Article about the Gatehouse in Permaculture Autumn 2011 Issue
Whilst appreciating editors have to juggle available space and trim superfluous verbosity, I think the liberties taken with this article, without once consulting my wishes, are a step too far. It is telling that all the removed sections deal with real-world obstacles, and pose awkward questions, rather than merely extolling the virtues of low-impact bling. I am ashamed to have my name associated with the published version of my article.
Please direct any responses to: steve (at) envisioneer (dot) net, or better still on the forum.
Low-Impact Luxury – Why build an off-grid home for £4000?
Well in short – why not? Ever since leaving our stylishly decorated caves, shelter building has been a core part of our survival skillset. Children still love to build dens, though despite 11 years of compulsory education, you'd be hard pressed to find one adult in a thousand confident enough to build even a Wendy house, let alone their own home. Skills though, can be learned, or really fiddly bits done by professionals with you managing the rest, especially as a group with expert guidance.
In the face of the greatest threats we have faced in millennia, it often seems our culture is behaving like a rabbit frozen in the headlights of an approaching apocalypse. People are so used to being told what to do, and passing the responsibility for sorting things out on to others that they are almost paralysed when confronted with issues on this scale. They may desperately want to get involved, and start doing, but don't know how or where to begin.
It certainly is daunting for those who have never had to build a house, grow and grind grain, generate power, turn a forest into a community. There are no schools or TV makeovers teaching us how to be truly independent and sustainable. Indeed corporate 'morals' require we are not taught such practical knowledge of what we need from our environment, where to find it, and how to fashion the things we need to live from it. Why construct when you can consume? Such an attitude is understandable applied to fancy high tech toys, but extended over the basic necessities of life, it becomes something else, a helpless juvenile dependency on manipulated markets to feed, clothe, house and protect us.
I don't know about you, but the prospect of cutting out the middle man between me and my life actually appeals quite a lot. Spending a year or two of your time and a tiny fraction of the mortgage money leaves you sorted and free to explore all the other possibilities for living the real world has to offer. I wanted to build this house to say look, it can be done! To demonstrate the true ease and cost of a comfortable off-grid home. That with care, we can take some of our modern conveniences with us, that low-impact living needn't be confined to yurts and benders. I wanted to try and inspire hope in those who feel trapped by poverty or a lack of relevant skills. I thought if a picture is worth a thousand words, then maybe standing in the real thing could be worth a thousand pictures!
To repair and re-inhabit our devastated landscapes, without the genie of oil at our command, requires we once again learn to live, work and pull together, that we all play our part in nourishing what nourishes us. To live lightly, we must redistribute our weight, spreading the population back over the landbase we have been excluded from by centuries of privilege and exploitation. Even more than a lack of money, this surreal lack of a planet to live on is the major obstacle for most who desire saner ways of being. Land-based livelihoods are not just a planning loophole, they're the only kind there is, for from where else is your life sourced? No matter how sophisticated our technology, whatever you use, touch or consume can only ever be the body of Gaia refashioned by others. Once upon a time this was obvious.
I had never built a house before, and even though over the years I have acquired a wide range of relevant skills, mostly self-taught, much remained to be learnt. Tony Wrench's and Barbara Jones' great wee books were my bedside companions. 1 Two weeks volunteering with Amazon Nails in 2004 opened my eyes to the ease and impressive versatility of strawbale construction, and I returned to demolish my half-built found, enlarging and reshaping the original rectangular design.
Building on the scale of a dwelling is not rocket science. A skyscraper must be exact and vertical, a one or two storey house can lean and bend a bit, like the 'character cottages' so beloved of estate agents. Expensive reinforced cardboard hutches for identikit doors, units and fitted neighbours must be built with exact angles and precise structural openings, not so the hand-built home. Indeed a lack of these alien planes and angles in one's immediate surroundings is positively beneficial. Imagine having to live in a vintage CGI landscape of jaggy box-like trees and blocky, pixelated clouds, your soul immediately recoils in distaste. Recognition of this profound effect of geometry upon mood and well-being lies at the roots of architecture and feng-shui and is well worth bearing in mind. 2
One might think a highly developed and enlightened society might ensure every citizen has the space and means to obtain such a basic necessity as a home, at its true cost, before treating life's essentials as speculative assets, or a privilege to be withheld for non-compliance. Then again, one might imagine we live in a highly developed and enlightened society. Perhaps this is familiar...
can you buy or sell the sky, the warmth of the land ? This idea is
strange to us.
