Simon Dale is a pretty amazing bloke.
Not only is he a talented designer and photographer, but he has also built an ecologically amazing house to live in for only £3000.
And the added bonus is that it looks just like a hobbit house!
In Simon’s terms it’s a Low Impact Woodland Home that enables him and his family to live on site in the Welsh woodland they are maintaining.
Yet the story behind how Simon built his home for so little is inspiring, to say the least. From the natural timber frame sourced from the woodland he works, to the re salvaged windows and flooring, everything has been sourced to fit in with his ecological and environmental principles. Even the furniture has been hand crafted by Simon and friends (even though its worth noting for the rest of us, he still relied on a normal cooker for the kitchen, as one of the photos betrays!).
As Simon’s interview in the Independent notes, he’s not stopping there though. Next project is a 9 house eco-village in Pembrokeshire. You’ve got to admire the bloke haven’t you.
But of course, with anyone who is living their dream, there is also a touch of envy that creeps into the rest of us.
After all, just who wouldn’t love to live in a house like this? (probably worth adding a Lloyd Grossman voice over there). I know I would!
Simon is not blazing a new trail though. Eco-houses have been going strong for a number of years. WebEcoist’s ’15 Grassy Hill-Shaped Dwellings’ illustrates just how hobbit loving the Swiss are (that’s right, take a look, almost all of them are in Switzerland, including my fav, the third one down). In fact turf-based roofing with the dwelling dug into the ground has been common for thousands of years. Almost every ancient society built in this fashion because the materials are abundant and the thermo-insulation naturally excellent. The Vikings were masters of it, as the Hurstwic reconstructions show.
What has bugged me though for a number of years, and probably that’s why this story grabbed my attention, is just how badly the Brits build houses in the modern age. Take a moment and look around you. Do you live in a modern (post 1970’s) chocolate box housing development? Theres a strong possibility you do. And what is scary is that with each decade plot, garden and room sizes get smaller and smaller as developers try to stretch a profit from increasingly costly land.
But as many designers are now pointing out, size and space may be at a premium but that’s no excuse for poor design and useability. I have a recollection of watching a design documentary a few years ago where the film maker was trying to convince the managing director of a major UK house builder to build just a few ‘modern’ style houses in his latest development. The managing director smiled, agreed that they looked fantastic then came out with that immortal line; ‘We would build them if that’s what the British public wanted to buy, but they don’t. So we build what they want…’ which = poxy chocolate boxes!
As the film maker pointed out, it was a pretty flawed argument, because if you don’t offer any alternative designs then people have no choice but to buy whatever you built, whether they like it or not.
The argument doesn’t stand up to scrutiny either. You just have to look at the spectacular success of BedZED in London or the development of the CloughJordan Eco-Village in Ireland to see how much people want to live in these sort of homes.
The eco-principles behind them are pretty simple as well.
1. Work with the sun (so use glass well where its sunny). Orientation is key – south-facing gets sun all year, north facing is darn cold.
2. Think about thermals, insulation, ventilation (not drafts) and how well the house retains energy.
3. Use the best materials possible. Make sure they are sustainably sourced (or there won’t be many left soon) and if possible recycle and re-use old materials (live like Granny is an eco-mantra along with make do and mend). Where you do have to create and use new materials, do it well and make sure they are well made/long-lasting.
Now lets take my mums house. Built in the early 1980’s, it’s a small 3-bed semi chocolate box. The front door almost opens onto the lounge (there’s a little added-on vestibule) and there is not hallway. The dining room comes off of the lounge and the kitchen off that. The garden faces northwards, so come afternoon (the time you are most likely to be in it or in the rear rooms of the house) its shady and cold. The house itself was not well made, with flimsy materials (plyboard walls) and poor insulation. The ‘3rd’ bedroom is so small that you can get a single bed and a chest of drawers in and that’s about it. It’s also got a one-skin brick garage attached to it that’s slightly too narrow to actually put a car in (not that she uses it for that).
Thing is, it’s a nice enough house in a good location, but it’s scarily the norm where she lives as developers keep on building more and more houses (the newest development about a mile from here is over 3000 houses and they all look exactly the same and poorly planned out).
Yet to buy her house today you’d be looking at well over £200,000, mainly because it’s in catchment for an excellent school (hence the continued development, the demand is there). Few would agree though that the housing is worth it (and even fewer can explain how my generation are going to actually pay the mortgages off on houses of this value, but that’s another discussion. Assuming you can actually raise a deposit and get a mortgage of course.)
Of course, the issue of size isn’t really an issue at all if the space available is well designed for purpose. You only have to walk round Ikea on a weekend and look at their ‘show spaces’ to see how a little thought and intelligent space-saving design can go a long way to making a space much more comfortable to live in. Of course, modern design doesn’t mean perfection, just look at any 1970’s city development with its ‘walkways in the sky’ and tower blocks (some of Bristol city centre is a good example) that failed terribly. But we should be looking towards our European neighbours for inspiration, after all the Scandinavians, Germans and even the French tend to build better homes than we do.
Smaller could be better as well, if its well designed. In an age where our gas and electricity bills keep on rising, most of use would love to have solar panels, ground source heat pumps and super-dooper insulation to power our homes but we would also appreciate smaller, or perhaps more efficient, spaces to heat because our customer demands on energy will keep rising with an increase in our use of technology (just think how much energy your laptop, washing machine, dishwasher, microwave and TV are using right now.)
Building the actual houses is also evolving. The British have a pre-occupation with building in brick but increasingly there are more and more homes being built out of a whole variety of materials, timber being the most common. What is exciting though is the development of modular housing. Prefabricated off site (but don’t think post-WW2 prefab housing, think amazing glass walled super insulated homes) they are relatively cheap and extremely quick to build. The Huf Haus is the most famous example (and a lot of these are more millionaire row than you or me). I’d love one personally. But they are a tad expensive.
What they do prove though it if you have the plot to build on, actually building the house shouldn’t be too complex (an episode of Grand Designs a few years ago featured a Huf Haus build where the house and builders arrived from Germany and had it done with two weeks. It was phenomenal.
Grand Designs has probably got a lot to answer for really. It’s an amazing design programme (and its been fantastic to watch Kevin McCloud evolve over the years, especially the point at which he clearly got given a stylist!). What it has done though is open all of our eyes to what could be and what we should strive to achieve. Especially on the eco-front. Not all of the people featured are rich or flush with cash. Many are living a building dream on a tight budget. But what they do all have in common is a refusal to live in bog-standard poorly designed chocolate box houses. They dream of something different, just like Simon Dale.
To end though, its got to be a positive note, so here is the top ten British Eco-houses to prove some of us (currently not me included) are doing it right.