The community-owned, timber-framed, self-heating village shop

The finished shop showing the solar panels. Photo by Ben Law
In an economic climate where village shops are closing, woodsman Ben Law has helped his village open a new shop with a difference

The woodsman, Ben Law, is famous for building a roundwood timber frame house in his own woods in Sussex, getting permission for a new build in a Special Site for Scientific Interest and thereby changing a planning precedent in England. He enthralled millions on Channel 4's Grand Designs programme and his build was voted the best Grand Design ever.

So what does a man do to top that?

He builds a shop for his village for no personal fee, and agrees to underwrite the bill if the funding doesn't appear. Furthermore, he builds the new shop in four months, to budget, entirely from local materials.

A man of his craft

The picturesque village of Lodsworth in West Sussex is where Ben chose to live some years ago. First in a bender, then in a leaky caravan, and now in his woodland house. The woodland house marks the beginning of a new vernacular: roundwood timber framing. Since the original build - a synthesis of a traditional cruck frame with ecological design and materials - Ben has been practising his craft with other buildings in his region and training a team of people to help him. The shop in Lodsworth is his first industrial-scale building, and yet it is as stunning as his home.

Lodsworth had a village shop 15 years ago but, like in many villages across the country, it closed leaving local people with a 15 mile round trip to the nearest town to buy even a pint of milk. The villagers wanted their shop back and were keen that it should support local businesses and suppliers providing local produce.

They wanted a shop that could compete with the nearest supermarket on day-to-day staples, and not just be a pretty but expensive local retail outlet. They wanted it to function as drop-off and collection point for deliveries and be a centre for community information. The building had to have the highest ecological specifications, including generating its own electricity using photovoltaic panels.

In January 2009, with no funding and no acceptable design, let alone a team of builders, Ben was asked to get involved and he offered a design for a roundwood timber frame building, a design that came in at a quarter of the cost of an earlier proposal.

Local ownership

The community decided to raise funds from various private trusts and local councils. Because the build was to involve some training and introduced new skills - and there was an element of volunteering by local people on the project - the committee was very successful at raising funds from outside. They just had to raise a further £20,000 from the village.

To do so, ‘The Lodsworth Larder' was turned into an Industrial Provident Society (IPS) with a shareholder scheme. Local people could buy a non-transferrable share for anything between £10 or £1,000, which allowed them one vote at the AGM. Critically, this is a model any village can replicate, even Ambridge!

Local materials

The shop was designed with a 79m2 (850ft2) footprint and is based on the same principles as the woodland house using timber from Ben's Prickly Nut Wood.

'The oak felled for the floor boarding, cladding and underfloor support beams was from derelict hazel coppice that hadn't been cut for 40 years. We restored the hazel stools and thinned out the oak canopy. A result of the coppicing was that during May over 30 violet helleborine orchids bloomed in that area,' says Ben.

The felled oak was taken to a sawmill in the parish (a mile away) and sawn, kiln dried, planed and delivered to the village shop site. It had travelled just two miles. Sweet chestnut formed the cruck frames, tie beams and lathes to take the lime plaster, and larch was used for the ridge pole and wall plates.

Ben used Douglas fir for the stud work and joists, and western red cedar for the roof shingles, both from the local Cowdray Estate. Ash, taken from derelict coppice, formed the internal windbraces. Ben even weaved the verandah infill panels from local hazel. He is passionate about using local timber, which, as often as not, is softwood that would more usually be sold as firewood or pulp for the mill.

Energy self-sufficiency

The building itself has no heating and is a passive solar design. The heat from the fridges is fed into a heat exchanger and pumped into the shop, but even last November the heat exchanger had to be used as a cooler rather than a heater because the levels of insulation are so high. Ben used sheep's wool and the walls are constructed with a double membrane to prevent cold bridging.

Electricity is provided by a 2.8kW array from Southern Solar and the lighting is all low energy and LED. There is no concrete in the building: like the prototype woodland house the foundations are padstones (reclaimed York stones), which bear the load.

Perhaps what is most amazing about this build is that it was started in June 2009 and the shop was opened for business on 7th November 2009. Ben built the shop with four experienced roundwood timber framers (who were paid) and, in true community style, others from the village and beyond got involved as and when they had time or when there was a particular need.

Evolving new patterns

So how does the Lodsworth Larder differ from the woodland house? 'This building meets industrial specifications and is engineered for load bearing required for a commercial building with storage,' observes Ben. 'Over eight builds we have also evolved and improved our jointing techniques, especially for roundwood framing. Many are unique.' The builds can also be up to 75 per cent cheaper than a conventional building.

But beyond cost and environmental specifications, Ben feels that a new architectural vernacular is being created and it is one that the planners like and actively support. The shop sits amongst the traditional old stone cottages with clay tile roofs in the village and yet it blends in seamlessly. It is a beautiful building.

And not without advantages of location, either:

'Being next to the pub, it's amazing how keen people are to nip out for a pint of milk,' Ben observes wryly.

Maddy Harland is the editor of Permaculture Magazine - inspiration for sustainable living You can read her blog here

Ben Law is author of The Woodland Year, The Woodland House and The Woodland Way. Order a copy of any of Ben's three books before 1 May 2010 p&p free from from (or call 01730 823311) and receive a free copy of Permaculture Magazine: Inspiration for Sustainable Living, the magazine Ben writes for. QUOTE: The Ecologist Online Offer.

Ben and his team will be building a roundwood timber frame classroom at the Sustainability Centre in May 2010. For opportunities to train with him, see:

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