Monday, December 10, 2007

New views inside and outside

In some places we're using "adobes" - cob bricks. They can go quite high quite quickly and provide a strong thin wall in places where we don't want the thickness. Here is one near the front door.
There are more adobes here above the kitchen doorway, a doorway that had to be cobbed on one side but attached to the plumbing brickwork on the other side. Thick cob walls above would have been too much for the lintel.
Here's a view from the living room through one of the big north panels.
Another doorway upstairs and some scaffolding in process at the internal entrance to the guest bedroom.
As upstairs gets completed we can see where the east light will come in to our bedroom...
...and the 'brahmastan', a central still-point that's left empty from foundation to sky (a sky-light will be added later, and probably some hanging plants)
...there's another mountain that's only visible from the guest bedroom
and in this area are windows that will give a sea view and a view of the Hottentot Holland mountains in the distance respectively, here seen with built-in shelves that have been simply cobbed onto.

Complications and delays

This is the one wall that has really been held up. There were due to be a couple of big windows upstairs above the garage entrance, but the cable got in the way when the engineer added that to the design to keep the gum pole straight! So hiding the cable in cob is necessary, but the cob is too heavy for a regular wood lintel over the garage door. Gavin (our engineer) has now constructed a big girder to go in instead, and we have a curved arch left over to make it all look nice - but nothing goes here until the carpenters have put that girder in.
All the big north facing windows were designed and built before the real, organic shapes of the holes appeared - and they are different to the window sizes. So everything here gets a lot more complex, and requires some clever carpentry to make it all watertight. Next house we'll only build these up once the space has been created!
This internal cob wall has collapsed a couple of times along the way - because it dries MUCH more slowly than other walls, as it gets much less light and heat to dry it. We're well warned now for when we add the cob floor, at least. You can see that this wall also connects to the front door, with its wood panel above. Like the north windows this also had to be resized as it was built before the second storey was laid - and was too tall!

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Latest articles online

While we continue to juggle joinery and cobbing, there are some new articles available online about the house: online in South Africa at Urban Sprout or further afield at the Norwich Evening News in the UK!

Friday, September 28, 2007

Beautiful roof, and cobbing upstairs

The complicated curves of our wooden roof have finally been completed. Now we wait for the rain to stop so we can add an insulating layer of cob leichtlehm - "light-clay" onto the roof. The outside walls downstairs have had a first protective layer of plaster added (lime/cob mix - lime naturally hardens when rained on), burnished with feta lids to give the smooth finish. We're now having to throw cob balls up the stairs...

so we hope to be ready to move in soon - and that means the last few months to invest in our scheme before we open for business, see below!

AND the cobhouse was on TV recently, Free Spirit on SABC3 on September 16th. More details to follow. Remember: more public workshops coming up September 30th, October 28th, November 25th, 9am to 1pm in Muizenberg!

Wednesday, August 1, 2007

Work in progress

We're busy plastering and roofing - a little delayed by weather but with several good workshops recently. View here the latest article online from Property Scout and put in your diary our next workshop dates: Sundays August 26th, September 30th and October 28th, 9am to 1pm at the plot. Phone 021 788 6613 for more details.

For a little fun check out Salsa a la Cob - a video taken earlier this year at the plot!

Wednesday, July 4, 2007

Eco-friendly Investment and Sponsorship

To find out what this is all about have a look down the blog (and to our older posts) where you can see pics and also impressions of the final result. If you support us - please copy this info and send it on to other interested people, or organisations (particularly the second part!). And, of course, send us your money...!



Bureaucracy makes it tricky for us to get finance for such a cutting-edge eco-friendly building, but this means we’re opening an investment opportunity to raise our final R80 000 – a small amount in the property market, but what we need to really make our organic Bed and Breakfast house a success. R80 000: that’s just 80 people investing R1000 (£70) or 16 investing R5000 (£350) each! And, as you can see below, it is a safe and worthwhile property investment.

