How I met Prince Charles and learned about traditional building
Me (left in the ditch) with my friend Carolyn describing our awesome drystone wall-building skills to HRH Prince Charles
Last Sunday, the London Times published this article about Prince Charles Foundation for the Built Environment (PFBE) and its focus on promoting sustainable housing. Reading it took me back to last summer, when I had the opportunity to participate in the PFBE Foundation’s Summer School.
It sounded like a glamourous opportunity to sit in esteemed lecture halls and take architectural walking tours. Little did I know that it would involve a lot of time getting my hands dirty – doing things like building dry stone walls, thatching a roof, plastering a ceiling….and getting up close and personal with HRH Prince of Wales.
At the time, I was completing a masters degree in the Urban Studies Program at Simon Fraser University. Six students from my graduate program were selected to participate in the PFBE Summer School - designed to help participants appreciate traditional building and repair techniques and examine how these can be applied today.
The students in the program were a combination of apprentices from building trades such as carpentry, stonemasonry, blacksmithing and roofing; and students from an academic background in architecture and urban studies. We came together, starting in London, England, where we were introduced to architecture, life drawing, geometry and structure exercises. We spent the remainder of our time in Wales, where we worked at Ty Mawr – an ancient manor that is home to a family who manufacture traditional and environmentally friendly mortars, plasters and paints. At the manor, we worked with expert craft teams to learn craft and conservation skills in the fields of timber, thatching, plastering and drystone wall building (yes, even got to thatch a roof…there is small group of tradespeople that still do this!).
PFBE students using hemp plaster on the ceiling of a room in Ty Mawr
During the week in Ty Mawr, the Prince stopped by for a visit. At the time, I was in a ditch building a dry stone wall and wearing hideous oversized steel-toed boots, a hard hat and neon safety vest (see photo). I barely recall what we talked about, except that he asked if I would be building drystone walls in Canada, to which I replied, “not likely!” Then I told him I worked for the Canadian government and someone cracked a joke about how the government already does a lot of “stonewalling.”
SFU students with HRH (I am the one who snuck in behind HRH of the right)
The program ended with a weeklong design charrette where students were teamed up to create a structure for the National Botanical Garden of Wales. The winning design (a bandstand) is being completed by the building crafts apprentices from the PFBE program. You can learn more about the design charette process at this blog. And here is a photo of the bandstand, which is almost complete!
Looking back, the trip was a life-changing experience that gave me a better appreciation of the built form and how sustainable buildings that are made with organic, raw, reusable materials can be more desirable and livable than the streamlined concrete masses we see all over Vancouver. Prince Charles’ ideas on this subject are certainly not universal and have often stirred up controversy, but he is on to something important.
He has said that as we try to build our communities to improve the lives of inhabitants, then equal emphasis should be placed on the design of homes within these communities and their use of natural resources. You can read more about the “Natural House” that PFBE is exhibiting at this year’s London Ideal Home Show here.
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