The Woodland House

How Ben Law's home became a vocation and new architectural vernacular

An extract from The Woodland House
by Ben Law 

I live in the middle of a woodland.

The woodland is predominantly sweet chestnut coppice. Sweet chestnut is a very durable, fast growing hardwood.

I built a small cruck frame boathouse with Viv Goodings and Mark Jones a few years previously, and it was the joy of using roundwood sweet chestnut that gave me a desire to build a house from the most sustainable timber resource available – coppice wood.

Having the timber to build the house not only reduced the cost of buying in materials, but also removed transport costs and the common problem of not having the materials on site that you need. It also saved greatly the environmental impact of the house, not having to transport the majority of materials to the building site.

The other material I have available in the wood is clay. The pond at the bottom of the woods used to be a catchment pond for Lodsworth brickworks. I knew from when I renovated the pond nine years earlier that there was a good seam of quality clay available, so I had the material I needed for the inside walls and the fireplace.

I needed York stone slabs for the foundations, and, after asking around my local pubs, I had been given enough stone for all forty-two pad stones, plus a few extra for around the fireplace.

The ancient farm at Buster offered me five tonnes of surplus lime putty and sand, and so this led to the inevitable use of straw bales. After asking local farmers and friends, I eventually tracked down Paul Mills from nearby Chiddingfold, who still makes small-size bales.

So my main materials were either available from the woodland itself or from local sources.

People often ask me, would I do it all again?

I would not choose to go through the drawn out planning process, but building with wood gets under your skin, and my interest in roundwood building has continued to grow.

So, a few years after building my woodland house, I built my workshop and we experimented in improving the jointing techniques. Then I was asked to build a barn, then a house and then two more barns out in the woods, and then a shop...

So now I am a woodsman and roundwood timber framer.

This has of course led me to finding a whole range of building materials from the woods cut in winter that are then processed into the roundwood timber frames during the summer.

The jointing techniques have continued to evolve, and the use of different species for roundwood framing has become part of my research.

More sets of figures from engineers help to give building control the confidence to allow these beautiful structures to be built.

I believe roundwood timber framing is a growing industry, and as we become more aware of our timber miles and using local resources, the woodsman who can select good structural poles for a timber frame will add value to basic lumber and help create more harmonious and aesthetic buildings in the landscape.

I have set up The Roundwood Timber Framing Co. to facilitate the construction of roundwood timber frames and to improve techniques and train more carpenters to work in the round.

Every build we undertake has an educational element, and the joy of building with volunteers that I experienced first with the woodland house, I can now revisit on every build.

Building the woodland house was a unique and heartfelt experience, and seven years on it serves me and my family well.

The colour has darkened and the roses and jasmine have clambered up the cladding. The house sits more settled and is merging ever deeper into its surroundings.

Learn more about Ben Law's 'resource first' approach to designing buildings at Green Architecture Day 2016.