Cob Cottages for the Twentieth Century (1919)

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Author(s): Joce. T. J.; Year published: 1919; Origin: DA Transactions; Pages: 169-174
Topic(s): buildings and cob; Location(s): 

By T. J. Joce. (Read at Tiverton, 23rd July, 1919.)

It is clear that whatever may be done in the changed times before us on behalf of town folk, the greatest and best work for the nation will be the re-establishing of our villages and the repeopling them with a vigorous and healthy stock, not of labourers only but of sturdy yeomen, and this will be dependent in great measure on our being able to encourage and aid the small builder, or the man who longs to own his cottage and garden, or the estate owner who in many cases would build readily enough could great expense be avoided.

Every person of taste and every lover of our county desires to spare the beautiful countryside the disfigurement of a multitude of erections produced in continuous and wearisome facsimile, and it is surely the wish of every worthy citizen, by favouring economical construction, to save some portion of the vast public subsidy devoted to new buildings.

The one unquestioned economy is to make the best and most intelligent use of the local materials which are ready to hand, and which, moreover, in their natural surroundings have a fitness beyond controversy. In addition, a very great saving in transport would be effected, and there is prospect that difficulties in that service will lead to rigorous limitations.

It may be bluntly stated that cottages will not be built by private persons except it be possible to adopt a cheaper and more rapid process than hitherto.

The object of this paper is to suggest a method by which that excellent and familiar material – our Devon cob – can be used in a truly up-to-date manner, superseding entirely the antiquated system and able to compete in cheapness with structures that are distressingly utilitarian.

Cob – the unrivalled material for a cosy human dwelling; set upon a stone foundation to two feet above ground level; a non-conductor of heat, within doors cool in summer and warm in winter; its comfort is marked by those who compare it with cold stone walls. It is particularly valuable in our damp climate in allowing no moisture to percolate as it does through brick, which requires stucco on account of its porosity, nor does it condense the moisture on its surface when warm rain-laden winds come from the south-west and for days every cold wall is streaming. So dry is cob that old cob walls on the border of the rainy Moor were bought to tear down and use as fine dust to sow with turnip seed. Nor is damp-course ever thought of. It loses heat so slowly that a cob wall is the finest support and shelter for fruit trees. One of the best-known gardeners and florists in South Devon has noted the sun’s warmth retained by a cob wall when stone or brick showed a temperature 20° lower.

Loam or clay shillet may be found almost everywhere, thus the substance for walling is actually on the ground, and unskilled labour suffices. Possessing these advantages, let us see if modern appliances can be so wisely used as to enable it to compete economically with other materials. The old method of cob walling is out of the question. It sufficed when wages were low and time was no object. To heap up forkfuls of cob and then wait about till dry, or to dance on a stodgy rampart from which several inches of thickness must be pared off later is not a process for present-day labour.

The forlorn, bulging and unkempt appearance of some cob cottages has caused all of them in the estimation of many to be regarded as obsolete, like the tinder-box or stage-wagon. The explanation is, either uneven settlement owing to using wet cob or, more generally, the nails fastening the roof-ties having rusted through, the walls receive the direct thrust of the rafters burdened with thatch accumulated to a thickness of many feet, and are thereby gradually pushed out of the perpendicular.

As to permanence, it lasts for centuries, many old houses still testifying. There is in this county, in the parish of Kentisbeare, a fifteenth-century clergy house of this material in excellent condition, and, one may say, it is possible to pick out pieces of straw reaped during the Wars of the Roses.(*)

(*) The Rev. E. S. Chalk was kind enough to show the writer over the house.

The loamy or shillety earth, well trodden by oxen, horses, or men, and mixed with straw – barley by preference – was heaped up into a wall several feet thick, beaten and trampled as the work proceeded, a leisurely process, that the mass might settle and dry. Indeed dawdling was an important part of the work. If wet weather set in it was not seldom stopped for the season and resumed the next year.

At Budleigh Salterton a cob house has been recently built in the old-fashioned way. Eight men were engaged upon it, and it took three months to reach the wall-plate height. The walls were made three feet thick, and then pared to two feet six inches. Thus money was lost in putting up one-sixth and more in paring it off again.

The walling should be of blocks of cob, say, 18″ x 9″ x 9″ or 18″ x 12″ x 9″, compressed by wheel-and-screw press, or better and more expeditiously as follows: Let the cob be mixed in a small pug mill or mortar mill such as many builders use, then be filled into a die or mould-box of hard wood of sufficient depth to hold the loose material and allow of compression of contents. A steam press brings two tons pressure on it, and in a few seconds a block is ready to be carried on its board and slid off with the flat of another into its place on the rising wall. Less moisture is necessary in the mixture than when it has to make its own pressure, and much less time is needed for drying. Form is given to the mass of earth and straw, and it can set without fear of changing it. In the primitive method the upper load gives pressure by long weighting of the under mass. By a press this is done instantly. The wall surface is true, and bulging does not take place. Just enough skill is requisite to make men interested in their work. The process is straightforward, and no paring is done.

In various parts of our county there are dilapidated walls, stable buildings, low-ceiled cottages, etc., many of which, to the delight of the despondent owner, could be so repaired or renovated that the sound parts would be saved and decayed portions made good by renewing with pressed blocks for much less than it would cost to tear down and replace with new brick buildings. There is in this direction the possibility of conserving beautiful but time-worn steadings or homes and of effecting an excellent economy.

