Naomi Neal, Kathryn Stresak, Dorian Gomberg, Ed Vlcek, and Brad Krautwurst are Shimer students participating in the Shimer Internship/Mentorship (SIM) Program. They regularly post updates about their internship experiences.
Last week was the most physically demanding week of my internship to date, and by Thursday morning, my muscles were crying out in protest. Luckily, I always keep an over-the-counter pain reliever on hand (being somewhat accident-prone), so my work wasn't held up by the fatigue.
But getting tired--really, bodily tired--is an experience I'd rarely had before. After all, I live in middle-class America in the present day and age. We have gadgets and machines to do just about everything we could ever want to do, for us.
Certainly a part of last week's comparative difficulty was due to the solitary nature of my new project (building a cob oven). In weeks previous, more experienced and toughened professionals were always standing by, doing the heavy lifting, both literally and figuratively. But I think that at least some of the challenge of my new project stems from the almost primitive fashion in which I'm going about the construction of my oven. To date, I've used a wheelbarrow, a bucket, a tarp, a shovel, and a level to put together my cob oven. Cob (a mixture of clay, straw, sand, soil, and water) dates back at least as far as 11th-century Afghanistan, and in working with it, I've used nothing that wouldn't have been available, in some form, to builders of that time. I laid every stone myself, and mix every batch of clay with my feet:
For me, this raises an interesting question--which in turn raises a few more--about the emergent field of sustainable construction in which I tentatively hope to make my life's work. That is, to what extent does sustainable building have to be a reversion to older, pre-industrial practices? What can we learn from older ways of making things, and how can we make ancient, environmentally-sound methods easier and faster without consuming unnecessary resources in the process? One of my biggest disillusionments over the course of this internship is the experience of witnessing first-hand how much waste building projects really produce, even when the end goal is an eco-friendly structure. Conversely, my cob oven re-uses the byproducts of the pool construction project, incorporating scrapped cinderblocks from the old structure as its foundation:
How can the wasteful and the difficult be woven together to make new ways of building which are sustainable for workers and for the world? I'm not proposing any answer now, but I hope to get closer to finding one while at Oxford this year, approaching such questions from a more academic, and thus more familiar, vantage point.
Last week's progress, in pictures, follows below. In brief: I made a cylindrical wall out of loosely-interlocked salvaged cinderblocks, filling the space inside the cylinder with more cinderblocks and soil excavated from the new pool site. Then I arranged fire-bricks (purchased new) into a level surface on top of this foundation, to make the oven floor, where fires and pizzas and loaves of bread will go. Then, on top of this floor, I build a mound of sand. This week, I am covering this mound with layers of cob. After the cob dries, the sand will be dug out, leaving the interior of the oven hollow and ready for its first test fire!