Sustainable Living - Quiet Earth Association

Several years ago I moved into a plot of woodland I had bought previously. A friend helped me to build a shed 8 ft X 12 ft and I had the beginnings of a new home...

Sustainable Living. The story so far...

Chapter 1, Aug 2002
The land includes about an acre of terraced woodland with a ruined dwelling at the top of the hill overlooking the Teifi estuary & west Wales coastline.

After two years of communications with Pembrokeshire Planning Authority I received planning permission to build a sustainable house. Meanwhile I've lived without mains in a shed, carrying water from a local spring, using candlelight, a gas stove and reaping the benefits of a compost loo. I loved it, but the shed was small, so I built a straw bale extension onto it with the help of some friends, bracing the rainy elements whilst trying to keep the straw dry. The great benefits of the straw bale extension is the cosy insulation during winter time and the sense that the lime rendered walls breathe with me & the surrounding trees. Birds nest below the big roof overhang too.

My wood burner is fuelled by logs from coppiced trees on the land and keeps the place warm albeit hot-if I can get it together to pile enough logs for the winter months which I haven't yet and end up sawing damp logs at night in the rain....achoo! My compost loo, sheltered in a wigwam shaped wooden hut offers a fine view of the rising sun. Wood ash or shavings are used to throw in the loo each day and for some reason it never really smells. Shared it one summer with a wasps nest, they doing their thing, I doing mine, in harmony...

The land is called “Penwhilwr” which is Welsh for a kind of lookout or watch tower. Apparently the ruin was one of the oldest buildings in the village and served as a lookout for the St Dogmaels Abbey (now in ruins), over the estuary for when the pirates would come in. It dates back further to when the Vikings came in. I have also heard that it was a place of retreat for the monks of the abbey which I can well imagine due to its peaceful, meditative nature.

My way of life completely changed as I lived here. I dropped my dance career to be in nature & allow the simple daily tasks of living here unfold. As the seasons changed, nature spoke to me in her wisdom. I learnt to listen to her voice, breathe in the stillness and surrender as the many obstacles arose...marvelling at the power of nature as I tied down some plastic on the roof in hailstorm at midnight in the middle of winter.

I cultivated a garden with some herbs & flowers already growing here. Made flower essences & sun-infused oils from flowers and herbs that I felt drawn to. With a need to work & create more from home I set up a space to silversmith and create jewellery inspired by my surroundings & meditations.

I haven’t begun on the house building apart from a ruin taking down party and putting in the footings. The idea is to use the stone from the ruin for the bottom floor with a tower shape for the bathroom & curved staircase mirroring the abbey. Then beloved straw bales and timber frame for the top floor.

Apparently there are springs on site for a pure water source. Power from a wind turbine and solar panels since I am south facing.

Loo will be a 'pour flush latrine' system where water is flushed through an Aquatron system(works by centrofugal force, seperating the solids from the fluids)down into a compost chamber on a terrace below with a soakaway system. No idea when I'll start on the building. It all seems to have its own rhythm & ebb and this space... Aug 2002

Chapter 2. April 2003
Well. Building is underway. The stones are all in piles and graded in size. A few months ago I contacted 'Amazon Nails' a women's building team and pioneers in strawbale build in Britain and Ireland. See their web site:

They are keen to help design & build the house and also run it as a course for those interested in learning new eco build techniques. Once the foundations are finished and all materials on site, they will come for 2-3 weeks to raise the walls and roof, during the summer.
Anyone interested in participating on the courses can email me.

Chapter 3. August 2003.
The past 3 months have seen the gradual raising of the ground floor of my house: from dust to straw...Barbara Jones of Amazon Nails sent me the necessary drawings, adapted for strawbale, in order to begin.

My only compromise with this building has been to use concrete below floor level. As foundations had already been poured, it seemed ok to use concrete blocks up to dpc level and below floor level. For this task I hired a local builder Steve who was also sympathetic to my project and since I couldn't begin the stonework until this was done, he offered to work nights and weekends around his busy schedule to help me out.

A note on the use of concrete; recent research has shown that 40% of the world’s energy goes on the making of concrete. The making of lime uses 7 times less energy. Lime is also the traditional and tried and tested method for building and its wisdom speaks for itself in old buildings which have stood the test of time. I cannot hail the uses of lime enough; it breathes, it’s natural and it’s good for the environment.

This completed, I donned my wellies and marigold gloves to begin lime mortaring and stone walling. Chris, a stone mason friend showed me how to work the mortar and build the walls.The drawings showed that I had to build a 450mm wall all around as a base for the straw to sit on. Also I designed the bathroom tower to be all of stone.

