Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

Report on key findings from research: Affordable Eco-homes March 26, 2011

Filed under: Cost of housing,Politics of building,Project outputs and findings — naturalbuild @ 3:35 pm


I have written an initial report from the research project looking at ways we can make eco-housing more affordable. Please download a copy from here: Eco-homes Report 2011 (1 MB). Please also feel free to redistribute it.

You can also download higher resolution versions: Eco-homes Report 2011 (3 MB), Eco-homes Report 2011 (12 MB)

The key findings about low cost eco-homes are that:

~ We need both a technical assessment of materials and methods used, and a social assessment of people’s choices and decisions in order to understand eco-housing.

~ There is a diverse variety of eco-housing worldwide. The definition used in this report is that an eco-building minimises resource use (in construction and life-cycle) while also providing a comfortable environment in which to live. The USA has a long-standing and established eco-building culture, whereas eco-building has only existed in Thailand in the last decade.

~ We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. However, ecological building methods remain marginalised and often misunderstood.

~ Eco-building will only be adopted if it offers what people demand from a house and that they can live how they want to within it.

~ The success of eco-housing is only as great as the behaviour of the people who live in it. Construction and technology cannot compensate for excessive energy use.

~ There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper. More investment may be required upfront but it pays off in costing less to run throughout its lifetime.

~ Living sustainably has been associated with forgoing (doing without) many elements of contemporary life. However, a good eco-house is actually more comfortable.

~ It is not technology, or even politics, which is holding us back in building more eco-houses, it is deep rooted cultural and social conventions in how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

~ Choices of building materials are made according to complex compromises between cost, local availability, skills and expertise required, suitability for climate, ecological properties, maintenance requirements and cultural attachments to certain forms. Thus eco-materials need to satisfy many criteria before they are adopted.

~ Eco-building involves more than technical changes to construction; it involves cultural shifts in how we consider our houses and homes.  There are dynamic relationships between physical structures and individual behavioural practices, culture, history and place.

~ There are many simple ways to make eco-housing more affordable, including:

  • Reducing the size
  • Simple design and avoiding the use of unnecessary technology
  • Designing affordability in at the start
  • Designing in modular units so that a building can be extended at a later stage
  • Internal open plan design to enable maximum flexibility
  • Using the space between buildings
  • Building collectively
  • Sharing common facilities and infrastructure
  • Sharing the cost of the land
  • Avoiding the use of experts
  • Participating in the debate about new planning regulations to ensure that eco-building is permissible
  • Careful choice of materials
  • Less durable houses
  • Using pre-fabricated elements or existing structures
  • Avoiding a purist approach
  • Ensuring design is aesthetically pleasing
  • Using hybrid combinations of materials

~ Planning favours buildings which conform to existing styles and norms and building regulations need to be negotiated.

~ Eco-building is gendered in that is it perceived to be a male domain where men are presumed to be better builders, more men than women actually build and women find their ideas and contributions to eco-building are often belittled. Socially constructed notions of gender have determined that strength is the most important attribute required for building, which is not true.

~ The replication of eco-build techniques worldwide has less to do with whether the build actually worked or its cost, but is influenced by the less quantifiable factors of foreign importation of ideas, the appeal of the aesthetics, open discussion of failure, a critical mass of support, assertive pioneers, and people understanding how their existing houses work.

~ Further research work is needed on how people understand their houses, how eco-build approaches are replicated, post-occupancy evaluations and the cultural dimensions of eco-building.

[25th March 2011]


Permaculture and eco-building March 24, 2011

The philosophy of permaculture is a useful framework through which to understand the broader principles behind many eco-houses. There is a synergy between eco-building and permaculture in that they are both design systems which at heart seek to interconnect the processes of life and create more sustainable systems. They are both based upon understanding and creating systems of co-operation that encompass ecology, people and equality. The word ‘permaculture’ comes from combining permanent agriculture and permanent culture. The British Permaculture Association defines it as “about living lightly on the planet and making sure that we can sustain human activities for many generations to come, in harmony with nature”. Permaculture is about designing systems whereby the needs of people and the environment are met in a way which creates balance and harmony and is inspired by close observation of nature’s own systems of stability, resilience and productivity. Thus “practitioners should learn from, mimic, and work with – rather than against – nature. This implies that we should design complex, integrated, even multi-stored, systems within which all organisms … perform not single and competitive, but multiple and mutualistic functions” (Mulligan and Hill, 2001, 205).

Permaculture has had a big influence upon green ideas in Britain in recent years, but in the main this has been expressed through changing practices of gardening and food production, eschewing many of its wider implications for the built environment, land tenure, planning and economics. However green buildings, appropriate land tensure and community governance are vitally important in supporting the more visible aspects of permaculture practice. The Permaculture Association refers to these elements as part of the ‘invisible structures’ of permaculture and argue that “we need to ensure that the physical systems we create are able to be maintained and developed long into the future”.


