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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]

 

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.

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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.

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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.

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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).

DSC_3745    DSC_3682DSC_3778    DSC_3754

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

 

LILAC, Leeds: Low Impact Living Affordable Community February 5, 2013

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 2:36 pm

LILAC is a new co-housing eco-development in urban west Leeds (Bramley), Britain. It is particularly interesting because it is using straw bale, it is accessible (the definition of which I will return to), affordable, grassroots, collective, and (sub)urban. There are 12 flats, 8 houses and a communal house, building work is advancing at a pace and they hope to move in during spring 2013.

overview

View of the site from the road in Bramley, west Leeds

LILAC grew from many years of discussions and a desire for an eco-village type settlement in Leeds. In addition to being ecological it was important for the founders that any development was urban – enabling them to travel easily to work in the city without cars – and that it was affordable – few had the capital to invest in expensive housing. As logical as this may seem, few eco-developments have really achieved this in Britain with most new community builds tending to be in more rural spaces and despite best efforts most required a significant capital investment (or large mortgage).

flat block

Community and communal space

The community and communal aspects of living were also central; notably trying to ensure that delicate balance between providing enough privacy and enabling people to share resources, space and social lives. Hence the co-housing model was adopted whereby people have individual homes (and in this case a small outside space), but share a communal house, larger gardens, play areas, and laundry facilities. Community agreements to manage responsibility and expectations are still being developed but are likely to involve a community contribution expectation of two hours a week (with board members devoting four hours a week). This is actually very low in comparison to other projects I have visited and reflects an approach at LILAC that has carefully considered the workload implications of community living. For example, rather than plant the communal gardens with labour-intensive annals, there are plans to use lots of perennial planting (such as fruit trees) in order to reduce maintenance time and tasks.

Their community house is also much bigger than other examples I have seen, it has a large light meeting area, a nice kitchen, a couple of office spaces, large film showing space, bathroom and shower. Crucially it has been built on the edge of the site so that it is directly accessible from the street and forms a welcoming way into the community. Given its size and location it is likely to become the hub of this new community and it is easy to see the potential for other local groups to use it as a meeting place too.

Building design and function

The buildings are designed by the architects White Design and it is the first residential building to use the Modcell approach. The method involved building wooden frames and packing them full of straw bale. All this is done in a local ‘flying factory’ (a temporary local space where the panels are assembled) and then joined together onsite (a bit like flat pack building). It creates straight block walls and most of the windows are floor to ceiling – giving huge views and a range of light inside.

Modcell have tested this approach and already proved its high ecological credentials, so I have little doubt that the development will achieve its aims of low carbon emissions, low energy bills, low embedded carbon and a long-lasting build. What has yet to be seen is how it will feel to live in the buildings. They could be likened to office buildings; very angular, straight and boxy. It is an interesting aesthetic which is very hard to judge at this stage without occupancy or landscaping, and could be considerably softened by both. Moreover, how furniture, storage and people fit into the space is yet to be seen.

render inside

Rendering the straw bale panel walls and inside an almost completed house with floor to ceiling windows

There is also an interesting disjuncture between what makes a building ecological and what makes it pleasant to live in. For example, in the communal house, there is an office on the north side of the building. Because it is on the north side there are very few windows, in fact most are up high and thus difficult to look out from. When I visited with some residents they immediately worried that the room was going to be too dark. But if they added in windows it would change the ecological performance of the building. So is the office missing a window or is the office in the wrong part of the building?

As with all new builds some parts of the design are really inspiring. They have used the hall space in the apartment buildings for spare rooms. It is a really interesting idea. It is a tiny space, just enough for a double bed, but it is private and cosy and is clearly going to be really useful. At the same time, I wonder how other, really small things, might work. There are some interesting problematic locations of window latches. In the upstairs bedrooms (whole, floor to ceiling length windows), two sections open, but I would struggle to reach the top one, despite being tall (5ft 10 inches). In the bathrooms there is a row of windows right at the top of the wall – I could not reach the latches. Not only will this make it inconvenient to use, but will probably reduce people’s use of them and reduce the airing of the building, which in turn could lead to mould issues. However, I am sure there is a simple solution and it is perhaps no more problematic than when I installed ceiling windows that only opened using a turning mechanism – impossible to do from a 10ft distance! In other words, it is always so easy to come in and critique someone else’s building.

