Women Natural Builders

Jane Campbell
Wednesday, 20th February 2019

Jane Campbell speaks with a range of women, including Barbara Jones from Straw Works, about becoming a natural builder in a male dominated industry.

Women aren’t simply becoming good sustainable builders, these days they are setting up their own companies, leading the way with revolutionary ways to provide affordable green homes to large section of the population and instigating natural building industry standards.

We ask them what advice they might have for women aiming to build their own house or those who have just completed a building project and want to use their new found skills to become professional builders.

After writing the book How to Build with Straw, Barbara Jones is now recognised as the Europewide expert. Involved personally in the construction of more than 300 straw bale builds ranging from compost loos to the UK’s largest ever straw bale building through her company ‘Straw Works’, she continues to be unassailable as the pre-eminent bale building design company.

It was a ‘Women in Manual Skills’ three-month carpentry course that grabbed Barbara’s attention initially. “I started off thinking, I just want to learn how to ‘put up shelves’ and things like that and, at the end of it I thought I can do this as a job.”

For her the ‘women-only’ aspect of the course was crucial. “I think it’s essential because we are not starting off on an even playing field. Men feel that they can just do it whereas women feel that they can’t unless they have learned how to do it.”

Barbara Jones

Together with co-director Eileen, Barbara has now set up the School of Natural Building School. ‘SnaB’, as it is known, offers students practical based courses where they can learn all aspects of natural building as well as gain understanding of exactly how the materials work to design better buildings.

Barbara has ambitious plans to design prefabricated straw panels for use in major house building development, and has recently appeared on BBC Two’s Dragon’s Den, receiving support not simply for her own renewable product for affordable homes but for permaculture ideas in general. 

Another inspiring trailblazer is self-builder turned company director, Dee McCullough. Her company ‘Energywise-Wales’ designs, supplies and installs renewable energy systems. Dee built up the business from scratch; “I bought a wooden house and I didn’t have the money to pay other people to come and work for me.”

Dee took a carpentry course in which she was the only woman. One task led to another as she realised she needed to also take plumbing then gas fitting. Finally, inspired by watching other local women completing their self-builds: “I saw that women were doing it for themselves”. Dee set about completely rebuilding her own house.

Concerned about her footprint on the earth as far back as 20 years ago, Dee wanted to learn how to install solar thermal. Undeterred by the mocking laughter of her college tutor, Dee pursued the idea and soon found her ‘5 ft-1’ self’ hauling huge solar panels onto her roof. Proving that agility can be an advantage over brute strength.

Dee realised there was a gap in the green market that she was qualified to meet, namely that women homeowners and older people feel especially safe entrusting women builders with taking good care of their houses but also with the paperwork for their feed-in tariffs.

For those of you thinking that installing heating systems are not cutting edge ‘climate warrior’ work Dee declares: “Hardly any of my customers say ‘am I going to produce less carbon using this system?’ They’re influenced by saving money but given the latest reports about climate disasters we need to do something drastic and immediate about reducing our carbon and using renewable heating systems is one way of doing it.”

Dee has some advice for young women starting out in the business. “You have to grow a skin” she says “but now that I’m in charge of my own business and I can save people a lot of money, people treat me with respect.” A second key piece of advice after her many years of experience is; “make sure you sort out your exit strategy. If you go into a business partnership decide at the beginning who is responsible for what. Things can and do go wrong and you need to know where you stand legally if it does.”

Another route into becoming a professional green builder is to join a worker’s co-operative. One of these is the much-praised roundwood timber frame co-op, ‘Ty Pren,’ Welsh for wooden house. As well as using traditional building methods and hand tools to ensure a low carbon footprint, Ty Pren worker’s co-operative pride themselves the way they treat people as well as caring for the natural environment. 

“Getting the frame of a building solid is a big part of what we at Ty Pren are about. For a lot of self-builders, this expertise is essential for ensuring their homes meet building regulations,” says fluent welsh speaker- Emily, Ty Pren’s enthusiastic latest apprentice graduate.

“I kept seeing lovely wooden buildings everywhere I went that Ty Pren had built, so my friend Cathryn and I both applied for their apprenticeship scheme and eventually got accepted. Using wood ‘in the round’ retains its structural integrity and enables support for even large family homes.”

Emily admiring woodlands

As well as being excited about her forthcoming career opportunities, now that she has the skills to build extremely durable building frames, Emily is excited about the future of Ty Pren. “I want other young women to see me doing it and realise they too can become timber frame builders.”

You might think that sexism is an old story long set in the past but at 29, Emily reports, “a lot of the ‘good’ guys are living in a bubble where they don’t see the levels of sexism that still exist for women, sometimes it’s nothing much but it all adds up and gets tiring after a while…. It’s a relief to be working in a co-op that makes decisions that include everyone equally. It’s about a sustainable workplace, not just our carbon footprint but also how sustainably we treat each other. It’s nice to work for a company that has great ethics.”

The future of Ty Pren and other green building companies in Wales has recently been further secured following the latest Welsh Assembly announcement to incorporate ‘One Planet Development’ practises into their rural planning decisions. Hopefully the other regional governments will soon follow suit but until then, maybe Wales is the place best suited to a green builder of any sex.

So, if you hoping to see yourself as a sustainable builder in the future or are completing a self-build project, know that these skills are portable and increasingly in demand. Taking courses or even becoming a trainer yourself; there are great opportunities to making it a satisfying career as well as helping reduce impact on the world’s resources.

Who knows, maybe you will find yourself collecting a ‘Lifetime achievement award for women in Construction’ like Barbara Jones did in 2009.

Although there is, as yet, no national organisation for women in sustainable building, there is a dedicated women’s carpentry course: http://agroecology.co.uk/category/courses-and-workshops/

As well as women friendly training available from Yorkshire based http://schoolofnaturalbuilding.co.uk/ and http://coppicewoodcollege.co.uk

Or if you wish to campaign for more courses aimed at specifically at women contact @Julie Hirigoyen: Chief Executive of the UK Green Building Council.

Ty Pren is a workers cooperative based in west Wales specialising in round wood frames for low impact, environmentally sustainable buildings. http://www.typren.co.uk 07530832356

Useful links

Video: Natural Building: Living with the Land part 2

Video: Building a simple wood and cobwood roundhouse

Green building books on our online shop: https://shop.permaculture.co.uk/books/green-building.html