Just cobbled together

Louise Roseingrave gets her hands dirty as she finds out if cob houses really do offer the dream option of a cheap and efficient self-built home without a mortgage

THE devastation caused by the fallout of the Irish property boom left a sour taste in my mouth. I need a place to live, however, and so began a mission to explore alternative methods of building. Within weeks, on a sunny Saturday morning, I found my welly-clad legs squelching in the muck of the most primitive building site imaginable. No machinery, no scaffolding, no hard hats. Just a gang of strangers, leaping about on a mix of clay, sand and straw. Like a bunch of kids, but with a purpose.

We are six cob building novices on a natural building course at the Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability in West Cork.

Located outside Enniskeane, the centre is a 30-acre haven of planted woodlands, poly tunnels, organic gardens and a collection of ecological buildings. This scattering of odd little dwellings is the work of our course predecessors, an estimated 20 of whom have gone on to build their own cob homes.

Thomas and Ulrike Riedmuller, who run the Hollies, kindly opened up their two-storey cob-built home to serve a delicious organic lunch inside its curved hemp plastered walls. Maximising south facing light, the building lets heat in during the day, which is stored in the walls and floor to keep a regular, neutral temperature. The effect is subtle, yet profound. Entering the house feels almost like an embrace. The act of exiting, because the house itself is essentially earth, feels less jarring. It’s as if the house itself is a part of nature, living and breathing like its human inhabitants.

A fundamental aspect of any course at the Hollies is experiential learning. Thomas is an advocate of students gaining hands-on experience. He describes the cob building process as “peaceful, meditative and rhythmic”.

Incredibly, the process is so basic and easy, quiet and calming that it feels quite awesome. First, the right mix of clay and sand is required and mixed before straw is added, for strength. In this state, the walls are a messy pile of earth on a tarpaulin on the ground. The next step is creating building blocks roughly the size of sods of turf called cob loafs.

These are passed along the chain of builders to the structure, which sits on a regular foundation rising about two feet off the ground. The malleable cob loafs are pressed into the foundation to form the walls, often two foot thick, effectively allowing the builder to literally shape and sculpt their own home.

Ulrike keeps a close eye as we sculpt the walls of a children’s playhouse set upon a giant rock in the lush green gardens.

“The idea is not just to place each cob loaf on top of another but to press and mould it into the layer beneath,” she said.

It’s a slow process, but strangely captivating and the versatility of the end result is inspiring.

“Start small. Build a cob structure in your garden, like a cob oven, or a wall, something that will help you get a feel for the method but let you learn from your mistakes before you set about building something more substantial,” Ulrike advised.

The Reidmullers’ home features a composting toilet (they hope to set a national precedent for composting toilets in public spaces), solar panels and an ultra energy efficient wood burning stove. They have no refrigerator, having built a parlour space into the north-facing wall to store food at cool temperatures. Next to their home sits a cob structure with a living space and loft that houses volunteers working at their sustainable village, built for less than €1,000.

Architect and former Hollies student Feile Butler and her carpenter husband Colin Ritchie spent three years sculpting their 130 sq m cob house in Co Sligo, which they completed last year. Incredibly, 80% of the materials used were salvaged.

“That’s the thing with natural building, if you’re clever a lot of the materials can be either really cheap or free, but you need time to do it,” she said.

Feile and Colin built their house for €114,000, but because much of their insulation is straw bale and the walls were essentially free, they were able to invest in high quality materials to finish the fit out to the highest standards. They spent €45,000 on windows and heating, plus €5,000 on a rainwater collection system. Their home heating bill last year was €115.

“We didn’t pay for labour but we paid with time, and because a lot of the materials we used were free, for the materials we did have to buy, we were able to invest in really high spec stuff,” she said.

Their hard work paid off, the couple and their two children love their eco-home and they will reap the rewards of their initial investment for a lifetime. They set up mudandwood.com to teach others techniques in natural building.

“Our house is very tactile, people can’t help but run their hands over the walls. Visitors detect a kind of peace about the place, whether that’s to do with the sound insulation or the curves, I’m not sure but it does have a different quality to just a regular house.

“It’s sounds hippy dippy but it was so slowly and thoughtfully hand-built by us you can almost feel that,” she said.

Feile suspects there are thousands of examples of cob-built houses in existence in Ireland today. “Because of what we are doing, more and more people are coming forward and talking about cob buildings on their lands or outhouses. There are pockets of them around the country, especially in Wexford and in Leitrim. I suspect there are thousands, but there’s no awareness being drawn to them. I’d love if people got in touch because I’d love to establish a data base of our earth heritage. I think it’s important it’s protected.”

Planning is not a big issue, as permission is granted on aesthetics rather than building materials. If needs be, a cob house can look exactly like a concrete build.

Insurance can be tricky, but many Irish builders go directly to insurers based in Devon and Cornwall, where cob building is more common.

However, recent changes to U-value building regulations present a stumbling block. The measures relate to the conservation of fuel and energy in the home and the next cob house to be built in Ireland will become a test case for future builds, according to Feile.

“Because it’s essentially a big earth reservoir, cob absorbs moisture so moisture levels in a cob room are much lower than in a concrete room or even a timber frame room. That makes a cob room feel much more comfortable at lower temperatures. The new regulations form a very rigid frame and the way cob works is outside of that rigid frame.

“Cob is actually far more energy-efficient that any of the crude calculations we allow for,” she said. Negotiations with a building control officer will likely be required in order to surmount the U-values issue, but Feile is confident it’s surpassable.

Those enrolling in workshops are primarily interested in learning a natural building technique but the lure includes an option to begin a slow building process without a mortgage.

The Riedmullers’ advice for a mortgage-free home is to re-evaluate your living requirements, start small and build on as necessary.

After the mad excesses of a boom that left us bankrupt and betrothed to a dysfunctional banking system, it feels almost cathartic to examine the possibilities of the oldest building method in the world.


* The Hollies are running a nine-day course ‘The Natural House’ from August 4-12 priced €750. Visit www.thehollies.ie for more information and further courses

* Feile and Colin are running an eight-day ‘Mud and Wood’ course from July 7-14, cost €650.Visit www.mudandwood.com


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