I’d like to write early on about our preferred method of construction – Brettstapel.  I say preferred because there is still a considerable amount of feasibility work to be done before being able to say with any confidence whether we can actually use it.  Whilst it is an established method in Germany/Austria/Switzerland it is not so here in the UK (though it ought to be!).  Brettstapel is a simple solid timber construction; softwood lengths are stacked side by side and connected together using hardwood dowels.  Needing no nails or glue the system works by using dowels of a lower moisture content than the softwood lengths.  Over time the dowels absorb moisture in order to achieve equilibrium, in the process expanding and locking the timbers together creating load bearing-structural panels.

BRET 1Brettstapel Wall

As the video touches on, the benefits of Brettstapel are many.  It has excellent structural properties and has been utilised in hotels, industrial buildings and bridges.  It offers too all the benefits of off-site prefabrication, with savings from the refinement of the manufacturing process and ease of erection on site.  The accuracy of manufacture it affords also means extremely high standards of airtightness are easily accomplished.  It also has very good fire resistance properties (a property many erroneously don’t associate with massive timber).

What makes Brettstapel such an attractive prospect however, and for my mind gives it the edge over so many alternatives, is its environmental qualities.  The amount of timber used means massive amounts of carbon dioxide are sequestered, “locked-up”, in the building.  The structural nature of the panels means that much lower grade timber than is usually used in timber frames can be employed.  This means rapid growth species, such as Sitka spruce, can be easily used which is beneficial for the carbon sequestration process and simultaneously gives a high value output to what is normally a low-value product.  With no glue being used in their manufacture, and the timber of the panels forming the internal finish, Brettstapel also contributes to a very healthy internal environment with no hazardous compounds, or VOCs, released as there are with other systems.  The internally exposed timber via its moisture transfusive and hygroscopic properties further benefits the internal air quality by assisting in maintaining ideal levels of humidity.

All in all, with appropriate sourcing, it appears a fantastic systems from a sustainability point of view.  Clearly such a system will be more costly than conventional timber frame, but just imagine if we were able to turn our housing crisis into a climate solution!  In my mind I can’t see with the right controls why this system shouldn’t qualify for carbon credits?  The additional financial cost to the developer could be offset by the ability to sell credits on the back of the sequestration of carbon to those looking to offset their carbon emissions, just as some forestry is planted for offsetting purposes.  Anyway, perhaps it would be sensible to concentrate on the house for now.  Indeed if we are able to pursue our desired intention and use domestic timber in the manufacturing process this will be the first house in the UK to do so.  There is a house in the Scottish Borders, Plummerswood, which used Brettstapel sourced from Austria, and there is a visitor centre in North Wales, Coed-y-Brenin, which used domestic timber in locally manufactured panels, but as yet no residence which does so.  We will have to source and assemble our own supply chain and even then the final cost is extremely uncertain so it is going to be no small challenge!!!

Massive Timber Buildings

For our build we are exploring a solid timber construction system called Brettstapel.  I will blog about its particular qualities shortly, but first I would like to share a video I viewed recently that gets across very clearly the benefits of using timber in buildings.  Housing the globe’s growing population represents an enormous environmental challenge; solid or ‘massive’ timber buildings represent a solution which could help actually mitigate rising emission levels.  There aren’t many win-win solutions out there – this has to be one…

Planning Battle Won!

In November 2011 the response to our pre-planning application which inquired about the principle of a new dwelling within the curtilage of the existing group of houses that make up Coldtown (a large Farmhouse, a converted fortified Bastle, and a traditional cottage) the response was an unqualified NO!  This week we received a relatively unqualified YES!  Here I want to flesh out some of the reasons I think lay behind our success:

FIRST PRINCIPLES:  On our relatively population dense island planning is a contentious and emotive issue.  Tynedale, the former district council now subsumed into Northumberland County Council, which in essence was the local authority that we had to deal with, had/has a reputation for being extremely conservative.  Perhaps with good reason – much of the Northumberland countryside it is responsible for is unspoilt and highly scenic.  However there is a distinction between a conservative and a negative approach.  Rural areas can and will benefit from an attitude that seeks opportunities for positive development rather than merely minimising it.  For those who are really interested these principles are well communicated in the 2008 Taylor report, much of which seems to have fed into the treatment of rural areas under the National Planning Policy Framework (NPPF).

