do! magazine, July 2004
“When I told people I wanted to make a house out of straw, the typical response was, ‘You mean like the house in The Three Little Pigs that got blown down by the Big Bad Wolf?’ There were many naysayers, but I was determined that I was going to do it no matter what,” says Gary Zuker, a man determined to make his dream come true. But it didn’t come easy.
When Zuker, who lives in Austin, Texas and works as a computer engineer for the University of Texas, decided that he wanted to build a vacation home on nearby Lake Travis, he had originally envisioned a stone house that resembled a European cottage. “I wanted to build something that I could do myself on a shoestring budget of $10,000. I guess I was a little naive,” he says, admitting that final costs were closer to $40,000. “I was told that a stone house would require two stone walls for insulation due to Texas’ hot summers and sometimes cold winters. Friends of mine have stone houses, and they say that their houses are always cold in the winter.”
With the stone house idea scrapped, Zuker enlisted the help of a local expert on building homes with indigenous materials. “He does housing for third-world countries made of dirt and mud,” says Zuker. “So, one day I volunteered to help build a home that was to be made of a straw mixture. I quickly realized that this was something that I could do myself.”
Zuker quickly used his computer skills and access to the University’s library system and started researching homes made of cob, a mixture of straw and clay. He learned that cob had been used since medieval times to build homes in Europe. Walls made of cob are self-supporting, weight-bearing and can be cut into 18- to 24-inch thick walls with a handsaw. Zuker decided on the use of a modified cob known as Leichtlehmbau, a lightweight mixture of straw and clay that is lighter than cob and uses more straw than clay.
Zuker then learned that the neighborhood association for the area where he purchased land had deed restrictions that required him to submit building plans. “I submitted a simple drawing of what I wanted to do, and it was rejected. They told me I need something a bit more detailed and professional,” he laughs.
Undaunted, Zuker hired his friend, Murray Libersat, a faculty member with the University of Texas School of Architecture, to help with the plans. “I wanted a ski slope design like a European chalet. Murray suggested a two-pitch German design that used a scissors-truss design for the timber frame.”
Once the design was approved, Zuker went to work. “I hired some locals to help with labor and a stone masonry to help with the foundation and chimney. Other than that, I worked on it myself, along with my wife, non-stop for three years. Although it took longer than I thought, three years is not bad when you are holding down a full-time job and doing most of the work yourself. I had zero training in construction, and when I started, I didn’t even own a saw. I’m a computer guy. That’s another reason why I wanted to do a primitive structure; I figured it would help to keep it simple.”
That’s not to say there weren’t some roadblocks along the way.
“One big problem was that we ran out of straw. Since straw has little commercial value, and you have to use wheat straw, not hay or grass, it’s hard to find, especially for a computer guy like me, who didn’t have the faintest idea how to find straw or a farmer for that matter,” Zuker laughs. “Apparently the time of year that we ran out of straw was off-season for straw production, and farmers do not stockpile it for lack of storage space. So, we had to halt production for a month or so until I could get my hands on some straw,” he recalls.
Three years and a lot of hard work later, Zuker’s dream came to fruition. The result was a rustic, unique home unlike any other. Outside, plaster wraps the cob walls and pine beams from the frame shoot right through the walls. “I like to see what is holding the home up,” Zuker says. A cedar door, handcrafted by Zuker, welcomes you to the “hobbit style” home, as does an enormous door handle, which Zuker crafted by pounding a big piece of brass for 30 hours until it resembled a door handle.
“I also made the door frame out of timber,” Zuker recalls. .”Many people said, ‘Just use two-by-fours; it’s easier, and you can make it look like timber.’ However, I had one rule: nothing could be made to look like something else. It had to be the real thing.”
Inside, gorgeous woodwork and intricately detailed accents show the laborious process and Zuker’s passion and love for the home. Also abundant are salvaged materials that were used to construct pine floors, granite counters, windows, cabinets and skylights. Zuker also enlisted the help of his wife, Delores, a stained glass artist, to help with the windows. “Due to the budget, we used a lot of salvaged materials, which takes time and effort to locate. It was a lot more work than I expected.”
Thankfully, Zuker says, he discovered during the research phase that straw seeds in the walls sprout annually, which causes the walls to turn green for two weeks. “I’m glad I knew that ahead of time, or I would have been quite surprised.”
Zuker added a loft space to take advantage of the 18-foot ceilings and complete the 900-square-foot home that he and his family use as a weekend getaway. “It’s a place to recharge my batteries,” he says of the quiet, wooded area 20 miles outside of Austin. “If I’m not there for a few days, I feel the need to visit. It’s too small for a family to be there for more than a couple of days, and it’s too far to commute to work. It will make a great retirement home for my wife and I.”
Zuker says that he still considers the house only partially done. “Every time I’m there I see things that need to be fixed that only I notice. My kids are now 9 and 11 years old, so soon I’ll be able to put them to work as carpenters.”
To learn more about constructing a home out of cob, a wealth of information and resources can be found on Zuker’s Web site, http://homepage.psy.utexas.edu/homepage/staff/zuker/strawhouse.