Considering Materials Blog: Preparing the Ground

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Once I’d started to wonder about building materials, I started to see them everywhere. Or rather, I started to see the towns, buildings and landscapes around me as accumulations and agglomerations of materials! I’m a social anthropologist researching the social life of eco-building, and I’m working with a Fife-based organisation called The Ecology Centre who are building themselves a new premises on the banks of Kinghorn Loch, near Kirkcaldy. The Ecology Centre have kindly allowed me to follow the process by which their centre and its newly-landscaped grounds are coming into being, and it’s through observing this process that I’ve been able to think about building materials within a context of everyday use in Scotland. In this series of blog posts I hope to share some of my observations and experiences as the building proceeds, because from an interest in building materials has grown a much broader interest in how a building or construction project is concerted into being by many hands.

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Figure 2. Kinghorn on the River Forth, Fife

In the village of Kinghorn itself, stone, slate and red-orange pantile mix with concrete blocks, timber and cement. On a clear and sunny day, walking up through the village to the loch (which lies just over the crest of the hill that the village climbs from the River Forth’s edge) you will frequently hear the rasp and roar of power tools or the clatter and chatter of ladders and voices as people work on their homes or on the homes of their clients. Between the houses (from fishermen’s stone cottages to seventies pebbledash bungalows) narrow lanes wind, wooden fences and privet hedges lean and shelter, and gardens house all manner of sheds and outbuildings – some of which are architectural feats in and of themselves!

Up at the loch, the industry and local engagement continues, as The Ecology Centre are developing a strip of land, 5 acres in all, that arches around one side of the water and then leads, at the north end, back towards the village to the east. Together with an array of contractors, the staff and many local volunteers of The Ecology Centre are building not just a new centre, but also new paths and gardens, workshop and education spaces, picnic areas and pond. They have already built a composting toilet that garners them much attention for its relative beauty and it foreignness to a public largely familiar only with flushing lavatories. It is fitting perhaps that the Centre’s first construction – pantile-roofed and wooden-clad – is already cultivating a rich compost for them to use on the grounds at a later stage.

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Figure 3. The ‘Loo with a View’, the Centre’s Composting Toilet

The process of rolling-out The Ecology Centre’s plan for their whole site has seen some carving of new contours into the land, and there has been much movement of earth. The groundworks have been, and continue to be, a challenge to crude conceptions of construction as building up: so much of building and developing – and even gardening – consists of preparing the ground, digging down and removing previous constructions or growths. And so, as mundane as it might seem to be, those accumulations and agglomerations of materials I mentioned at the start of this post, are perhaps (in the first phase of building here at least) those of earth and soil cut by diggers’ teeth. With their yawning mouths, the machines help the builders to move the ground, mounding or leveling and compacting the earth in eager preparation for the other materials that will follow – such as concrete and steel – and the variety of forms that will grow and be built from them on the banks of Kinghorn loch.

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Figure 4 Earth, Hardcore and the Forms for Groundbeams

Dr Rachel Harkness is a Research Fellow in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. Her research is about the relationships, skills and materials involved in eco-building in Scotland, and she is currently working with The Ecology Centre, Kinghorn, Fife and with the Craigmillar Eco-Housing Cooperative, Edinburgh, following their architectural projects and ambitions. She has used Material Considerations: A Library of Sustainable Building Materials in her research.

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