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An amateur’s take on building a cob house that ages well

“Once a new technology rolls over you, if you’re not part of the steamroller, you’re part of the road,” has stated Stewart Brand, editor of the Whole Earth journal and influential figure of the counterculture that helped kickstart the digital age. Some think there’s an alternative to this road-steamroller dichotomy: one can also get away from the road that wants to be paved and build a house far from the zeitgeist, unconcerned by the speed of change and our race for time management optimization.

But our “fear of missing out” seems to be the last societal bonding cutting across cohorts and demographics. Is there an antidote against the anxiety driven by professional and personal FOMOs?

Some think to have found the way, or better put, to have stumbled upon the right time cadence. Austin coder Gary Zuker doesn’t mind giving things the time he thinks they may deserve or require, and he proves his point inside the comfortable, elegant cob home he built himself in his spare time.

Zuker has undergone many changes in the tech sector and the city. He’s fully aware that many things in our lives go asynchronously slow or very fast. A computer engineer for the University of Texas, he saw middle-age coming and aligned his free time with a personal drive to learn other trades; he decided to dream a bit despite constraints: how about building a dream weekend home on the cheap and engaging in a bit of manual learning-by-doing?

But, to Zuker, building or buying the house wasn’t the goal but the means to embark on an adventure of home building, living, and maintenance that has enriched his life.

Dreams of an “old” house of one’s own

It all started three decades ago when he bought a piece of land on a hillside area outside Texas’ capital. The location, covered by a canopy of Spanish oak trees overlooking a reservoir, was still affordable, solitary, and underdeveloped —the ideal spot for a self-built, timeless cob home. Only Gary Zuker knew nothing about construction or natural materials such as stone or cob. In a pre-YouTube world with much less reference content online, he immersed himself in architecture books, one of which resonated in as many different ways as he could think of: A Pattern Language. Inspired by the book —full of practical, commonsensical advice— and by all the straw-clay cottages and cob buildings he’d seen, he set to start.

It took us a while to get to Gary’s house, going through small winding roads and a dirt path surrounded by a Mediterranean-like landscape that made me feel I was crossing the border between somewhere sleepy between Central Portugal and Salamanca or Cáceres provinces West of Madrid. Once there, some tree canopies made us reveal the construction from a time-sensitive perspective as if we had re-entered a reality concerned with timeless, human-scale beauty.

Roof frame (image: Gary Zuker via Flickr)

Asking around, he got advice from Pliny Fisk, a local building expert who helped with the straw and clay mix. In contrast, an architect friend gave him the needed direction to prepare for framing, stonework, plumbing, and a scissor-truss roof support system. The cob mix Zuker ended up using is a particular mix of light clay with organic additives or Leichtlehmbau.

Life before the rise of DIY construction

In three years, he had immersed himself in the world of DIY construction, experimenting with natural, locally available materials and bioclimatic design to keep the house cool in summer and warm in winter with little energy. The house finally cost $25,000, almost as much as the mandatory septic system ($15,000).

Zuker acknowledges there was never an actual set of plans: “It’s part of a philosophy, you wait until you get in a context, and then you decide, ‘Does the window go here? Does the window go there?” Sometimes, the view is only clear during the process: “That’s the way things ought to be built, kind of going with the flow and not committing ahead of time.”

Over the years since he began building his traditional home, Zuker has developed his own patterns. Among them all, he cherishes one: You cannot build something beautiful if your mind is on the clock. “To the homebuilding industry, ‘ time is money,’ and design choices are always made with this in mind… This pattern is not about really going slow because beauty can also arise from a single stroke… but beauty is highly unlikely to happen when you are thinking about time and money.”

Influenced by what Christopher Alexander et al. put together in A Pattern Language, Zuker made sure to put into practice the “design as you build” strategy to go with the flow and get to decisions based on best performances and actual needs, something that becomes very difficult as the construction practice has increased its dilution and lack of fluid communication among all parts involved: owners and promotors, architects, and the several processes involving the work’s execution.

A more humane modernity

Many programmers and computer scientists have vindicated A Pattern Language for a reason: it encompasses the apparent and hidden interdependence of the multiple parts conforming to a complex object or event. To improve upon any design or solve any issue associated with its development or use, a designer or user must rely on experience and skills as much as good documentation. In A Pattern Language, each characteristic associated with, in this case, construction and urbanism, has some attributes (name, description, examples) as well as several cross-references reminding us that what we do (or not do) has consequences we can learn to predict.

In many ways, A Pattern Language is a multidisciplinary approach to design and architecture that has been declared complementary to other influential works explaining the often-dismissed relationships between things and phenomena, such as systems theory, a post-war mindset that helped in the development of cybernetics, as Steps to an Ecology of Mind, the 1972 compilation of Gregory Bateson’s essays, demonstrates.

