Getting started in natural building and retrofit

Ben Owen recently completed a Professional Diploma in Sustainability and Adaptation in the Built Environment at CAT’s Graduate School for the Environment. We spoke to him about his passion for natural building materials and his ever-developing skill set.

What kind of natural building projects have you been involved in so far?

My background is in engineering and I only really got involved in natural building when I came to CAT. Before that, I was living in Sweden and I knew some of the theory around natural building – I’d even considered building a strawbale house – but it’s rarer there than in the UK, so I’d never actually picked up bales and moved them around. My first steps into building came through self-building a simple timber cabin and that was a real eye-opener, in the sense of how easy it was to do it. The cabin was timber stud-work frame with all materials coming from the local merchant. There was very little special about it other than that it was designed to reduce the occupants’ use of water, given the remote location; so there was a compost toilet and no washing machine or shower. What little wastewater we generated was just thrown out on the surrounding land. Knowing what I know now, I would do it a bit differently and it would be built to a higher standard, but it was good initial experience and whetted my appetite.

A few years ago, I left Sweden and came to Wales to study the course at CAT. That’s when I started transitioning from the theoretical side to getting more hands-on with natural materials and meeting other like-minded people. Last year, three of us from Machynlleth travelled over to Sweden to work on a strawbale house. Three weeks of working solidly on strawbaling was great experience and I learned a lot; it helped that the sun was shining, making for a pretty idyllic setting! At the end of each day, we’d be dusty and sweaty from a hard day’s work and just up the road was a cool and refreshing lake to jump into.

“It has been so much fun working with you, and your experience and energy has made a world of difference, changing our crazy project into the start of a home.” Swedish Straw Bale House

Before that, while volunteering in the gardens at CAT, I became involved in the world’s first miscanthus house! It’s just up the Dyfi Valley from Machynlleth and has been built by many hands connected to CAT. I began helping out with the timber framing at the very beginning of the project, and ended up becoming more involved – from preparing for and putting the cladding on, to finally placing the skirting boards at the end. I sadly missed the baling of that house but returned in time for the clay plastering, so I got to experience the joy and ease of working with clay. Although I wasn’t involved in every single step, it was great to see the whole process from start to finish. I learned a lot about the knock-on effects of early decisions on processes further down the line, how long certain aspects of the build take, and how useful technical drawings can be! It was a great project, with lots of people getting a chance to try things out for the first time – novices working on the timber frame, the baling and the plastering. It was a steep learning curve for all involved and you need people/clients who are prepared to take those risks with an inexperienced crew.

“Your patience, care and attention knows no bounds.” Little Welsh House Build

I enjoy working with strawbales, but the natural material I’m most attracted to at the moment is hemp-lime. Since studying at CAT, I’m more aware of the urgent issue of retrofitting our homes and I see hemp-lime as more adaptable to retrofit, particularly for any internal work required for the buildings of the stone construction type in the area where I live.

I’m at the start of my lime journey, recently getting my trowel wet lime plastering for someone locally. It was an old house with a preservation order, and we were taking off the original plaster, which was about 150 years old, and then reapplying the plaster to match the old. It was really interesting and reassuring to see that although the plaster was coming off the lath and needed to be replaced, the lath was completely preserved underneath. I’ve also been back to Sweden to put the first coat of lime render on the house we built last year.

Right now, my main work is building self-standing compost toilets for various campsites and venues; it’s fairly simple construction, but it does mean I’m working with timber every day increasing my familiarity of the material. The next job lined up is on a house renovation – using PIR insulation – a material I’ve used before and not really enjoyed for many reasons; but it’s good to understand the mainstream materials and methods.

What’s it like trying to forge a career in natural building?

I think, post-CAT, I feel like I’ve gone down a few different avenues and hit some walls, and it’s been a bit frustrating. I’ve completed the AECB online course on retrofitting, but I don’t feel anywhere near the stage of promoting myself as a proficient natural builder or energy assessor. Currently, I’m looking for more projects I can join to keep learning from others and gaining capability.

I’ve run some strawbale workshops at CAT recently. It’s paid work, related to strawbale building, but it’s not building strawbale houses. Living in Sweden, I worked at a University running courses and seminars, so I do enjoy teaching, but I don’t feel I have enough experience to do more than running the taster workshops. If I was attending those workshops, I know I’d want someone with long-term experience guiding us through the workshop.

From my understanding, the strawbale building community in the UK is quite small. There’s Barbara Jones, who is a leading figure of strawbaling in the UK and then there’s a few other next-generation people, who learned from Barbara, or have been to CAT. There’s a group of maybe 10-15 people, spread out around the country, who are actively involved in strawbaling.

I think to get involved in something like strawbaling, you’ve got to put yourself out there and show your face at things like the Strawbale Gathering (this year it’s going to be held in Todmorden, Yorkshire, in August). I also became a member of Straw Bale UK (SBUK) earlier this year. It’s another way of making yourself known to people who might be looking for help on a project.

Baling itself is only a fraction of the work that goes into a build and the industry still relies on volunteers to do a lot of the work, because it’s an area where many hands make light work. Once you get to the stage I’m at, with basic knowledge and a little experience, you’re stuck in limbo for a while. It’s frustrating. I’ve had these really positive experiences of working on builds and I feel really ready to do more – and get paid to do the work – but it’s difficult to get enough onsite experience to feel confident that you’re qualified for the occasional jobs that do come up that require more experience.

I’m also had to become self-employed which has brought a whole new world in terms of self-motivation, self-promotion and building a network of contacts that I’ve never really had to do before. Building with natural materials is a niche market, but there are jobs out there if you go looking and are willing to diversify and deviate – to some extent, bend principles – and take whatever comes along. There’s always the rent to pay at the end of the month.

Why are you so enthusiastic about natural building?

I really believe in it. We’re only just starting to realise that moisture is an issue in our homes in the UK and modern materials don’t deal with moisture at all, they just try to lock it out. Traditionally we had these materials that were able to absorb moisture and then release moisture, acting as a moisture buffer equalling out any moisture fluctuations in the room for a healthier environment. As it stands, we don’t know much about how heat and moisture work together and how they interrelate as they travel through the fabric of the building; particularly given the changes in the external environment, and every house being completely different.

Natural materials are generally also much nicer to work with and when I’ve been working on these types of building projects, I’ve really enjoyed doing it. It makes a huge difference if you believe in what you’re doing.

You can find Ben in the Straw Bale Members’ Directory and or visit his website for more information on the energy assessment and retrofit services he offers.

As told to Greta Hughson (@gretahughson)