i’ll huff and i’ll puff – the rise of the cob house

Submitted by sproutingforth on Mon, 2007-08-27 09:42

When Simric Yarrow began to build a cob house in the middle of Muizenberg, he had little idea of how complicated it would be to erect an alternative, environmentally-friendly, reasonably priced house in the middle of a suburban area in Cape Town - the first of its kind in the country (that’s the claim, anyway - there are others on small holdings and in rural areas.)

Building a cob house involves mixing straw, sand, clay and water and stomping it with your feet to get the right mixture. This is then shaped into a long roll and little ‘cobs’ (round loaf shaped bricks) are cut and applied by kneading them into the walls – giving the walls a life of their own and allowing the house to breathe in such a way that the house remains cool in summer and warm in winter – fantastic for a climate like ours that gets very hot in summer and cold enough in winter to warrant heating.

A sizeable cob house, if you know what you’re doing, can be built for next to nothing using earth from your site, salvaged windows and doors and a little imagination for your roof - particularly in this case, as the city council was quite sticky about regulations... not least because the house is in a National Heritage area on the site of a beach cottage built for Cecil Rhodes, apparently.

South Africa lacks any formally recognised alternative architecture guidelines. How can this be, I hear you gasp, in a country where alternative architecture makes so much sense? Yet, despite acknowledgement from senior members of the housing ministry that techniques like adobe and cob are acceptable ways of building a house, there are no regulations for these ‘unconventional’ techniques.

The result: no housing subsidies are available if you want to build out of earth, and no bank will grant you a bond! A ‘proper house’ is one made from fired bricks and mortar – never mind that cob houses have been built in the rainy west of England for nigh on 400 years!

A major reason why this style of home making is not being used to solve the housing crisis in South Africa and create jobs is the negative and misinformed view of these homes as ‘mud huts’; the perception that these are ‘old fashioned’ and a return to the past, rather than a sustainable solution.

The building of a cob house is labour intensive. It needs a lot of hands on deck, however, it is also very easily learned and anyone can get involved, including children. Because the cob house in Muizenberg is so centrally located, it has served as practical education about eco-friendly building techniques and has become available to many people, first-hand, for the first time.

In many ways, Simric’s innovative attempts to raise money to build the house, with workshops and timeshare in their organic B&B to-be, has attracted enough attention from school groups, architecture students, officials from government and even a group of bankers, to move ‘alternative’ architecture to the forefront of people’s frame of reference – it’s come to suburbia.

And as people come to realise that life on a golf estate or in a stylish concrete penthouse is bad for the environment - not only are buildings responsible for the largest amount of CO2 emissions in both developed and developing countries worldwide, both in the building process and maintaining the comforts of our buildings thereafter, but the production of cement is one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas.

As society changes its social and political values to those that are more environmentally aware (and this is happening rapidly), so people like Simric Yarrow will increase, and cob and strawbale will move into position as the ‘got to have’ of the green era – because like it or not, it has arrived!

Where to find out more about alternative buildings:

Join Simric and Carey in one of the monthly cob workshops in Muizenberg and read more about their cobhouse.

Leila’s permaculture estate , in George, offers courses on how to build earthen homes, which will not only equip you with the skills to build your own, and you get a comprehensive building manual with it. You leave equipped to start building your own home.

The 5-day course covers cob, adobe and wattle and daub and instructs on foundations, selecting soil, cob mixing, installing windows and doors, and you get hands-on experience

The McGregor Alternative Technology Centre also offers sustainable building courses, that aim to teach one to use building materials ‘outside your back door’ and as little factory-produced material as possible, unless its recycled.

Open Synergy in Johannesburg, run by Florian Kroll, offers earth building workshops – their aim: to design and facilitate sustainable cycles of growth.

For further contacts for sustainable building see our ubergreen directory

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