Journalism

The Hut

September 1st, 2001

September 2001

I have just spent a week in a hut in a forest in Shropshire.
The hut has no running water, no electricity, and no foundations. It is made of heavy lapped board, with a pan-tiled pitched roof, sufficiently steep to need no guttering.

Planning regulations forbid the hut as a permanent structure, which is why it sits on a dozen staddle stones. These work admirably at keeping out damp and unwelcome creatures, and have the pleasing effect of lifting the place high enough for a view of more than bracken.

Prepare your supper on the steps, steam it on the wood burner, and watch night closing round the forest. In the morning, water that has been put to heat overnight, is ready for washing. My daily ablutions consisted of standing stark naked, but for a pair of wellies, and pouring pans of water over my head. I kept clean, well-fed, warm, and I was happy. Such times make it possible to think about all the clutter that surrounds us, and all the inconvenient conveniences that have become modern life.

Building Regulations and Planning have both condemned the hut as unfit for human habitation. It is supposed to be used as a summerhouse, nothing more.

I am not interested in going back to nature, but I feel we have made too many rules for ourselves about what is or isn’t a fit dwelling. I would happily spend the rest of my life in the hut, if the alternative were a Barrett home.

As someone who grew up poor, with an outside loo and no bathroom, I do not romanticise poverty. There is a difference, though, between living simply and lightly on the land, and struggling with bad housing.

The eco-house movement in Britain has met with a much less sympathetic response than it has in Holland and Scandinavia. The Dutch are not just building resource-friendly apartments that recycle water and use solar panels, they are actively exploring options for people who want to live simply, and can show they can do so, without impacting on quality of life for others. No one wants a band of semi-gypsies squatting town- edges and forest belts, but if some people are prepared to give up what most of us couldn’t live without, why not encourage them?

In Britain, rural land could be used for environmentally friendly housing groups, for the good reason that such dwellings can dismantled if the experiment fails. Build an estate, and we’re stuck with breezeblocks and tarmac. Put up wooden houses, and there is a chance to progress the design over time, and provide affordable homes outside of the Brit obsession with property and money.

We need architects who can think beyond the given structures, and who can express what is beautiful in what is temporary.

I have always thought permanence over-rated, and I dislike the hard, ungiving materials that we use routinely in our buildings. There is a housing crisis in Britain, and a huge question over what to do with the agricultural land coming onto the market in the aftermath of Foot and Mouth. Many people fear insensitive planning will change the countryside forever. Perhaps this is the moment to risk a genuine alternative – not something that will delight either the volume housebuilders or the luxury home market.

I’m not suggesting a return to the Boulton and Paul kit houses of the 1930’s – just an intelligent, well designed pilot scheme, that is sensitive to the land and pragmatic about the difference between waste and progress.

Who knows? A hut might soon be the new designer home.