Groundbreaking ‘cob house’ building research wins major EU award

A pioneering Anglo-French research project lead by the University of Plymouth and involving Norwich-based Hudson Architects to bring an ancient building technique into the 21st century has won a major EU award.

Cob houses – built using a mixture of earth and natural fibre – have existed for centuries. Sadly, this tactile, natural and sustainable material did not satisfy contemporary building regulations – until now. The EU-funded CobBauge project reconciles cob construction with modern building standards and has been announced as the winner in the sustainability category at this year’s RegioStars awards in Brussels. Following this important award, the search is now on for projects in the UK and France where this ground-breaking research can be applied and monitored in practice.

Having received funding from the EU’s Interreg VA France (Channel) England Programme and European Regional Development Fund (ERDF), the project completed its first phase in 2018. The main aim of the project has been to update and standardise the construction technique and by doing this, make way for a new generation of energy efficient homes.

Organised by the European Commission, RegioStars recognises Europe’s most innovative regional projects. CobBauge triumphed out of 30 original entrants in the category. This award-winning project, led by the University of Plymouth, is a collaboration between Earth Building UK and Ireland (EBUKI) and Hudson Architects in the UK, with French partners ESITC Caen, Parc naturel régional des Marais du Contentin et du Bessin (PnrMCB) and the University of Caen.

Cob houses have existed in southern England and northern France for centuries; however, it is only through the phase 1 CobBauge innovation that cob will comply with thermal regulations on both sides of the channel (UK (Part L), and France (RT2012)). The project received an additional €4m in funding from the EU this year to launch a second phase, which will run until 2023 and will include the construction of at least two full-sized buildings.

In both countries, the search is now on for a building project on which to trial the new material. Members of the public with a house building project in mind can benefit from this pioneering research and secure themselves a contemporary cob building.

Homeowners and builders with potential projects are encouraged to contact the project team to continue the work on this new, and yet somewhat ancient technology. Once a site has been identified, Hudson Architects will utilise their design understanding of the material to help detail and construct the UK based pilot house. Once these homes have been constructed, they will be monitored to assess energy use, thermal conditions and indoor air quality, facilitating comparisons with equivalent, conventionally constructed homes.

Professor Steve Goodhew, principal investigator on CobBauge (Plymouth University) and a member of the University’s Environmental Building Group, said: “To win this award is clear recognition of the importance of this work in terms of exploring sustainable alternatives to conventional building materials and methods, it is also well-deserved recognition of all the hard work undertaken so far by the project team, from colleagues at the university, to partners in France and here in the UK.”

CobBauge project manager, Karen Hood-Cree (Plymouth University), said: “The judges were particularly impressed by the development of an innovative low carbon technology to build cob houses using local soil and agricultural/waste fibres. It was felt that this technology could make an important contribution to the reduction of CO2 emissions, improved energy efficiency, high levels of indoor air quality and an overall carbon neutral strategy.”

Anthony Hudson, practice director at Hudson Architects said: “According to latest research as buildings become more efficient, embodied energy becomes a significantly higher proportion of total life cycle energy use. Given that we have an urgent need to minimise our impact on the world around us, the low embodied energy of CobBauge represents a major step towards a more sustainable way of building.”