In our latest issue of Broadleaf magazine, we chat to architect, designer and TV presenter George Clarke. He explains how his childhood home influenced his passion for housing and ecology and declares his love for working with timber - and treehouses!

"English oak is the finest building material in the world. Strong, traditional, absolutely exquisite… and proven to stand the test of time. Look at all those Tudor beauties built half a millennium ago. I love timber frame houses – you can even build timber walls – and for thousands of years wood was Britain’s number-one choice. But the Great Fire of London is punched into our psyche: until very recently insurance firms branded wood a hazard, skewing mortgage regulations solely toward bricks. It’s bonkers, as there are so many ways to protect timber these days: you can treat it, wrap it, use fireproof paint. Thankfully, things are beginning to change.

As a kid I was never indoors – always out making dens and scaling trees. I grew up in Washington New Town, Sunderland, and it’s no coincidence I’m so passionate about housing and ecology: our estate was genuinely affordable and full of newly rooting trees and bushes, with a brilliant design that meant I could skip to school without crossing a single road. It was such a safe place to roam around. It’s part of the reason I support the Woodland Trust’s Northern Forest initiative – it always surprises me how low tree cover is there, and we desperately need more. It’s also why I’m keen on working with treehouses on my Channel 4 show Amazing Spaces. They invoke that magical boyhood feeling.

There’s no better structural design than a tree. And there’s no timber I don’t love to work with: each has its own colours, variations, strengths. Wood used for joists and beams keeps carbon locked up tight, so it’s way more climate friendly than ugly-but-ubiquitous concrete. But we desperately need a well-managed supply of native timber in this country: at present, we import most of it from Austria. When harvested in a wildlife-friendly way, it can aid the nature crisis as well as the climate. It’s good to hear the Trust is actively embracing that vision on its estate nowadays – like at your Queen Elizabeth Diamond Jubilee Wood, in Leicestershire, where you’ve deliberately planted out a new extension to include hardwood timber species such as hornbeam and oak. 

You can recycle anything – even your home. In my show Ugly House to Lovely House, we retro-fitted places to make them easier on the eye, perhaps by wrapping them in timber or seeding a wildflower garden on an unsightly flat roof. Evergreen architecture is especially great for city-dwellers: some urban flats don’t even have balconies – it must have been so stifling during lockdown. Nature has powerful links to wellbeing, so on Amazing Spaces we brought it indoors, transforming an apartment into a mini Garden of Eden. Is there anyone on earth who’d call a tree or plant an ugly thing?

I put my money where my mouth is by buying an ‘ugly’ 1960s home in rural Gloucestershire. I far prefer the countryside to London, and there’s an acre of nicely maturing woodland beside an old mill at the back, with plenty of oak – the windows make for huge views of 360° greenery. I’ve lost count of how many Victorian houses I’ve extended to include as much glass as a Sixties one, so I’ll keep the structure and likely wrap the exterior. And there are loads of eco-options for insulation now, including blocks made of sheep’s wool or hemp. If you go to town on every wall, you barely need to think about heating. It soon pays for itself!"

George Clarke’s Amazing Spaces is available now to watch on All4.

Broadleaf is our quarterly magazine exclusive to Trust members. Its inspirational writing and stunning photography tell the inside story of how we, our members, volunteers and partners stand up for trees. To receive your regular copy and exciting welcome gift, become a member now.

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