Building Man is a cooperative project aiming to build communities and self-organised ecovillages on community owned lands. It is a week long workshop preceding a four day festival, Off-Grid Festival, based in Thoulstone Park, near Westbury. Building Man is 100% participatory and a not for profit organisation. Around 50 people attended Building Man 2014 and up to 500 people joined the Off-Grid Festival. The aim for Building Man 2014 was to build a semi-permanent, working kitchen and cafe space.
My first impression after hearing about this festival was a chance for me to improve my practical knowledge and collaborative skills. Having previously attended the Roots Architecture Workshop (RAW) at the World of Music and Dance festival (WOMAD) in 2011 and 2012, I imagined Building Man would be a similar experience. RAW consisted of around 80 architecture students, artists, builders, craftsmen and anyone else with an interest in building. We worked from 10am - 6pm every day for four days, and ate all our meals together. It was a very focused group, albeit slow at times, however the aim was to learn new skills, meet new people and build four stages to be performed on by artists, all powered by bicycles.
After settling into Building Man, and waking up fresh Saturday morning ready to design and build, I was somewhat disappointed that the majority of the 50 people seemed more keen on getting to know each other the previous evening around a campfire with an abundance of extremely reasonably priced ale, resulting in a day of relaxing… or two … or three. Tuesday morning, finally there was some real building action, people had teamed together to add their own character to the building. For me this was where teamwork, collaboration and participation became evident, over simply being sociable. What I neglected to realise however, was that this group of people intended to build a cooperative, ergo relationships outside of the workshop were especially important.
With only Wednesday left to finish the working kitchen, and Thursday as the opening day of Off-Grid festival, the pressure was on. Needless to say we did not finish. By Thursday morning we had a roofless structure, a half built floor, a half built facade, a designed cob oven and rocket stove and a complete set of recycled and reclaimed tables and benches. For some this was an achievement in itself, however for others it was a necessity to continue throughout the festival until completion. By Sunday the floor, facade, stove and ovens were complete, however the roof, possibly the most important element, had timber trusses in place, but lacked any form of sheltering.
This hands-on experience taught people sustainable construction techniques; how to design and build a kitchen/cafe from primarily recycled and reclaimed materials, structurally and aesthetically. Essentially to make something from nothing. However, for me, the social benefits from this experience appeared greater than the physical.
In reflection of this journey, with an interest specifically into architectural education, perhaps this workshop is not the most favourable way for architecture students to learn new practical skills or craftsmanship. However it is the type of environment which allows students to test and implement their ideas, with an environmental agenda, as well as inviting people to share a cooperative experience. As one architecture student pointed out, however the friendly and positive group dynamics experienced at Building Man are not likely to reflect the reality of most building sites, questioning the relevance of this experience, unless it is lifestyle or career choice.