Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

Landmatters, Devon May 31, 2010

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 2:02 pm

Landmatters is a 42 acre eco-community in Devon (near Totnes). The land was brought collectively by Landmatters co-operative and when the residents came together over the purchase of the land it became clear that the common factor and core principle was permaculture. Thus they have used permaculture to structure how they have built their houses around the edge of a purposefully designed village green, and how they grow their food. Part of their remit is in experimenting in, and proving, what could be done with minimal impact.

In terms of housing, all buildings are temporary because that was a condition of the planning permission. They are limited to 50 m2 for each home, and only for the number of dwellings present at the time of planning application. In other words they cannot constitute ‘operational development’ according to the planning decision. They are currently in the process of seeking to extend their planning permission which expires later this year (2010). Until then they have a range of benders (some with wooden floors, some with straighter sides using poles into the ground, many with lots of windows), yurts and a wooden roundhouse.

Most types of housing were chosen for practical reasons. For example, benders are cheap and adaptable, a yurt can be easily purchased ‘off the shelf’ ready to assemble, and part of the variety of dwellings on site was that people had different skills and energy to build places. The barn was made from local wood from the site and wood brought from a local sawmill. There are two wooden compost toilet blocks, one has two separate doors, a rainwater tank, sink, soap and mirror outside.

The communal, which contains a kitchen, office, dining area and large sitting room, has recently been redesigned and re-built to encourage more communal use. With straight sides it provides plenty of height for usability (which is hard in a classic bender style) but retains a pretty woven hazel roof which they can replace when needed. The most recent building is the new bathhouse made from new planks with see-through plastic corrugated roof which creates a nice light inside. It contains a bathroom with additional shower for residents, shower rooms for volunteers and a separate washing area. But they have had to build it through experimentation which has taken longer than they had hoped.

Costs for building and building materials were reduced by:

  • Using freely reclaimed material from skips or other peoples waste.
  • Using local suppliers –windows have come second hand from glazers locally
  • Donations
  • Self-building all dwellings without the use of paid experts.
  • Designing the homes so that they can be modular – often combining a yurt with a bender which means it can be added onto easily when necessary.
  • Sharing of the purchase cost of the land which has been the biggest expense and this has been dramatically reduced by sharing between residents.


The barn and a bender

The homes are situated at the top of the hill on the site which means that they are able to benefit from passive solar gain, photovoltaic and wind turbines. Most dwellings have their own photovoltaic solar panel for electricity generation. Water comes from a 300 ft bore hole which provides all their drinking water and is extracted using a donated deep bore hand pump which has meant that they no longer need to use a fossil fuel generator. The way in which the ‘village’ is arranged means that all that you need is nearby (water, toilet etc), but is also challenges the notion that all that you need for a house is necessarily in one place. In other words unlike conventional homes the toilet is across a field and the water is in the other direction. It raises the question of what we conceive as included when we think about a home?

Yurts at Landmatters

There are currently twelve adults living on site and 5 children. The community is run using collective non-hierarchical decision-making: This means they have regular meetings. Everyone has their own garden, but in the central areas are the communal gardens. Most food in the gardens were being grown in raised beds built from off-cuts of sawn timber from a local timber yard.

Gardens and a compost toilet 

If you would like to visit Landmatters the best days for visiting are their Open Days every second Saturday of the month. Minibus transport from Totnes and back can be arranged. Other possible days for visiting are Wednesdays and Thursdays, which are our communal work days (however, people will be working and have less time to show you around).

There are also a number of courses and events run on our land, please check their website for upcoming dates ( If you want to volunteer at Landmatters for a longer stretch of time, please inquire via email ( or phone (01803 712718/ 07867 851382).











Groundhouse, France May 12, 2010

Filed under: Cost of housing,Inspiring examples — naturalbuild @ 7:02 am
The Groundhouse is an earth-sheltered house built in Brittany by Daren Howarth and his partner in 2009. It is designed to be aligned with natural systems. The aim was to build a home based on the most sustainable design, systems and materials. They have a great website with lots of pictures of the build and some great summaries of build techniques and materials.  They are currently working on other projects which includes research for UK affordable eco-housing (community land trusts, low carbon development zones and planning covenants). On his website Daren argues that we can select “build forms that achieve modern levels of durability and comfort and which can be simple, ecological and affordable: simple means not just lower costs but also the possibility for building or renovating your own home; ecological means designs that work with the land and the elements; and affordable means below average build costs and low running costs”. Moreover, he notes that “The biggest barrier to living in a natural home is often inflated land values that make homes unaffordable”.

