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Accessibility in sustainable communities: inclusive eco-living for disabled people? March 3, 2014

Filed under: Academic articles on green building,Britain,Politics of building — naturalbuild @ 3:42 pm

Guest blog by Amita Bhakta

As we face the challenges of climate change, the importance of having housing which is low-impact and ecological is gradually increasing. Yet at the same time, it also needs to be recognised that in Britain, there is a continually ageing population; over 23% of the population will be over the age of 65 by 2035, and the ‘baby boomer’ generation who were born in the 1960s will be in their early 70s (1). Despite this however, besides the fact that British housing contributes to 27% of total national carbon emissions (2) the majority of our housing stock is inaccessible to disabled people. 95% of housing in England alone has been reported to be inaccessible to wheelchair users (3), indicating that our housing is not only ill-equipped to face the many challenges we face through climate change, but also that it is not suited to meet the needs of people with different abilities, as we age and as our needs change. In light of this, I have researched the accessibility of sustainable communities and eco-living for disabled people in England. This research was conducted as part of a Masters in Research (MRes) in Geography at the University of Leicester between October 2012 and September 2013.

However, sustainable communities have failed to learn from the mistakes made in British housing in the past, providing inaccessible environments in which to live, and there are different factors which contribute to this.

Disability requires re-definition in order to provide access in sustainable communities

If sustainable communities are to provide better accessibility and inclusion, there is a need to re-visit and re-define what is meant by ‘disability’.  Over the years, the meaning of disability has been widely debated. A lack of agreement has meant that the traditional, medical model of disability, which argues that disability is an ‘individual’ problem caused due to bodily abnormalities (4), has been challenged by the social model of disability, which argues that it is society that causes disability rather than medical problems. The social model focuses on how disability is caused by the way in which society is structured, and in particular, how social activities can exclude those who are less able (5).

When we look at sustainable communities in greater depth, what is clear is that these debates and confusion surrounding the meaning of disability has fed into the ways in which sustainable communities are designed, built, and socially organised. In particular, there is a need to expand the meaning of disability much further, to not only incorporate commonly held perceptions surrounding differences in mobility, but to also appreciate the more subtle aspects of disability which are experienced through poor dexterity.

As a researcher with Cerebral Palsy, although I can walk independently, I have “floppy” muscles and so I have less strength in my body in comparison to able-bodied people and tire more easily. I have a very unsteady gait when I am walking and poor balance, and so I am more likely to fall at any given time, and sometimes I need assistance in walking over ground which is particularly uneven. I find it hard to keep up with able-bodied people when I am walking. My “floppy” muscles and poor coordination lead to me drooling quite frequently, and this has significant impacts upon my speech. During the research, I used my experiences of disability to explore accessibility at the Hockerton Housing Project, a five-house earth sheltered terrace community in Southwell, Nottinghamshire. This highlighted that when we look at access in sustainable communities, we need to also understand how people may have varying mobility disabilities.

If we look at accessibility at Hockerton through mobility in terms of speed and range of movement, it is clear that sustainable communities are not only inaccessible, but also this inaccessibility has diverse implications for how we understand and cater for different forms of disability. Figure 1.1 and 1.2 provide maps of my speed and range of movement in different parts of Hockerton.

Figure 1.1 Speed of movement through Hockerton Housing Project

Speed

Figure 1.2 Range of movement through Hockerton Housing Project

Movement

As these maps show, the speed and the range of movement in terms of the extent of how much help I need to get around Hockerton decline as I moved further away from the houses and into the broader community. Another interesting aspect to note is that as distance from the houses increase, the various areas of the community at Hockerton are used for increasingly ‘ablest’ activities which are suited to able-bodied people, from rearing sheep, to growing vegetables, to coppicing. Although it may theoretically be feasible for a mobility-impaired person to reach the outer areas of the site, the challenging nature of the community environment may pose difficulties in returning to the homes easily due to fatigue. This raises significant questions over the participation of disabled people in activities around the community environment, and the extent of independence they may have in living in a sustainable community.  By re-developing the concept of ‘disability’ to include mobility, we can understand that sustainable communities at present compromise the inclusion of disabled people.

Eco-living requires a significant level of dexterity, both within the house and in the community environment. For example, for eco-houses to work effectively, they require a significant level of manual operation, such as opening and closing triple glazed windows for temperature control. Yet, disabled people with poor dexterity and strength have been ignored in eco-housing design, and eco-housing has failed to cater for their needs. Heavier, triple-glazed windows and ill-designed internal door handles at Hockerton were factors which highlight that subtle aspects of disability need greater attention in eco-housing design. If we spread into the community, attending to animals such as chickens and sheep is a part of everyday life at Hockerton. However, difficult latches and heavier gates to operate on animal pens can prevent disabled people from fully participating in ecological living activities.  Unless sustainable communities can incorporate these subtle aspects of disability into design of housing and eco-living infrastructure, there is a significant risk that disabled people are likely to be excluded from a multitude of aspects of ecological living. Commonly held benefits of living in a sustainable community such as having a connection to nature and feeling part of the community risk being reserved for the able-bodied, unless we re-define and incorporate a new meaning of disability in community design.

Sustainability overrides accessibility for disabled people

Ensuring that houses and community environments have  a low ecological impact is prioritised at the expense of providing accessibility for disabled people in sustainable communities. In many cases, accessibility regulations such as Part M and the Lifetime Homes Standards are not strictly followed, and are overridden by a strong focus upon minimising environmental impact and having ecological features, rather than ensuring that homes and communities are accessible. This is often because the self-commissioned nature of some sustainable communities gives residents and community developers greater control over how the community is designed, and accessibility is less of a priority. Prioritising ecological impact over access antagonises inclusivity for disabled people in eco-housing and in community environments.