Tony’s roundhouse at Brithdr Mawr, Wales

In Britain there is a particular deep green version of eco-buildings called Low Impact Development (LID). LID is a radical approach to housing, livelihoods and everyday living that began in Britain in the 1990s as a grassroots response to the overlapping crises of sustainability. LID employs approaches that dramatically reduce humans’ impact upon the environment, demonstrating that human settlements and livelihoods, when done appropriately, can enhance, rather than diminish ecological diversity. However, LID is not solely concerned with the environment. It is also a direct response to social needs for housing, an anti-capitalist strategy forging alternative economic possibilities, and a holistic approach to living that pays attention to the personal as well as the political. Many of its key advocates and designers are trained in permaculture design (for example, Ben Law, who built an eco-house in Prickly Nut Wood, East Sussex, has a Diploma in Applied Permaculture Design) though others describe themselves as ‘accidental’ permaculturists. As such Low Impact Development, has been described by Tony Wrench, of Brithdr Mawr, “as being a catalyst for letting permaculture happen in the countryside and letting people with no money or very little money, live a balanced lifestyle that will survive economic crises, and will survive peak oil”.

LID reflects the ethics of permaculture in two keys ways: in its holistic approach and in its emphasis upon the importance of people and the personal. LID takes holism – the idea that we need to understand the whole of a system (physical, social, economic, and psychological) and that the properties of a system cannot be understood by its component parts alone – as its approach to understanding how humans should interact with the environment. For Will (Green Hill) this holism is central to permaculture; “one of the things that defines permaculture is to try and – for an individual or a group – do the whole process, be both implementer and designer and observer, and evaluator as well, to learn lessons … because it’s incorporating people and the earth and trying to get that fair share … that defines it as being holistic”. Thus LID and permaculture advocates that in addition to physical changes we must attend to the personal and emotional too. This very much reflects a permaculture ethic of seeking to work in harmony with nature’s systems and of people care, and an acknowledgement that the personal politics of change are as important as protecting the natural environment.

Green Hill, Scotland 

Many LIDs in Britain have used permaculture as a way to structure their communities, food production, house building and livelihoods. Increasingly they have been able to shift beyond food production to a more holistic implementation of permaculture principles, just as it was originally intended, and as a result be part of “the permaculture movement [which] acts as a sort of a natural laboratory wherein potentially sustainable solutions are experimented with” (Veteto and Lockyer, 2008, 53). Permaculture has been used to shape site plan decisions, to make best use of resources and energy, to support the processes of integration rather than segregation and to assert the importance of being flexible in the face of change. However, few LIDs have been able to put permaculture fully into practice because of a difficulty of collectively agreeing the finer details of what permaculture is, and for the lack of large-scale collective working examples of permaculture in Britain.

Permaculture has openly and deliberately built upon a myriad of understandings of natures’ systems, both indigenous and western scientific, and as a result is conceived by many as being about “looking at some of those traditional ways of farming and working the land and traditional communities and saying what works and what doesn’t work?” (Will, Green Hill). Others have argued that in practice it is “only by reconnecting ourselves with our local resources can we move towards a sustainable society” (Whitefield, 1997, 8). This, however, confuses the wider lessons of permaculture in that it is a hybrid of principles, some about localism, but others about connection, integration and the balancing of needs of the earth and people. There are also tensions about the time needed to closely observe a site before any plans are made amid the acknowledgement of the need to evolve systems quickly to cope with climate change. Britain is in a transitional period of making permaculture work at a large scale in collective spaces. However, it is the broader lessons that permaculture teaches which have been embraced by eco-builds where hope really lies. In balancing the needs of the earth with those of people, of asserting the importance of equality, and crucially in tying these together with a focus on holism sustainable ecological living has begun to become a reality. As such permaculture is a useful way to understand eco-building and Low Impact development in Britain.

Mulligan, M and Hill, S. Ecological Pioneers: A Social History of Australian Ecological Thought and Action. (2001) Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Whitefield, P. Permaculture in a Nutshell. Permanent Publications. (1997) Hampshire, England.

Veteto, J and Lockyer, J. Environmental Anthropology Engaging Permaculture: Moving Theory and Practice Toward Sustainability. Culture and Agriculture, 30, no. 1 and 2 (2008): 47-58.

This is an extract from a longer book chapter being published as ‘Permaculture in practice: Low Impact Development in Britain’ in J. Lockyer and J. Veteto (eds.) Localizing Environmental Anthropology: Bioregionalism, Permaculture, and Ecovillage Design for a Sustainable Future. Berghahn Books.