The plant for mixing, pressing, and delivering could be quite a small steam outfit working a slow mixer and giving a pressure of two tons on the contents of mould-box. A portable engine of the moderate power required would work the machinery and move the plant from place to place. Wherever desired a stack of blocks for future use could be made and the plant taken on to its next station. The Cobmaker on its travels would be a welcome visitor.

Sundry details are here suggested which would tend to render the cottages convenient, picturesque, and in good taste. A cottage is distinguished from a villa in having no accommodation provided for servants. For ground floor cottages, a term more suitable than the foreign and ugly-sounding one often used, the walls need not be more than 18″ thick, those having an upper storey 24″ below and 18″ above. The effect of a batter in the walls with generous eaves is good, though in a block-built wall rather more trouble. The work should all be constructional and where possible the construction shown. All pretentious deceits are to be shunned, such as the shamming of venerable age by packing up ridge ends to imitate sagging of the roof, and other unworthy devices. A very admirable effect could be obtained by dressing the rafters with the adze, leaving the tool marks, the timbers should then be stained and left exposed, the spaces between pargeted and whitewashed. A great increase in the air space of the room is also obtained.

Where there is an upper storey the floor joists should be left exposed and stained and the underside of the floor boards left natural colour. Lintels and clavels to be of wood or made cheaply from small rubble and cement, and not hidden from sight. For roof covering for snug appearance and for comfort, thatch, but with remembrance of damaging storms and all-devouring flame. Reed thatch is more reliable. Rustic slates and stone slates, graded large at eaves to small at ridge, form a good and tasteful roof, as does also the excellent green Ruberoid which harmonizes perfectly in the landscape. There are also other bitumen felts on the market. Tiles, though a good roofing, need heavier scantlings and belong by right to other districts. One cannot admire the red asbestos “slates” as they have an unpleasant meaty tint, do not tone, but turn black. Chimneys could be formed boxed up in rubble concrete or built. Round flues have a better draught than square. Windows, casement, larger to be multiples of smaller. The cooking-stove should be of American or colonial pattern, and be placed in a get-at-able position. Front and back doors should have hoods and weather-boards, and water supply and offices should be reached under cover. Doors to be of stout flooring, T and G, ledged and braced. Clacking latches to be avoided. Porch seats have often proved to be invaluable harbours of refuge.

Plaster on walling is not needed as a protection; and the natural colour tones with its surroundings of course, yet the walls may be lime-washed, coloured with red-earth water. Apply with spray, not brush. Spray enters pores of wall; brush is apt to disturb surface. Two or three sprayings are satisfactory. Guard stones at quoins. For linings of rooms one of the reliable and rapidly fixed fibre boards on battens is to be preferred to wet plaster, for it is a wood-and-plaster ready dried in one. The house is fit for habitation very soon. A chair-batten and picture-rail round rooms. If floors are solid, sleeper walls, etc., are saved. Cob blocks give a firm bed, then tar and sand. The wearing surface as desired, whether wood, linoleum, wood and cement, or quarries. The fitted bath for the villa, but for the cottage the portable copper and bath box. Rain gutters and launders of tarred boards. Timber will be reaching this country in large quantities in a year or so. Village artizans for cottage repairs. On a hilly site the higher side should be channeled to intercept the water which comes down over the rock beneath the soil after the rains. The simple precaution is often neglected and the house itself blamed for being damp.

Ground-floor cottages, it is often objected, cost so much more by reason of double roofing, etc. This is not quite true, for stair space is saved, also stair-climbing and stair cleaning. The room-planning for the ground has more choice, and landing-space is not required. Bedrooms can be apart instead of all opening from the same spot. More rain-water can be collected. Stairs are a danger to small children, and crippled or infirm persons who would otherwise have to stay upstairs and be waited on are able to hobble about on the ground floor and take their place with the family or even get out of doors. The very great increase of the never-ceasing work in the case of a housewife with children, who has also to attend to a bedridden person or a patient in a long illness, will make her desire the ground-floor.

It will very reasonably be asked what value, since the writer is neither an architect, a mechanical engineer, or a practical builder, can these suggestions and ideas have, and they may therefore lie on the table till forgotten.

They have been submitted to an architect-engineer, formerly engaged on one of our great railways, and he pronounces them to be in every way practical and their object desirable.

They have also been laid before a leading firm of mechanical engineers in this county, and their chief engineer states that the principle is thoroughly sound, and says also that a compact and portable plant for the purpose could be designed which would deliver the compressed blocks at an economical figure, a large number every working day, and that, given an engineman to attend to the machinery, ordinary unskilled labour would suffice, and he offers valuable suggestions.

And in addition, two pressed blocks are here exhibited. They took but a few minutes to prepare, received two tons compression, and have been drying for four days. They are now nearly as hard as rock. The weight of the upper has already united it with the lower, and a solid homogeneous wall is begun.


Let the brick-built villa adorn the township and the useful cement concrete provide that immense number of raw and scientific structures requisite to accommodate the industrial army in populous centres, but let us, who the divini gloria ruris so greatly prize, pile up our sweet, clean soil, man’s best and seemly shelter, and that which through his labour brings forth his daily bread. Let it surround and protect him and repeat to him our mother Nature’s lesson that “out of it wast thou taken”. And let us acknowledge that, true to the elements of our mortal frame, no granite, no burnt brick, no wood, no galvanized metal or patent slab has ever begotten in the dwellers therein such a gentle and grateful affection as those own for it who have passed their years within homely walls of Devon Cob.

Other writings by T. J. Joce