After getting over the natural beauty and comfort of the Welsh woodlands home pictured here, the first thought I had was that it looked like the kind of place where the Bagginses, that world famous family of hobbits immortalized by J.R.R. Tolkien in The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings trilogy, would live.
Just as Tolkien’s novels and recent films based on his work have influenced millions upon millions of people around the world, so too I believe that the message embodied in this home, as well as the commitment and work of its owner-builders, deserves as wide an audience as possible, particularly in today’s fast-changing world.
As cracks and fissures appear in the foundation of a globalized economic system and evidence of potentially sharp, severe climate change continues to mount, counter-trends antithetical to globalization and societies built around mass market industrialization and commercialization, such as organic farming, low impact building and architecture, localized self-sufficiency and appropriate technology, have been rejuvenated.
Deep in the Welsh woods
As much as it sparks a flight of fanciful, enjoyable imagination, it turns out this home was built by a “pioneering” young Welsh couple intent on building a low-impact, self-sufficient home in natural surroundings for their growing family.
Starting out with no capital to speak of, no experience as a builder and using a minimal set of basic tools, Simon, his wife and his father-in-law, along with a little help from visiting friends and passersby, were able to construct this charming, functional home using local materials over a period of four months (1,000-1,500 man-hours) for material and equipment costs of only ¬£3,000 (less than US$6,000).
Built from local stone, mud, wood and glass, the house is embedded in a hillside for low visual impact and shelter. A foundation and retaining walls of stone and mud diggings are overlain by a reciprocal system of roof rafters and a frame of spare oak thinnings.
Straw bales underlay the wood flooring and are stuffed behind interior walls and the roof for insulation. The exterior roof is made of plastic sheet and mud/turf. The lime plaster made near-site and used for the interior walls “is breathable and low energy to manufacture compared to cement,” Simon explains on his website.
A wood-burning stove with a flue with a big stone/plaster lump built inside slowly releases heat provides space and cooking heat. The refrigerator is cooled by air flowing up through the foundation. A roof skylight provides natural lighting during the day why stored solar power from panels provides electricity for night lighting, appliances and electronic equipment. Water is gravity-fed from a nearby spring and supplemented by water collected on the roof and fed into a garden pond. A compost toilet filters and breaks down human and organic waste.
Living outside the box
So outside the conventional realm as it is when it comes to housing and lifestyle what prompted Simon and family to do all this? His answer comes in two parts: First, “it’s fun. Living your own life, in your own way, is rewarding. Following our dreams keeps our souls alive.
“Second answer: Our society is almost entirely dependent on the availability of increasing amounts of fossil fuel energy. This has brought us to the point at which our supplies are dwindling and our planet is in ecological catastrophe. We have no viable alternative energy source and no choice but to reduce our energy consumption. The sooner this change can be begun, the more comfortable it will be.
“For our energy consumption to decrease we must reduce consumption and dramatically increase the productivity of our land. This will require developing infrastructure and skills to enable locally self-reliant living. The simplest, sustainable solutions involve small-scale permaculture type land management systems centered around individual or small groups of dwellings.
“There is significant and growing energy at the grass-roots to start implementing these low impact developments. This enthusiasm comes from a combination of intellectual concern and the innate appeal of living closer to nature.”
The major obstacle, Simon says, is access to land. “The price of land with residential planning permission is not commensurate with the income from this type of living. This will change, but these projects need time to develop and reach productivity.
“A few people are taking direct action but the numbers are far short of the critical mass that could be realized. If allowances can be made within the planning system to grant access to land, and the right to live on it, to those wishing to live this life, we can allow a grass-roots tide of people to make real progress towards a sustainable society.”