:

Frost heave, water infiltration and poor underside detailing are probably the biggest reasons for plaster peel. Once the cob becomes hydrated due to winter rains and a frost occurs, it swells in that seam between the cob and the plaster and poof, by spring the cob creation in question is shedding these leathery sheets of plaster. Good overhangs and detailing are the primary prevention of water damage combined with consistent and perceptive observation. Correct application of the plaster is crucial for a long lasting plaster. Clay bonds via electrical charge. It is sticky because of electrons! So it is very important if you want a good bond to have a good conductive surface, and that means a wet surface. Before plastering it is vital that the cob surface be wetted down (this is an often overlooked detail, particularly when it comes to repair work). Not soaking wet but moist enough to not evaporate immediately but not so wet that the cob is gooey. It should remain firm to the touch. It is very common to forget, or not see that you are not getting the area right above the foundation wet when misting prior to plaster application. If these areas don’t get sufficiently moist then the bond between the two layers is weak. This area is also prone to splash back, being damaged by human and animal contact so it is more likely to acquire a crack and let water in. When there is a crack in this area it is also more inviting to insects and life that further the degradation of the structure. To repair this type of damage, remove all loose plaster, make a new batch, scrape the exposed cob surface and score to remove all lose material. Wet the surface and reapply a new plaster, then follow the oiling procedure once it all thoroughly dry. Always check the weather before doing major repairs. There is nothing worse than replastering only to have the rain wash it all away.

Change in color:

A change of color can indicate a few things. If a plaster over a cob structure changes color it could mean that the plaster is getting wet from something, a leak somewhere or a drip. Sometimes cob just gets dirty (fancy that!) and you can get soap and water and scrub the surface. Sap from trees, pollution, graffiti etc can all be scrubbed off if the structure has been previously oiled. If not a replastering should be done, if the discoloring has been discovered and resolved. After scrubbing cob it is important to let it dry and then give it an oiling and/or waxing. It is essential that while you are participating in the building process you take the time to learn as much as you can from your local builder as to how your project is constructed and how you must maintain it.


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{Photo from Holly Suda} Hannah and Joe interviewing Mark Lakeman

{ If there’s a song you really like, and you do not see it on this list, please send us a message or comment at the bottom of this post. }




Village Alchemy’s soundtrack wishlist, sorted by priority/interest:

1. Medicine 4The People, “Ghosts Embodied

For many of us, Medicine 4 the People is already the soundtrack to the Village Building Convergence (and HOWL too.) Medicine 4 The People knows how to bring good vibes and love to all the parties. Also, they represent Portland culture! Here is a link to the studio-recorded version of Ghosts Embodied and other songs from their website. If we get recommendations for other songs by Medicine 4 the People, we will ask them about using these when they come back to town, which is soon we hear.


2. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, “The Message” (both lyrical and instrumental versions)

“It’s like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under…” The Message is a classic about city life stressing the hell out of people. Yo our cities are so messed up, “I swear I might hijack a plane!” And it was one of the earliest hip hop songs. It would be really relevant to use it with our message of urban permaculture and City Repair. The instrumental has been re-used a lot, and still sounds fresh! (It’s gotten fresher with the more compressive version from Ice Cube, then slower and choppier with the version from Puff Daddy & Mase.)


3. NAS featuring Lauryn Hill, “If I Ruled The World” (both lyrical and instrumental versions)

If I Ruled The World is a song of freedom from the point of view of our imagination, especially from imagining how things could be better when you live in the projects. The sky is the limit, and that’s what we are saying as well in Village Alchemy. NAS’s lyrics on this are best in the middle verse. There is a part in Lauryn Hill’s chorus where she sings, “And then we’ll walk right up to the sun, hand in hand….

The Sunnyside Piazza, on 33rd and Yamhill {Portland, Oregon}


4. Andhim, “Holger der Polka

I love these guys. Andhim is two-person DJ duo from Germany who make tech-house music. I (Joe) have contacted them before, not about this project, and it seems likely they would be down to have their music in our film project. Their music in the past benefited an African childen’s choir. Holger der Polka would be excellent since this track is not so bouncy (i.e. too bouncy will distract from the film’s content) and it has an uplifting vibe. This track (as well as Like a Wirsing, Bermudachords or Afrikadelle) is minimal-ish, so it wouldn’t drown out the sound of people talking.


