A green building in a green forest shade

| 28th June 2014
Hauling sweet chestnut roundwood up the steep include. Photo: Moulsecoomb Forest Garden.
Hauling sweet chestnut roundwood up the steep include. Photo: Moulsecoomb Forest Garden.
A Sussex-based forest gardening project has overcome adversity to celebrate its 20th anniversary, writes Jan Goodey. And now it features one of the most eco of eco-builds in Britain, using all local timber, clay, straw ... and wine bottles.
There is a lot of greenwash when it comes to eco-builds but this genuinely is as green and ecologically built a building as can possibly be.

The Brighton-based Moulsecoomb Forest Garden & Wildlife Project had its original, beautifully constructed hut burnt down in 2011.

This was a meeting space and communal area for staff and volunteers - a mix of local residents, the long term unemployed, adults with special needs, refugees, and excluded school kids.

Now through the support of the project founders and in particular one man's vision, inspiration has been drawn from what was a devastating time for all concerned.

New beginnings

Russell Pountney - who is that man - explains: "I'm not sure it was deliberately burned down, I think maybe some kids started a small fire underneath the structure and it just took. I built it back in 2005 with young people with challenging behaviour, it was really special."

"We got a lot of local media attention after the fire and loads of new volunteers", Russell adds. So he harnessed this new energy and decided to build the most eco of replacements he could come up with.

In his late thirties and a woodworker and eco-builder by trade - with many other projects to his name - he has worked alongside apprentice Russ Kingston and other regular volunteers since 2012.

Some weeks could see as many as 10 helpers, others as few as two. Russell's been working for half of every week since January 2012.

As a first step he built a makeshift workshop on the site, before going on to raise the frame on this steeply terraced piece of land made up of nine allotment plots abutting the Brighton East Coastway line.

Chestnut coppice and other local timber

"We decided to use the most commonly available round wood in Sussex - which is chestnut. It's environmentally-friendly as by coppicing the chestnut just nearby we're improving conditions for wildlife at the same time."

Russell admits to taking some inspiration from Ben Laws and his book on using round wood timber. But he stresses the Moulsecoomb building is a traditional timber frame done in the same round wood as used in mediaeval times.

"It's kind of my baby if you like. There is a lot of greenwash when it comes to eco-builds but this genuinely is as green and ecologically built a building as can possibly be. I worry about it being so a lot.

"It's a thousand times more eco than the some of the buildings councils put up. All the wood is from Sussex, some reclaimed, all the clay is local - it's very rare you can say that about a building project."

With no power on site Russell and his crew had to rely on hand tools. Chalk lines and a level were used with the wonky round wood while the square timber used was Douglas fir, which was grown and milled locally.

Some of the logs used to build the cordwood walls were from trees damaged or killed when the 2011 blaze spread. The actual chestnut timber rounds were upwards of 8 metres long - and Russell had 8 people on site to hoik them up the steep incline.

There is a lot of greenwash when it comes to eco-builds but this genuinely is as green and ecologically built a building as can possibly be.

Spacious elegance

The frame took a week to go up in the exact same spot as the previous incumbent - but with one significant improvement: "This time we decided to have basement for storing the cooking equipment and to store veg in a cool place."

And while the building has precisely the same footprint as the old one, it manages to create extra space - as well as its basement it also has a bigger balcony, and a huge overhanging roof. The main space measures a generous 6 metres square, with the balcony adding a third as much again.

Bearing in mind the previous misfortune I'm wondering how the basement is going to be made fire-retardant. Russell explains that rendered straw bale is actually quite difficult to set alight. And to reduce the need for naked flames, there's a wine bottles set into the walls for illumination.

A gem of green architecture

All of this - the cob render, bottles, straw bales, wood work, slates - have made the project highly labour-intensive, a fact that is not lost on Russell when it comes to the costings.

The building has come in at around £30,000 - and the materials accounted for a small fraction of the total. The only really costly item was the recycled plastic slates that were imported from Ireland, the closest manufacturer to Brighton.

Why not have natural slate from Malham Cove say in Yorkshire? Well, says Russell, slate cracks - and should any wayward kids start throwing stones, at least the plastic won't suffer any damage!

Now that it's almost complete it will provide a volunteer shelter, kids' classroom, and meeting space. For Russell the whole process has been more than worthwhile. He's been able to share eco-building tips with kids and volunteers - about things like using cord wood, straw bales and traditional timber techniques.

And to what effect! Fantastic! A building that could become a template for community allotment food projects, with a design and stature that will make it a must-see for green architecture enthusiasts up and down the country - and beyond.



Jan Goodey is a freelance journalist who reports on the environment.

Also on The Ecologist: How ethical food production can change troubled lives - Jan Goodey's visit to the Forest Garden in 2011.



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