For example, higher step-over thresholds feature at the entrances to eco-housing. One of the key aspects of providing accessible housing according to national policy guidelines is the provision of low and flush thresholds at the entrance to the home for ease of access. Yet, eco-housing design fails to be able to cater for those with different abilities at the entrance to the home. Higher thresholds are built into eco-housing for the purposes of heat retention and air tightness, in order to reduce the high environmental impacts made through heating. However, this limits accessibility into the home, particularly for wheelchair users who would find it more difficult to pass over higher thresholds. Access for people with mobility difficulties is also greatly compromised, as features such as this are designed with the premise that users would have a great level of strength to carry themselves over a threshold, which does not necessarily apply to disabled people.

If we look beyond the house and towards the outdoor environment, the practice of permaculture itself is inherently exclusive of disabled people. Permaculture involves  the practice of permanent, sustainable agriculture by encouraging residents to be self reliant through agricultural practices, and promotes the ability for nature to grow freely and sustain itself. However, allowing nature to overtake footpaths and areas intended for use by residents compromises accessibility for disabled people in the sustainable community environment. Nature itself can make the environment more difficult to pass through, for both wheelchair users and those with mobility disabilities. This restricts participation in a wider range of eco-living activities and can mean that sustaining the natural environment can exclude disabled people from involvement in community activities. More progress is needed to collectively consider the accessibility of the environment, the inclusivity of social community structures for disabled people and environmental sustainability.

Further, trying to incorporate materials into the community environment which are low impact can also restrict accessibility. At Hockerton Housing Project, a waste-finish road was incorporated to avoid the need for concrete, which has a high environmental impact. Yet, design such as this has caused difficulties in provision of effective access for wheelchair users. Interestingly, these features can also create subtle forms of exclusion; my own experiences at Hockerton meant that as I was walking along the road, I was constantly wary of and trying to avoid potholes in case I fell. Focussing upon being ecological therefore has diverse negative implications for accessibility and inclusivity for disabled people.

Beyond policy

Although policy can inform accessibility in sustainable communities, top-down policy itself alone is not the answer to providing inclusive ecological living. As highlighted above, sustainable communities often face challenges in terms of meeting policy regulations for accessibility as well as ensuring that they are sustainable; all too often, this is a precarious balance to find. Whilst it cannot be denied that better planning is needed, accessibility in sustainable communities can only be achieved if we go beyond policy. Different groups such as disabled and able-bodied residents, architects, builders and planners involved in eco-building need to work together from a grassroots approach.

For instance, Lilac in Leeds is a newly-built community, which at the time of my research was still under construction. But, as one of the newest communities in the UK, they have actively sought to not only follow guidelines from regulations such as Part M and notably the Disability Discrimination Act (1995), but also to ensure that they work with residents together to ensure that their different needs are met. By doing so, they are trying to create a community which is both diverse yet equal, and as inclusive as possible. After seeing the work at Lilac, I am hopeful and optimistic that newer communities are heading towards greater access and inclusivity. But, there remains work to be done. Existing sustainable communities still need to work with residents both disabled and able bodied to provide inclusive ecological living for all, be it through changing and adapting homes and community environments, or creating activities which enhance the experiences of eco-living for a wide range of abilities yet provide a sense of community connection. Ultimately, the ideas for these communities came from the grassroots, and whilst the solutions to their accessibility issues can be informed by policy, they must also come from changes in attitude and practice at the grassroots too.

Thank you

I would like to thank all who have participated in the study in interviews and surveys. Thank you to the residents at the  Hockerton Housing Project for helping me  with my research, I really enjoyed working with you. A warm thank you to Jenny for your brilliant guidance throughout my MRes, and a very special thanks to Adam and James for your support in the field.

References

(1)   Office for National Statistics (2012) Population Ageing in the United Kingdom, its Constituent Countries and the European Union Accessed online at: http://www.ons.gov.uk/ons/dcp171776_258607.pdf

(2)   Department for Communities and Local Government (2007) Building a greener future: policy statement London: The Stationary Office

(3)   Imrie R (2006) Accessible Housing: Quality, Disability and Design London: Routledge

(4)   Barnes C and Mercer G (2010) Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction (2nd edition) Cambridge: Polity Press

(5)   UPIAS (1976) Fundamental principles of disability London: Union of the Physically Impaired Against Segregation

Amita is a postgraduate researcher at the Water, Engineering and Development Centre (WEDC), School of Civil and Building Engineering, Loughborough University. You can contact Amita for any further questions at A.N.Bhakta@lboro.ac.uk

[Leicestershire, 24th February 2014]

 

How do eco-house ideas travel? December 8, 2013

I am interested in how ideas about eco-housing travel between places, and particularly between countries. I have developed a  spatial processes approach to help us understand how knowledges and practices are innovated, circulated and adapted. This is summarised in Figure 1. Knowledges and practices emerge in spaces of innovation. In eco-housing these pockets of experimentation occur in different countries and places. These are spaces and places which enable, encourage or simply do not hinder novel innovation. These opportunities in one place are vital for those seeking to push experimental boundaries elsewhere.

