L O C A L M A T E R I A L S
Buildings play significant role in how a place ‘feels’ – it is in the fabric of buildings that we can read the stories of a town’s past.
Within our buildings we find a wealth of information about a particular place at a moment in time. The different materials, techniques, tools and forms reflect the specific cultural, social, economic and technological factors that create an enduring idea of a place’s history and our relationship to it. Historically, stone buildings are the most prevalent building type in Dorset and the South West. The availability of a variety of local stones lend the towns and villages – Blue Lias, Ham, Purbeck and Portland to name a few – each create a strong sense local distinctiveness across the different regions of Wiltshire, Somerset, Dorset and Devon.
The buildings themselves were typically simple and durable. Thick loadbearing stone walls on below-ground stone foundations, with a lime or clay render applied to the interior and exterior walls, allowing them to breath. Openings for doors and windows were typically formed in timber, or more expensive stone. Roofs were formed from timber joists were typically clad in thatch or slate
But what of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries? What do the new buildings in Bridport say about us?
Modernism sought to make a clean break with the long history of building culture through adopting new industrialised methods and sourcing materials from a globalised supply chain. This approach to building dominates our culture and economy, creating a rootless and referential style of architecture, with confused and superficial details that bear no relation to either how buildings are made or the place where they are built. This is most evident in the quality of contemporary housing: across the UK, new homes are almost exclusively defined by a type of vernacular pastiche that homogenises areas with distinct local and regional physical geographies and cultures. What is more, this approach does not account for the environmental cost, in both local habitat depletion and global carbon emissions, of moving materials around the world.
While superficially similar, beneath the exterior render are a further layers of construction to ensure the building is better insulated, more air tight and more consistent in appearance and performance. Concrete block and brickwork with polyurethane or rockwool insulation are used to form the walls in combination with plastic membranes that prevent moisture penetrating the wall buildup. Openings are typically formed using concrete or steel lintels. The use of timber for windows and doors or stone as a roofing material are increasingly replaced by non-organic materials such as PVC.
This is the prevailing approach to most building in Dorset and around the UK, but does it mean there is no other way?
Reviving an old industry?
Today, locally available materials in the wider Bridport area include timber, fibres such as straw and wool, and minerals including aggregates, stone and clay. Materials from more distant sources include these three categories of building product, plus others such as cement, concrete, steel and glass. In deciding whether there is a role for local materials in construction, one of the key considerations will be whether their use increases sustainability from an embodied carbon and life cycle assessment perspective, particularly in comparison to other materials that can be shown to be less sustainable.
Timber, fibre and minerals sourced locally will have a lower environmental impact than products such as steel, concrete and imported timber, due to lower transport miles as well as lower levels of embodied carbon. Processing, as well as whether the materials are locally available, is also an important consideration as the energy required to turn the raw ingredients into viable building products. Today, there is a limited capacity locally to process timber into structural components and process fibres such as straw, wool and hemp into insulation materials. But perhaps this is an opportunity.
From Bridport’s rich industrial heritage comes the potential for reimagining the future. Once a centre of hemp and flax production, the production of rope and net shaped the fabric of the town and fuelled the prosperity that drove its growth. Today, several substantial sites of industrial production remain within close proximity to the town centre – supporting innovative, sustainable new industries to develop locally would create new, skilled jobs and local employment, bolster the local economy and reconnect with Bridport’s rich cultural and industry legacy as a place of production.