Exterior of Gary Zuker’s new “Old House” (image: Gary Zuker via Flickr)

This connection to systems theory and cybernetics didn’t deter many influential figures in the world of architecture and urbanism from considering Christopher Alexander an ardent “traditionalist,” as The New York Times remarked in his obituary after his death on March 17, 2022:

“A fierce anti-modernist, he championed vernacular structures, becoming a counterculture hero to many, from New Urbanists to software designers to Prince Charles.”

More than an anti-modernist, Alexander wasn’t interested in buildings or relations among them and people (in what we call urbanism) that don’t consider their impact on a place or among their users and surroundings. His influential work was used as a reference, no-BS guide to building human and sustainable designs in the years of triumphant internationalist glass-and-steel architecture promoted by starchitects.

Gary Zuker’s quest to build his cob home

Alexander believed that ordinary people had something to say when building the houses and communities they’d end up inhabiting. His commonsensical ideas, such as the beauty of human-scale designs that promoted walking and relations among people, as well as a multiplicity of uses and lots of green space, were considered suppletory and expendable, but his influence kept growing.

To the Viennese-born professor settled in the Bay Area, many patterns form a language, but its use is never univocal: in construction, place, materials, and use will never be the same. That’s why Gary Zuker not only used A Pattern Language extensively but created “an unauthorized addendum” with at least twelve more patterns coming from three decades of experience with his straw cob house project from the moment he researched for the right lot to the maintenance required in every building. In an email to Kirsten, he reminded us of it to give credit where credit’s due:

“Along that line… I’m not sure if you’re familiar with the seminal book on architecture called A Pattern Language (if not, perhaps you should be). It was the single most important reason my house came out the way it did. Many architects jokingly call it “the Bible of Architecture.” Anyway… while building my house I developed sort of an addendum to the book where I extend and refine the original ideas. I wrote my 12 new ideas (called “patterns” in the book) in the same style and format.”

The link he provided to check his addendum stopped working some time ago, as we realized when somebody got in touch with us through the contact section of this site to get in touch with Gary. There’s a copy of the text still only, cached by the University of Texas at Austin.

Gary Zucker’s unauthorized addendum to A Pattern Language

Here are the twelve “patterns” that Zuker developed by working to make his home a reality with little money and a tight schedule but lots of passion and commitment:

Gary Zuker’s addendum to A Pattern Language consists of twelve more “patterns”:

254. You Cannot Build Something Beautiful If Your Mind Is On The Clock
255. Nothing Phony
256. Hand Tools – Purposeful Imperfection
257. Hierarchy of Scale
258. See How It’s Built
259. Mockups are Essential
260. Walls Don’t Have to be Flat
261. Highlight The Differences
262. The Stone Arch
263. Old World Metals
264. Three Textures in Every Space
265. Never Let Them Tell You It Cannot Be Done

Besides the aforementioned new pattern, “You cannot build something beautiful if your mind is on the clock (numbered 254),” Zuker writes about the needed mindset to build a house in no rush. He called this pattern “Nothing phony”:

“Build with honesty. Do not build using phony, fake, or faux materials… never try to make something appear to be something that it’s not (pattern 255).”

All tools don’t provide the same results. To Zuker, “hand tools” deliver “purposeful imperfection” (pattern 256):

“When building on a small scale, power tools can be more of a nuisance than a help… When carving and finishing wood, only hand tools ‘honor’ or bend with the grain of the wood. This natural variation adds an additional level of depth and detail not found in machine-made items.”

Precision at a dreadful price

Parts of his addendum are a mere mention or footnote in A Pattern Language. Christopher Alexander mentions the importance of working on a hierarchy of scale (mentioned in “Half-Inch Trim”, pattern 240 in the book, which includes a note on “totalitarian, machine buildings” not requiring trim “because they are precise enough to do without,” buying their precision “at a dreadful price: by killing the possibility of freedom in the building plan”).

He explains how he came to a conclusion there was a need for elaborating on the idea of hierarchies of scale: “For many years, I believed that the pattern “Hierarchy of Scale” was already in the original Pattern Language book. I was quite sure of it. I even recall quoting it to people. I knew the book so well that I hardly had to actually look at it anymore. One day I tried to find the Hierarchy of Scale pattern and discovered I could not. I had to look three or four times before I could convince myself that it really was not there. More than all the others, this is “The Missing Pattern.”

Hearth, Gary Zuker’s Old House (image: Gary Zuker via Flickr)

So Zuker’s “Hierarchy of scale” elaborates that “Truly remarkable buildings all share one feature —they are interesting no matter where we are looking. Exceptional rooms are rich in detail whether we are looking at the whole room or at a smaller scale like a doorway. And the richness continues as we see finer and finer details —down to the very screws and pegs that hold it together.”