Accessibility

LILAC have thought quite a lot about accessibility in all its forms – encouraging a diverse range of residents, ensuring disabled access, designing in affordability, choosing a suburban location (and inviting local residents to engage with eco-housing), and thinking about how the community will run on a very practical level. It is really nice to see a project where there are clearly many different people of all ages going to be living there. The houses and flats are all different sizes, catering for single occupants with one bedroom flats up to families with four bedrooms.

construction

First foor of houses being built

Disability has also been planned for. All the doors are disabled access and will have flush and smooth entrances (low thresholds). Thus all ground floor flats have disabled access. The community house has a lift, which means that they can access all areas, including a shower and bathroom area. However, there is no lift in the apartment blocks, so there is no disabled access to the spare rooms or higher flats. This might all seem logical and certainly many new developments employ the standards of Lifetime Homes to ensure accessibility, but all too often eco-developments abandon accessible designs due to cost and many eco-developments remain the preserve of the young and able-bodied, with little consideration for how people will remain in their homes as they age.

Affordability has also always been central to the plans for LILAC and they have achieved this by developing a model whereby regardless of which size accommodation you live in you pay 35% of your net income for your home. This is paid as a form of rent, but actually residents are slowly buying their home through share purchase (or equity stakes). Once they have bought it their payments reduce and the money is used for communal good. In an era of high house prices, rising rents and falling incomes, this ratio of accommodation costs seems particularly appealing. It has taken LILAC considerable work to develop this system and ensure that it is financially robust and allows for residents to leave and join the community. It still requires a deposit and still enables those with more money to afford bigger properties, but it is one of the few eco-developments to take the issue of affordability seriously, further details are available at: http://www.lilac.coop/concept/affordable.html.

LILAC has yet to be completed but has already generated significant media and political interest. It is certainly a ground-breaking project and they are hopeful that others will be inspired and adopt some of the approaches (such as the affordability model) that they have developed. They are also conducting post occupancy research and have already run workshops to share what they have learnt with others. I have no doubt that LILAC will become not just a great place to live, but a role model for community eco-building for years to come.

For more information about LILAC see their great website: http://www.lilac.coop/, also Paul Chatterton, one of the founders of the project, has recently published an academic journal article on LILAC; Chatterton, P (2013) Towards an agenda for post-carbon cities: Lessons from LILAC, the UK’s first ecological, affordable, cohousing community. International Journal for Urban and Regional Research . ISSN 0309-1317.

[Written by Jenny Pickerill (February 2013) using information based on a site visit in November 2012 and informal discussions with founders of LILAC]

 

The Triangle Housing Project, Swindon, UK June 28, 2012

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples — naturalbuild @ 3:20 pm

The Triangle Housing Project (Swindon UK) was designed by Glenn Howells Architects  and was the vision of Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame. His aim was to build beautiful, contemporary, affordable, sustainable homes and still make money. He wanted to put into practice his ideology that housing should be a combination of Happiness, Architecture and Beauty (HAB Housing). In order to make it affordable McCloud worked with a housing Association (GreenSquare) who intended to sell some properties and retain others for rental.

 

The Triangle is a 42-home development with a variety of properties from one bedroom to four bedrooms. Completed 2011 its progress and ambitions were documented for ‘Kevin’s Grand Design TV series’ on Channel 4 (in the UK). In other words, this was a developer-led project aiming to incorporate many approaches already tested in more radical self-built housing, but rarely in large-scale British developments.

The project tried to do many things differently to a standard British housing development: it tried to make well-built eco-houses affordable; implemented novel design features to ‘mass’ housing (ventilation chimneys); used new materials (hempcrete); made the houses very small and open plan; and built large communal space. The hempcrete was grown locally and used for the external walls, and rooms were given higher ceilings to enable more light to flood small rooms and make then feel bigger. Individual gardens were small but a large communal garden was put into community trust ownership and people encouraged to grow food collectively. Overall, 50% of land is for sharing. Overall, the aim of this development was to build low-impact, low-carbon, and high-value houses.

Did it work? Maybe it is still too early to tell but the results are a bit mixed so far. This is not to say there is still not a great deal of inspiration to be taken from this project and its novelties were always bound to attract the critics. It is definitely a test case. On the one hand the design has certainly won lots of awards. On the other hand plans to sell the properties had to be put on hold because they would not have been able to sell them at a price low enough to have been considered affordable, in other words, they ultimately cost more than Kevin McCloud had hoped. According to reports so far many residents (all rental) really like it. However, some were mistakes were made. In the TV series following the development it became obvious that no one from the design team had thought to consult potential residents on what they needed or wanted. One new resident said to McCloud that he ‘had needed a woman’s perspective’ to point out that they had failed to design in any space for storage, which with lots of children was proving problematic. Neighbours were also not convinced by the higher-than-average height of the new houses which consequently towered over their existing homes.

