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Clay houses in earthquake country

Only in California.

Just as seismic activity in the state is shaking things up after a long drought, some residents are pushing for permission to build homes the old-fashioned way—with clay and straw. Proponents of "cob homes" believe these houses can withstand most quakes, saying they are stronger than traditional California adobe homes.

However, most local governments will not issue permits for cob construction. To get around that, designers are building tiny structures, less than 120 square feet, to avoid permitting altogether, or they are creating cob structures which are outbuildings not used as full-time residences.

Read MoreCalifornians are in the quake zone—and uninsured

A Pacific Northwest cob home.
Gerry Thomasen | Wikipedia
A Pacific Northwest cob home.

In this video clip, meet two people leading the cob house movement. One is Misha Rauchwerger of Sonora, Calif., who managed to retroactively get a permit for the 400-square-foot cob home he built at the foot of the Sierra Nevada Mountains.

The other is alternative builder and designer Massey Burke, who is working with the city of Berkeley to test the safety of cob houses and develop rules for mass production. "I don't know if we're going to see cob subdivisions, but I think it will become hip," she said. Neither cob homeowner has earthquake insurance.

Cob homes stand out for their fanciful curves and unique shapes. They're a bit reminiscent of Hobbit holes from "The Lord of the Rings," and, perhaps coincidentally, they are more widely known in New Zealand, where the films were shot, and where residents are no stranger to seismic activity.

Read MoreAftershocks rattle California following 5.1 quake

The homes are fire resistant and termite-free, but can they survive the Big One? "I've never approved one, and it would be hard to get it through," said Luke Zamperini with the city of Los Angeles Department of Building and Safety. "One has to submit plans how to build one, and those plans would have to have compressive strength of clay and tinsel strength of the straw."

"A lot of that is, I think, fear of the unknown," said Rauchwerger, standing outside his cob home in an area known for moderate seismic activity. "Through this process we can start educating people."

By CNBC's Jane Wells

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  • Diana Olick

    Diana Olick serves as CNBC's real estate correspondent as well as the editor of the Realty Check section on CNBC.com.

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