GN Focus | Green Initiatives

Mad for mud

Check into one of these hobbit houses in Canada for a greener vacation

  • By Kelly Fowler | Special to GN Focus
  • Published: 00:00 January 15, 2013
  • GN Focus

  • Image Credit: Supplied
  • Eco-adventure: The cob cottages at Mayne Island are easy on the environment and the wallet
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Visit any one of British Columbia’s Gulf Islands and you’re sure to experience the rather splendid pong of a hippie colonisation, with plenty of organic farming, off-the-grid living, moody artisans and, of course, a love for all things green. However, we came to visit Patrick Hennebery about something of a rather dirtier nature — mud.

Self-taught builder of earthy hobbit-houses, Hennebery believes in the 3Bs — beg, borrow and barter, but never buy. He’s created more than 26 houses from nothing more than the natural resources at his fingertips, such as mud. He calls the beach “God’s Lumberyard” and visits twice daily with the tides to discover what new beams or decorative twisted trunks have washed up.

“I can make something from what most would consider nothing,” says Hennebery. “And when people work together to create something from nothing, they pass their amazing energy into that project, and it can be felt for years to come.”

Forgoing the steadfast chug-chug of the local ferries, my 13-year-old son, Oliver, and I flew into Miner’s Bay via a tiny floatplane from Vancouver and rented bikes for our eco-adventure on Mayne Island. Having heard about earthen houses sprouting all over the cluster of Gulf Islands, we were determined to see these wonders for ourselves. We reserved three nights at Hennebery’s cob cottage and prepped our inner hippies for a long weekend of sustainable living.

We arrived at the cob cottage following a leisurely ride past century-old farms and forested tracts of land. Two hundred and forty square feet of rustic sweetness, Hennebery’s very first cottage oozes pioneer spirit. From the handcrafted cob fireplace and the cooler built deep into the mud wall (just add ice!) to the sculpted nooks and crannies designed to hold tea lights, the handcrafted-with-love motto was evident. The cottage also featured a wood burning stove, running water, propane cook stove, queen bed, daybed, an overstuffed rocking chair and a built-in bench with cushions, and plenty of windows to let in the light. Despite the hot weather, the interior was surprisingly cool. The self-composting outhouse was just down a path and around the corner, with fantastic views of giant ferns and towering cedars.

As the sun set, the frog song waned and the deafening sound of silence prevailed. Not an echo from a passing car or a humming refrigerator... and we slept. Deeply.

The next day, Hennebery emerged from the woods to give us the dirt on mud. He explained that the mud used to create the earth homes is actually “cob” — a mixture of sand, clay, straw and water mixed by hand and foot in ancient tradition. Natural builders use the cob, along with other organically occurring unprocessed materials such as sod and wood, and salvage materials such as coloured glass bottles, old windows and doors. Easy on the environment and the wallet, these simple ingredients can make a home for life. Hennebery built the cottage we stayed in for under $1,000 (about Dh3,673).

Hennebery took us on an ambling tour of his 20-acre retreat, including his private campground linked to the cob 
house via a hidden path through the forest. Prayer flags flutter along the edge of the group 
cook shack used during cooperative workshops.

An apprentice from Spain stokes the mini wood stove attached to the spring-fed outdoor shower to wash off the day’s work. Hennebery’s twin boys scamper in and out of the two-storey cob house where he lives with his family.

A self-taught builder, Hennebery doesn’t hesitate to share his knowledge, regularly holding cob workshops and taking summer apprentices under his wing through his organisation, Cobworks. Folks come from all over to live and learn communally at Fern Hollow Campground to create ovens, outdoor kitchens, garden sheds and even multi-storey houses. “Workshop participants take their knowledge and confidence home to begin teaching others, fostering community in their own area,” says Hennebery.

Despite his great height and wild whiskers, Hennebery’s mellow voice and tender passion for his work reveal a gentle giant with a love for both sustainable living and beauty. The craftsmanship of the cob houses sings in the curved walls, sculpted interiors and quirky rooftops that allow creativity to shine through. Even better, cob is durable and easy to keep up. Abandoned cob homes will eventually grow back into nature. Cob, however, isn’t equal to rustic. Every project is custom, and Hennebery has built plenty of homes fully wired for everything from appliances to the internet. “The key,” says Hennebery, “is to keep it beautiful and affordable, using natural and local materials. Make your mark in the world, but don’t leave a big footprint.”

When you go, catch a ferry or floatplane from Vancouver or Victoria (www.bcferries.com or www.seairseaplanes.com). Stay in Hennebery’s Cob Cottage at CAD80 (about Dh298) per night, two nights minimum, or $400 per week. Email pat@cobworks.com for reservations. Or stay longer and take a workshop with him. Check future dates and opportunities on Hennebery’s Cobworks website, www.cobworks.com

GN Focus