Houses take a lifetime to pay off these days, and even a prosaic shed, barn or coop requires a heavy investment of money, time, skilled labour and imported materials. For thousands of years, though, people around the world used an ancient technique to build homes and other structures quickly, using nothing but local material and simple, easily learned skills.
“Wattle and daub,” as it’s called, takes its name from its two components; a “wattle” was a wicker fence or wall, and the “daub” was the clay plaster – often containing hair and straw -- used to fill in the cracks of the wicker for insulation and privacy, until a smooth wall was created.
Even without the daub, wattles were useful by themselves; farmers could make them as modular, lightweight “hurdles” a metre or two high and across, and then uproot them, carry them to a new position, and stamp them into the ground where needed.
According to author Una McGovern, farmers usually began building wattle hurdles by putting the posts – called sails or zales – into place. Boards of wood with post-sized holes in them, called gallows, kept the posts steady while the farmer wove slim cuttings – “withies” – of willow or hazel back and forth between the posts. At the end of the hurdle the withy would be twisted for greater flexibility, wound around the last zale, and woven back in the other direction. Usually a gap would be left in the middle of the hurdle, called a twilly hole, which allowed a shepherd or farmer to carry a few hurdles as a time on his back.
McGovern writes that hurdle fences were vital to medieval agriculture; by keeping sheep confined without the need for permanent infrastructure, they allowed tenant farmers to graze sheep on a patch of land, letting them manure the fields one by one and deposit the fertilisers necessary for cereal crops. (1)
The same technique could form the walls of a house; typically logs or timbers formed a skeletal frame, with zale posts set in a row between the floor and ceiling. Builders wove wattle between the posts and smeared in the daub, which hardened around the wattle like concrete around rebar.
Not all ancient builders loved it; the Roman architect Vetruvius, in the first century BC, moaned about its hazards in hisTen Books on Architecture:
“As for ‘wattle and daub’ I could wish that it had never been invented,” Vetruvius wrote testily. “…But since some are obliged to use it either to save time or money, or for partitions on an unsupported span, the proper method of construction is as follows. Give it a high foundation so that it may nowhere come in contact with the broken stone-work composing the floor; for if it is sunk in this, it rots in course of time, then settles and sags forward, and so breaks through the surface of the stucco covering.” (2)
Vetruvius’ disdain notwithstanding, however, the technique proved popular throughout the ancient world, among Sumerians, Chinese and Mayans alike. If kept dry the walls would last for centuries, and even now restoring or demolishing old buildings in Europe sometimes reveals wattle inside the walls.
The technique is similar to building in cob, that mixture of sand, straw and clay, mixed with water and squeezed together – usually by humans walking on it. In cob building, handfuls of the mixture – the word “cob” comes from an Old English word for “lump” – are stacked them on top of each other in a row, stomped solid by people’s feet, and then another layer of cob added, until people have a wall.
The straw binds the clay and sand together; instead of a wall’s mass hanging on a few large structures like girders or beams, it hangs on the many tiny structures of the straw. Once the cob dries it can be almost as durable as stone. Bricks are basically cob that has been baked in an oven, and concrete uses a similar principle with gypsum powder, sand and gravel.
Wattle and daub shares most of the advantages of cob: It is completely ecological, requiring no chemicals, no pollution, no machines, generates no toxic waste and is, one might say, dirt cheap. Such walls share cob’s ability to act as a thermal mass, absorbing heat during the day and releasing it slowly at night. Moreover, while cob walls are often very thick to hold the weight of the house, wattle walls can be much thinner and require less material.
Of course, wattle and daub is probably not suitable for modern homeowners unaccustomed to mud walls. That doesn’t mean, however, that it has no relevance to today’s homesteader; animals don’t tend to mind such all-natural surroundings, as long as the interior remains warm and dry, and neither do garden tools.
Such do-it-yourself building methods require almost no money and little skill, only time and labour – which made them practical choices for thousands of agrarian years, but impractical in an age of wealth and convenience. In this age of widespread unemployment, however, many households have less money and more time than they are used to, and might find some older techniques to be viable once again.
1 – Una McGovern, Lost Crafts, published by Chambers, 2009.
2 – Vetruvius, Ten Books on Architecture, Chapter 8, Section 20.
Top photo: Partially daubed wattle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.
Bottom photo: 15th-century woman using a wattle hurdle. Courtesy of Wikicommons.