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Richard Perkins
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(IM)PERMANENCE Film- Self Builds in the urban jungle

Posted by Richard Perkins about 12 years ago

impermanencefilm.org- a global family PC film trip!

Heading up north again after a lovely stay in Devon we arrived at The Yard in Bristol, a collection of self built houses on a site procured by an active group looking to create beautiful, efficient and affordable homes on a disused site in central Bristol.  In St. Werberghs, an area with a strong history of community cohesion that led to the development of expansive allotments and a community farm raising animals and awareness in the urban environment, this little hub is a thriving and peaceful pocket safe for eating, socializing and learning in the heart of the sprawling urban developments that stretch out for miles here in all directions.

We met with Stefi Broer, who was one of the spear headers of this project, which was established in 2000 and has resulted in about 20 families (as well as 6 plots for elderly folks through a local association) living in affordable and efficient homes with a communally owned conference space all backing onto shared gardens and recreation space that give a really secluded community space for children to play in the safety of collective eyes contrasting greatly to the sometimes harsh and concrete lining of the typical urban terraces around the area.

Stefi told us how the project came into being, for her very much born of the desire to be able to design and partially build her own home according to sustainable design and afford it as a single mother in a city environment.  The site is a remarkable example of creating thriving hubs which are relaxing and feel safe and shared which is rare to find in urban circumstances in most cities around the country.  By taking on the shared outlay of the site and buying materials Stefi has managed to build a very beautiful and functional house for a total cost of less than 110,000 gbp.  Remarkable for central Bristol, and made easier by the fact this site turned problems into solutions from the very beginning.

Stefi points outside to the gardens where children congregate to share games and play after school ends on this glorious sunny day, believe it or not 1m below ground this site rests entirely on a concrete slab.  It would have cost 30,000gbp to remove this, so instead houses have been designed with timber frames to keep weight down thus minimizing the amount of concrete and high embodied energy materials and make use of the existing slab as foundations.  A great solution!  And what’s more, with 30cm of insulation and minimal windows to the cold north winds and a lot of glazing orientated towards the sun, this house traps not only light but the suns heat.  Solar arrays on the roof actually exceed the costs of heating the house and water, so this building is very functional as well as very comfortably habitable.  There is a little used wood stove in the corner in case it ever gets cold, but Stefi remarks that even in winter the small amount of background heat just from refrigeration and lighting is enough to keep this house warm enough to just need a jumper and save the firewood.

The site is very varied and interesting architecturally, some have saunas and hot tubs built out back, others grow food.  Each dwelling is unique and expresses something of the characters that designed and built them.  This is what I love about the social aspect of self builds that get away from the conventional and often drearily unaesthetic houses so many must live in at the huge price tag that averts a lot of people, our family included, from the market.  Stefis house would be worth triple now and so it just goes to show that it pays to collaborate and take initiative and do some of the ground work.  One major problem with planning and regulations is that people generally have little idea what lies outside the conventional in terms of the possibilities and variation in costs.  It’s a far cry from the low impact developments of say, the Lammas project, but its still relatively much more affordable and within reach for most people.  And there is something about the little details that really make a house a home, the little touches that make dwellings unique expressions of their creators.  The detailed banisters and high ceilings make this house feel really special, and are part of the open air flow design that allows the building to maintain warmth and cool itself too.

Stefi has managed to establish this project, write a PhD thesis on these themes and start a business recreating this model for others.  She explains their first project development aiming to integrate this model of affordable and creative self builds with community development.  Inspired and committed to the Balanced View community through which Michelle and Stefi were initially connected, Stefi is working to respond social elements missing in her experience at The Yard.  The aim of the new project, nearby in Bristol, is to adapt this model and establish a hub for people sharing the commitment to beneficial community through the Balanced View.  As a single mother working on all these projects simultaneously we couldn’t help but leave inspired by what is possible, and particularly in the perhaps tighter constraints of urban development.  It’s a very exciting year and we are keen to stay connected with how this project develops.

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