In our own case we were extremely confident in the credentials of our proposal from a first principles sustainability point of view.  The proposal includes the conversion of an existing building whilst the new build section occurs on previously developed land.  Visually, from the only angle by which it could be viewed by the public, the building is largely concealed by a tall brick wall which currently frames a walled garden along the south boundary of the site.  That along with the removal of a large unsightly and unused concrete barn which currently lies in a more prominent position on the site means development offers an opportunity to actually improve the visual amenity.  The design comprises an attractive piece of contemporary architecture using materials familiar to the local vernacular in a sympathetic way.  Aesthetic appeal is obviously a subjective matter but sympathetic contemporary architecture should surely be encouraged over the poor pastiche which appears to be go to solution, certainly here in Northumberland.  Using passivhaus principles energy demand for the house is minimised, and the energy that is required is generated by renewable technologies.  Rainwater harvesting is utilised and the overall ecology of the site is actually enhanced.  Consideration too is given to the construction materials employed.  The current preferred construction method is a system called Brettstapel – a solid timber system using no nails or glues, offering numerous sustainability benefits.  A German system originally, it’s never been done before in the UK using domestic timber so there’s still considerable feasibility work to be done on that front, but whatever the final solution it will be environmentally considerate.  With my connection through my MSc I have also been able to get Newcastle University on board who will be monitoring both the build and operation in order to gather data and learning on low energy building, which in turn has helped deliver the authenticity of our intentions  The development also offers the benefit of improving the setting for the existing houses at the location, which includes a Grade II listed Bastle, as the removal of the concrete barn opens up the approach, the associated landscaping makes the area visually more attractive, and way-finding around the settlement, which is currently confused is improved.

With all these qualities, and more, we were not hesitant in defending our case.  It took time, was more costly than it should have been, and involved some very frustrating conversations, but with time available and the conviction to continue we slowly won each argument on a first principle basis.

CHANGING LEGISLATION: There is no denying that the changing legislative context that occurred over the duration of our application was enormously beneficial to us.  The NPPF which was introduced in March 2012 and replaced hundreds of pages of planning guidance with a much more concise 65, stated explicitly for the fist time that the purpose of the planning system is to help attain ‘sustainable development’ and that a ‘presumption in favour of sustainable development’ is a ‘golden thread’ that should run through all decision-taking.  It’s perhaps depressing that these statements needed to be made, but I’m not sure it was the fundamental concern of the legislation that it replaced.  This then is a move to be welcomed; it means first principles such as those outlined above, come far more into play.  And because Northumberland CC have been so slow in producing a local development plan our application was judged solely against the NPPF.

Whilst arguably ambiguous the NPPF introduces a much more flexible framework for development in rural areas (here the most relevant paragraph is perhaps 55).  This is appropriate given the dynamic nature of rural settlements relative to urban ones.  The recognition for example (paragraph 29) that sustainable transport solutions will vary from urban to rural contexts is a good one.  It was a source of enormous frustration to have to face down the argument at the outset of our application that because our proposal was not within the immediate built up area of the local village (approx. 1 mile down the road) it was not plugged into a public transport system and therefore could not be sustainable.  The reality is that there is no meaningful public transport system in West Woodburn (it is a village of a few hundred in the most dispersed county in the country), nor, given that successful networks depend on scale, will their likely ever be one.

The lesson for persons in rural Northumberland or similar areas around the country, is that if your proposal is strong from a first principles point of view then the NPPF, and accordingly local development plans, will offer the framework in which to win that argument.  Whilst it is right that they do so, particularly in a rural context, planners are being asked to deliberate, rather than hide behind a system which doesn’t offer the flexibility to reflect the particular circumstances of any individual proposal, between what is and what isn’t a sustainable proposal.   My experience is that planners could do with improving their sustainability literacy but also that if you are confident of your case then room is available to win it.

A COMMITTED TEAM:  Given the challenge we faced it was paramount that everyone involved in the project bought into what we were trying to achieve.  Given the ambition of what we want to achieve this was always a central  consideration for our choice of architect.  Though there were of course other factors in our final selection the commitment of our architect has been second to none.  His commitment has meant that we have been able to take on a much more protracted application process than anticipated without fees escalating.  Similar can be said of our planning consultant who, given the uniqueness of our challenge, and her appreciation of what were trying to achieve was motivated to go above and beyond in terms of her commitment to our case.  Having had the support of a unified and committed team has made what could have been an extremely frustrating process endurable and all the more satisfying to win!