5. Steve Reich, “Drumming (part 2)

Like Philip Glass, Steve Reich is a contemporary minimalist composer. I have been checking out the music from his website, and there is a lot of it! The drumming music is minimal and also has just the right amount of melody and tone to fit. The marimbas are used in a very percussive way which is pretty rad! I especially like part 2 of the drumming sequences from the Drumming album.


6. Cut Chemist, “Spoon” (the instrumental)

Jane from Planet Repair Institute brought this up the other day. “What was the song that kept saying spoon, spoon?” We were playing this while the Permaculture Design Course participants started the Food Forest project on SE 11th and Sherrett. Spoon has a good build-up vibe to it, and because of the low-pitched melody it’s also good for the soundtrack. The instrumental version is on the Audiences Listening album.


7. Wu Tang Clan, “Triumph” (the instrumental)

Triumph is another good hip hop song with a hot instrumental track. The theme of the song is the Wu Tang killer bees taking New York City by storm at the end of the world! Probably it’s a metaphor for the war with Babylon/end of civilization. Village Alchemy is not about killer bees or global warming, per se…  but I like this instrumental a lot. The beat is terror-ific and steady. It’s as if we see the goal ahead of us and pacing ourselves to victory.


8. M.I.A.Born Free

WARNING: graphic content. This video was originally banned from YouTube believe it or not – for being too graphic. So don’t watch the music video if you’re squeamish.

M.I.A. is awesome. If you don’t know her music check it out. Jumping through record label hoops wouldn’t be as much fun. Maybe there is a good remix of the song, since one problem with the original is that it’s heavy on the drums. From a soundtrack-perspective what’s good is that the vocals are not very “bright” sounding, and so you wouldn’t be confused if you heard someone talking over this song. (Born Free might be better in a montage, however.) The lyrics start out this way:

“Yeah, man made power stood like a tower,

Higher and higher hello,

And the higher you go, the lower you feel, oh”



This next one is off the wishlist, since this wish has already been granted!

Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors.

Gabrielle Roth and Raven Recordings were very kind to give us access to their songs for use in Village Alchemy. We are finding uses for several of them already. Their music has a connection to the earth and the ancestral past. Songs to contemplate are:

  • Flowing from the Endless Wave album. This is an excellent song.
  • Chaos also from Endless Wave. This song has such a great rhythm to it. We could use the version without the voice over.
  • Eternal Dance from the Totem album. This would go well with an introductory sequence, perhaps in the beginning. Or a sequence that shows some kind of preparation, as when we are getting ready for the Village Building Convergence.
  • Zone VI from Totem or Tsunami. This one goes very well with one of these “way-seeing” moments we can’t wait to show you. This one is Mark Lakeman talking about “reclaiming the cycle of time.”
  • Feel free to comment on this post with suggestions for other Gabrielle Roth & The Mirrors music.


Many great options to consider. These soundtrack ideas are being brought up now so we can work on the paperwork and copyrights. Many of us know about local Portland musicians too who would love to be included in a soundtrack like this one. Instrumental versions are preferable to lyrical ones for a soundtrack. Lyrics are great if the content is relevant. You can see why we would not want to use too much lyrical content in a documentary project. Village Alchemy is presenting breakthrough ideas in urban and social permaculture which up till now has not been touched by film media. There is a lot to say 🙂

Thanks to everyone for participating to make this project fun and useful!


I’m getting off the phone with Robert Ansell from Raven Recordings in New York, and a special thanks is going out to Robert, Gabrielle Roth and The Mirrors for letting us use their music in this film!

Here’s a sample of their amazingly rhythmic music, from 1994 no less:


There is a great story to tell here.

