Friday, July 31, 2009

A Cottage of Straw, Handmade in Texas

What a sweet little hobbit house! Someday, Chris and I will build a cob house hideaway. He just doesn't know it yet. But it will happen, someday. - I am always impressed by the home articles that both the NY Times and LA Times concoct. Where do they did up these houses? What lovely little gems. The article is reproduced, in full, after the break. (oh! New Feature! An "After the break" feature!) -
Also, a big thank you to Terry over at the PSC life sciences blog for assisting with the nifty "More..." thingameajig.


A Cottage of Straw, Handmade in Texas By LOUISE TUTELIAN LAGO VISTA, Tex. — As a senior systems analyst at the University of Texas, Austin, Gary Zuker lives in a high-tech world all week. But when the weekend arrives, Mr. Zuker retreats to a home that’s about as low-tech as possible. His getaway is a 900-square-foot cottage that he built himself out of straw and clay. To come upon it, tucked away on two acres in the wooded Hill Country outside Austin, is to find a storybook dwelling that could be Gepetto’s workshop or a Hobbit house. Structures like this, known as cob houses, have been around at least since the 15th century. They have gained popularity in recent years for their environmental friendliness, low cost and sculptural qualities, said Eric Corey Freed, principal of Organic Architect, based in San Francisco. But Mr. Zuker, now 54, had no intention of constructing one when he set out in 1989 to create a weekend home for himself; his wife, Delores, 53; and their sons, Paul and Ben, 15 and 13. “The holy grail was making it maintenance-free,” Mr. Zuker said. “It was going to be a log cabin kit or metal.” Instead he found his holy grail in the era of castles and moats. Holed up in the library of the university’s School of Architecture, he became fascinated by drawings of traditional cob houses in England and Germany. “This Old World look just started to appeal to me, and I saw that I could make something really beautiful,” he said. That he had never built anything in his life didn’t faze him. “I figured, peasants did this back in the fifth century, I can learn,” he said as he showed a visitor around the house on one sweltering Saturday. Mr. Zuker’s learning curve was steep. He taught himself to haul boulders for a dry rubble foundation and to construct a timber truss frame for the house. But the project’s heart was the cob construction. The technique creates thick, almost plump walls, covered with plaster that dries to a textured surface. Using a plywood plank as a mixing surface and a pitchfork as a spoon, Mr. Zuker would stir a bale of straw with enough clay mud to “coat it like you would toss spaghetti with sauce,” he said. He and three laborers packed the resulting slurry into wooden forms. Once a form was filled, the wood was removed and reset for the next section. When the slurry dried, it was sealed on the outside with a heavy plaster of lime and sand, bolstered with polyester fibers, a modern substitute for horsehair. The walls, two feet thick, keep the interior about 15 degrees cooler than the temperature outside in hot weather, he said. The team could complete one 10-foot section of wall in a weekend. All told, it took about 10 weekends, spread over several months, to finish the walls. What stands today in Mr. Zuker’s enchanted forest is a tribute to ingenuity, perseverance and frugality. He spent just $25,000 to build the house and $15,000 more for the well and septic system. The living area, 32 feet by 20 feet, consists of a great room; a pocket-size kitchen set off by a granite counter and an indoor pergola of loblolly pine; a dining space just big enough for a table and four chairs; and a sleeping nook with a double bed. (A loft for the boys is above it.) A rustic limestone fireplace anchors the great room. Its polished, curved mantel of juniper was fashioned from the floor joists of what was thought to be the oldest log cabin in Austin when it was demolished. (Mr. Zuker bought them from the city clerk.) In the sleeping nook Mr. Zuker installed stained glass windows that tilt out to reveal screens. The adjacent bathroom area has a marble floor warmed by radiant heat and a slab of sumptuous pink-and-black-veined granite that he found through a classified ad. French doors open from the great room out to a stone patio edged with reclaimed concrete curbing that supports a porch swing, stone benches and a table and chairs with a view of Lake Travis 500 feet away. The basic building materials were indigenous. Limestone and granite, straw and clay, cedar and pine, lime-and-sand plaster and antique wood, and windows were either recycled, renewable or dug practically out of the backyard. Local farmers sold him 250 bales of straw for $1.50 each. For $25, a clay pit trucked six cubic yards of clay to the site. Ms. Zuker, a project coordinator for an engineering company and a stained-glass artist, fashioned many of the windows, and Mr. Zuker salvaged the rest at flea markets and garage sales. Though the cottage has an organic feel to it, rigorous thinking underlies its design. An architect friend, a devotee of Hindu design, insisted that Mr. Zuker use dimensions deemed auspicious for a home’s occupants. To achieve the proper scale and pleasing proportions he sought, he was inspired by “A Pattern Language,” whose principal author was the architect Christopher Alexander. This 1977 work, a design handbook of sorts with a cult following, blends practical advice with a Zen-like approach to achieving harmony within the natural world. Mr. Zuker designed the house as he went along, letting the spaces reveal how they should be best used. In one instance he stood in a window space to see where the view should be before completing it. The cottage is 45 minutes from the Zukers’ permanent home in Austin, and they tend to use it on long weekends and holidays. They occasionally invite friends for a barbecue, and the boys bring friends along to swim, kayak or ride trail motorcycles. There is no television or Internet connection and only intermittent cellphone service. In an effort to keep the 21st century at bay, Mr. Zuker can verge on the obsessive. The refrigerator and microwave are clad in sheets of hammered copper to help them blend in. An air-conditioner disappears behind handmade wooden shutters when not in use. A few feet from the house’s front door, the well pump and water tank are hidden in a four-foot-high facsimile of the cottage, built as a test model. Twenty years after he laid its foundation, Mr. Zuker still calls the cottage a work in progress. At the moment, he is designing a compact loft ladder, one edge of which will be set into the side of an armoire. He wants to build a cob oven on the patio for baking bread, he said. “The house is far from being complete to me,” he said, his hazel eyes intent behind wire-rimmed glasses. “I look around, and there are a million details I could work on.”