Wessex Community Assets is working with the architects Assemble Studio in an innovative partnership – Raise the Roof – focused on affordable and ecological housing. Assemble won the Turner Art Prize for the development of the Granby Workshop in Liverpool. Working also with Common Ground, The Arts Development Company, Dorset Woodhub and Bridport Town Council, WCA recently organised a successful course in sustainable construction, as part of the process of prototyping initial designs and testing local supply chains.
We were fortunate to secure funding from the Golden Bottle Trust, Dorset AONB and Dorset Local Enterprise Partnership (the latter provided funds from the Education & Skills Funding Agency matched by the European Social Fund), and this funded the participation of 14 unemployed people in the 10 day course, which took place over three weeks. The result was a tiny house for a homelessness charity that WCA is working with (to give to an entrenched rough sleeper who doesn’t want to live in a bricks and mortar house).
WCA was formed in 2005 to address three interlocking crises in our sub-region of Devon, Dorset and Somerset – the lack of affordable housing, the lack of training and decent jobs, and the unsustainable nature of present production and consumption.
Over the last 15 years, WCA has supported over 70 community-led housing initiatives, many of which have now created affordable homes for people on low incomes. Around 300 houses have been built, with another 500 in the pipeline. The majority of these houses have been built in partnership with housing associations, and have met prevailing standards for energy efficiency. However, it is now accepted that these standards are insufficient to address the climate crisis and the ecological crisis that we face – so the Raise the Roof project seeks to go further, and asks three key questions:
- Can we imagine new ecological designs and construction methods for the houses we want to build – and ensure they are affordable?
- Can we draw on sustainable materials that flow out of local regenerative forestry and agriculture?
- Can we build in such a way that we help maintain and create jobs within a regenerative local economy?
Wessex ran the tiny house course with Victor Crutchley, whose family has farmed for generations near Powerstock. Recently, he refurbished an old barn at North Eggardon Farm which was used as a base for the tiny house course.
Dorset Woodhub is now exploring the possibility of developing a timber workspace there (a “woodhub” – a combination of training space and co-working space). Victor already has about 25 tenants in workspaces across the estate – many of them carpenters, designer-makers, potters and artists. He also has working woodlands, and a strong interest in regenerative agriculture.
We are also planning, as a next stage, the development of a couple of affordable self-build projects – 4 or 5 in each, done on a group basis with a training element. Longer term we hope to secure an option to develop 50 or so houses on the 760 home Vearse Farm site next to Bridport.
The community in Bridport is facing the consequences of long term economic trends: including a shift away from agriculture as a key local employer, the cessation of the processing of local materials (e.g. timber, stone, hemp and flax), and the reduction in scale of local manufacturing capacity (focused in particular on the making of rope and net). There is an accelerating shift towards providing services to retired incomers and visitors, and this has resulted in an increase in care, hospitality and retail jobs and a reduction in employment in land-based enterprises, manufacturing and associated business services.
The effect of this shift has been an increase in low wage, and often seasonal, jobs; a sharp increase in house prices, due to large numbers of incoming retirees, buy-to-let landlords and second homeowners; and young people being forced to move away, for lack of housing and employment options.
So, even without COVID, Bridport, like so many other towns, sits at a crossroads. Does it become focused on retirement and hospitality or can we re-imagine and re-invigorate the key industries of agriculture, manufacturing and construction/property maintenance, leading to an increase in better, paid, higher skilled jobs; more affordable housing; and a more sustainable and resilient local economy?
The Raise the Roof project aims to show how the economy of this typical small town can be transformed through linking the primary production of key sustainable resources (timber and “woody fibres”- flax and hemp), the development of new processing and fabrication infrastructure (a makerspace and a Woodhub) and the design and prototyping of ecological and affordable housing. 1000 houses are to be built in the area in the next 5 years, and the cost of materials alone will be around £90 million. At present, none of this will be spent on locally sourced materials. Raise the Roof aims to transform the local construction and property maintenance sectors, through the creation of local supply chains for sustainable materials and the development of infrastructure for the processing of those materials, the pre-fabrication of building components, and the training of local people to create skilled, living wage jobs.