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By January 9, 2014 6 Comments Read More →

The Hobbit House

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Simon Dale tells us how he built his ideal family home for just £3,000.

I built our family house in Wales, with the help of both my father-in-law and visiting friends and passers-by. Just three months after starting the project we moved in. I estimated that between 1,000 and 1,500 man-hours and £3,000 had been put into the project: not really that much in terms of buying a bespoke property, at roughly £60 per square metre, excluding labour.

The East Side Window

The East Side Window

The house was built with a maximum regard for the environment, and by reciprocation gives us a unique opportunity to live close to nature. Being your own ‘have a go’ architect is a lot of fun and allows you to create and enjoy something which is part of yourself and the land rather than, at worst, a mass-produced box designed for maximum profit and convenience of the construction industry. Building from natural materials does away with producers’ profits and the cocktail of carcinogenic poisons that fill most modern buildings.

Primary drawing fo the elevation

Primary drawing fo the elevation

Some key points of the design and construction:

*             It is dug into a hillside for low visual impact and shelter.

*             Stone and mud from diggings are used for retaining walls, foundations, etc.

*             The frame is made of oak thinnings (spare wood) from surrounding woodland.

*             Reciprocal roof rafters are structurally and aesthetically fantastic, and are very easy to do.

*             Straw bales are used in the floor, walls and roof for super-insulation and easy building.

*             There is a plastic sheet and mud/turf roof for low impact and ease.

*             The lime plaster on the walls is breathable and low energy to manufacture (compared to cement).

*             Reclaimed scrap wood has been used for the floors and fittings.

*             Anything you could possibly want is in a rubbish pile somewhere (windows, burner, plumbing, wiring etc.).

*             There is a wood-burner for heating, which means that fuel is renewable and locally plentiful.

*             The flue goes through a big stone/plaster lump to retain and slowly release heat.

*             The fridge is cooled by air coming underground through the foundations.

*             A skylight in the roof lets in natural light.

*             Solar panels are used for lighting, music and computing.

*             Water is brought by gravity from a nearby spring.

*             There is a compost toilet.

*             Roof water collects in a pond for the garden.

Roofwork. copy

*             The main tools I used where a chainsaw, a hammer and a 1-inch chisel, and little else, really. I am also not a builder or a carpenter. My experience is only having a go at a similar house some two years ago, and a bit of mucking around in between. This type of building is accessible to everyone. My most important skills were being able-bodied, having self-belief and perseverance, and a mate or two to give a lift now and again.

*             This building is one part of a low-impact or permaculture approach to life – a life of living in harmony with both the natural world and ourselves, doing things simply and using appropriate levels of technology. These types of natural, low-cost buildings have a place not only in their own sustainability, but also in their potential to provide affordable housing, permitting people to access land and to lead simpler and more sustainable lives. The house was built to house our family whilst we worked in the surrounding woodland doing ecological woodland management and setting up a forest garden: things that would have been impossible if we had to pay a mortgage or rent.

Split logs over the top pallets on the floor and a tree inside to prop up the sleeping platform. The pallets on the floor will take the insulating bales.

Split logs over the top pallets on the floor and a tree inside to prop up the sleeping platform. The pallets on the floor will take the insulating bales.

THE TIMBER FRAME

The frame is constructed from quite wiggly, round oak logs 13–26cm (5–10in) in diameter, all selected and felled from surrounding woodland as part of an ongoing programme of thinning to allow selected tree space to grow on to maturity. The basic construction is a series of vertical posts in an oval, the tops of which are connected with horizontals. This ring of horizontal pieces makes what is conventionally referred to as a roof-plate or wall-plate. The horizontals are ‘tennoned’ into the posts, although a simpler alternative is to ‘half-lap’ the horizontals and use a metal bar or large nails to fix the joint on top of the posts.

The reciprocal roof

The reciprocal roof

THE RECIPROCAL ROOF

Once the posts and wall were up, a reciprocal roof was built on top. The reciprocal roof is fun and easy to make, and ideally suited to roundwood construction with a minimum of woodworking and structural complication, as it doesn’t push outwards on the walls and doesn’t require tie beams. It also looks great. Getting your head round it can be a bit tricky, so I would recommend having a go with a few small sticks first, before trying the real thing.