Your investment gets you 2 possibilities:

  1. Timeshare
    You (or anyone you nominate to enjoy it) can cash in any amount of your investment for organic B&B accommodation* , whenever you choose (subject to availability), and always at special highly discounted prices that will stay fixed until the end of 2009, and thereafter only increase annually strictly in line with inflation rates. A R1000 investment would get (in 2008) 2 nights in peak season for a family of 4 – or 5 nights for a couple off-peak! For big investments we are also willing to vacate the whole house for a negotiable period we are also willing to vacate the whole house for a negotiable period, again at a discount for investors.
    For 2008/9, standard B&B prices for investors:
    Off-peak (May-Sept) : R100 per person per night (R50 per child)
    [Typical Muizenberg prices: R200]
    Peak (Oct-Apr) : R150 per person per night (R75 per child)
    [Typical Muizenberg prices: R250]
    * Our unique fully organic B&B accommodation will be available for up to 4 people, in an area with a separate entrance and ensuite shower/toilet. You will experience organic food, in rooms made and furnished with organic materials, all in a beautiful holiday home, with toxic chemicals avoided wherever possible in the building process. Muizenberg’s famous beach amenities, vlei, public transport and shops are a short walk away, and the mountain towers impressively above our garden.
    We anticipate being open for business at the beginning of 2008, but if there are any delays in the final touches we will contact all investors with latest news at the beginning of the year.
  2. A financial return on the sale of the house
    Any amount of your investment which you have not used for “timeshare” will be returned to you at a proportional rate if the house is sold i.e. if the house costs R1m to build and sells for R1,5m, a R1000 investment would be returned as R1500.
    Although it is difficult to accurately value an unfinished house, we have obtained a provisional independent valuation from a Muizenberg estate agent. If the house is completed with the finishes we plan, it would be likely to sell soon for between R1,8m and R2,2m, a fair profit given an outlay of approximately R1m (including the price of the plot).

We would ask you to commit to investing for five years. If we have not yet decided to sell the house after that time you would then be entitled to ask for your money back (assuming you had not made use of the 'timeshare' option), although we would then not be able to guarantee a return at property market rates. We would still, however, encourage you to keep your timeshare investment with us after that time! You can make your investment to bank accounts in the RSA or the UK and once confirmed we will send you a certificate showing the rand value of your investment and confirming your entitlements. Contact us by e-mail ( or on 021 788 6613 for bank details.

We are also very open to donations and sponsorship from individuals or organisations. Here’s why we think our house is worthy!

  1. Our house is the first “cob house” in an open suburban city street in South Africa, and has been seen by thousands of people during the building process. It is being built in an energy efficient way using recycled, natural and non-toxic materials like sand, clay, straw, and wood. It features walls that naturally keep the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and a passive solar design. It will include a grey water recycling system and on-site renewable energy generators to help us in our aim to be off-grid.
  2. The building site provides a safe and empowering experience for all ages to be involved in. Our prominent, convenient location has made practical education about eco-friendly building technology available to many people for the first time. The owner-builders are both qualified teachers and have run workshops on site with hundreds of people already. Besides workshops for the general public, we have had many school groups (at both primary and high school level), university students, teachers and lecturers (including many architecture students), and even a group of bankers on site getting muddy!
    We have attracted interest from officials in the municipality and government departments keen to learn more about green building, and hope to hold workshops with these groups as the building progresses. Once the main house is complete we will still hold open days, and workshops to practically build outbuildings – and so will continue to establish our home as a site for sustainable building awareness and environmental education.
  3. Building this way involves more labour and time, but uses much cheaper materials than conventional building. We are thus investing our resources in empowering skills development and job creation. Our “cobbing” team is led by a black foreman – the first fully black team we know of in South Africa - and as they become more confident with their skills they will be more able to lead workshops and train up future “cobbers”.
  4. One reason why more homes of this type are not being built to solve the housing crisis and create jobs, in a sustainable way, is a negative perception among most South Africans towards “mud huts” as old-fashioned. Building a stylish, elegant house like this helps shift that perception so that eco-friendly buildings can truly be aspired to by our people.
  5. We are building on a brown field site rather than a green field site. This means the house is in an urban area, on the site of a previous building (apparently a beach cottage, “Bonnyrigg”, once built for Cecil Rhodes!) Most new expensive developments in the Cape are on prime agricultural or resource conservation land. It will become increasingly important to preserve our “green field” sites around Cape Town as global warming affects South Africa’s natural resources.
  6. We are generating much publicity – in newspapers, magazines, radio and TV and on the internet – which would also be beneficial to any sponsors wishing to promote their green credentials. (Our first small business sponsor has been very happy with the publicity so far!) All donors would be acknowledged by being listed on a small plaque on the property, but obviously for larger donations we can converse about the exact ‘reward’ a sponsor would get.

