The Woodland House -- Ben Law

The Woodland House -- Ben Law


Reviews at Amazon.com:
The quaint wooden house in Prickly Nut Wood is no fairytale concoction – it is an icon of the movement to combine ecology and ethics in design. –The Guardian

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, no glues, no plastics, no rockwool, no toxic timber preservatives, no plasterboard, no PVC fascia boards, no polystyrene… This in itself is a hugely important statement at the peak of industrial civilisation. His house is a fusion of the best of the old and the best of the new. Solar panels sit alongside traditionally pegged joints. Highly efficient glazing sits in local timber frames. People sense from this house a connection back through history to a vernacular way of building that feels right. It embodies what Christopher Alexander calls a ‘Timeless Way of Building’. 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 books do best, it celebrates its subject, while at the same time passing on the practical tools to allow us to make one ourselves. –Rob Hopkins, Permaculture Magazine

Ben Law’s unforgettable appearance on Channel 4’s Grand Designs is captured stunningly in this beautiful record of how Ben built his woodland home. An innovative woodsman, he created one of the most sustainable homes in the country, and here he details his design process, materials and costings, proving that it is possible to go for high aesthetics and low cast and impact. If you’re one of the over five million viewers who watch Ben you’ll love falling into this amazing book; facts given, knowledge shared and information aside, the photographs of the outcome of the project can’t fail but leave you with a deep longing for the spaces created. This is a dream that did come true and is all the more inspirational because of that. –Wave Magazine

Source: Amazon.com
Book review at Transition Culture.org


Comments

The Woodland House — 8 Comments

  1. The problem is that our housing industry (at least here in the US) is locked into conventional building techniques and materials, using industrial resources. They don’t know anything else. Since the idea of the tract house, most of all our typical American houses have evolved from that (growing into insatiable monsters) and suburbianism. And the driving force is not quality but quantity, and cheap, at that.

    So we have a situation where all these old skills, such as building with mortise and tenons, pegging, etc, are almost non-existent here. A few individual builders still have the knowledge and skills, fewer use them, and even less teach them. These skills are dying. Mainstream industry is not interested, and using old techniques takes too much time (compounded by lack of skilled craftsmen).

    The only way these building techniques will come back into vogue is: 1. when modern resources become scarce (which will likely happen), 2. when people stop demanding instant, wastefully huge, cookie-stamp houses, 3. when there are enough skilled craftsmen to increase the supply as demand grows and make such building construction affordable. I see the first becoming a reality before the latter two.

    That leaves the owner-builder. Again, this is also scarce. I can guess the statistics on the number of owner-builders versus owner-buyer. The building industry follows suit; each drives the other, and it is a vicious cycle. I am hoping that as awareness grows, both of low-input (material resources and $), conservation and aesthetics, interest in building alternative (compared to contemporary and modern) homes will also grow. But to satisfy, and feed into an increased demand for these alternative resources and building techniques, knowledgeable and skilled builders will be required. Potential owner-builders will need education and training, too.

    We need a teaching -education and training- wave in this country. Now more than ever. There are a few small pools existing; I knew several very skilled craftsmen in Maine (masonry, cabinetry, construction, etc), old and young, who learned their skills from mentors and old-timers before them. It’s like the oral stories of our ancestors; in time they die out and the stories (and skills) are gone with them. We need to resurrect them all. We need the remaining craftsmen who will share their knowledge and skills, and expand that teaching (that is affordable!!).

    After building two small homes (Maine and Oregon), I have begun building a third using adobe and recycled materials. I have been taking workshops and classes from adoberas, reading everything I can get my hands on, and experimenting. Meanwhile, also collecting used materials and salvaging others. I see more people interested in this and following suit, but not enough. One reason I enjoy Owen’s blog is the range of alternative techniques and materials (not just earthbags), and reports of experiments and projects of other people.

    I would like to see a virtual central hub for a network of alternative building knowledge, skills, and techniques. Especially the former: workshops, courses, apprenticeships, internships, etc. If we start at one point in the cycle, perhaps it will propagate and grow. Hopefully soon and large enough before a possible economic collapse so that people can independently build their own, or form building ‘communities’ (e.g. Amish style). Who knows, perhaps it will even trickle into mainstream conventional market and industry by sheer force.

    Thank you for your time and blog.

    • What you’re describing is already taking shape. There’s now an astounding amount of information on the Internet and countless books on every aspect of building. The movement is not centrally organized — it’s a grassroots, organic movement.

      Driving forces behind sustainable building include higher production costs for factory made materials, higher energy costs, inflation, loss of jobs, loss of income (working for less money than before), bursting of the housing bubble, disillusionment with the current system (some think the system is rigged against the average guy… uh, yep), excessive building codes and related fees, difficulty of obtaining financing, desire for greater freedom in rural areas and living more sustainably. In brief, modern materials and associated costs for building conventional housing keep going up in price as people have less money. Graphing these trends creates a big X with a tipping point where they cross. Everyone needs affordable housing, so people are naturally looking for alternatives to the conventional ways of doing things.

      Glad you like the new direction we’re taking to include more variety of building ideas. Our blog traffic has skyrocketed during this time and so we’ll continue in this direction.

    • While your post is indeed correct, I believe a bit of history is needed to fully understand current building practices. At the end of WWII the housing industry in this country needed to provide houses for the burgeoning middle class and returning soldiers. That increased demand could not have been met with previous building methods.Today’s cookie cutter houses are designed and built with materials that minimize labor and construction time. Time is money and money is time. A developer usually is operating on borrowed money. Long construction times increase the interest that the developer pays. Modern building materials have evolved to shorten construction time, require less skill to apply and to be more cost effective over older methods.