To make a reciprocal roof, the first rafter is propped up temporarily and the next rafter is then laid so that it sits on top of the first one. The third is then laid so it sits on the second a little way down from where the first and second cross. Each rafter sits on another rafter below and has one sitting on top of it. The process continues all the way round until the last rafter just slips in underneath the first. The prop is then removed so the first rafter sits on the last one. Finally, the rafters are fixed in place where they cross.

In our case, the reciprocal roof was made on an oval rather than a circular wall. The centre is also offset to allow a higher wall on one side whilst keeping the same pitch on all the main rafters (see elevation drawing). This allows the building to follow the line of the hillside more naturally, and is in keeping with trying to maximise the diversity of the internal space. Wall posts were located where equal angles from the roof’s centre point crossed the desired wall line. The post heights were then calculated from the measured distance to the centre point and the desired pitch or gradient.

After completing the roof, we added a further three lean-to covered areas against the sides of the building where there were no windows or doors. These provided more covered space indoors and outdoors, gave the aesthetic appearance of a house built into the ground, sheltered the house from the weather, and added extra structural strength. In their simplest form these were made by fixing more logs from the top of the wall-plate to the ground where they sat on slightly dug in stones. At the front of the building they were a little different, with a section of posts and beams, as per the walls; at the door, this joined into an arch made of two curved logs.

Straw bale interior walls with the bales stacked on rough dry stone wall and staked together with hazel sticks

Straw bale interior walls with the bales stacked on rough dry stone wall and staked together with hazel sticks

STRAW BALE BUILDING

Straw bale building was first developed in America in the 1800s and is a technique rapidly gaining popularity today. It can be easy, cheap, and fun, and is also a great way of making a superbly energy-efficient building. Conventional construction methods use a vast amount of energy, produce over half of all greenhouse gases, and involve toxic and polluting materials. Straw, by contrast, is a natural material, and we currently produce sufficient to build half a million homes each year. It can give heat savings of up to 75% compared to a conventional modern house, and also provides excellent load-bearing capacity suitable for a two-storey house with all mod cons.

Whether used for their load-bearing abilities or with separate support such as a timber frame, the bales are stacked rather like giant bricks and secured to each other with wooden stakes. These can either be hammered through the bales or tied in pairs on opposite sides of the wall. When laying the bales, the straw should run horizontally; if it runs vertically the bales will tend to sink into each other.

It is important that the bales can breathe to prevent accumulation of moisture and rotting. Bale walls should not be placed directly onto a plastic damp-proof course, which can cause an accumulation of moisture at the bottom of the wall. Any moisture should be allowed to leave the bottom of the wall, and a 46cm (18in) high, dry stone wall will achieve this if you are building on the ground. If building on a platform or stilts, then a timber base would be more appropriate.

Straw bales are most commonly rendered, and a breathable render can be made using a mix of sand and either lime or clay. A lime render is more durable and thus more suitable for exterior walls in wet climates, but I also like it for interior walls, as it is strong and sets quickly without cracking. Clay can be made using local clay soil, but it will need sponging over daily for a week or two to prevent cracking.

Both renders can be finished off using limewash or a natural, breathable paint. I personally like limewash and a breathable emulsion indoors, and an annual application of limewash outdoors. Cement/gypsum renders should not be used, as they don’t breathe and can therefore lead to an accumulation of moisture in the wall.

STUFFED HESSIAN SHAPES

The sides of the window were curved and the plaster was created using hessian sacking stapled tightly between the window frame and the roof timbers. This was done all across the top of the window on the outside, with the top and bottom edges tucked inside. Then I did the same stapling from the inside, a foot or so of sacking at a time, and stuffed straw in the gap. < diagram Cross section of a stuffed hessian shape. > When stuffing, remove the straw carefully from the bale to keep it as tightly packed as possible, and at the ends where the shapes meet the wall, simply overlap the hessian by 15cm (6in) and plaster over the lot.

