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Page last updated at 11:26 GMT, Tuesday, 25 August 2009 12:26 UK

Green building looks back 500 years

By Simon Gompertz
Correspondent, BBC Working Lunch

How hair plays its part in building a green home

Despite wind turbines and solar panels popping up on offices and homes around the UK, the construction industry is still in a bind over climate change.

It stands accused of being a big contributor to global warming.

Materials are fired in super-hot ovens, transported long distances to the building site, then assembled using heavy machinery.

Greenhouse gas emissions are high and the whole process is expensive.

So, from her timber-framed home in the Suffolk countryside, Paula Sunshine wants to shed light on a sustainable future for builders.

And it is all to do with wattle and daub.

"There's a lot of talk about green building these days and I feel passionately that a lot of people don't realise how green old buildings are," she tells me.

'Natural materials'

Paula Sunshine
Paula Sunshine says more people should build using natural materials

Paula has turned herself into an expert on the ancient methods used to build homes from local wood, mud and stone. And she showed me how she was repairing the outer layer of her 500-year-old wall.

"Old buildings are built with all sorts of natural materials local to the area and very often by hand rather than by machine," she adds.

The house has an oak frame which stands on a footing made from local flints, a sort of foundation.

Wattle and daub panels are inserted between the struts. The wattles are hazel sticks. The daub is clay and straw.

Then there is a daub render for the outside, supported on a lattice of thin oak laths.

Also, to protect against the weather, it's all covered with plaster made of lime and hair.

Yes, human hair! Apparently, there is plenty available for free from hairdressers.

Labour intensive

Hazel sticks from local woods
Clay dug up locally
Imported lime
Hair from the local hairdresser
Flint from meadow nearby

"In the past people used animal hair," Paula explains, "But today we have an abundance of human hair. Normally it's thrown away so it's a really good product to use."

So the materials are mostly local, sustainable, recyclable or biodegradable. And they are largely free or cost pence.

But there is a drawback to these ancient techniques, which becomes apparent as I throw the daub against the side of Paula's house, then smooth it over and make little stick holes in the surface - a process she calls pargetting.

If you had to pay someone else to do this it would cost a pretty penny. There's a lot of work required.

Originally dozens of villagers would have shared the burden by banding together to build one house.

So how could you repeat these techniques economically and on a larger scale?

'Cheapest building'

Paula Sunshine's extension
House extension Paula built using wattle and daub

Paula has built a new extension on her home, demonstrating that it is possible to build in wattle and daub from scratch.

The wooden frame was assembled in a day, but the panels needed months of painstaking work.

"Wattle and daub is probably the cheapest form of building today," argues Paula, "It's just the actual making of the product that costs a lot. It takes an awful lot of manpower to make it."

It is hardly likely that the rest of us will start working with oak, mud and stone in the old way. However, Paula wants us to learn from 16th Century builders who were green by necessity, because of the lack of transport, fuel and money.

Paula has written books about these ancient techniques and she teaches builders and homeowners how to use them.

"I believe people should be thinking more about building with natural materials that are locally sourced," she says.

She says keep transport costs to a minimum and find sustainable, natural and cheap materials which can either be used again, or returned to the earth.

Working Lunch is back on BBC Two, Tuesday 1 September at 12.30.

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