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Project

Roundhouse Uses PVs, Naturally (Wales)

Credits: ©2011 Tony Wrench

The Roundhouse in Brithir Mawr, Wales, is made with wood frame, cobwood, recycled window walls and a straw-insulated turf roof. Electricity is provided by three photovoltaic panels on the roof and a small (200w) wind turbine situated about 70 yards away in a field. For most of the year these provide enough electricity to power two or three 12-volt lights simultaneously, plus a radio for an hour or two per day, or a laptop computer for an hour or two. Only in the high summer do they produce a surplus of electricity; often in the deep winter of December or January the home is plunged into darkness if the laptop is used too much, so the residents often eat and read by candle-light. The home employs a compost toilet and reed beds for treating graywater, a woodstove for heat and a well for water. The owners, Tony Wrench and Jane Faith, live simply, without a car and earning income from making music and selling homemade crafts. The design is based on the Celtic Roundhouse, of which there are reconstructions and traces on the mountain nearby. It also owes some design aspects to the roundhouses of the Miwok, Pomo and Mandan native peoples of North America - particularly the turf-covered roof, using 150 straw bales as insulation rather than 18" or so of pine needles. The idea for cordwood and cob walls came from the early Swedish settlers to North America. (Scroll to bottom for additional resources)

 

Roundhouse Sod

The sod roof on the Roundhouse in Wales is covered with a rubber membrane and 18 inches of straw for insulation. ©2011 Tony Wrench

How long did it take to build?
The wood for walls and roof totaled approximately 200 thinned Douglas Fir trees from a piece of forestry the owners bought adjacent to our smallholding in Cwm Cych. One winter - was spent cutting these trees to size and stacking them; the next winter was spent building over four months.

How much did it cost?
The most expensive item was the single sheet of rubber pond liner that forms the waterproof roof membrane, which cost £650. Next was the woodstove with back boiler at £420. Then electrics, wood transport, windows, nails etc. The grand total was £3,000.

Life in the Roundhouse
Life in the roundhouse includes hot water, electricity, a bath, a kitchen, a bed on a raised platform, and space for tools, musical instruments, word processor, recording gear, and lots of wood. The layout is a central circular space formed by the inner circle of supports approximately 20ft/6.5 meters across, with a wooden floor. Other functions are in the outer circle of the home which retains its original packed earth floor, including the compost toilet that is located about 20 meters from the back door. The uses a twin chamber aerobic system that turns waste with sawdust and paper into good quality fertilizer after about two years.

Interiors and shelving were improvised from sawmill slabs that are typically sold by the ton for firewood. There are two salvaged sinks - one for washing dishes and the other for washing ourselves, vegetables and clothes. The plastic waste pipes go out through the cobwood wall and into a reed bed which takes all the grey water from the house. For human waste there is an outdoor composting toilet that decomposes over two years to produce compost for the fruit trees and bushes. There is no dishwasher or washing machine, so high-quality, deep stainless steel sinks were installed. Domestic water comes from a Victorian-era well spring half way up the small mountain near the home, feeding a hot water tank that is heated from a back boiler in a wood stove. The hot water tank is an old oak brandy barrel that holds more than 100 gallons, and acts as a sort of slow radiator releasing heat into the living space. It also receives warm water from a home-made solar water heater, so the sun's warmth is transferred to the house slowly at night via this tank. The heating and hot water systems use about four tons of wood per year, which are cut by hand using a two-handled saw. The ash is applied to the garden to renew the mineral content of the soil.

Tony Wrench wrote a book about building and living in the Roundhouse: Building a Low Impact Roundhouse.

The following article is from The Guardian:
by Patrick Barkham, 25 September 2008
Round the Houses
After a 10-year battle, a low-impact housing scheme in Wales finally won retrospective approval in September 2008
A special bottle of sweet raspberry wine was cracked open in celebration and then it was back to work for Tony Wrench: the creator of the unique roundhouse finally granted planning permission in Wales had some blackberries to pick. Last week saw a flurry of headlines about the surprising reprieve for Wrench's "hobbit home". Now, those who argue that similar low-impact developments may be the only sustainable eco-towns of the future hope that the decision could change our archaic planning rules for ever.

Enjoying the late summer sunshine in the long meadow surrounding the satisfyingly squat, wooden and grass-roofed home he built himself - and spent a decade defending from demolition - Wrench is more circumspect. Britain has the lowest proportion of self-built homes in the EU - less than 10 percent compared with upwards of 40 percent on the continent. Its planning system makes virtually no provision for cheap, low-carbon homes like Wrench's, which almost completely blend into the countryside. Low-impact developments are treated like "a disease" by planners, he says.

After a long struggle with the authorities, Wrench got retrospective approval for his home, tucked away in a valley in south-west Wales, via an unusual planning policy experiment in Pembrokeshire. County council and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park planners agreed to allow for low-impact developments on rural land where normal houses would not be considered, as long as they met stringent environmental, economic and social criteria.

Without this planning guidance, known as Policy 52, Wrench would never have been allowed to keep his roundhouse. He hopes his victory will inspire the burgeoning Transition Town movement - where communities from Totnes to Tring are seeking to drastically reduce carbon emissions and find alternatives to oil consumption - to petition their councils for a similar policy. But even if campaigners got their own versions of Policy 52, they may still find it almost impossible to build a low-impact home.

While Wrench celebrates, another low-impact proposal was refused planning permission earlier this month under exactly the same rules in Pembrokeshire. Lammas, an eco-village of nine carbon neutral homes and smallholdings on 76 acres of mixed pasture and woodland was hailed as "inspiring" by a member of the Design Commission for Wales. The brainchild of carpenter Paul Wimbush, the proposals were meticulously costed and showed how residents would not need electricity or water from the grid, but would pay their taxes, run educational courses and make a positive contribution to mainstream society.

