Step-by-step description of how to build a cob dog house
Designed by Cheryl and Roland Magyar
This dog house design below has stirred up great interest in caring dog owners all around the world – from Australia to Canada. We recommend you give it a thought or two as well!
We live on a farm out in the country with no fences surrounding our property – by choice. In this flat lands setting with four seasons, a hot and dry summer and snow in winter, it takes more than just an ”oil barrel” or a thin walled wooden structure to give our pets what they deserve: a decent house, a refuge and sense of home. Our buildings here on the farm are built of cob on brick foundation and since we had been experimenting with clay as earth-friendly construction material via a couple of workshops back in the U.S., as well as built our outdoor cob oven – we felt like treating our dogs to a similar comfort. Furthermore, we like to express our affection as human beings to organic shapes and love to discover art in nature.
When designing the cob dog house we had a mid-size dog couple and their litter in mind, so that it can accommodate their whole family up to the point when the puppies are weened off and sold. To give you an idea what we mean by mid-size, here are the measurements of our Hungarian Puli shepherd dogs at present: the full-grown bitch is 35cm (14”) tall and from nose to rump measures 55cm (21.75”), the male’s same measurements, that is still growing, are 40cm (16”) and 65cm (25.75”) respectively.
The materials you will need are either those that follow or materials with similar properties fulfilling the same function, as many of these can be found locally. Where applicable, gather more rather than less than what you absolutely need, because you can utilize them for the regular maintenance of the cob dog house later on, this way assuring a long lifespan for the structure:
– one wood Y-post as central support of the structure: 1.5m (60”) long and 9cm (3.5”) thick
– frost resistant bricks for foundation
– 20-25 pieces of 130cm (51”) long and 4cm (1.5”) thick dry sunflower stalks or round stakes
– 5-6 heaping wheelbarrows full of dry, non moldy, strong, long bladed hay
– 4 wheelbarrows of construction clay
– 2 wheelbarrows of coarse sand
– 4 wheelbarrows of (possibly fresh) cow or horse manure
– in our experience dogs like the cool dirt as floor in summer and cornhusks that don’t get caught in their fur and are not skin irritant as winter bedding – optional
– burlap or other thick, yet breathable and natural fabric as door flap
– one or more bendable branch(es) that holds the door flap as a rod
– sewing thread (preferably from the flap fabric) to secure the fabric on its rod
– natural pigments to add to the plaster mix for color interest (choose something from your vernacular landscape) – optional
– hemp twine
Tools needed are a wheelbarrow, pruners, saw, shovel, spade, rake, trowels (metal for mixing and wood for plastering), a couple of buckets for water, measuring tape, rubber gloves (optional), sewing needle (embroidery kind with larger hole).
The best time to do the work – to speed up the drying process – is in warm, dry weather. Allow at least two-three days from start to finish. This project is a team work of two-three people (or two adults and a child).
First choose the right place for the cob dog house considering factors like winds (orienting the door away from the predominant strong winds of your area is important), sunshine (ours is under the partial protection of a deciduous shrub that had been carefully pruned to accommodate the house without rubbing against any part of it, not to damage the plaster, yet letting some of the branches drape over the house to filter the hot summer sun), allowing for visual contact between the dog and your home’s entrance where it expects to see you most often and last but not least, think of maximizing the visual appeal of the doghouse set in a beautiful garden landscape. Now let’s get to work.
Depending on how thick wall you consider appropriate for your climate, you may need to double the thickness of the brick foundation in which case you will need about time and a half of the bricks necessary for our thinner walled version. We found the shape of a slightly destorted circle into an oval even more true to nature than the regular circle, but whatever exact shape you wish to give to the house’s floor plan, you will need to draw it into the ground (eg. by a scratch line). Keep in mind that this will mark the outer perimeter of the brick foundation. In our doghouse’s case this has a 170cm (67”) maximum diameter. Find the center point of the oval and dig a 50cm (20”) deep hole for the Y-post. Pour a little sand in the hole, compact it with the post and place the post in its permanent position, filling the dirt back in. Dig down about time and a half of your bricks’ thickness and create a wide enough profile for the first layer of bricks (depending on your choice, one or two parallel running rows). Before laying down the bricks, fill into this straight angled, flat bottomed and horizontal, oval profile a layer of coarse sand so that after compacting it with a flat object, the depth is about half of a brick’s thickness. Now put in place the bottom layer of bricks so that they follow the shape of the trench closely. Fill in the gaps with broken pieces of bricks and/or brush sand into them. We did not use any mortar for binding the bricks together as the weight of the upper structure will anchor the house very well not allowing any side shifting. When you are laying down the second, top layer of bricks, alternate the position of the gaps. If you decide to go with double thickness, run the top layer of bricks across the ones below. Since this layer is already above the ground, make sure that there are no air gaps between the bricks on the inside of the foundation. You may partially fill the outside gaps with sand, but the majority of the void will be covered by the plaster. Remember to leave a 40cm (16”) gap in the bricks where the door would be. The brick layer below the entrance will serve as erosion protection from the dogs going in and out.
