St Patrick’s day. My dad’s birthday. I am missing him so much. Him eating his big chocolate cake and my family all around and all of us in the adobe house my parents built in the desert. In my sadness I remembered this short book I found on Project Gutenberg I’ve been meaning to read forever. Cottage Building in Cob, Pise, Chalk and Clay (1919) by Clough William-Ellis. I knew it was right when I read this from the introduction by J. St Loe Strachey:
My deep desire was to find something in the earth out of which walls could be made. My ideal was a man or group of men with spades and pickaxes coming upon the land and creating the walls of a house out of what they found there. I wanted my house, my cottage in “Cloud-Cuckoo Land,” to rise like the lark from the furrows.
Or like our dream in the desert:
I never knew how deep this kind of building tradition ran here in England, or that some architects looked towards it for a brief time in the 1920s to help overcome the lack of materials and the desperate need for housing after WWI (I greatly enjoyed Strachey’s overblown rhetoric):
In this dread predicament what are we to do as a nation? What we must not do is at any rate quite clear. We must not lie down in the high road of civilisation and cry out that we are ruined or betrayed, or that the world is too hard for us, and that we must give up the task of living in houses. Whether we like it or not we have got to do something about the housing question, and we have got to do it at once, and there is an end. Translated into terms of action, this means that as we have not got enough of the old forms of material we must turn to others and learn how to house ourselves with materials such as we have not used before. Once again necessity must be the mother of invention, or rather, of invention and revival, for in anything so old and universal as the housing problem it is too late to be ambitious.
It is the object of the present book to attack part of the problem of how to build without bricks, and indeed without mortar, and equally important, as far as possible without the vast cost of transporting the heavy material of the house from one quarter of England to another.
In the spirit of the time, he began work on the fruit house above, building it of rammed earth (pisé de terre) following a manual for Australian settlers. It worked and they built a dinning hall. Built it collectively, which also reminded me of my house, and how homes can and should be built:
Everyone worked at that wall; the nursing staff, the coachman, an occasional visitor, a schoolboy, a couple of boy scouts, members of the National Reserve who were guarding a “vulnerable point” close by, and even some of the patients.
There is, of course, a fairly large distance between the two of us. He was a member of Brook’s Club, known to me only through my long-ago reading of my grandmother’s Georgette Heyer regency romance novels, he writes:
Happening to be sleeping in a bedroom at Brooks’s Club in 1916, I noticed a charming Regency bookcase full of old books. Among them was a copy of a Cyclopædia of 1819. I thought it would be amusing to see whether there was any mention of Pisé de terre. What was my astonishment to find that what I thought was my own special and peculiar hobby and discovery was treated therein at very great length and with very great ability, but treated not in the least as anything new or wonderful, but instead as “this well-known and greatly appreciated system of building, etc., etc.”
And even better:
At the end of my researches and experiments I found that Pliny has got it all in his Natural History in six lines! There is no need for more words.
“Have we not in Africa and in Spain walls of earth, known as ‘formocean’ walls? From the fact that they are moulded, rather than built, by enclosing earth within a frame of boards, constructed on either side. These walls will last for centuries, are proof against rain, wind, and fire, and are superior in solidity to any cement. Even at this day Spain still holds watch-towers that were erected by Hannibal.”—Pliny’s “Natural History,” Bk. XXXV, chapter xlviii.
It all started in Africa, of course.
Architect Clough William-Ellis (he built The Village from The Prisoner) doesn’t have quite the same gift of words or the happy enthusiasm, and as he starts in on the housing question he set my back up right away:
In a recent speech the Registrar-General said: “War does not only fill the graves, it also empties the cradles.” This is no less true of bad and inadequate housing.
Only the most reckless and thick-skinned of the poorer population will adventure on marriage and the bringing up of a family whilst the odds against decent and reasonable housing persist as at present.
It was that embarrassing period for the upper classes when open discussions of eugenics were floating around, and they blamed the poor for their own poverty with a little more directness than they do today. Much of this little book is made up of letters from around England and the colonies giving precise details of other projects — very useful indeed actually, for those experimenting, but also serving to show the casual racism of Imperial Britain:
My experience of all black labour is, that they won’t put any ‘guts’ into it. They therefore want fairly heavy rammers, which they can lift and drop, say a foot, and which will do the rest for them.
–Major Baylay, Peter Maritzburg, Natal, South Africa
This signals the larger problems of Empire and the resulting oppression, exploitation and consumption that have played such a large role in getting us into the current ecological crisis that bears such similarity to the period immediately after WWI when this was written, but I shall note them and then set them to one side.
