Surviving the Wettest Winter - Reflection of a Low Impact Roundhouse Dweller

Tony Wrench
Thursday, 13th March 2014

Tony Wrench and his partner, Faith, survived the wettest winter in Wales since 1910. How did their low impact roundhouse and off grid technology stand up, and what would Tony change in terms of design and build to become more climate resilient in uncertain times?

Now the rains have stopped lashing down interminably, the gales have eased, and we can potter around our homes and homesteads again in the Spring sunshine, I would like to take a quick backwards peep for any lessons learned, before last winter becomes a distant memory. Feedback is increasingly important to me and, I think, to all of us. As the status quo looks increasingly tatty, as climate change kicks in with the promise of much worse to come with no end in sight, and as our politicians and business leaders continue to procrastinate and spout bland half truths, it becomes more necessary to me to try to say what I feel even though such openness used to be socially unacceptable. Anyway, to cut out the chit-chat, here are some ways in which our roundhouse low impact setup worked this winter and some ways it did not. If you are in a similar situation to us, or would like to be, I hope the following comments are of help to you.

So, in no particular order:

Thanks to the wind for keeping our lights on. As the skies darkened and our solar panel source became a tiny trickle, so the wind picked up. The big wind turbine up in its exposed position at Brithdir Mawr was blown clean off its mast and crashed to the ground in a wreck. Our simple 200 watt one, however, with a modest 4 metre mast, withstood all the gales and fed big gulps of energy in to our hungry battery when it needed it the most. So our lights did not go out once! Yes, this is a record.

The wind also blew down some enormous oak branches which will keep us in firewood for a whole year in three years’ time, if we cut it up now, if you see what I mean.

Thanks to our big 220 amp hour leisure battery. It cost a painful £150 a couple of years ago but it has soldiered on through all this. I used to have five small batteries linked in parallel, but when one or two start to fail it is such a game sorting out which ones to replace, or what. One big one has been great. I am still learning a lot about 12 volt systems and what little gadgets you can get to avoid inverting 12 volts to 230 volts to charge some small thing like a phone or a laptop, which need 5v and 18 volts respectively. I now have a neat little thingy and cable which clips on the battery terminals and ends in a car cigarette lighter socket. This socket sprouts four other sockets, into which I can push adapters to run the internet router (I had to get that from the USA) and to charge all phones, ipad and laptops without needing to waste electricity going up to 230v and back down again. All our lights are LED warm white wide angle bulbs, so we can have three lights on for the same 10 watts that one bulb used to use. I don’t know what our energy consumption is relative to the average household, but it must be less than 5%. We keep hearing how energy bills will continue to rise, so it is nice not to have any.

I am glad we built on a slope, because the quantity of rain was such that if we had been on the flat we would have been flooded. I feel great sympathy for all those who live on flood plains, but, after this winter, and reading scientific predictions of how worse it may get, my advice to you is move. It is useless asking the authorities to put this right for you. The climate is beyond their control. If you are still looking for where to live, go over 150 metres above sea level.

BUT this house only just coped with being built into a bank. The drainage pipe in the turf on the roof was useful, as the pipe and earthworks at ground level also helped to take water away and down to the stream and swollen river. Where I had overlooked any part of the outside walls’ drainage, however, the water made sure to come in. Springs opened up on our front path. Our track became a running permanent stream. We had to improvise diversions of this stream to prevent complete inundation, but this is very easy to do on a slope. Closer to home, however, was more tricky. I had failed to dig a full drainage ditch all the way round the house, and over the last eight feet or so at the West, where the back fill comes down to the open air, the water came easily under the bottom of the wall and onto the wood floor. Not seriously, but enough for us to realise that if water can possibly get in, it will.

I am glad that Faith and I spent so many days last year, in that long cold dry spell, sawing short term coppiced willow, hazel and alder and laying it up to dry on pallets covered by tarps. Most of the wood was about wrist thickness, so very easy to cut when green, but the warm summer dried these piles very well. It is heating our water now, for a bath tonight. It seemed that we were interminably cutting wood, but after a while the view and your thoughts take over, so it was not drudgery. We ended up with four piles of maybe a cubic metre each, all on pallets and covered, and this wood was fully seasoned by this winter, when we needed the fire on all the time to dry clothes being wetted continually by any outdoor activity.

Talking of which…would I site a compost toilet nearer the house than the fifty metres we have at present? Well, yes. Ten would be nice, along a covered walkway or at least not through a swamp.

I am grateful to have flexibility of work. I have a wood workshop in the cowshed of a neighbouring farm, and even when the rain is falling in sheets I can struggle there through the woods, kick open the door, light a fire and do a bit of craft work. For me this was important as a reminder to being more than a wet bear in its cave. 

Lastly, I am grateful for something to do this winter. I found the continual buffeting and soaking very wearing, and many others did too. So I started to write a new book. Searching for pictures to illustrate points in the book kept me in touch with past times of community and fun in the open air. Each week we go to a community choir, despite awful weather conditions, if we possibly can, and singing with others is a great way to renew your spirit even when the flesh is weak.

Further Resources

Watch this film about how Tony built his roundhouse

Building a Low Impact Roundhouse by Tony Wrench

Making DIY 12 Volt Solar Panels fro your Off Grid Home

Building your own Renewable Energy Systems from Recycled Materials

Read: DIY12 Volt Solar

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