Built entirely of cob, stones, alien wood and recycled materials such as glass and car windshields, the two cottages have limited impact on the environment.
Furthermore, with solar panels and two tiny wind turbines which generate energy as they turn for pumping or moving water, the McGregor Alternative Technology Centre is completely off-the-grid.
Additionally, the walls are rendered in lime, a process which is completely carbon-neutral.
Jill tells me that the lime hardens by drawing carbon-dioxide out of the air. “In the old days, when building cathedrals they always had a fire going, not only to keep warm, but to get carbon dioxide into the air”, said Jill.
Water is harvested from rainwater tanks and all household greywater (laundry, kitchen, sinks) goes straight into the garden.
Jill also hopes to develop a hydro-based system - where running water can be used to turn machinery (like old flour mills) and also turn a turbine to produce energy.
McGregor is built using an old leiwater system - from a storage dam at the top of the village there is a network of sluits, or small channels used to run water through the village to the inhabitants for use in their gardens. Jill hopes to use this system to generate further energy.
Jill grows mostly her own food, which is no mean feat in the boiling hot in summer and icy cold in winter climate of the Little Karoo. Despite this, McGregor’s good soil has drawn farmers from the late 1700s.
Though it was winter when we got there and the garden was not showing its best face, it was still clear that permaculture was most certainly in practice.
Apart from exclusively using biodegradable products (we share a love for the affordable South African-made Earthsap range), Jill also recycles what she can’t reuse and has equipped both cottages with compost toilet - probably the most successfully odour-free composting toilets I’d come across yet.
Jill, whose work restoring historical houses is constantly in demand, tells me that one half of the world's population approximately 3 billion people on six continents, live or work in buildings constructed of earth.
I learnt that the oldest earth building is in Euphrates, a city dating back to 6000 BC, while the oldest existing cob building remains in Devon, England and dates back to 1539.
A self-confessed purist, Jill is emphatic about avoiding cement at all costs. “From doing restorations I’ve seen that where people have repaired with so-called ‘modern methods’ such as brick and cement, the house just starts falling apart after three years”.
“If you make a pot and it dries why doesn’t it collapse?” she questions. “The reason is that the molecular structure comprises platelets".
"The magnetic energy of the moisture pulls and holds these platelets together, and this holds houses up for thousands of years. Platelets allow it to move and because the earth moves all the time these houses literally dance - it’s beautiful".
"Meanwhile", she continues, "cement is very rigid; a cement floor will start cracking within eight months. After 80 years a cement house is really cracking up, and that’s because they absorb water like a sponge - you can wick moisture up 18 floors in a cement building".
"So the platelets collapse. When you take cement plaster off a wall, half the wall comes away because it’s just powder, there’s nothing holding it together anymore", she says emphatically.
“So when people mix brick and cement together it’s just a recipe for disaster. The beauty of building with natural materials is that even if nobody maintained my house, in a couple of hundred years it will just go back to earth and all that will be left is glass bottles, car windows and pipes for air vents that someone can pick up and use to build another house".
"And if Jill wants to lower or change something in her house she can take a sledgehammer, break it up and put it back into the garden. "You can’t do that with cement and bricks. You only have to look at landfills to see the impact of building rubble - in England it’s so bad that they’ve declared parts of it non-agricultural land".
"Another issue I have with cement is that it’s a very violent process - you look at a conventional building site and it’s very noisy, there’s concrete mixers, angle grinders and drills and the people themselves are stressed and irritable - there’s lots of swearing and angry outbursts. That’s the energy that’s built into the house".
"With natural building you are working with the earth, it’s alive and you’re communicating with it through using your feet, your hands, you whole bodies and you start to resonate with that.
In natural building sites and workshops, I’ve experienced again and again that people start singing.
And that’s all built into the walls. And when people come visit or stay they tell me they don’t want to leave".
Even now, with the house being finished for years, people still come and say do you remember me, I was at a workshop a few years ago and I built this corner, I did that. So there’s this sense of ownership and pride".
Many of Jill’s ex-students have gone on to build their own houses - such as Les Glover who attended two workshops and said: “I can never build with brick and cement again".
Jill tells me that Les took 18 months off work and built the biggest cob house in Greyton.
"Then there was Nick Rolf, a brick and cement man", she continued. "I asked him to do a cost-comparison between conventional building and cob building for one of my conferences, and now he’s built an adobe house and an earthship out of tyres".
Jill continues to tell me the last low-cost housing built in McGregor ended up being the nicest houses in the town- well-maintained with great gardens and beautifully painted - all because people had to build their own house. There were no builders skimming off the top, so there was more money and it instilled a sense of ownership.
"That’s what I’m pushing for", Jill said. "If I could get ten people who wanted to build, then I’d bully the Municipality into giving me some land. We’d build them all at the same time so that everyone builds everyone’s house, so that everyone works equally hard!"
Jill continued to tell me that the other incredible thing with natural building is that you plan it yourself. "If you like outdoor living you can incorporate that, like I did with my verandah. If you love being in your bedroom and that’s your space you can create a big bedroom".
"Today our choice of how we live is totally taken out of our hands by architects and pre-built housing. We very rarely plan and build what we are very comfortable in. And your stress is doubled by the fact that you are now live in something that is not quite you".
Though Jill has a dedicated team that works with her, and has trained various people in the village and throughout South Africa, it seems there’s simply no-one to take her place. In fact, Jill tells me that she’s been trying to retire for years.
"I want to write and to be able to concentrate on workshops. We’re now doing week-long workshops, we’ve had one in Jeffrey’s Bay and one in Montagu".
Jill is also interested in learning new techniques, such as the Moroccan Tadelakt - a nearly waterproof lime plaster that can be used to create a beautiful marble finish.
“I’ve started writing a technical book on everything I’ve learnt, and I’d love for someone to get involved and come work”, she continued. So if you’re interested in natural building or historical restorations - do visit Jill’s website and join in on the upcoming events.
After all, you could be her next prodigy.
We attended a workshop with local kids from the township, who were making a miniature cob house of their own under Jill’s close supervision.
I imagined squatter camps being transformed into beautiful cob villages, using compost toilers, solar power and wind turbines to generate electricity and harvesting rainwater, growing their own food and more.
Of course, it’s never that simple. Jill tells me that even though her workers have the skills to build their own cob house instead of living in a tin shanty, they won’t, because they’re scared that the municipality will kick them off the low-cost housing list.
Long-lasting, well-designed and sustainable developments remain a pipe dream while laws prevent the erection of ‘permanent housing’ on municipal land, even though the mass exodus of people to urban townships are a reality, as real as the politicians fattening their pockets.
Fortunately, with people like Jill Hogan doing their bit to drive change, there's hope for the future of sustainable developments.
Contact: Jill Hogan
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Hi, my name is Melissa and I created this site together with photographer Christopher List to help spread awareness about green lifestyles and travel, so everyone can learn how easy it is to live in a sustainable way. Enjoy!
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