Figure 1: The spatial processes of eco-building innovation, circulation and adaptation[i]

Ch 8 Fig 1

These innovative knowledges and practices are then exchanged through spaces of circulation. These are the paths, networks and flows through which these knowledges and practices are dispersed, exchanged and travel. We can conceive of these as social, political and economic processes, which overlap with each other but also have different methods through which ideas are exchanged. For example, political processes of circulation include international policy networks, conferences and workshops. Economic processes include knowledge sharing internally within global firms, or technology manufacturers marketing their products. Social processes are often through internet dissemination, the media, and popular literature.

Which knowledges and practices are selected by any given country or builder is filtered through three dimensions – regulative, normative and cultural-cognitive – in the spaces of adaptation. Through this process knowledges and practices are selected, adapted and mutated to suit the local context. These processes of selection and reshaping are the least understood, and are the hardest to map. This approach helps us understand how eco-housing knowledges and practices are incorporated, lived-in, changed, and are changed by, different places and practices. It enables us to understand the importance of place and different cultural contexts for emerging environmental innovations, and challenges homogenous assumptions about the applicability and replication of certain solutions worldwide;

Just as with plants in nature, the best construction systems develop organically over time in concert with climate, locally found materials, and the skills of the local builders. When introducing a new technology, rather than spend energy trying to reinvent the wheel. Start by studying and adapting existing local technologies[ii].

The regulative dimension incorporates the rules, standards and regulations of a place. For example, in Britain that would include the obligations of planning permission. British planning policy often limits, for example, the extent to which one house can overlook another and thus what size windows would be permitted in certain parts of a house, or how a building is permitted to look. Building regulations, even when designed to encourage eco-housing, may ultimately misdirect efforts by creating a tick-box culture that loses sight of the original intentions[iii].

The normative dimension reflects the norms of a place and the moral and ethical assumptions which guide social obligations, for example, whether people normally expect a house to be centrally heated and have hot water on demand. Thus it is about societal expectations of the internal layout of a house and its provisions. It is also about aesthetics and eco-homes are often quirky in design, look and feel. We need to ensure that innovative building retains an aesthetic which ‘fits’ with other buildings regionally.

The cultural-cognitive dimension includes the broad (often invisible) assumptions about how and why things are done a certain way, the ‘taken for granted’ beliefs. This includes assumptions about how the economic system operates in a place e.g. that houses are considered financial investments and must therefore increase in value over time. It also reflects the priorities given to certain practices, such as water or energy saving. If there is not a cultural perception of a shortage of water then water-saving measures are far less likely to be incorporated into a house design.

In any given context the outcome of these spatial processes is altered yet further by the influence of existing local knowledges and practices, any reflection (or not) upon failures, and the extent to which such adaptation is then further circulated outwards. It is a circular rather than a linear process. For example, Mike Reynolds (the US Earthship designer) has called for ‘forums of failure’ where eco-builders can experiment. He argues that his designs are the product of “30 years of failure. You learn by failure. We’re asking politicians to give us situations where we can fail”[v]. Whatever the specifics, the outcomes of the mobilisation of eco-housing knowledges and practices are diverse embedded eco-housing which evolves in fragmented and piecemeal ways.

Beyond being able to identify how innovative projects get adopted or the influences that shape their adaptation, this approach enables us to see where best to intervene to speed up the processes of mobilisation. It also suggests that the more pliable, malleable, and flexible a building approach is, the more likely it will become mobilised as an eco-house approach. In other words, if an eco-house innovation is simple yet adaptable, so that its key functionality is not lost if small changes are made (for example, to materials or technologies used) then it is more likely to be successfully mobilised. As Lerner argues building practices “must be easy to use and fit well with existing local materials, technologies, and skills. Efficacy, not purity, ultimately transfers the technology”[vi]. Through this process it is also possible to see the ongoing tension between the two different understandings of what an eco-house is; a holistic design which is interdependent and thus only works as a whole, or an amalgamation of separate and discrete components which can be individually adopted. Those innovations which are rigidly holistic and only work as a whole are less likely to be mobilised, yet those viewed as simply an amalgamation of individual components are likely to lose some of their functionality in translation. Successful mobilisation is thus a fine balance between the two mindsets, whereby enough of the structural functionality is retained in the final outcome while the original design is also able to deliver that functionality even after adaptation.


[i] Designed by author, building on the work by Faulconbridge, J, R (2013) Mobile ‘green’ design knowledge: institutions, bricolage and the relational production of embedded sustainable building designs. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers, 38, 2, pages 339–353.

[ii] Lerner, K (2004) Down-to-Earth Technology Transfer, in Kennedy, J, F (ed.) Building Without Borders; Sustainable Construction for the Global Village. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada, pp.85-97, page 93.

[iii] Hoffman, A, J and Henn, R (2008) Overcoming the social and psychological barriers to green building. Organization and Environment, 21, 4, 390-419

[iv] Middlemiss, L and Parrish, B, D (2010) Building capacity for low-carbon communities: The role of grassroots initiatives. Energy Policy, 38, 7559-7566.

[v] Smith, A (2007) ‘Governance lessons from green niches: the case of eco-housing’ in Murphy, Joseph ed. Governing Technology for Sustainability. London, UK: Earthscan. Chapter 5, page 97

[vi] Lerner, K (2004) Down-to-Earth Technology Transfer, in Kennedy, J, F (ed.) Building Without Borders; Sustainable Construction for the Global Village. New Society Publishers, Gabriola Island, Canada, pp.85-97, page 90.