This passage shows the effect the war had on building, and probably exactly the kind of development rules we should have today:
Formerly, he who wilfully carried bricks into Merioneth or the Cotswolds, or slates into Kent or ragstone-rubble into Middlesex, was guilty of no more than foolishness and an æsthetic solecism.
Under present conditions such action should render him liable to prosecution and conviction on some such count as “Wasting the shrunken resources of his country in a time of great scarcity, . . . in that he did wantonly transport material for building the walls of a house by rail and road from A to B when suitable and sufficient material of another sort and at no higher cost existed, and was readily accessible hard by the site at B.”
That indeed is our one chance of salvation, the existence and use of “the materials of another sort hard by the site.”
If only we had really taken that on board in the 1920s, our towns and cities would look completely different (though he makes the point, and it’s a good one, that this kind of architecture is better suited to the raw materials found in the countryside rather than an urban setting, this requires more thought).
He starts with cob — only recently I saw an article about a man who had built his home of this, but had no idea quite how far back it went or what beautiful homes you could build:
It is a mixture of shale and clay and straw, well-mixed through treading and then built in courses upon a stone foundation, lifted on and then trodden well down. It is allowed to project over the foundation, and then pared down and left to dry.
It creates places of beauty built of the very earth they sit on:
Clough-Ellis’s design has a bit of the fairytale about it — ruined a bit by the assumption that its tenants will have servants. This search for alternative building materials has not quite yet joined with a deep desire to live better on the earth:
You can imagine what it would be like inside…and no corridors or hallways. Interesting.
The versatility of it as a building material is clear, though this is rather too grand for just one person — it could be one of the future hostels like in News From Nowhere:
If well built it keeps the house warmer in winter and cooler in summer, and stays lovely and dry…living in a block house of the 1840s, I can’t tell you how much I like the sound of that.
I particularly loved this sentence:
Cob, like every other material, should have a certain say in the design of any building in which its use is intended.
And quoting an unnamed but old authority:
In Devonshire the builders of cob-wall houses like to begin their work when the birds begin to build their nests, in order that there may be time to cover in the shell of the building before winter.
There are some interesting historical touches in here as the authors collected every reference they could find:
There is this on the astonishing lateness of the use of wheeled carts, the methods of payment, and the skills passed down from generations:
Mr. Fulford, of Great Fulford, near Exeter, whose own village and estate can show as many good examples of old cob work as any place in Devon, writes as follows:
….Wheeled carts which began to creep in about the beginning of 1800, were not in general use until twenty or thirty years later. As a boy I knew a farmer who remembered the first wheeled cart coming to Dunsford. In 1838 the Rector of Bridford (the ‘Christowell’ of Blackmore’s novel) recorded the fact that in 1818 there was only one cart in the parish and it was scarcely used twice a year…In the northern part of the county the common price of stonework, including the value of three quarts of cider or beer daily, was from 22d. to 24d... Cob-making was, like many other local trades, carried on in some families from generation to generation and developed by them into an art, but apart from these specialists, practically every village mason and his labourers built as much with cob as they did with stone.
A second, the quality of the buildings:
Mr. S. Baring-Gould, in his Book of the West, writing on the subject says: “No house can be considered more warm and cosy than that built of cob, especially when thatched. It is warm in winter and cool in summer, and I have known labourers bitterly bewail their fate in being transferred from an old fifteenth or sixteenth century cob cottage into a newly-built stone edifice of the most approved style, as they said it was like going out of warm life into a cold grave.”
Another example of the comparison between old and new — and my retrospective fury with utopian planners (as unfair as that may be, yet they surely should have paid attention to these things — besides, it burns me up to thing of dockers being ‘imported’):
I can endorse from experience the comfort of these old buildings, and the affection of Devon people for them. The thick walls give all that a house should—protection from heat in summer and cold in winter. For the contrast, visit the new Garden City at Rosyth. Many of the houses are attractive, but their thin brick walls, tile and slate hanging are not suitable to the north and east coasts. Ask the opinion of the occupants of these new houses. Many of them are Devon born and bred, and imported from the dockyards of the three towns. They nearly all complain of the cold, and their views form an interesting comment on modern construction.
