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Cob bus stop could give Talent a ‘hobbit’ look

Talent City Council gave approval for a local man to build a bus stop out of natural materials

A “hobbit”-like structure inspired by J.R.R. Tolkien’s “The Lord of the Rings” may be coming to downtown Talent in the form a bus stop shelter made of dirt and straw.

City councilors have given the go-ahead for the city to explore with Rogue Valley Transportation District creation of the structure proposed by resident Chris Auer, who has experience with cob construction, which uses natural materials.

“I’m a big Tolkien fan, and I love hobbit dwellings. I just thought it would be really fun to do something like that,” said Auer. “There’s a lot of collaborative art projects happening in our city. It would bring a nice touch of something different to the community.”

The structure would be open in front, with a roof and sides and perhaps a cob bench for seating. Auer envisions having a green roof made of growing plant matter. Currently bus stops may be open Plexiglas sheds with roof and sides or just a post with a metal seat attached. Auer said the stops offer little relief during winter storms or summer heat.

Cob is composed of subsoil, water and fibrous organic material, such a straw, that are mixed together. If a soil doesn’t yield the right mixture for construction, sand or clay may be added. Wood is used to create supporting framework for the cob. The material is fireproof, and rules governing it were included in the International Residential Code in 2019.

Some of humankind’s earliest dwellings still standing in Afghanistan include cob. The English origin of the name is unclear, but it may mean to beat or strike, which is how cob materials are applied to walls.

Auer participated in a cob workshop with Conrad Rogue a few years ago, and the two became friends. Auer subsequently helped teach in several workshops. He also built a round, enclosed, approximately 150-square-foot cob hobbit studio in his backyard.

Talent Elementary School’s Outdoor Discovery Program students in grades 3-5 will help with the construction as a learning project. School students probably will be present for at least the first day, but Auer anticipates parents also will help. Several days will be needed to finish the structure. Tentatively, building would start in September and be finished by October.

RVTD had been included in project discussions but wanted to know the city was interested before going further. Councilors unanimously approved involvement May 4.

City Manager Jordan Rooklyn contacted Paige West, RVTD planning and strategic programs manager, who had been involved previously. The district sent specifications to the city, which will be shared with Auer, who will need to create a design. Both the city and RVTD will need to approve the design, Rooklyn said.

There could be a two-level roof with green plants on the lower level. Ideally a cob building would have long eaves to help protect sides from the elements, said Auer. Lime plaster is sometimes applied to the outside of cob to provide protection. Auer would like to incorporate weathered wood and some type of seating arrangement.

Auer isn’t asking for any money to support the project at this point and hopes to secure donations, but he said he may come back to the City Council with a request later. A cost sheet showed expenses of $3,600 for materials and services, with $2,000 for wood the biggest cost.

Talent’s Public Arts Committee endorsed the project.

“It’s a pretty unique project. It’s about sustainability and building in a different way,” said Aubrey Laughlin, a member of the arts committee. “It’s very hands on. (Auer) has the knowhow to do this, and others on his team are experts. It would really involve the community in doing things.”

Auer initially approached the committee about the project in fall 2019. But the pandemic and restrictions on schools doing field trips precluded further development until now.

“It’s really fun. It is really beautiful and very organic-looking. All the curves are soft. There are no hard angles,” said Councilor Jason Clark, recalling a cob project he worked on 28 years ago. “You really do have to use your hands with that stuff and dig your fingers into the mix.”

“We will start with the first one and see how it goes,” said Auer, a former city councilor. “I’d like to see many cob stops in Talent if they are feasible. It’s a pretty simple project. It’s not like there’s a lot to it.”

Reach Ashland freelance writer Tony Boom at tboomwriter@gmail.com.