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Local Sustainable Homes
How to Make Them Happen in Your Community
By Chris Bird
Green Books LtdCopyright © 2010 Chris Bird
All rights reserved.
WHAT IS SUSTAINABLE HOUSING?
"Have nothing in your home that you do not know to be sustainable or believe to be energy-efficient." With apologies to William Morris
You could do worse than look in the Oxford English Dictionary for a definition of sustainable housing. 'Sustainable' – 'able to be sustained or upheld at a particular level without causing damage to the environment or depletion of resources' and 'house' – 'a building for human habitation'.
I don't have a problem with the definitions but, in my dictionary at least, they are 768 pages apart – a reflection of how separate the two concepts are in the real world. Our homes are just not sustainable. In the UK almost 30 per cent of all energy use is in domestic buildings, so our houses are responsible for over a quarter of all greenhouse gas emissions. A breakdown reveals that 28 per cent is used for space heating, 22 per cent for water heating, 10 per cent for cooking and 40 per cent for lighting and appliances. As summer temperatures rise, energy savings from improved insulation could be more than offset by increased use of domestic air conditioning.
But these figures underestimate the impact of housing because they don't include the construction of buildings, infrastructure or demolition. Building shelter is estimated to use 16 per cent of the world's freshwater supply, 25 per cent of timber and 40 per cent of fossil fuels and manufactured materials. The housing industry contributes around 50 per cent of all pollution in the world, with cement alone responsible for 8 per cent of total greenhouse gases. And house building is a very wasteful industry. Around 20 per cent of all construction waste in the UK is caused by over-ordering materials that are then sent to landfill.
"For every new house built, one is thrown away!"
Why do we need sustainable housing?
So housing makes a big contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and hence to climate change, and for that reason alone has to change. As Paul King, Chief Executive of the Green Building Council, says: "Our homes and buildings should be in the front line in the battle against climate change, rising fuel prices and energy security"
But there's more. As we reach peak oil, it becomes increasingly difficult to continue building and using our houses in the same old way. Look around your home. What can you find that doesn't depend on cheap oil or other fossil fuels for its extraction, processing, manufacture, synthesis, transport or installation? Not much. Bricks and clay tiles are fired in kilns heated by gas or electricity (itself likely to be generated from burning coal, oil or gas). Cement and plasters are also energy-hungry materials. Plastics use energy in their production and oil as a raw material, and metals, another non-renewable resource, require enormous amounts of energy for mining, extraction and fabrication. Even natural materials such as stone and timber are likely to be transported hundreds or even thousands of miles.
There are also good social reasons why we need sustainable housing. In a typical winter, around 25,000 people die in the UK because they can't afford to keep warm in their own homes. As many as 4.4 million British homes, 20 per cent of our total housing stock, fail to provide adequate thermal comfort – and this figure is rising as fuel prices increase. Millions of people live in fuel poverty, defined as spending more than 10 per cent of household income on fuel for space heating, and this is increasing alongside fuel prices. Average household gas bills in the UK rose by over 100 per cent between 2003 and 2008, and electricity bills rose by 70 per cent.
Poorer people tend to live in less energy-efficient houses but actually have smaller carbon footprints than those in 'Middle England'. A study of household carbon emissions by postcode showed that middle- class areas, such as Rickmansworth and Gerrard's Cross, were the worst polluters, with more than 36 tonnes per household, while less affluent communities in Stockton-on-Tees, Newcastle and London were responsible for less than 15 tonnes per household. Although travel and consumerism are responsible for much of this difference, larger houses are a significant part of the problem. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) suggests, probably optimistically, that we must reduce household carbon emissions to around 2 tonnes to limit global warming to 2 degrees Celsius. An average household in India has a carbon footprint of just 1 tonne. Poorer households, without any choice, have a head start when it comes to reducing carbon emissions.
Why are we in this mess?
Enough facts and figures! You get the picture. Housing makes a big contribution to greenhouse gas emissions and we need to do something about it. But before we rush into action let's consider why we're in such a mess.
The architect and author James Wines blames, among others, the great modernist pioneer Le Corbusier. In 1923 Le Corbusier, in homage to a new wave of industrialism, proclaimed: "There exists a new spirit! Industry, overwhelming us like a flood which rolls towards its destined end, has furnished us with new tools adapted to this new epoch, animated by the new spirit." A spirit that, Wines argues, is now "tarnished and discredited in the face of current environmental realities."