–Extract From a Letter to the Editor of Country Life, July 27th, 1918
A third is that Sir Walter Raleigh was born and raised in a cob house — this cob house:
Writing of Raleigh and his home, Mr. Charles Bernard says:
Sir Walter Raleigh’s House.—“He had great affection for his boyhood’s home—the old manor-house at Hayes Barton where he was born, and did his best to secure it from its then owner. ‘I will,’ he wrote, ‘most willingly give you whatsoever in your conscience you shall deme it worth . . . for ye naturall disposition I have to that place, being borne in that house, I had rather see myself there than anywhere else.’ But alas! it was not to be, and the snug and friendly Tudor homestead passed into other hands. The house at Hayes Barton was probably not newly built when Raleigh’s parents lived there, and it says much for the character of cob that the house is as good to-day as ever it was; though for all that it has, to use Mr. Eden Phillpotts’ words, ‘been patched and tinkered through the centuries,’ it ‘still endures, complete and sturdy, in harmony of old design, with unspoiled dignity from a far past.’
You can see the outside but not within, and it troubles me that Raleigh too was exiled from the home of his childhood.
Cob has one curious downside though, that honestly I wasn’t expecting:
Rats.—Where the surface rendering of cob-walls has been omitted or has been allowed to fall away, an enterprising rat will sometimes do considerable damage by his tunnelling.
A little powdered glass mixed with the lower strata of a wall will discourage any such burrowing…
This made me think immediately of an episode of Nigel Kneale’s Beasts, or Terekhov’s The Rat Killer, but neither has been enough to put me off these wonderful homes.
Now, to move on to Clough William-Ellis’s second method: ‘“Pisé de terre” is merely the French for rammed earth, and rammed earth is an exceedingly good material for the building of walls.’ You built a stout form of wood and ram earth down into it and it is as strong and impervious to weather as anything.
The kind of earth is key of course — unless you’re actually building, much of this section is a bit boring — but then there is this:
The material used for the walls at Empandeni is one-third sand, one-third ant-heap, and one-third soil, all pulverised and put through a sieve.
Ant-heaps seem to provide a perfect leaven, and there is more discussion of how to keep ants out. I can attest to the importance of this.
There was a demonstration building put up at Newlands Corner, near Guildford…I am curious if it is still there unsung, I can find no mention of what happened to it. But there is a lovely article in the Spectator from 1919.
The coolest thing, though, is that you can do this with chalk, as well as build of chalk blocks.
Those who may wish to see buildings in chalk conglomerate, both old and new, would do well to visit some such typical chalk district as that lying about Andover in Wiltshire.
It should, however, be constantly borne in mind that most of the old cottages were somewhat unscientifically erected by their original jack-of-all-trades occupiers, that damp-courses and Portland cement were unknown, and that the advantages of proper ventilation and the causes of dry-rot were discoveries yet to be made.
Secondly, a large number of these cottages have been sadly neglected either recently or in the past, and they bear the disfiguring marks of their ill-treatment upon them now.
But a chalk cottage that is well found in the beginning, and that is reasonably well cared for subsequently, has nothing to fear from comparison with cottages built in the most approved manner of the more fashionable materials.
I particularly love chalk because
In its purest form chalk consists of over 95 per cent. of carbonate of lime in the form of fine granular particles held together by a calcareous cement, its organic origin being clearly traced in the remains of the minute sea creatures with which it abounds.
I am looking forward to hunting some of these old buildings down, it never occurred to me you could build with it.
At Medmenham there are cottages both old and new of hewn rock chalk, and both the Berks and Bucks banks of the Thames have many buildings to show of this beautiful material.
Gertrude Jekyll did the gardens there. And then there is:
The Deanery Garden, Sonning — another place you can no longer go, because it is owned by Jimmy Page, guitarist of Led Zepplin. Yet another odd resonance with my youth, and I felicitate him on his choice but damn, I’ll never get in there now.
And finally — there are buildings of adobe! They may be known unflatteringly as ‘lumps’ at this point but still, amazing find unburned clay bricks here.
Mr. Skipper of Norwich writes of the material as follows:
“Who, travelling from Norfolk to London, whether by the Ipswich or Cambridge line, has not noticed the numerous colour-washed or black (tarred) cottage, farmhouse and agricultural buildings scattered practically all along the countryside? Some of these are of studwork and plaster, some of wattle and daub, but many are built of clay made up into lumps, sun-dried, and built into the walls with a soft clay-mixture as mortar.
These made me happy, I will go find them also. Wish my dad could’ve seen them, because there is something about living in a building made of the earth itself, and this was my parent’s gift to me.