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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]