Contact us at or on 021 788 6613 to talk further and to obtain bank details in the UK or RSA.

Learning curves

Here is a view of one of our lintels - old railway sleepers, with a special groove routed to help keep rainwater off the window and wall. You can see below the white limwashed wood that is becoming embedded in the cob walls, to help distribute the weight of the joists.

The walls in the 'sun room' in the east are complete now although we're leaving plastering for later.

The biggest headache for us has been the roof. This has nothing to do with the cobbing and ecological aspect, but is to do with the elegant curved, 'organic' structure our architect favours. It looks beautiful on paper, but finding carpenters and builders prepared to work with the complicated angles involved has taken a year and a half! We finally have an expert on site and so the curved trusses are at long last going up. The delay has held us up a little as we can only build the second storey cob walls in rainy weather once the roof has at least basic covering on. Meanwhile we have been continuing with workshops including most recently Muizenberg High School, who are keen to come again! One good thing about all the rain has been to see how well the walls have coped, even before the final lime plaster that is the real protection.

You can see here the north face, which gets most rain, and most sun. A couple of the large windows that will make up most of the face can be seen awaiting installation inside the house. Not much cob here: this should cut down on re-plastering on our most exposed face, gives us passive solar energy, and gives the house a magnificent mountain view.

Friday, April 20, 2007

School visits and more workshop photos/ news

Grade threes from Michael Oak Waldorf School building their first mud wall! From left, Michael, Sunya, Caitlin, Connor, Azhar and Alexander.
Below: Stockpiling and throwing cobs: Jordan (bending), Jacques, Isabella (bending), Nawaal, Andisiwe (foreground), James, Aziz, Ben

Measuring sand for the tarpaulin mix:Sunya, Connor, Chelsea, Sisa, Caitlin, Alexander, Andisiwe
Below: All kinds of feet getting muddy!

A public workshop - showing all ages getting involved, from 3 to eighty-something... and you can even juggle with cobs, apparently!

Monday, March 12, 2007

Recent building pics

We have more pics coming - and there are some below. In the mean time you can check out Annie K's website 'All About Building' to see some more photos of the house at this stage - no action shots but you can see where we've got to!

Wednesday, March 7, 2007

A Mud Hut in the Suburbs

Reprinted from The Big Issue South Africa, March 2007 issue

Simric Yarrow writes about an unconventional building project in Muizenberg, Cape Town

About 10 years ago I first heard about earthen houses at a slide show presentation. The claim was made that, in the right location, an RDP housing grant could build you a double-storey 3-bedroomed house, with most materials (including second-hand windows) available for next to nothing – except for some ingenuity needed for the roof. Even better, the living walls were all natural and eco-friendly: made from clay, mud and straw, able to breathe so that they were cooler in summer and warmer in winter than conventional houses.

But the clincher, for me, was that communities could safely get involved in the building process – even children – with limited training and monitoring. In fact, ‘cob’ houses need a lot of labour, but in a country that has lots of labour, and lots of people needing decent low-cost housing, it seemed a godsend of an idea. Ten years later, the government may be progressing from shoddy breezeblock starter homes, but calling in ‘expert’ developers still misses a valuable opportunity to empower and build a community, not just a house. In some countries, rural communities will build an earth home as a present for newlyweds. Sisa Ngcuka, now part of our cob-building team, remembers watching curved rondavels being built as he grew up in the Eastern Cape. “They were made to last, built with great care,” he says. It helped him develop a real feel for building. “Now I’m a perfectionist, checking each day’s work is just right.”

