Woodland design lab

August 18-21 2011

See photos here and read Jenny’s blog about how it all fell into place. Check out Tafline Laylin’s lovely article for Inhabitat design magazine and watch Piddle Paddle Plonk in action on You Tube!


On a bright and breezy welsh august weekend, twenty design enthusiasts met to create something ‘in the woods, out of the woods’. Armed with tools, a pile of different local timbers and pockets full of energy, the teams created three beautiful creations through collaborative design processes.

The participants were brought together to take part in the Woodland Design Lab, dreamt up and led by the architectural designers Jenny Hall and Tabitha Pope, who have a shared interest in making spaces for people with natural and reclaimed materials. An award winning eco-campsite, Graig Wen, provided the setting, a strip of land climbing steeply up from the Mawddach estuary, and patched with ancient oak woods, open meadows and ferny hillocks, opening up into dramatic vistas of the Snowdonia National Park.

Participants were immersed in the woods from the start, learning about woodland management, identifying different species of trees, coppicing willow and hazel with billhooks and axes, and trying their hands at traditional wood splitting and cleaving.

Care was taken to ensure the infrastructure of the event was as low impact as possible. All the catering equipment was provided by our friends “This is Rubbish” who use feasting as a campaign tool to highlight the scale of food waste in the UK. Participants ate local organic meals lovingly prepared by our in house chef, washed in spring water and used the treebog compost toilet to complete the cycle! Power tools were recharged thanks to a photovoltaic panel when the sun shined and most of the timber used for the pieces came from the valley.

During an explore of the site, participants were asked to reflect on the aspects of the landscape that touched them most; the sights, sounds, smells and feel of a particular place, and what could be built, if anything at all, to heighten their experience.

The ideas were brought together into a ‘soup’ of spatial ideas, using words, pictures and storytelling to express the concepts. This process tried to separate the ideas from the ego, allowing the designers to ‘go fishing’ in the soup to form groups around shared intentions. Three teams emerged which pushed forward clear goals to create a water-powered musical instrument, a place to star gaze collectively, and a structure inspired by the idea that all life comes from death.

The ‘piddle paddle plonk’ team had intense debates as to whether to keep their structure metal free, but eventually the steel axle won, allowing the hand carved wooden spoons to tap perfectly onto the xylophone, charting the speed of the stream with the pace of the tune.

The star gazing team started off by finding the perfect angle at which to observe the sky, by holding hands in a circle and leaning out. The resulting standing poles ‘look like a tipi has landed upside down on the hill’ (according to a young camper), which once clad formed an enclosed place for different camping families to meet. The limitations of the timber were strongly felt, when the cladding battens kept snapping when trying to bend around the steeply curved shape. ‘If only we had ash instead of this knotty larch!’.

The swirling lines of the sky bowl give a sense of movement to this sculptural piece which emerges from a clearing that is the only place on the campsite where the sky truly opens out.

The Fungidome was the most ambitious conceptually of the three pieces. The team agreed to disagree – they wanted to create a design process where each person could add to the structure without consent from any other member of the team, thus getting around the usual time consuming discussions that group design entails. After rapid model making round the dinner table using marshmellows and spaghetti, the rules were agreed and the idea rapidly took shape the next day growing organically with no fixed form.

Each strut connected to a nodal log, and the structure thus expanded like a fungal growth, out of a dead tree stump, connecting up into a living oak. The structure could even have a life after the course, with a pile of hazel poles and logs predrilled to allow campers to add to the composition.

A lasting impression is the surprise at how much can be achieved in little more than a day of building. It is a testament to the enthusiasm and shared aims of the group, which consisted of a wide range of experiences and backgrounds: builders, carpenters, structural engineers, artists, architects, a product designer and a musician!

Jenny, of Craftedspace, and Tabitha, of Recycled Venues, are delighted with the outcomes of the course, and hope to run a similar course next year, if not before!

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