A Woodsman, Author,National Eco Builder, and whose Woodland House is one of the great success stories of Channel 4's Grand Designs.
Ben talks to Peter Brett about his home, his methods and staying true to his principles.
The Woodland years.
PB:How did you acquire your woodland and what drove you to adopt the woodland lifestyle?
BL:I acquired my woodland by Barter. Work in exchange for land. In the late 1980’s I received a leaflet through my door describing the destruction of the Amazon rainforest. After visiting the Amazon and meeting forest dwellers, I decided the best way to take pressure of the rainforest was to manage a wood sustainably and provide local wood products as opposed to tropical forest alternatives.
PB:How long did you live in your “tent” before you decided to build yourself a house?
BL:I lived under canvas for about 6 years and then in a caravan for another three until I got planning permission to build my house.
The Grand Designs Experience
PB:What was the process of getting your house onto Grand Designs?
BL:I knew I was embarking on an unusual build and wanted it filmed for educational purposes. I approached Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall who put me onto Grand Designs.
PB:How did it influence your approach before going on the show, and did that change after you had been on it?
BL:I had no idea what ‘Grand Designs” was when Hugh put them in contact with me and I was surprised by the huge response the show had.
PB:I am told that your particular Grand Design and revisit is one of the most popular of the whole series. What do you believe it was about your Grand Designs Experience that made you stand out from the others? What do you think it says about the viewers’ aspirations?
BL:I think it was the reality of my situation. I was living in a leaking caravan and needed a home. I was building on a tight budget – not throwing thousands of pounds at a sofa or bathroom. I also think it unlocked some latent feeling deep within us, the simplicity of life and need for shelter, most people who watch it resonate with that and want to experience it.
PB:f you could do it all again, is there anything you would change?
BL:No, I enjoyed the build and I am happy with the end result.
PB:You’ve shown it is possible to stay committed to Eco Living whilst raising a family. What advice would you give to someone who wants to adopt a similar approach, but lives in a more urban environment?
BL:Keep things simple, enjoy time in the outdoor spaces around you. A walk costs nothing and is a great family experience.
PB:More generally, with regards to heating, electricity and energy, how do you feel “ordinary” homeowners could help reduce their carbon footprint without necessarily adopting the high tech solutions that are available?
BL:Improving insulation of their homes, knit a jumper rather than turn up the heating, move to LED lighting, fix dripping taps and reduce dependence on the motor car.
PB:What’s the worst criticism you have received regarding your eco approach?
BL:I haven’t received much criticism. Criticism is usually reserved for those who talk about doing something as opposed to those of us who actually do it!
PB:You run courses that explore country ways. During the sessions, what are the key messages you attempt to get across? What kind of feedback have you received thus far?
BL:My courses are designed to help improve peoples skill set and to encourage them to have a go themselves. I try to empower people to believe they can do it, my Roundwood Timber Framing courses are internationally attended and students go away with the knowledge of how to build a Roundwood Timber Frame house – feedback and results are positive.
New Building Methods
PB:There is a lot of new tech out there making new building methods possible – eg the Wiki House using OSB ply and cutting out components with CNC machines. Or the greater use of prefabrication. like the Userhuus. Have you got a “take” on these, or would you use any of them if you were to build another project?
BL:I think some of the straw/clay panels that have been developed are a useful way of getting natural building materials into the mainstream but the roundwood poles I work with ask for a human hand and a chisel. I am currently cleaving 56,900 chestnut roofing shakes for a local project, each one is split by hand with a froe, shaped with a side axe and bevelled with a draw knife – I think the CNC machines might struggle to do these!
Tools –after all this is ToolBusiness and Hire Magazine!
PB:What are the top five tools that you use most days?
BL:Billhook, Side Axe, draw knife, Japanese saw, framing chisels
PB:Which tools particular have benefited you in your eco approach?
BL:The combination of battery tools and hand tools. I love using my timber framing slick but I have got to admit a pleasure when I use the impact driver!
PB:Could you foresee any ways that power tools could become more eco efficient?
BL:I think it is already beginning with the improved battery powered tools. I use a 12 inch bar Stihl battery chainsaw for coppicing and I am able to charge the batteries on solar power. In fact my whole workshop runs of solar power (no 3 phase mind you!)