Kate Symonds shares her family’s hands on journey in creating eco accommodation at Round the Woods.
We have been hosting guests in our two yurts, Oak Tree and Hazelnut, at Round the Woods since 2015. Whilst there’s something magical about sleeping in a comfy bed under canvas you’d have to be pretty hardy to want to spend your holiday in an uninsulated yurt in winter, even with a woodburner, and so as Autumn comes around each year we pack away the yurts and store them until Easter.
Our lifestyle managing a 20 acre nature reserve and glampsite means we enjoy observing the changes of the seasons and appreciate each time of year for its own merit. We look forward to winter as a chance to slow down and get cosy and we’ve noticed how many beautiful sunny days there are, inviting us to enjoy a brisk walk and then read a book in front of the fire.
It always felt such a shame that none of our guests were appreciating the colder seasons and that our business was based solely around providing holidays in the summer months. Autumn and winter can be the perfect time for a much needed holiday, a chance to relax after a busy summer of being active outdoors and an opportunity to enjoy all that Norfolk has to offer during the quieter months. So we set out on an adventure to create a year round cabin that would be warm and cosy in the winter and equally inviting in the warmer months.
We knew our new structure would need to be circular and being called Round the Woods it was pretty essential. We found ourselves drawn to round open-plan shapes as they offer our guests a unique space to spend time in, encouraging connection with each other as well as with the outside with no corners to hide away in or partition walls separating different spaces. We absolutely love our yurts, especially the natural light flooding in through the skylight and as we had always wanted to build with straw bales, we designed a natural roundhouse with strawbale walls and a reciprocal roof, providing a 2m wide skylight.
The design and planning process took almost a year to complete and involved collaborating with an architect and a structural engineer to sign things off.
Having opted for timber in its natural round form, with a complex roof and joints as well as needing to meet Building Regulations, we decided it would be best to work with professional framers. The team at Built by Artizans began work onsite in September 2018 constructing the roundwood frame and sedum roof. In October they handed the build over to my family to hand build the rest with the help of volunteers along the way, all while hosting guests in our yurts and home educating our two boys. We completed the build in December 2020.
With our sights set on a natural build, and Round the Woods being an eco-glampsite, we wanted our materials to be as low impact as possible and went to great lengths to source everything responsibly.
We sourced as many of the materials as possible locally, with the strawbales coming from a farm just a few miles away and the clay dug from the ground down the road. Douglas Fir for the non-structural parts including the windows and doors was sourced a few hundred metres away from our local golf course; a massive achievement after repeatedly being told Sweden was the only option. Persistence pays off!
The kitchen counters and window seat are the most local, having been planked from the oak tree which fell part way through the build and lay right alongside the roundhouse, luckily just stroking the outer walls when it fell. Even the sink is beautifully hand carved by my dad from an old oak tree from our woods. The roundwood frame is made from larch and sweet chestnut, both of which were sourced local to the builders in Sussex for them to prep before delivery to site, which was ideal as they’re not species that are easily sourced in Norfolk.
The glass for the windows is reclaimed from a cafe in the next village, the roof and floor insulation is sheep’s wool and we opted for formaldehyde-free OSB and treated the wood throughout with oil.
Putting things together
Our stage of the build involved the nerve wracking job of notching oak beams into the roundwood posts to support the floor as well as fitting the floor joists and the sub floor. We then moved onto the walls, reshaping each strawbale to take on the curve and slotting them in place like giant bricks. My partner Seb handmade the windows and doors, including a round window in the ensuite toilet. With the strawbales exposed to the elements for over a year as we constructed the walls we hung tarpaulins from the roof, battling with the weather every time the wind blew.
We were excited to apply the lime putty render and recruited an amazing team of volunteers from near and far who came together at various points over three weekends in September and October 2019 to complete each of the three coats of lime. The following February and March were reserved for internal clay plastering and in the meantime I spent hundreds of hours sieving clay through mesh to remove all the stones. The clay was mixed with various quantities of sand and water and was ‘smushed’ onto the strawbales, again with a group of eager and hardworking volunteers. It was so great to be supported by a community of people interested in natural building; it was an idyllic sight with children running through the meadow and climbing trees while the adults covered the walls.
The final stages of the build involved laying a unique mosaic log disk floor and handcrafting furniture and the kitchen from beautiful bark edged wood left over from the build. We completed it just in time for the winter of 2020/21 but lockdown meant we couldn’t open until April 2021. In the meantime we enjoyed a few holidays to try the accommodation out – the perks of the job!
A learning experience
This project really was a family affair and was an inspiring home education experience for our two young sons to be part of. They got involved at every stage of the build and have developed strong problem solving and creative skills. Natural building methods are typically really accessible and easy to learn for novice builders, including children.
Throughout the build we also hosted Workaway volunteers at various stages who came and lived in our home and enjoyed meals with us whilst we worked on the construction together. We absolutely loved having these people become part of our family and would highly recommend anyone taking on a unique build to reach out to see if anyone is interested in learning the skills you are practising; it’s a great opportunity for cultural and labour exchange. In March 2020 we hosted a couple looking to try out Workaway for a couple of weeks and they ended up living with us for three months due to the first lockdown and all their pet sitting jobs being cancelled. This enabled us to really crack on with the roundhouse build while making great friends who’ve been back to visit several times.
What we have created is a beautiful, welcoming space made with all natural materials, and with a very low impact on the environment. It is off-grid with solar electricity, a woodburner for heating and a compost toilet (shower facilities are provided in a nearby shipping container converted into a shower building). The space is super cosy and snug in the winter, heating up nicely, with stored heat in the walls given off slowly, while in the warmer months it provides a cool and welcome retreat from the heat.
Willow Roundhouse can sleep up to seven with a king size bed and sofas and chairs that convert into comfortable additional beds, meaning it’s a great space for couples but can easily adapt to accommodate larger bookings. The space has been cleverly zoned with lighting creating a kitchen area, dining space, lounging area by the woodburner and a bed.
It’s been an incredibly rewarding process to build with our own hands, to learn building techniques and to work with natural materials. I would encourage anyone interested in sustainability to find a way to bring natural, locally sourced and sustainable materials into any projects at your business. There is a growing interest in people wanting to experience staying in eco accommodation and opting for low impact holidays, especially those surrounded by nature.
The occupancy in our roundhouse cabin in 2021 was over 60% with an average nightly rate of £175.