We rarely question this 'strange idea' that land, the root of our very existence, could belong to a mere mortal, owned like any chattel to be bought and sold at will; nor examine the origin, sanity or social consequences of such a blasphemous legal fiction. Most blithely accept it as quite normal. We forget we invented landlords and death pledges (the literal meaning of mortgage). 4 Equally unremarked the magical 33,000% profit a field gains at the mere stroke of a planner's pen 5 . How are such black market values possible when even today fully 94% of the UK land area is still open soil, 6 and the entire current population could be luxuriously housed three times over in Northern Ireland alone? 7
Much of the house came directly from the surrounding landscape, costing 'only' time and energy (speak to the back!). Stone from the burn, timber from the forest, aggregate from the loch shore, turf from the bog. As often observed, use of local materials enables a structure to blend in with the landscape, to which I would add that using natural timber imaginatively, gifts you beauty with minimum effort. Bought in items included recycled floor joists, pond liner for the roof, electrical and plumbing fittings and the straw. 8
The design for the house constantly evolved in response to available materials, lucky finds and of course the piggy bank. The oval bedroom window is the top half of a discarded front door, the ivy twined columns framing the bay window a gift from a friend, the Belfast sink discarded outside a derelict school, Velux and shower tray skipped, and so on... Assembling possible components beforehand, and adapting the building to accommodate them is one of the great advantages of being your own architect.
This is a load-bearing design, which means the straw alone is holding up the heavy roof. Kept dry, straw is virtually immortal. Damp it'll rot inside three months. It is crucial to allow it to breathe, especially in the middle of a peat bog half way up a Scottish mountain with horizontal rain and hail! I have free-draining founds and avoided any condensing surfaces (such as metal) in contact with the straw. The bales were pinned with wooden stakes made from assorted hardwood thinnings. Lime render applied while still hot from the slaking is a traditional method much used in Scotland, applied up to an inch thick on the weather faces. The roof has a couple of nostrils high up, and the whole bow front under the eaves is stuffed with unrendered straw which lets air filter through. Most radical is the drystane (unmortared) found, which freaked out just about every building professional I came across. This strip plinth is an easy way of getting a level base, needing only the thin topsoil removed. Carefully made, it locks solid under the weight of the building. This has now stood for seven years without moving, despite being constantly used as a back-scratcher by the surrounding sheep! The timber floor and the straw walls rest directly on the stone, which allows the wind to blow freely through under the floor, carrying away any moisture draining from the walls, or coming up from the ground underneath. In winter the water table is often at or near the surface, yet I can go away for several weeks, leaving the house unheated, and the bedding, books and clothes in the drawers etc. are fine. No mildew or mould at all.
Warmth comes from the wood-fired paving-slab stove I built (featured in PM53). Electricity from a PV panel and cheap 4x4 batteries from the scrappies. So much of modern technology runs on 12 volts or less that with a little imagination and a soldering iron it is possible to run almost everything except washing machines and large power tools directly, without the need for inverters etc. In-car adapters for USB chargers and laptops are a fruitful resource. Cordless tools can be directly wired up to the battery terminals instead, making them lighter to hold and never running flat. It is easy to create a 24volt circuit for the heavier models by wiring two car batteries in series. As motors, they are quite tolerant, so a 19 volt drill will work lustily on 24 volts, or a 9.6v on 12v etc.
Rainwater storage is simply a large pit dug under the centre of the house for frost protection, lined with polythene and covered over to keep suicidal rodents out. It is fed from the polytunnel gutter and raised by a pressure triggered 12 volt caravan pump. This is powerful enough to run a LPG instant water heater which gives me running hot and cold water and a shower. The roof sarking is wany-edged spruce, lapped for strength and to carry any condensation out over the walls. I later found that because it is so fast grown and porous, plantation spruce has the same uValue as expanded polystyrene! 9 Despite being only one inch thick with a pond liner and 2 – 3 inches of turf, the snow on the roof never melts away with the heat from underneath, as can be seen in the pictures on the website. 10 The trapped air insulation value of long grass on a living roof is not widely appreciated, nor the fact that living vegetation actually generates slight heat.
In building this house I found myself gradually evolving away from straight lines, as one by one I threw away my set-square, spirit level and even tape measure, trusting instead to a plumbline and above all my own eye. If it looks right, it is! To begin with, confronted with a piece of real tree instead of a 'true and square' piece of wood, I was confounded as to how to mark out a joint, or even accurately transfer a mark from one side of the pole to the other! By the time I was trimming the undulating straw walls ready for rendering, I had come to love this curvy independence. Like the two halves of your own face, nature's regularity is always a balanced match, never an identical copy. Famously, no two snowflakes are identical. Similarity is divine, nourishing and alive. Striving to emulate machine-like perfection is a pure waste of human ingenuity. Abandon yourself to the wild, orgiastic twists of tree and stone, let fancy swell as you work and liberate yourself from the mechanised tyranny of flat lines and deadly accurate measurements!
Building your own home, like Permaculture itself, is deeply liberating in other ways too. Sooner or later those seeking sustainable futures must confront the unpalatable realities underlying our widespread political impotence; that dark and bloody altar half buried in a history that still shapes our daily lives. We cannot ignore forever civilisation's founding principle of effective enslavement through land confiscation and imposing conditional access to the various resources essential for life. 11 So long as you have no planet to call your own, you must obey those who do, even if it leads to your own destruction.
