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NEW BOOK: Eco-Homes: People, place and politics November 30, 2015

My book about eco-homes worldwide will be published on 16th January 2016. It is being published by Zed Books (London) and Chicago University Press (USA) as a paperback, so hopefully reasonably affordable.

IMG_4877

Book blurb:

It is widely understood that good, affordable eco-housing needs to be at the heart of any attempt to mitigate or adapt to climate change. This is the first book to comprehensively explore eco-housing from a geographical, social and political perspective. It starts from the premise that we already know how to build good eco-houses and we already have the technology to retrofit existing housing. Despite this, relatively few eco-houses are being built.

Featuring over thirty case studies, from Britain, Spain, Thailand, Argentina and the USA, Eco-Homes examines the ways in which radical change to our houses – such as making them more temporary, using natural materials, or relying on manual heating and ventilation systems – requires changes in how we live. As such, it argues, it is not lack of technology or political will that is holding us back from responding to climate change, but deep-rooted cultural and social understandings of our way of life and what we expect our houses to do for us.

What others say about the book:

‘Without sustainable homes, there will not be a sustainable future. We need a detailed and cutting-edge book that teases out the complexities of the people, politics and places that will deliver the eco-homes of the future. Pickerill’s inspirational book does just this.’ Paul Chatterton, University of Leeds

‘Pickerill illuminates the contested nature of eco-homes and housing, bringing a refreshingly broad and much-needed feminist perspective to a subject that has been traditionally dominated by a technology-first approach.’ Fionn Stevenson, University of Sheffield

‘This fascinating book explores the many facets of eco-homes that are environmentally benign, emotionally rewarding, endearing, enduring, protecting and comforting …’ Susan Roaf, Heriot-Watt University

‘A timely reminder of different ways of living and housing people.’ Sofie Pelsmakers, author of The Environmental Design Pocketbook

 

 

Cambridge University survey on eco-roofing

Filed under: Building materials — naturalbuild @ 5:23 pm

Please consider completing this short survey about eco-roofing: https://jbs.qualtrics.com/SE/?SID=SV_b3FJq7Fw3sLvI21

This survey is conducted by University of Cambridge students. The findings will help in the launching of a new, environmentally friendly roofing solution.

The survey will take you approximately three minutes to complete and your responses will help us better understand environmentally friendly housing options.

 

RICS launches nationwide infrastructure photography competition September 20, 2014

Filed under: Britain,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 10:05 am

 

The Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) has launched a nationwide photography competition for members of the public to capture images of major infrastructure projects. Entrants are invited to photograph any human-made physical structure which benefits society, including roads, bridges, water supply systems, telecommunications and energy generating facilities, such as power stations or renewable sources of energy generation.

The competition has been launched to help champion the importance of major infrastructure projects to British society, both now and in the future. The competition is open for entries until the end of the year, and the winner and shortlisted entries will be celebrated in an exhibition which will open in February 2015.

Battersea rail tracks

 
Roma Agrawal will be Chair of the judging panel for the competition. She is an Associate Structural Engineer at WSP in London, and also spent six years working on The Shard, designing the foundations and the ‘Spire’.

Roma comments: “Through this competition we hope to bring the importance of the country’s major infrastructure projects to life. After all, it’s key that the British public understand these and that they are aware of the benefits these will bring to the country in the long term, be that to the job market or in terms of the general facilities available to the public.

“With a number of bold and innovative infrastructure projects being proposed and world renowned sites across the country, we hope to encourage more imaginative thinking about society’s relationship to infrastructure and the vital role it plays in our lives.”

The competition is one of a number of initiatives that RICS has in place to support its members involved in the delivery of infrastructure projects. The organisation’s ongoing work in infrastructure is driving the development of professional standards. Furthermore, the online resources available for members are providing chartered surveyors with tools to add significant value to projects around the UK and helping to boost investor confidence.

Entrants will be in with a chance of winning a £3,000 prize for camera equipment, and can enter their photographs by logging onto www.rics.org/uk/footer/rics-infrastructure-photographer-of-the-year/ . The deadline for entries midnight, Friday 19 December. Winners and shortlisted entries will be announced in January 2015.  The entries will be judged by Louise Brooke-Smith, President RICS and Helene Binet, a renowned architectural photographer. The competition will be chaired by Roma Agrawal of the WSP.  For more information please email mail@ricsinfrastructure.co.uk.

 

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.

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A verion of this article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine

 

 
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