But the computer scientist at the University of Texas at Austin makes an insightful appreciation any honest interior designer needs to face sooner than later:

“Simply having beautiful objects in a room will not make it be a beautiful room. The multiple levels of architectural detail captured in one space make such rooms remarkable. There should be something interesting to look at everywhere we gaze, from big to small and everywhere in between.”

How is it built, and how to test before building

Hierarchy of scale, he continues, is the idea that each space, whether a building, a room, or a doorway, is made of an assemblage of smaller things. But as it happens with what physicist David Deutsch calls “the fabric of reality,” each one of these smaller things, when viewed closely, is comprised of yet smaller things.

In “See How It’s Built” (pattern addendum 258), Gary Zuker makes a remark with which any architect or enthusiast of modern architecture, and not only those fond of traditional building techniques, would agree: when we hide the structure of a house with fixtures and double ceilings, we take “something special away from the beauty of any house.” When a building shows its load-bearing weight by displaying its beams, we can interpret the construction as a system that can be observed, celebrated, maintained, and repaired if the need arises.

As it happens with other complex designs full of interdependencies, like software or industrial design, when building a straw cob “Old House,” as Gary Zuker calls it, despite the fact of being less than thirty years old, “Mock-Ups are Essential” (pattern 259). When looking for the best locations, proportions, and sizes for the things we are building, we approach optimal outcomes by trial and error and mock-ups each any search and discovery process: “many decisions that once seemed arbitrary or without certainty will finally become obvious once you can see it and touch it.”

Entrance to Gary Zuker’s “Old House” (image: Gary Zuker via Flickr)

For example, German architect and structural engineer Frei Otto experimented with new geometrical shapes and membrane structures suspended by poles and ropes and adjusted techniques, shapes, sizes, or perspectives by building models and photographing them from multiple angles. As it happened with Catalan architect Antoni Gaudí, who conceived upside-down models of his fantastic —and often parametric— creations.

Art of highlighting differences

No matter the scale: when built artisanally, every building and room are different. Likewise, Gary Zuker has learned to appreciate that “walls don’t have to be flat” (his pattern addendum 260): modern dry walls, by being flat and featureless, “it is devoid of any warmth, depth, or character.” This observation has deep roots in some traditional aesthetics, like Japanese wabi-sabi, a celebration of transience and imperfection by highlighting a beauty that comes from imperfect, impermanent, and incomplete surfaces or objects.

As popular culture has favored novelty and precision over endurance and natural imperfection, the Austin coder thinks we’ve departed from a long tradition of the impermanent, aging beauty of patina. In his unauthorized addendum, he confesses how he has learned to “highlight the differences” (261): “the more precisely something is built, the more glaringly obvious become its flaws.”

For example, hand-crafted details are essential ingredients for timeless beauty:

“Highlight the differences. Instead of hiding connections, make something special of them. When two surfaces or structures meet, do not try to have everything line-up and be flush. Have adjoining materials meet with a slight offset. An offset small enough to hardly be noticed, but large enough that is clearly intentional.”

When building the house he dreamed of, Gary Zuker faced the constraints that come with lack of experience, budgetary restraint, and the social and legal deterrent of naysayers and zoning codes.

What intention can build

Instead of arriving at a compromise that would end up in a pseudo-modern, kitsch version of his vision, Zuker decided to explore in depth his fascination for timeless aesthetics, holding a Quixotic attitude resembling that of Japanese writer Jun’ichirō Tanizaki when, conscious of the vanishing of traditional aesthetics in the modernizing Japan of the Meiji era, wrote his manifesto on the nuance and imperfection of Japanese interiors and product finishings, reflecting the subtle differences of light and darkness poetically. In his 1933 book, In Praise of Shadows, Tanizaki brings examples such as the opacity grade of things, from human skin to lacquerware or the local “mono no aware,” or art of impermanence.

Tanizaki came to our minds when visiting Zuker’s “Old” new cob home in the hills outside Austin when he talked vividly about traditional stone and metalworking versus more modern, seamless surfaces, as well as the beauty of masonry techniques that modern techniques have put aside. Stone arches, “old world” metals such as brass, copper, bronze, and iron, give a different perspective and texture to spaces, as he tries to explain in patterns 262, 263, and 264.

Living room (image: Gary Zuker via Flickr)

He finishes with one last piece of advice, his pattern number twelve: “Never let them tell you it cannot be done”:

“Timeless construction purposedly avoids many standard building practices. It uses natural materials, often including recycled wood, doors, and windows. Such ad-hoc construction requires the ability to improvise, to think hard, and find ways to make things fit.”

“If you hope to build your own home, there will be forces that try to thwart you. However, you propose to build this house, there will be naysayers. Whenever anyone says, ‘It can’t be done,’ –Ignore them.”