Mud, mud, glorious mud!
PUBLISHED: 09:00 11 April 2014
Master cob expert Kevin McCabe built Keppel Gate to stand the test of time, as KATE WILLIAMS discovers when she visits a stunning home which is certainly not a ‘mud hut’
Photos by Matt Austin
Who knew that a house made of mud could form an exquisite, beautiful and stylish family home? Cob walls are rife amongst the Devon countryside, the building blocks of many centuries-old cottages, but the substance is not what your everyday new house is built of these days.
Master cob expert and builder Kevin McCabe has a fondness far beyond love for cob and knows and realises the benefits it brings to a home, the longevity proven over hundreds of years. A lifelong love affair with cob provided Kevin with the enthusiasm to build Keppel Gate in Ottery St Mary, where he has spent 12 happy years with his wife, Rose, and their children.
It would be fair to say the majority of people may be intrigued, if a little put off perhaps, when visiting a house made primarily of mud, but Keppel Gate, overlooking the vast East Devon countryside, is a thing of beauty.
Not at all what one might expect, the house is beautiful inside and out with its thick, curved walls and country decor - making it difficult to believe what is underneath those walls.
With approximately one-third of the world’s population living in earth buildings of some sort, cob has proved its inarguable longevity. A mixture of sub-soil, which must contain some clay and straw, cob offers an important aesthetic of form, colour and texture and an automatic blending with the local environment with locally-sourced sub-soil.
The straw is used to hold the mix together in its early wet state and, after a short drying period, it can be pared down to the required shape and form with a sharp spade or mattock then the surface is ‘dressed up’ with a heavy mallet and can even be finished with the bare hand, thus creating a hand-sculptured building with wonderfully pleasing possibilities.
But it is not only these pleasing, artistic opportunities which appeal to Kevin. Cob offers intense environmental and economical bonuses too with its two-to-three-feet-thick walls creating excellent insulation against heat and cold, as well as providing a massive heat store.
This means that, typically, a cob house will use approximately 20 per cent less energy to heat compared with a typical modern house meeting the same building regulation insulation requirements. Another important property is the humidity store of earth walls, which easily absorb moisture and release it again when the air dries out thus resulting in a much more comfortable and healthier atmosphere.
Kevin & Rose’s design advice
Kevin’s favourite room: The lounge on the top floor with the cleverly designed window giving a balcony feeling, although the kitchen and grade room are the hub of the home
Rose’s style tips: With a country style at the heart of the home, the interiors are warm yet not old-fashioned, offering a timeless atmosphere
Rose’s best buys: The Aubergine Aga (Garton King Appliances Ltd, Exeter) and her bespoke pottery ware (Pottlelake Potts, East Devon)
From the beautiful exterior shape, Keppel Gate offers a huge amount of kerb appeal from the outset, tucked away at the end of a lane just seconds from Ottery St Mary’s bustling town and the views across the rolling Devon hills, which stretch for many miles, giving this extraordinary property a stunning backdrop.
“We bought the site in 2000 and it took us a year or so to get the planning,” explains Kevin. “Then it took around a year to build. It was thatched originally, but we had a roof fire three years ago. Luckily, there wasn’t too much damage to the actual house, mainly just the roof and some of the beams. It wasn’t so much the fire, more the 400 tonnes of water through it, so all the ceilings had to be replaced.”
Inside those thick cob walls, it is hard to believe it is a ‘mud house’. With a country style to the interiors, Keppel Gate has a light but homely feel. Timber and off-white walls are a theme throughout but there is nothing plain about this house. With the beams and beautifully curved walls, there is no need for intricate decoration. Wooden furniture and leather sofas have been carefully chosen to compliment, not ‘out-do’ the house itself.
“Rose came up with the original kidney bean shape, but her input was generally more on the finish and interiors - oh, and keeping me fed, watered and encouraged!” laughs Kevin.
"Rose came up with the original kidney bean shape, but her input was more on finish and interiors - and keeping me fed, watered and encouraged!"
The sitting room is a warm, relaxing space with its brown and burnt orange tones creating the cosy feeling desired in such a room. The log burner, ceramic floor tiles and oak beams just enhance that feeling further.
The warm colours continue into the country kitchen, a real family space with the enormous aubergine Aga as the centre-piece. The timber units and dark work surfaces compliment the colour scheme and natural walls, with the tiles forming an artistic shape on the floor.
The garden room, off the kitchen, takes advantage of the beautiful East Devon countryside through its circular glazed windows.
Much of the house’s joinery was completed by Kevin himself with an expanse of oak and Devon sweet chestnut as a theme decorated with bespoke door furniture, curved stair hand rails and the couple’s eight-foot round bed, all created by ASH Ironworks of Branscombe.
Up the stairs - which are, unbelievably, made of cob too but topped with Spanish tiles (Devon Tiles, Ottery St Mary) - are four bedrooms, each with interesting shapes due to the curved shape of the building. Again, the rooms are not highly decorated but there is nothing lacking in the interiors as the shape and the timber speak volumes, as does the limewash on all the walls. On the second floor, an amazing separate lounge commands the majority of this unique top floor space.
The fabulous oak beams, some of which were fire damaged and replaced and repaired, create an ark above the purple leather sofas (Furniture Village, Exeter) and huge television.
Another bedroom suite, with stunning curved wall walk-in shower in the en-suite, was added after the fire - as was the best window in the house, which opens right out to give a balcony effect over the terrific East Devon view, the perfect place to relax with a coffee.
“If we had decided to actually put a balcony on the side of the house here, it would look a bit clumsy, but this gives you the same feel,” explains Kevin. “On a clear day, you can see as far as the edge of Exmoor, so the view stretches about 30 miles.”
Keppel Gate is scattered with other thoughtful and insightful design ideas, including a small ‘hole’ in the ground floor ceiling which opens up in the second staircase where the heat from the Aga is regenerated.
Being green and eco-friendly is a big priority for Kevin and his solar hot water system and ground source heat pump make the huge home super-efficient and low-cost to run.
The separate three-story ancillary building and outbuildings flanking the house, as well as the pizza oven in the garden, are all made of cob.
Although the second cob-built ‘dream home’ Kevin has built for his family in Devon, Keppel Gate is currently for sale (hallandscott.co.uk and jackson-stops.co.uk) making way for his new and improved ‘cob castle’ in progress on a nearby site.
The new building is somewhat unbelievable in size and stature and featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs last year.
Despite the very humble foundations of this house, the building itself is a thing of beauty brought lovingly - and surprisingly - into modern-day living.