[8th December 2013, Leicestershire]

 

An anarchist house November 13, 2013

Recently I have been exploring what an anarchist house looks like, particularly using the work of Colin Ward. Anarchism is essentially self-organisation, people providing for themselves without state intervention. It has multiple variants and part of its appeal for many is the flexibility with which it can be understood and practiced[i]. Colin Ward was a key advocate for anarchism, especially in Britain, and was particularly interested in housing and architecture; indeed he was an architect by training. He argued that anarchism was always present in society, not a utopia in the future; “an anarchist society, a society which organizes itself without authority, is always in existence, like a seed beneath the snow”[ii]. He was interested in fragments of anarchism already in existence and wrote numerous histories tracing anarchist practice;

Many years of attempting to be an anarchist propagandist have convinced me that we win over our fellow citizens to anarchist ideas, precisely through drawing upon the common experience of the informal, transient, self-organising networks of relationships that in fact make the human community possible, rather than through the rejecting of existing society as a whole in favour of some future society where some different kind of humanity will live in perfect harmony.[iii]

In particular he documented the history of the housing of the poor, who often had to rely upon squatting land to make a home[iv], and of ‘plotlands’; the self-built unofficial housing often along the British coast as escapes for city dwellers from the 1870s to the 1940s[v]. For Ward, anarchist housing is a form of liberation[vi]. This is achieved primarily through dweller control (after Turner[vii]) – that there is housing for all, housing for all needs, and that residents have full control over that housing (be that through direct ownership or other forms of secure tenure). This control is not a form of capitalist exploitative profit making (an approach to housing rejected by anarchists such as Proudhon by his famous assertion that ‘Property is Theft’), rather it is the freedom to have a home and the land required to live. Turner argues that dweller control leads to better and cheaper housing than when provided by the state.

In providing for these needs, anarchist housing often requires unconventional societal structures, such as sharing homes through multi-family occupation, communes and co-operatives. It is also likely to involve combining uses such as reintegrating work and home. This collectivisation is also evident in the construction of anarchist houses where the tasks of construction, navigating legal requirements and the cost of purchasing land are all reduced through sharing. It can thus be an act of mutual aid – people mutually supporting and helping each other. In particular Kropotkin, another famous anarchist, called for housing to reduce the burden of household tasks on women and instead offer them liberation from drudgery, this included making the kitchen bigger and central for all to use[viii]. What is more, housing should be convivial, built to encourage interaction and to suit human behaviour and demands[ix]. An anarchist house would seek to avoid or subvert any planning restrictions, especially where the basic needs of people were not being met, hence anarchism’s strong links with squatting[x].

The anarchist house is very much in the vernacular tradition of using easily available free materials to self-build, and such houses would be maintained and modified (such as extensions) by its occupants as needs changed. Brand defined such houses as being ‘long life, loose fit, low energy’[xi] – easily adaptable buildings, built to last and with minimal environmental impact. The environmental features of anarchist housing are not particularly explicit in Ward’s discussions, but many anarchists such as Murray Bookchin[xii] and Henry David Thoreau[xiii] understood there to be strong parallels between anarchism and environmentalism. This was expressed in housing as being about simplicity, self-sufficiency and human scale approaches which reduced humans needs while restoring a concern for the environment. In other words the anarchist house has minimal resource needs and enables interactions with the environment which in turn allows people to understand their direct environmental implications.


[i] Colin, C (2004). Anarchism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.

[ii] Ward, C (1973) Anarchy in Action. George Allen & Unwin. p. 11.

[iii] Ward, C (1992) Anarchy in Action. Freedom Press, London, p. 5.

[iv] Ward, C (2002) Cotters and Squatters: Housing’s Hidden History. Five Leaves, Nottingham

[v] Hardy, D and Ward, C (1984) Arcadia for All: The Legacy of a Makeshift Landscape. Five Leaves Publications, Nottingham.

[vi] Ward, C (2011) Alternatives in Architecture, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.

[vii] Turner, J. F. C. (1976) Housing by People: Towards Autonomy in Building Environments, Marion Boyars, London.

[viii] Ward, C (2011) The Anarchist House, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.

[ix] Ward, C (2011) Alternatives in Architecture, in Wilbert, C and White, D, F (eds.) Autonomy, Solidarity and Possibility: The Colin Ward Reader. AK Press, Edinburgh.

[x] Ward, C (1990) Talking Houses. Freedom Press, London.

[xi] Brand, S (1997) How Buildings Learn: What happens after they’re built. Phoenix Illustrated, London.

[xii] Bookchin, M (1986) Toward an ecological society. Black Rose Books, Montreal, Canada.

[xiii] Thoreau, H D (1980) Walden

 

My house and home: Living in an eco-house August 23, 2013

We have lived in our new eco-house for six years now and at time progress has been very slow – we are only just feeling like we have got it how we want it to be. But it has also been far more transformative that I had imagined, knowing where my water and electricity comes from and where my waste goes has made me far more conscious about how I use resources. There is still something wonderful about having a sun-heated bath, and rejoicing when it rains because it fills the rainwater harvester. We had long held a dream to build somewhere that not only reduced our environmental impact and facilitated a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, but would also dramatically reduce our running costs and increase our resilience to climatic uncertainty.

80    IMG_1349

Deciding to build an eco-house with my mother generated a surprisingly number of shocked responses from friends and family. They variously thought Maggie to be too old (she was only in her late 50’s) for such a challenge, and that she would cramp my life choices. Few understood how our skills, ideas and dreams complemented each other. Maggie had explored the idea of living in existing communities and we met with others interested in establishing new eco-co-housing schemes. But we realised we did not want to wait for the slowness of collaborative enterprises and that living together would provide enough challenges, and entail new ways of working together as it was.