So why aren’t these houses springing up everywhere? There are two reasons, and the first is pure bureaucracy. Despite acknowledgement from senior figures within the Housing Ministry over the years that techniques like adobe and cob are acceptable ways of building a house, there are no regulations for these ‘unconventional’ techniques. Consequently no housing subsidies are available for communities wishing to build out of earth, and no bank will give bonds for our cob house. New Zealand does have strict earth-building standards, and our engineer is making sure we comply with these – partly so that we can trail-blaze for future builders. In the mean time we have been lucky enough to raise most of our finances privately – and we have some necessarily novel plans for raising more!

The second reason lies in public perception of what makes a ‘real house’. It seems that there is, generally, little pride among South Africans in the heritage of African ‘mud huts’ like Sisa’s rondavels. West Africans may proudly think of their own great mud buildings, like Timbuktu’s Djingareyber mosque, but for urban South Africans of all colours a real, sturdy house must be made of fired bricks and mortar. How ironic, given that many of the oldest, most beautiful colonial buildings in the country are also made of ‘mud’ – such as many old Cape Dutch homesteads.

This is the perception we hope to help shift. There are quite a few methods of building with earth used presently in South Africa – such as straw bale, rammed earth, adobe, or our own cob mix. Almost all of them are being built outside the major cities, in beautiful rural locations. There have been a few houses built in greater Cape Town, but until now they have been on secluded plots in areas like Constantia and Hout Bay. By contrast, we’re building 200m from Muizenberg beach, on a suburban road with lots of inquisitive locals and tourists passing by: quite a first!

Making the cob mix is a real hands-on experience – and ‘feet-on’, as the cobbers get into a grape-crushing style tribal dance. Then we ‘knit’ the mix onto the wall, without moulding any bricks at all. The name comes from the west of England, where a ‘cob’ is a round loaf much like the muddy shapes we slap onto the wall. There you’ll find 16th-century cottages built like this and still lived in. The technique’s advantage for us is you can make elegant curves in your walls that bricks don’t allow. This is also what appeals to our architect, experienced cobber Etienne Bruwer. Etienne trained up Amos Mantshinga who now confidently organises our building team, Umanyano Cobbing. Members of the team also help us run public workshops, and now we have school parties booked too to experience the process. Kids get to learn about eco-friendly building as well as the immense satisfaction of contributing to something real, useful – and messily fun! We’ll be building through 2007, but even when the house is complete we plan to carry on offering building workshops on site. Not to mention celebratory pizzas for all budding builders from our cob oven!

Workshop updates and news

In the last couple of months we've had quite a few people on site coming to learn more and help build. In particular, Habitat for Humanity have been sending volunteers to learn more about alternative building in a hands-on way. This NGO usually builds in the townships, but this is an opportunity for them to expand their skills into eco-friendly methods. Habitat for Humanity were also responsible for co-ordinating a visit by volunteers from First National Bank in early March (nobody from home loans though yet!) The banks may be struggling to fund earth building, but the word is getting out there! We also had our first schools visit, with more lined up. Thanks to Janine for providing the photos from Habitat's first build, and you can check out more at her website:

Public workshops are currently once a month, on the last Sunday, from 9am to 1pm. The suggested cost for first-time cobbers is R50, and the workshop will take you through the basic processes (as seen in the photos below) and hopefully answer your questions. Next workshops: March 25th, April 29th, May 27th.

If you cannot make those times, or want to make a special arrangement for a school or other group, contact Carey or Simric on 021 788 6613.

Tuesday, March 6, 2007

January photos

Packing the walls

On a January workshop, all ages getting involved! You can see in the background Alistair bending down to fetch some newly rolled cob. This is being packed onto the walls in front, and knitted/ kneaded into place. the walls have also been moistened up again to help the new layer bind to the old.

