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Austin coder builds timeless cob home using precise patterns

When Gary Zuker bought an undeveloped piece of land outside of Austin (Texas) 25 years ago, he knew the only way he could afford a home on it was to build it himself. With no building experience, he immersed himself in architecture books at the University of Texas (where he works as a computer engineer).

Medieval straw-clay construction: Leichtlehmbau

He fell in love with medieval straw-clay cottages and cob buildings from around the world. With help from sustainable building expert Pliny Fisk, he designed a home using a modified cob called Leichtlehmbau, a mixture of straw and clay. After just a day learning the technique on another build, he was ready to build his own home.

Learn as you go

Besides advice from an architect friend to use a scissor-truss system for roof support, some help with framing, stone-work and plumbing, Zuker worked alone (no building permits were required in Travis County at that time). The build ended up taking him 3 years (nights and weekends while working full-time) and cost about $40,000 ($25,000 to build the house and $15,000 for the well and septic system).

Design as you build

Zuker was heavily influenced by the classic design handbook A Pattern Language (written mainly by architect Christopher Alexander) so rather than designing the home ahead of time, he waited to decide on details until after the home was under construction.

“There was never a real set of plans- like a typical builder would start out with everything’s set out with ahead of time-, it evolved. 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?’ It’s really easy on a drafting table miles from the site to say we’ll put the window right in the middle or something, but when you get there you go, ‘Well let’s see… right there’s the view’. And that’s the way things ought to be built, kind of going with the flow and not committing ahead of time.”

Building an old house: an unauthorized addendum to A Pattern Language

After spending years tinkering with his home- 25 years after beginning construction, he’s finally replacing a ladder with stairs up to his sons’ lofted bedroom- he’s developed 12 of his own patterns for building a home. Here are a few:

  • 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 really about 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.”
  • 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”.
  • Hand tools- purposeful imperfection: “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.”
  • Never let them tell you it cannot be done: “Timeless construction means usually NOT building things the modern way. It means hand-building things to fit perfectly the spaces they were designed for. Do not compromise your designs because some construction expert tells you ‘it’s not how it’s done’”.

More patterns from Gary Zuker, including Hierarchy of Scale, See How It’s Built, Mock-Ups are Essential, Walls Don’t Have to Be Flat, Highlight the Differences, The Stone Arch, Old World Metals, Three Textures in Every Space.