Many hands help couple build their dream

The cob house after completion.

When Judy Bekker and Valerie Morris wrote an invitation letter to family and friends asking if they would be interested in helping them build their eco-home retreat, the response was overwhelming.

The Fish Hoek couple had always dreamt of building an eco-friendly, inexpensive house, and, after seeing a slide show of cob houses at a film festival in America in the early 1990s, they decided to tackle their dream head-on.

Cobbing is the term used for building with sand, clay and straw without any bricks. Traditionally, cob houses are not built by builders but rather by a group of family and friends.

The idea is that each person who helps to build the house will embed something of themselves in the clay and the positive energy will strengthen and guard the structure.

The house is on Grootfontein Farm near Beaverlac in Porterville, two hours drive from Cape Town, and is known by the locals as “the house the women built”.

The Olivier family, of Beaverlac, allowed them to choose a piece of land which they would have lifelong use of.

They wanted to be away from water so that they could have complete silence and chose a spot beneath a massive rock formation.

No plans were drawn up for the house and planning started with a rough drawing on a piece of scrap paper, says Judy.

Building started in September 1998 with seven people and was completed in January 2001.

“We would go out there for seven to 10 days at a time, and different people would join us. “Everyone worked for at least four days as they had to learn how to work with the material before they could actually build,” says Judy.

The agreement with family and friends was that they would be given meals in return for their labour.

Judy estimates the overall cost of the house to be around R100 000, including the R40 000 it cost to feed the hard-working cobbers.

It took them, over a period of three years, seven months to build the house with the help of 229 people.

They lived in tents and nearby cottages during the building and slept on patches of grass to manage their energy levels.

“I now know why labourers sleep on the side of the road,” Judy says.

They had done a lot of research and reading and found a marvellous book, A Cobbers Handbook, by Becky Bee and visited her during a trip to America.

“The book was our textbook and a constant companion,” says Judy.

The couple also consulted with Herta Stuurman, who had built a cob house in the Stanford area, and she spent two weeks on site teaching them the basics when they began building the house.

Cobbing is inexpensive, but it is very labour intensive. Raw clay, sand and straw are spread out on a tarpaulin and a bucket of water is added. Then, instead of some elbow grease, footwork is needed to mix it up, with the edges of the tarpaulin being pulled towards each other moving the mixture back and forth and it is continuously stomped down until the mixture becomes a soft pliable consistency.

“As you go along you get to know how the mixture should feel,” says Judy.

She explains that you build with the sand while the clay is the cement binding the straw which offers strength.

She says you have to wear rubber gloves all the time and the walls are built by packing the clay with a kneading motion.

The exterior walls of the cob house are 45cm thick, and no machinery was involved in the building. They extracted the clay from the mountain with a pick axe.

The ceiling is made of scrap wood from old crates and blue-gum poles, which Judy and Valerie chopped down themselves as the chainsaw they had taken, mysteriously wouldn’t work.

Judy says they discovered that once a blue-gum tree is chopped down you have to tap the bark from top to bottom to ensure the bark comes off. If you don’t do this it is almost impossible to remove the bark.

Judy confesses that there were days when they thought that the task was too much and that they would never finish.

“Especially when the roof leaked like a sieve,” she says.

This was fixed by sealing the external walls and roof with a waterproof mixture of beeswax and linseed oil.

The image they had of the completed house was a one-room house, but as the building went along the house grew and grew.

It ended up having two bedrooms, a living room, a kitchen and a bathroom and has solar electricity and hot water.

“As the building progressed, the house just got bigger and bigger with an upstairs bedroom, of which all the windows can open,” she says.

The shiny windows are mostly old car windscreens Valerie bought for R10 each at a scrap yard.

Thebedroomoffersan unlimited view of the mountains and fynbos and there is an outdoor shower.

Many of the fittings, such as the front door, rope for skirtings, light fittings and a statue of the goddess Amarava, mother of Africa, at the entrance to the house, were gifted to the couple by friends.

In addition, they are joined by creatures of the land such as snakes, spiders, birds and scorpions on their visits there.

“We have permission to come here for as long as we can and when our time is up, the house will become part of the land again,” says Judy.