The Joy of Mud Houses

With a good roof and a good foundation, a mud house can last for many centuries. But if it is no longer needed, it can be allowed to “return to the earth,” leaving little or no trace. Because clay is ubiquitous, mud houses are made with local materials, usually from the actual site itself, and often, though not always, by the inhabitants. Half the world’s population lives or works in mud buildings.

First Earth: Uncompromising Ecological Architecture, a DVD by David Sheen celebrates and extols the virtues of mud building. Sheen looks particularly at the astonishing ten-story skyscrapers in Yemen, the lovely antique cob houses of the UK, and the cob movement in the northwestern US. This is not a how-to video; it is an attempt to convince the fifty percent of the population that does not live or work in mud buildings to do so.

I live in a small wooden cape but do not need any convincing regarding the beauty or desirability of building with clay. I dream of one day making a little cob structure myself, mixing some of the red clay from the hill we live on with some of my trimming scraps, some manure from my daughter-in-law’s horses, and of course some nice clean chopped straw. It’s building a good stone foundation that gives me pause and that is probably beyond my skills. However, watching Sheen’s DVD and seeing all the inviting dwellings made me start planning again.

I wish he hadn’t opened the video with the sculpted mud houses in the US because they give an “old hippie” feel to the project. Not that I haven’t been accused of being an old hippie myself, and not that these houses aren’t aesthetically pleasing, but in truth, building with the earth is a very conservative, widespread and ancient method of construction, and that’s what skeptics and building inspectors need to understand first in order to be convinced. There is nothing la la about it.

Sheen is emphatic about the environmental benefits. Mud buildings are easier to warm in winter than other buildings, and they are cooler in summer. The materials do not require fossil fuels to transport or process. They are light on the earth.

He also points out that living in a mud house has nothing to do with one’s socioeconomic status. Yes, there are many impoverished people who live in simple one or two room affairs, but there are also high-end mud mansions. The segment on the UK features some lovely old cob houses and barns and the strictly governed restoration work that is being done to preserve them for another few centuries. There are, Sheen points out, over 40,000 cob houses in Devon alone. He shows us cozy rooms with red or blue walls, built in bookcases, pretty lamps and overstuffed sofas.

Because mud walls are thick and easily sculpted they lend themselves to the creation of niches, window seats, and built-ins. This is true in the mud houses of India and Pakistan (oddly not mentioned in the DVD), the thatched cottages in England, and the adobes of the American Southwest. Windowsills and doorjambs are invitingly wide. These houses are quiet.

First Earth includes the video plus interviews, slide shows, and printable high-res photographs. A nice package. In addition to this DVD, there are some excellent books on the topic, both instructional and appreciative, which I will reread and likely discuss in a future post before mixing up any batches of cob myself. Meanwhile, if you would like a bibliography, drop me an email.

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