Today I taught a seminar about whether, and how, we can conceive of eco-housing as a utopia. It is part of a master’s programme that I teach on Social Change and Resistance. It was by far the most useful hour of my day because there were four bright and intelligent students with whom to discuss my favourite topic. It was also an invaluable moment, in the middle of a busy teaching semester, to reflect upon the broader meaning of low cost eco-housing and raised several broad questions about eco-housing which I would like to share.
To start we spent quite a while debating what eco-housing actually is; beginning by understanding it as lowering the physical environmental impact to broadening and going beyond the structure itself, to cross the boundaries of the building, and include how it is lived in, and what behaviour changes it requires. Thinking about eco-housing in this more fluid way also makes us ask questions about whether it should matter who actually builds it and owns it. Is eco-housing actually about more than the building itself? Does the ideal involve a collective design and build rather than an external designer applying a model they developed elsewhere. Should eco-housing be far more organic to the people and the place of an area, enabling it to ‘fit’ with the local resources and the specifics of that local environment? If so this raises big questions for how transferable a particular way and form of building really is and whether developing packaged plans or models such as RuralZed is a worthwhile compromise or misses some of the best elements of what eco-housing could be.
When the students talked about what might convince them that an eco-house was something worth doing there was a clear push and pull factor. The push factor for most was that their current houses don’t work, ‘the fact that is it cold’, but that we rarely think about how our buildings function until they no longer work. The pull factor was that they had visited an eco-house and been inspired by them, it was only through experiencing such places, being inside and physical exploring that they wanted to know more and ‘how I could have one’. So do we need more publically accessible eco-houses if it is only through experience and being inside that people begin to really understand what they might offer?
We discussed what negative stereotypes are prevalent about eco-housing. Principally that it is a backwards step which reconnects us to things we quite enjoy being separate from, like thinking through our bodily functions and dealing with the implications and practical reality of compost toilets. There was also concern that building or living in an eco-house puts the inhabitant at the radical end of the political trajectory, associated with the label ‘hippy’ and potentially an outsider in society. Yet the potential of eco-housing to change the fundamental ways in which we live outweighed these negatives for most in the class. Though given that I was teaching them I doubt too many would have said it was all a terrible idea! One student asked ‘what is the goal of eco-housing?’ which is a powerful question in that it asks whether eco-housing is a social movement, whether it inspires large scale radical transformation, or, more simply individual self-reliance. One student perceptively argued that the aesthetics of eco-housing, the careful integration of some eco-buildings into the landscape and environment helped us understand how we could live in harmony and create peaceful relations between us. The building itself becomes a metaphor for society. Taken further we began to understand that eco-housing forces us to reconsider what home means and what a house should do for us. That it is more than shelter and more than being comfortable. Actually it extends to how we feel; be that happy or safe or any other emotion. A home can be a political space where we consciously reduce our use of energy to make an environmental statement, but it should not be a place where we then feel guilty for being warm. An eco-house is thus so much more than simply a building it becomes a living utopia.
[Leicester, 25th November, with thanks to the class of GY7043 Utopia and Social Change]