text and photography by Dianne Thomas
Walk into any traditional Bulgarian house and the evidence of building with mud will be visible somewhere: from clay ovens in kitchens to interior walls and outdoor barns. Building with cob, a combination of straw, clay, earth and often other natural materials such as lime, has long been used as a worldwide building technique that has evolved very little over time.
The appeal of this unique and original method of house building is undergoing a revival within a growing number of expat and some Bulgarian communities, as people look towards a more natural approach to restoring their houses – one that involves little impact on the environment, and on the wallet. Many people are exploring the techniques and skills of "green architecture" and Bulgaria, it seems, is an ideal country to welcome this approach to sustainable living.
I am in the garden of one such house: straight in front of me are huge, ornate windows that lead into the main house. A pathway curves round to reach another small, decorative house, painted blue with the beginnings of a grass roof, and at the end of the garden I can make out a yurt, which stands in front of a bottled wall. Scattered in between are large buckets of clay and mud mixtures where improvements are still being made. It is a lot to take in, but then we step inside the main house to find a further treasure trove of sculpted windows, shelves, sofas and walls which come alive as our eyes adjust to the textures, colours and shapely designs.
The creator of this enchanting artwork is cob builder, permaculturist and Bowen Practitioner, Su Hagan, who has helped to initiate a great deal of the interest in cob building in Bulgaria and beyond. Her house and the outer buildings have been a work in progress since her arrival in Bulgaria a little over five years ago. During that time she has run workshops and courses and often has volunteers in-house to help create and have fun while doing so. Recognition seems to be growing as she has recently given a lecture in Sofia on her experiences here, and next year sees her hosting an International Internship based at her home.
Su emphasises the point: "It's quite common and quite popular here and, of course, as you get more involved you find people doing the same thing and it's a perfect place to do it, because there are existing old houses here." In her village of Hotnitsa, near Veliko Tarnovo, there are no less than six house owners renovating their homes "either making cob buildings or retro-fitting existing houses, plus there are many more in Bulgaria," thus providing plenty of opportunities to share and learn from each other within the community.
Already an established potter, Su's interest in cob building originated in the UK, prior to moving to Bulgaria, with a straw build she completed with her son, having first, "taken a course with the grandfather of cob building, Ianto Evans, in America and Ireland. Then I felt that I could at least start the process; at least I could feel how the process had to be and of course it's like learning anything, unless you have to do it you don't know what you know or what you don't know." She continues: "The little house here was an experiment to see what the materials could do, how long it would take, and how you do it. And I also wanted to see that it worked, and it worked beautifully. I just love the process of looking at a room and thinking what unusual and creative things we can do here."
From the perspective of someone who has had little experience of working with clay, its seems a bit daunting to then start designing a house, or even just part of it but, as with most things in life, it comes from experience and confidence. Su elaborates: "You might start out with a window, for example, and you start sculpting the edges of it and then it depends on what your personality's like really. Some people say 'this is the way I want it and it has to be exactly like this' but I'm much more laissez faire about it."
A few days later I volunteer to help Su with some of the work needing to be done on her house before winter sets in. I can see the attraction, not only as an eco-friendly way of working, but also the versatility of how these natural materials blend together: the mixture of lime paint with natural pigments and the varying combinations of the mud plaster. Despite it being labour intensive, Su makes it look so easy, and actually it is not as difficult to work with as I first anticipated.
The beauty and benefits of it appear to fuse with its inventiveness for design and the ability to work well in different weather conditions, a particular benefit for living in a country with such extreme temperatures. Compared to a modern construction, another advantage of cob building is that if you do not like it, or want to change it, it is easy to alter. After all, Su asks: "What's the worst thing that can happen? I can just take it apart and do it again. That's one thing about natural building that I love! Since you don't have to deal with cement or hard permanent materials that, once set, you cannot get rid of."
I am curious as to how receptive the local neighbours are of Su's housing designs. "Now that they see it, yes, mostly women and young people. A lot of young people are interested in this kind of building in Bulgaria. I get lots of positive feedback and they say things like 'could you make us a shower like that?' Like my neighbours, for example, now they're starting to think they can build it themselves. They can do it themselves because they see the scope."
I would imagine that having a neighbour like Su, one can't help but be inspired by her creations and the possibilities are certainly endless.
More information can be found on her Facebook page: www.facebook.com/cobinbulgaria.