How building your own home can awaken survival instincts

Derry Nairn
Sunday, 12th May 2013

Leaving behind the materialistic and consumerist lives of today's society and embarking on the enlightening journey of self-build, reawakens our desire to survive, leading to a happier and more fulfilling life.

"Anyone here from the planning office?"

A malevolent grumble dashes around the room - planners are not the most popular breed in County Wicklow – before we are shown a house that successfully, and, I might add, legally, circumvented the pitfalls of local building regulation.

This event, marketed as "Eco-building on a Shoestring", has attracted approximately thirty people to a requisitioned primary school classroom near Dunlavin in Co. Wicklow. If those attending are anything like myself, this is exactly what they came to hear. Not only is Ireland now stocked with empty and half-finished houses – the so-called ghost estates - it is also, perversely, a very expensive place to pay rent. We are nothing if not rich in people struggling to find affordable accommodation. And so the dream of the self-builder remains a powerful one.

But building your own house in Ireland is fraught with difficulty. Credit is hard to come by. Official approval for alternative building methods is very rare. Irish planning is infamous for both the catholicism of its guiding principles and the corruption of its executioners. Moreover, planning regulations in Wicklow are often said to be among the worst of all local authorities.

But our host swiftly makes us aware that this is no hastily assembled lesson in how to dodge Irish planning law. And this is no ordinary rabble rouser, either. Peter Cowman is something of a rebel spirit. By his own admission, he's a lapsed architect, whose personal journey from a Ballsbridge garden shed to a Leitrim field has taken in Australian mud houses and Eastern philosophy along the way.

This journey is reflected in the topics touched upon: radical politics; the holographic universe; the nature of money; sub-prime mortgages; the Nubian Vault: we meet all sorts of wild, funny, provocative, and unexpected subjects throughout a 90 minute talk and slideshow.

However Cowman's approach to his discipline can be boiled down to one simple phrase: "We are not so different from the house." The structures that Cowman helps build are an extension of the humans who he helps to build them. As he says, each of us have boundaries, just like houses. But beyond the physical self, a home should also reflect the intuitions and dreams of its occupants: Cowman calls this invisible architecture. The design process, it is stressed, begins the moment we imagine our ideal; in other words, when we dream. Homes, he says, quoting Jung, are an extension of oneself and one's desires. But in order to dream effectively, we must first get in touch with our own lives.

And this is where the politics begins...

Cowman is unapologetically critical in his appraisal of contemporary architecture. Most Irish people, he says, are enslaved by the dominant economic philosophy of our time – the market economy. One of its crucibles is the idea that people should not be encouraged to build their own houses. Rather, it dictates that each individual should essentially auction their time, in the form of labour, to pay for space, as in rent, or a mortgage. Mortgaging, as Cowman notes, literally means "the wages of death." By engaging in the mortgage system we tacitly agree to submit ourselves to work for the bulk of our time on earth, simply in order to occupy space.

Cowman links his life directly to his thought and method. This son of a carpenter lived a simple childhood in a carless 1950s suburban household. His father built an improvised structure in the back garden which would become a playspace, a study space and, later, an inspiration for Cowman's "Econospace" method. After visits to America, he rejected conventional architecture in favour of a transient lifestyle. Later, returning to his discipline in the west of Ireland, Cowman was shocked to discover his extensive training had left him unprepared to actually build a home. Irish architects of the 1970s didn't concern themselves with such things. Architecture was about "important buildings for important people and events."

Ireland, like Cowman, had grown up. The Lemass era had brought with it the first breath of modernisation. The country's first planning laws, introduced in 1963, became "the beginning of the narrowing of the way". Vernacular architectural knowledge - "the basis of local culture as we know it" - was discouraged in favour of modernism; concrete cladding, central planning, and commuter towns. In time, this vernacular was lost.

Cowman proposes a thought experiment: imagine, if you can, that all knowledge of growing plants had disappeared. How catastrophic does that seem? No more farms. No garden beds. No lawns. Not even a window box. He asserts that this loss of traditional building knowledge – he calls it "sheltermaking" - is equally disastrous:

"We've forgotten how to shelter ourselves. Original eco-building was using local stuff, local designs. It was an oral tradition. You learned by example. You helped your family. You helped your neighbour."

The man has a point. The Lemass era is dead and gone. But its forebear, the Celtic Tiger, has left discussion of Irish architecture vacant. Talk of property is now strictly limited to material factors: how much is it worth? How much negative equity does it have? Certain important questions are rare: what does building actually signify? What is a home? Does it make you happy? Does it nurture your creativity? Does it make you feel empowered?

The substance of Cowman's worldview would certainly be one of despair, if only his style was not so energetic, witty and infused with hope. His approach is not that of an architect, or indeed a builder, but a teacher (perhaps reflecting Cowman's involvement in Steiner education). His belief is that we all carry with us a "sheltermaking gene" – our innate knowledge of how to make and design shelter. The womb is the first architecture we experience and, as Cowman notes, children express this awareness of building very naturally: by playing house. Psychologists explain such games as the first awareness of self.

So how do we move from our current situation, ideally to a world which can appreciate both traditional ways of building and modern individuality? Cowman's answer is simple: To ease ourselves from this consumerist, materialist life into something else, we need to "play house" ourselves. Embarking on planning a home taps into our innate desire for survival. Cowman says that this desire re-awakens in us the minute we decide to self build. Rather than to egotistically direct or design, he seems to want to awaken and nurture each individual sheltermaking gene in his students.

And what's more, the obstructions on the path to such a world are, "man-made, legislative and, most importantly, changeable." There's never been a time when change has been more needed in Ireland. And so, for Cowman, his mission – that of releasing people from the trap of a mortgaged life - becomes expressly political. The mortgage free, exempted development, sub planning method of self building he advocates is not only radical in the world of architecture, it's a radical political action in of itself; a reclamation of one's own time in the face of hegemonic market capitalism.

Sitting here, in a rural classroom in County Wicklow, I can sense a familar excitement roused in the group: a bird's eye view of how the big world actually works; how us little people can begin to get a grip; the hope that maybe, just maybe, things could change. As one fellow attendee remarked to me at the end, "that really got my wheels turning". 

For more about Peter Cowman and his courses visit 

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More resources

Watch: Building a low impact roundhouse

Read Tony Wrench's book: Building a Low Impact Roundhouse (also available as an eBook)

Read: How to Build a Beautiful, Energy Efficient Round Home in the Woods

Read: How to Get Planning Permission on Non-Development Land

Read: 101 Reasons to build and live in a tipi

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