The Hobbit House: A quiet revolution

Simon Dale spent just three months building his woodland home in Wales. Clare Dwyer Hogg reports

Simon Dale resisted the description of the round house he and his family built as a 'hobbit home' for as long as he could, but it was futile. "I've finally given into it," he laughs. It's not hard to see why: built into the Welsh woodland, with a turf roof that blends the house into its forest environment, what else would you call it? But it's not just about aesthetics. "There's some relevance in what hobbits were representative of for Tolkien," Dale says. "I'm no literary expert, but they seem to be a representation of humans living in a sustainable sort of way. I'm happy with that."

While Dale claims not to be an expert in literature, he also claims to be no expert in building or architecture – which is surprising given that he's built two family homes, and is planning more. But then, Dale's story is surprising. A photographer and graphic designer by trade, he knew from his teens that he wanted to build a home in the countryside. "Photography and graphic design were ways of getting a livelihood that were portable, and helpful for the move to the country," he says. Building a country retreat was not, however, the stuff of hundreds of thousands of pounds, years of work and according to the strictures of some fashionable design code. It certainly wasn't the conventional process we're familiar with seeing on our television screens – but it sounds like it would have made good viewing. In three months, and for no more than £3,000, Simon Dale, his wife Jasmine, and his father-in-law (with a baby and toddler in tow) constructed a cosy, ecologically sound, home in the woods. They did it themselves, relying on serendipity and the generosity of others. They weren't disappointed.

For a start, the owner of the woods they were building in was keen to have someone living there, taking care of the forest, so they didn't have to pay for the land they were building on. Next, crucially, the stewardship of the woodland involved some long overdue thinning of the trees. And the type of wood that needed to be thinned couldn't be sold for anything other than firewood. "It usually requires a subsidy to get it out," Dale says. "People are paid to remove it because it's part of an old woodland management plan that doesn't have a place in modern commercial production." It was, however, ideal for the woodland home that Dale was building, not least because it was pliable. "It gave us fantastic building opportunities, as well as creative ones because it made such interesting shapes," he enthuses.

The timber frame went up first, then the roof, so that they could be sheltered while doing the rest of the work. The roof has a layer of straw bales for insulation, plastic over that to render it waterproof, and earth on top. "A turf roof is a really simple way of making a roof," says Dale. "It's low-tech, cheap, and it's got minimal visual impact. Straw bales for insulation may sound a little worrying for urbanites, for whom straw sounds like something rather flammable. Not a bit of it, Dale says. It was used not only for the roof, but in the round wall that made up the building. "Trying to burn it is like burning sand when there's no air in it – and once it's covered in an inch of lime or earth, it's rendered completely fireproof, and will pass any tests," he explains. The round design wasn't just for looks: it makes structural sense to build like this – practically, it's a stable shape, and the minimum amount of wall means little heat loss.

Straw was one of the main expenses: many other materials came for free. "We went to lots of skips," Dale laughs, "but also people gave us things. Nearby there were power pylons being refitted, and the timber packing crates for the components would have been burnt – we used them as floorboards." There was also the big row of windows someone had removed from their home to have them replaced with plastic versions – Dale was the willing recipient of these unwanted luxuries. "I think because everything wasn't decided in advance, we were able to incorporate whatever happened as we went along," Dale says. "We weren't tied to a hard and fast plan at the beginning, or using materials like cement which you're then stuck with."

Inside, the design follows the same philosophy as the exterior – eclectic sources are favoured. "I enjoy diversity and handmade things," Dale says, and you'd be hard pressed to discover anything from Ikea. Most of the furniture is either handmade by Dale or his friends, or second hand. "Everything is functional primarily, and then aesthetic within the limits of what is functional as well as expedient," he says. This fits with Simon and Jasmine's philosophy of living simply, which ties in with the belief that living off the land is an important step in the current times of climate change and faltering resources. And they don't intend to sit still: their next project – to build nine similar homes in a settlement in Pembrokeshire – is well under way.

Nine families are ready to move in and try living off the land, going back to a way of life before fossil fuels – but with the modern knowledge of ecology. "What was initially for me a love of the countryside has turned into a complex understanding of how we relate to the land," Dale says. It's a quiet revolution: we probably haven't heard the last of this family.