‘Bigger Than Just Building a House’

April 6, 2021

Story by Sarah Naron

For many children, a favorite pastime is constructing sandcastles at the beach or miniature masterpieces out of mud. While many tend to leave this hobby behind as their childhood draws to a close, a select few allow their inner child to continue running wild and shining creatively while taking “playing with mud” to a whole new level.

Cat Taylor, a 57-year-old resident of Hughes Springs, falls into the latter category. In May 2018, she began a journey to build her own home out of cob, a mixture of clay, sand, straw, and water. These days, Taylor is not only still hard at work completing her dream home, but also working to help others follow in her footsteps.

According to Taylor, the idea of building her own home out of natural materials was one she came across purely by accident.

“We had bought a foreclosed property outside of McKinney, and it had an in-ground pool,” she explained. “It was really nasty, and there were frogs and snakes in it because it had been sitting for a while. It was only, like, four feet deep of sludge.”

Once Taylor and her daughter completed the laborious task of cleaning the pool, the next step was to get it filled with fresh water – a process which was soon halted by a troubling discovery.

“It turned out that because it had sat mostly empty, all of the pipes and stuff underneath it going to the pumps were busted,” Taylor said. “It would have cost as much as a new pool to fix. I priced just filling it in, which was almost as expensive.”

Determined to find a way to still utilize the pool without being forced to sort out the plumbing issues, Taylor began researching online and was presented with the idea of natural swimming pools, which are common in Europe. Unlike traditional pools, those of the natural variety require no chemicals, which Taylor found intriguing.

“I have two grandkids that are asthmatic, and chlorine is, like, hugely bad for asthmatics,” she said. “It’s just bad for everybody. So, I thought, ‘Well, crud, this is just a giant aquarium filter. I could do this.’”

Upon its completion, Taylor said, the natural swimming pool “turned out looking like an arboretum in the back yard” and drew the attention of neighbors and friends.

“Then, people started hiring me,” she said. “So, I kind of got into natural swimming pools. One day, while I was researching online, when I went to type in ‘natural swimming pools,’ it pulled up natural homes, and it pulled up these cob homes.”

Taylor, who had a history with sculpting, instantly felt that she had discovered her calling.

“I was like, ‘Holy crud. This is it. This is my thing right here,’” she recalled.

Putting the natural pools on the back burner, Taylor set her sights on learning everything she needed to know in order to get started with constructing a cob house.

“There was nothing,” she said. “There was no place in the central United States to learn how to do it. The closest thing was in Oregon.”

Shortly after Taylor made the decision to sign up as a student at the Oregon school and start the process of doing so, she was met with an unforeseen setback.

“I got diagnosed with cancer,” she shared. “I went through two surgeries and two years of just battling cancer.”

Through her illness, however, Taylor’s desire to learn more about cob houses and one day build one of her own remained steadfast.

“The whole time I was down, I was reading and watching videos on it,” she said. “I finally was just like, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna sign up.’ So, I went to this 10-day workshop in Oregon. I wasn’t really that strong or anything; I was still kind of weak. But I was determined. Three days into it, I was like, ‘Yeah, I’m ready. I’m ready right now.’”

Upon returning to Texas from Oregon, Taylor “totally did a Joanna Gaines on the house that we were living in,” putting her background in construction and flipping houses to good use.

“When I got all of that ready, we sold the house for three times what we had in it,” she said. “We found this property, and we bought it. On May 10, 2018, I was breaking ground.”

Taylor held a workshop to allow others interested in building cob houses the opportunity for hands-on learning.

“I was like, ‘Man, this is so cool. This could help so many people,’” she said. “Think of all the people that are struggling. All of my years as a single parent – all that money for rent, just down the toilet. I could have done my own house with the kids helping me and never had a mortgage as a single mom.”

Taylor’s hunger to help others grew as she searched for property and came across large amounts of foreclosed homes belonging to disabled veterans.

“They’d be on a disability check, and they’d buy a piece of property,” she explained. “Then, they had to have a house. Most of the time, they went with a mobile home. Well, now, they’ve got two payments. They can’t make it. And they lose it all. Halfway through that first workshop, all of this was in my head. I was like, ‘Man, this is bigger than just building a house.’”

Taylor explained she harbors a soft spot for veterans due to her personal connections with them.

“My dad was in the Army,” she said. “Even my ex-husband was in the Air Force; my son was born on an Air Force base. My husband is a disabled veteran.”

According to Taylor, the workshops she holds on building cob houses have proven to be beneficial for veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

“It’s like therapy,” she said. “It’s giving them this sense of empowerment and self-worth and a purpose and pride again. It’s amazing to see the difference in someone when they come out here.”