Next comes the construction of the wall/roof with the hybrid technique of wattle and daub light straw-clay. If you opt for a thick wall, use wooden stakes instead of sunflower stalks for safety. Start laying the first and longest stalks or stakes across the Y-post and each other. Cut the lower ends in an angle to lay flat on the bricks and space them out evenly, leaving room between for shorter stalks/stakes that will not reach the top. The latter ones will be woven in as you go, one person weaving, the other holding the stakes. Where the longest stalks cross, they can be tied with the hemp twine to hold them in place. The stakes still need to rest on each other and the Y-post securely, the twine is mostly for not letting them shift during the weaving. For the door opening make sure to place one strong stalk/stake on each side that meet up on the top and will act as door frames. This is also where you begin and finish each layer of weaving.
Prepare the clay slip in the wheelbarrow, by mixing the dry clay with water to make a nice homogenous soup that is able to coat the handfuls of hay both outside and inside. The hay is gently pulled and twisted to form long ”sausages” that are immersed in the clay slip and lightly agitated in there. Shake off the excess slip and wrap the sausage around the door frame to form a nice edge, while making sure that one end of the sausage reaches past the next stake. The hay sausages in the first few layers need to fall on the bricks. Where they don’t, you need to insert new, shorter ribbing segments halfway in between two neighboring stakes. Make sure that no stalk/stake sticks out from an even conic plane of the skeleton. Add the new sausages overlapping the previous one as you weave. Each layer of such sausages is alternated like in any weaving, pulling them tight and putting light downward pressure on them as needed. As the layers grow, smoothen the excess clay slip with your palms downward onto the layers below, this way improving the water shedding function. Take several breaks to allow the layers some drying time.
When you reach to about 35cm (14”) height at the door, you need to add the empty door flap rod by weaving both of its ends into the skeleton of the structure. The door flap comes on at the very end, once the finished plaster is dry. Although both of our dogs need to duck a little, their backs are plenty flexible enough to do so and we believe that it provides them with an increased sense of shelter and security: neither us as adults, nor eventual intruder larger size dogs could get in easily. Depending on your location this may or may not be a concern. You can always adjust the entrance’s dimensions to best fit your own dog’s needs. Right above this ”rod” lay across a short piece of the ribbing material to finish off the door frame. This will likely have to support shorter vertical pieces of stakes above the door. Continue weaving till you reach the top, decreasing the size of the sausages accordingly.
Allow the finished wall to completely dry before you start plastering over. When it is ready, prepare the plaster mix in a wheelbarrow, recording your ingredient proportions to easily replicate it batch after batch. Cut up the hay in 5cm (2”) pieces or alternatively use broken up good quality straw, the loose fluff of cattail heads, animal hair, smaller feathers or down, etc. as binding agent and mix it in with clay, sand and manure. Fresh cow or horse manure is best (old dry manure is harder to break up), the enzymes and proteins in its juices act as natural adhesive in the mix, the undigested plant material also adds to water resistance and prevents cracking. Sand provides strength and structural stability between the clay particles, reducing the clay’s tendency to crack as it dries. Nonetheless, the clay and the manure are the main ingredients of the mix, do not overdose the sand or the plant/animal fibers. Also be careful with how you add water to the mix, as it is easy to add too much but hard to take away from it and a little bit goes a long way. So add water gradually. This is the point when you can add the optional pigments (for example powdered red brick). There is no hard and fast recipe for the proportions, you might want to experiment beforehand with a small batch and when you find the right proportions, increase those accordingly for the plaster project. As a result you should have a shiny, sticky mass that is not too wet (definitely not dripping) and it adheres to itself and the woven surface below. Be sure to cover the tip of the house thickly and to round it off sufficiently, enough to cover all of the structural joints below and to shed water.
Apply the plaster by hand and sequentially smoothen with an always wet wooden trowel. It should be applied a couple of inches thick, so the mixture needs to be thick enough to hold its own weight. The plaster should also wrap around the vertical door frames, this is where the dogs may rub the most.
On your outermost plaster layer you may want to play with the relief and create 3-dimensional effects, such as the one above our doghouses entrance that isn’t just aesthetic but also sheds some water from going right in the door.
If you chose to have a thick wall, add additional layers of plaster once the previous ones are dry. It is good to make shallow grooves in the lower layers of plaster so the new ones can key in better.
When this is done and dry, sew the door flap onto its rod and allow your dogs to explore their new home, while you enjoy watching them and taking note of the color change in the plaster as it dries. Do not be offended if your dogs remove some dirt from inside, digging smaller holes in the dirt floor of their house, they are just turning it into a home. In summer no bedding is necessary if your summer weather is hot like ours, because dogs appreciate the coolness of the earth.
We recommend – as with any earthen structure – to replaster it once a year. It is usually done in late spring. You may also try to landscape around the doghouse with perennials or any flowering plants.
Be loose, be creative, have fun and be prepared for the compliments you will receive from others!
For further inspiration on clay as building material and creating artistic cob features to your own home, we invite you to read this related post of ours.
Some useful resources:
Denzer, Kiko, Build Your Own Earth Oven A low-cost wood-fired mud oven; simple sourdough bread; perfect loaves, Hand Print Press, 2001.
There are plenty of wonderful websites out there too… they are yours to seek out!