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A tree framed house

Something about wood construction fascinates me and always has done.  As a child I coveted my brothers’ balsa wood kits and got into trouble for stealing the tools and little blocks and planks to fashion sheds for toy farm animals.  As I got older, my education took me even further from wood – while my brothers went to after school classes and made stools and benches that we sat on for meals, I learned Latin in the cookery room and never saw tools or construction materials.

man and woman in woodwork classSo things might have remained, were it not for the frustrations of having a husband always too busy for practical jobs and a house full of niggling repairs that I couldn’t manage.  It was back in those wonderful days of Evening Institutes so I signed on for Woodwork and for two years went to Mr Salt’s classes on Wednesday evenings.  The workshop smelt of wood shavings and glue and we gathered round the heavy workbenches, ringed by racks of chisels, saws and screwdrivers.  I had never picked up a tool since the days of playing with Meccano and this new way of using my hands was utterly alien.  That first class, I felt like one of the “remedial readers” I taught, pretending I knew what I was doing, looking busy and asking the only other female there to explain what the words meant.  The next week Mr Salt watched me using a saw and said,

“You can cut to a line.” 

Had I ever been paid a higher compliment?  So I learned to cut, drill, smooth and shape wood, to make simple joints, to design and carry out a project – the pleasure was, as Kerry said yesterday, in getting lost in the making, in the need to co-operate with the substance I was using.

Big empty barn with huge wooden beamsWood has been used in the construction of buildings since people learned how to fashion axes powerful enough to fell branches from trees.  Some of the oldest surviving wooden buildings in Britain are cruck formed barns nearly 700 years old and still both functional and beautiful.  Many buildings continued to be timber framed, or half-timbered through till the end of the nineteenth century; it was mainly the loss of easily available sources of wood of a suitable size and quality that caused it to fall out of use.  Now, as we look at the sustainability of our building methods, the advantages of using timber framing are beginning to re-emerge.  Justin Bere, architect of the passivhaus social housing in Ebbw Vale, Larch house and Lime House has this to say,

“Local materials matter because they do two things.  They reduce carbon emissions from transportation, and they increase local employment.  Local employment, if it really is local, also requires less carbon emissions and travel from the factory or workshop to the site”.

Some Transition initiatives have taken on the complex issues that surround our need to create sustainable homes within the tight regulation framework that governs building in England.  Rob Hopkins in his blog on the Atmos project in Totnes, envisages when they begin to build,

  A temporary village built processing the timber needed on site, making cob blocks, even hand-making tiles for external cladding.   … it co…uld be a vitally needed new approach to development, especially when combined with the potential for the community to invest into the development.

country cottageConstruction projects that combine both local materials with local skilled labour and high energy efficiency are few and far between so we are lucky to have one close to Lancaster and owned by a great Transition supporter, Alan Schofield of Growing with Nature, an organic growing operation in Pilling. He built his house, set in a beautiful garden but sited within spitting distance of his polytunnels and pack house, about 12 years ago.  His architect, David Dittman, also director of the Findhorn Ecovillage, he met at a local organic project.  Another friend, Sveinung Skatun of Norbuild Timber Fabrication, provided much help and inspiration.  The local council planners and building regulation officers, faced with a house completely beyond the normal didn’t know what to do. Luckily for Alan a new recruit to the council had experience of Polish timber-framed housing and was both knowledgeable and positive.  Alan made a habit of inviting the officers to the site at all key moments and, he says, they treated their visits as an opportunity to get educated by Alan, David and Sveinung.  Resourcing the materials for the house was often difficult –in the end the timber frame was made from imported Masonite as the best, most durable and workable material, whilst the exterior wood was Dougdoorway with curly edged architravesA las Fir from Scotland.  The high level of insulation – 12” beneath the roof, 10” in the walls was made from Warmcell, recycled newspaper treated with borax – the house because of its siting, construction and insulation, is very warm – one delivery of oil, about £400 provides all their necessary heating.  The stone for the gables came by chance, when a mason friend was given the contract to demolish an unsafe outbuilding at a local mill.  Later checks have suggested that the stone was once part of Greenhalgh Castle at Garstang.  The Lakeland slate roof was recycled from a mill in nearby Preston.   Alan bought local trees, 3 elms and an ash tree felled by Dutch Elm disease which were locally sawn to provide all the beautiful woodwork inside the house.  He reckons that he, Debra and a team of local friends and family provided 70% of the labour required to build the house and it took them almost 2 years from start to finish.

The use of wood inside the house is sensational – there are wonderful skirtings and architraves made from the offcut edges of the local trees and a big tree stump root provides a coffee table.  It wasn’t till well on into the building programme that the question of what to do about the staircase was resolved.  Walking through a wood outside Forres with Sveinungstaircase made of a tree trunk, they spotted a fallen tree lying across a burn and decided it was exactly the right tree to form the centre of the staircase.  It was hauled back to Sveinung’s where his very elderly mother went up in a cherry picker to judge by eye exactly where they should set the risers around the rough, asymmetrical trunk.  To get the tree in and in place was a major job - they had to remove the porch already built at the front of the house.  The banisters then had to be bent to fit the curve of the stairs and branches from several different trees used to form a lattice beneath the banister. For me, and I think for everyone who visits Gardener’s Cottage, the heart of the house and the thing you return to again and again, is the staircase tree – it amazes, it demands recognition and it is a strange source of comfort and inspiration. 

Alan and Debra let out the cottage during the summer months so if you want to share some time with that tree as well as enjoy the surroundings of a friendly organic market garden, just follow the link and get in touch.

Needless to say I am deeply envious of Alan and Debra’s amazing house.  First of all it must be wonderful to live with that tree staircase but more importantly it is about being able to use those trees and other materials to put a shelter over your own head.   The skill of building from local materials seems to be largely a closed book to us but I think it a skill we should all aspire to.

Alan and Debra Schofield are active running the Organic Growers Alliance ( Alan is the present chairman . Alan also sits on the Farmer and Grower board of the Soil Association. 

Photographs: woodwork class,  Leigh Court Tithe Barn,  Gardener's cottage x3 (Debra/Alan Schofield)