Taylor currently operates a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization called NaturalbuildingOrg.

“My mentor – the lady that runs the school in Oregon – has several different charities,” Taylor explained. “She had the Naturalbuilding nonprofit there, and it hadn’t been messed with in a couple years. It was just too much; she had too many irons in the fire.”

Taylor was invited to take over the organization and move it to Texas, which she eagerly did.

“I did all the paperwork to change the address and all the stuff,” she said. “When I sent everything in, COVID happened. All the paperwork sat in the IRS office. The stuff I sent in was supposed to take 7-10 days. I got it back August 5.”

The process of changing the organization’s name, Taylor added, took five months due to the pandemic.

In addition to showing veterans how to build their own homes, which will eventually allow them to live mortgage-free, NaturalbuildingOrg also offers equine therapy.

“I’m the vice president of Safe Haven Horse Rescue in Gilmer,” Taylor said. “I’ve worked for ASPCA, and I’ve always been involved with animals. I love animals, and I love horses. We were doing so many rescues, and we had so many cases that would just make you cry. I was thinking, ‘You know, these poor horses have been through hell, and they probably have PTSD. What better purpose to give them than match them up with somebody else that really understands them?’”

Taylor then set about finding horses to adopt and utilize as therapy horses.

“We do equine therapy with veterans and disabled children,” she said. “I have autistic grandkids, and it’s amazing, the difference in them when they’re with the horses.”

NaturalbuildingOrg is home to eight horses.

“We have one that’s totally blind,” Taylor said. “He’s an absolute angel. We have one that has one eye. We have one that had third-degree burns on her whole back when we got her. She had skin cancer from where somebody gashed her with a knife on her butt, and it was gangrenous and had maggots. I’ve been doing chemo on her every two weeks for 13 months, and her cancer is almost totally healed. She’s an angel; you can pile toddlers on her, and she’s just an absolute sweetheart.”

Another member of the group is a former racehorse whose career ended when he broke his knee.

“He’s okay to ride gently, but he can’t race anymore, and he would have ended up in the kill pen,” Taylor explained. “Everybody’s got a story. We love every one of them.”

Currently in progress on Taylor’s property is the construction of cob cottages where workshop participants will be able to stay overnight.

“It’s just kind of gone beyond building the house now,” Taylor said. “Everything here is so beautiful, and I feel like it should be shared.”

While getting NaturalbuildingOrg up and running has been a challenge due to the ongoing pandemic, Taylor is determined to make it happen.

“This whole year, I’ve paid for all of this – all of the horse stuff and the nonprofit – out of my own pocket,” she said. “It about killed us. But I wasn’t gonna give up.”

A fundraiser for the organization has been set up on Facebook.

“We’re trying to get up funds so that we can do our handicap ramps, put facilities down here, and get a barn and an arena built,” Taylor explained. “Of course, we also need money for vet bills, feed, maintenance for the horses – stuff like that. It’s been frustrating, but exciting at the same time. It’s kind of a bittersweet thing.”

Taylor also hopes to be able to eventually travel with the horses and spread the word about NaturalbuildingOrg at various local festivals.

“I’d like to be able to get to where we could take the horses to events and and offer rides there and set up booths to raise money and sell T-shirts – you know, different stuff like that,” she said. “There’s a lot of veteran events that we could go to very easily and kind of mobilize a little bit. I’d love to do stuff like that. The more money we bring in, the more vets we can help building their homes.”

Thanks to sponsorships, Taylor explained, veterans are able to attend workshops at no cost to them.

“Then, once you’ve gone through one of our workshops, it’s a lifetime support system,” she said. “You can come back forever in any workshop at no cost. It’s forever learning. We want to be a support system for people to be able to do this.”

Taylor is aided in teaching the workshops by individuals who have completed workshops in the past.

“We call them our Natural Building Family,” she said. “They’re all volunteers now. So, they come and help each other build and come back as staff.”

For veterans who meet certain criteria, the Natural Building Family kicks things up a notch.

“If they are 80 percent or more disabled and have a piece of property that’s not in the city limits, we can do something to where we can take all of our people in a barn-raising style and go help them construct their home,” Taylor said.

Taylor’s hope is to one day be able to purchase all of the necessary materials to build homes for veterans who fall into this category.

“Then, we’d leave them with a mortgage-free home that they helped build,” she said. “But to do that, we’ve got to have funds set back.”

Further motivating Taylor throughout her home-building endeavor has been “the fact that I had had cancer and this fear of not getting to build my cob house before I died.

“It wasn’t that I was thinking negative,” she said. “It was just, like, this little fear that was driving me. And now, it’s like, ‘I won’t get to live in my cob house before I die.’ That’s what keeps me going. I’ve still got so much to go.”

