Natural Building is one of our passions! Using clay-rich soils, sand, and straw we can make beautiful, durable, functional, locally-sourced & environmentally-friendly creations for any house or yard.
All of our classes and workshops are part of a holistic design and philosophy of earthen building we call VersaTerra.
To learn more about VersaTerra visit our building buddies at House Alive.
35-day Complete Cob Cabin
May 17th - June 18th, 2021
See details below
Complete Cob Cabin
Dates: May 17 - June 18
Location: Rosewater Ranch, 30 minutes north of Reno, Nevada
Cost: $2500. Go here to pay a $500 deposit to reserve your space.
Instructors: Kyle Isacksen with Katy Chandler, Kathleen
O’Brien and Jonathan Vocke
About the Cabin
During this 5-week workshop we will construct a cob cabin from the ground up. The cabin will be small - 120 interior square feet as per local code for “sheds” - and used to help develop a budding community.
The foundation will be a rubble trench with an earthbag stem wall. Walls will be made of cob with sections of adobe, balecob, and cordwood cob. The roof will be metal.
Description of Workshop
This is the most comprehensive earthen construction workshop you can find. Decades of teaching on four different continents has helped us design this rich learning experience giving students the tools they need to become confident earthen builders.
Earth is the mother of all building materials. For millennia and all over the world, people have used earth to build beautiful, simple, efficient and inexpensive homes. It's plentiful, ecological and non-toxic. Plus, it can't burn, won't rot and is much simpler to build with than conventional construction materials.
We will teach you how to use clay-soil to build just about everything; from strong structural walls (cob and Adobe) to beautiful floors, plasters and light-straw-clay walls. Because the materials are fireproof, they are ideally suited to sculpt ovens, fireplaces and cook stoves.
The essence of your learning experience will revolve around developing a deep understanding of how to process and combine a few simple materials: clay-soil, sand and straw. How you apply that in your building adventures is then up to you, but you will find the possibilities endless and exciting.
During this workshop we will build a beautiful cob cabin from the ground up and an earthen bread/pizza oven. This includes interior and exterior walls, roof, foundation, windows, doors, electricity, plumbing, arches, plasters, niches, roof, and artwork.
This 35-day VersaTerra Plus workshop is designed to provide a much deeper dive into earth, natural building, and sustainable living through the construction of a complete cabin. Over the five weeks you’ll have the opportunity to get into a building rhythm where your new learning and skills can be applied and fine-tuned with the help of our instructors. Simply put, the more time you have with the mud, the more competent and confident a builder you’ll become. The extended time frame also gives us more space for discussions, exploration of design philosophy, and engagement with appropriate technologies including microsolar, composting toilets, water harvesting. This course will benefit from functioning real world examples at Rosewater Ranch and the nearby Be the Change Project urban homestead.
After this workshop, you will feel confident that you can:
Build yourself a cob cottage
Remodel or renovate an existing home, using natural materials
Build and use an earthen oven
Use cob to create garden walls, outdoor fireplaces, patios, benches, etc.
Design small cottages
Teach a one-day natural building event yourself!
Specifically, you will get hands-on experience and skill development in the following areas:
Foundation systems, rubble trench, stem walls, earthbag construction (as a stem wall)
Identifying the right materials, screening, processing, testing, costs, calculating amounts
Mixing cob efficiently, making adobe bricks
Building with cob: strong sculptural walls, arches, windows and doors, niches, artwork and mosaics
Building with balecob and cordwood cob
Electricity and plumbing, how to install wires and pipes in the walls
Roof attachment and roof design
Light-straw-clay: an infill technique perfect for code-approved buildings and natural renovations of existing homes.
Natural plasters: making your own plasters and paints, tools, colors, applications, how to apply on earthen walls, drywall, wood, concrete
Tamped floors, finish earthen floors in natural buildings, earthen floors in existing homes on plywood, oriented strand board and concrete
Earthen ovens from start to finish and how to use them (with a pizza party!)
Design strategies, natural design essentials, passive solar, using cob to make models
Building codes, how they work, how to work with them and around them
Natural building costs
During every workshop we make time for specific issues related to individual situations. This usually includes a look at different climates and regions, living with families or in communities, dealing with the building code, physical and financial challenges, appropriate technologies and more.
This VersaTerra workshop is being offered through our nonprofit Be the Change Project
Included in the fee:
Three vegetarian meals/day Monday-Saturday prepared by a cook as well as coffee, tea, and a snack (there will be optional meat on occasion).
