Mud, glorious mud: Homes made of earth

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Warm in winter and cool in summer, earth is the perfect material for green construction. No wonder it's making a comeback, says Graham Norwood

Winnie Brimacombe-Nelissen may have a home dating back to 1598 but it is made from a building material that is enjoying a distinctly 21st-century revival: mud. Her six-bedroom farmhouse near Crediton in Devon is built from cob, a mud-based mix first used for construction in north Africa in the 11th century. Some 300 years later it had become the standard building material in the UK and remained so until industrialisation made manufacturing bricks cheap.

Those cob houses that remain today are mainly found in the Vale of Glamorgan and the Gower Peninsula, across Ireland and in south-west England. Winnie's home is a Devon longhouse. "The walls are thick, made of mud, dung and straw, and have the odd crack, which you would expect, given their age," she says. "They are extremely efficient. Because the property is listed, we can't fit double glazing but we have an evening fire and the walls retain heat. In the summer, even on very hot days, we can keep doors shut because the walls are cool."

Hundreds of years ago, when cob was first "discovered" as a building material, the mud and straw was trampled by oxen before being pitchforked into place and then trimmed after drying for up to nine months.

Today's builders use cement mixers, but otherwise apply the material in much the same way – and they insist it is the perfect material for green construction.

"There's nothing more sustainable than cob. It's natural, it hasn't been processed and it's produced on-site," says Adam Weissman, one half of the team behind Cob in Cornwall, a Helston-based building firm. He and his wife, Katy Bryce, have built cob homes and extensions, but more than half of his work is repairing and maintaining period houses in the South-west.

"Most are between 200 and 400 years old so that's highly sustainable in itself," says Adam. "If there are problems, they tend to date from the Sixties and Seventies, when owners put cement render on walls. Some haven't looked after roofs and that has allowed water to seep in."

The couple work with Cornish schools to explain the secrets of cob and also run three courses a year to teach people how to use it. He says: "Attendees are from 16 to 70. Most want to know how to look after their own cob home."

Britain's first brand-new cob home for three quarters of a century was built in Devon in 1997 by Kevin McCabe. In 2005 another cob new-build, this time in Worcestershire, won the Royal Institute of British Architects' sustainable building of the year award. At least six more cob homes are being built in different locations across the UK.

The material's chief drawback is its propensity to dampness. Most old cob houses, and all new ones, carry coats of flexible "breathing" lime plaster. But in the past, some owners have used a cement render that was inflexible and cracked as the walls "moved" slightly. As a result, water penetrated the surface.

"It's been a problem. People want an old home and get a survey of somewhere we find for them. But they then worry when they're told it's got cob walls, especially when they're told exactly what cob is," explains Nicola Oddy of Stacks, a property buying agency.

Now, however, a synthetic substitute for mud is being tested. It is called Tradical Hemcrete and is a "light" concrete made from hemp plants. It is only 50 per cent of the cost of cob, it takes a fraction of the time to make and is claimed to be even more thermally efficient. It is thought that this material might attract volume builders to use it in some mainstream housing schemes – until now they have spurned cob, mainly on cost and image grounds.

But for owners of period cob properties, there is nothing to beat the original material. The same goes for the visitors who have been learning about the cob at Winnie Brimacombe-Nelissen's home in Devon, which she uses as a bed and breakfast (details on www. warrensfarm.co.uk). "When I tell them what cob is, some visitors are a little alarmed, especially when we explain that cob walls still move a as the mud 'breathes'.

"But the walls are thick enough to use as seats and that intrigues many people who stay with us," says Winnie. "We like our mud, and we wouldn't change it for the world."

Discover more property articles at Homes and Property
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Ray Whelan was arrested earlier this week
Arts and Entertainment
In a minor key: Keira Knightley in the lightweight 'Begin Again'
film
Arts and Entertainment
Celebrated children’s author Allan Ahlberg, best known for Each Peach Pear Plum
books
News
peopleIndian actress known as the 'Grand Old Lady of Bollywood' was 102
News
Wayne’s estate faces a claim for alleged copyright breaches
peopleJohn Wayne's heirs duke it out with university over use of the late film star's nickname
Property search
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Business Systems Analyst (Retail)

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum Up to 20% bonus: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: An...

Campaign Manager/Email Marketing/Direct Marketing

£160 - £180 per day + competitive: Progressive Recruitment: CAMPAIGN MANAGER -...

Business Studies Teacher

£21084 - £31868 per annum: Randstad Education Chelmsford: We are looking for a...

Technical BA - Banking - Bristol - £400pd

£400 per hour: Orgtel: Technical Business Analyst - Banking - Bristol - £400pd...

Day In a Page

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

A writer spends a night on the streets

Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

UK's railways are entering a new golden age

New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

Why did we stop eating whelks?

Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
10 best women's sunglasses

In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

The German people demand an end to the fighting
New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
Can scientists save the world's sea life from

Can scientists save our sea life?

By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

Richard III review

Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice