A Hobbit House

With a historical base, Gary Zuker built his hobbit house with a clay and straw mix.

| March/April 2000

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Zuker pulled together a straw-clay recipe based on historical documents and modern-day innovations.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.”

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