Grand designs on a small budget


Louise Halestrap is a tutor on CAT’s postgraduate programme, Advanced Environmental and Energy Studies by Distance Learning. Prior to that she worked running CAT’s consultancy service on solid waste management and water treatment. In this blog, she describes the timber frame self build course she and her partner studied on at CAT – and how it inspired them to undertake their own low carbon building project.

How the timber framed building course changed my life…

Us. My partner and I were in our early thirties. I am a biologist and he is a landscape architect. We owned a classic Welsh two up, two down terrace in the Dyfi Valley; we were planning an extension to our house and decided that the cheapest and most enjoyable way of doing so would be to try and do most of the work ourselves. Mike took on the role of designer and project manager – he has a head for figures and is very practical. I am quite practical, but am more interested in low carbon building and lifestyle. We both love wood in all its forms.

The course. So we booked onto the CAT timber frame building course. It was a complete inspiration! There were a bunch of highly skilled practitioners to teach us not just the trade, but energy use, and how to keep your carbon budget down whilst staying warm in winter. Some of my best memories are from seeing the team of men and women that were dedicated to imparting their knowledge and particularly in empowering the less adventurous. By the end of the week I was glowing with knowledge and enthusiasm.

The build. The course inspired us to build with low carbon in mind. So we sourced some larch from a local farmer (amazing – he just showed us some straight trees and we said what size of planks we needed!). We designed the extension with an architect, sourced a cheap batch of UK sheepwool (this was before you could buy sheepwool insulation from Britain) and off we went.

Luckily the Building Regulations inspector was studying for the MSc at CAT, so he was very helpful and understanding of our then novel materials. I’ve skipped over a lot of  blood, sweat and tears here, but you get the picture!

We built the walls and made it watertight in 10 weeks, the rest took a while as life, money, and kids happened (in fact the attic is still not quite finished). But the good things about it are:

  1. It made me believe I can do such a big job
  2. Building above building regulation requirements mean we are using much less energy than our neighbours with a third more space than them in use!
  3. It taught me about environmental decision making (ie how to be as green as you can on a very low budget)
  4. It made me realise that I wanted to research and teach about this to others (I now teach on the MSC AEES course)

We now have a really functional 4 bedroomed house, with beautiful ash flooring, new kitchen, and 3 light and warm new bedrooms. We paid about £25K for the lot and have increase the floor area of our house by 2 (from 50 sq m to 100 sqm). But because we are in the terrace and built upwards, we changed our method of heating and got some solar thermal panels – our bills have actually gone down by a third!

All thanks to CAT –  and especially for inspiration from the great tutors Rob Gwillim, Blanche Cameron, Pat Borer and Cindy Harris.