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Review of book ‘Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics’ April 25, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — naturalbuild @ 5:39 pm


First posted on: Natural Building Blog

Jenny Pickerill is a professor of environmental geography at the University of Sheffield, and I met her when she was conducting research for this book, gallivanting around the world on a Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travel Fellowship. She interviewed me and we toured a variety of novel eco-homes near Crestone, Colorado, where I was living at the time. In addition to Crestone, she visited ecological enclaves in Britain, Spain, Thailand, Argentina and other locations in the United States.


Her purpose in assembling this academic study into ecological living was to focus more on the social, geographical and political issues around eco-housing, which are often ignored, in the hopes that a broader acceptance of sustainable architecture will evolve. I found her analysis enlightening and well worth the read, if a bit academic in its outlook. Each chapter of the book is devoted to a different filter, which in total provides a good understanding of the issues involved.

The first chapter focuses on the eco aspects of eco-homes, and why this is important.  She observes that “eco-houses are being built to deal with the issues of waste through structural innovations by altering size, harnessing renewable technologies, retrofitting existing housing stock and changing occupants’ behavior and practices. Each approach has benefits, limitations and financial costs.” She goes on to chastise government and industry for emphasizing the technical fixes while ignoring simpler solutions.

Next, Jenny delves into the home aspect explaining how hard it is to define what home really is. Home can generally refer to country, state, city, bioregion, neighborhood, as well as a specific house. We have an emotional attachment to our homes that must be recognized in order to make eco-houses appealing to a wider audience. The emotional component is affected by aesthetics, location, style, privacy, comfort, and worth.

The history of eco-homes is often complex, and generally follows four different trajectories: vernacular, community, deep green and modernist. Continuity and tradition must be considered for any eco-home design to be successfully adopted. There has been some conflict between the movement toward Low Impact Development, which comes from radical social change, and the more technical emphasis of “smart” houses with their appeal for little active involvement of the occupants.

For many eco-builders place is primarily considered according to climatic and ecological factors, but Jenny points out how important it is to also view place as “containing meaning, memories, perceptions and identities, and as dynamic, unfinished and constantly evolving.” Case studies demonstrate how not taking this into consideration can result in misunderstandings and antagonism among other local residents.

The affordability of eco-homes is of major concern. The most common criticism of such housing is that it costs too much, which is not necessarily true. Jenny observes that “the complex pressures involved in contemporary housing from capitalist processes (housing built for profit generation and investment, market-determined prices), and state/government processes (planning restrictions increasing land prices, the financial cost of complying with planning and building regulations), to social processes (opposition to new developments, demand for more spacious and luxurious homes) all require careful consideration in developing affordable ecological alternatives.”

The question of comfort is central to many people’s perception of eco-homes, in that it is often believed that deep ecological living requires forgoing many expected comforts of home. And in fact Jenny did encounter some form of deprivation as she visited various eco-communities, but often the people who lived there didn’t perceive it that way; it was part of their attitude about appropriate life. This points out how subjective comfort can be. One person’s experience of being too hot or too cold is another person’s “thermal delight.” Jenny used the different embodiments of bathrooms she encountered to evaluate the wide variety that exists culturally about comfort.

Jenny spends one chapter examining the role that gender plays in fashioning people’s eco-building activities. It is a fact that most cultures devalue women as active participants in most aspects of building science, especially those requiring physical work. This bias toward men in this field is unfortunate, not only because it is demeaning to capable women, but it limits women’s input at a crucial time when we all need to focus our energy on developing sustainable strategies.

The term mobilization is used to connote the spreading of concepts and technology related to building eco-homes beyond where they are located. Since most such homes have been owner built, there is not a ready channel of dissemination of the knowledge, yet this is crucial for more people to adopt ecological housing. We need access to a global network of knowledge so more people can participate. I suggest that my website,, does just this.

Jenny examines how communities, especially eco-communities, can reduce waste and increase efficiency, as well as be socially rewarding and allow residents to be self-governing and live beyond capitalism. All of this comes with a price, however, of possible loss of privacy, increased time involved in making decisions and lack of professional or responsible building practices. Communities can share space and equipment, which allows for more compact living and less wasted energy and materials.

The final chapter looks to the future, realizing that we need to vastly expand the use of ecological housing. Each situation is unique, however, so there is no universal eco-design that will satisfy all needs. We should celebrate this diversity and make sure that we don’t impose building restrictions that stifle innovation. We need to realize that people, place and politics all are important factors to consider when making eco-homes.