DSC_0340    wood stove comp

We have taken a very pragmatic approach to the build. Inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Autonomous House we started with a utopian vision which was quickly scaled down. Our choices have been very much shaped by financial and practical limitations and a desire to complete the project so that we could get on with living the way we wanted to. We were determined to prove that older people and those with full-time jobs could still self-build and be eco. Although we had a sizeable budget it was also only slightly more than the average house price and we had no back-up plan.

DSC_0304   house 2

This budget bought us a small (10th of an acre) triangle plot in rural Leicesterhire, near Melton Mowbray. By facing south the house makes the most of passive solar heating through large A rated timber-framed windows, with thick dense block walls (made from 100% recycled aggregate) creating a high thermal mass (with sheepswool insulation in the roof) and reducing noise and vibrations from the abutting railway line. We wanted to build a house that was cheap to run and simple to maintain, only using technology we could understand and if necessary learn how to fix. The house remains at around 17 C without heating, even in winter, though we do have a Clearview wood stove as a back-up. Our solar thermal evacuated tube arrays also work all year round, and when the sun is not shining we heat water either by the wood stove or an efficient electric immersion. Our rainwater harvester feeds the toilets (low-flush IFO CERA from the Green Building Store) and washing machine, and we have low-flow showers to reduce water use. Energy use is much reduced by an induction cooker, A+ appliances, low-energy lighting and the bright aspect reduces the need for lights to be on. A couple of years ago we also installed photovoltaic panels and now (averaged over the whole year) we generate roughly the same electricity as we use.

DSC_0037  house 1

We tried, wherever possible, to source reclaimed, local, and untreated material. Our reclaimed pitch-pine floors came from an old Liverpool factory via the local salvage yard, our reclaimed-pine kitchen units and internals doors were made in Lincolnshire, our Douglas Fir deck has been left untreated, our jute and wool carpets were ordered from the local shop. We, of course, carried on using existing furniture, rescued some pieces from a tip, made some new pieces with help from my father, and added colour by painting tiles ourselves.

DSC_0359   DSC_0350

We developed some golden rules during the build: we would choose environmentally-friendly products over visual looks; we could not buy anything for the house without mutual agreement; we would worry more about cost than time taken to complete things; local suppliers and workforce were best; just because it was not the conventional way of doing things did not mean it would not work.

We struggled, at times, to communicate to others what we meant by eco: it took a while for my dad to understand reclaimed, native, or FSC wood and eco-varnish; the plumbers questioned what our washing would turn out like if we used rainwater; and the painters objected to using Osmo and ECOS paint. Early on we met plenty of patronising builders who advised us to ‘forget all that eco-stuff’ and raised eyebrows when they understood we were two women building a house. But with a highly supportive eco-architect (Andrew Yeats of EcoArc) and a knowledgeable project manager willing to engage with eco-ideas we eventually found suppliers and stockists of the things we needed. My partner, friends and family were invaluable in helping is complete the build – with seemingly endless shelving to put up, a woodshed to build, furniture to strip, and gardens paths to lay. Since moving in a local carpenter has agreed to drop off his off-cuts which we use to supplement our homemade newspaper logs and purchased logs for the wood stove, and a neighbour has offered us free seedlings for our garden. Our house has started all sorts of conversations and we have often invited in passers by who have stopped to ask us questions.

 House Nov 08    DSC_0362 

At times we have to remind ourselves why we made certain compromises (often due to a lack of money or plot space). Now the project is complete we have the confidence in our choices to wonder if we couldn’t have been bolder in some of our earlier decisions. Externally the house has a big visual impact on the landscape (ironically a result of the planning permission which stipulated that it replicate the look of the previous house demolished by Network Rail). We have tried to mitigate this impact by covering the lower external walls with red cedar cladding and choosing a dark slate-effect roof (using Ardesia recycled tyre roofing), but we could have been more radical in our design. We now have the confidence to follow our gut instincts and compromise less in our search for environmental solutions. We only hope that our house will inspire others to follow their dreams too.

DSC_0301

A verion of this article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine

 

Findhorn Eco-village, Forres, Scotland July 24, 2013

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 3:40 pm

DSC_3819   DSC_3911

Houses at Findhorn 

Trying to summarise what Findhorn is about, what it does and what contribution it makes is almost impossible. Every visitor, resident, student or employee would focus on something different. Even in its own literature it describes itself as a ‘spiritual community, learning centre, ecovillage’. It is these three things and so much more. Moreover, while I am primarily interested in its green buildings, these cannot be viewed in isolation from the way decisions are made (governance structures), people work together (community spirit), income is earned and distributed, the nature in which these buildings sit and the ways in which daily life is structured.

DSC_4017    DSC_3978

I had the great pleasure of visiting for a week in June 2013. I was attending the International Communal Studies Association (ICSA) conference being held on site, but also participated in a taster experience of life at Findhorn for three days beforehand. This involved understanding community processes (such as sharing, attunement, the game of transformation and meditation), the history and evolution of the Foundation, and learning community games, singing and how work was done in different departments (I had the fun of picking rhubarb). It was a brief foray into the place, but it also felt utterly absorbing and inviting. I left with a feeling of having been openly welcomed, hugged, and shared with. This was not a normal feeling for me. I am a reserved British female academic who rarely hugs, holds hands with others, sings or dances (certainly not in front of others). But there is something about Findhorn which invites you to shed your inhibitions (no, it wasn’t the alcohol!) and to listen and share. When it was time to leave I experienced a physical shock at returning to the disconnected world beyond; that all too familiar place where we do not talk to strangers and try our best never to touch.

