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What is a cob cottage?

Updated on July 3, 2012

Historical ... or hysterical?

My previous home, the one before my present and much loved Michaelmas Cottage, was a glorified mud hut in Devon (in the UK) and although I loved it so did the local council.

In fact they loved it so much that they had designated it as Grade 2 listed.

Such protected status as an historic building meant that I had to ask their permission (even though it was my home) if I wanted to make any changes to it, especially to its external looks.

I even had to get the Conservation Officer's approval for my choice of paint colour for the outside walls and woodwork.

To many people this would be seen as an infringement of their civil liberties but people who buy buildings that they know to be listed tend to have a different mindset. For a start we are usually card carrying romantics, we love history and we aren't too fussed about wallpaper.

This last thing is very important as many of these properties have very few straight walls on which to hang wallpaper, Georgian and Palladian mansions excepted.

In my cottage for instance there was not a single straight wall of any sort and that was solely down to the fact that it was made of cob.

Cob ... another name for adobe et al.

Cob is a wonderfully plastic (in the original sense of the word) substance made from clay, earth, straw and water mixed together by trampling underfoot. Sometimes even animal dung and horse hair was added to the mix to make is strong and flexible.The resulting substance makes for thick and thermally efficient walls.

Cob, adobe, clomm in Welsh, whatever you choose to call it, is a material that has been used for building dwellings since man first gave up nomadic hunter/gathering and started to stay put and raise crops and domestic animals.

The indestructibility of cob.

It was said that as long as cob walls had a hat and a pair of boots they would last forever, meaning that as long as they had a roof with a wide overhang and were standing on a firm foundation, usually of stone, they were almost indestructible.

This would seem to be borne out by the fact that whilst my own cottage was a mere youngster at around 250 years old there are inhabited cob dwellings in Brittany that are over 500 years old.

The ancient city of Timbuktu in Mali, Africa, now an UNESCO World Heritage Site, is made entirely of baked mud. The Malians call this version of cob, banco and they celebrate this unlikely material with a important ritual annual rendering of the walls of the Djingareyber Mosque, their oldest monument and one of their most sacred places.

The Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, Africa.
The Djingareyber Mosque in Timbuktu, Mali, Africa. | Source
A classic cob cottage in Devon.
A classic cob cottage in Devon. | Source
Not a straight wall in the place.
Not a straight wall in the place. | Source
Thick walls make for deep window reveals.
Thick walls make for deep window reveals. | Source
The curve of the chimney breast in a bedroom.
The curve of the chimney breast in a bedroom. | Source

Building with cob is a slow process.

Building with cob might seem like a good excuse for an adult to tune in to their inner child and play at making mud pies. This is fine as long as you are in no hurry for a home.

The major drawback to building with cob is that it is a slow and time consuming process in an age when most modern houses are usually mass produced or can even come in swiftly erected kit form from a factory.

A shallow section of cob wall has to be allowed to dry thoroughly once it has been constructed and this can take as long as a fortnight depending on external conditions.

This dried section is then shaped and the next section built upon it, and in the interests of strength and solidity the walls are narrower at the top than the bottom.

The advantages of building with cob.

Despite this slow progress there are many advantages to building in cob which would appear to make it a very viable alternative to other methods of housebuilding even today.

The most obvious advantage to a cob house is the cheapness of the building material.

Cob is a seemingly very modern building material with its inbuilt qualities of energy efficiency, which make the building warm in winter and cool in summer, fireproofing and even earthquake resistance, should you live in an area where this could be a problem.

Even the building skills are still known despite the fact that, with the exception of a few self-builders who have recently been experimenting with it, such skills have not been widely utilised in Britain since the 1920’s.

Fortunately there are those amongst us who are both intrepid and interested enough in this ancient technique to produce sustainable and ecological homes, not just of great originality but also of remarkable character.

The beauty of organic shapes.

For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of this new interest in cob buildings is the artistic quality of the houses that are now being produced.

Cob, being a natural substance, is infinitely mouldable and the shapes of these new dwellings are much more organic in form, less utilitarian and formulaic.

Rounded edges and curves have always been part of the beauty of cob buildings and the new properties that are now being built, almost without design, have a softness and smoothly sculpted look that makes them not only practical but beautiful to look at as well.


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