Children's activities
Amos helps Jack and Zorya load sand into the wheelbarrow - and Zorya cools off in one of the buckets of muddy water, which add to the mix, moisten the walls, and clean feet and hands!

Leaving room for the windows

and the tongue-and-groove is now mostly on for the first floor, on top of the joists. Late Jan 2007

Stomping the mix

On a January workshop - onto the tarpaulin goes our mix of clay, sand, straw, water, and of course bare feet - which mixes the cob better than any concrete mixer yet devised!

Monday, March 5, 2007

December 2006 photos

Kids in the clay

My two kids have loved being at the building site, as you can see, and apart from a lot of hosing down being needed, it's a wonderfully safe yet real building experience for kids. We've had kids aged 3 to 14 so far and one school visit so far. The clay is imported at minimal expense from a municipal dig close by as Muizenberg's own soil is basically sand. The mix in the cob ends up being about 20% clay, the rest being sand, straw and water. Some people are lucky enough to have the right kind of mix already on their building site!

Getting our feet stuck in - building the walls at last. Bare feet is the best method for mixing the cob so that it hangs together well. Cement mixers have been tried elsewhere but are not ideal. You get to feel when you have got the right texture, and your feet get a good work-out/massage in the process!

Garden wall view

This was the first wall the team built, while perfecting the right cob mix from our materials. As you can see it has been plastered beautifully, and with some nice curves. The plaster is basically a mix of cob with some lime, to which you can add pigments. The conventional brickwork you can see is in the centre of the house, around the plumbing/ toilets, and taking some of the strain off the posts for when the roof goes on (which will be before the cob walls reach that height). The temporary steel fencing will of course be removed! You can just get a hint of the mountain view behind.

The joists are on!

Our first floor is wood, and is far from a straightforward geometric pattern. This part features a pentagonal shape! The giant poles are gums that were being chopped down as unwanted alien vegetation (too water-thirsty for our climate). They've been protected with an all-natural varnish; also plastic at the top, until the roof goes on, to keep the top from cracking. Below you can see Siza getting going with a tarpaulin mixing cob with his feet. This was the level of the cob walls in early December. The house walls have yet to be plastered, of course, and the drying process is slow.

Michael using our giant sieve

This is to sift the sand from our site until it's usable for the cob mix.

Thursday, March 1, 2007

Now it's down to the earth in Muizenberg

Article by Patrick Burnett as printed in Saturday Argus, Jan 20 2007, and reprinted in False Bay Echo, Jan 25 2007, and also Business Day February 2007. Text copyright West Cape News, no reprinting without permission.