Building an Earthship May 11, 2010

Having built an eco-house myself I thought I had a basic grasp of how an eco-building works and why. However, I have since realised that I had only just begun to understand the principles of eco-building and how they work with each other. Two weeks ago I attended a training course run by Brighton Permaculture Association on ‘An Introduction to Self-Building an Earthship’. I went to learn more about the principles of Earthships – buildings made from walls of tyres rammed full of earth. However, I learnt a whole deal more and thoroughly enjoyed myself at the same time. For anyone remotely interested in eco-building, whether an Earthship or not, I would recommend this course. It was informative, pitched at a high level but explained in plain English, had a great mix of talks and practicals, and was taught by a highly knowledgeable group of staff who seemed able to answer any of the random questions we threw at them. What is more it was set in the beautiful and inspiring Brighton Earthship in Stanmer Park – providing an opportunity to see in practice how the theory was actually working, which helped considerably when understanding, for example, the importance of underfloor insulation in Britain.

Brighton Earthship

The course covered all the components that you need to understand in order to legally build an eco-house in Britain: Building Regulations, planning, building physics, building materials, climate and location, building performance, renewable energy systems, water and sewage systems, lighting, and finances. The 5 principles of Earthships are: (1) to build an off-grid house with its own power generation; (2) water harvesting, storage and treatment are all on site; (3) that the building is heated and cooled without the use of fuel; (4) in home food production; and (5) building with recycled materials.

 Photovoltaic system on top of Brighton Earthship

 The course, and Earthships, raised some interesting issues in terms of building affordable eco-homes in Britian:

  • Building Regulations were often identified as a barrier to be negotiated in green building, and are perceived as a complicated set of regulations which few understand – which in itself restricts eco-builders ability to navigate them.
  • Other legislative barriers include The Environment Agency who currently consider tyres a toxic waste and as a result prevent further building using them in Britain.
  • That understand and using building physics is crucial for effective eco-house design and that effective use of such principles is reliant upon a detailed understanding of the surrounding climate environment. Thus it is necessary to know about wind direction and solar radiation in order to design an appropriate house. Understanding the interlinked nature of building physics, however, also raises a tension between the need to use experts in an eco-build and how the use of such experts increases costs and shifts any build away from being of a self-build ethos.
  • We have to understand location and the issues of that location in order to build effectively. For example, in general Britain is a damp country, our houses need good insulation and heat, but we tend to have plenty of water.
  • An Earthship has food production as core to its design. It uses greywater planters inside to create an all-year growing season and be being inside and thus warmer it is possible to grow a broader range of fruits. This extends the remit of what a house should ‘do’ – it is not just about shelter and comfort, but food too.
  • In order to make a house more affordable we need to: change the materials we use, scale up (benefit from economies of scale), share infrastructure, and build closer together (increase density).
  • Planning is still perceived as a major barrier to innovative eco-building – that essentially planning in Britain is traditional in its approach – which has pushed many experimental eco-builders abroad.
  • That we need to constantly adapt and evolve eco-house design and learn from the successes and failures of previous builds. We should not adopt a blueprint, like that of Earthships designed in New Mexico, and simply import the idea without altering it to suit our climate.
  • Finally, there is a lack of knowledge about how eco-buildings actually perform. Too often there is an approach whereby we (1) do not talk about the failure of our green buildings, (2) we do not measure the performance of our buildings, and (3) we take claims about the performance of buildings at face value. We need independent assessments of how our buildings are actually working.



One of the practicals during the course was to start to build a wall using tyres and ramming earth into them.

Once you have chosen a selection of same size tyres (185 depth is ideal, with over 60 tread width) you line them up and shovel in earth. Using a mallet this earth is then rammed into the tyre. This process is repeated until the tyre is completely hard and feels solid throughout. The second layer of tyres is then put in, using cardboard to line the bottom of the tyre, and setting back the tyres an inch from the bottom row (so the wall effectively leans back slightly). Once you have the size of wall you want you can finish in off with a cob in-fill and a lime render to provide a smooth finish. More information on how to build a tyre wall:



For a non-load bearing wall (i.e. a wall that does not support any significant structure and weight of your building) a wall made from recycled glass bottles adds a colourful addition. We made one using a wet tile cutter to slice the bottles. Using two similar sized bottles you tape them together using duck-tape, then using cement and sand layered them to build the wall. It should be constructed in a ‘honeycomb’ pattern to give it strength with a minimum of 1.5 inches of mortar around each glass brick. Then you use a sponge and water to wipe off any excess mortar. Using this method you can only do a few courses a day as you need to allow the mortar to dry in-between. For more information on building a glass bottle brick wall see:

Cutting bottles and making glass bottle bricks at Brighton Earthship



Paulina Wojciechowska (Earth Hands and Houses) taught us how to plaster a wall using clay. Using just clay, sand, straw and water we were able to create a variety of different textures over a rammed tyre wall. We created a base layer, which was thicker and gave a rougher finish, out of straw simply rubbed and covered in wet clay. This produced a very sticky material which you can sculpture. For the top layer we used sand and you would also use wheat paste at this stage to improve the resilience of the plaster. At this stage you can use a trowel to create a smooth texture. A great and easy way to make a plaster using local resources.

