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My foreword to ‘Local Sustainable Homes’

Next week sees the publication of the next book in the Transition Books series, ‘Local Sustainable Homes: how to make them happen in your community’ by Chris Bird. More details to follow (including how to order your copy), but as a taster, here is my foreword to the book:

In The Pattern of English Building, his seminal review of vernacular English construction techniques and the wide range of building materials that have defined English architecture – from flint and chalk to clay, oak and straw – Alec Clifton-Taylor wrote:

“all these different materials imposed architectural forms appropriate to their character and, despite the many visual improprieties of the last century and a quarter, the pattern is still remarkably complete. It was the great difficulty of transporting heavy materials which led all but the most affluent until the end of the eighteenth century to build with the materials that were most readily available near the site, even when not very durable.”

In a world that lacked the hydrocarbon punch that today bestows the ability, which we take for granted, to move mountains, people in a wide diversity of locations developed forms of construction that reflected local materials, the local climate and other cultural influences particular to that place. From Devon’s curvaceous cob cottages to the limestone roofs of Dorset; from the intricate timber framing of Suffolk to the granite-walled homes of Leicestershire, it was the materials that defined the forms of building – leading also to a wide range of artisans and craftspeople: masons, ironmongers, lime kiln-keepers, thatchers and so on.

Over the past hundred years, during what one might call ‘The Age of Cheap Oil’, the process of building shelter has, like most other aspects of our lives, become increasingly industrialised. A recent study by British Gas found that houses built during the 1960s were built to such shockingly poor standards of energy efficiency that they performed worse than the Tudor homes of the 1500s. In an oral history interview I did in Totnes, Devon, a man who grew up in the town in the 1960s recalled his grandmother, with whom he and his mother lived, keenly moving out of an old house that was a converted cider press.

“She just wanted modern. She wanted electric fires, electric cookers, electric everything. She wanted automatic this, that and everything. So we moved, at my grandmother’s insistence, from this wonderful rambling old building to a brand-new house, typical of its time. Wooden-framed, single-glazed windows, open fire for a chimney which she quickly replaced with an electric fire (“I’m not having any more of that dirty coal business”). The winters were actually colder than in the previous house. You’d wake up in the morning, and your breath would have condensed on the window, frozen on the inside. Inside it was cold, outside it was cold. Eventually my mother paid for an electric fire to be put in so you could reach out of the bed and turn it on. Electricity was cheap in those days.”

These days our challenges in terms of shelter are different from those of the 1960s. We no longer live in a world of cheap and abundant energy. Promises of ‘electricity too cheap to meter’ have been and gone, and the climate change caused by our burning of fossil fuels is an increasingly urgent issue. It is clear that the target of avoiding a 2°C rise in greenhouse gas emissions is being overtaken by reality: feedbacks not expected for 50-100 years are already under way – the melting of Arctic ice, the release of methane from the seabed, the melting of permafrost, the disappearance of glaciers; the list goes on . . . This is all happening just because of a 0.8°C rise in the levels of CO2 in our atmosphere since fossil-fuel burning began in earnest. The urgent need is not only to reduce emissions, but to seek to phase them out altogether by 2030.

Over the past four years, the rapidly growing Transition movement has argued that climate change cannot be looked at in isolation from the imminent peaking in world oil production, with the resultant price volatility and interruptions to supply. This realisation has mobilised thousands of communities around the world to start planning for life beyond cheap energy – to see the end of the age of cheap energy and the need for urgent decarbonisation not as a disaster but as an opportunity; a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to rethink basic assumptions. Transition Initiatives can now be found in villages, islands, cities, districts, boroughs, universities and schools around the world. They focus on the practicalities of relocalisation, offering a creative process of engagement and awareness-raising that seeks to involve the community in designing a new, and more appropriate, way forward. The impact of Transition thinking is starting to emerge in the most unexpected places. A report in 2010 from Lloyds Insurance and Chatham House argued, as Transition has for the past four years, that peak oil needs to be looked at alongside climate change, and the following quote from that report could have been taken straight from a Transition publication such as this book:

“Energy security is now inseparable from the transition to a low-carbon economy, and businesses plans should prepare for this new reality. Security of supply and emissions-reduction objectives should be addressed equally, as prioritising one over the other will increase the risk of stranded investments or requirements for expensive retrofitting.”