A Muizenberg couple are taking eco-friendly building to the suburbs, constructing a house using gum poles and mud walls which they hope will blaze a trail for alternative, down-to-earth housing.
Not only is Simric and Carey Yarrow’s house being made almost entirely from eco-friendly building materials, but when finished it will harness the sun and wind for energy and recycle household water for use in the garden.
Although a small market, eco-friendly housing and even whole villages are not unknown in South Africa. But the Yarrows’ house is unusual in that it is being built in Muizenberg surrounded by brick and mortar homes and 200m from the beach.
Electricity and water shortages in Cape Town over the past year would seem to be a vote in favour of houses which minimise water and electricity consumption. But the Yarrows’ effort to build their dream house has been an uphill battle.
Lack of recognition for alternative building has prevented them from getting a bank housing loan – a problem that threatens to restrict the growth in the market for eco-friendly houses.
The project began last year and interest has been so great that the couple have put up a board outside the plot informing the public about the house.
They are also holding once-monthly workshops where anyone who is interested can squelch in the mud and learn about alternative building.
Part of what the Yarrows hope to do is raise awareness about the possibilities of eco-friendly building.
Speaking on-site this week, Carey, a sculptor, said she had always dreamed of building a home in the country that integrated with the environment.
“When we spotted this plot I thought why not do it in town? It won’t blend in with the environment but it will bring nature back into the city in a way that will alert people to the possibilities.”
Husband Simric said: “At the moment there is a general perception that people have to have brick houses, but it is possible to have a house that is built in other ways. I just think the reason people don’t go this route is through lack of awareness.”
The finished double-storey house will consist of a main section with two bedrooms, a lounge, kitchen and bathroom. A separate one-bedroomed bed-and-breakfast flat will complete the house.
All the woodwork is treated with environmentally-friendly products and thick poles sources from alien gums are being used to support the roof.
Only a small part of the house will contain a bricks and mortar structure, with the rest of the walls being constructed using an age-old technique known as cobbing.
This entails beach sand, clay, earth, water and straw being mixed together and stamped to a smooth consistency with the bare feet – with whoever can be roped in being invited to stamp about in the mud bath. Layer upon layer of the final mixture is then used to create thick mud walls.
Cobbing has been chosen because the materials are sourced locally, there is no excessive run-off into the water table and bricks and cement are avoided, both of which have negative environmental implications due to their manufacture, said Simric.
The thickness of the cobbed wall insulates the house so that it is cool in summer and warm in winter, using less energy for heating and cooling.
North-facing walls will optimise the earth credentials of the house, soaking up the sun for warmth.
A grey water system will recycle water from baths, basins and the washing machine.
The house will initially be on the electricity grid, but Simric said they hope ultimately to be off-grid and energy self-sufficient.
He said he believed that not using alternative technology missed a valuable opportunity to empower people to build homes and address the housing backlog. But bureaucracy was a major blockage to widespread adoption of the technology, he said.
Not only did the Yarrows have to get an architect to vouch for their house in order to get councile approval, but financing through a bank proved impossible. Simric said banks required approval from the National Home Builders’ Registration Council (NHBRC) before they could finance a house, but because the NHBRC had no guidelines for approval of alternative building, it was not possible to get a bond from a bank. As a result the Yarrows have raised funding privately.
Finding companies to do the work has been another difficulty.
Stephen Forder, who is doing a master’s degree in sustainable development at Stellenbosch University and who lives at the Lynedoch eco-village about 10km outside Stellenbosch, said: “I think this kind of building will become more mainstream as issues like global warming become more pressing.”
He said one of the biggest contributors to greenhouse gas emissions was the production of building materials. Forder said getting planning permission for alternative building projects was a huge problem and South Africa was a long way behind taking advantage of developments in clean building technology.
The reasons were that the climate was “very forgiving” and energy was also cheap, meaning there was no immediate impetus to use different technologies.
Ann-Marie Moore, architect-in-training at Eco Designs Architects, said people were beginning to understand that there was “a corner of the market that is asking for more sustainable, eco-friendly developments.”
“Now we have a lot of interest from larger developments and increasing requests for renovations to make homes more eco-friendly,” she said.
Gavin Lutge, the freelance structural engineer involved in the Muizenberg project, said people were more interested in building in a way that was not damaging to the environment. As regards NHBRC approval, Lutge said the NHBRC did not have regulations for the construction of eco-friendly houses. As a result, the Muizenberg house was being built based on New Zealand codes.
But Kgomotso Mahlobo, chief operating officer for the NHBRC, said her organisation was “very interested” in alternatives and how these could be supported.
She said the backlog in housing was because of the constraints of constructing houses with bricks and mortar. If there was an alternative using acceptable standards that were SABS approved and complied with the building regulations of South Africa then “I don’t see how we could not support it.”
When asked for comment, the Absa group – one of the largest home-loan providers – confirmed that it did not finance alternative buildings.
Absa said: “Absa does not as yet finance eco-friendly houses that are built using alternative materials.
However, we are consulting with the NHBRC regarding this issue and exploring ways and means on how we can best accommodate this emerging building trend in our home loans and housing financing products.”
Builders had also been invited to propose innovative financing solutions, it said.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Seeing the house sign

This will take you to the house sign, but you'll need to press 'back' to return here.

Wednesday, February 21, 2007