The main problem appears to be the lack of quality building work. In a recent BBC Online article ‘Defects at Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud’s homes‘, residents complained of water leaks, cracked walls and ceilings, and broken rainwater harvesters. The architects are putting the blame squarely at the door of the builders describing their work as ‘bad building. There are hardly any design issues there, it’s to do with the quality of the building works’. That said McCloud himself had been shocked at the low budget allocated for each kitchen. At just £900 per kitchen he had worried that the kitchens had looked and felt too cheap. As to whether these are teething problems that all buildings go through, or a more fundamental problem is not yet clear. However, the situation does highlight the expectation and, I would argue, the need for eco-houses especially to be well constructed. Without good seals and well-fit windows, for example, the design features of houses such as this are easily undermined.

For more information about the development there is an interesting review in  The Architects Journal about Triangle, and a brochure about the project.

[June 2012]

 

NEW REPORT: Low Impact Communities in Britain March 27, 2012

I have recently given several talks around Britain about how we can encourage the building of more low impact communities. I have collated the talks into a short report on the topic, available here as a PDF: Low impact communities in Britain.

The report identifies three key types of barrier to low impact communities: political, economic and cultural, and outlines what these barriers entail and some possible solutions. It also outlines four different case studies, and some other issues which are important to consider when encouraging eco-housing. Finally, the report outlines common pitfalls and the best way to successfully build low impact communities, which I argue involves:

      1. Use hybrid materials or straw bale
      2. Have a mutual housing ownership or a rental model
      3. Build collectively
      4. Have a pioneer and a risk taker driving project
      5. Share key infrastructure, by having a co-housing organisational structure
      6. Build on ‘marginal’ land or remove land from the market mechanism
      7. Build small with an open plan design
      8. Use locally available materials
      9. Minimise use of technology
      10. Plan long-term maintenance
      11. Establish strong community agreements
      12. Have a good simple passive design

 Please share the report freely and I would welcome any comments.

[27th March, Leicester]

 

Learning from Lilac: Low Impact Affordable living in Leeds, Britain March 5, 2012

Filed under: Britain,Building materials,Cost of housing,Inspiring examples — naturalbuild @ 8:22 pm

Apologies to those not in Britain, but there is a really interesting workshop coming up on 10th May in Leeds. Lilac stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community. It is a member-led co-operative housing society building an affordable, cohousing community in Leeds. They are using a co-housing design approach to build 20 houses and a common house from strawbale and timber through a prefabricated product called Modcell (enabling cheap, quick, collective and local construction).

They have just started building (on a 0.7 hectare site in inner city Leeds) and there is a lot to be learnt from this project. In particular they have deliberately organised the project to remain affordable in perpetuity using a mutual home ownership model. In effect each resident pays just 35% of their net household income towards the costs of living at Lilac (and thus if you earn more you pay more). This is not just paid as rent however, all residents co-own the project (through equity shares) and as such all have a vested interest to make it work and maintain it. In order to ensure that the project was within their available budget they have had to make compromises, such as using gas as an energy source, and only aiming to achieve Level 4 of the UK Government’s Code for Sustainable Homes. This was done in part, however, to balance the energy needs of occupants with the cost limitations and is indicative of a participatory and considered approach to low impact and lost cost building.

Lilac also received a £420,000 grant from the Homes and Communities Agency (UK Government) and have funded the bulk of their initial costs through a loan from the bank Triodos.

The group have spent several years reaching this point and have spent considerable time ensuring that the process of the project was democratic and inclusive. They have developed several ‘community agreements’ which all residents have to agree to abide by and include forgoing have tumble dryers and dishwashers in their personal units, using the communal washing machines, and outlines how the communal spaces will be managed. They are also restricting the number of cars on site, insisting on car pooling and have tried to ‘design out’ carbon intensive activities. Overall, this is an exciting project and definitely one to follow. I am not personally involved, however, several of my long time friends are central to the project so I might be a little biased!

++++ Learning from Lilac: An invitation to a day workshop ++++

In association with the UK Cohousing Network (www.cohousing.org.uk)

Thursday 10th May 2012. 10am – 5pm
School of Geography, University of Leeds. University Road. Leeds. LS2 9JT.

ABOUT THE DAY
Lilac is hosting a day to share its learning to help other similar projects develop their ideas into reality. This day is aimed at those who wish to set up housing projects who have an emphasis on being – community-focused, low impact, co-operative, affordable, member-led, mutual. Topics in the morning will briefly cover:

.       The Lilac project in brief so far – key milestones, challenges, successes
.       How to go about finding land
.       Options for financing your project
.       Developing good group process and making decisions collectively
.       Attracting members
.       The Project Manager and what they will do for you
.       The Quantity Surveyor and what they will do for you
.       The Solicitor and dealing with legal issues
.       Ways forward, networking and supporting projects

Additional topics will be covered in the afternoon reflecting the interests of participants. Please use the form below to state the topics you would like to see covered (for example Lilac’s Mutual Home Ownership model, Lilac’s environmental strategy, grant finding, what is cohousing, the role of a common house).