Earlier this April me, my cat, and three of our friends spent a few weeks on a farm in Hood River, Oregon, just North of Mt Hood. Outside the town there are a few thrift stores. My friends and I went there looking for tunes to play in the orchards for when we pruned trees, grafted, and collected firewood. At one of the thrift stores a woman was teaching an animal spirit mask-making class, and there were masks everywhere. At any rate we found the music section and rummaged through their cassette tapes. We scored a Beastie Boys mix, the soundtrack to “Thief” by Tangerine Dream, and even some polka. Oh yeah. But the album that really caught my ear by surprise was “Totem” by Gabrielle Roth and the Mirrors, and one we kept invoking for months after. Totem, what is it? It’s an inside joke, that’s what. As soon as we got back to the farm and hit play on the Totem we were transported to another dimension, and the wood collecting we were doing took on a whole new character…


Fun times in Hood River


With that cosmic beat drumming on the whole time, somebody commented that what we were listening to must be … the most ancient and universal song for the act of gathering firewood. Yes, and for millions of years people have been collecting firewood just like we are, we said. Gathering wood now seemed so incredibly old, and very human, with an immense lineage of hunter gatherers who traveled there before us doing the exact same thing: getting ready to make a fire.


Mine is the art of inspiring people to turn themselves inside out, transform their suffering into art, their art into awareness, and their awareness into action.

~ Gabrielle Roth


Ours is world beat music without a world, made for a dance without steps, for a tribe without boundaries. The raven is one of the two main spirit animals that guide my existence, so it was fitting to call our recording company Raven, as the other magical force that drives my existence is the beat.

~ Robert Ansell


Thanks to Raven Recordings. Your music is awesome.

Starting September 13th – a placemaking design course taught by Michael Cook. Don’t miss it!

From the City Repair blog:

Come learn the basic elements of placemaking, and become empowered to spread the word! After getting our basic overview of placemaking (what, why and how) along with discussions and group activities, class participants will learn how to give a basic City Repair slideshow. Also, we’ll provide those who show up with training in how to give a tour of past VBC sites.

Each class features Michael’s entertaining and informative power point presentations, group discussion, and a hands-on activity to feed your creative soul.

With Michael moving to the mid West this winter, we’re needing to grow a crop of placemaking superheros. The free Tuesday night course this fall will be focused on these skills.


What : Introduction to Placemaking

When : Tuesdays, 6:45-8PM, Sept 13 – Nov 1, 2011

Where : HARP, 2926 NE Flanders, lower level (enter from rear)

Who: final class led by Michael Cook before he moves!!!

Tentative course topics:

• Social Context and Indigenous Roots of Community Placemaking

• Scope of Placemaking

Universal patterns we draw from, insights for creating human-scale places in our neighborhoods. Understanding and contrasting the particulars of community placemaking. Understanding it’s reasons, scope, and goals and why it works. Grokking Placemaking.

• Gatherings and Group Process

Neighborhood outreach, meeting prep, basics of facilitation, decision making models (and their place), overcoming challenges, nurturing leadership.

• Social Capital and Community Asset Mapping

Seeing the Matrix. Seeing the Village. Understanding social capital and its stages. Making and utilizing community oriented asset maps. Building trust and nurishing potential.

• Collaborative Design

Identifying values, determining functions, setting priorities, while maintaining inclusivity in the design.

• Placemaking Modalities (Natural Building, Permaculture, Community Art, Community Building)

Models of inspiration. The many ways in which placemaking manifests and how we can make our places more sustainable. (Share your own ideas!)

• Making it Happen: Community Workparties

Pre-event site prep, materials, volunteer coordinator, education and site leaders, safety, having fun.

• Celebration and the Future

The importance of celebrating work, process and progress. Storytelling (mythmaking), traditions of upkeep.

Hey guess what. We’re almost at the $1,000 fundraising mark on Kickstarter! it’s really easy to donate one dollar to the film and that definitely helps raise the numbers. Thanks to everyone who has donated! we really appreciate it 🙂

Please share this link to Kickstarter with your friends!



The link:

Like most movie projects, schedules get delayed, budgets go over, and the stress and exciment create a tornado of emotions in a producer’s belly. Although this film is a very independent production, it never the less fits that description. However, as they say “It’s all good!”

Today may be our last day of shooting interviews and b-roll for Village Alchemy. There are, however, a plethora of other interviews and sites I would like to include, but we hope to wrap up ASAP in order to get this out to the rest of the world in a timely manner. Mark Lakeman and Marisha Auerbach are starting a big tour through out California in the middle of September. We had hoped to be done by then, but will be soon after. However, people will be able to pre-puchace the movie at their talks.

We are also in works for a launch party to help send Mark and Marisha on their merry way and help launch the movie. It is going to be a great party, looking to be held on September 17th. Mark your calendars, and keep an eye out here for details to come soon.

-Cheers, Hannah

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