Monday, August 01, 2011

Huff, puff and build your house, Irish Times, 03 Mar 2009,

Huff, puff and build your house,
The Irish Times
, Tues 03 March 2009,

Building your own house is a straightforward and cheap affair, especially when it’s made out of straw, mud and pure hard work, writes MANCHAN MAGAN

MY FIRST house, built in 1997, cost me €6,000. My second, larger and more luxurious house cost €26,000 in 2002. Until the property crash this would have marked me out as a freak, a sort of dumpster-diving refusenik, the sort social services keep an eye on. Now, people are suddenly listening. At the time, I didn’t consider I was doing anything odd; I had travelled widely and seen that most people in the world built houses out of what was around them – mud, straw, wood, stone – just as we use to do in Ireland. I couldn’t understand why houses were getting bigger while families got smaller, or why people would spend their whole lives working in a job they hated to pay for a house that didn’t even suit them. I had no wish to shackle myself to a bank for thirty years, and so, I dug out a copy of the Yellow Pages and rang every estate agent in the country until I finally found some cheap land - in Westmeath, as it happens.

I signed the deeds on the 7th July and went straight to the library to learn everything I could about roofing, plumbing and electricity. Six weeks later the house was built. It cost, as I say, €6,000. (I could probably build it for €10,000 today.) The walls were made of bales of oaten straw, laid like Lego blocks onto a thin band of concrete. I squashed the bales down tight with bands of wire looped from the foundations and up over the wall-plate, then I built a roof on top. Everything wobbled a bit at first, but I kept tightening the wires until it firmed up, and then plastered the walls with lime and sand. Erecting the walls took five friends and I a day, and another four days for the roof, then we left it all to settle for a while before I began plastering.

Building a basic house should be no more complex or expensive than this. Unfortunately a lot of vested interests ensure that it is. Governments, banks and employers all benefit from having a society yoked under mortgages - it ensures control, compliance and vast profits through taxes and interest payments. Now might be a time to reconsider all this. A house should, and can, cost the price of a car – something you repay over a year or two, instead of your life. Building an ecological, mortgage-free home requires a change of perspective, a reassessment of priorities. Houses need to be smaller, as small means cheap and easier to heat. If your children demand more space as they grow-up, buy them a trailer-load of mud or straw bales and send them on a course to learn how to build their own extension or garden cottage.

I can’t claim that straw bale is an ideal material for our damp climate, but rammed-earth or cob has been used as a building material throughout Ireland for centuries and there are some great examples of it in the Hollies sustainable village in West Cork. The beauty of it, is its simplicity. It just requires mixing mud and straw and laying it on a strong stone foundation. It is literally child’s play. But, it’s laborious and time consuming. There are quicker methods. Peter Cowman in Leitrim has developed the EconoSpace concept, teaching people to build small, well-insulated, timber-frame buildings on minimal budgets which are below the 25sqm area necessitating planning permission.

My ideal building would be of hemp plaster, which is a combination of lime, water and chopped hemp fibre (the leaves and stalk of cannabis) all mixed together in a large mortar mixer and poured straight into shuttering to form thick, fibrous, super-warm walls. There is no heavy work involved, the cake-batter-like material can be pumped up straight into the shuttering and left to dry naturally. Then the building can be roofed with plywood, butyl rubber and a few inches of soil. Hey, presto there’s the house. Total cost for a small place would be around €40,000, and fortunately one of the leading pioneers of this technique, Steve Allin, author of the book, Building with Hemp, happens to live in Kenmare and runs regular courses. Likewise, the Hollies sustainable village runs cob-building courses.

I didn’t get into self-building out of any ideological standpoint - I just liked the idea of crafting my own living space, and I spent five happy years in my little straw house. It was basic, but cosy – a 30sq-metres room with my granny’s 1930s cooker and a fridge in one corner and my computer in another. The bed was upstairs in the rafters, cosily situated above the wood-burning stove. It sounds primitive now, but it’s how most people lived until a generation ago, and it’s how people still live in the various alternative communities I have spent time in around the world. I had an outside compost loo, and inside a kitchen sink with hot water from the stove, but I didn’t trust my plumbing skills enough to install a shower in a house of straw, so I did what the travellers did and made use of Mullingar swimming pool for my weekly wash.

Eventually the lack of an inside bathroom and the fact that both the walls and my bed shook in winter made me want something more stable. It was the 21st century, after all, I thought I deserved an inside lavatory and central heating. This time around I went for planning permission - the planners knew about the first house, but as it was a temporary structure, designed as a prototype, they looked the other way. The second house was also meant to have been made of straw bales but at the last minute I chickened out and replaced the bales with concrete blocks which made for a structurally solid, but horribly sharp-angled house. I found its appearance so distasteful that I ended up renting a concrete saw and cutting all the edges off, then smothering the walls in a mix of lime, mud, straw, sand and cement to give it the gorgeous curvaceous quality of my previous house. The roof was made of grass laid on plywood and rubber as it was cheaper and simpler than tiles, and helped it blend in with the hill behind. This house is 90sq metres – a large open-plan space with a small bathroom and a quirky, handmade kitchen. It looks a bit like a studio in San Francisco. It has a long row of six south-facing windows which capture a spectacular amount of heat when there is even the merest signs of sunshine.

I have since applied for planning permission for an underground tyre house, (which I budgeted would cost me €30,000) but Westmeath County Council, in their wisdom refused me, and in hindsight I’m grateful to have been saved the arduous task of filing 800 tyres with soil and stacking them like blocks. I was also grateful when they threatened to fine me €100,000 if I didn’t knock my first straw house. I was sick of it by that stage and was worried when An Taisce began to defend the house and insist it be maintained. It was easy for them - they didn’t have to endure the mice and rats in the walls, or the frogs that lived in the piping because I had forgotten to install u-bends. Fortunately, the council prevailed and when I knocked it the bales were in such good condition I was able to sell them on to a farmer.

Realistically, how practical is it to build a mortgage-free home? Very, although there are three main hurdles – the first is having to educate county engineers about the technical specifications of alternative housing materials. Scientific reports of the strength, durability and combustibility of straw bale, hemp-lime and cob/rammed-earth are all available on the internet and will answer most questions an engineer may have. The second hurdle is the price of land. It is now gradually dropping to a more realistic level, and already huge savings can be made if a few people group together to buy a site and apply for planning for a group scheme. In this way a site may cost €20,000 instead of €100,000, and planners will look far more favourably on a cluster of homes than a one-off. The third hurdle is fear. We have been conned into thinking that building is rocket science and we daren’t attempt it. The truth is that while car mechanics has become a science, building has developed little since Neolithic times. It is laborious but basic, and a good book can easily guide you through. The trick is to find a sympathetic ear in your local hardware shop, then just trust yourself and when the fears mount focus instead on a life free of mortgage repayments.


· Cultivate Living and Learning Centre, Temple Bar, sells books and runs courses on self-building:

· The Hollies Centre for Practical Sustainability, Co Cork, for Cob/rammed-earth building courses.

· Steve Allin, author of Building with Hemp, based in Kenmare

· Carrig Dúlra, Wicklow, running mortgage-free housing course by Peter Cowman.

· More info on Peter Cowman’s EconoSpace concept


· Cob Buildings- a practical guide by Jane Schofield and Jill Smallcombe (Black Dog Press, 2004)

· Building with Straw Bales by Barbara Jones (Green Books, 2002

· Building with Hemp – Steve Allin (Seed Press, 2005)

· Earthship, How to Build your own by Michael Reynolds (Solar Survival, 1990)

You can browse these books at the Enfo library in Dublin: or order them online at