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The people belong to the house

Category: Books January 2nd, 2012 by mbc

Christmas affords me sometime to be able to read, eat and drink. Cookery books allow all three, albeit two of them in the abstract unless augmented. Rick Stein is a favourite and I loved this quote from his latest book ‘Spain’. It conveys a sense of home and belonging that most of us seek.

Towards the end of the lunch, one of the aunts recited a poem by the Basque poet Gabriel Aresti:

I shall defend the house of my father
Against wolves
Against drought
Against usury
Against the law

The significance of this, they told me, was that in the Basque country it is the people who belong to the house, not the house that belongs to the people.

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Village Buildings of Britain by Matthew Rice

Category: Books September 23rd, 2011 by mbc

This is a compact and tidy little book with a plethora of information in both pictures and text. If you have an interest in vernacular architecture then you’ll find plenty here to while away an hour or two…

…but my feelings toward this book are ambivalent…

The artistic diagrams are pleasing on the eye, the text well written and informative, but at times I just cannot agree with Matthew Rice and his opinions.

In an enlightened age, a constructive attitude to the conservation of villages should encompass responsible expansion with harmonious new building and a sensitive and well-informed approach to restoration. Happily this is a responsibility that falls on the individual householder or developer and not on government or local authority bodies. In this lies the greatest hope for Britain’s vernacular architecture.

From my experience the vast majority of self-builders just can’t be trusted to respect the vernacular architecture of the locality of their site. I only have to look at the cut-price Palladian mansions springing up around Carmarthenshire to evidence that.

However I name myself a hypocrite as last year I was proclaiming self-builders to be a force for good when moaning that self-builders-need-some-encouragement so a big fat raspberry to me!

In my defense, I think that’s what Matthew Rice does to you (or at least to me), with his somewhat superior tone your opinions are reinforced and crystallised, even to the extent where your opinions (admittedly not very strongly held ones) are reinforced down an unusual track that Mr Rice has opened up to you.

I also found the content somewhat incomplete – close to home Wales seems to consist of the North and little else… nothing in my part of the world.

Then we come to barn conversions:

Barns have proved an irresistible temptation to farmer and developers who found in the late 1980s that these redundant buildings were worth more than the rest of their land. The countryside is scarred with the results of the work of these speculators. All too often […], the stone roof is pierced with shining skylights, the architectural form of the doorway is broken up […] and an unsuitable feature, such as this ‘Victorian-style’ conservatory is added. The new windows, with which the walls are dotted, are in a style with no architectural antecedents and stained a particularly nasty treacly brown, much favoured in new developments. By demolishing the lean-tos and altering the overall shape of the building, much of the character of this barn has been lost while charmless fencing and straight-edged driveways have suburbanized the yard. […]

In theory the conversion shown below [pictured] is a better one but, although there are fewer architectural incursions – the outbuildings have been kept and the grounds are less manicured – the appearance of the barn has been altered to such an extent that its original purpose as a farm building has been lost. Rather than becoming a country house, it is now an awkward hybrid.

Barns are as important to the look of the English* countryside as churches and houses, punctuating the fields and hedges. We are historically an agricultural population and these buildings are its monuments and should preserved as such.

[*Much as I hate to be picky this sloppy geography is a particular bugbear of mine, the book is about Britain, so this reference to English is either wrong or Mr Rice is discounting the importance of barns in other parts of the country!…]

I wish Matthew Rice and his ilk (one of whom has passed by here recently) would remove the sepia glasses that provide them with a view of the supposed historic agrarian idyll to which barns are a monument – monuments for which I and other barn owners are responsible. Whilst I agree with sentiments about ‘Victorian-style’ conservator[ies] and particularly nasty treacly brown window frames, these are details, personal choices that we should respect even as we dislike them. Converting a barn is hard and expensive work, to add to that an additional requirement of treating the barn as a monument is unrealistic. I’m all for sympathetic conversions, but to expect them all to be monuments to their former purpose just doesn’t sit easily with me.

