My family owns a few hundred acres of land in Iowa. There’s a stately wooden farmhouse on the plot, but my parents sold it a decade ago and then immediately began regretting it. The new owner has redecorated it in a style I can only describe as “Guy Fieri meets ‘Miami Vice'” – there’s neon involved, and at least one interior wall has flames painted on it. My father has since vowed to build a new house on part of the remaining land that will put the old house to shame, and since I’m the oldest male child, it was understood that I’d be “assisting” him in this project, in the sense that whenever there was any manual labor required, I would be the one doing it while he stood watching from under a shade tree, vocally criticizing me. And since we were building a hundred dollar house, manual labor was pretty much the only kind of labor required.
We went with the hundred dollar house because my father is obsessed with things that are “self-sustaining” and “off the grid.” I don’t know why. “Off the grid” is to old white men what Bradley Cooper movies are to young white men. They can’t resist. I think it’s because when they see how fast and radically things “on the grid” are changing, and thus leaving them behind, they’re like, “screw the grid, let me off this grid.” Anyway, instead of just building a regular house, or buying a tiny house with a tiny fraction of the money he pocketed from the sale of the now-Fieri’d farmhouse, he decided he wanted to build a special off-the-grid $100 house, the plans for which he bought on a website which also sold DVDs telling the “real story behind 9/11” and plastic filtered straws through which you could drink standing puddles of filthy water and maybe possibly probably not die.
The house plans turned out to be for what’s called a “cob house.” The reason it costs only a hundred dollars to build is because – wait for it – it’s made of mud. You just mix a bunch of mud, sand, and straw together, mold it into blocks, and sort of mush those blocks into a big house-shaped lump. It’s like something you’d see peasants doing in a “Monty Python” skit. You get heat from a wood-burning stove, and install an incinerator toilet. I was skeptical, but it was my father’s pet project, and I could tell he thought we’d bond during the building of this house, so I went along with it. I took a week off and flew back to Iowa last summer to build the hundred dollar mud house.
To get to the plot my father had chosen to build his cob house, we had to use an access road whose gate was controlled by the new owner of the farmhouse, ie li’l Fieri. When we stopped by to pick up the key, li’l Fieri took us into his “man cave,” which was a barn he’d converted into a workshop where he could stuff and mount all the animals he killed on his frequent hunting trips. That day he was working on a mule deer whose facial expression looked like someone had sneaked up behind it during a nap and woken it up with a blast from a massive air horn.
“A cob house, eh” li’l Fieri said as he handed over the key. “Where’d you learn about that?”
“The internet,” I said.
“It’s Welsh,” my father said, which it was, at least according to the plans. Supposedly there are cob houses in Wales that are hundreds of years old.
“Ah, like a Welsh rarebit,” li’l Fieri said.
“Yes, exactly like that!” My father said.
Li’l Fieri laughed. “A Welsh rarebit is a grilled cheese sandwich. The joke is that even the food is so terrible in Wales that their equivalent to a steak is bread with cheese melted on top.”
My father smiled politely and made an excuse to leave. When he gets mad, his eyes bulge, and as we left, he looked a lot like the shabbily-taxidermied mule deer.
“We’ll show him,” he said as we drove up the rutted dirt track leading to the clearing for the house.
Building the house was very simple. First, we mixed a bunch of dirt, sand and water in a few plastic tubs we’d brought in the truck, until the mud had the consistency of pudding. Then we mixed in a bunch of straw, which gave the mixture a thick, moldable texture. Then we shaped the “cob” into blocks and arranged those blocks into triple-thick walls. (There was a foundation of packed dirt and concrete rubble, which my father had prepared beforehand.) When I say “we” arranged those blocks, I mean “I” arranged those blocks, while my father watched from the shade and criticized me. Summer in Iowa is mercilessly humid, and in the middle of the woods, the mosquitoes flew in swarms. By noon of our first day, I was sunburned, exhausted, and covered in bites.
“Maybe we should scale back,” I said to my father as I mixed up another batch of sand-mud. “Go for more of a cottage instead of a full-on house.”
“What?” My father said. He was swiping away on his phone and hadn’t been listening. He hadn’t even broken a sweat.
Over the next few days, we agreed to scale down from a house to a cottage, from a cottage to a hunting lodge, from a hunting lodge to a shelter. Mixing the mud and sand and straw together was incredibly difficult, and then we (I) had to manipulate the blocks into place, mold them together, and then quickly put the next row of blocks into place so they would bond together as they dried. And speaking of bonding, there was little to none between my father and I. Since I was doing all the actual work, I pretty much built the house like I wanted to, which is to say I built it quickly, shabbily, and with little attention to detail. My father, being a perfectionist, was left to sit in the shade and grow increasingly annoyed as he watched me half-ass his dream home. When we’d break for lunch at a diner in the nearest town (a 30 minute highway drive) we sat and ate in sullen silence.
In the end, we (I) basically built a tiny freestanding efficiency apartment. There was one door and one window and it was about seven feet tall. He could’ve rented an equivalent space, in town, for less than $300 a month. On the last day, when we plastered the inside walls of the tiny house, we kept bumping into and elbowing each other. That’s how small it was. My father had enlisted the help of some friends to top it off with a thatched roof, since I had to get back to DC. After we finished plastering, we sat in the cab of the truck and regarded the product of our (my) week of labor. It looked like the set of an episode of the “Walking Dead,” or something that had been produced by a hundred-foot-tall dog.
“Do you think you’ll come down here a lot?” I asked him.
“Nah,” he said. “It’s too small, and ugly. Like, depressingly ugly.”
I couldn’t argue, and I couldn’t really even be that mad, as I had not only sweat off ten pounds of bloat weight that week, but also discharged my family obligations for at least the next five years. The off-the-grid cob house was just a passing obsession for my dad, like a pre-teen who begs for violin lessons and then quits forever after six weeks, and now that he’s gotten it out of his system, he’s looking at paying professionals to build an actual, real house. It could get complicated, though, if he wants to build it on the plot where the tiny cob house is. I saw the cob house recently, after one of the hardest Iowa winters in decades, and it was completely unmarred. If anything, it had been tempered by the extreme weather, and looked and felt invulnerable when you touched it, like an extension of the earth itself. My father looked relieved when I volunteered to dynamite it to make way for his real house.