For thousands of years, cork has been harvested from the outer layer of a distinct species of oak tree found around the Mediterranean rim.
It’s been used for insulating buildings as famous as the White House. Yet until recently, it was rarely seen in our homes — aside from the occasional bathroom floor, set of coasters, a notice board perhaps or the tops of our wine bottles.
But cork made a dramatic breakthrough when it was used to build a house in Eton, Berkshire, designed by Matthew Barnett Howland with Dido Milne and Oliver Wilton, and selected as a 2019 RIBA Stirling Prize finalist.
Futuristic: The Cork House built beside the River Thames at Eton in Berkshire
‘We wanted to see whether we could build a minimal carbon-footprint home without cement or glue,’ says Matthew.
‘We also wanted radically to simplify housing design, which ordinarily involves many layers between the outer and inner skins of walls to include vapour barriers and insulation.’
What strikes you upon entering this home beside the River Thames is how cosy it feels. The solid cork walls cocoon and create visual interest. There is a distinctive natural smell, a warm sensation to the touch and acoustic quietening, too.
Build costs were not cheap at about £3,000 to £4,000 sq metre, but Matthew and his partner Dido are in talks to design similar buildings, which should bring costs down.
There are other rewarding ways to incorporate cork into the home. It can be found in Ikea’s Sammanhang 6ft-tall cork cabinet (£350) and, via shopping app Fy, Ubikubi’s Marco bench (about £200).
Cosy: The natural-look kitchen
Another online retailer, Red Candy, offers the fun XL champagne cork available as either a side table or stool for £150. Cork lampshades such as the Material pendant, found at finnishdesignshop.com (about £130), add warmth to an interior.
Yet one of the more recent trends is a return to natural or ‘expanded’ cork, typically made from recycled chips.
It is this type of cork that was used so successfully in the Cork House in Eton, and it’s proving popular elsewhere, too. Manufacturer Ty-Mawr Lime ltd reports healthy demand from interior designers taking advantage of the ability to shape it into decorative patterns.
‘Conventional modern insulation materials can trap moisture, potentially creating excess humidity, which might lead to condensation and mould growth,’ says Ty-Mawr director Nigel Gervis.
Natural cork was used to insulate the White House on President Truman’s watch for warmth — and health and similar good reasons are driving its rediscovery today.