Campsite at Rosewater Ranch
Our course book “House of Earth” (sent to you ahead of time)
A VersaTerra certificate
The Daily Schedule
We are aware that students make a big investment in a workshop such as this so we honor your time and do the best we can to share our knowledge, experience, and passion. We’ll work in the mornings and break after lunch when it starts getting hot and we’re all ready for a swim. We’ll regroup in the late afternoon for a couple hours for discussions, exploring techniques in more detail, and visiting other local natural buildings. On some evenings we’ll share slide shows and films featuring our previous projects and those of other people and cultures. Believe it or not, we still like to make time for campfires and music. We always strive to make the workshop itself a comfortable, memorable, and fun experience.
Monday - Friday
1:15-2:30 Free time
2:30-5:30 Building or Lecture & discussion (alternate days)
5:30-6:30 Free time
Evenings Slide shows/campfires/free time
8:30 Saturdays are devoted to light work which might include art (sculpture, bas
relief, plastering), hands-on units often done in small groups on topics like
plumbing or electric, investigations into appropriate technologies (compost toilets,
solar wall heaters and showers…), and field trips.
No work on Sundays
Meals are not provided on Sundays
About the Location/Region
Rosewater Ranch sits at the north-eastern base of the Sierra Nevada mountains, on the edge of coniferous alpine forest and sagebrush steppe. The land is a delight of transitional eco-tones on a slope that runs from tall pines down to open grassland. The sky is big and only slightly enlightened by nearby Reno at night, so the stars shine bright. It’s a sunny and dry climate in the rainshadow of the Sierras, though high enough at 5,200 feet to receive a full share of winter and snow. In May and June, anything can happen, from wintry snow storms to warm rain to very hot and dry sunshiny days, though typically at that time the days are sunny and warming - lovely working weather. Nights will certainly be cool, if not chilly.
Rosewater Ranch itself is a project 7 years in the making. The goal is to become a multi-generational little village of farming, land-loving folk who can live small and beautifully and pass on a worthwhile future for those yet to come. Through our own best efforts at good living, community events and education, and a patient dialogue with the land, we hope to shape and adapt ourselves to be welcome here and to spark others into their own forms of work for a culture of generosity, inclusion, and belonging.
At the moment, Rosewater Ranch has a small nucleus of human residents, a homestead goat dairy, a free-range flock of hens, homestead gardens and orchards, pigs, dogs, cats, and also on site are the Loping Coyote Farms plant nursery and Prema Farm, an organic vegetable market farm.
Wifi is available on site and cell coverage is good.
Before the workshop we request that people get tested and adhere to stricter safety and self-quarantine protocols at home to minimize the chance of anyone bringing the virus to the workshop. Once the workshop starts we’ll create a pretty tight “bubble” with our group as there will be limited off-site time due to the busy schedule. Furthermore, we’ll be working outside, can practice physical distancing during meals & lecture/discussions, and will be sleeping at separate campsites around the property.
The Reno airport is a 30 minute ride from the site and we offer pick-ups on Saturday and Sunday, May 15th & 16th and rides to the airport after the workshop. Specific directions and ride info will be shared after participants register.
In order to secure your spot for this program, please fill out the form below and either go here to PayPal or send a $500 deposit to:
Be the Change
2055 McCloud Avenue
Reno, NV 89512
Checks or money orders should be made out to "Be the Change Project".
Deposits are non-refundable, unless the workshop fills to capacity.
After we have received your deposit, we will send you an email with more information on the workshop, how to prepare yourself, what to bring, etc.
We welcome the participation of young ones who, in the past, have participated in the learning process at different levels, depending on their age and interest. Give Kyle a call to discuss bringing kids in more detail. Katy and Kyle’s two boys, ages 11 and 14, will be in and out of the workshop on occasion.
Costs for kids: this varies based on age but includes camping, food, and instruction as they participate. Call for details.
Lead instructor Kyle Isacksen has been been building with earth since 2010 and teaching natural building since 2011 with House Alive and the Be the Change Project.
Kyle has a background in construction, teaching, and simple living. He’s worked as a framer, carpenter, and commercial roofer and just finished building a “green” conventional home in Reno. He was a science teacher for 7 years, is a frequent speaker on sustainable living, and is a contributing writer for Mother Earth News magazine and blog. Kyle enjoys basketball, hiking, reading, and martial arts.
Katy Chandler is the co-founder of the Be the Change Project, a prolific gardener, a certified permaculture designer, a former math teacher and school designer, and a talented natural builder and plasterer. She loves to dance, laugh, bodysurf, and pore over seed catalogs in the glow of beeswax candlelight while cozied up to the wood stove on long winter nights.