Friends, Lenka, Stirling, Sheena came forth to join me now and then. Women I hardly knew in the village heard what I was doing and came up with their marigold gloves too to learn and help. Peter, a friend with a simple and Taoist approach to stonewalling came to work.
We massaged the mortar and laid the stones with our gloved hands, finding we could carry heavier and heavier stones as we got to know them better. We laughed and told stories and worked together in a way I felt that people had here centuries before. Ravi, my partner, a musician and not so drawn to building contributed by serving us all lunch and accompanied us on his kora (African Harp).

Lenka's daughter, Amba, 5yrs and Alison's daughter, 7yrs came up to help and seemed to share a natural instinct for mixing mortar and choosing the right stones.

Working with a group of women, I found a beautiful and empowering experience. The mystique of building soon dissolved as each stage clearly guided by Barbara became clearer and just made sense. Sometimes I would ring Barbara and say ' I need to find a plumber...' and she would reply 'Rachel, you can do it yourself. It's just like Lego. I'll send you the drawings'. So, it was clear that as much as I had tried to pass some of the work on, it became more apparent that if I was to see this vision through, I was going to have to oversee the project and trust I could with the full support of the universe.

Chris then came to continue on the bathroom tower, tuning quickly to its curvy demands.
During this time I began to experience other challenges. Rumours were beginning to fly around the village that were not true about the project. Someone deposited a 2 tonne rock to block access to my land. I knew it was time to come out of my quiet living/workplace and communicate the simple truths of what I was doing, all of which were totally within the law and approved by the planners! I then left fear to subside and continued with the inspiration.
I can understand though how such a transformative project like this can attract a lot of fear and yet saw that the only way to allay this fear was to build my house.

Julie, a carpenter friend of Barbara moved here to join the project. She has worked on a good few strawbale houses and I felt blessed to have her here. She and Stefan began to prepare for the carpentry.

Access to Penwhilwr has been also a challenge as I live up a track which is also a public footpath and altho I have a private vehicular right of way, large vehicles cannot reach the land. Lime and Leka floor insulation, arrived by the tonne and I used a local hire company to bring it up with a dumper truck. Then the timber arrived and the size and weight of the green oak posed another challenge until Susannah, a local tree surgeon and friend came with her working mule, Monty. He dragged the timber up over 3 days, quietly and gracefully.

350 strawbales arrived and they were delivered to a local friendly farming couple nearby. We then had a couple of strawbale gatherings to unload the bales and begin transporting them to a nearby garden offered to me by a couple of friends close to my track.Moving from stone to straw was a joyful experience. It was fun to climb on and move with 4yr old Adam directing us where to stack it.

Chapter 4. 28/10/03
Well, Amazon Nails have been and gone. Barbara Jones came for two separate weeks to run courses here and to help build my home. The first week in August blessed us with sunshine as the Straw Goddess shone down her rays. Barbara teaches with great softness, strength and integrity.

We began each day at 9 am in a circle, hand in hand, connecting us as a group, working with a common intention and spirit of co-operation. Barbara scattered Angel cards from a game developed by the Findhorn Foundation and one of us would select a card for the day. I chose the play angel for the first day.

Throughout the week, we focussed on cutting and pointing hazel stakes, transporting bales, splitting and retying them and finally raising the walls...

Underneath the first bale I placed two crystals, one from my mother and one from my father who had passed away some months before. Also I placed some rose petals in recognition of their loving support. For me, it was a poignant moment.

True to the intention, the walls were raised to first floor joist level by the end of the week with a certain amount of excitement and bale frenzy.

The second week had more intensity with about twenty great people on the course and volunteering. My hermetic lifestyle was slowly slipping into the background...

The six weeks between courses were spent hiring carpenters, putting on wallplates and constructing the green oak and larch beams and posts, all which took longer than planned... but then there is a timing within our plans that knows best and so the second course was to accommodate joist (TJI) setting before we could raise the first floor.

Three women from my village, joined the course and then helped afterwards to raise the walls to roof level.... much jubilation.

It is October now and a tummy bug has slowed me down.
The inner pull of autumn beckons and I hear the call, collecting wood for my burner and watching the leaves fall through my hut window. The wind blows and the tarpaulins covering the straw walls flap.

A slowing down follows a vibrant, warm filled summer where days were long with focused 'soft' working. Always a day's work would be blessed by a jump in the cool, refreshing waves of the nearby sea. However, the roof still needs to go on and true to the nature of this project, someone has appeared who can do the cedar shingling...and I ask the skies to hold their heavy downpours for a few weeks more...

So many blessings to all who have been involved in this home-soul building so far; to Barbara, all volunteers, family and workers and to Ravi, who fed us all.

Chapter 5; Winter 2004
The roof finally went on and the structure is completed.
It was an enduring four months over the wintertime for it took that long to complete the roof.

