We find the house via a combination of directions from McGregor’s locals and the ability to follow our noses once we have the rather obvious house in sight – there are not many homes in McGregor that look quite like it. Outside is a sign – cobbits cottage. It’s an apt description of what stands before us, built completely out of earth and serving as MAT’s headquarters.
Jill is larger than life. She would have to be. After building her own house out of cob she is the walking epitome of what it is to live sustainably, off grid – no link-up with Eskom at all – perched on the edge of McGregor where the town joins the Krans Nature Reserve. She is also, when we finally meet after having been virtual friends via email for a while, a wonderfully warm individual who is only too keen to show us around her home, and drop pearls of wisdom about how best to go about building your own home out of earth into our ears …
Jill runs the McGregor Alternative Technology Centre. There is CAT (centre for alternative technology) in Wales, and then there is MAT in McGregor, and now that we’ve visited Jill, we can tick both off our list of very desirable places to visit. What I love about MAT though is its total lack of pretention and its down-to-earth owner.
Jill has really only just properly finished building her house – it’s taken her twelve years, in stages, and now it has a second storey and even a roof out of cob (something even she admits is a bit of an experiment). There are photos on her website that reveal it wasn’t always this way. Initially it was just one floor and to start with, she had to content herself with living and cooking on her verandah whilst sleeping in what is now her study.
Photographs – Left: Jill’s verandah / Centre: Jill on her verandah / Right: Jill’s house – staircase to the loft room
One of the anecdotes she entertains us to is when, leg broken and in a cast and lying on the bed whilst her sister hastily packed her underwear in order to take her back to convalesce in Cape Town, there was a knock on the door and various ‘important people’ arrived to see an example of a cob house. And see it they did, as well as her underwear. In her enthusiasm for a more sustainable way of living, Jill will stop at nothing to share her knowledge.
Cob building, for those who are initiates, is that wonderful type of clay-looking, rough finished type house that is slowly becoming more and more trendy, particularly in small towns like McGregor. Cob is a mix of clay, sand, straw and water and involves a lot of foot stomping in order to get it to a dough-like consistency so that it is ready to make walls, cupboards and other parts of the house. The idea too, when building sustainably, is that most of the materials come from just ‘outside your back door’, using as little factory-produced material as possible.
Normally local invader trees are used for the house’s structure and Jill shares with us the secret of cutting three days before a full moon when the sap is still in the ground and won’t attract woodborer. Lying around her property are the offcuts that still remain from building the cottage down the bottom – there is a cottage at the end of the garden, a rather modern cob rendition that now serves as a B&B, that is known simply as the cottage.
Most people use local grasses to thatch the roof, but I see that Jill has used tin for the cottage, which includes a couple of recycled motor car windows and coloured wine bottles in the windows.
Photographs – Left: Cottage interior / Right: Cottage shower
MAT has been promoting alternative living via a series of cob, strawbale, dry stone walling, wattle and daub, permaculture and alternative energy workshops for the last twelve years. Jill can be found in places like Hogsback and in her home town on a regular basis giving workshops to the avid followers of sustainable building – sustainable in the sense that if you simply leave the house to ‘rot’ it will eventually return to the earth with but a few car windows and bottles left for someone else to use in a hundred years or so.
But Jill is about ready to slow down now. Her efforts have produced an entire following of the age-old methods of building and others now carry on the traditions that she has played a huge role in initiating. The little cottage down at the bottom of the garden – only her vegetable garden, chickens and compost heap to separate it from her own – is a recent acquisition.
It is modelled on one of the architectural designs a local architect drew as examples for RDP houses – the inner dimensions of the house are the same 40 sqm required for housing specs – only the verandah adds something extra.
And it’s made completely out of cob, wattle and daub, and adobe brick. It took 121 days to build and 19 days to decorate, and is a living example of how all people could live, if government were only prepared to spend a little more on RDP homes (and not a whole lot more either).
Photographs – Left: MAT headquarters / Jill’s house window
It is also incredibly pretty, surprisingly spacious, and beautifully furnished. Jill has already had two parties of guests to stay who have enjoyed their time here immensely. We wander through and get a pleasant surprise in the bathroom – the shower is a gorgeous mosaic where it stands at the end of the room beyond the compost toilet (Jill’s personal design, which is a lot cheaper and easier to implement than some on the market, involving a black bin..but that’s another story).
Jill’s cat has taken quite a shine to me by now and she and I sit a while and connect whilst Jill shows my other half around the grounds – they bond over chicken poop and natural pool designs. There is something about the McGregor magic that is starting to work its effect on me. Next thing I’ll be moving here and building a cob house…
For more on MAT simply drive to McGregor and ask the locals where Jill, the local cobbit and alternative building expert, lives.