Irish pioneers of the handmade house

Self-builders share experiences of creating beautiful homes using local materials

MICHAEL MASTERSON, Moyne, Co Longford:

For Michael Masterson the shift towards natural building came gradually. “I had been working as a conventional builder since I was 18, but as I was getting older I kept being drawn more and more back to clay.” He decided to rebuild an old cottage in his home village of Moyne, Co Longford, after he had first restored the old dance hall and a haggard beside it.

“I got the cob from the fields around. I put it in as dug, because I saw where an old cottage had been built straight out of the soil around it. That’s how it was always done here: dig it out, trod it well, mix in some straw and throw it up on the wall. No shuttering. I laid it in layers of a foot high and let it dry for two or three days, before trimming it back, then adding another foot.

“For the lintels I used timbers from an old oak tree and on the roof I wanted thatch, but nitrates and phosphates have leached into the estuaries, making Irish thatch grow too fast now. Foreign thatch has double the lifespan of the local stuff, but I couldn’t bring myself to use it.”

So, he got a load of dried reeds from Foynes and spent over a month helping the thatcher, Orla O’Neill, build the roof.

“I live in it the most of the year, but rent it out in July and August on AirBnB so others can enjoy it. It feels so lovely to live in. Mud is a soft material and it’s plastered with clay and dung. All our grandparents knew how to do this stuff. When the sow would be inside pigging, she might root a bit at the wall, and the woman of the house would gather some clay and reeds to patch it up. Nowadays it is all seen as a bit of magic, but it’s just how we’ve always made shelter for ourselves. And it’s great that there are organisations and courses now passing on the old skills.”

PAUL and THERESE DILLON, Nenagh, Co Tipperary

For Therese and Paul Dillon the impetus was to build a home reminiscent "of the little places that felt safe and comfortable as a child. There were certain cottages that I never wanted to leave and that's the feeling I was looking for". Paul began by building a tiny mud cottage for €1,000 on family land near Nenagh as a testing ground, before proceeding to build a large 100sq m cob house over the course of several summers. The materials for the walls came directly from the ground beneath him. "I was lucky in that we had good soil on site. We mixed four parts of subsoil to one part sand." He and Therese trod the soil/sand mix underfoot to soften and blend it, then built it up in wide layers on the wall.

Cob construction (also known as adobe, rammed-earth on mud wall) was common in Ireland until the early 20th century. Yet mud homes developed a reputation for dampness due to poor drainage, inadequate foundations and badly maintained thatch roofs. Things have improved considerably since then. The Dillons’ home has a living grass roof and curvaceous walls of various different cob styles, some with straw flakes, others with straw bales. “Internally, we weaved walls out of willow, which we covered with cob, and we have a cord-wood (small logs stacked on their side) wall, as well.”

Could other people build such a house? "There's a book titled The Hand-Sculpted House: A Practical and Philosophical Guide to Building a Cob Cottage by Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley. If you follow it word for word you will build yourself a house no matter who you are; whether you have one arm and one leg you'll manage it . . . but you've got to follow exactly what they say."

And what about planning and cost? “It was definitely cheaper than a conventional house, but not by much. We bought good windows and if you start calculating my own labour the price goes up, but wasn’t much more than €100,000. That’s including planning, etc,” which they got by not emphasising the material in the walls. “Since it’s not visible from the road, the planners weren’t too bothered about us veering away from vernacular designs.”

CIARA BARRETT and GARETH PHELAN, Tullaghan, Co Leitrim

For Garreth Phelan, a physiotherapist in Leitrim, the inspiration was Peter Cowman's Econospace, a concept of building tiny affordable four metre square buildings. Phelan attended Cowman's eight-month course, during which participants were guided through every aspect of building their own home shelter. "He broke it down to the minutiae of your sensory perceptions, the orientation of the sun, your movements in the house, and encouraged us to design a space that would really fit our character. He's the antithesis of the modern architect, where you are completely disempowered."

Phelan and his partner, Ciara Barrett, spent four years building, which, he says, “goes with the territory of natural building, you build as money comes in. You avoid the mortgage”. It cost him roughly €30,000.

“The feeling of having built your own shelter is a very special thing. Living in a cob house and feeling how it performs is fairly unique. The walls soak up heat during the day and slowly release it in the evening, like a thermal brick. That’s a unique feeling.”

What about the notion of the damp-sodden mud hut? “In fact, I didn’t put a downpipe on one gutter and after many months the walls were soaking with the water wicking up off the ground, through the plinth and stone work. But once I’d added the downpipe and a proper drain the whole thing dried up again.”

How possible is it for someone to build such a house? “Very possible. We did it all ourselves and I have only minimal skills – agricultural carpentry, you could say. Ideally, if you have some experience of even building the likes of a henhouse, you are going to be a couple of steps down the road, but it is possible for anyone.”

Planning permission wasn’t too much of a hurdle either. They applied for permission to build an Econospace with eco-insulation in the walls, but at the last minute decided to replace them with cob. “We clad the front with cedar sheets, which is what we had agreed with the planners, instead of using a plaster made of lime, hemp or earth to lime to protect the cob.”

JAMES GRACE, Rathsallagh, Co Wicklow:

For carpenter James Grace, the mission was to build a home out of thick posts and beams, instead of the flimsy members used in timber-frame homes. He choose straw bales as an infill between the posts which were then plastered by spraying on a mix of lime and sand. “I learnt straw bale building just by looking online. There’s not much to it. The only tricky thing is retying the knot when you are cutting bales, but that can be easily learned.”

The house cost roughly €80,000 and took 2½ years, again doing it between jobs. Would it be feasible for amateurs? “Straw bale is pretty forgiving, though it helps a lot to have someone with a bit of experience around. That said, it’s very forgiving of mistakes.”

Grace is currently collaborating with engineers to get thick posts of Irish Douglas fir approved as a structural building material, rather than seeing it all chipped for plywood and paper. He has set up his own company, Grace Design, to help others build post and beam houses using thick timbers. “It is very affordable as frames can be designed simply, which is how they work most effectively.

“The real beauty is the fact that the frame is exposed and feeling the sense that it is holding up the roof. Timber beams are more sustainable and more adaptable than steel or concrete, are entirely carbon-neutral and we can grow them in Ireland. An 18-storey hybrid timber building has just been erected in Vancouver – the tallest ever, made by laminating thick timbers together like plywood. We need to make timber the centre of construction in Ireland.”

More info and courses:

Mud and Wood Natural Building Centre, Co. Sligo.

The Hollies, Co Cork, Centre for Sustainability, Natural Building and organic growing, Cork.

Carraig Dulra, Co Wicklow, Centre for Permaculture, Sustainability and Eco-building.

The Living Architecture Centre is Peter Cowman's site for The Econospace House.

For information about Post and Beam Buildings.

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