+++ To Book your place +++

Places are limited to 30 participants. To book your place please send a cheque for £10 payable to ‘The University of Leeds’ and the booking form to: Paul Chatterton, School of Geography, University of Leeds, University Road, Leeds, LS2 9JT.

For further information about the day contact: learning@lilac.coop

[Leicester, 5th March 2012]

 

New self build sustainable housing scheme in Devon, UK December 21, 2011

The Land Society is setting up a new scheme in Devon (south west UK) to support local rural communities to develop energy efficient, affordable, sustainable homes. In their own words, “as part of The Land Society’s purpose of rebuilding rural economies we have identified that one major problem is the high cost of housing compared to rural wages. We are therefore working with the Community Land Trust (CLT) organisation, a regional Further Education college and Transition Town Totnes to develop Community Land Trust (CLT) developments of village self-build sustainable homes”.

This is a really interesting approach in that they are combining affordability with ecological design and training and skills required to build. It is focused not just on providing quality eco-housing, but in doing so as part of reviving rural economies. This social enterprise approach wants to avoid affordable housing being imposed on rural villages by external developers and instead wants local residents themselves to collaborate and build the houses that they need. They define ‘local residents’ as those who meet local-needs housing criteria (agreed with the local community) basically;
– children of local, long-time residents,
– have pre-school children, or children in local schools,
– work locally, especially in core/low paid services, e.g; education, healthcare, agriculture

In terms of cost they calculate that “ The cost of land, materials, training course and legal/planning will typically be about £85k, with a deposit of £5 -10k in stages, then balance payable quarterly in stages from an arranged mortgage. In addition the self-building work is valued at between £40-50,000, which becomes part of their equity in the property (or provides funds to complete the home if required). Members will typically own 60% equity in a home valued at about £225,000, and the balance will remain in the CLT for further social investment”. Although not necessarily ‘cheap’ the securing of the properties into a CLT means that they will remain available as affordable housing in the area permanently. They are not designed to be houses through which people make a profit and move on. The investment of considerable ‘sweat equity’ (working yourself to build your house) will also hopefully reduce the numbers of people who want simply to make money rather than invest time and energy in building rural communities.

In terms of design they have come up with a simple design intended specifically for self-build, which incorporates the following features:

  • Advanced passive solar design incorporating very high insulation (straw bale walls and sheep’s wool roof insulation) and thermal mass (rammed earth) for very low additional heating need
  • Straw bales rendered with clay have much higher fire resistance than timber framed houses, and provide excellent sound insulation.
  • Locally sourced, natural materials and simple, mainly hand tools build (including gabion rather than concrete foundations)
  • Adaptable with optional extras to suit individual families and site conditions
  • Flexible exterior proportions and finishes to blend with local vernacular
  • Designed to lifetime standards
  • Heating provided by wood burning stoves and solar hot water
  • Solar PV
  • Either dry compost loos or reed bed system for reduced use of water and sewerage
  • Rainwater harvesting
  • Simple site layout with minimal hard landscaping, keeping cars to one edge

If you live in south Devon and would like to be part of this pilot project, or if you’d like to be kept informed of progress, email them at selfbuildhomes@landsociety.com

 

Earth Building UK Conference 2012

Filed under: Britain,Building materials — naturalbuild @ 4:34 pm

For those of you in the UK there is a really interesting conference in a few weeks time in York. The organisation Earth Build UK  is having a conference on ‘The use of earth and clay plasters’. The organisation aims to promote and support building with earth in the UK by:

  • promote earth building in contemporary construction
  • assist the recognition, understanding and significance of earth buildings
  • foster traditional skills and promote new technologies
  • network our membership to promote earth building locally, nationally and internationally
  • research and develop technical understanding
  • share experience and knowledge through a program of seminars and annual conferences.

The conference is on 13th January and includes talks by Tom Morton (Arc Architects http://www.arc-architects.com/), Annabel Fawcus (EarthedWorld http://earthedworld.co.uk/), Ben Gourley (University of York), Nigel Copsey (Earth, Stone and Lime company http://www.nigelcopsey.com/), Andrew Heath (BRE Centre for Innovative Construction Materials, University of Bath http://www.bath.ac.uk/bre/), Adam Weismann and Katy Bryce (Clayworks http://www.clay-works.com/), Barbara Jones (Straw Works http://strawworks.co.uk/) and Neil May (Natural Building Technologies www.natural-building.co.uk).

The conference fee for EBUK members is £42.00. This includes refreshments and lunch. If you are not already an EBUK member the conference fee is £63.00 (this includes a full year’s membership of EBUK).

 

 
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