Just as they have in all other aspects of our lives, cheap fossil fuels have come to underpin the way in which we build our homes. In the same way that it has been argued that our current food system means that we are, in effect, as Dale Allen Pfeiffer put it, ‘eating oil’, such is the embodied energy in new buildings that it could be argued that we now live in buildings made from oil too.

In the same way that, across the world, the Transition movement is arguing for seeing peak oil and climate change as two sides of one coin, Chris Bird’s book represents an important shift in the debates around what the housing of the future will be like. Much of the literature on green building focuses on new build using local and/or natural materials – what is often termed ‘natural building’ – as self-builders discover the possibilities presented by materials such as cob, straw bales, hemp and so on. I have been involved in a number of natural building projects, and have taught straw-bale, cob, cordwood and hemp/lime construction courses. These are all wonderfully democratic materials; anyone can get the hang of them and use them to create individual spaces that feel so different from our everyday idea of what a house should feel like.

The point Chris makes in this book, however, is that the decisions about housing we need to make will bring together the challenges we face today (peak oil, climate change, the need vastly to reduce our energy consumption) with the challenges faced in the past (the need to rediscover local building materials). Much of what is known as ‘green building’ sources its materials from far and wide – sheep’s-wool insulation from Germany; lime from France; shingles from Canada. Like a delicious but distantly sourced organic meal, this represents an approach that is highly vulnerable to volatile energy prices.

The core argument of Local Sustainable Homes is that housing ourselves can be, and needs to be, about far more than simply having a roof over our heads. The model today is one of homes designed for us, built from high-embodied-energy materials, with a high carbon footprint; materials sourced wherever in the world they can be found cheapest; and the property purchased in a way that saddles us with a debt we then spend many years struggling to pay off. How would it be if, instead, we were more involved with our homes’ design, if our choice of materials meant that it became possible for local businesses to emerge to provide them, if the construction process worked in such a way that people could be trained to engage with construction for the first time, and if the homes were built in such a way as to require no space heating at all? We could, by building ’sustainable homes’, produce buildings that lock up more carbon than they produce, that have a local distinctiveness, and that stimulate the local economy rather than leaching from it.

Of course, it is not all just about new buildings. Of Britain’s approximately 24 million homes, at least 87 per cent are projected to still be in use by 2050. Retrofitting existing homes saves 15 times more CO2 than demolishing and rebuilding them. Over the past 30 years we have also used our housing stock to introduce the ruinous idea that our houses will increase in value for ever, and that we can use them as a cash-dispensing machine. In the UK, and especially in Ireland, this has led to a huge problem of overpriced, energy-inefficient housing that nobody can afford, and historically unprecedented indebtedness. Alongside energy efficiency and local materials, it is clear that we also need to find new models for how we ‘do’ housing – such as cohousing, housing cooperatives and so on. Many such models are explored within these pages. As the implications of the bursting of the debt ‘bubble’ continue to unravel, the owner–occupier model will become increasingly difficult to sustain, and we will need to look at a variety of ways in which we may house ourselves.

Possibly the greatest challenge, however, is tackling the low energy efficiency of our housing. The UK has some of the worst housing stock in Europe in terms of energy efficiency. How to retrofit buildings of such wildly different types? Many innovative schemes are under way, and Chris explores some of these here.

The question this book addresses, ultimately, is: What is a ‘local house’? In ten years’ time, might it be possible that the building standards require that new buildings be constructed using almost entirely local materials, but built to very high energy-efficiency standards, and that the existing housing stock be made vastly more energy-efficient, again using mostly local materials? While little is yet happening in terms of the use of local materials for retrofits, one very exciting development, under construction as I write, is the building of two ‘local Passivhauses’ in Wales. These use largely local materials (over 90 per cent local for one of them), and are built to the Passivhaus standard, requiring no space heating at all. Their construction involves the seeking of local materials, the training of local builders, the recycling of local newspaper (for insulation) and the engagement of local window-makers to manufacture high-performance windows from local timber. It is a project that is beginning to model the future of construction in such a way that the future comes into distinct focus.

The challenge, though, as Gill Seyfang of UAE puts it, is “scaling up the existing small-scale, one-off housing projects to industrial mass-production”. Housing ourselves, and reducing the energy consumption of our existing homes, if done well, could become one of the key drivers of the regeneration of our local economies. These challenging times demand that we think smart, and that is just what Chris Bird does within these pages.

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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