Plastering a tyre wall




Tinkers Bubble, Somerset May 10, 2010

Tinkers Bubble in Somerset is a long standing eco-community. Established in 1994 near Little Norton, they manage 40 acres without the use of fossil fuels or internal combustion engines; “the aim of the community’s 16 residents is to derive their livelihoods from the sustainable management of the land and its resources” (Laughton, 2008, p.145) and goods are moved around site using a horse and cart. They had a long battle for planning permission but are now a legal and established site.


Communal roundhouse and Teigwyn the horse


Woodlands and milk being stored and cooled in the stream

I went simply to see what it was like; I was not really intending on it being a part of this project, but had heard so much about it over the years that I wanted to take the opportunity to finally see it. I figured the most productive way to visit would be to go as a volunteer – that way spending several days there and contributing in return for a bed and food. While there I helped cook, carried wood for the fire, weeded in the garden, planted sweet peas, and learnt to scythe (though I have yet to learn how to do it without causing blisters).

There is so much to describe and say about Tinkers Bubble because it is so completely different to ‘mainstream’ life but I will focus on the place itself, the people and the buildings. For some reason I had not imagined that the houses at Tinkers Bubble were at the top of a surprisingly steep hill, deep in a Douglas Fir woodland. At times this made it feel rather dark, but after a morning gardening in full sun I was relieved to be in its shade and at night it felt rather comforting to be protected by the trees. Of course it has the added benefit of proving to volunteers just how unfit having an office job makes you. The gardens are at the bottom of the hill – divided up amongst residents – with a communal garden, horse and cow fields and orchard the other side of the woodland. In all three quarters of the land is woodland, with a stream (from where the land draws its name) and paths running through it. It has a very peaceful and English feel – rolling green hills, apple blossom, wildlife and changeable British weather.

What particularly struck me at Tinkers was the warm unreserved welcome. Hundreds of people must pass through, as visitors, volunteers, even temporary residents, but they showed no wane in friendliness and continued humour, politeness and curiosity as yet another stranger asked them (probably very familiar) questions. With about 12 adults and several children on my visit there were plenty of faces to get to know. I am sure on my brief visit I could not have detected any of the politics that doubtless exist, and as with all communities there is a reasonable turnover in residents – with several long-termers and various newer people of just a few years. However, the act of eating a collective meal every dinner, of having to work a ‘domestic’ day every fortnight (when you do the washing up and cook the evening meal) seemed to provide an important glue to the residents’ busy lives. I felt very at home very quickly, even though I knew no-one and did not know how anything worked. On my first afternoon I helped make dinner which was an education in itself in the outside kitchen – cooking on the open fire and washing up in the outdoors sink.

Fire pit and outside kitchen

Each of the buildings was different – a thatched roundhouse, a straw-bale insulated house, a cob/ cordwood/ strawbale/ pallet construction, roundwood, Douglas Fir shingle (or shake), and even a metal roof. Most buildings seemed to incorporate a canvas or tarpaulin. Even the glorious guest house – a timber-framed two-storey house – had a canvas liner inside. Living in an English woodland is damp and most buildings rotted more quickly as a result, hence needing the added protection of another layer. The houses were compact in size; some might consider them too small, but actually once inside you realised they were often perfectly designed for need – space for a chair, desk, bed and fire. Often the beds are on mezzanines high in the roof – creating fun sleeping platforms which free up living space down below. It is a useful lesson in what space we actually need.


Guest house and bath house

As Laughton notes “wood provides the fuel for all cooking, space and water-heating, and a wind-generator and solar panels provide enough electricity for lighting, stereos and laptop computers” (2008, p.146). That the fires had to be lit was quite noticeable considering it was May. But the houses do not have high thermal mass and do not benefit from passive solar gain (because of the trees); rather their main eco-features are that they are mostly made from natural material, onsite, built by the people living in them through a process of experimentation. This is true low-cost eco-housing using local free natural materials. Moreover they have a ready free supply of wood onsite. There also seems to be an ethos that it is important that buildings are temporary, that being low impact is also about being able to remove a house easily, and as such the houses should not be too solid, or too robust as that would belie their temporary design.


Timber-frame and straw-bale house


Compost toilet and PV array

I liked a lot of the buildings on site, with each being different and each had their endearing features. I particularly enjoyed the view from the compost toilet of the woodland below with deer milling about and ignoring your presence. It probably rates as one of the best toilet locations! They also have a great bath house – an asset I have not seen in other communities I have visited. There are perhaps two particularly inspiring houses. One is by Charlotte – she built a strawbale, cordwood, cob and pallet house by herself, without any prior experience of building. Taking only 11 months to build it is a beautiful, inspiring house perched on the side of the hill. Inside it has a large living space and then two different level sleeping platforms high into the roof. Dan built a green painted house cum workshop with a curved metal roof. It sits wonderfully in the forest like a colourful bunker that looks cosy and purposeful at the same time.


I was sad to leave Tinkers Bubble as I had only just begun getting know what it was like as a place to live, and there are things that I loved and other things that I struggled with. But I would encourage anyone who really wanted to know what a different way of living could be like to pay them a visit and help out for a bit. It challenged my assumptions about what we need to do and know to live in a more environmentally sustainable way.


Apple orchard

More information about Tinkers Bubble can be found in Rebecca Laughtons book – Surviving and Thriving on the Land (Greens Books, 2008). Rebecca lived at Tinkers Bubble for 4 years and has incorporated much about the community into her work. See also an article on EcoNomads:

If you would like to visit please email and ask if you can go and volunteer. Their address is Tinker’s Bubble, Little Norton, Stoke-sub-Hamdon, Somerset, TA14 6TE, UK.


Abundant Earth, County Durham

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork — naturalbuild @ 2:14 pm

Abundant Earth is a Community Supported Agricultural Scheme in Broompark, County Durham. They supply seasonal organic vegetables through a vegetable box scheme to the local area. It is run as a workers co-operative and supported by the Soil Association. They have recently started providing eggs from their red hens. Although they do not live on site their use of land is a useful example in land-based living and in generating a sustainable income in an organic environmentally-sensitive way. They are careful to only promise to provide seasonal food and never supply produce from outside of the country (unlike some other organic vegetable box schemes). The rich variety of their produce and the beautiful layout of their gardens and polytunnels make it an inspiring place to be.


I spent a few days helping on site – planting onions, picking leeks and helping deliver the vegetable bags. They are always on the look out for short and long-term volunteers and WWOOFers (World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms).


If you are local and interested in ordering a bag or volunteering contact Beth or Jo on


The gender difference in eco-building

Filed under: Politics of building — naturalbuild @ 1:16 pm

In recent visits to a variety of eco-communities across Britain and to eco-build sites I have realised quite how gendered everything still is, even in places where you might expect a more ‘progressive’ view. There exists a presumption that men like to build and that women like to garden and cook. When I ask people on site whether this is deliberate, conscious, or a problem, the majority have said ‘it is simply the way things are, men are stronger and can do different jobs to women’. But is determining what we are able to do simply a matter of physical prowess, or are other assumptions made in such statements which we need to disentangle a little?

The assumption that building is a ‘man’s job’ has all sorts of implications for what a woman’ s role in these communities or in building is. In the places I have recently visited it was assumed that childcare is a woman’s job (which remains highly undervalued), and that the support work such as cooking, collecting build materials, multi-tasking all the other things that need doing, just sort of happens. It is rarely acknowledged how much work women are doing on site generally, and particularly to support the build process.  The result is that finished buildings which draw attention for their innovation and design are often implicitly attributed to the male who spent most time on it. It becomes ‘Jim’s house’ for example, excluding all the work that others, especially women, have put into it.

It also creates an environment where women’s ideas about building can more easily be perceived as ‘impractical’ or ‘costly’ (both terms  heard used to dismiss a woman’s build ideas). So is there a need for a more assertive creation of women’s experimental eco-build spaces? How might houses be different if designed and built by women? Do women approach building differently? That building is still considered a male domain means gender is an important marker of difference when it need not necessarily be so. There are plenty of female architects and some notable eco-builders – Barbara Jones (amazonnails), Brenda Vale  (The Autonomous House), Cindy Harris (Centre for Alternative Technology), Paulina Wojciechowska (Earth Hands and Houses), and Rachel Shiamh (Quiet Earth) to name just a few.