Le Corbusier can hardly be blamed for the arrogant attempts to control and dominate nature that are central to modern industrial societies, but, by embracing this spirit and founding an architectural movement that sees houses as 'machines for living in', he did contribute to our current situation. Wines suggests:
"dumping all of the ego-motivated excesses associated with most architecture of the Twentieth century in favour of a more socially responsible and environmentally integrated approach ... to progress from ego-centric to eco-centric."
So what would architecture that put ecology ahead of ego look like? Part of the answer can be found in the natural building movement.
In the past few decades the eco-centric approach has progressed under the title of 'natural building'. Crucial to this are decisions about how, where and why to build, as well as about the choice of natural materials. Natural building emphasises low-tech methods, broad rather than specialist skills, respect for the local environment and regional traditions. It encourages self-build, not just as a way for owner-occupiers to save money but also because of the psychological benefits of hands-on building with natural materials. Natural building involves systems and materials that emphasise sustainability by focusing on durability and the use of minimally processed, plentiful, renewable and salvaged materials to produce healthy living environments. It tends to rely on human labour more than on technology, and it varies with local ecology, geology and climate, the character of the site and the needs and personalities of the builders and users.
If we limit ourselves to local and natural materials, won't that make our houses boring? Certainly not. Some of our most beautiful houses are built with a limited palette of materials from the area. Picasso puts it nicely:
"Forcing yourself to use restricted means is the sort of restraint that liberates inventing. It obliges you to make a kind of progress you can not even imagine in advance."
Eco-housing pioneers were inspired by Schumacher's Small is Beautiful, the self-sufficiency movement associated with John Seymour and the 'natural' homes showcased by the Centre for Alternative Technology to build for personal and planetary health.
In his influential book about our consumer society, Affluenza, Oliver Tickell identifies a strong association between self-esteem and housing. Bigger homes, frequent remodelling and obsessive DIY for little real benefit are symptoms of our addiction to consuming as a way to boost our sense of self-worth. Housing is just another part of our consumer culture; but natural building can be the antidote.
Step into any good bookshop and you'll find dozens of books about natural building. Straw, cob, rammed earth, timber frame, lime, hemp and earthships all have passionate advocates, some of whom you'll meet in this book. In recent years the use of natural and sustainable materials has started to penetrate the retrofit market. Wool, woven hemp and recycled newsprint insulation are widely available. The big DIY stores promote 'Earthwool' loft insulation made from recycled plastic bottles and have a range of 'environmentally friendly' products to make our homes and gardens more sustainable. Of course, a lot of this is 'greenwash' – do we really need fountains and garden lights powered by solar energy? – but it does reflect a growing awareness of natural materials and the need to reduce the damage our homes do to the environment.
What makes housing sustainable?
If we take a narrow definition of sustainability, then we can end up talking about houses that cope with the challenges of climate change and peak oil while actually contributing to these problems; homes that might be wonderful places to live in but part of the problem rather than viable solutions. A home that runs entirely on renewable energy but requires enormous quantities of materials and energy to build is not sustainable. So we need a holistic understanding of sustainable homes that encompasses the total impact of housing on our planet.
This is a big ask, but anything less is really avoiding the problem. If we consider energy use in a finished building but ignore 'embodied energy' – the energy used in the materials or in construction techniques – then we'll have a false idea of the carbon footprint of that property. If natural materials are transported long distances, then the true environmental impact may be higher than if synthetic local materials are used. Even a home built with sustainable and local materials that runs on little or zero energy may be unsustainable if it fails to encourage environmentally friendly behaviour, is sited a long way from employment opportunities, doesn't form part of a viable community or has an adverse effect on biodiversity, the water cycle or the availability of land.
Even what a house looks like can affect its sustain-ability We might disagree with Germaine Greer when she says that "new homes are universally ugly, and eco-homes are the most horrible of the lot", but if her point is that aesthetics are an aspect of sustainability then she is right. Homes and communities that speak to people in a language we instinctively understand and feel comfortable with are homes and communities that work. When Christopher Alexander and his colleagues, writing in A Pattern Language, articulate the deeply rooted patterns in rooms and houses, streets and neighbourhoods, towns and cities that help our built environment to function, they identify the words and structure of a language we recognise but have forgotten how to speak. Sustainable homes just feel right, even if we can't always explain why.
The twelve commandments of sustainable housing
1. Aim for low or zero net energy use or even net energy production, achieved through the rational use of insulation, passive solar design, thermal mass and renewable energy generation. Location is an important consideration, as some sites may not be suitable for renewable energy. For a sheltered north-facing slope with no potential for hydro-generation and a rocky substrate unsuitable for ground source heat pumps, then grid electricity from a green supplier may be better.