Ampersand Learning Center, Cerillos, New Mexico, USA March 8, 2011

“In a quality life, the sense of fulfilment comes from connection. Look to your rain, look to your land, look to the magical seasons of this earth. Listen to the wind, dance in the mud, then plaster your house with it … living intimately and comfortably with the basic elements brings a deep sense of fulfilment” (Amanda and Andy Bramble, 2010, p.154)


Ampersand Sustainable Learning Center is an intriguing mixture of teaching space, collective building, embryonic community, and a remote eco-home. Situated south of the small town of Cerrillos in New Mexico, Ampersand is at the end of several tracks snaking into the hills. In construction since 2003, the buildings here are mostly hybrid, a mixture of straw-bale walls, adobe and earth bags. Many things have been fashioned from reclaimed items such as salvaged windows, reusing wood, or using an old swivel office chair as a base for a solar oven (thus being able to move it to best catch the sun).


The main house

There is a main house – the home of Andy and Amanda Bramble – and then other more collective spaces such as a straw bale guest house, an outdoor kitchen for guests and another guest building to which a new bathroom was being added. There is also an outdoor solar shower. All the spaces are compact – making use of sleeping platforms, open plan design, and careful placement of furniture – and there is a beautiful simplicity to many of the rooms. There is enough for comfort but not clutter and certainly not an excess of things.


The straw bale and a plaster wall design

This simplicity is also evident in the way everything is designed to be efficient and minimise waste. For example, the solar thermal hot water panel is just outside the bathroom meaning it does not have to travel far to the point of use, and they feed used water into the indoor planter to water the growing vegetables – making multiple uses of what they have.


The outdoor shower

Ampersand is completely off-grid – generating all their electricity from photovoltaic panels, using solar thermal to heat water, collecting all their water via rainwater (into a 2,500 gallon tank) and using a solar oven for cooking. They also warm and cool their house passively. The back of the main house is built into the ground with only a couple of very small windows looking north from the pantry. To the front they have a greenhouse, as this heats up they let heat in through internal windows and when it is cold outside the greenhouse acts as a barrier while still letting the sun in. Their water use also is extremely low, about six gallons each per day. Water is then filtered through a Big Berkley system ready for drinking.

Growing food out here is difficult so they have built a large greenhouse to the front of their house with an indoor planter and created a large storage space – a pantry built into the ground at the back of the house. Refrigeration is limited, they “we harvest ice from an open-topped cistern in the winter to keep our food cold” (p.154) but have to use a propane powered fridge at times in the summer.

Ampersand aims to demonstrate “low-tech sustainable systems which people can do themselves, so that they are not reliant on experts” (Amanda Bramble). There is an emphasis here on having the skills and courage to do it yourself and key to this is starting small and simply learning through the experience of building small structures. It is also about building as a collective endeavour.


Inside and outside a straw bale house at Ampersand Learning Center

I can’t help but fall in love with the simplicity of some of the design and materials used here. In the straw bale guest house there is everything you need and no more or less. Everything is low cost, reclaimed, salvaged, adapted and yet it all has a beauty too. When I asked Amanda what barriers might exist in getting mainstream society to understand and value a place as eclectic as Ampersand she argued that the main obstacles are the “mental constructs of what is acceptable beauty and lifestyle”. Of course it can so easily come down to one’s own choice of aesthetics, but to me this is a place made for the future.


Off-road track to Ampersand Learning Center  and the straw bale house

If you are interested in visiting Ampersand they run classes in the spring and summer, volunteer days, have open house visit days, and occasional internships. Details are on their website:

There is also an article written by Amanda and Andy in Sustainable Sante Fe (2010) ‘On being a beneficial influence: Off grid at Ampersand’


Building regulations ‘suppress experimentation’ March 5, 2011

Filed under: Building materials,Cost of housing,Project outputs and findings — naturalbuild @ 7:29 pm

 Self Build and Design magazine have just published (April 2011) a short piece about my ongoing research into how we can makemore low-cost eco-homes:


We have to adapt culturally to climate change March 4, 2011

Filed under: Britain,Politics of building,Project outputs and findings — naturalbuild @ 10:41 am

While the case that climate change is happening and probably irreversible is robust, the political arguments about whether we should do anything about it remain ongoing and unresolved. Many in the minority world (like Britain and the USA) are relying upon technological innovation (like wind power, electric cars and geo-engineering) to save us. Research shows that while many individuals have engaged in making small changes in their lifestyle – such as using recycling bins or cycling a little more – most struggle to make big behavioural changes and feel powerless to take on the changes necessary to really mitigate further carbon emissions. Time is running out to make changes at a big enough scale to mitigate further climatic changes.

