START A PETITION 27,000,000 members: the world's largest community for good

Texas Hobbit House: A Small, Handmade Treasure

Texas Hobbit House: A Small, Handmade Treasure

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cottages in ancient texts at the university’s historical library, Gary pulled together a straw-clay recipe based on historical documents and modern-day innovations.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

Read more: Green Home Decor, Home, Inspiration, Materials & Architecture, , , , , , ,

have you shared this story yet?

go ahead, give it a little love

Robyn Lawrence

Robyn Griggs Lawrence is editor-in-chief of Organic Spa Magazine, an eco-lifestyle magazine that bridges spa wisdom with green living. Through print, online and phone apps, Organic Spa Magazine offers expert advice and inspiration on sustainable health and wellness, beauty and skin care, fashion and travel. 


+ add your own
7:41AM PDT on Oct 22, 2012

cob is good

8:23PM PDT on Aug 22, 2011

I wants it... a magical story book house!

7:32PM PDT on Aug 20, 2011


2:35PM PDT on Aug 19, 2011

Absolutely gorgeous.......give me a home like this any day on 2 acres or more over a McMansion!!!

9:06PM PDT on Aug 11, 2011

Cool! I want one :)

11:53PM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

Anna, I'm curious, why wouldn't cob do in the UK? It certainly has in the past. Cob structures can be found in a variety of climates across the globe; In the UK it is most strongly associated with counties of Devon and Cornwall in the West Country; the Vale of Glamorgan and Gower Peninsula in Wales; Donegal Bay in Ulster and Munster, South-West Ireland; and Finisterre in Brittany where many homes have survived over 500 years and are still inhabited. I'd say that would do fine for England.

Certainly a cob house doesn't have to be small. I'm sure adding faux beams as well as plastering the out and insides white would help it fit right in. Henry VII would be pleased to see another half timber place don't you think?

5:06PM PDT on Jul 31, 2011

This is absolutely awesome. I'd love to be able to do something like that.

Thank you for posting.

10:29AM PDT on Jul 30, 2011

This is so amazing. I love it.

11:09AM PDT on Jul 29, 2011

To live in a hand-crafted house with so much intelligent design vs. a McMansion with brick on the front and vinyl on the competition. We need more housing like this, and if workers get busy on building them, the economy can improve on so many levels. To hell with corporations, lets do this ourselves.

6:51AM PDT on Jul 28, 2011

This is a beautiful home! If only all houses were built like this!

add your comment

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are solely those of the author and may not reflect those of
Care2, Inc., its employees or advertisers.

people are talking

Wouldn't think it would be very personal!?

Yeah. It's not about the planet as such, more about living species and ecosystems they depend on. …


Select names from your address book   |   Help

We hate spam. We do not sell or share the email addresses you provide.

site feedback


Problem on this page? Briefly let us know what isn't working for you and we'll try to make it right!