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(With details of how Cath made her super living roof)
Time for a different earthbag build. I’m letting you in on a mud adventure that has touched my heart rather. It’s one you won’t have seen before. Deep in the urban badlands of Brixton is a mud home with spirit. It’s plucky, original, and despite its size has plenty of personality – much like the woman who built it, in fact. Welcome to Mud Hut, built by Cath Coffey and the Mud Hutters.
For those outside the UK or who don’t know, Brixton isn’t some rural off-grid wilderness, it’s London. But while Mud Hut squats in the capital’s backyard, it harks back to somewhere else, somewhere much further south. Its roots stretch right back across Europe, over the Mediterranean, through the Sahara, and into East Africa.
“I always loved visiting my grandparents in Kenya,” Cath told me. “They lived in mud huts in a village on the foothills of Mount Kenya. My grandfather had two wives, each with their own hut, thatched with reeds from the river. Kids, goats, chickens and wood-fired cooking smells all intermingled. The sound of Kikuyu and laughter...It felt like a free life, if a strenuous one. They grew their own food, and were mostly self-sustaining.”
And it was this Kenyan life and family that inspired Mud Hut.
Mud Hut is 22 feet in diameter. It’s an earthbag house (hyperadobe) with rubble trench foundation, earth plaster, and wooden floor. The house was made with raschel mesh tubing, which Cath found from a certain Mr Jing Hou in China. “He was the only person I found who would send me a small quantity (500 metres),” explains Cath. “I still have plenty enough left for another structure or two! Mr Jing Hou loves the building...calls me Mr Cath.” :)
How long did it take to build?
“The house took just over a year to build, and that includes a long break for winter. It was constructed by myself and one other helper mainly. Del McCoy was my main wingman. The rest of the family were also amazing, each in their own way. I’ll always be indebted to friends who took time from their busy lives to help. It was a very special time,” explains Cath.
How much did the house cost?
“Honestly, I don’t know and I’m scared to total it up! I know it cost a lot more than I thought...scrub that...I didn’t think about the cost. I just had a compulsion to build.”
How to reduce the cost of your build
On the subject of cost, one thing I can say is that Cath is super smart about reducing building costs by using recycled and reclaimed materials. It makes a huge difference. I often think that with building as with travelling, you spend as much as you have. Do take note of Cath’s tips on foraging below, especially if you are in a first-world country where people shamelessly throw everything away.
How Cath made the living roof
Living roofs are always made like massive club sandwiches: there are plenty of layers. Cath really did her homework when it came to the roof. It’s designed for a cold, wet British climate.
1. The roof has a wooden frame (60% off from a family member who worked at a large DIY store).
2. The frame was covered with free reclaimed 18 mm plywood.
3. Next layer was carpet from the bins at the back of Carpetland (pure wool!)
4. Then Cath added 6mm EPMD pondliner (expensive).
5. After that there’s a root barrier (root barriers are always non-organic, otherwise obviously roots will burrow and your roof will no longer be waterproof.)
6. Finally sedum modules with Leca (expanded clay balls) infill.
“I know from my sedum roof at home that the sedum will eventually migrate and colonise the Leca. The carpet, sedum and Leca all make for good insulation. There is also 150 mm insulation batting in between the roof joists. The building is both warm and cool when you need it to be. Result!”
The pitch of the roof
People sometimes get this wrong, because unlike tiles or other roof systems, living roofs don’t want too much pitch. If the roof’s too steep you’ve got erosion issues; if it’s too flat you’ve got a swimming pool. About 5 - 10 degrees is optimum (that’s 1:12 or 2:12 max).
What about the edging?
This is the trickiest part of the living roof, if you ask me. Cath’s living roof is edged with steel garden edging. The EPDM is sandwiched between two layers of edging so that excess water drips off the lower edge. She plans to build planters with water-loving plants at the drip edge to take advantage of the run-off.
This is definitely a super model for a living roof on an earthbag house in a wet climate, in my opinion.
What was the most challenging part of the build for Cath?
“The doubt,” she replies. “The ‘do I know what I’m doing?’ The physical demands; earth is heavy. The protracted time period. Costs spiralling. The ups and downs of life.”
Mud Hut Today
Cath built this house for her artist sister, in fact. “She’s a compulsive maker and needed space.” And what a beautiful place for a creative to work within! It’s the ultimate she-shack.
Cath has kindly shared the resources she used to build Mud Hut.
On the subject of Owen Geiger I’ll also pay tribute, because he patiently answered my questions too, and whenever I’m feeling a little frustrated by my inbox, I always remember his generous example.
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