Of all the houses I visited during my 11-year tenure as Natural Home editor-in-chief, the first one holds a special place in my heart. I first saw Gary Zuker’s hand-built cob cottage—built for $40,000—in 1999. Natural Home named it our “house of the decade” ten years later, and the house continues to capture the imagination of everyone who sees it.
Gary, a University of Texas computer engineer, had no carpentry experience when he 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. Austin’s resident sustainable-building guru Pliny Fisk, co-director of the Center for Maximum Potential Building Systems, helped him design a home out of modified cob known as Leichtlehmbau, a lightweight mixture of straw and clay. “Anybody can do this,” Gary realized. “It’s simple.”
After poring over drawings of medieval straw-clay cottages in ancient texts at the university’s historical library, Gary pulled together a straw-clay recipe based on historical documents and modern-day innovations.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.”
Gary 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. 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.
Murray Libersat, a faculty member at the University of Texas School of Architecture, designed Gary’s house according to Sastric architecture, a Hindu design system resulting in simple, elegant buildings that harmonize with the natural order of the universe. The plan called for a simple, rectangular 650-square-foot living area and a 180-square-foot bathroom area. A scissor-truss system for the home’s structure was built using freshly cut loblolly pine from a sawmill nearby.
The house took a good three years to build, and Gary’s still tinkering with it. Troughout the building process, he put blinders on about time. “I had more time than money,” he says. “You cannot make something beautiful if your mind is on the clock. It’s all part of just getting away from the modern mentality.”
Gary and a third-generation stonemason hauled boulders up from the lake for the home's foundation and doorway. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
Gary found the branches for the fireplace mantel and window trim in the woods outside the house. The floor is salvaged from an old schoolhouse down the road. Gary sized and polished the granite scraps for the window seat and fireplace hearth himself. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
A scissor-truss system is built from local loblolly pine. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
The soapstone surrounding Gary's sink came from an old University of Texas chemistry classroom. Photo by Paul Bardagjy