17 May 2007
“Wattle and Daub” by Paula Sunshine. A Book Review.
**’Wattle and Daub’ by Paula Sunshine. Shire Books. 2006. pp40.**
There is something very nourishing about the process of rediscovering the building materials of our ancestors. I often remark when teaching people about cob building that in the UK we have an earth building gene, that deep inside ourselves, once we start to handle these materials we find instinctively that we know what we are doing, they feel right in our hands, we feel at home with them. The first time I made a wattle and daub panel, we just decided we wanted to do one, and we used a book and made it up as we went along. We didn’t have great clay, we put the wattles too close together and didn’t use enough straw in the mix. It worked, but only just. With practice we actually got quite good at it, and I have come to see wattle and daub panels as a thing of both great beauty and great simplicity.
It might be useful at this point to deconstruct the term ‘wattle and daub’ for anyone to whom it is a new term. It is a technique which evolved since humans first began to create shelter, of creating some kind of woven rods or sticks woven around larger posts to create some kind of a solid screen (the wattle) which is then covered with a clay, sand and straw mix, the consistency of cookie dough (the daub), which is smeared onto the wattle so that it keys in and attaches itself to it. Simple really. Yet despite its simplicity, different parts of the country developed slightly differing versions and techniques, and it has proven to be an extremely durable and resilient building technique.
An old Irish farmhouse I was involved in renovating a few years ago had a ceiling which had been put up in 1870, which was lath and plaster, yet was still immaculate, with only one small crack to show after all that time. As with so many other building materials, (cob, thatch, clay plasters, lime, limewashes) wattle and daub became seen, in the period ust after the War, as backwards, as inferior to modern industrial building materials. The degree of work, attention and skill they required had no place in the ‘slap-em-up’ construction boom that followed the War. Yet we are still surrounded by it, in buildings up and down the country, sometimes looked after, often not, wattle and daub is a reminder of a time when the materials to be found locally were what you built with. In this book, Sunshine makes the point that many of the ponds in villages around the country are next to houses which used wattle and daub, they are a benign reminder of the extraction of the raw material. If only the impacts of the cement industry were so minimal and beneficial to the local ecology.
This book sets out beautifully the history of this material, with some gorgeous photos of old buildings and a concise but illuminating telling of its history. She tells the sad tale of its demise, the nationwide neglect and the inappropriate use of cement which led to many panels disintegrating simply because they were rendered in cement; coating a breathable material with a non-breathable one is never going to be a good idea.
The final section of this book lifts it above many of the texts which look at wattle and daub simply through a nostalgic coffee table book lens, here she sets out to show you how to make your own. This is a concise but very useful overview on mixing daub, creating your panels and a step-by-step guide to either creating new panels or repairing old ones. I have to say that creating wattle and daub panels is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done. It is deliciously tactile, fun and artistic. Compared to carrying and installing plasterboard (surely one of the least ergonomic and awkward to handle materials ever created), wattle and daub is a delight.
What is its place now in the 21st Century? Will we see a wattle and daub building boom across the land? I suspect not. We would no longer build buildings where the external walls are made with wattle and daub. Its insulation values are too low. However, it does, I would argue, have an important role in internal walls. The amount of clay in the panels is a significant addition of thermal mass to a house, and they also are very good for internal air quality. So next time you need to create an internal wall, think wattle and daub. Dig a hole in the garden, find some clay, get some sticks from the hedge, invite some friends over and reconnect to this most ancient yet also most modern of building techniques. You’ll be delighted with the results, and even if you aren’t (unlikely) the materials will all be able to return to the soil from whence they came, rather than festering in a landfill for centuries.