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!