Findhorn map

[Click on map to enlarge]

Underlying ethos

Findhorn was not planned and its founders (Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean) did not intend to start a community. They moved into a Caravan Park on the site in 1962 having lost their jobs at a local hotel. However, their spiritual practice and surprising success at growing vegetables in the poor soil of the sand dunes drew others to the area and by the 1970’s an impromptu spiritual community was already 150 strong. This drew others, such as David Spangler, who saw the potential in Findhorn as an educational space. Thus Findhorn began as a spiritual community, rather than a particularly ecological one. For many Findhorn is a deeply spiritual place where time is taken to understand yourself (‘the small voice within’) and communicate purposefully with others and nature. This emphasis is reflected in the three principles of Findhorn (the meaning of which I am simplifying):

  1. Deep inner listening: Practising Eileen Caddy’s approach to spirituality is to listen to one’s own inner voice deep within to find the answers to life’s questions
  2. Co-creation with nature: To work with and have respect for nature
  3. Love in action: Work is love in action, this includes work in the village but also the work of communication to others

DSC_3836

The form of this spirituality is not prescribed, dogmatic, or a doctrine, rather it is yours to evolve and develop, and places such as the nature sanctuary are thus central to much of that practice at Findhorn. It is reported that there are at least 47 different cultural practices evident at Findhorn.

Findhorn as an eco-village emerged as a secondary ethos, in the late 1980s when members such as John Talbott sought to build better houses on the site and began experimenting with eco-building. Over the years the community had purchased the Caravan Park and other land surrounding it (via fundraising), and this was a space for experimentation when Findhorn became very building focused into the 1990’s. For Talbott this emphasis was not separate to the spiritual practices at Findhorn, rather they were the act of ‘translating these early principles of cooperation and working with nature into a built environment’ (Talbott, 1995, 17). Thus rather than there being a tension between spiritual practice and building an alternative ecological world, it is through spiritual practice that better environmental solutions are developed. Green building is considered a physical manifestation of the cultural and spiritual sustainability already practiced and thus Findhorn began a period of combining the spiritual with the practical.

The nature sanctuary

The buildings

This village began as caravans, many of them in poor condition and many residents still live in them (about 100 are still on site). Having caravans is a great way to start an eco-village, but they are not good for a long term living. The village is now split into different developments and for anyone interested in eco-housing is a unique place to explore so many different varieties in such proximity. Approximately 400 people now live on site.

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Caravans on site

HOUSING DESIGN: The emphasis on co-creation with nature led to a focus on building better homes that were more ecological. Over the years a number of different forms and designs have been tried. There are houses made from old whisky barrels, strawbale, and tyres, but in the last few years Findhorn decided that the best houses for the climate and affordability are timber frame with high insulation. There are some excellent examples of individual buildings which are central to the community – such as the Universal Hall, Community Centre, and Guest Lodge, but what really interests me are the houses.

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The Barrel Houses

These are clustered into different areas of the village. The first eco-houses were the Barrel Houses made from recycled timber vats from a local whisky distillery. Bag End was a cluster of more conventional, though just as radical for the time, timber frame eco-houses. Then Field of Dreams was built and a whole array of self- and architect-designed buildings emerged. Soillse is a unique bomb-proof set of buildings to the far east of the village which had extra requirements placed on them because of their proximity to the air force base (since closed).

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Houses in the Field of Dreams

Most of these houses are ecological, inspiring, colourful, inviting and because there are so many it is hard to know where to start in exploring them. Of the buildings I stayed in and explored it was clear that timber frame worked well here and they are comfortable buildings. It is notable, however, that as with every development time changes things. At Bag End the houses were built to be passive solar, but at the same time Findhorn was on a tree-planting mission. These trees have since grown so that Bag End feels like it is in a deep woodland – thus cutting off much of the passive solar gain. In another example, in Field of Dreams which were more individually designed, not all residents have made sensible ecological choices, for example determining where to locate the wood stove according to looks rather than need. The houses have two other noticeable tensions; fences and vegetable growing. There are few private gardens growing vegetables, whether that is due to climate, pests or desire, food provision is obviously a central ecological practice. Findhorn had intended to discourage fences around houses, preferring to keep space common and shared, but gradually fences are being erected.

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Soillse houses

The latest stage in eco-housing are the new co-housing developments (East Whins) complete in 2013 and planned for West Whins. These signal a shift for Findhorn in releasing land for developer-led construction (an experience which has not been entirely positive) and a search for a less individualistic housing structure; seeking to extend their practice of community into new houses.

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Co-housing in East Whins

PRIVATE OWNERSHIP: This shift to co-housing has in part been because of the rise of private ownership of houses and land at Findhorn. People have freehold and thus can sell on open market. Findhorn is now trying to restrict this and restrict absentee landlords by determining that all homes must be occupied. Findhorn has also introduced social contracts as part of purchase agreements using Common Ground guidelines (see below). Despite these restrictions the complicated and private ownership of much of Findhorn has limited their capacity to then deal with issues of affordability.

LACK OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Housing remains a significant problem at Findhorn. There continues to be a need for affordable housing for co-workers of the Foundation, but much of the property on site is now owned privately, is very expensive and sought after. They are trying to find cheaper ways of building homes. The co-houses cost £180,000 per unit and the Findhorn Foundation has purchased a few flats in order to provide affordable housing for its employees, though it is limited in how much capital it can raise to do this. At the same time they have looked at the caravans they still have on site. The Foundation has planning permission to replace caravans with equivalent structures, and thus has developed the Ecomobile. At a cost of just £40,000, using minimal foundations, they have developed an elongated structure with simple internal design and open plan living and kitchen with outside deck space, they are fantastic small eco-houses.