Despite this, Lammas was rejected on technical grounds that included a conventional agricultural assessment suggesting the community could not meet 75% of its basic needs from the land, as Policy 52 demands. Wimbush believes the decision was "sloppy" and will appeal to the Welsh Assembly with an appeal decision due next spring. "Lammas is being watched by a lot of people," he says. "If Lammas can't get through, many think it's not worth trying."

The problem, say advocates of low-impact living, is that planning rules do not allow ordinary people with conventional jobs to choose a low-impact home with land that enables them to produce more of their own food. So far, almost all low-impact housing has gained planning permission retrospectively, and on appeal, after long confrontations. In other words, low-impact housing has been all about hippies and direct action. "Until a project can be recognised under normal planning avenues, low-impact homes will remain the preserve of activists," says Wimbush. "Doing it our way round it would enable people to raise mortgages. By thinking long-term and investing savings in a project, you are going to get very different standards of housing, businesses and farms than you get when people are effectively taking direct action to create their low-impact homes."

Simon Fairlie, the editor of the Land magazine, who has inspired much of the low-impact movement in Britain, agrees that the planning system does not allow ordinary people to take up low-impact homes. "There is a huge desire from people who want to downsize, who want a connection with the land, who also need affordable housing and are capable of building their own home at no cost to the taxpayer," he says. "It's daft that the planning system isn't beginning to think about providing for these people."

Wrench believes that Policy 52's criteria - that low-impact proposals must prove a positive social, economic and environmental benefit and get 75% of their basic needs from the land - are far too tough. "Are people in the government's eco-towns going to be required to grow their own crops?" he says. The policy, argues Wrench, is a straitjacket, which ensures that low-impact homes are confined to an eccentric minority willing to drop out of wage-earning jobs. The "75 percent of basic needs" demand means that applicants will have to work their smallholding all the time and won't have time for a conventional job. "When you try to get 75 percent of your basic needs from the land, you can't do anything else," says Wrench.

A couple of other councils in Britain have a version of Policy 52, but the criteria tends to be too tough to permit any low-impact developments. Apart from the ray of sunshine provided by Wrench's victory, those who believe low-impact housing could be a solution to the lack of affordable homes as well as the crisis of the carbon economy see more hope in Wales. The Welsh Assembly currently has a consultation open on planning guidance for low-impact homes. Campaigners hope the outcome could be a demand for all Welsh councils to offer provisions similar to Policy 52.

Wrench is confident that, slowly but surely, other towns across Britain will successfully lobby for their own versions of the policy. But it seems too much to hope for encouragement from central government. "Labour has a fixation with 'delivery'. To say the government can 'deliver' sustainability for people is absolute nonsense. All the government has to do is not get in the way of people who want to live sustainably," says Wrench. "The planning system is still terribly slow. Suppose there are a million of us living like this when the oil runs out. There will still be 59 million wanting our vegetables and there won't be enough smallholdings to feed our nation".

The following article is from The Sunday Times:
by Marcus Leroux, July 30, 2007
Eco-house Faces Demolition for ‘Negative Impact on Environment’
In an age obsessed with environmental sustainability, Tony Wrench and his partner Jane Faith would appear to be beyond reproach.

Their eco-home was made with local materials, its electricity supplied by solar and wind power and its heat kept in by a turf roof and straw insulation. They compost their sewage using a reed bed and make do without a fridge or washing machine.

But the couple have been told to demolish their beloved home - because it isn’t green enough.

The single-room roundhouse, based on a Celtic layout, is set in a protected part of the Pembrokeshire coast and has been refused planning permission because it “failed to make a positive environmental impact”. The couple, who grow their own food and make a modest living from music and woodcraft, feel they are being victimised despite doing more than most to reduce their carbon footprint.

The Hobbit House, as locals in Brithdir Mawr, near Newport, have dubbed it, is destined for demolition unless given a last-minute reprieve by the Welsh Assembly.

“You get the feeling that it does not matter what you do, they will always say ‘no’,” Mr Wrench said.

“We are doing everything we possibly can to reduce our carbon footprint. It is about as low as we can get and it demonstrates that an environmentally sustainable lifestyle is possible.”

He added: “This house is so beautiful to be in, and the garden so fruitful and bursting with life of all kinds, that I still cannot believe that in a world of such environmental spoilation and with spreading patches of such ugliness, there are still people paid to work on having this home demolished. What low impact proposal will ever withstand this level of nit-picking?” said Mr Wrench, a wood turner.

The Pembrokeshire Coast National Park Authority ruled that the dwelling would have a negative impact on dormice, bats and invertebrates. An ecologist’s report concluded that if permission were granted, the home would cause, “severe degradation of the National Park landscape”.

Mr Wrench, 61, plans to appeal against the decision, the latest step in a ten-year legal battle.

He spent £3,000 building the home a decade ago using local materials and insulating it with straw. A study confirmed that their carbon footprint was just a fraction of the national average, but the park authority says that is still not good enough.

Ifor Jones, the authority’s head of conservation, admitted that the rules were strict, but said that they applied to everyone. He said: “Yes, we do have high hurdles, but it is important that any development enhances the environment, rather than detracts from it. In this instance the location of the roundhouse and vegetable garden within an area of semi-natural vegetation, comprising woodland edge and unimproved wet grassland, is considered to have had negative impacts.”


Resources

That Roundhouse (Wales)

Building a Low Impact Roundhouse (Google Online Book)


Videos

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Roundhouse Tour Video

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Roundhouse Construction Timelapse Video

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Roundhouse Video