…I think I’ll leave further comment on that to another post…

But, don’t get me wrong, this is a pretty book of strong opinions and that’s a good thing. You may not agree with everything in it, but it’ll give you something to think about and I’d much rather that than a bland, fawning read. Just don’t expect to be able to live up to Mr Rice’s exacting standards unless you have very, very deep pockets, are willing to put the past on a pedestal and largely disregard modernity.

If you’re interested in British vernacular architecture then this book is recommended.

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Simplicity…but not with words…

Category: Books March 1st, 2011 by mbc

I’ve been reading Walden by Henry David Thoreau for quite some time now. When you start to read about self-building or self-sufficiency you’re bound to come across references to Walden and Thoreau. The book, first published in 1854, describes Thoreau’s experiences over a two year period living in a cabin in the woods at Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts, USA. The result is a semi-fictitious and somewhat edited version of the events and Thoreau’s thoughts in relation to society, self-sufficiency and living a simple life…

I went to the woods because I wished to live deliberately, to front only the essential facts of life, and see if I could not learn what it had to teach, and not, when I came to die, discover that I had not lived.

I must admit I’m finding this book hard work. Thoreau didn’t extend his quest for simplicity to his use of language and words. Many passages in the book are lengthy and rather showy as Henry extols us on this breadth of his knowledge and classical education. Obviously this book was written in a different time, when readers expected different things from their chosen authors so some patience should be applied – if you do there are glimmers of simplicity and a poetic touch that make perseverance worthwhile…

…it costs me nothing for curtains, for I have no gazers to shut out but the sun and moon, and I am willing that they should look in.

…I’ll keep going…

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the lost soul of the nation…

Category: Books January 19th, 2011 by mbc

In my slow, intermittent, literary stroll through Roger Deakin’s Notes from Walnut Tree Farm I stumbled across another quotation that I couldn’t help but agree with…

I really do want people to come home to a real fire. A nation without the flames of a fire in the hearth, and birds singing outside the open window, has lost its soul. To have an ancient carboniferous forest brought to life at the centre of your home, its flames budding and shooting up like young trees, is a work of magic.

Read more – Notes from Walnut Tree Farm on page 155.

While keeping a fire fuelled and clean can be time-consuming, dirty work (I would have said ‘expensive’ as well, but with energy costs as they currently are I’m not sure that applies any more) I think it’s worthwhile effort to bring some ‘soul’ into the home…

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planners have a lot to answer for…

Category: Books November 12th, 2010 by mbc

As usual, I must agree with Roger Deakin…

Planners have a lot to answer for on the commons. Roof heights are all wrong now. The monster executive villas dwarf the older, vernacular language of the Suffolk houses, which all more or less had the same roof height and alignment. Planners have allowed the scale and alignment of the houses round the perimeter of the commons to go out of kilter altogether. So we have lost the graceful natural proportions of vernacular building.

Roger Deakin in Notes from Walnut Tree Farm, page 113.

Another quote of Roger Deakin having a moan-up , but he does have a very valid point – there are far too many ‘monster executive villas’ in Carmarthenshire as well. Personally, I can’t reconcile the huge, generic, colonnaded, brick piles springing up in and around the traditional villages of the county with the strict rules around conversions being ‘in-keeping’ with a disneyesque view of how buildings in the countryside should look.