Among the most positive aspects of building her own home, Taylor said, is the bond which is allowed to form between the homeowner and the home during the process.

“You can go and buy a home, and there’s no attachment between that home and you at all,” she pointed out. “You know nothing about what’s in the walls. It’s just a space that you make your own by bringing things into it. The things you bring into that home may be special to you, but really, the home itself has no meaning whatsoever.”

Building your own home, however, Taylor said, “is a legacy.

“I know where every single thing is in every wall,” she said. “I’ve touched every piece of this, and it means something to me.”

While the interior of Taylor’s future home currently consists of walls which are obviously created from cob, she said that won’t be the case once all is said and done.

“You’re not gonna see mud and dirt,” she revealed. “It’s gonna look like a really nice, conventional home. I’ll have milled oak floors, the walls will all be white, and it’ll be pretty.”

Building the home has proven to be a time-consuming process, largely due to the fact that Taylor is undertaking it on her own.

“There have been days I’ve had three or four people come and say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna hang out for two days and help you,’” she said. “Well, geez, I can get 10 times more done. Why can’t it be like this every day?”

In addition to helping her speed up the process of constructing her home, Taylor believes partaking in the building is a rewarding experience for those who do it.

“They come out here, and they have this kind of dull light in their eyes,” she explained. “They’re used to getting up, brushing their teeth, going to work, and just this day-to-day thing. By the third day out here, they’re, like, just shining and glowing. They’re like, ‘This is the best vacation I’ve ever had!’ And I’m looking at them like, ‘Vacation? You are working your butt off!’ But they’re so happy. They’re enjoying the heck out of it. They’re getting dirty, they’re learning things, they’re having a good time, and it’s just like getting back to what you’re really about and what life’s about. It’s amazing, the change in people when they come out here.”

At this point in the process, Taylor has spent a total of $6,646 in building the house.

“It’s 2,200 square feet,” she said. “i’ve run my electrical and plumbing. I still have to do my septic, which will be another $500 because I’m doing it myself. I already have my tankless hot water heater. I’m building all of my cabinets, and I’m milling all of my floors. I think the only other expenses will be just your basic sinks and toilets and things like that. So, that’s not bad.”

Cob, Taylor explained, is formed by combining clay, sand, straw, and water.

“When I say clay, that is the dirt that is clay-rich. It’s not gonna be your topsoil, but if you dig down – that’s your clay,” she said. “This ground I’m building on is so clay-rich and already has sand. It’s almost a perfect mixture. I barely have to add any sand. I just add straw and water.”

Each of the house’s walls, Taylor said, were constructed from dirt which she collected during the process of leveling the property in preparation for building the house.

“It’s extremely strong,” she said of the home. “There’s no structure inside these walls. It’s solid. It’ll stop a .55-caliber bullet. The walls are earthquake-proof up to a 10.1 before it starts showing stress cracks.”

Currently, there are cracks present in the walls, but they are not an indication that the structure is frail, Taylor said.

“I did a wet smear, and I actually did it clay-rich on purpose,” she explained. “I need the plaster to have something to grab when I put it on.”

Each wall holds full bales of straw in its center to serve as insulation, with the exception of the “carry points,” such as around the doors and windows. In these areas, the walls are solid cob.

While the house has its own water well, its power supply is on the grid.

“I was gonna go with solar, and I researched it,” Taylor said. “It was $30,000. Our electric bill is only $80 a month. Why would I do that? That’s, like, how many times more than what the house cost?” So, I went ahead and had the line run down here for $200. It was no big deal.”

At the time of the interview, the first portion of the house’s electricity had just been hooked up.

“I had some really awesome guys from Hot Springs, AR,” Taylor said. “One of them came through one of my workshops, and he brought his electrician buddies Tuesday, and they ran my electric. So, I’m live now. I still have to hook up more, but I’ve got half of it going.”

Getting the house ready to hook up to electricity, Taylor said, was the part of the construction process she found most nerve-wracking.

“I was so nervous, because I did all of my electrical,” she said. “I had this ‘Electric Code for Dummies’ book, and I was like, ‘Oh, My God, I hope I’m doing this right.’ I’m scared to death of electricity. I don’t have any intention of learning it. So, I was really grateful that they came down and did that. It was awesome.”

While the home will have no central air-conditioning and heating unit, heat will be provided by a rocket mass heater.

“That barrel gets 310 degrees,” she said. “All of that cob is like a thermal battery, and a little, tiny fire in there burns for two hours and radiates heat for eight hours. It’s pretty cool.”

When the insulation work is complete, the temperature inside the house will be 75 degrees year-round, regardless of the outdoor temperature.

