Will Anderson: The Green House

Mud has been used for thousands of years to build everything from dwellings to temples
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THERE IS NOTHING quite as elemental as mud, the rich damp earth oozing in our hands. It is the beginning and end of life, the base material from which we are all fashioned. As our modern world has increasingly pushed mud to the margins, out of our houses and off our polished shoes, so immersion in mud has become an image of freedom from constraint, epitomised by the Woodstock mud-fest where 1960s counter-culture reached its zenith.

Given these sensual and symbolic qualities, it is no surprise that mud has an enthusiastic following among eco-builders. People who want to protect the environment often have a broader interest in the forms and flows of the natural world, and building with mud offers very direct contact with these. There is also a long history to engage with as mud has been used for thousands of years to build everything from simple dwellings to grand temples - the mud-brick mosque in Djenne, Mali, is a famous and fabulous example.

I recently met two of Britain's most enthusiastic mud-builders, Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce, whose new book on building with mud has just been published. They are perfect ambassadors for mud: their tans suggest long hours digging up the stuff and their smiles reflect an enduring delight in building with it. Their book stresses the creative, sculptural qualities of mud and the richness of the finished product. A wall built with mud expresses every moment of the labour that went into it.

In practice you need a bit more than mud to build a durable wall. Adam and Katy are experts in building with cob, the traditional method of earth-building in Britain also known as clob, clom, clay dabbins and clay lump ( www.cobincornwall.com). Cob is a mixture of clay, fresh straw and sand or aggregate, watered down to make a sticky paste, stomped on, then fashioned into bricks (or rather, as Adam and Katy put it, "burritos"). There are variations to this method involving mechanical diggers and mixers but nothing beats jumping up and down in the mud.

Building a cob wall is far from straightforward. The flexibility of the material may have great creative potential but rookies are likely to suffer from shouldering (the width of the wall diminishing as it rises), mushrooming (the width increasing) and splooging (bulging and slumping because the wall has been built too fast). Constructing a house out of cob also requires specialist attention to all other building details including foundations, roofs, finishes and insulation.

You may not feel up to building a house out of mud but consider cob if you are building garden walls, benches or other simple exterior structures. The eco-joy of cob, other than getting your hands dirty, is its immediate provenance - it literally comes from beneath your feet. Adam and Katy's ambition is to build a house using only the materials they find on site. Turf can be removed and stored to become a roof; topsoil can be used to create flower and vegetable beds; and the subsoil used for the cob walls. Surrounding trees can be pruned to let light through and the prunings used to make the roof structure.

Adam and Katy's vision is truly holistic: when their ideal home comes to the end of its life, the entire structure can return to the earth without any ill effects. In a world where resources are shipped across the planet from virgin natural environments to toxic landfills, this ultra-local dream is an inspiration. If this is what rolling in the mud does for you, let's make it compulsory.

To order your copy of Building with Cob at the special price of £22.50 including p&p, phone 0845 458 9910 quoting "The Independent Reader Offer".



Mud is colourful stuff, so why not use natural earth and mineral pigments to colour your paints. La Tienda pigments start at £8.50 from The Green Shop ( www.greenshop.co.uk, 01452 770629).


To appreciate the creative potential of earth building, check out the photo gallery at www.earthedworld.co.uk.