Saturday 18 June 2011

Introducing the Winter Palace

I started this section of my blog developing ideas about a really ambitious home I wanted to build. I eventually came to the conclusion that that first design was either too expensive or, if done cheaply, too environmentally unfriendly. So I developed a second, simpler design which still had a lot of interesting features. It was always obvious that it was going to be hard getting either design past planning permission. It was also always obvious that while I might be able to live in a vestigial shelter in the woods in summer, that wasn't going to be possible in winter. So there had to be a plan B; a plan B that could be quickly and inexpensively implemented to provide cosy and weatherproof shelter for the winter, and that that plan B would have to be implemented if I didn't have planning permission by midsummer.

It's midsummer. I don't have planning permission. It's time for plan B.

I've been developing ideas for plan B for as long as I've been working on the croft house designs. The original idea was to build a tiny Tardis like structure, based on what I've learned from yacht cabins - the smallest possible space in which I could live and stay warm. Later, I considered a log cabin - which would be less than ten feet square - built in the space underneath the Summer Palace. Both of these are still possibilities, but about six weeks ago, I made an interesting discovery.

This farm is called Standingstone. It's part of the old monastic grange of Hazelfield, and Anglian name which means 'stony field'. The grange of Hazelfield stands within the vicinity of the village of Auchencairn, a Gaelic which means 'stony field'. You might be excused for noticing a thread here. The fields hereabouts, while fertile, are extremely stony; the whole valley is the terminal moraine of a long-vanished glacier. So for three thousand years people hereabouts have been clearing the larger stones off the ploughland, and dumping them in land which isn't fit for ploughing.

And one of the places people have been dumping stones for generations is in my wood; that's partly, I suspect, why there is a wood here now. It was always wet land - probably a willow carr - on the banks of the burn, not fit for ploughing. So my predecessors have dumped stones in many places through the wood; but in one particular place on the eastern edge of the wood I found a huge pile, some seven metres long, five wide and one high, with an almost flat top. It's a perfect, self draining, foundation for a small building. I've spent some time tidying it up and adding to it - about seven cubic metres of stone we've picked off the ploughland this year.

Given a foundation like that it's obvious that a bigger, more comfortable cabin can be built - still in the wood, still discreetly sheltered, but neither tardis-like nor minimalistic. So I plan to make use of that seven by five metre platform to build a seven by five metre dwelling. I plan straw bale walls, possibly using the straw from my own barley. I plan a wooden floor and roof largely using wood from my own trees. The straw bale walls will be half a metre thick, so the internal space I'll be left with is smaller - about four metres (13 feet) by six and a half (21 feet). Of that, the western two metres will have a sleeping loft over a small kitchen and a small bathroom. Almost in the centre - between the kitchen and the living area, beside the ladder up to the sleeping loft - will be a wood fired cooker with a back boiler to heat water. The remaining four metre square area will be a multi-use eating, working, and entertaining space - a living room, in fact. The whole east end of the building will be mostly glass, facing out onto my own meadow.

So, this is nothing like as ambitious or interesting a structure as either 'sousterran' or 'singlespace' designs. I still intend to try to get planning permission for something more interesting (and a bit larger). But the cabin in the woods means I'm no longer under time pressure; planning permission is off the critical path.

One question remains: if I can't get planning permission for what I really want to build, how can I get planning permission for the Winter Palace? The answer is I can't, and I'm not even going to seek it. The winter palace won't be visible from anyone else's property. As a structure, it's justifiable either as a tool store or as a wood shed, neither of which I'd need planning permission for. If in the end the planners require me to pull it down, I can disassemble it with small loss.

As I've said, I've already started to level the foundation. Alex and I will start to mill timber for the winter palace in the next couple of weeks. I plan to have a 'barn raising' party to put it up, which will be either on the weekend of 20th-21st August or the 17th-18th September, depending partly on when I can get straw. Pencil those dates in your diary now!

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