BLOG Reginal Francis

NWR Issue 116

Raising the Roof, Gently

Raising the roof, Ty Unnos, National Botanic Gardens

Nestled among a thicket of trees beside the road to Betws y Coed is a little stone hovel called the Ugly House (Tŷ Hyll). The house gets its name from its ramshackle stone walls that look as if they were thrown together as quickly as the builders could manage. Some say the house was built as a hideout for bandits, others claim it was home to the last witch in Wales. The most likely theory is that the Ugly House is in fact a ‘one-day house’ or tŷ unnos. According to folklore, a tŷ Unnos is a house made in twenty-four hours. An ancient Welsh law once decreed that any individual who could build a house on common land in one day could own the freehold, provided they could light a fire inside with smoke visible from the chimney. The distance of property allocated to the house was determined by how far the homeowner could throw an axe.

This tradition, which is apparently still practiced in regions of rural Europe, was all but forgotten in British culture and memory, until recently. On 16 December, at the National Botanic Gardens of Wales in Carmarthenshire, the first tŷ unnos in centuries was constructed. The project was made possible by the collaboration of the Botanic Gardens, the Charter for Trees, Woods and People, Woodland Trust and Common Ground, an organisation that curates and sponsors creative engagements between people and the environment. The project was led by the Welsh artist Owen Griffiths.

The house was constructed with a timber frame, wattle panelling and a sophisticated slanted roof. Speaking to Griffiths a few days before the build, he made clear to me that the project was as much a performance as an act of creative expression. The artist, who has a passion for sustainable living, approached this project hoping to provoke questions about how we live, what we want from our homes and what we want from our world.

The tŷ unnos was to be constructed taking full advantage of the local environment, mirroring the values of the rest of the Gardens. The frame was made from trees felled on the grounds, the wattle panels, from locally sourced willow branches and the slanted roof was designed to collect and recycle rainwater.

The building process itself raised questions about the ideology behind the politics of social housing. Today, is difficult to imagine a government that would freely allocate common land to its citizens as it once did. We live in a time of population and housing crisis, waiting lists for accommodation are getting longer and longer. In response, the government is producing cheap, mass buildings in a contractor-based system that focuses more on profit than supporting communities.

Self-made traditional construction is increasingly becoming a romantic and archaic notion. While using quality timber and traditional methods to construct the tŷ unnos may be a nostalgic harkening to the past, this does not devalue the quality or the marketability of this approach. Griffith is therefore bridging the void between ‘romantic’ sustainable methods and contemporary commercial construction in order to highlight how contemporary building need not be undemocratic nor poor quality. In this Griffiths is echoing the famous anarchist architect Walter Segal who, in the 1980s, organized the construction of a small council estate in Lewisham, England. A collection of ordinary families were allocated plots of land in a local suburb in order to construct their own timber frame houses using an innovative and sustainable set of principles designed by the architect. The project was a resounding success and inspired a series of like-minded projects across the country. In this urbanised south London landscape where most houses are grey, concrete and a drain on natural resources, Segal’s estate remains an exciting, sustainable commune for its residents.

Ty Unnos, close to Completion

This leads to the last, and most important aspect of the tŷ unnos project. From the very beginning, Griffiths wanted to emphasize communality. The scheme would not have been possible were it not for the unity of several like-minded organizations. ‘It's in our DNA to gather together around a fire,’ said Griffiths. ‘People really want to do stuff like this.’ Excitingly for all those involved, the project was an opportunity to access those primeval instincts to work as a team, build a home and gather around a fire at the end of the day. For years to come the tŷ unnos will be a monument to the collaboration of a large community of people who worked together to create shelter and warmth, the most basic of human necessities.

In a heated political climate of rising population levels, Brexit and social institutions like the NHS in danger, Tŷ Unnos, as a conceptual performance, set an example of how we must value, not just our homes and the natural environment, but the people around us with whom we share the world.

The idealism behind this venture, however, did not take away from the incredible challenge that Griffiths and his team faced as they came onto site on that frosty December morning. I arrived a few hours after they began and was met with a buzzing hive of activity. I felt as if I had walked into the Amish ‘barn raising’ scene from the 1985 Harrison Ford film Witness {a scene recently parodied in the hyper-gentle metal-detecting comedy, The Detectorists, Ed}.

You could feel the tension as the bulky frame was lifted with ropes and slotted into the ground. One of the team members, a regular volunteer at the gardens, was ‘amazed’ that they managed to get the frame level: ‘Normally you have a laser leveler but they didn't have anything like that,’ he told me. ‘A bit like how the Egyptians built their pyramids, but smaller than that.’ Project curator and Garden manager, Will Ritchie, had overseen the felling and milling of the timber and told me how ‘satisfying’ it was to have seen the wood pass from stage to stage, from a living tree to a beautiful building. Ritchie explained that the building is already immediately accessible, and will go on to become a centre for a forestry programme, teaching visitors about forest management and bush craft. How ideal, I thought, that the building would come full circle, having been sourced from the forest it would contribute to its continued health and rejuvenation.

Griffiths himself was involved in every aspect of the building’s construction, from heaving up the frame to hammering in the studs, and didn’t have the chance to stand still. He took the time, however, to make sure I had a cup of tea. The refreshment hut appeared to be the backbone of the whole endeavour. A big iron kettle of boiling water was kept hot by a smoky wood fire, a welcome sight on that icy morning. Cakes, tea, coffee and soup were all on offer and, during the mid-day tea break, gave all involved the spirit to soldier on despite brief bursts of rain.

Later in the day, once the frame was up and looking stable, the atmosphere was more jovial and most of the effort was focused on weaving and setting up the wattle panels. The sun came out and so did a little group of children, the team’s assorted offspring, to help join in and play with the willow branches.

It was inspiring to think that behind this idyllic scene was an important call for political reform. I imagine that if more people had the opportunity to witness such an experience, they too would be inspired to work within their own communities towards building a better environment for themselves.

When I spoke to Griffiths a few days before the build, he told me that the political ideology of self-build housing, like the current revolution of locally produced food, tends to be limited to middle-class culture. Public events such as this, however, are one more step towards democratising these ideas. Griffiths, having worked all over the world, was pleased to be operating close to home. ‘I believe in the idea of Wales as a change maker,’ he said. ‘It’s just a case of working hard and keeping the dialogue going in order to shape the next generation of housing.’

Work was finally completed a few hours after the sun set and the team gathered inside to light the fire. There was even a ceremonial axe throwing. Had this been 1600, Griffiths and his family would have been fully entitled to make their home inside.

Griffiths, of course, is keeping busy and is currently working with a Cardiff-based organisation called the Gentle Radicals, which will be committed to educating young people about getting involved with supporting their local community and the environment.

Reginald Francis is a postgraduate candidate in Literary Studies at the Department of English and Creative Writing at Aberystwyth University. @regfrancis95

Ty Unnos, lighting the fire

Photos courtesy of Common Ground.


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