Of all the houses I visited during my tenure as Natural Home editor-in-chief, the first one holds a special place in my heart. I visited Gary Zuker’s hand-built cob cottage—built for $40,000—in 1999. Natural Home named it our “house of the decade” in 2009, 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 build 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cottages in ancient texts at the university’s historical library, Gary pulled together a straw-clay recipe based on historical documents and modern-day innovations.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 to build the dry-rubble foundation, the doorway, and the fireplace. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
Gary’s wife, Delores, a stained-glass artist, made the dining room windows. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
To ensure the best placement, Gary placed windows after the house was already framed. All the windows in the cottage are either salvaged or handmade by Gary and Delores. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
Gary “engineered” the home’s scissor-truss system of loblolly pine by choosing boards that looked right and fitting them together. He counted on the strength of the cob walls to allow him some breathing room. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
Gary sized and polished the granite for his kitchen counter. The kitchen base cabinet is from a demolished pharmacy; the soapstone surrounding the sink is from benches in a University of Texas building. Photo by Paul Bardagjy
The fireplace stones and the window trim are all from Gary’s property. The wood floor is salvaged from an old schoolhouse down the road. Photo by Paul Bardagjy