Friday 21 July 2017

Mud, wood and straw - the comeback of traditional building materials

A revival in traditional building materials is taking Ireland back to its roots

Inside the straw house
Inside the straw house
Cob House
Thomas Riedmuller leads courses in cob-building techniques;
Hemp House
Straw house
Straw house construction
Wood: 'The Spinney' €219k
Architect Zeno Winkens, who specialises in building homes using straw and hemp
The Spinney is kept warm by a stove (above) and good insulation

Alison Gill

The Three Little Pigs weren't a great advertisement for natural building materials. The house of sticks and the house of straw didn't really stand a chance when the Big Bad Wolf came knocking.

Unknown to many, however, there's a thriving alternative home-building scene at work all over Ireland, creating homes of straw, hemp, logs and even mud (known as cob). Hundreds of Irish people, particularly in the southeast, live in mud houses without even being aware of the fact.

The truth is that despite the construction sector's resistance, many of these natural alternative materials are far more energy-efficient and eco-friendly than traditional block-built homes.

Luckily for many homeowners, materials like straw, cob and wood are not as lightweight as the children's story above will have you believe, with many alternative houses around the country standing up well against our own big bad wolf - the harsh Irish weather.

Thomas Riedmuller leads courses in cob-building techniques;
Thomas Riedmuller leads courses in cob-building techniques;

Wexford-based architect Zeno Winkens (winkens.ie), is an expert on passive housing (built to the German airtight and ultra-insulated standard) and has two of the country's few A1-rated homes under his belt. But he is also an expert in both straw bale and hemp construction. Interest is regular enough, with Winkens getting a couple of enquiries on passive or natural builds each month.

"Most people think building with straw will be cheaper and easier, but, in fact, it can be quite difficult. Rules and regulations about materials and trademarks, as well as finding a builder who can work with straw, can bring about problems," says Winkens. "It needs to be more of a lifestyle choice, where you're willing to stop working and build yourself. If you can do this, well then it's definitely going to be cheaper, but it's a big commitment."

Also, banks and building societies get nervous when it comes to natural materials, so a lot of houses using straw would be cash-only builds.

Two of Winkens's most successful projects involved the owners taking time off work and getting their hands dirty. One was a straw house in Wexford; the other was a hemp house in Longford which came first in the Green Residential Building category in the Green Awards in 2012. This property was a timber post and beam construction with "hempcrete" shuttered walls and lime plastering. Winkens believes it won the award because the owner went the extra mile and added a composting toilet, rainwater harvester and a heat recovery system.

Winkens believes that straw houses make such comfortable homes because of the very high insulation values. The only downside is that, because straw and hemp are breathable and organic, you really have to keep an eye on it and make sure there are no cracks, especially with the amount of rain we get in Ireland. Some owners get moisture sensors built into the wall just to be on the safe side.

In Enniskeane in Cork, Thomas and Ulrike Riedmuller welcome students into their self-built home made of mud, to teach courses on cob building. Before taking on the task of constructing their own two-storey house, the couple built things on a smaller scale, like a porch and playhouse. That is something they advise students to do, says Thomas: "Start small, maybe a little cottage with a bedroom."

Straw house construction
Straw house construction

The Riedmullers think we should look at how we live before building a house. "We look at building in a very holistic way. What do you do in and outside the house, and what would suit your lifestyle and needs and the natural environment around you? We try to go beyond just building a house and try to make something more sustainable," he adds.

So how long would it take to build your own? "Every build is very individual so we resist giving a timeframe on how long it's going to take to build.

"We took three years to build our two-storey house. We did it a lot with our own labour and had some volunteers around who were living with us and happy to help out.

"We were also running our own business and home, educating our own children, so it was a busy time, as you can imagine," he laughs.

Most cob houses are self-built. The Riedmullers say they are not contractors, but educators. "We say you can build a house for less than €1,000 if you're willing to put the work in," Thomas comments. "The way we 'sell' our courses is you can spend a little bit of money on learning a lot of useful skills that will be with you for life."

He believes building your own cob house is an effort and that you will need a lot of help from others. But if it's something you enjoy, and you get to spend time with family and friends in the process, you can build one with very little money and a lot of satisfaction.

The Spinney is kept warm by a stove (above) and good insulation
The Spinney is kept warm by a stove (above) and good insulation

If you have lots of money and you really don't enjoy the physical labour, then you can pay somebody else to do the work for you. There isn't an official cob contractor, but the Riedmullers can put you in contact with people who have built their own houses and helped others.

Cob as a building material is not an obstacle when it comes to planning in Ireland, as it is a historic material - many Irish cottages that are hundreds of years old were built using it and are still standing today. Thomas reckons there are people living in houses that were originally built with cob who aren't even aware of it.

Cob houses are very comfortable and breathable as long as you don't destroy them with cement. It's structurally very strong, even in the Irish coastal climate. "What you do need on the weather-beaten side is a lime render to stop erosion because the clay can get washed out in driving rain," Thomas advises. "Traditionally, one coat of lime paint lasts for a season, so you can do several in one go to last you a few years."

Thomas and Ulrike run many courses at their centre which is known as The Hollies (thehollies.ie), including an oven clay course, mindful gardening, and building natural playscapes.

The nine-day course, which is the most popular, includes siting, design, drainage, foundation, roofing, etc, as well as the experience of getting your hands dirty and building something yourself. They also have one-day courses for anyone who is unsure and wants to see if cob is for them.

If straw or cob makes you nervous, wooden houses are another environmentally friendly option. On the market at the moment is The Spinney in Ballina, Co Tipperary. It's a two-bed with a floor area of 757 sq ft. Its construction in 2000 took only a few days, as it came in sections from a company in Cork. It's made of stud walls with Scandinavian redwood shiplap on the outside. There's no concrete in the house at all.

Straw house
Straw house

Owners Paul and Susanne Sturton bought it in 2005 from a Buddhist couple, who actually bought a stream walk beside the property which leads to a tree where there's a meditation hut.

The Sturtons say the exterior is very hard-wearing so upkeep just involves coating it with an oil-based wood preserver every four to five years.

Related: Estimate your home improvement loan repayments with our calculator

It's heated by a solid-fuel stove, which warms the whole house thanks to decent insulation.

The house sits on an elevated site with Tountinna, the highest point of the Arra mountains, behind it. It's for sale through Green Valley Properties (061 921 498) for €219,000.

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