Building Regulations: creating change through the front door

A photo of the almost completely framed roundhouse in midsummer

One of the main themes in conversation between residents of the Lammas Project is how to approach the legal issues and contradictory building regulations that the community is tangled up in right now.  People's relationships with the law range from frustrated to rather blase to compliant; the issues at hand are complex, require a bit of background, and say a lot about the atmosphere here at Tir y Gafel, the direction of its progress, and its relationship with the outside world.  I've cobbled together an outline based on my understanding of the forces at work. 

I.) PLANNING PERMISSION

a.  How did Lammas receive planning permission?

The Lammas Project had to apply for planning permission in order to build on the land they had purchased before any of the smallholding leases were created - according to its founders, the aim of the project was to go about creating an intentional ecovillage with recognition from the legal system from the very beginning, in order to enact changes from within it.  Getting permission, which was initially only supposed to take a matter of a couple months, ended up taking over 3 years.  In this time, Lammas families who had already given up their former lives and posessions in anticipation of starting earlier had to live in yurts, rent flats, find places to camp in warm weather, and in some cases, use up their savings.  Eventually, with certain stipulations, Lammas turned in a succesful application (almost like a business plan) and received planning permision.  These conditions include:

- low visual impact on the green countryside

- 75% of all household needs must be supplied sustainably off the land within five years

- the ecovillage must be off the grid: no outside power, plumbing, etc.

- the ecovillage must not contribute to an increase in car traffic in the area

b.  Why did it take so long to receive planning permission?

Lammas faced a lot of opposition from the Welsh assembly government and from residents of the area, who feared that the project would draw "dirty hippies" who would sit around all day and do no work, or who were simply looking for a way to get land for selfish purposes on the cheap.  People also feared an upswing in drug-related crime, and almost laughably, would bring "feral children" to the area.  Residents feared an influx of people who would have the strength in numbers to outvote and/or overpower traditional ways of life.  It was a long process for the initial members of the Lammas project to convince the neighbors and the officials, through carefully described business plans and the creation of contracts for each Lammas smallholding, that this was very much on the up-and-up.  Now, there has been a general reversal in public opinion and the Lammas project is well-liked by neighbors who see the people here working hard and making real progress on the land.

c.  How did Lammas get the land?

Pont y Gafel farm, which has been here for 1,000 years (according to Ayres - I am amazed by the idea) sold the 72-acre parsel because the current owner is a devout Christian; she believed that the Lammas project was a good way to provide stewardship to land that was essentially a monocultural green grass desert.

d.  Why did the Lammas project embark upon this mission in the first place?

Policy 52!  This new ordinance allows for "low impact development creating a positive contribution" in the Welsh countryside.  Essentially, it gives nontraditional eco-buildings the same right to be built as other houses in Wales.  This is all in the name of the One Planet development plan, the aim of which is to have the residents of the UK using the amount of resources per capita that a single Earth could provide sustainably to all of its inhabitants, within 30 or so years.  If everybody on the planet lived the way modern Britons do, we would require 5.45 Earths to sustain us all; Americans pull a solid 8 Earths.  *disapproving British "hrmm"*

II.) WHAT HAPPENED AFTER LAMMAS GOT PLANNING PERMISSION?

a. Lammas split up the land into nine 5-acre plots, a size determined by one of the founders, who calculated that if the Earth's arable land were split up equally between all people, every family could have five acres.  With the Lammas organization as a landlord, the initial tenants signed 999-year leases on their smallholdings.  In doing so, they agreed to the initial stipluations of the planning permission.  Then, people embarked on building their houses, and a whole new set of issues arose...

III.) APPROACHES TO BUILDING HOMES

a. Don't ask anyone about it; just go ahead, build it, and then see what the damn inspectors are gonna do about it.  Otherwise known as the cowboy approach.

b. Do everything the building regulations would require; accomodate inspectors' every statement.  Bring in specialists and engineers, pay for inspections, and undergo a scramble to comply especially heightened in this country, where every rule and regulation seems to be full of a million precautions against litigation.

c. Go ahead and build, but as you go, allow the inspectors to see your progress and then choose to pursue exemptions only for certain issues.  For example, one resident here is in the process of complying with an inspector's claim that she must dismantle her cotton-lined ceiling and replace it with plaster, because it is a fire hazard.  However, she refuses to tear up her precious rammed-earth floor in order to install a probably unnecessary (nobody really knows) radon-proof membrane.

IV.) SO, WHAT'S THE PROBLEM?

a.  Building regulations in Wales are for right-angle, on-grid, timber-framed, architect-and-contractor, predominantly petrol-dependent homes.  Regulations simply have not caught up to what is being allowed, nominally, here at Lammas.  Ayrse alludes to times when the building inspectors have come around.  He says they are generally nice men, who are facing their task of regulating construction at Lammas either with trepidation or with genuine curiosity at a thing so outside the norm.  Obviously, it just doesn't make sense for the building here to conform to preexisting standards.  For example, building regs say that all dwellings must have a fire alarm connected to the grid.  But, as a stipulation of the Lammas plannign permission, the ecovillage is not allowed to be connected to mains!  With points like this coming up all the time (the radon-proof membrane in a not-necessarily-contaminated area is another example), the need arises for amendments to the existing building regs.  However, pushing through amendments and exceptions takes time, money, and effort.  In the meantime, families at Lammas are frequently being called to court (although most do not show up for their court dates) for the legal violations that are happening.  Boo.

V.) CONCLUSION

What's happening here is a prime example of a cutting-edge project that has ridden a new law into territory that all other existing laws do not yet have the ability to accomodate.  When the general public and administrative midset shifts into a new awareness of our planet's reality - that we must change our ways of life in order to achieve sustainability - then, changes like those happening at Lammas will not only be accepted, but they will be recognized as a necessary new norm.

People often seem to frame this as a struggle between Lammas and the law, but really it's just a new relationship that has yet to bear fruit.

From the fields, my love to all.