Self-Build IV – The Vernacular: Lammas eco-village

Lammas is a low impact, off grid eco-village in Pembrokeshire, South Wales, consisting of nine smallholdings on 76 acres of land, all self-built by individual families using a range of methods from cob, to standard timber frame homes, to roundhouses – many of which are still in the process of being built. Before visiting Lammas I took a trip to see Tony Wrench who built a roundhouse within Pembrokeshire National Park and became embroiled in a legal battle with the local authority in order to stay on land that he was effectively squatting. Tony won his case by arguing that he was living in a low impact, ecologically sustainable way – a way of living that should be encouraged, particularly within a National Park. In the process of Tony receiving planning permission and protecting his home from the bulldozer the Welsh Assembly adopted a new planning policy known as Tan 6 (or the One Planet Development Planning Policy) in 2011 in order to create more sustainable rural communities. One Planet developments in open countryside need to demonstrate that living off the land can cater for the minimum needs of its inhabitants in terms of income, food, energy and waste assimilation over a reasonable period of time. Residents must prove that they are able to sustain 65% of their livelihoods from the land. Each application needs a management plan and some of the developments at Lammas are currently working their way through this system. Like other National Parks there is a “severe shortage of affordable housing… and the decline in services associated with the high proportion of commuters”[1]. So the Welsh Assembly is attempting to alleviate the disparity between the value of agricultural land and development land.

Tony Wrench's roundhouse

Tony Wrench’s roundhouse

The interior of the roundhouse

The interior of the roundhouse

The exterior of the roundhouse

The exterior of the roundhouse

Ayres, a resident of Lammas, who lives in a self-built roundhouse, told me that a certain level of planning awareness is needed to deal and work within the system. He spoke of the balancing act that had to be played between authority and subject, and said blithely “If you go looking for the rules and regulations then you’ll find them”. It is the sense of working within the system but also against it at the same time that interests me here. By pushing the boundaries of the law Tony helped to change the law. This process of challenging and changing was something I saw happen in Albania, through the act of squatting. Yet in the Hedgehog Co-op it was often the structural conditions that limited the scope of action – having to work within wider political and economic structures.

Ayres' roundhouse

Ayres’ roundhouse

My experience of going to see the Hedgehog Co-op inevitably shaped my view of Lammas, although they are quite dissimilar projects. The common ground for the Lammas group was the aim to live off the land in a low impact manner – thinking in a more holistic way about sustainability through the employment of permaculture principals. Yet despite these common ecological principles (although interpreted differently across the group), there is no constitution, no code from which to work from and no mechanisms of conflict resolution. Therefore all the vital groundwork completed in the initial phase of the Hedgehog project is lacking at Lammas. Talking to Ayres I got the impression that Lammas lacked a social infrastructure, the glue that keeps the community together and as such splits have formed within the community. In fact Lammas seems to operate as a disparate group of families stuck in a nuclear existence, perhaps making living off the land less efficient. This was something that I recognised in Bathore – the way the family operated as the core unit which reflected how the community operated as a whole – initially operating in a very disparate way before the upgrading scheme. It’s something that Richard Sennett criticises in The Uses of Disorder where the family offers intimacy and is at the heart of the small scale of the locally bounded community, but this intimacy is polarised and has repercussions for the solidity of the wider city.[2]

The community centre, Lammas, which has caused problems and splits within the community and remains unfinished. Ironically it's the only builiding in Lammas that has been funding by an outside agency -  it really highlights what happens when money gets mixed  into communal values.

The community centre, Lammas, which has caused problems and splits within the community and remains unfinished. Ironically it’s the only builiding in Lammas that has been funding by an outside agency – it really highlights what happens when money gets mixed into communal values.

Beyond its governance strategy, Lammas does offer a reflection on the building skills we have lost over generations, offering a very good example of how low impact communities can strengthen the local material industries – making use of locally available natural resources, energy efficient designs and promoting labour intensive construction methods at a minimal cost.Tony’s roundhouse cost £3,000 to construct (if we don’t take into account the price of the land). He used 200 trees, for which he bought a plot of woodland, thinned it out, using the trees for his house and then sold the woodland on, whilst a Segal house can be built for a minimum of £50,000. Both are completely different figures, yet both offer an example of how homes can be built cheaply, whilst offer a capacity building approach for the end user.

Trunks for bricks

Trunks for bricks

Bottles for bricks

Bottles for bricks

These models also wholeheartedly embrace a vernacular[3] style of architecture, one embedded in a particular place and in a particular culture. Even though the style of building I witnessed in Albania wasn’t vernacular in a locally placed-based sense, the plan and layout was. Incrementally built structures, using a core frame made out of reinforced concrete, leaving the steel bars sticking out of the roof in case another floor should be needed, are common methods, utilised all around the world, yet the particular layout of these buildings was particular to Albania and emerged through its communist past. During communism self-construction of housing was common in rural Albania, but there were requirements of size and form, with two ‘state sanctioned’ building types: the ‘Elbasani’ model: “single-storey dwellings with three rooms and a veranda” and the ‘Shkodra’ model: “two-storey houses for two families with three rooms [and] separate stairway access”[4]. These two models are thus specific to Albania are the most common building types used in the informal settlements here, being very simple and quick to construct, yet offering a familiar framework – where building knowledge has been passed down through generations. I believe that this offers an example of vernacular housing because the form is bounded within the history of place, limited to the local context. Kellett and Napier[5] make a case for the homes in informal settlements to be considered as vernacular architecture. They believe that if they are considered in such a way they may afford a better understanding of the wider social and economic processes and structures at work in these places. There is strength in this argument, particularly in attempting to move beyond a focus purely on form and design in vernacular literature, which so often emphasises the romantic, twee or naive qualities of ‘traditional’ forms of vernacular architecture. Interpreting and examining the sheet metal settlements and breeze block buildings of informality is needed because these are the building materials of the ordinary person in the twentieth century – this is the new vernacular.

[1] Fairlie, S. (2001) ‘Smarter Planning, Better Living’, Open Democracy, 19/07/01 [https://www.opendemocracy.net/ecology-urbanisation/article_443.jsp] 

[2] Sennett, R. (1970) The Uses of Disorder: Personal Identity and City Life, Middlesex: Penguin Books, p. 72

[3] The term ‘vernacular’ was borrowed from linguists and has been used by architectural historians since the mid 19th century. Linguists used it to refer to the ‘native language of a region’ – meaning the common, the ordinary. Stewart Brand, in How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built (1994: 132) describes it as “everything that is not designed by professional architects – in other words, most of the world’s buildings”.

[4]  Aliaj, B. (2003) Albania: A Short History of Housing and Urban Development Models during 1945-1990, Tirana: Co-PLAN

[5] Kellett, P. and Napier, M. (1995) ‘Squatter Architecture? A critical examination of vernacular theory and spontaneous settlement with reference to South America and South Africa’, TDSR, 6:11, pp. 7-24

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