May 042016

In our garden, about 30 metres away from the house in which we currently live with my mother and sister, my husband and I are building a house. It is a small house, though not too small, and will be built in a patch of land in one corner of the garden, where there used to be an intensity of wild bluebells. I am hoping that the bluebells will allow us to move them elsewhere.

It is a wonderful thing to be able to build a house, in the garden which we both love. Originally our building plans were to create a straw-bale round house. We would have put it in the field at the bottom of the garden, where little else sits but trees, wild rabbits, and himalayan balsam, and it’s invasion would have been quiet, like a sound made at dawn.

The complications of planning meant that we would have spent years fighting for permission to build this house. We sought advice from within the complexities of building and planning law, and discovered we could build something else. For multi-generational situations like ours, it is possible to apply for permission to build an “adjacent dwelling” next to the pre-existent building, for which one doesn’t need planning permission, but rather a legal certificate much simpler to obtain, and, most importantly, thoroughly possible. The details of this require it to be close to the main house, and to be “a static caravan”, which is essentially a bungalow that is built in two pieces. We found a firm that creates these, and their building techniques are excellent, and thorough.  No gentle straw bale house sung with the land of Sussex, but a well built timber and beautifully constructed mobile home on a cement base, with all the things that are necessary to be inside it, inside it.

Now I find myself in strange locations, with strange methods. Had the round house been possible to create, it would have been created by two wilderness builders who create houses of hobbit style with straw and local wood and reclaimed resources. If that house ever had come into being, it would have conversed with the places and spaces from which it was forged. Into the bluebell patch will arrive a brand new house, in pieces, like jigsaw. The house will be built from excellent and ecological resources. It will be a good space and a good house, and will not, we hope, take years but rather months, so that the baby might be able to spend his first autumn there, and his parents have their own brand new space beside the family home. The fact that we are able to build it at all, both financially and legally, has come upon us like a white-horse flamed miracle.

But I still find myself in strange locations, with strange methods. For every five houses we build in the UK, the equivalent of one house in waste goes to landfill. While our new building company is wonderful at sourcing the best resources and creating houses nearly passive in their energy use, they are not fluent in that other thing – the knotted not of pausing before consumerism happens at all. The former is an eco-living that flows with the tide of today’s economy, the latter is not. But if the latter doesn’t become so, then we will, of course, build, produce and consume ourselves out of existence within a fairly short space of time.

So I negotiate. Is cement a necessity? (Yes). Are there ways of making it more gentle, less pernicious? (Yes). Are there things which may come into our house from junk yards and not factories? (Yes). How much and how many? Can I source them? Can we use them? To their credit, the builders are open-minded, but given that the motivation and resourcing comes from me, trained as a story-teller and comfortable dealing in fairy tales, I fear both for my sanity and our house. This is not my fluency. These planks of timber and straight measurements, these architectural conversions of sketch to world, their unerasable corners and severe edges require dedication to a disciplined accuracy that makes me want to laugh and turn aside in panic.  In negotiating – about windows, doors, floors, drainage, gas, electricity, roofing and all else, I feel not so much that my ground is shaky, but rather the ground, and my feet, are not on the same plain.

But we want to live there, and we want to live there well. We want to build an efficient, possible, warm and real house with minimum invasion and assault upon the world in which we live. So we are in the midst of compromise; we are living in the heart and heat of compromise. Invasions, which we didn’t want, are necessary. The garden must be compromised, and trees sawn down. Cement on bluebells. We give things up, in the name of time and efficiency. The timber is not from Sussex and new trees cried. Wood was shipped in swathes of plastic across long seas. Things were made, for our house, while things which could have made it lie unused in junkyards.

And we continue to negotiate for things. Is it possible that the cement base be mixed with recycled ash, so while our foundations may not speak with the earth, at least they whisper of an acknowledgement that everything we produce continues to pester, bother, celebrate and exist? Is it possible to find floors, roof tiles, doors, beams that are not perfect and not unnecessary, rather pre-existent, shabby and exquisite? Is it possible to enjoy our budget, to have control of it, to purchase not in the compulsive rhythm of pervasive novelty but in conversation with what realistically exists, so that we might, perhaps, have money left over at the end for other things – less physical – that we need and long for? Of course it is possible. But whether we can achieve this in the midst of lives that demand rapidity, practicality, dedication and massive effort in a hundred and one other places also, as every single modern life does, we don’t know.

This is me, now. I have a first child coming in less than two months and three as yet unpublished manuscripts, one of which, at least, I wanted to finish editing and send to a publishers before becoming a mother. But what needs time, really? A published book is a magical transmission of secrets that can change a destiny and open doors. A house, you just live in. It’s construction requires a patience I have not been schooled to give. Yet also a time that, if given, like pouring thoughts upon a field, may perhaps make time different. More careful. Fuller.

What is time? Do we have time for the massive stasis of the clumsy incumbent materials with which we live? Do we have time to see beyond their stasis and acknowledge their outrageously, incomprehensively, fundamentally essential and endless existence? And, if that is time we take, how will our conversations with the world differ? How will our homes?

I don’t know the answers to these questions. But I’ll update you about the roof tiles.


  2 Responses to “On Foundations and Compromise”

  1. What a beautiful post Jo! Such questions and wonderings..

  2. How thoughtful! X

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