      Now alternative and green building methods are cheaper because they are usually performed by owner builders. They require less skill and the time/interest is not a factor. Materials are cheaper because they are recycled or can be obtained fairly inexpensively. Alternative building is usually too time consuming for commercial interests. When one adds up the time required to search/obtain materials, move them to the site and then do the actual building, unless one is doing it themselves, the labor/time cost would be prohibitive. Especially on a large scale.

      Back during the housing boom of the 1960s in SoCal it was not uncommon to have 500 house tracts. Carpenters when framing would not move from one house to the next, but often several streets. 1200 sq ft houses could be totally framed in a few days. Totally inclosed/weather tight in less then 2 weeks. Of course the labor was skilled and specialized.You had framers, roof cutters, stackers, sheeters, facia board crews, siding and stair men. The other trades were specialized as well. You had rough plumbers and electricians, rough heat and air men, drywall hangers, roofers and lathers.

      For alternative building to become mainstream, two things need to happen. First building authorities need to adapt their codes to allow alternative building with set standards. That way no special engineering would be necessary. Secondly alternative building methods need to be developed along with tools to speed up construction times. Unless those two points are made a reality, alternative building will lag behind current methods in commercial housing development. Developers build houses to make money and do not want to fight with building departments. Even stamped plans have to go thru a plan check process in most areas.

      US population unless immigration numbers are curtailed, is expected to reach 400 million in 35 years or less. The demand for housing will continue. Affordable housing will be a big problem. Single family home ownership will probably decline. The next wave of building will probably be more rental units as many people will be unable to purchase. Alternative building could alleviate this a bit. The problem still remains with building codes. Not everyone who want to build an alternative house will find the room available in the limited areas where it is permissible. Engineering fees are an answer that can often put the realities of building a home out of reach. A uniform set standard of codes for both earthbag, cob, strawbale or other alternative methods would make building much easier/less costly.

      • That’s a good summary. It’s a little difficult trying to explain how screwed up things have become. Trying to compare mass produced wafer board box houses to lovingly built natural buildings is like comparing fast food to home-cooked organic food. Some people say “I don’t have time to cook healthy meals.” But it’s not just a matter of time. It’s a matter of priorities. What about your health? What type of life do you want? Do you want to eat greasy food that tastes like crap and is full of chemicals? Or do you want to savor fresh food from your garden and local farms that’s cooked to perfection?

        Also note, we’re not dealing with a level playing field. Strawbale building, pole building and some other methods are fast and efficient, but current codes are written to favor the insiders who wrote the codes (steel, concrete, timber industries).

        And maybe we shouldn’t be building such large houses all jammed together in giant developments where all the houses look pretty much the same. What type of society do we want? A lot of us don’t want to live in sterile subdivisions. They’re not healthy, pleasant places to live. Wouldn’t you rather live in a home that was carefully, thoughtfully and lovingly built to reflect your needs? It’s like comparing true art to the painting of dogs playing poker — it’s nothing but a crude imitation. I’m not sure if getting alternative building methods adopted by the codes will change much if anything. There will be so many strings attached that the added cost would likely ensure these options are suppressed.

        So in summary, even though on one level natural buildings are not as fast and “efficient” as wafer board houses stapled together, not everyone wants to live in lifeless tract houses that all look the same, fall apart quite rapidly, require 30 year mortgages and poison the inhabitants.

      • Obviously most people don’t want to live in housing tracts with their neighbors being within a few feet of each other. I have worked on houses where they were so close together you could hear the neighbor’s toilet flush. But in many areas land is at a premium. People also have to be located in an area where they can work, especially with gasoline prices. It really doesn’t make a lot of sense to move to some remote area because land is cheap and then not to be able to work or to have spend untold amounts commuting. Most rural areas are more economically depressed then the more urbanized one are. That is often why land is less expensive.

        There is no simple solution, but certainly deregulation would ease some of the housing crunch. Of course government will always still want to have some input, but a uniform code written by people who build with natural methods would go along way.

        Life is not always as simple as having priorities. In today’s society, time is a precious commodity. While most Americans would love to buy organic food, eat home cooked meals and spend more time with their families. Economics dictate otherwise. Organic food is often more expensive and here in the western US most people commute. It is not uncommon for people to have a 2 hour drive to and from work each day. A lot of Americans are working longer hours for less money and have little free time.

        Perhaps if you are single and have no one to depend on you, it is easier to live the life you want. If you have a job as a consultant or write for a living you can put your personal priorities first. You can be as carefree and footloose as you want. Not everyone has that type of job, most work at a brick and mortar establishment. Americans if fortunate enough to have a full time job, work 40 hours or more a week. While it would be nice if all of us could have home based businesses, it isn’t going to happen. Some people have to work outside of the home to keep things running. As anyone with a family and children can vouch for, realities often trump dreams and ideology.

  2. Details about the book from Off-Grid.net: http://www.off-grid.net/2005/07/12/443/

    “The timber is chestnut… The roof was made from chestnut shingles and the weatherboard [siding] is local hand milled oak… He built the whole structure for 28,000 (under $50,000)… The book includes engineers calculations, detailed floor plans and a list of resources so that if you live in the UK and own the right kind of plot, you too can build a Woodland House.

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