Diary Of An Eco-Builder

Plenty of wooden houses have survived centuries without a drop of preservative
Click to follow
The Independent Online

Every piece of wood tells a story and, in this column, every story comes with a ha'penny-worth of eco enthusiasm. So here are three woods, three stories and one and a half pence-worth of my weekly eco evangelism.

Every piece of wood tells a story and, in this column, every story comes with a ha'penny-worth of eco enthusiasm. So here are three woods, three stories and one and a half pence-worth of my weekly eco evangelism.

The story begins in the bright May sunshine with a trip to the South Downs to source several timber details for Tree House. I was accompanied by our architect, Peter Smithdale, and we were both exhilarated by the prospect of some intimate encounters with our mutually favourite building material. There's nothing like meeting the trees your wood comes from, whether or not you are inclined to hug them.

Our first stop was not, however, a forest but an early 18th-century oak barn midway through conversion to a chunky des res. Many of the timbers were being reused but there were a few left over. Andy, the builder, led us through the farmyard to a shed where a pile of old oak beams lurked in a corner. We had found what we wanted: beautiful, characterful timbers that will frame our windows, like branches framing the sky through the canopy of a tree. Although their function will be aesthetic - our actual window frames will come with our high performance windows - they will symbolise the continuity of timber buildings and the ecological value of reusing their component parts. Although we are inspired by the nouveau-riche sycamore that dominates our plot, it will be a pleasure to incorporate a little aristocratic oak into the fabric of the building.

Having made our choices from amid the pile, we headed west to one of the biggest broad-leaf forests in England where woodsman Robin Carter, of FSC-accredited Timber Resources International, became our guide. We were looking for two tree trunks which, debarked, will rise up inside the staircase of Tree House, providing an immediate, tactile evocation of the form and character of trees right in the heart of the house.

Before long we were driving deep into a forest of super-straight Douglas fir in search of fallen trees, as a tree that has been dead for some time has a head start in drying out over a newly felled tree. We want our tree trunks sooner rather than later, but we also want to avoid the nasty chemical baths that can short-cut the curing process, so the drier they are to start with the better. Nonetheless, the poles will split and crack over the years as they slowly contract, a character detail that we have decided to embrace.

The principle here is to learn the strengths of wood and work with them rather than assuming that you can always get a material to do what you want by using a toxic enhancement. This point is applicable to the use of timber preservatives which are regularly slapped on woods of all kinds without much thought. The most ecological approach to timber preservation is always to avoid chemical treatments altogether by building carefully, paying special attention to how wood is ventilated, and using the right wood for the job. There are plenty of wooden houses throughout the world that have survived centuries without a drop of preservative.

The final item on our arboreal shopping list was poles for a pergola, designed to reach across the pond that will run the width of our main living space. For this, Robin took us to another corner of his thousand acre wood, to a plantation of coppiced sweet chestnut. Sweet chestnut is a durable wood and coppicing is a sustainable way of managing woodland because you never actually kill the tree.

Oak, Douglas fir and sweet chestnut. Recycle buildings, treat wood with care rather than chemicals and keep the forests alive with sustainable management. Good value, I reckon, from one glorious day in the Sussex countryside.

Contact Timber Resources International on 01428 741349, www.timberresources.co.uk.

Comments