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Autumn 2013

Right that’s the summer over with, now I can get on with some real work without the distractions of other things (like holidays and playing with children, all that enjoyable stuff that gets in the way of progress)… With few major jobs (painting, boxing in – nasty stuff!) left inside, mainly fiddly things that need […]

I’m having a moan on twitter…

A lovely Flemish barn conversion

I love the interior of this conversion and the great use of horizontal slats on this conversion. I retains the essential ‘barnyness’ of the building… flemish-barn-by-arend-groenewegen-architect

Coming soon, my barn conversion guide… Interesting earthship greenhouse project on Kickstarter

I really like this Kickstarter project >> The Farm of the Future: Earthship-Inspired Greenhouse This project is “Prototyping the First 100% Off-The-Grid, Affordable, Low-Maintenance Greenhouse using Earthship Principles and Aquaponics“. If any of those words meaning anything to you you’ll be interested in the project if not, pass it by… It’s already funded so I […]


Barns Gallery on Remodelista

There is a lovely gallery of barn related inspirational photographs available on Remodelista.

Barns – the Long House

Situated on the North Norfolk coast, this is a building to admire…

Barns – the Balancing Barn

A stunning piece of architecture, although not entirely to my taste…

New fast-track planning permission for the development of barns proposed

The Daily Mail reports on a new fast-track route through planning controls for the conversion of barns…

De-assembled, re-assembled, re-cycled barns

“A bit like a private sector, modernising, repurposing St Fagan’s…”


What is a shadow gap?

A shadow gap – a mysterious dark place between two plains…

Your barn conversion – "what you really wanted for yourself"

Thoughts on making YOUR barn conversion – "what you really wanted for yourself"

Building Regulations, Approved Documents Part D – Toxic substances

An overview of Building Regulations, Approved Documents Part D – Toxic substances

Building Regulations, Approved Documents – Part C Site preparation and resistance to contaminants and moisture

An overview of Building Regulations, Approved Documents – Part C Site preparation and resistance to contaminants and moisture

Building Regulations, Approved Documents – Part B Fire safety

An overview of Building Regulations, Approved Documents – Part B Fire safety


Your barn conversion – "what you really wanted for yourself"

Thoughts on making YOUR barn conversion – "what you really wanted for yourself"

The Stirling prize 2012 winner – the Sainsbury Laboratory

The 2012 Stirling prize was won by a outsider, the Sainsbury Laboratory…

The Stirling prize 2012

I think that this years Stirling prize has some exciting projects on the shortlist…

Our engineers … our architects – Le Corbusier

The efficient, shiny world of construction in 1923…

Design in Storage

When designing a layout it’s easy to forget to plan for storage…


Green Deal slow beginnings?

Oh dear! The green deal hasn’t got off to a very auspicious start… As reported in the Telegraph today since it was launched nearly a year ago just 12 homes have taken advantage of the Green Deal with a few hundred more in the pipeline. 71,210 households had been assessed for Green Deal measures such […]

The property roller coaster – planning reform to be rethought

Eric Pickles vague compromise on planning reform keeps the house happy (for now).

Energy policy, smoke screens, fracking, confusion and big bucks

There seems to be only one thing that is certain in the world of energy policy and that is that costs will rise annually above and beyond anything that inflation can currently throw at us. Beyond that, smoke screens & confusion seem to reign. Take the recent news for example… It’s reported today that the […]

Flanking manoeuvres and good design…

It seems that the government are undertaking flanking manoeuvres on the green belt…

Green Deal Launch

The Green deal launched in the UK on Monday of this week. Fanfares? fireworks? a deluge of marketing? … read more …

Plaid Cymru’s Green New Deal promise

The leader of Plaid Cymru has promised a “Green New Deal” to rejuvenate the Welsh economy and help maintain Wales’ position at the forefront of Green policies.

Permitted development extension limits to be doubled

The government is due to announce a temporary increase in the maximum depth of extensions that can be built under permitted development rules.

Lloyd Khan, making shelter simple.

I wanted to share an interview with Lloyd Khan that I recently found…

Just what is ‘sustainable development’?

Sustainable development – with the term now enshrined in planning law, what does it mean?

Sir Patrick Abercrombie – “It is a matter for serious thought…”

While reading up on the response of the Campaign to Protect Rural England (CPRE) to the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF) I came across this quote from Sir Patrick Abercrombie…