Once the energy needed in the day-to-day life of a building has been minimised, the energy used in construction becomes a bigger proportion of overall energy use – so make careful choices about materials. Natural materials include rock, gravel, sand, clay, straw and other plant fibres such as hemp, timber, wool and recycled materials. Of course, all waste during construction should be minimised. (See Table 1 and Figure 1, pages 17 & 18.)
2. Avoid resource depletion. You'll know about peak oil from the introduction to this book, but building materials such as copper, aluminium, zinc and lead are also becoming scarce.
3. Don't build unless you have to. It's better to retrofit or refurbish existing buildings. If you must build, then small really is beautiful. Larger buildings use more energy and materials and take up more land, which could be used to grow food.
4. Avoid toxic materials. These are harmful to people and the environment during production, installation and throughout the life of a building. PVC (polyvinyl chloride) is versatile and widely used in buildings but causes pollution during manufacture and disposal. Alternatives such as polybutylene and polyethylene have a lower impact and are recyclable. There are also safer alternatives to synthetic paints, plasters and furnishing materials.
5. Use water efficiently. Harvest rainwater, recycle grey water, include drainage systems that avoid or mitigate the risks of flooding and use sustainable sewage systems such as compost toilets and reed-bed systems.
6. Homes should be built to last: easily maintained and adaptable. This means anticipating changing household needs, family structures and the impacts of climate change. We need to build homes to last a lifetime and more!
7. Building materials should be suitable for recycling or reclamationwhen a property is demolished, or reconfigured to meet changing requirements.
8. Housing should be in harmony with the environment and have a positive impact on biodiversity. Green roofs and walls are a good example. Individual and shared gardens and food-growing areas provide communal spaces and food, and promote biodiversity.
9. Housing should be part of communities that meet all our needs for employment, shopping, social life, education, arts and being in touch with nature. Community is an essential ingredient of sustainability Alongside the development of natural building there have been social innovations such as housing cooperatives, cohousing, intentional communities, communes, all manner of collective self-building groups and many other models that promote fruitful interaction between neighbours.
Homes and neighbourhoods where people feel unsafe are not sustainable, but neither are communities where security is promoted through locked gates, security guards and burglar alarms. In sustainable communities people leave their doors unlocked.
10. Homes should appeal to the eye and feel good to be in. Many of the features that characterise such homes are identified in A Pattern Language by Christopher Alexander, who studied successful buildings and lists their key features. However, far from tying us to the past, Alexander suggests that buildings that feel good "are adapted, deeply, to land and to people ... for it is not style that makes a building living or dead, but the freshness of its responses to its surroundings."
11. Housing should be affordable. Unless the rich can find a different planet to live on, then sustainable housing has to be a right not a privilege.
12. Location. Location. Location. Houses should be located so as to minimise environmental impact and, in the UK, oriented to make optimal use of passive solar gain while avoiding cold winds.
Models we can learn from
So is this book limited to examples that tick all the sustainability boxes outlined above? No! Models don't have to be perfect to hold valuable lessons. Psychologists suggest that the 'good enough' parent is better than the so-called 'perfect' parent, who meets the child's every need and thus prevents him or her from learning to cope with problems. Perfect examples of housing would seem so difficult to emulate that we'd be put off before we even started.
So here we take a look at examples of sustainable housing that are going in the right direction, rather than holding up a few pristine examples that may have reached some imaginary goal. Perhaps we'll learn more from people who have just started the journey than from individuals or communities further along the path. There won't be one 'perfect' solution, but we almost certainly do have all the answers we need. We don't need to discover a 'magic bullet' or invest billions in developing new technologies or smart materials to solve our housing problems. Everything we need to make our homes sustainable is already here. We know how to build houses that are warm in winter and cool in summer without consuming unsustainable quantities of energy. We have a rich heritage of vernacular buildings, constructed from locally available materials, that just needs to be rediscovered. We also know what makes a community work and we know what makes us happy.
Good examples abound but are ignored because 'that's not what we normally do' or because they don't make a profit. Is it possible to spread lessons from the 'green niches' of sustainable building to the eco-developers and mainstream builders? Dr Gill Seyfang, a researcher at the University of East Anglia, points out that the overlap between these areas is usually around just one aspect of sustainability: low carbon. How can we encourage, lead and even force the mainstream to adopt sustainability in the wider sense?
Excerpted from Local Sustainable Homes by Chris Bird. Copyright © 2010 Chris Bird. Excerpted by permission of Green Books Ltd.
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