Will Anderson: The Green House

The Elizabethans knew a bit about sustainable living. it's time the timber house made a comeback
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ONCE UPON A time, long before the Industrial Revolution and Coca-Cola, life in Britain was a relatively sustainable affair, albeit shorter and harsher than the three score years and 20 we enjoy today. This is principally because the food and energy needed to sustain life were sourced locally and, in the latter case, cut from trees rather than dug out of prehistoric holes.

As the full impact of our globalised, oil-intensive world becomes apparent, a revived localism offers an attractive path towards contemporary sustainability (witness thriving farmers' markets and organic vegetable box schemes). But even our houses have been globalised, like the hot dinners we eat in them; across the world, traditional buildings are distinguished by their use of local materials and sensitivity to climate, but modern developers can replicate their pattern-book designs across the country, exploiting global markets for both materials and energy. So should we revive local building traditions?

I pondered this last week during a trip to the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (www.wealddown. co.uk), which boasts a fine collection of vernacular British buildings that have been rescued and rebuilt in a beautiful spot in the South Downs. The 15th-century house pictured on the right is a typical example. Like most buildings of the time, it has a timber frame of English oak, so full marks for local materials. But there isn't much evidence of climate-sensitive design here beyond the compact form and small windows. Kerb appeal may have been a higher priority even then: the "jetties" that protrude at the front of the building were primarily displays of wealth and status, as well as a clever means of increasing floor area.

Timber building was once ubiquitous in Britain, but competition for oak from shipyards and iron smelters meant that by the end of the 18th century this long-established craft was all but dead, in England at least. Today, after many years in the wilderness, the timber-frame industry is on something of a roll. This time, it is not local materials that give timber-frame buildings the edge, but their environmental performance. As statutory requirements for insulation and airtightness get tougher for new homes, timber-frame houses, with their insulation-packed walls, look ever more attractive to developers.

Although people still build houses from English oak, most modern timber homes are made from softwood, for which slower-growing (and therefore stronger) Scandinavian timber is usually chosen over British wood. This might appear to blow a hole in the local, sustainable dream, but whenever a product has a very long life it is the energy expended over this life that matters most, not the energy used in transportation of the raw materials. A locally-grown apple is best eaten in an ultra-energy-efficient house.

Still, we ought to be able to build high-performance houses using local materials, including UK-grown softwoods. In Wales, the European Gate Project ( www.gate-project.org) is trying to develop the local forestry industry by encouraging builders to rethink how locally grown softwoods, as well as traditional hardwoods, can be used in modern designs.

Good luck to them and to all British forestry pioneers. We may not be able to turn the clock back on the Industrial Revolution, but replanting the great medieval forests of Britain would be a wonderful way of capturing carbon, improving our landscape and providing the raw materials for a new Elizabethan age of local timber building.

If you are heading for Grand Designs Live at the ExCel centre in London Docklands this weekend, check out the WWF One Planet Living exhibition for lots of green ideas: see www.granddesignslive.com



Improve your local wildlife habitat with an RSPB bird feeder, made in Britain from sustainably sourced timber. www.rspbshop.co.uk


If you want to get involved with protecting and promoting British woodlands, the Woodland Trust is the place to start. Visit www.woodland-trust.org.uk