Category Archives: Home from home

Stop a hole to keep the wind away


Model of exterior of Studio 3 Arts building with mirrorball on flagpole, mirrored zigzag on facade, large windows and name spelled out in letters on top

In Barking, the Studio 3 Arts centre is being remodelled by Citizens Design Bureau, with the addition of a new studio space made of strawbale. The School of Natural Building is building the extension. The straw bale walls were raised in August, and are being plastered with clay on the inside and with more weather-resistant lime plaster on the exterior.  In October, I joined the course in clay plastering.

The first stage of work was to fill any gaps between the bales and the door and window frames, using twisted bundles of straw. Filling these gaps is crucial for good insulation – and straw is a much better insulator than clay or lime, since it holds trapped air.

Twisting handfuls of straw into small packets reminds me of the desperate winter of 1880-81 that Laura Ingalls Wilder describes in The Long Winter. The snowed-in family ran out of fuel and the children had to spend all day twisting hay into tight bundles so that it would burn more slowly and give them some heat. We, however, only had to spend an hour or so twisting straw before going on to the next, messier, stage.

We mixed the deep red powdered clay with water to create a ‘slip’, the consistency of double cream. We added handfuls of straw to the slip, aiming for a mixture ‘like a well dressed salad’ – every stalk coated with clay, but not dripping wet. This mixture was stuffed into the remaining crevices around the timber frames, and used to ‘dub out’ any hollows in the bales themselves, or between them.

This straw and clay mixture has been used by builders for hundreds of years. Earlier this year, I spent some time looking at  Whitehall Historic House in Cheam, to write an audio descriptive guide for blind visitors. The central part of the house is over 500 years old, and provides  a wonderful insight into Tudor building methods.

In the attic, the structure is exposed, a vertical ‘crown post’ supporting a ‘collar purlin’ with arched rafters like ribs of a whale, the wood deeply furrowed and pockmarked with nail holes. In the downstairs cafe, sections of the wall have been broken open to show the material stuffed between the vertical timbers. In some places this is ‘daub’ – mud applied to woven lath or ‘wattle’; in other places it is a mixture of straw and clay called ‘rye dough’ – exactly the same stuffing we’d used on the new studio in Barking.

Surely this is what Hamlet is thinking of too, when he describes how Alexander the Great and Caesar, once turned to clay, might be used to seal a barrel or patch a wall:
Imperious Caesar, dead and turn’d to clay,
Might stop a hole to keep the wind away:
O, that that earth, which kept the world in awe,
Should patch a wall to expel the winter flaw!

Whitehall Historic House – new audio-descriptive guide

Reuse in theatre production

Last week, the theatre designer Max Dorey gave an online talk on waste in theatre production for ISSSD, the Irish Society for Stage and Screen Designers, hosted by designer Molly O’Cathain.

Julie’s Bicycle have estimated that a theatre set only represents 2% of the production’s total carbon budget; the way the audience travels to the event represents a much larger percentage. But the way a theatre treats its set has a cultural importance – it signals the company’s attitude to stuff and can send a message to audiences.

Max spoke about the culture of reuse and adaptation found in student and fringe theatre, and how until recently this has been looked down on by many people working in larger theatres. As if to differentiate themselves from ‘amateurism’, staff working in opera and subsidised theatre production departments have taken pride in making everything from scratch, from new materials.

But this is changing.

Using standard components helps with reuse. (There’s a parallel with the Walter Segal system of designing homes around standard-sized sheets of wood and plasterboard.) Max spoke about how rarely he is asked to tweak a design so that elements from stock could be used – despite being very open to such requests. One example was a drama school asking him if he would consider changing the height of the stage in his design by a few centimetres so that steeldeck legs from stock could be used, rather than cutting new ones. In this case, he was happy to agree.

There seems to be a communication gap between production departments and designers, exacerbated by tight schedules, with neither department able to push for the ecological choices they say they want to make. Production managers and stage managers have a crucial role in closing this gap.

Max described a future in which an eco-assessment will be as routine as a health and safety risk assessment. If a director and designer want to break a glass on stage or have a character fly across the auditorium for artistic reasons, a good production manager will not declare it’s impossible. They will draw on previous experience to assess the risk, and explore how to reduce it. Similarly, an assessment of the environmental risk posed by materials and processes will become normal. A carbon budget should be kept alongside the finance budget.

Reuse is key in achieving artistic aims while reducing environmental impact. It’s not possible to reuse everything on your own – you need partners. Networks, both digital and physical, enable sharing. Storage space is expensive, and trucking equipment from central stores has a carbon cost too. But, says Max, in theatrical hubs like London and Bristol, it should be possible for a group of theatres to establish sharing partnerships – one stores the drapes, the other the chairs.

His ‘modelbox library‘ addresses one particular (small but significant) area of waste. The modelbox is the scale model of the theatre space that is used as the frame for the design of a particular production. If theatres kept a well-made, sturdy modelbox of their own building to lend to incoming, freelance designers, they would not have to spend time, money and resources creating a new modelbox for each production.