STRAW BALE FLOOR

This was an experimental technique that worked well. Since straw bales work well as wall insulation and structural support, why not use them for the same purpose in a floor. A conventional timber floor supported by joists requires a lot of sawn timber, which in turn requires a lot of work, and joists can create thermal bridges between any insulation placed between them.

We began by levelling off the ground, and compacted it using an excavator prior to commencing the build. The base was covered with builders’ damp-proof plastic, which in turn was covered with pallets. Odd scraps of wood were used under the corners and edges of the pallets, and the pallets were screwed to them, which means that when you stand on one and it sinks slightly, the ones next to it will move slightly too. On top of these, a single thickness of straw bales was laid right up to the walls, and any gaps were stuffed with split bales. Floorboards were laid directly onto these bales – in our case the floorboards were made from reclaimed crate lids.

In all, the flooring was very cheap and easy to do, and although the floor is not completely flat or level, it is completely practical, and also slightly springy, which I quite like, moving at most about 12mm (½in) under a person’s weight. Visionary architect Friedensreich Hundertwasser believed that it was unhealthy for us to walk on perfectly level floors, as that was not what our feet had evolved to do, so we have merely followed his impeccable logic. The one single problem we have experienced is an occasional cracking of the plaster on the walls where they meet the floorboards, but I believe a small degree of cracking is the norm in all new houses, so that’s acceptable to us.

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RESOURCES

You can learn more about Simon Dale’s house and its construction at www.simondale.net , where you will also learn about his next project and his future plans.

The hobbit house was built by Simon Dale with assistance from the Lammas Project, a voluntary organisation that has been working to promote low-impact development for the past three years. It was involved in the development of a low-impact planning policy in Pembrokeshire, the first county in the UK to introduce one. This policy allows low-impact building and living where it is tied to working the land for a simple livelihood. Lammas has since, with others, been lobbying for similar national policies. A Wales-wide policy is now in public consultation and English agricultural planning guidance is going in the same direction.

Meanwhile, Lammas has managed to get permission for a settlement of nine, 5-acre, low-impact smallholdings under Pembrokeshire’s policy. The Tir y Gafel settlement is now well underway, with much of the infrastructure in place, and the buildings are starting to go up. Visit the Lammas website at www.lammas.org.uk to learn more, or for advice and solidarity if pursuing low-impact living elsewhere.

LILI (the Low Impact Living Initiative) is a non-profit organisation whose mission is to help people reduce their impact on the environment, improve their quality of life, gain new skills, live in a healthier and more satisfying way, have fun, and save money. They run courses around the UK on many subjects including making rustic furniture, building with straw bales, building an earth oven, woodland management, and pedal power generators. LILI also offers fact sheets and forums where like-minded people can learn from the experiences of others. Visit www.lowimpact.org to learn more.

This article was originally printed in Home Farmer December 2011. Our greatest thanks to Jasmine and Simon Dale for allowing us to share it on line.

6 Comments on "The Hobbit House"

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  1. Jayden says:

    This is sooo awesome. Me and my partner Gwen are really thinking about changing our living arrangements.. This looks like so much fun.

  2. Daz says:

    Fantastic home, however I wonder are there any council rules which need to be adhered to, planning permission etc?

    • Ruth Tott says:

      Planning permission was granted on this occasion but there have been instances of others which have had to be dismantled because planning permission was not sought.

  3. jane reynolds says:

    I live in house with a two acre plot of land. I had planning permission to erect a stable – this beautiful structure burnt down last year. It was never used as a stable as my horse died. I converted it into an art studio. My neighbours never objected to its use. I am thinking of replacing the building with a semi underground structure and would like to live in it (perhaps not full time). Do you know the planning rules for this sort of arrangement?

    Many thanks
    Jane

    • Ruth Tott says:

      Hi Jane. I strongly urge you to contact your own local authority as each council has their own interpretations and rulings.

  4. Deborah Gaffney Road says:

    Why don’t councils build wooden house’s. They are a lot cheaper look great, environmentally friendly and the ones that are built now are fantastic. I would live in one.

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