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Keeping the old skills alive

Traditional expertise and the conservation of the planet go hand in hand at the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills, as Andrew Headley has been finding out

‘What I like about this part of the county is that it’s
rural working Dorset, not chocolate-boxy,’  Rob Buckley tells me as we sit in the converted barn on a former farmyard near
Farrington, between Blandford and Shaftesbury. The skills which gave this area
of Dorset its character are part of what he is trying to preserve and create in
his conversion of the old farm into the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills.

Rob has been in the building trade for thirty years, having
started as an agricultural engineer, an instructor on Massey Ferguson machinery
and, briefly, an agricultural contractor. His interest in the type of building
in which he now specialises came when the first house he bought turned out to
have cob walls of rammed chalk. ‘After that, my whole direction as a builder
changed,’ he remembers. ‘I became interested in traditional materials and
tended to specialise in the renovation of traditional buildings.’

At that time Rob was living in the Midlands, but he moved
steadily south with his partner, Suzy Carr: first to Andover, then Salisbury
and finally, twenty years ago, to Dorset.

He and Suzy had always had an interest in sustainability and tried to live
their lives in an environment-friendly way, so when the farm buildings across
the road from their house became vacant in 2003, it seemed a logical step to
found the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills. Capital funding was provided through
Chalk and Cheese, the organisation which distributes primarily EU money to
rural projects and communities. ‘Without that support, we’d never have got off
the ground,’ says Rob.

Rob is much too down-to-earth to worry about things like a
mission statement, but he sums up the Centre’s purpose succinctly as ‘to
address the skills shortage and education issues in sustainable building and
other rural crafts’. In my ignorance I had to ask him to explain exactly what
‘sustainable building’ is. ‘The attraction of traditional materials is that
they can be replaced: earth from the site, local timber, lime, straw. They
don’t deplete the source for future generations. In other words, they are
sustainable,’ he explains.

‘Take cob as an example,’ he continues. ‘Cob is universally
misunderstood. It is either clay, taken from the sub-soil, not the organic
top-soil, and mixed with straw and grit, or it is rammed chalk. It doesn’t need
deep foundations because it has the elasticity to move with the earth, so there
are all the energy savings of not having to produce cement and pour it into
trenches. Some people protect it with a waterproof layer, which is exactly the
wrong thing to do: you need a soft, permeable layer like lime plaster and lime
wash that allows the building to breathe.

‘Lime is another material you have to learn about. The techniques of applying lime mortar or rendering are the same as for
conventional cement but whereas cement just sets, lime has to be kept damp and
monitored while it cures.’

What about the worry that houses built of traditional
materials will tend to be damp? ‘A building needs moisture,’ Rob replies, ‘and
damp is only moisture in the wrong place, in the same way that weeds are
flowers in the wrong place. It has been proved that the human body is happiest
at a humidity of about 40%. Buildings constructed in the traditional way are
breathable, taking in moisture and releasing it by evaporation. By contrast,
modern houses work on a system of barriers, for example the damp-proof course,
and then you can add the effects of central heating on top. No wonder asthma
and eczema are more common today.’

It was because they became aware that this sort of knowledge
was being lost that Rob and Suzy established the Centre. The variety of courses
available range from blacksmithing to hurdle-making to looking after an older
property. Some courses are run by the Centre itself, but it also lets out space
for others to set up their own courses and here the range is even wider,
including pottery,

life drawing, dowsing and glass-blowing. In fact, glass-blower Emsie Sharp has
her furnace on site, but there is no intention of DCRS becoming just another
craft centre. These and other activities – including anything from meditation
groups to parties – are carried out in various parts of the old barn, including
a lecture theatre, a huge working area for construction projects and smaller
spaces including those specially equipped for subjects such as pottery,
blacksmithing and carpentry.

The heart of the whole operation, though, remains sustainable
building and several of the courses are based on it. The Centre also sells
specialist products like lime plaster to builders and provides information
about sustainable building. This aspect of the operation is based in a new
building which practises everything it preaches as it is built almost entirely
of straw bales.

To construct a straw-bale building, Rob Buckley explained to
me, you start by digging a shallow area and then fill it with two or three
layers of old car tyres. You then fill the tyres with gravel, creating columns
which transfer the weight of the building directly to the ground. In other
words, they act exactly like piles, without the need for concrete. The tyres are slightly flexible and act as a damp-proofing course – and you
have helped to solve the problem of disposing of one of the most difficult
types of refuse.

You then lay a wooden ring-beam on top of the tyres and
start building up the walls with straw bales which you use exactly as you would
bricks – except that they are rather larger at a metre long and are held
together not by mortar but by hazel ties driven through them. Alternatively,
you can build up a timber frame and slot the bales into it. You allow for the
fact that in a single-storey building the roof will compress the height of the
walls by about four inches, then you put another ring-beam round the top,
anchored with more hazel ties, to provide lateral stability. Now the building
is ready to receive its roof: the one at the Centre makes use of re-cycled clay
tiles.

Up to a point, Rob and Suzy have found themselves educating
the building inspectors about straw-bale buildings, but all the regulations are
basically concerned about is that a building should be dry, warm and safe, and
straw buildings are all of these; in fact, the insulation they provide, in
terms of both heat and sound, is magnificent. Nor are such buildings just
curiosities but they are already in practical use: Rob Buckley has built a
classroom of straw bales at High Ham Primary School near Langport and part of
the Sustainability Centre being added to Queen Elizabeth School in Wimborne
during its complete re-build is likely to be constructed of straw bales.
Particularly interesting is the Genesis Project at Somerset College for Art and
Technology, where four pavilions have been built, one each of earth, straw,
wood and clay bricks, and their comparative performance will be monitored.

The timber in the straw-bale building at DCRS is, of course,
all local green timber. The only wood in a traditionally constructed building
that cannot be used green is the joinery such as doors and windows; at the
centre, old joinery was re-used. Working with unseasoned timber is another
essential skill that has been in danger of dying out. In some ways it is easier
to work then the energy-expensive kiln-dried timber that most builders use, but
allowance has to be made for shrinkage and distortion as it dries naturally;
planning the joints so that they tighten rather than coming loose during the
process is an art in itself. The timber was delivered ‘in the round’ and cut
into planks on site so that students could see how to cut it most efficiently.

It is skills such as these that the DCRS is determined to
continue, not just for the sake of it but for the benefit that they bring to the
conservation of our planet. Nor is it all just pie in the sky: ten affordable
homes should soon be built at Buckland Newton, using a pre-fab system based on
modules made up of straw bales. They will surely not be the last sign of the
influence of the Dorset Centre for Rural Skills on the face of our county.

IMAGES

Suzy Carr and Rob Buckley in front of the resource centre
which they added to adapted farm buildings to make the Dorset Centre for Rural
Skills

A straw-bale building under construction, showing its base
of old car tyres

‘To learn, look around you.’ One of the classrooms at the Centre is made of straw bales with raw lime plaster on the walls.

Students on a hedge-laying course at the Centre

A blacksmithing course in progress

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