“When you are enslaved, your life is lived for someone else’s benefit. That someone else has the power to make you work, to make you poor. You have lost the dignity and freedom of self-reliant livelihood, of life on your own terms…” 12
Every time the alarm clock rings, pay cut or jobs lost, homes repossessed; we are reminded what civilised enslavement feels like. After centuries of progress, unimaginable increases in powered productivity, once simple things like a roof over one's head now take a lifetime of work to obtain, poverty and starvation are just a benefit cut away, money is regularly lifted from your pocket for overlords to pleasure themselves. Not entirely coincidentally, a feudal 0.3% of the UK population still owns a mind numbing 67% of the nation, tax-free, mostly by right of birth alone, while the 72% forming the heavily taxed, 'home-owning democracy' toil near lifelong to squeeze into their allotted 5.8% of Britain. 13
Despite their protestations of 'preserving the environment' and 'preventing speculation' (so obvious from their decisions), one can perhaps begin to discern why planners are so keen to avoid letting people live anywhere else but in the designated reservations that make up Britain's minuscule stock of housing land. What would happen to the economy if people could live anywhere in that un-built 94%, provide their own food, energy and water and are no longer forced to borrow immense sums from imaginary bank reserves just to put a roof over their head or food on the table? I was about to find out.
I never courted publicity, but when it came looking for me in late 2007, I had to make a decision as to what was more important, staying 'safe' below the radar or take the chance to broaden the limits of the possible, hopefully inspiring others to dream in ways they may not have considered otherwise. A piece in the Herald and another in the Independent lifestyle sections hardly raised a stir, but after an article about the house appeared on the BBC website, I was engulfed in a media storm resulting in invitations to appear on TV and radio shows, enquiries from media in America, Russia and China as well as the UK. Trying desperately to keep the location of the house secret, I refused all but the Big Issue and a Russian national TV crew, on condition they didn't reveal the location. In the event though the Daily Mail sent a team to locate the house using pictures from the website, tracked it down, interviewed the pissed-off landlord and gleefully shopped the location to the local council. 14
The £4000 price tag which caused such a media fuss is of course only a bought materials cost. I was criticised for not including labour and land costs in that figure, as if this was somehow dishonest, when my aim was to show the actual cost in time and money provided you were willing to self-build and scavenge rather than work to pay for materials and others to do your work for you. Likewise the land cost factor. In every interview I stressed that if this house had sought planning permission, a) it wouldn't exist and b) you could easily have added another £40,000 to the cost, merely for the sod beneath it. Not a single published story referred to this glaring fact, preferring to dwell on the quirky hobbit architecture, jaw-dropping cheapness or the disgraceful exhibition of unauthorised self-reliance.
The website nearly collapsed with 1.2 million hits in two days, and I received hundreds of emails asking for advice on how to obtain planning permission from people who assumed I had done so, long dreaming of doing the same thing but always being refused. Following the linkbacks from the site led to some interesting places. Reaction seemed to fall broadly into three categories: praise, mild envy and outright contempt. The latter seemed mostly based in the fear that if everyone could build a house so cheaply, their plans to sell on the black market and retire on the proceeds would be jeopardised, or worse, that I was somehow mocking their own sacrifices in clawing painfully up the property ladder. “If I've had to work bloody hard for thirty years then so should you!” Such are the ways we enslave each other.
By the time you read this, I will have had to leave this beautiful house, my lease from the landowner having expired. Hopefully it will find another caretaker, and survive the tender mercies of bureaucrats and planners as well as it has the rigours of storm and snow. Perhaps it will be torn down, to satisfy those who cannot tolerate what they cannot profit from, to set an example to others. It still survives, in photos, in my heart, in the memories of all those who visited, sang and dreamt within its peaceful embrace. There are no words to adequately describe sheltering from a storm within walls of your own making. The hail clattering, the fire crackling, the ancestral sense of belonging, a chain of warm hands stretching from ancient caves to rest on your shoulder. A proud spark of freedom in a dark and windy night.
We will learn, we will make mistakes, we will lose some battles, but we will succeed in the end. Partly because we must, but mainly because we always have. There is little truly radical in re-establishing the kind of communities that have nursed humanity through most of its existence. Hopefully we can carry the best of the modern age along with us, indeed develop superior technologies currently buried by profit grabbing monopolies, but most importantly of all we need to listen to our hearts, to the voice of Gaia calling us to become what we can be. Refuse to sink to the level of rats snarling in a pit and allow ourselves to reach ever higher for the beauty, harmony, richness and complexity of which we are all capable, given a foothold.
Whether that is likely to happen any time soon in a culture which allows every finer aspiration of the human family to be thrown into the cesspit of history, 15 merely so we can ensure unfettered short-term global gambling opportunities for international finance, is a point I leave you, dear reader, to decide for yourself.
3. Excerpt from Chief Seattle's rightly famous if dubiously attributed speech from 1842.
4. A debt repayable even after death, unlike most debts which expired with the person.
5. Average UK values for Non-Residential Land: £1500/acre. Residential Land: £500,000/acre
8. A full breakdown can be found here: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/scotland/south_of_scotland/7275312.stm
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