Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Winter Palace as philosophical object


The first little pig built his house of straw, and so did I.

I've written previously about this house as structure and as politics. Now it's time to write about it as a philosophical statement, and as a philosophical statement, the fact that it is built of straw is significant.

It's not actually built from straw grown in my own field; it was meant to be, but as I have written earlier in 2011, due to heavy rain through the back end of the year, my barley crop failed and I was unable to harvest straw. So, actually, there are 'food miles' - litres of diesel consumed - in transporting straw. But not many.

Similarly, the timbers of my roof were not actually cut in my own wood. They could have been, but I have few trees which are yet big enough and in any case there would not have been time to season the timber. The roof lining is plywood from Finland, so more food miles - but it is at least spruce plywood, so the same species as most of my own trees. The floor planking is tropical hardwood, from Malaysia. But it was imported fifty or more years ago, to form the floor of a school in Glasgow; I have it second hand, literally recycled. Counted in terms of cost to the planet, my re-use of the floor planking seems to me to be better than free: carbon that would otherwise have been put back into the cycle is conserved out of cycle, for now. The bearers are of oak, but again it's re-used, second hand railway sleepers, and in any case I've personally planted thousands of oak trees - to use some oak seems to me justifiable. Apart from that, all the timber in this building is spruce and larch produced in Scotland. There are food miles, but not in the global scale of things many.

Furthermore, all of these materials - except the Malay hardwood - are local to this landscape. The render on the walls, of clay, is also local to this landscape. When I cease to maintain the building, when the roof starts to rot (as it will) and ceases to be watertight, when water gets into the straw and rots it too, the building will revert very quickly into compost - into fertile soil from which new trees will grow. Within fifty years, it will be gone completely, leaving no trace. The impact of this building on this landscape is extraordinarily light.

The stranger in this woodpile is, of course, glass. The front of the building has a lot of glass. The back window, also, obviously, has glass. Less obviously, both floor and roof are stuffed with glass fibre insulation. I would hope that when I'm gone someone will rob out those window units and re-use them somewhere else, but if they don't, glass is fundamentally only silica which is itself native to this landscape.

Still, I don't like the idea of leaving behind panes of glass which may break, become hidden in debris, and later cause injury to passing animals or people.

There's also copper - a small amount in electrical cables and a more significant amount in plumbing - but that is precious metal and one can be reasonably confident that that will be robbed out and re-used. My good enamelled steel bath is also an asset which I'm sure someone will re-use for something, even if it is only as a water trough for animals.

So yes, it isn't perfect. This is not the platonic eco-house. It would have been better had I used sheep-wool as insulation, and better still if I had come up with some more bio-degradable solution to glazing. But for all that, this house is light on the land; this house will leave little trace. And I'm proud of that.
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