A Grand Design house that's built of mud
Hayley Betteridge talks to a renowned Westcountry cob expert about the TV star houses he builds from earth and straw.
There was a time when cob – a mix of straw, soil and water – was one of the most common building materials in the Westcountry. But these days, very few people have the knowledge and the skills to build with this most ancient of techniques.
Indeed, when Kevin McCabe built his first cob house, back in 1994, it was the Uk's first to be constructed in this traditional way – using earth, sand, straw and water – for 70 years.
Since then, Kevin has built six cob houses, all of which have won awards. His latest cob house is almost finished and appeared on TV screens at 9pm on Wednesday October 23, as part of the well-known Channel 4 TV series Grand Designs.
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"They filmed with us for four years, from the beginning when we were trying to get planning permission for the house, right through all the construction," says Kevin, who these days is renowned as a cob expert both for new homes and repairs to historic buildings.
"The presenter Kevin McCloud was very knowledgeable and fun to work with."
Kevin's latest house appeared on Grand Designs and is more of a cob castle than a cob house. It has 10,000 square feet of inside space and will meet the highest environmental performance targets ever set.
The new house is formed of two vast curved cob roundhouses, connected by glazing and topped with wild-flower meadow roofs. In all, it contains 2,000 tonnes of cob.
But while Kevin and his wife Rose's new house, still unfinished, will be their forever home, their current house – pictured here – is for sale.
On a slightly more modest scale, this property is called Keppel Gate and was also built of cob back in 2001.
This beautiful and unique property is perched in fields on the scenic edge of Ottery St Mary in East Devon. Indeed, this house, too, has starred on television in its own right, featured in a show called (with tongue firmly in cheek): "I live in Britain's best home". Keppel Gate has been the family home for Rose, Kevin and their children Heather, Dale and Ben since Kevin built it.
"Keppel Gate is a wonderful place to live. It's been a fantastic family home for us and is only for sale so that we can move into our new house, which is such an exciting project," explains Rose.
Cob is naturally environmentally friendly, offering natural insulation and, as a consequence, Keppel Gate is rated an impressive B on the Energy Performance rating scale. As well as cob's natural insulation, the house has solar-powered water heating and ground-source under-floor heating.
"Cob is made using natural materials which breathe and allow moisture to dissipate," explains Kevin.
"This means that a house built of cob has a flywheel effect on the interior atmosphere. In summer the cob releases moisture to cool down the hot dry air. In winter it absorbs chills and damp, so that the a cob house is very comfortable all year round. I really couldn't live happily in a house that wasn't made of cob."
The material is also is hugely versatile, lending itself to creative shaping and structuring. As these pictures show, Keppel Gate is uniquely designed with curving walls, broad spiralling staircases and all sorts of quirky features. These include the cob en-suite showers built in to the thick walls like the inside of a seashell. "There's no need for shower curtains or trays," explains Rose.
The three-storey home has top-spec finishes throughout, such as the tactile bespoke door furniture, which was made by a local craftsman blacksmith. The house also has oak ceiling beams, sweet chestnut door frames and beautiful porcelain floor tiles in the kitchen and conservatory.
Alongside the under-floor heating, the traditional log burner in the sitting room and the four-oven Aga in the kitchen ensure that the house is filled with warmth all year.
The house also has an enviable location. It is situated less than a mile from Ottery St Mary in East Devon, where there is a sought-after secondary school, rated "outstanding" by Ofsted, as well as easy access to the A30, M5 and Exeter.
But the house itself is at the end of a quiet no-through-road, with few neighbours, two acres of grounds, surrounded by lovely country views.
Today, the house is roofed with reclaimed Delabole slates but it was originally built with a thatched roof. A house fire in March 2010, caused by a spark from the log fire, destroyed the roof. Today, though, the house is "as good as new – in some ways better," says Kevin, after the damage was fully repaired.
"We took the opportunity to change the roofing material and also redesign the top storey," says Rose. The top floor, formerly open plan, now has a large sitting room and a spectacular bedroom with views over the countryside and towards Sidmouth.
Keppel Gate comes with a sizeable two-storey detached annexe, garage and barn, built of cob. There is also a wood-fired pizza oven in the garden, perfect for outdoor parties and get-togethers – and that too is made of cob, of course.
Keppel Gate is for sale for £1.1 million with Hall and Scott, Ottery St Mary (01404 812000, www.hallandscott.co.uk) and Jackson-Stops and Staff, Exeter (01392 214222, www.jackson-stops.co.uk)
What is traditional English cob?
Traditionally, English cob was made by mixing clay-based subsoil with sand, straw and water, using oxen to trample it. The earthen mixture was then ladled on to a stone foundation in layers and trodden on to the wall by workers, a process known as “cobbing”. The construction progresses according to the time required for each layer or “course” to dry.
After drying, the walls would be trimmed and the next course built, with lintels left in for doors and windows. The walls of a cob house are generally about 24 inches thick, providing thermal mass which is easy to keep warm in winter and cool in summer. The material has a long lifespan even in rainy climates, provided a tall foundation and large roof overhang are present.
For more details on Kevin McCabe’s work with cob, visit the website www.buildsomethingbeautiful.co.uk