As we open for entries to the 2020 MacEwen Award, Sam White of Knight Architects opens a window on the inspiring tale of villagers who used straw, sheepskin and bottles to rebuild their community hall
At a glance, the village of Burtle may appear an unremarkable place. Seemingly cut adrift on the Somerset Levels, it’s placed where the lush tranquillity of summer gives way to a starker landscape in winter as winds accelerate over flatness. As a seven year old I probably paid attention to it only because on a pitch black winter evening, coming home over the moors, it was the single visible marker for knowing how close we were. At that time local villages that had once revolved around farming were generally in decline if they weren’t close enough to the M5 to attract commuters. Burtle was no different and it was starting to show in places – like the village hall that looked particularly tired.
One evening with my dad, years later, the pub conversation turned to Burtle, the next village on, and how they were taking things into their own hands to fundraise and build a village hall, having been turned down for Lottery funding. Behind it all was a retired local builder normally used to agricultural sheds, who had the idea of cocooning the existing building, to use what was already there and make it remotely feasible.
Posters started appearing combining good humour with purpose: ‘Have you ever wanted to burn the village hall? Genuine BVH Kindling Wood, 50p per bag.’ ‘Coming soon, straw bale and clay ‘plastering’ picnic weekends. Come and be part of it.’ ‘Wanted – 4000 wine bottles as insulation. Why not put a message in a bottle and be part of it?’ Eventually the sign was altered to say ‘No more please’.
The playful creativity wasn’t limited to posters though, this was a project that showed innovation is not the preserve of professionals and universities. The building’s main wall insulation would be straw bales coated with local clay; rather than buy a machine they built their own custom mixer affectionately called Betty. She would be used to find the ultimate Roald Dahl-like recipe like before the village joined for the weekend to do the dirty job of plastering all the bales. Farmers donated sheep fleeces for the roof insulation and finally wine bottles arrayed to provide a rigid thermal break at the base of the walls. As client and builders, a level of ambition was realised that you might not normally expect to find in such a remote outlying location. Passing the hall now, which has reinvigorated the local community, there is still a little window into the wall construction, a reminder of the inspiring ‘help ourselves’ determination of a small village those years ago.