Every time it rained we had to go and leak check, of which there were many and the straw cannot get wet! Then a gale would blow in the nighttime ripping off the tarp and we’d have to get up and dressed to tie it back down.

A friend looked at me one of those days and said ‘It’s a bit like having a baby!’ (a tad bigger, maybe). But our efforts paid off and there was only one internal wall that needs a section removed. Andy and Shane were the shinglers and the roof is covered in cedar shingles.

The professionalism, love and care that went into their work touched me as they gave more than they charged for. It was one of the first quotes for the build and a lot less stressful than a crew of hourly raters enjoying their tea breaks.

Once the roof was finished in all its elegance, we celebrated!

Andy brought some rowan berry wine and we made a garland with willow and flowers. The children drew pictures and blessings, and we placed it in the rafters.It is something often done in Scandinavian countries to celebrate a roof going on.

Barbara Jones then came down for a day to show me how to put in the windows and dampproof around them properly. In went the windows and the blowing gales seemed more distant.

Chapter 6; July 2004
After a month or so of preparation, we had our first lime plastering course with Barbara Jones. A really enthusiastic group came on the course and all then opted to stay on to help for five days and earn back the course fee.

The mixture is a ready mix of lime, sand and goat hair from Ty Mawr lime merchants in Brecon, Wales. The mixture is applied by hand; donned in black marigold gloves. The straw doesn’t need any kind of mesh as the mixture sticks very well into the straw as a base coat.
Now, in July, the third coat is nearly completed and she looks well in her limed coat. I have bought a warm red natural pigment to add to the limewash to give her a glow.

Much of the local suspicions of this build are now subsiding as the press and media have begun turning up on this unique build in Wales. It is the first two storey load- bearing strawbale house to be built in the UK and the second in Europe.

BBC Wales came to film for a documentary programme on Sustainability in Wales and there was some beautiful footage of the house.

I am beginning to receive emails from people around the world asking to come and volunteer here. All this; the result of a small, quiet vision...

So, August will be a potentially active monthwhilst we prepare the internal walls for clay plastering, followed by a course and maybe a few mud fights.

I’ve been told to take some time off the physical side of building due to a shoulder injury (too many heavy buckets of lime). But I can still project manage and continue researching materials, order them, feed volunteers etc, etc...

Chapter 7; March 2005
Eight months later and still clay plastering...

1st coat is a slip coat of clay and water, thinly spread onto the straw.

2nd coat is a mix of clay (powdered from a brickworks), coarse sand, chopped straw and manure.

3rd coat is a mix of clay and fine sand.

Becky, a woman from New Zealand stayed on after the course to work for about 6 weeks. She was a gem and had an abundant energy compared to mine which was beginning to flag; it was all the mind work involved with the build, I hadn’t catered for, like researching and ordering materials to be there for the days volunteers were there. Hmm.

Next, came Liam, an ex builder who wanted to learn everything he could about eco building. He moved on site and stayed for a few months.

The clay plastering was becoming very laborious, as I compared notes with a fellow strawbale builder, building his own home near Venice; you spend hours making a mix; all with hands and feet, then you spend the rest of the day spreading it on your walls with your hands. Then, at the end of the day you stand back to look at it and it seems like you’ve done nothing at all!

However, that was the 2nd coat story. Now I’m onto 3rd coat. No other volunteers at present and am blissfully enjoying it. Feel like a zen monk daily working on it, delighting in every texture, shape and smell. Sometimes shapes emerge through the straw and clay, and sculptures take form. The outside world disappears and there is only this moment, the cats, and the smell of Ravi’s cooking...

Chapter8; May 2005
We have erected a curved internal strawbale wall, which surrounds the fireplace and creates a partition between lobby and living room.

Instead of sitting the bales on a stone wall, Barbara gave me the idea of bottles. So Ty Nant spring water co kindly donated a few crates of their beautiful blue bottles. We stood them upright in rows of three with a hardboard template made with holes in to push over the bottle tops.Then the strawbales were pushed down onto the bottle necks to sit on the bottles.

It looks stunning when the daylight shines through the bottles into the lobby. On the ground floor the joists have been laid, with a 200mm plus vented airgap underneath. In between the joists is a reflective board with leca insulation, cardboard, then underfloor heating pipes sitting in a ratio 8:1 sand lime mix.

Recycled hemlock boards will then go on top. The kitchen and lobby floor will be an underfloor heated area set in limecrete with earthen floor and some reclaimed slates. The underfloor heating will be run from the back boiler inside the ‘Osier’ style
ceramic stove which is the main heating system for the house.

With a high insulation value (u value; 0.2) of the strawbale, the ammount of heat needed to be generated to warm the house will be way lower than most homes.


© Copyright 2008 Rachel Shiamh