Molly mentioned the importance of good records: while stores of lighting equipment are usually well documented, it can be harder to find out how many drapes – and in what condition – are available in a particular theatre.

Reuse won’t answer every theatrical problem – especially when creating new and fantastical worlds that have never been seen before. Max suggested that when a unique object needs to be made – a sculpture for a pantomime castle or for a one-off event – it can be made of biodegradable materials. Perhaps cast in paper pulp instead of plastic. This would of course, allow us to compost old props…












Noticing built space

In the morning I met up with a friend on the first day of her new job in central London. She had asked me to accompany her from the station to the office as she learnt the route – she is from out of London and is blind. It’s an area very familiar to me on foot and bike, but in the ten-minute walk, I was reminded of what I don’t usually notice. I don’t notice that one set of traffic lights beeps when it’s time to cross, but the next one gives only visual signals. I might shift my path because crossing places are offset but anyone who depends on the information given by the tactile paving and crosses the road in a straight line will end up in the wrong place. You might be used to following audio instructions from a route mapping app but end up stuck when one side of the street is entirely closed by a temporary diversion for construction. In other places, hoardings and scaffolding are built up on the pavement itself in unpredictable ways.  Even without construction work, there’s so much everyday clutter – A-frame advertisements and multiple posts supporting signs, streetlights and cameras – that you can’t simply ‘go straight ahead’.

‘People who fit the norm don’t need to notice built space’ says Jos Boys in an interview about the feminist architecture co-operative Matrix. The exhibition ‘How We Live Now: Reimagining Spaces with Matrix Feminist Design Co-operative’ is on at the Barbican until 23 December.

The installation includes an invitation to rearrange the space by opening and closing curtains made of cloth dyed with pigments from plants that grow around the Barbican. There are designs for the Jagonari Centre in Whitechapel, designed by Matrix in a collaborative process with the centre’s members, and a contemporary film of young women learning construction skills.

Among the books by the Women’s Design Service on display is At Women’s Convenience, published in 1990. It talks about the fundamental importance of considering the needs of bodies of all kinds, at all stages of life: a basic essential so that everyone can be part of the life of the town or city.

How long the campaign for decent toilets has been going on! I took a photo to send to Caroline Russell, the Green London Assembly member who has been campaigning for more public toilets and changing places on Transport for London stations.

With At Women’s Convenience still in mind, I went into a toilet off the ground floor cafe in the Barbican. The cubicles were of beautiful pale terrazzo, smoothly curved between wall and floor, with no corners to trap dirt in. What’s more, they were wedge-shaped, wider at the door – giving enough room to step inside and turn around without bumping into bins or walls. I was so struck by these unusually shaped cubicles that I mentioned it to the woman washing her hands alongside me. She agreed but, gesturing to the baby she was carrying in a sling, pointed out that there was, however, no changing table.

Cover of book At Women's Convenience with black and white photo montage of women queuing outside a 'Superloo'

Leave no trace

I have been looking for a way to talk about the end of the house.

A house should allow for alterations and refurbishment – using materials that can be sawn, drilled into and bolted onto. Like the Walter Segal houses, where the modular wooden structure and moveable partitions make it relatively easy to change internal layouts or add another room. Or Sarah Wigglesworth’s project to refurbish her home and office at Stock Orchard Street, which has made the pioneering strawbale house more energy efficient and more suitable for aging inhabitants.

But even with alterations over a long lifetime, at some point a house might need to be demolished. Say flood patterns have changed – a nearby river regularly bursts its banks and the house is flooded for weeks at a time, every year. It becomes uninhabitable. Can we build in such a way that we can dismantle it efficiently? Compost some materials and reuse others?

If I say that a house is built of natural materials that can rot, biodegrade, return to the soil… The word ‘rot’ does not belong in advertising copy. Houses should last. Houses should be safe as houses. Invest in bricks and mortar. Don’t mention the three little pigs! Introducing the word ‘rot’ is like a making a hole in the plaster. It lets in the very idea of decay.

Organic materials can be very long-lasting when well maintained. Hundred-year-old straw bale houses are still being used, including mansions and a church in Nebraska and Alabama and the Maison Feuillette in France, home of the French Straw Bale Association.* I recently visited Whitehall Historic House in Cheam where the spaces between 500-year-old wooden studs in the walls are filled with ‘rye dough’, a mixture of clay and straw. Left on the ground in the open air, a handful of straw would rot away to nothing in a year or two. In exposed sections of the wall at Whitehall, bits of straw that are hundreds of years old can be seen in the mixture – it’s hard and dry to the touch, though it absorbs and releases moisture from the air.

Bricks, steel and concrete also have to be carefully produced, with attention to the component materials and the potential interactions between elements of the finished building. Thousands of new homes in Donegal and Mayo in Ireland are now crumbling because they were built of concrete bricks that contained too much mica. Mica reduces the strength of the concrete, results in a poorer bond with cement and absorbs water, making the bricks vulnerable to cracking in freezing weather.

