Ciara Barrett& Gareth Phelan



They bought the property in 2006; they liked the area   (Gareth is originally from Kinlough) and they were attracted to that piece of land because it had its own well.

They moved a mobile home onto the land and lived there for a number of years before considering what to build. Gareth did a Peter Cowman Living Architecture course in order to be able to consider designing this house.

He created a very ambitious design on the course with many rooms and features; however, once they considered starting the build they pared the plans down greatly to two square units joined together. The reasons being that they wanted to not incur great debt in building and wanted to be able to do the work themselves. The design is such that they can add on rooms/extra space at any time. 


Cob house. Self Build


Employing the Peter Cowman principle of ‘baby steps’ when it comes to building (i.e. start small and expand so that you can learn how to build before embarking on an ambitious project) Gareth first built his Physiotherapy studio in Tullaghan. This was based on the Living Architecture 'econospace' and functioned well for him. Through this experience of a small build, Gareth learnt a few principles of building and sourcing materials following which he and Ciara then felt confident to embark on the house.

They wanted to build a cob house because they: ‘love the way it functions as a heat source. Has a long radiation property of heat. (gives out heat to a greater distance) and we wanted to work with natural material’s. The house's timber frame was designed and built on the Peter Cowman econospace principle. They had a barn-raising type day to get the timber frames up. A group of friends worked for the day to get the structure in place – fun, supportive, sharing information, learning process for all.

Had to experiment with the cob mix using local clay and straw. Realised every mix will be slightly different but that that was ok. Thought they were surrounded by clay and that that would be their source for the cob but it was too ‘dauby’. Had to get clay with a 20% clay to 80% sand consistency. Are currently still working on the cob infill alongside the plumbing going in. (July 2010)

This is a mortgage-free build, saving up for each stage and buying within their budget. They estimate that it will have taken about 3 years to build and they hope to be in by September 2011.  Times when they can work on the house have been erratic. They try to keep Fridays free to work on the build. Gareth plays GAA for the county and they both work……..they have maintained this work/leisure/build balance throughout the building process.


The whole build has been based on building in an environmentally sensitive way, from the no-mortgage principle through to learning new skills locally, sourcing local materials, and minimal impact on environment visually and ecologically:

  • Self-build
  • Solar gain design
  • Mortgage free
  • Local materials
  • Natural materials
  • Sheep’s wool insulation
  • Compost toilet
  • Solar panels
  • Rain water collection
  • Reed bed


  • Natural materials give it a comfortable and natural feel.
  • Self-designed, time has been taken to make decisions on it…this has created a very personal space/home.
  • Gareth’s brother bought a piece of land next to them and built a large concrete house in a very short space of time. They have been living in their home for some time now as Gareth and Ciara continue their slow build.
  • An interesting contrast of ‘different mind sets’


Self-designed with the assistance of Peter Cowman


Self-built. Some help from friends. Have bought in a local plumber and electrician.


Timber frame for the house
Ground is: Hard core then, 6-8 inches of cob wall, 6 inches fine clay sand soil, 4 inches clay sand and optirock (expanded clay). A layer of broken glass bottles to stop dampness (an old-fashioned technique!); the dampness gets trapped in the curved spaces of the broken glass and cannot then rise. Then open space under the floor for ventilation
Walls: 20% clay 80% aggregate is the right consistency for cob plus any type of straw.
Hemp lime from Marcus McCabe for the plastering. Found it hard to source hemp or horse hair to make their own plaster lime mix.
Don’t cob a north facing wall - so North wall: timber outside and wool insulation.

Insulation: 8 inches of sheep’s wool in floor and roof. Got the wool from a farmer for the price of the sheering. Untreated wool so they lay it out and shook Borax powder over it to disinfect it, so far has worked well. Thought if they dipped the wool to wash it, it would never dry in the Leitrim weather.
Concerned about it being too hot so will not insulate the roof and see how it goes. They can retrofit the insulation in the roof if they need it.
Electricity: 3 years no electricity then got a turbine from Eirbyte: Jimmie and Miriam Dowds. Gives enough electricity for a light load. (no kettle). Will connect to the mains when they move into their house as now you can sell back it means that when they can afford a turbine they will install one and be able to sell back to the grid.


  • Esse boiler with back burner to heat the room and water (approx. €3000)
  • Two solar panels and water tank for Wexford company IGNEUS


Drinking water from the well. Other water from rainwater collection from the shed roof. Will have two tanks (1000 litres each) above ground to collect rainwater for the house. It will be pumped in for washing.
Brian O’Reillly plumber.


Reed bed system for waste water. Compost toilet on outside wall of house (see Joseph Jenkins – ‘Humanure handbook’). Sawdust from McHale’s.


Ciara’s work is teaching gardening. She has a poly-tunnel ready to go once the house is done. They keep chickens for the eggs and occasional meal.


Estimate the overall cost will be €30,000

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