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McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

Eco-friendly Accommodation and Training

McGregor Alternative Technology Centre, also known as MAT, is situated on the edge of the charming village of McGregor, about two hours drive from Cape Town.

McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

When we heard that sustainable building, renewable energy, permaculture and holistic healing are taught there, while all structures are built from cob and wattle & daub, we knew we’d make a detour to go visit.

The neighbouring Krans Nature Reserve is a stunning backdrop to the two-storey Cobbits Cottage, which would be our home for the next two days.

Eco-friendly Africa Travel scooter team parked outside Cobbits Cottage, McGregor

A labour of love that began in 1998 and was completed nine years later, Cobbits Cottage is a beautiful high-ceilinged house that testifies to the indomitable spirit and creativity of its creator, Jill Hogan.

High ceilings at Cobbits Cottage, McGregor

The legacy of Cobbits Cottage

Jill, who used to work as a carer in the UK, started building Cobbits Cottage in increments, living in a caravan and returning to the UK to earn more money for the next stage of building.

The upside of this was that Jill had the time to observe and see where the sun goes up and where it goes down in different seasons, allowing her to design her home as passive solar - it’s warm in winter and cool in summer.

Working alone for the first year and a half, she eventually got two local men to help her, who worked with her right to the end.

“People started coming and saying that they wanted to learn this process, so we began running weekend cob building workshops - and they ran every month for the nine years it took to build the house at different stages. It’s the only way to train people in natural building, you need to physically show them”.

Interior, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

It all started when Jill met the man credited with starting the modern cob revival in England, Mr Alfred Howard.

A craftsman builder who was working in the Crediton area of Devon in the 80s, Mr Howard started building in cob using mostly forgotten traditional techniques.

He became Jill’s mentor and she visited him every year to learn more.

Fortunately, with McGregor’s long history of cob building, she didn’t encounter much legislative opposition and was left pretty much alone to do her thing.

“I’m happy with it now, it’s come to completion. The only thing I want to still add is an outside shower, which is wonderful in summer”.

Proposed outdoor shower, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre


Little Cottage

Of course, the next project was not far off. Little Cottage was built for Jill’s sister Barbara Hogan, past Minister of Health and Public Enterprises.

With a strict record of expenses and time kept so that it could be a model for sustainable development, the 40 square metre Little Cottage was built in 121 days, and cost just R200, 000 - including all furniture, the gas fridge, stove and solar system.

This eco-friendly cottage is available for rent and helps introduce visitors to permaculture, sustainable building, alternative energy and more.

Little Cottage, McGregor

Interestingly, there’s a story behind little cottage. “Barbara was in cabinet and said to the Minister of Human Settlements, Tokyo Sexwale - ‘this is what we can do with our 40 square metres; what can you do?’

Mr Sexwale now carries pictures of little cottage in his wallet. I had a stall at the Alternative Building Indaba in Sandton the year before last and he came past.

When he saw the photo’s I was displaying were the same as the ones in his wallet, he practically levitated. He called all his MEC’s and told them that this is the housing of the future”.

Outside verandah, Little Cottage McGregor Recycled bottles and windows, cob building McGregor


Obtaining carbon-neutrality

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.

Solar panels, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

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.

Permaculture Garden, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

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.

Compost toilet and natural building at McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

Oldest earth buildings

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.

Against brick and cement

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".

Outside kitchen and lounge on verandah, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

"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".

The joy of natural building: An energy that resonates

"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".

Cobbits Cottage exterior, MAT

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".

Cob staircase, MAT

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!"

Birds flying in a blue sky

My way or the highway

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".

Outdoor kitchen, MAT

"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".

Cobbits Cottage interior, McGregor

Future plans

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.

Moulding cob by hand, MAT


Miniature cob building workshop

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.

Young kid building a miniature cob house, MAT

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.

Jill Hogan working with kids to build a miniature cob house

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.

Building with cob, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

Building a miniature cob house, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

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.


Natural building doorway, McGregor Alternative Technology Centre

Find out more about renting Little Cottage for an incredible, one-of-a-kind holiday experience!


Contact: Jill Hogan

Or visit the website for more information.

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