Modelled on a traditional Welsh cottage, Ty Unnos takes its name from its predecessor on the same site - a house built between sunset and sunrise While the results of the experiment were short-lived Dorian’s more permanent replacement is no less a marvel. With timbers found in local woods, an under thatch of woven hazel and gorse insulation it’s a one-night wonder.
Few of us get the chance to build a house with our own hands. Fewer still to knock it down after four years and start again. That’s exactly what Dorian did at Ty Unnos in rural Carmarthenshire. Reviving the old Welsh tradition of ty unnos, the ’one-night house’ observed all the strict rules originally surrounding it. In the 18th century the homeless of Wales, or anyone who wanted a plot of ground but couldn’t afford to buy it, could claim a patch of common land by erecting a house on it. Land owner’s didn’t approve of this tradition and so the house had to be built secretly between sunset and sunrise. The builders only established their right to occupy the dwelling if smoke was rising from the chimney by sunrise. The building that Dorian and a team of 45 friends and relations managed to rise overnight had turf walls and a thatched roof supported on trusses reaching down to the ground. By dawn smoke rose from a chimney woven from coppiced hazel wands.
The ty unnos tradition dictated that the settlers occupied the house unaltered for a year. However, when Dorian and his team threw a house together in 2006, he was working in London and built it out of curiosity, without any intention of living there.
By 2010 he had left his job and returned to Carmarthenshire, where Ty Unnos had subsided into a collapsing cake of a house. Dorian decided to demolish what remained and rebuild, doing as much as possible of the work himself, guided and restricted by the materials available locally. Obliged to begin with the roof trusses because the size of the cottage had to be defined by the length of the oak timbers Dorian could find in local woods. Now he knew both the width and length of the cottage, and could set builders to make its walls from local stone.
Next came the roof, Dorian prepared an under thatch from woven hazel and an insulation layer of gorse. There is no manual, no step-to-step guide to making an underthatch. Instead Dorian delved into inherited memory, feeling at times as if he was ‘revisiting a journey ancestors had already taken’. The result of this deeply meditated process is a gloriously beautiful herringbone structure of hazel wands.
The cottage is a traditional crogloft, a room over hung by a sleeping platform It is startlingly authentic, so at first glance it’s easy to believe that it has been rescued. But Dorian is no romantic and he installed underfloor heating before laying a floor of slate slabs and installed an electric hob and oven in the kitchen. In his search for authenticity Dorian visited St Fagan’s museum, Cardiff taking the reconstruction interior of a slate worker’s cottage from North Wales as his model. Through farm sales, auction houses and local friends he has reassembled that arrangement of two-stage court cupboard (cwpwrdd deuddarn) , grandfather clock, three-legged cricket table and dresser.