The Sheltermaker's Manual 1 & 2

Michael Hutchinson | Friday, 22nd November 2013
Two in-depth manuals exploring how to build your own home using Peter Cowman's 'Sheltermaking' design system - from the inside out.
Author: Peter Cowman
Publisher: Python Press
Publication year: 2013
RRP: £35.00

As I write this, news reports talk of a projected 4-5% rise in house prices, taking the average house price to £162,000 and making buying that first home even more difficult, assuming anyone can get a mortgage that is. 

But perhaps there is an alternative. Peter Cowman, an Irish architect now living and working in Australia has, over the past few decades developed an approach to designing homes he calls ‘Sheltermaking’. At the heart of his approach lies something he calls the ‘Sheltermaking Gene’. While science may question the existence of this as a fact, we’ve all experienced the urge to do this, when as children we made shelters and dens in woods.

Cowman’s approach brings this ‘gene’ into play in the way that he unites the interior and exterior worlds; not just of the buildings we wish to inhabit, but also of ourselves.

The (new updated) Sheltermaker Manuals have grown organically from Cowman’s earlier work, and put much of what was the Living Architecture course into a very handy two-volume set. These books contain a very high level of detail which is supplemented by a huge number of diagrams and illustrations to support the points being made.

After an introduction the two volumes set out Cowman's Design Programme. This occupies most of the 600 plus pages and takes you on something of a journey; and like all good travel, the journey itself is equally as valuable as the destination. As Cowman himself strongly recommends, it isn’t one to be rushed. (I did this, taking several months, but still feel I could go over it again more slowly.)

The programme starts by asking you to think about the spaces you'd like - notably not rooms at this stage. It then continues through considering appearances, analysing potential uses, and progresses via drawing to create a scale model, thus creating definable spaces. Volume one goes on, with more model-making (furniture and equipment), surveying, to take the environment into account, and finally onto heating and ventilation systems. You will even be able to calculate how much heat would be lost through the building fabric: for someone as mathematically-challenged as myself, being able to talk u-values felt like quite an achievement. 

The second volume commences with timber and encourages you to research different kinds as well as other potential building materials. Cowman’s philosophy right from the start is that you should become properly acquainted with these. Collecting samples to get the ‘feel’ of these materials takes them out of the design abstract and into the realm of the real. The volume then continues through construction, taking planning and building regulation into account and right up to developing detailed costing, submission of plans and the eventual build itself, should that be your ultimate destination.

So much of this process that Cowman has developed resonates with the practice of permaculture: the section on analysing flows through the design in order to get the most efficient layout, has a lot in common with zones and sectors.

What you won’t find in these manuals are specific details on, say, straw bale building, or rammed earth. This is a book about the process involved in designing a truly human-centred and, should you want it, sustainable building. And that emphasis on the process is crucial as it allows flexibility and change when faced with compromises, which often come.

If you have the desire to design and build your own house then investing in these two volumes will repay itself many times over. By themselves The Sheltermaker Manuals may not solve the housing crisis, but they do bring the promise of affordable, sustainable building that much closer to us all.

Further resources

For more on Peter Cowman and his courses visit 

Invisible Architecture

How building your own home can awaken survival instincts

How to get planning permission on non-development land

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