Do these gender assumptions matter? Yes, they matter because they perpetuate the assumptions about male skills and strengths which might not necessarily be true (there are men who might struggle to lift a tree trunk and there are women who are strong and manually very competent), excludes female voices from design discussions, and also limits the possibility of women actually building their own homes. It also prevents some men from understanding what they actually enjoy doing. For example, in one community the men had to take over the gardening business for a while as the women were heavily pregnant. One of the men realised that actually he loved gardening, more than building, and has ever since been far more hands-on in the gardening.

Moreover, if women are told ‘you are not strong enough to do this’ it creates an atmosphere which is hard to challenge. While learning how to ram earth into tyres on an Earthship course, I asked about gender and was told that it ‘was a better use of resources if a bloke did the manual work, and the women do something easier. It makes more sense to use resources where they are best placed’. I had been struggling to learn ramming and felt intimidated by others’ strength and agility. But I tend to take a while to work out my rhythm for a new skill, I need practice and patience at the beginning. But who is to say that in time I would not become good at it, or even adjust the taught method to something more superior? In other words, while I was clearly not as strong or quick as the men on the course, there is no reason why I could not have become just as proficient or found a different way of doing it that suited me better. In reality I felt I was not learning quickly enough and my decidedly unassertive response was to take myself off and fold cardboard into the bottom of tyres instead. I found I conformed to the gender stereotype because it was easier.

Building has a lot to do with confidence and skill, not just brute strength, and the lack of women eco-builders is surely a bigger waste of ‘resources’ than determining roles based on physical ability alone. I wonder if women being ‘out of place’ in the nitty-gritty of pounding tyres affects their broader role in decision-making about eco-building? If we are made to feel out of sync in the build process then we lose the confidence and knowledge to be part of other aspects of the build. There is much work yet to be done on gender and eco-building, and perhaps the easiest way to start is by celebrating the work of some women eco-builders. One of the best houses at Tinkers Bubble (Somerset) was built by a woman – her first house that she built, with no money, and just some advice from others. She has built a beautiful, robust, cosy, building out of natural materials; it is an inspiration for all.


Priced Out – affordable housing campaign

Filed under: Building and environmental campaigns,Cost of housing — naturalbuild @ 9:36 am

PricedOut is a campaign group which acts on behalf of first time buyers and owner occupiers who cannot afford to buy a house in Britain. They argue that the government is largely to blame for this because of the tax advantages of buying a house simply to let it and the encouragement it gives to property speculators. Their tagline that they are part of a ‘priced out generation’ . Their website has a great deal of useful information about the tension between rising house prices and the lack of available mortgages.

The campaign has a slightly confused or mixed agenda. If you use their ‘How much richer has my home made me’ calculator then you will likely get an answer that basically argues that houses are not meant as investment vehicles, but as homes and that the only ‘profit’ you make is from inflation.  But the campaign argues that it is important that we each own a home, and as such seems more concerned with being excluded from being part of this investment opportunity than it does about how we own our homes, or why we must own our own home. Nor do they comment on the variety of government schemes which are designed to make buying a home more affordable (such as HomeBuy or part-buying via a Housing Association) perhaps because these tend to be restricted to ‘key workers’ or others eligible for council housing.

The campaign make some good demands – such as making use of the thousands of homes which lie empty in Britain (estimated at 762,000 homes), improved tenants rights, and increased taxation on buy-to-let properties and second homes. But they also argue for the building of 5 million new ‘affordable’ homes. They define affordability as ‘when the average price of a home equals no more than 5 times the average salary’. This is actually still very expensive and whether the campaign are simply trying to be pragmatic and not ask for too much, or whether they really believe that to be affordable is unclear. Most ecological mortgage lenders in Britain will not lend more than 3 times your salary, an indication I would argue of what they perceive to be a sustainable price for the occupier. There is no mention about these new builds being in any way environmentally sustainable either, which is a missed opportunity.

PricedOut also suggest that there should be ‘incentives to encourage older people living in larger houses to ‘trade down’ to smaller properties and make these properties cheaper for younger people with families’ – quite a controversal and radical aim. They are effectively arguing that you should only live in a house which is an ‘appropriate’ size for your needs. This is a good idea, and one that I have come across several times in the eco-communities I have been visiting, but it sits awkwardly with the rest of the campaign aims which are basically about enabling freedom to buy and build, rather than a more radical aim of determining how we live in our own homes. It is also unclear why it is only ‘older’ people who should downsize, there are plenty of people of all ages living in large houses they do not necessarily need.

PricedOut can be understood in different ways – as a group simply annoyed at being excluded from the property market, or as a more radical initiative which argues we should reconsider how we own and live in our homes. It has some socialist underpinnings in its assumptions, but at first glance it does little to challenge the capitalist approach to building, buying, and making profit from our homes.