Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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The Woodland House – Ben Law (2005)

**The Woodland House – Ben Law. Permanent Publications (2005)**


As a permaculture teacher I am often asked how we can most effectively get permaculture ideas into the mainstream. While this is a very complex question in many ways, I think that probably the most efficient way is through the creation of models, of tangible and relevant examples that inspire a deep reverence through the innate common sense that they embody. I often use the term ‘sexy sustainability’ to refer to those hooks that draw people into permaculture. I’m sure we can all think of the thing we first saw and thought ‘hey, that’s clever’, and the deeper exploration that eventually led us into permaculture. Certain things are ‘sexier’ than others; strawbale building and local food being quite sexy, things like compost toilets and keylining having some catching up to do. My point is, we need those hooks because permaculture is a relatively difficult concept to sum up in a snappy one liner (or single paragraph even), whereas one beautiful example allows people to say ‘oh, so THAT’s what permaculture is..’

The house that Ben Law built in Sussex is sexy sustainability at its best. Indeed to stretch the metaphor somewhat, if his house is sexy sustainability then this book, with its full colour, lavishly illustrated, blow by blow account of the house’s creation, verges on pornography for the natural builder. When featured on Channel 4’s Grand Designs programme it did more to popularise natural building than anything up to that point. There was something about Ben’s house, lovingly crafted from local materials, beautifully sympathetic to its surroundings, irregular, crooked and charming, that deeply touched people. It reminded them of houses in storybooks, magical homes in forest clearings made from marzipan and gingerbread, with a fire in the hearth and kettle on the stove.

Once Peak Oil* makes its presence felt, one area that will be profoundly challenged will be how we house ourselves. The need will be for more localised economies, and building systems that use predominantly local materials. There is a huge shortage of people skilled in how to use local materials, how to mix and apply clay plasters, build clay/straw or cob walls, build local stone foundations. It calls for a mass re-skilling on a scale seldom seen in the past. It also calls for us to rebuild the resource base of local materials, such as locally grown willow, hemp, straw, coppice timber, good construction timber as well as local sources of clay and the reinstatement of small scale lime kilns. One element of this is the need for us to re-evaluate our local woodlands as resources for building. Rather than saying, ‘we know how to build houses in this particular way so we need 6×2’s and 9×3’s’, we will need to look at the wood we have and devise ways of building with it (the cordwood technique is an interesting example of this in an Irish context). It is a profoundly different way of thinking about shelter, but it is an important shift.

Ben’s approach to building his house started with the materials. He selected the poles he wanted to build with and designed around them. He used no cement, glues, plastics, rockwool, toxic timber preservatives, plasterboard, pvc fascia boards, or polystyrene. This is in itself a hugely important statement at the peak of industrial civilisation. His house is a fusion of the best of the old and best of the new. Solar panels sit alongside traditionally pegged joints. Highly efficient glazing sits in local timber frames. It embodies what Christopher Alexander calls a ‘timeless way of building’.

Something about Ben’s building process also resonates with us as it exemplifies what a house building should be; an equal mixture of perspiration and inspiration, of hours up ladders and evenings around campfires, of old friends helping out and new friendships formed. Sheltermaking doesn’t need to be a soulless and lonely experience in a sea of concrete blocks, it can be as much about building community as it is about building a house. This is one of the strongest things I see in natural building projects, the fact that people will come and help. If you tell your friends, ‘I’m building a concrete house next weekend, want to help?’ they will suddenly find things they have to do that they had forgotten about. I have yet to do a natural building project, be it strawbale, cob or cordwood, where enough people haven’t come along to help.

The Woodland House is a gorgeous and glowing testimony to Ben’s house. It has enough text to tell you what you need to know, but it lets the colour photos do most of the talking, and the result is a beautifully produced book that you could leave on any coffee table, it would melt the most hostile of hearts. It has an excellent collection of resources and other information and it does what Permanent Publications do best, it celebrates its subject while at the same time passing on enough practical tools to allow us to start building our own dream home.