DSC_3922 Ecomobile

Governance structure

Given Findhorn’s haphazard growth and development it is not surprising that it has had to develop (and then re-develop) its governance structures as the community grew and needs changed. In the 1990’s there was significant change, triggered in part by its continued growth, but also financial difficulties.

Findhorn was separated into the Findhorn Foundation (which includes the Findhorn Foundation College and New Findhorn Directions, and does the work of running the infrastructure and visitor facilities) and the broader community organisations and individuals working onsite. In the 1990’s many of the business which had been developed within Findhorn became independent (such as Findhorn Press, Trees for Life, The Phoenix shop, and The Game of Transformation), but remained physically in the eco-village. The umbrella organisation over the whole village is the New Foundation Association (NFA), formed in 1999. In seeking to outline what communality there is across these potentially disparate groups a statement of Common Ground which outlines 14 guidelines for the Findhorn Foundation Community was developed.

Findhorn Common Ground  Findhorn mind map

[Click on images to enlarge them]

In essence the village is divided between those who are part of the Foundation (co-workers, get paid by it, eat communally) and those who are not (and can live relatively separate lies), and the NFA is the community association which is attempting to bring together the diversity on site. This is helped significantly by the Rainbow Bridge community magazine which is printed and distributed weekly and includes minutes of committee meetings.

The Foundation is no longer run by consensus. Instead decisions are made by a management committee who liaises with a Council of all members of the Foundation. The management committee gets elected and the heads of the work departments/ units are chosen by the committee. Despite this quite formal structure decisions often made through spiritual and cultural practice such as attunement – silence and reflection to attune to the task or respond to a question about a decision which is needed, often while people are holding hands and standing in circles. What is most surprising about this practice is how well it seems to work. The focus for the Foundation now is on good management, through greater coherence across the village, but also greater transparency and accountability.

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Office space

There are some interesting tensions around money. Co-workers get a small monthly stipend of £200 and free board and lodging, though housing is limited. Findhorn is a place of growing private businesses, private land ownership and wealth, alongside co-workers on very low wages. There is no obligation to share personal money, although they have their own local currency – Eko – which helps keep wealth in the region.

Self-sufficiency and autonomy

Being ecological is not the same as being self-sufficient, but there are important overlaps. Findhorn has an interesting relationship to place – the focus on spirituality overshadows attempts at environmental self-sufficiency, yet it has had a significant positive impact on the region and internationally. Findhorn is located in north east Scotland on the shore of Findhorn bay, just east of Inverness. It can be a harsh environment in which to live, with a short growing season. They do not provide much of their own food onsite, growing roughly 5% of their needs. In the early 1990’s Findhorn had a Community Supported Agriculture scheme but it collapsed; now few people work in the gardens. However, it has half the ecological footprint per person of the UK national average (Tinsley and George, 2006). They have several large wind turbines and many homes make use of solar power.

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Bag End houses

Its education programmes provide the main avenue for income. Since the 1990’s they have worked hard, and developed specific programmes line Building Bridges, to reach out to others and extend their education programmes, corporate links and to bring a wider diversity of people into the village. In addition, their presence and their business have meant that in 2003 it was estimated that Findhorn created £3.8 million in value of economic impact for the local area. Thus, ironically for an eco-village, they are perhaps more economically sustainable than they are environmentally self-sufficient.

Remaining questions

My time at Findhorn was brief and I have doubtless missed many nuances that only come with an extended stay. My visit prompted many questions for me and I am left with these:

? The importance of age in community: Findhorn has only recently engaged with the issue of having an aging population, and they do not have any pension provision. Several conference speakers talked about their work exploring co-care in age specific living (50+), while others wanted to commit to building intergenerational communities. Either way there remain many questions around how to better plan for aging residents and care.

? Food production: There was a lack of emphasis on this at Findhorn, and it is notable how many eco-communities lack agricultural skills. I would like to know more about why this is and what can we do to correct it.

? Local economic and social impact: There was much talk at Findhorn about the positive impact on the region, and some economic figures, but I would like to know more about what residents not associated with the village think about it. Many people are associated with Findhorn beyond the site itself, but what impacts is it really having?

? Housing affordability: Ironically Findhorn has become such a desirable place to live that they have pushed up the local market house prices. We still need more and better models of housing affordability which work. What do we need to do to change our housing system?

Thank you

I would like to extend special thanks to Findhorn residents Craig Gibsone and Dürten Lau, the focalisers for the taster experience, and for all the residents of the Guest Lodge and in my taster group that week for a whole lot of fun. Also to Graham Meltzer for the best conference I have ever been to.

References

Findhorn Foundation Community (2012) 50 Findhorn Birthday Book Spirit of the Future. New Findhorn Association, Findhorn.

Forster, P. M and Wilhelmus, M (2005) The Role of Individuals in Community Change Within the Findhorn Intentional Community, Contemporary Justice Review, Vol. 8, Iss. 4, 2005

Hawken, P (1975) The Magic of Findhorn. Book Club Associates, London.