“I’ve been through two summers working in here, and without even having it sealed up, I was freezing in here,” Taylor said. “It was 100 degrees outside. I had a fan going, and I’d have to turn it off. And that’s with doors wide open, windows open, and everything. It’s amazing.”

Part of Taylor’s building process was featured on the Discovery Channel show ‘Building off the Grid,’ and the experience presented hindrances of its own to the construction of the house.

“They were rushing me,” Taylor said of the film crew. “Instead of coming up on both sides – inside and outside – with the cob as I went, I could only do the outside, because they wouldn’t let me stop and run my electrical first, which I needed to do in order to cob in. So, I had to not cob the inside of the walls. So, that’s kind of why I’m where I’m at right now.”

Taylor was also made to complete projects she had not intended to do – such as construct a fake staircase – to appease the crew.

“They had their own agenda,” she said.

Taylor reiterated that through much of the building process, she was the lone consistent worker.

“The film crew would come two days a month to film,” she said. “On the days they filmed, everybody would show up for the cameras to help me. But all the other days of the month, it was me down here by myself. The producer lady would keep calling and saying, ‘Well, can you have this done? Can you do this? Can you do this?’ And I was like, ‘Lady, who do you think I am? I can only do so much.’”

In an effort to meet the deadline imposed by the crew, Taylor put in six months of 12-18 hour days, working on the house “every single day, seven days a week.

“I fired them two or three times and ran them off the property,” she said. “One time, the producer said, ‘Well, I’ll tell you what. I know you’re stressed out. Instead of you having to mill all the lumber to frame the upstairs, would it help if we just bought it for you from Home Depot?’ And I said, ‘You know, if you guys wanna buy lumber, that’s fine. But it’s not gonna make me go any faster. I’m only one person.’”

The crew purchased the 2x4s needed to complete the framing of the second floor, which Taylor estimated saved approximately two months of milling.

“It saved them time,” she said. “To me, it was here or there. If they wanted to waste their money on something that wouldn’t have cost me anything, that’s their problem. But it still had to be put up. So, did it go faster because of that? Yeah, but it still would have been really nice to be able to show off my finished house if they were gonna go through all the trouble to put me on TV.”

Instead, the episode ended with Taylor appearing to be, as she put it, “some gypsy moving into a house without plumbing.

“But that was the only way I could get them to leave,” she said. “So, it was like, ‘Okay, we’re gonna compromise here. I’ll agree that I’m moving down here in a glamping style, which I’m not.’”

Despite the obstacles, the experience of filming the show “was worth it,” Taylor said.

“It helped to drive me on the days I was tired,” she explained. “I was like, ‘Oh, I’ve gotta do it. I don’t have a choice; it’s gonna be for TV.’ They had progressive, time-lapse cameras set up on all the trees, so it would show if I wasn’t down here.”

Currently, Taylor has no concrete completion date for the house.

“I quit doing that, because I’d stress myself out,” she explained. “Stuff would take longer. My husband had a stroke in October, and they found an embolism in his head, but it was really small. So, we got through that. Now, they found a spot in his lung. He was in Agent Orange in Vietnam. So, every time I think, ‘Okay, I’ve got a good, solid couple of weeks I could put in,” something happens. So, I hate to estimate. Ideally, I would love to be able to move in here by next fall. I just don’t know.”

Taylor’s passion for her dream home was evident during the interview when she became emotional while recounting the experience of the first time a group of friends made the house truly feel like a home.

“We came from the Mother Earth Fair in Belton, and we all drove up here,” she said. “It was the coolest thing ever. We had a generator on, and we had tables all set up. Everybody was camping out, and we had sheets up, separating the rooms. It was like a dorm.”

Taylor explained that one gentleman in the group was an electrician and “ran this extension cord from my generator into the breaker box and wired on a few of the lights.

“That first day, they had went ahead and put the stove pipe in and wanted to go ahead and start a fire to get the cob drying, even though it wasn’t all up,” she continued. “It had just gotten dark, and I was gonna run up and bring down some dessert.”

On her journey back to the house from her temporary residence on top of the hill, Taylor said, she was overcome with emotion.

“I just stopped and cried,” she said. “There was smoke coming out of the stack and lights on in the windows and people having fun. It just got me, because it was like, ‘Oh, my God. All this work. There’s my home.’ People were enjoying it. It meant so much.”

In that moment, Taylor said, she knew the whole endeavor was worthwhile.

“That was the first time I really looked at this like, ‘Yeah, it’s gonna be a good home,’” she said. “It meant so much to see that; it was just, like, the best postcard ever. It just meant a lot.”

For more information or to make a donation, please visit www.naturalbuildingorg.com.

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