How to talk about these miraculous materials that are sturdy and resilient as long as they’re needed but capable of breaking down entirely, through the action of microbes? I came across an article by Catherine Slessor about a house made entirely of cork:

‘When its time does come the house can be dismantled with minimal environmental impact. As a bio-renewable resource, the cork blocks can either be recycled or broken down and returned to the earth. The aim is to leave no trace.’

My mind skates over the words minimal environmental impact. How minimal is minimal? How is ‘the environment’ defined here – local, global, living, human? The ‘environment’ has been invoked in so many misleading and empty ways, printed on the sides of plastic water bottles and in strategy documents.

But I like this phrase: When its time does come…Houses have a lifespan, like living beings.

I try adapting the words for the description of the strawbale house I want to build: ‘When its time does come, the straw can be returned to the earth. The aim is to leave no trace.’

View of the straw bale house in construction in 1921 with exposed beams and bales, and in 2011, with white shutters at the windows, entirely covered in green foliage.
La Maison Feuillette in 1921 and 2011. Credit:

* A Complete Guide to Straw Bale Building, Rikki Nitzkin and Maren Termens (2020, Permanent Publications), pp. 11- 16.

Embodied carbon

I am listening to Joe Duirwyn of Hartwyn talking about how to deal with concrete foundations when building a new house on the site of an old one. First, you need to have a structural survey of the existing foundations, to find out how thick the slab is,  whether it is a continuous raft or strips of concrete, what condition it’s in. Once you know, you have three options: to rip up what’s there and cart it away; to leave it in situ and work round it; or if you’re lucky, you can build straight onto it.

It might feel simpler to remove what’s there and start with a clean slate but huge quantities of carbon have already been expended in producing and transporting the concrete. Digging it up and carrying it away to landfill will use still more fossil fuels and create the need for more to be used in creating new foundations. With the aim of minimising carbon use, the best solutions will leave the original concrete in place.

This year, the Pritzker prize for architecture was awarded to Anne Lacaton and Jean-Philippe Vassal who specialise in refurbishing social housing tower blocks. They have increased the amount of space available for living while improving insulation and ventilation, to reduce the cost of heating and cooling homes. Their motto is ‘never demolish’. Lacaton says

the pre-existing has value if you take the time and effort to look at it carefully. In fact, it’s a question of observation, of approaching a place with fresh eyes, attention and precision…to understand the values and the lacks, and to see how we can change the situation while keeping all the values of what is already there.*

There have been sustained efforts to get Southwark Council to calculate embodied carbon when looking at the cost of demolition versus refurbishment of its 1960s and 70s blocks. Alternatives to the demolition of the Aylesbury Estate were drawn up with reference to other examples in London – but were dismissed. The 2021 Southwark Climate Change Action Plan still hasn’t taken on the principle of ‘refurbish first’. It mentions the GLA’s draft ‘Whole Life-Cycle Carbon Assessment Guidance’ (2020) and merely talks of ‘exploring options’ for ‘encouraging the use of recycled materials in new development’.

Existing systems of grants for improvements to social housing favour demolition because they fail to consider the whole lifecycle of buildings. Practices of repair, refurbishment and everyday maintenance are ignored.

Many 1930s housing estates around London have ‘stretcher fences’ made of wire mesh mortuary stretchers used in the Second World War that were recycled by being mounted as fencing on the low brick walls. Some, like those facing the Peckham Road, were regularly painted but those on the East Dulwich Estate, just a mile away, were left to rust. The then leader of the council, who happened to be the local councillor, said that there was money from ‘regeneration’ for taking them down, but not for maintenance. He shrugged.

The ‘tear it down and build anew’ approach can no longer be afforded.

Chanticleer House, Camberwell

Leaping over the hoarding

In undoing one home to build another, I would like to leap over the hoarding. I would climb over the boards temporarily erected around the building site, and start up the digger, the chainsaw. I would avoid all mention of the stuff inside the old house. I would skip it.

Robin Nagle notes the peculiarity of the English phrase to ‘throw away’:

We don’t ‘put’ it away, which would imply saving it, or ‘place’ it somewhere, which suggests handling it with care. We ‘throw’ it, thus putting it far from ourselves, to an ‘away’ about which we know little. In today’s developed nations, ‘away’ means landfills or recycling facilities or waste-to-energy plants [incinerators].*

I could call up and order a volume of emptiness – an 8-yard, a 12-yard, a 40-yard skip – to be taken away again once I’d filled it with whatever.

But the aim is to build a house that will be part of a regenerative circuit, made of locally grown materials, producing energy, capable of repair and growth. Finding the right place to ‘place’ what’s on site now is part of that process.

‘If you get stuck, it’s a long way home’. Newspaper found under carpet: Motor Cycle News December 1, 1976

*Robin Nagle, Picking Up (Farrar, Strauss and Giroux, 2013), page 29.