In 2019, much energy is being expended on thoughts regarding mankind’s increasingly rapacious destruction of the environment. Most rational people are quickly coming to the conclusion that efforts must be made to decrease resource and energy use, minimise carbon emissions and preserve the natural world as best we can. Modern technology, such as solar energy, has a large part to play. But as with many things, lessons from the past can offer the best solutions.
This is especially the case with construction. The vernacular buildings of the past were, more often than not, made from materials that were local, cheap and readily available. They also happened to be carbon neutral, biodegradable and essentially derived from nature. Largely ignored as irrelevant side effects in the past, in the 21st century we are becoming acutely aware of these valuable attributes.
In our native Wimborne, Dorset, for thousands of years most people would have lived in a small cottage with cob walls and a straw thatched roof. The earth for the walls would have been dug straight from the ground, a few metres away. The straw would have perhaps come from the next field, a by product of the grain harvest. At most it would have been carted one or two miles by horse power. The master thatcher would have lived in the same village. The rafters, laths and spars would have been cut from a nearby wood to demand.
As you might expect, I’ll be using thatch as a prime example, but I could just as easily be referring to cob, stone or wattle walls, un-cut rafters and joists, straw insulation or flagstone floors.
Most of our work in Dorset involves re-thatching cottages using combed wheat straw. At first, we will perhaps strip back one or two layers of the old thatch down to a solid base coat of historic straw. Sometimes we will strip nothing at all. If any waste is produced, it is composted. We’ll then cover the roof in a layer of new straw, fixed in place with nothing but twisted hazel spars. Everything we use in this process is sourced from within a 50 mile radius. Everything in this process is biodegradable, sustainable and can be carbon neutral. On this basis, I would argue that wheat straw thatching of existing buildings is one of the most ecologically virtuous construction processes.
Water reed thatching is slightly less simple in this respect. Although water reed is still harvested in Norfolk, the reality is that the demand from thatchers far outstrips this supply in the UK. So water reed is imported in from many European countries and from around the globe. Water reed also tends to be attached directly to the roof timbers using some kind of metal fixing system, which obviously involves a degree of heavy industry, mining, processing etc. But this could still be considered to be minimal in relation to the ecological costs of other types of construction.
Of course, It could be argued that the ecological benefits of thatch are over exaggerated. The amount of energy expended in the production of wheat straw in the modern thatching industry is not negligible. It’s a similar situation when you consider the cost, energy speaking, of harvesting and transporting water reed, much of which is imported from as far away as China. Inevitably, most of this energy is derived from fossil fuels. Another factor is the necessary frequent replacement of thatched roofs, especially in the 21st century. Modern thatch owners are tending to prefer to replace their thatched roof, when it begins to look slightly haggard. Rather than considering the result of a thatched roof survey, with a view to sympathetically repairing it. It’s a demanding task to determine the relative virtue, of any, of using thatch in this way when compared to other roofing methods. Especially when a slate roof, for example, could last for over 100 years, compared to a 20 to 50 for a thatched roof.
In the end, I’m not suggesting that everyone should immediately discard every modern convenience and live in a primitive thatched hut with mud floors. Just that there must, somehow, be a halfway compromise between this and the ever increasing, unsustainable, use of concrete, plastic and steel.