Adapting is sometimes touted as the easier option. Rather than fundamentally changing everything about how we live today, we could plan for a different future and increase our resilience to any changes ahead. There is, of course, just as much debate as to how we should prepare for these changes as there is about how to mitigate climate change. We should be careful not to be naive about what this actually involves. For a start, climate change is likely to lead to more extreme climatic events; an unpredictability that is difficult to plan for. Predicting what climatic changes will occur is a difficult science, yet alone interpreting what that means for how we live. Moreover, the magnitude of climate changes depends on whether we can reduce carbon emissions now, keep them stable, or increase them yet further. So if we are to take the adaptation route we have to plan for a variety of different scenarios and we should not abandon all attempts at mitigation. Mitigation has effectively become about trying to reduce the extent to which we need to adapt: it is not an either/or situation.

If we take housing as an example we can begin to understand the complexity and possibility of making these changes. Housing – both in construction and use – consumes significant amounts of energy and contribute at least 25% of all carbon emissions in Britain[i]. The Met Office predict that temperatures will rise in Britain with increasing heatwaves and fewer frost days. At the same time we will have increased rainfall, more intensive rain showers, sea level rise, coastal surge events and more storms. In other words, we need to be prepared for flooding, storms and heat. If we don’t, then not only will our houses suffer from damage but we will continue to increase our use of energy as more people need air conditioning to keep their houses cool – creating a vicious circle of increased emissions and then greater temperature rises.

Straw bale house at The Lama Foundation, Taos, New Mexico, USA

We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. While there is a huge variety of different types of eco-homes (from those using only local natural materials to the more technological), most have been built to be resilient in today’s climate, with low energy use, or autonomous (generating their own energy, collecting rainwater, dealing with their own waste etc). However, there are several problems with our attempts thus far; cost, suitability for the future, retrofitting, and, most importantly, cultural understandings of the home. There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper; we are too used to considering cost only at the build stage. But we do need to find better ways of making land, traditionally very expensive in Britain, more available for eco-building.

Clay and grass-roofed residential house at Panya Project, Mae Taeng, Chang Mai, Thailand

We are building eco-housing that is suitable for today’s climate and reduces carbon emissions (mitigating climate change) both of which are important, but it is not enough. We need to be designing houses which will be suitable for the future climate of wet, hot, unpredictable weather. Dr Jago Copper, from Archaeology and Ancient History, has used a archaeological investigation of how pre-Columbian residents in Cuba built their houses to help inform how we might build our houses today. Crucially in his case study area there is evidence of abrupt climatic changes (such as flooding) which people dealt with by innovative settlement locations and building stilted wooden houses. These buildings were in the main quite flimsy and temporary lightweight structures built using easily available local materials. But they had substantive structural posts which were resilient to hurricane winds, so when storms happened most of the house was destroyed, but the main structure survived and was easily rebuilt. They had also often collectively stored food in more secure areas. The lesson here for the modern day is we should look beyond simply being resilient to climatic events to how we are prepared to recover and carry on afterwards. In practical terms this raises questions about whether we should be designing our houses to be more temporary or more durable, training more of us to be able to build our own houses and use more easily available local materials (like we did in the past before the development of bricks). It is also about all of us understanding the subtle balance between the need for insulation and ventilation. We need insulation to reduce draughts and keep us warm but we need ventilation to keep us cool. As the climate changes we are likely to need more ventilation than insulation which could dramatically change the design of our houses.

As soon as we start to talk of building better houses the issue of our existing housing stock is raised. Of course we need to improve these too, but thus far we have focused on quite small changes (such as extra insulation) or adding technology to houses. We need to think more radically about how to adapt these houses to survive climate change, not just reduce carbon emissions.

Earthship (made from old car tyres) in Brighton, East Sussex

Finally, adapting housing for climate change involves considerably more than technical changes to construction; it involves huge cultural shifts in how we consider our house and home. For many, a house is foremost about security – both the physical act of having somewhere safe to live and sleep, and financially as an investment – and comfort. There is a deeply felt sense that our homes are our refuge. To change this, by making housing more temporary, using natural materials (which might be perceived as less robust), or relying on manual heating and ventilation systems, requires social changes in how we live. Moreover, it requires us to build ready for changes that many of us have only vaguely understood to be happening; to change behaviour for an unknown future. It is not technology, or really even politics, which is holding us back in making these changes, it is deep rooted cultural and social understandings of how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

As a result we can understand adapting to climate change is necessary but complex. Even just changing our housing is difficult but entirely possible. To do so we must realise that we need cultural change as much as technological and political change, and that we must ensure that those less well off have just as much opportunity to prepare as the wealthy.

[This post also appeared on the Leicester Exchanges debate site in March 2011]

[i] Goodier, C and Pan, W (2010) The Future of UK Housebuilding. RICS Research Report, available at