Inglig, M (1996) Findhorn Foundation: Nature Spirits and New Age Business, Chapter 11 in B. Metcalf (ed) Shared Visions, Shared Lives: Communal Living around the Globe. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland, pp.119-129

Metcalf, W (2004) Community Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland

Riddell, C (1990) The Findhorn Community: Creating a Human Identity for the 21st Century. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Sutcliffe, S (2000) A Colony of Seekers: Findhorn in the 1990s. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 15, Issue 2, pages 215-231

Talbott, J (1995) The Findhorn Community, in Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities: Models for 21st Century Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Talbott, J (1997) Simply Build Green: A Technical guide to the ecological houses at the Findhorn Foundation. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Tinsley, T and George, H (2006) Ecological Footprint of the Findhorn Foundation and Community. Available at: http://www.ecovillagefindhorn.com/docs/FF%20Footprint.pdf

Further contact

Findhorn Foundation

The Park

Findhorn

Moray IV36 3TZ

Scotland

enquiries@findhorn.org

www.findhorn.org

To visit Findhorn: You are able to visit Findhorn for a day and walk around the village, stay onsite at one of the many private B&B’s or join an Experience Week. There is an excellent cafe onsite – Blue Angel – that serves food and drink.

[July 2013]

 

Book review: The Birth of an eco-village by Paul Wimbush

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Politics of building — naturalbuild @ 11:09 am

Book cover

Starting an eco-village is such an enormous and ambitious task that few attempt it and many fail early on. Despite a plethora of books about eco-village living, few detail the full painstaking journey of founding one (Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a Life Together and Jan Martin Bang’s Growing Eco-Communities being the two main exceptions). This book does just that, and more, by reflecting upon the birth of the Lammas eco-village (now called Tir y Gafel) in Pembrokeshire, west Wales. Still in its early stages (planning permission was awarded in 2009), the book is a beautifully honest and personal account of how Lammas came into being.

It is the honesty of the story crafted by Paul Wimbush which makes this a joy to read. Interspersed with snippets of personal diary the book is raw with emotion, struggle, energy, disappointment and ultimately success. By including all the detail of the four year journey from inception to reality, Paul reflects upon all the difficult moments when the project looked set to fail, the intractability of the British planning system, and the sheer slow and laborious work of the early years of the project. Yet this book is all the more inspirational for being honest about what happened and what was required. This honesty extends to including details of costs involved, the difficulty of forming convincing business plans, and the reliance on volunteer input.

Paul begins the book in his early years as he discovers and lives in Tipi Valley, then Brithdir Mawr and finally Holtsfield, all in Wales. At each place he learns more skills (living with fire, living on the land, carpentry, working as a group, animal husbandry etc) and more about how he would ideally like to live. Through this journey of different communities he develops a need for permanent purpose-built eco-housing, space for privacy, freedom and more structured social organisation. His experience of various planning battles and fraught legal situations created a desire to secure planning permission upfront for Lammas, rather than endure the retrospective planning fights of so many other eco-villages in Britain.

The second half of the book traces the journey from the conception of Lammas to its planning victory; from finding the land, the people, the design and structure, to traversing the local planning system, local opposition, and coping with low morale as planning applications were repeatedly rejected. The message is clear that we need new policy and political frameworks to enable eco-villages like Lammas to be more easily replicated.

The book is at times saddening, but ultimately optimistic, and even for those unlikely to embark on such an adventure, Paul’s journey and beliefs are cause for reflection on one’s own choices, needs and life decisions. As Paul himself argues: ‘It is possible to live lightly upon this land. Development can be low-impact. Our structures can be beautiful. Farming can work alongside wildlife. Permaculture can feed us. There are alternatives. They are available now’ (p.158). Having read this book I am even more convinced of this than I was before.

FeedARead Publishing, 2012

159pp

£7.00

[Review first appeared in Permaculture Magazine]

Jenny Pickerill

 

Evaluating the success of an eco-house March 4, 2013

Filed under: Building materials,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 9:43 am

How do we judge how ‘good’ an eco-house is? By its ecological performance, what it feels like to live in it, how long it lasts, how much it cost? All of these are used, some formally in post occupancy evaluation, and others more informally in judging what worked and what hasn’t in new buildings. Post occupancy evaluation seeks the opinion of those who live (or work) in buildings, but too often eco-houses are judged just by their cost versus carbon emission savings, or how robust they are. While I am most interested in the balance between building a structure which is ecological as well as nice to live in, and thus tend to focus on people’s experiences and feelings about their homes, I know that we also need to measure the performance of buildings, especially in how they keep warmth in or not.

Recently I have been using a thermal imager, newly purchased by the Geography Department at the University of Leicester, to explore how much houses lose their heat.

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Thermal image (at night) of a conventional house (to the left) and a straw bale eco-house (to the right)

Comparing a straw bale house (in North Yorkshire) with a more conventional house in similar freezing temperatures it was clear to see the benefits of eco-building in terms of reducing heat loss. The conventional house leaked heat – with its external wall temperature as high as 15.9C, whereas the straw bale house external wall temperature was only -2C. Both houses where heated internally and where between 18 and 20 C inside. Notably the ‘hot spots’ on the image for the conventional house where were the radiators were on the wall – the heat was literally leaking straight out of the walls and windows next to the radiators.

Of course, a thermal image only tells us so much. It cannot judge for us which is the most comfortable house to live in. We can assume that the conventional house leaking heat probably costs more in energy consumption, that it is less ecological, and that the internal temperature is more uneven. Likewise we can assume that the straw bale house has low energy costs, has an even temperature and is more ecological. But what does it feel like to live in? Does it feel warm and cosy? Which would people prefer to live in? All these are qualitative questions about feelings, emotions and expectations and cannot be measured by scientific results alone. We need to continue to develop creative ways in which to judge the success of eco-housing and not rely on measures of energy efficiency alone.

[Jenny Pickerill, March 2013]

 

 
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