Jonathan Vocke started natural building with a 10-day Versaterra workshop in Oregon a few years back and has since built and taught with us in India and Mexico. When not slinging mud he’s a professional musician and teacher in Baltimore.
Kathleen O’Brien has participated in multiple workshops and builds including last year’s 28-day in La Manzanilla, Mexico and in India before that. She has extensive general carpentry experience, is a permaculture designer and talented grower, and has over 20 years of public school teaching experience. She is an avid reader and writer and is currently building a cabin for herself in Surprise Valley, Nevada.
In 2011, Kyle & Katy started the nonprofit Be the Change Project - an urban homestead and learning space dedicated to service, simplicity, and community engagement that is rooted in Permaculture and Integral Nonviolence. In 2013 Be the Change was honored as one of Mother Earth News magazine’s “Homesteads of the Year”. They have “earthed-out” their homestead with two cabins, interior and exterior plasters, earthen floors, walls, ovens, green roofs and more.
Check out Kyle’s articles and blogs in Mother Earth News
See the One Day Cob House video
Complete Cob &
Natural Building Intensive
VersaTerra PRO, MEXICO
Go here to see pics from
this 2020 workshop
Complete cob and natural building intensive
(includes building an earthen oven)
January 13 - February 9, 2020 (28 days)
La Manzanilla, Mexico
About the Site & Local Area
The workshop will take place on a verdant piece of land in the hills overlooking beautiful Tenacatita Bay and Boca de Iguanas beach. Alejandra and Camila, a Mexican mother-daughter duo, purchased the land in 2018 with the vision of creating a permaculture-infused travelers’ hostel and center for learning. They’ve been hard at work terracing the slope, planting scores of fruit trees, flowers, & herbs, and constructing two earthbag cabins, a ferrocement cistern, and a palapa-roofed kitchen. In the winter of 2018/19 we helped build at Mambo-Mambo and began planning this workshop.
See Alejandra and Camila’s blog here.
We’ll be staying near the small and friendly town of La Manzanilla, with plenty of restaurants and taco joints, music, dancing, and an incredible beach that stretches over 5km along the bay.
We’ll camp at a beachfront campground a short ride away from the building site. The campground has restrooms, showers, shade from palapas and palm trees, an outdoor kitchen, and beach access just steps away from your tent. Breakfast and dinner will be served at the campground, lunch at the building site. Afternoon & evening programming will happen at the campsite as well.
Recreation & Local Sights
The ocean water is warm and luscious and a pleasure to swim in. The waves are friendly and perfect for body surfing and boogie boarding and the sand is ideal for building sandcastles. Many locals go for long swims in the morning or take walks on the beach with the sunrise and sunset.
There are several restaurants in town with beachfront seating where it’s easy to spend an afternoon enjoying a drink, the sun and surf, and time with friends. There are taco joints in town to sample, a market day each week on the square that abounds in local crafts (textiles, woodwork, pottery...), general stores for food and gear, a few art galleries, three cafes, and even an English-language used bookstore.
La Manzanilla is also known for its “Cocodrilario” or crocodile preserve - a protected mangrove lagoon home to scores of the big reptiles (some as long as 15 feet!). There’s a wonderful boardwalk tour that ends at a croc nursery where visitors can hold young crocs. And, for birders, there are boat tours through the mangroves where dozens of tropical bird species can be seen in their natural habitat.
A short taxi-ride away is Tenacatita beach, one of the most beautiful beaches we’ve ever been to. There are fewer people, umbrellas to rent with light foods and drinks to order, and great reef snorkeling in a cove just around a bend.
When we were in La Manz with our family, we enjoyed renting one of the many fishing boats (with a captain) to tour and fish around the bay. We caught fish each time and saw dolphins, turtles, and even whales.
The weather this time of year is just about ideal and a perfect antidote to the northern winter. Temps average 83 (high) and 68 (low) in January & February and rain is very rare.
There are three airports near La Manzanilla: Puerto Vallarta, Guadalajara, and Manzanillo.
We will offer one group pick up from Puerto Vallarta (about 3.5 hours away) in a van on Saturday, January 11th at 4pm. This way, you can plan to fly to Puerto Vallarta anytime before then, enjoy the city a bit (or hang at the airport), meet up with fellow cobbers, and have a ride together to La Manzanilla.
From Guadalajara (5 hours) there are easy bus connections followed by a simple one-hour taxi ride from Manzanillo. For Manzanillo (1 hour away), taxis are easy to find and the cost is about $50.
Our 'Cardboard and Cob Cabin" built in 2012 with the help of two workshops.
200 Square feet, $700 total cost, all salvaged wood except one 4"x4"