Wales’ Chairman gets Down to Earth

The wooden roof of the central hall at Down to Earth
The wooden roof of the central hall built by participants.

Sir Adrian Webb, Chair National Lottery Community Fund Wales, visited Down to Earth at one of their sites near Swansea.

The “Building Sustainable Communities” project received £945,000 in January 2015 through the “Our Bright Future” programme which aims to tackle three big challenges facing society today – a lack of social cohesion, a lack of opportunities for young people and vulnerability to climate change. Down to Earth supports young people to design and ultimately build sustainable structures in their own communities e.g. parks, community centre and sports ground.  They are provided with accredited training in sustainable construction on a “live” community based building site alongside green entrepreneur training programmes. The project is working with the most disadvantaged young people (16-24 years old) in south Wales to create inspiring, inclusive and sustainable buildings. Down to Earth also received £716,529 for a three year project in August 2013 through our People and Places programme.

We caught up with Sir Adrian to find out how the visit went, he told us:
“The intermittently driving rain did not detract from the enthusiasm of the project team nor from the beauty of the mainly wooden, grass-rooved buildings which previous participants had built. As Mark McKenna, one of the founding Directors and the Manager of the company, gave us a guided tour of the site I became increasingly impressed by the coherence of the underlying vision at Down to Earth. It’s a simple idea but it feels a little revolutionary.

“Down to Earth established themselves a decade ago to work with people who struggled to fit in with what was expected of them, at school or work or in life, offering them the chance to construct buildings made from locally sourced, sustainable materials. In practise, as Mark described, this means handing a variety of tools, including sharp objects, to people from whom  others may have spent some time removing them!  Flippancy aside, in reality this has had an extraordinary impact on those involved as they have learnt how to use those tools and then set about working together to create some beautiful and practical buildings.

Inside the wooden workshop

“Mark explained that as the project has gained in status and confidence so its participants have built increasingly ambitious and more impactful buildings. In Mark’s view, the more impressive the building, the greater the positive impact on the people involved in creating it.  But Mark’s view is based on more than the infectious enthusiasm of the participants as seen in the vox-pop films you will find on their website. It is based on clinical research undertaken by the Abertawe Bro Morgannwg University Health Board (ABMU) who spent the last five years analysing the project’s impact on a range of participants; from people with brain injuries to looked after children.  The clinical research consistently shows a “statistically significant” improvement in participant’s depression and anxiety levels, as well as improvements in a sense of community connection/cohesion. The findings suggest that programmes Down to Earth offer may be at least as clinically effective as anti-depressants.

“The Down to Earth team are absolutely committed to using sustainable and natural products and they source their building materials from Wales as far as they can and dip into the rest of the British Isles when they must. This makes the buildings they create a bit more expensive to source but it adds to longer term well-being outcomes through the impact of the building on the end-users. It also shows that it is possible to build with local products and it demonstrates a serious commitment to the Welsh Government’s sustainability agenda. The buildings are made by people with no building experience when they begin the process of creating highly functional buildings for community use. The results speak for themselves.

“The Future Generations Commissioner could do worse than look to Down to Earth as an inspirational exemplar. They are quietly busy giving vulnerable and disadvantaged people confidence and a whole new set of skills to create bespoke, attractive buildings and showing that it can all be done using locally sourced materials.”

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