By Mindy Quirk
“You want to build a what?” This was the most common question I was asked after calling someone for free dirt. Actually I get asked that same question often but it wasn’t until recently it was asked specifically about dirt. I explained to everyone I called that I wanted to build a Cob bench. I think most people just didn’t want the hassle of dealing with me but a few became interested and that’s one of the reasons I wanted to build a Cob bench at Unity. A spark of interest is an opportunity to learn and connect to something unfamiliar.
I don’t remember the first time I saw a picture of something built out of Cob but I know the idea started about three years ago. I was on the Sustainability Committee of the Board of Trustees at the time and we were looking into purchasing seating for the play area. The older students needed a place to draw or talk during their recess and as always at Unity we investigate sustainable options when purchasing items for the school. Cob is an extraordinary building material, it is cheap, malleable, a thermal mass, fire proof and beautiful. To make Cob you need soil that has around 15-30 percent of clay, straw, gritty sand and imagination. It is one of the first building materials used by humans and has been used all over the globe.
We had run interest groups as part of the Eco Schools program about developing our outdoor space. Time and time again the kids said they wanted a gazebo – the school’s previous location had a gazebo and the kids missed it. Buildings and structures mean something to us that is inexplicable yet intrinsic. They give us a sense of place, a sense of home and belonging. When I saw Cob, I knew it was perfect for Unity and working with it would be an experience in sustainability for the students that would be meaningful.The Parents Association was proud to sponsor this valuable project.
Because our soil is a sandy loam it would not work for Cob. I had to find another source of clay rich soil. Throughout this process I reached out to everyone I saw that had a bit of dirt that looked like it would compact. I drove on construction sites and called developers. I finally called a man
named Howard Buell from Eastern Services, he was helpful and seemed genuinely interested in the project. When I drove out to look at his dirt I was surprised to see he was my kids’ rugby coach. When you reach out to your community and realize they are there all around you it gives you a feeling of connection. Howie offered as much dirt as needed and free delivery. I felt such relief after calling half of New Jersey asking for dirt. Now that we had the dirt we had to build the base for our bench.
One thing people may not realize about charter schools is that we must pay rent in order to have our facilities. We actually only receive a percentage of the money allocated for each student. As you can imagine we must do more with less. It always helps to have a landlord who believes in what you’re doing. The Evergreen Cemetery Association has been a supportive and cooperative organization with which to work. The gravel and boulders were found on site on the adjacent lot and trucked over by the Evergreen maintenance crew. Bringing the materials would have been helpful and donating them even better but the Evergreen crew actually constructed the base for us as well. Honestly, on the Saturday morning when I saw the base constructed I nearly cried with gratitude! With the help of parent volunteers we were able to adjust the base to the size needed. When I see acts of community such as Howie from Eastern Services Evergreen Association’s maintenance crew and parents on a Saturday morning it is proof that community sustains us.
After the base was settled and ready to be built upon it was time for the workshop! Rain was
predicted for the first day so we spent the day doing soil tests and educating the students on
cob and inspiring them with its possibilities. On the second day Sigi Koko from Down to Earth Designs came to Unity. It was exciting to meet someone who had worked with Cob for 22 years.
She has not only a wealth of expertise but was also patient and kind. She worked well with kids
and demonstrated an understanding for children that is rare to find. Some of the children were
easier to convince than others to jump into a tarp filled with mud but everyone was able to
participate in some capacity. If you’ve ever watched kids playing in mud you’ve seen the magic
that happens – the freeing of boundaries and an opening of physicality and creativity. They are
completely engaged and in touch with something most humans lost years ago. There is
something so transformative about being covered in earth. You are released from the day to day
protocols and are open to the wilderness that lurks within. I love it. It’s a connection to our roots,
a time when we were closer to the Earth, closer to the elements that allowed life to flourish on
this planet. Sigi understands this connection to the Earth and she shared it with our Unity
Community. We had three wonderful days creating a place for our community to communicate
There are so many people to thank for bringing the Cob bench to life. Thank you Evergreen
Cemetery Association for being supportive, donating supplies and building with us. Thank you to
Howie Buell for delivering and donating soil. Thank you to Marek Dolak for sharing your skills
with stones and spending your Saturday moving them. Thank you Kendall and Nan for helping
move the stones. Thank you Marianne Trent for joining me on another crazy adventure and
being there everyday. Thank you Kirstin Sechler for finding a place for the Cob, being willing to
shovel buckets of dirt into my van from random construction sites and managing the
construction of the sheltering roof for our bench. Thank you to the teachers and staff for getting
in the dirt and making time for the workshop to happen. Finally, thank you to the kids for your
enthusiasm and work with this entire process. We created a special place for our community
and put our soul into a structure that will stand as a reminder of our commitment to sustainability
for years to come.
“The mother art is architecture. Without an architecture of our own we have no soul of our own
― Frank Lloyd Wright
About The Author
Mindy Quirk is a mom of three who has been at Unity for 8 years. She’s served on the Board of Trustees, the PTO Board and been a Green Team Co-Leader.
The opinions expressed by the author and those providing comments are theirs alone, and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Unity Charter School. Unity Charter School is not responsible for the accuracy of any of the information supplied by the author.