Mutual gain? Housing associations working with community-led housing groups March 25, 2016

Filed under: Uncategorized — naturalbuild @ 5:25 pm

Ruth Hayward and Jenny Pickerill

Community-led housing groups can be brilliant partners for housing associations in developing new homes. They bring with them a ready group of tenants, a variety of skills and a keenness to develop new forms of housing, but they tend to lack the expertise of finding sites and the investment capital that housing associations often have. The number of community-led house building projects in Britain is slowly increasing with the most recent completion of LILAC (in Leeds) and Lancaster Co-Housing (in Lancaster).

Our research, conducted over the last two years with community-led housing groups some of whom were working with Housing Associations and many who were keen to do so in the future, has identified a number of opportunities for such collaborations. As a result we wanted to pose ten friendly questions to Housing Associations about how they understand and approach working with community-led housing groups.

  1. Why work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?

Co-housing groups and housing co-ops bring a great deal to housing projects – an established group of tenants, new models of housing, huge volunteer capacity, access to grants, mixed ownership models and boundless enthusiasm. Housing associations offer these groups’ site finding, investment capital, experience in navigating planning and, often, contracted builders. For these community-led groups, working with a housing association can enable their housing project to include affordable housing through, for example, accessing Homes and Communities Agency funding to build a mixed tenancy community. For housing associations such an alliance enables involvement in new housing types, such as senior co-housing, which are potentially far more appropriate and sought after than current sheltered housing models.

  1. What do you think co-housing groups and housing co-ops are like?

While some of these housing groups might at first glance appear to be stereotypical environmental activists, they are rarely so easy to pigeonhole. Community-led housing groups often include numerous professionals or retired professionals with broad skill sets and community activists with relevant experience in making change happen. Although at first they will not know housing policy language it won’t take them long to learn it. In the best practice examples housing associations had used this activist ability to lobby for planning permission, generate PR and gain neighbourhood support.

  1. What criteria do you have for which groups and tenants you work with?

The criteria of who can live in the final housing development needs to be explicitly stated for all concerned. There appeared at times to be a miscommunication between housing associations and community-led groups about what these criteria really meant for, for example, family members of elderly relatives who wanted to live together.

  1. At what stage do you start working with community-led groups?

Housing associations are exceptionally skilled at finding suitable building sites. Many groups we spoke with talked of wasting significant time searching for sites and being impressed and grateful at the speed and ease at which a housing association located and purchased a site. Once community groups have established membership, determined their vision and decided on their site criteria they are in a good position to work with housing associations. At this stage their expectations are still being developed, so they are able to modify and evolve their plans with the housing association

  1. What structures of liaison and communicating are used to work with co-housing groups and housing co-ops?

Communication worked well with community-led housing groups when the housing association staff member tasked with liaison worked with the project through the whole process, was relatively senior, and was able to identify what decisions the community groups could influence and which it could not. Poor communication appeared to happen when housing associations allocated increasingly junior staff to be the point of contact as the project progressed.

  1. How does the project management approach take account of timeframes and workloads?

Community-led housing groups are willing to invest significant time and energy into their housing project, but this time and energy is not limitless. Goodwill was undermined in some collaborations we researched by assumptions that community groups would do much of the work but then not be consulted about timeframes. The pace of the development needs to be mutually agreed and housing associations need to be very clear about their expectations.

  1. How are key principles agreed?

All housing projects have some key principles whether that be affordability, reducing ecological impact, or ensuring local participation. These fundamental principles are best agreed very early on between housing associations and community groups, along with early discussion about how these principles will be achieved. It is especially important to mutually agree the detail of these principles because often concepts such as ecological housing can have multiple meanings.

  1. Are you prepared to let groups take responsibility for the majority of decisions?

In the most successful collaborations community-led groups retained some autonomy to create their housing project in a way that fulfilled their values and aspirations. Those who worked with housing associations often felt that they lost control of the project, as they were not consulted about numerous decisions.

  1. How do you keep to budget?

For community-led housing groups one of the biggest risks in working with housing associations is the lack of control over budgets. Community groups experienced costs going up without prior agreement or explanation and it was unclear who had overall financial responsibility. There is a need to clarify early on who is responsible for what costs such as site purchase, planning fee, site security, legal fees etc. and to stay within agreed budgets. Staying within agreed budgets is important as it is often the community groups’ money that is being spent, as once they have moved in they will pay off the money paid up front by the housing association, and unexpected significant costs can cause problems for the group.

  1. How does co-housing and co-operative housing fit the values of your organisation?

There are significant overlaps in the aims of many housing associations and community-led housing groups in seeking to build affordable ecological housing for local residents, particularly through a process of inclusion and participation. Housing associations can significantly benefit from working with already formed community groups who bring enthusiasm, skills, and finance to a project. With honest dialogue about shared values, aims and responsibilities, such a collaboration can reduce the workload of housing associations, produce innovative appropriate housing and secure neighbourhood support.

Ruth Hayward is a housing activist based in Newcastle Upon Tyne and Jenny Pickerill is a Professor of Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield.