Don’t ever tell Gary Zuker it can’t be done.
A decade ago, the University of Texas computer engineer set out to build a small, inexpensive weekend getaway and eventual retirement home on 2 acres of wooded land, just up the hill from Lake Travis outside of Austin, Texas. The only way to achieve his goal of building this place for $10,000, it seemed, was to build it himself.
Zuker had no carpentry experience and didn’t even own a saw, but he did have very definite ideas about what he wanted: a low-maintenance house that was rustic, timeless, even primal.
Zuker turned to Austin’s resident sustainable-building guru Pliny Fisk, co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems. Fisk was helping to build a home out of modified cob known as Leichtlehmbau, a lightweight mixture of straw and clay. After a day of cob crew duty, mixing clay, water, and straw, and packing it into forms, Zuker realized, “Hey, anybody can do this. It’s simple.”
He spent weeks poring over ancient texts in the university’s historical library. He was charmed by the drawings of medieval straw-clay cottages and found reference to a fifteenth-century cob structure that is still standing. He discovered cob buildings in climates as varied as Ireland, New Zealand, and Greece—all with a common look but unique bearings. “I figured if these guys could build this with no education and no money—buildings that last like that and look gorgeous—that’s for me,” Zuker recalls.
Zuker pulled together a straw-clay recipe based on historical documents and modern-day innovations. “Real cob is mostly earth with straw as a binder,” he explains. “Leichtlehmbau, a German term for light straw-clay, is a legitimate extension of it. You add more straw and use only clay to cut down on the amount of earth and increase insulation.”
A mule load of clay mixed with a cart load of straw was typical of the centuries-old recipes Zuker found. “But once I got started, it was like cooking. When putting sauce on spaghetti, you can tell when you have enough. When you start to pack the stuff into walls, if the mud drips, you have too much clay. If the straw doesn’t pack hard, you don’t have enough clay.”
Zuker bought 250 bales of straw at $1.50 a bale from nearby farmers. He had 6 cubic yards of blue clay, which a gravel company was hauling out of a local pit, delivered for $25. “Wet clay is nasty stuff, the kind of clay that creates the stickiest, muckiest mess,” he says.
He found more than 100 recipes for exterior plaster used to seal the clay and straw, including everything from horse urine to molasses. But all shared the same core ingredients: lime, sand, and horsehair. Lacking access to horsehair, Zuker substituted polyester fiber and added rock salt and alum. He cobbled together a rough recipe of one part lime, four parts sand, a handful of salt, a handful of alum, and enough fibers to make it all hold together.
Before he could begin building his small home, Zuker had to get approval from the neighborhood homeowners’ association. That required architectural drawings, so he turned to his friend Murray Libersat, a faculty member at the University of Texas School of Architecture. Libersat, a temple designer who had studied Sastric architecture—a Hindu design system resulting in simple, elegant buildings that harmonize with the natural order of the universe—gave Zuker exact proportions for the 900-square-foot house and urged him not to deviate from them. Libersat had followed the wisdom of the sages, basing the cottage’s proportions on ancient mathematical formulas deemed auspicious and beneficial for occupants.
The plan called for a simple, rectangular 650-square-foot living area and a 180-square-foot bathroom area. (Zuker later added lofts above the sleeping and work areas, taking advantage of the 18-foot-high ceilings for space.)
Zuker designed the home as it was built so that details could be decided upon only in the proper context. He picked up on this idea after another architect friend had suggested he read Christopher Alexander’s classic building treatise A Pattern Language (Oxford University Press, 1977). Based on Alexander’s advice, Zuker waited until the structure was built to place windows. “I stood in the spot where the kitchen sink would be, and I moved my hands back and forth, like when you’re going to take a photo,” he explains.
Just grab it and do it
The first step in getting the house up was to lay a dry rubble foundation, without cement. Every builder Zuker approached said that was impossible. “I took the plans to a structural engineer, who said I would have to pour concrete and lay steel rebar,” Zuker recalls. “And then I would look at these pictures of houses that were 900 years old, and I knew they didn’t have rebar.”
Zuker convinced the owners of a limestone quarry in neighboring Cedar Park, Texas, to sell him 60 tons of boulders for $2 a ton (their bulk price), and he enlisted the help of Wesley King, a third-generation stonemason, to lay the foundation and the chimney. They dug down to bedrock and, with the help of three laborers, hauled the boulders from the driveway to the trench. “The stonemason really taught me a thing or two about common sense and work ethics,” Zuker says. “I was always trying to find the easy way to do it, devising pulleys and the like, but after I worked with him, I learned that you just grab it and do it. You don’t fret about it being heavy.”
Once the foundation was laid, the next step was raising a scissor-truss system for the home’s structure, which Libersat designed and Zuker built out of freshly cut loblolly pine from a sawmill nearby. He built the structure with the philosophy that the strength of the clay-straw walls would allow him to get away with a less-than-perfect timber frame. “There was certainly no engineering involved,” he says. “I’d walk up to a log and say, ‘That looks thick enough.’ It was seat-of-the-pants. You wouldn’t want to do this for a huge structure.”
The stonemason stayed on to help raise the timber frame because “he knew how to handle big, heavy things without getting killed,” Zuker says. “But his carpentry was as bad as mine.” The laborers then returned for the next ten weekends to help Zuker pack the clay-straw mixture into forms to fill in the walls. The crew of three averaged about twelve bales, or 80 cubic feet, a day.
More time than money
Inside the house, Zuker laid a floor of antique heart pine that had been salvaged from an old schoolhouse in Maxwell, Texas, 20 miles away. He scoured the classifieds daily for other finishing materials and befriended demolition crews, who invited him to their sites and gave him his pick of floor joists, granite, and windows before the materials went to the salvage yards. The base cabinet in the kitchen is from a pharmacy that was torn down; the soapstone surrounding the sink is from benches in a demolished University of Texas chemistry building. Every window in the house is either salvaged or handmade by Zuker and his wife, Delores, a stained-glass artist.
“Using salvaged stuff makes things cheap, but it adds time,” Zuker says. “Anybody who’s building on a schedule can’t use this stuff.”
Throughout the building process, Zuker put blinders on about time. When he realized that the cost of having one slab of granite ground to specifications would pay for a diamond saw, he invested in the tool and crafted all the granite for his kitchen countertops and bathroom himself. “I had more time than money. You cannot make something beautiful if your mind is on the clock. It’s all part of just getting away from the modern mentality.”
Power tools aren’t always the answer, Zuker learned. “When you’re building on a small scale, power tools can be more of a nuisance than a help,” he says. “By the time you set up a table saw and find the extension cord, you could have cut the wood with a Japanese hand saw. You also have time to ponder what you are doing with a hand saw; you make mistakes real quick with a power saw.”
Zuker scavenged the forest for days looking for just the right log to create an arch-top leaded-glass window by the front door. Once he found it, he bent a piece of cardboard to fit, then laid pieces of glass on top and soldered them together with thick leading. Stained-glass pros had told him that type of window was impossible to make, but, Zuker says, “you just keep plodding along until you come up with a trick that makes it work.”
When carpenters told him it couldn’t be done, Zuker built a window seat out of a cedar log he found and crafted the front door out of 4-inch cedar planks. “You just don’t ever let anybody tell you it can’t be done,” Zuker adds. “Anybody can do anything if they’re willing to work hard. I didn’t have any skills—no special talents. I just wasn’t afraid of a little hard work”
Three years after he broke ground, Zuker deemed the house habitable—although he still considers it a work in progress. He estimates the entire structure—including appliances, well, and septic system—cost him $40,000, much higher than he had anticipated. “And I didn’t even put a dollar figure on my time,” he says. “I would spend twelve hours hammering the brass handle for the front door. How do you put a price on that?”
To build his 900-square-foot home, Gary Zuker bought:
- 250 bales of straw, $375
- 6 cubic yards of blue clay, $25
- 60 tons of limestone boulders, $120
- 50 planed pine timbers, 70 cents per board foot, $2,000