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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.

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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

 

 

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

 

Best books on eco-housing August 29, 2012

The Birth of an EcovillageZero-carbon Homes: A Road MapGreen Architecture: The Art of Architecture in the Age of Ecology (Architecture & Design)Local Sustainable Homes: How to Make Them Happen in Your Community

Having just spent the last two months reading about eco-housing I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the best books about housing, home and eco-housing. These books encompass a broad interest in the physical architectural design of an eco-house, alongside the important social elements of how people live together and communities function.

 

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]

 

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.