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An interview with Chris Bird, author of ‘Local Sustainable Homes’

In advance of the publication next week of Chris Bird’s Transition Book ‘Local Sustainable Homes’, I spoke to Chris about the book, and about what he set out to achieve in writing it. The book will be available to order here at Transition Culture from next Thursday (the 9th).

So Chris, how does ‘Local Sustainable Homes’ differ from all the other green building books out there?

You could fill a bookshop with volumes on green building. There are so many works on sustainable design and construction and green materials that choosing what to read has become almost as difficult as deciding which spectacle frames to wear! But this book is different because it concentrates on how individuals, groups and communities are making it happen. Okay, I admit that in places the book does drift into looking at materials and construction methods but the bread and butter of the text deals with examples from around the country of how people are making sustainable homes a concrete reality – but without the concrete!

What do you think is unique about the Transition take on housing?

In a word? People and communities. Oh, that’s three! The transition movement is making resilient communities the central plank for building a sustainable future. Perfect eco-homes, whatever they might be, won’t solve the problem of climate change or prepare us for a future without cheap fossil fuels. We have to see sustainable housing in the context of sustainable communities. Imagine a house built with local timber, insulated with strawbales from a nearby farm and roofed with slates from a local quarry.

The window frames and doors are supplied by a local carpenter and the energy comes from a district heating system and a community owned wind turbine. The occupants get much of their food from a community supported agriculture scheme and also work locally. Not only does their home have a much lower carbon footprint and less embedded energy but it’s also stimulating a virtuous circle of local enterprise. When homes like this, whether they are newly built or refurbished, become the norm, then our communities will be more cohesive and better equipped to tackle climate change and cope with the problems that peak oil will bring.

What surprised you most while researching this book?

Almost as soon as I started gathering information two things became clear. First, there were lots more interesting projects going on than I had thought possible. I could have filled the book just with stories about low impact developments or what housing associations are doing. Second, the pace of change means that new projects are being launched all the time so I was constantly rewriting to keep up to date. Fortunately the whole project, from start of researching to publication, was only just over a year so the book is pretty up to date. So I suppose the big surprise was just how much is happening out there. But that doesn’t mean we can be complacent. At a rough guess I’d say we need to increase the scale of our activity around sustainable homes a thousand-fold to really deal with the problem!

What does ‘Local Sustainable Homes’ teach us about the current state of the Transition movement?

It would have been much more difficult to write this book as an individual rather than as a transition activist. Access to transition initiatives around the country and overseas through the Transition Network was immensely valuable so, even at this early stage of development, the movement is a valuable tool for learning from and disseminating local experience.

But we need to recognise that, despite our successes, the Transition movement is still just a small part of the picture. Most of the people and projects described in ‘Local Sustainable Homes’ have either no links or a very tenous connection to Transition and very few sustainable housing projects are formal Transition initiatives. Is this a problem? Not really. The fact that so many projects are happening already is really encouraging. The fact that they don’t have a Transition label is not an issue.

Cloughjordan, which is now linked to the Transition movement, and Totnes sustainable housing projects like Transition Together and Transition Homes, are valuable examples that I’m sure will be surpassed by communities all over the UK and elsewhere. The Totnes Pound has been eclipsed by the success of local currencies in Lewes and Stroud and the same process of leapfrogging will happen with sustainable housing.

What do you feel are the key ingredients in a community housing project?

Community. By that I mean the things that bind people together for the common purpose of making their homes and neighbourhoods more sustainable. There are many examples in the book of people coming together to face a threat to their communities such as an unwelcome housing or office development or unnecessary demolition, then using this new cohesiveness to launch something positive. But community cohesion can develop in other ways. Building links between people in existing communities through programmes such as Transition Together or people with a shared vision such as low impact development or cohousing develop shared goals that see them through the difficulties they encounter.

Of course there are ways of building and laying out homes that foster productive interactions. George Monbiot dealt with this in a recent article but most of the estates we want to turn into communities have already been built so our starting point must be the people themselves.

Transition promotes the use of local building materials. How big a part do you think they will play in the future, or can industrial materials do things that more local, natural materials simply cannot do? How purist should we be?

One of the points I make in the book is that we need to reduce the embodied energy in new homes and refurbishments as well as everyday energy consumption. An ‘eco-home’ built with high energy fossil fuel based materials may consume very little energy in the long term but it will take decades to pay back the carbon debt created by building the house in the first place – and climate change is a problem NOW! Even if the problem of carbon emissions was not so urgent why develop a dependency on construction methods and materials that will be unsustainable with the end of cheap oil?

Local materials are vital to sustainable construction because you immediately reduce the transport emissions associated with materials carried from across the country or half-way round the world. What’s the true cost of slates from China or paving slabs from India when we include the environmental damage their production and transport cause?

Using local timber, straw, hemp, earth, stone, wool and a host of other materials also boosts local economies, helps create resilient communities and brings back a regional identity to our buildings. And many of these materials lock up carbon so new buildings and refurbishments can actually be carbon negative

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a return to the cold and drafty buildings of the 18th or 19th century. We need a new synthesis of modern construction methods and traditional materials to create homes that are a pleasure to live in but don’t cost us the earth.

Some specialist materials and products – glass, photovoltaics, heat pumps – may best be sourced from outside the local area. We shouldn’t lay down rigid rules but use common sense. So no, we shouldn’t be purists, but neither should we give up too easily in the search for local and sustainable low energy alternatives.

In the book you tell the story of the TTT Building and Housing group and what it has achieved thus far. You have been involved since early in its evolution, what lessons do you feel you have learnt about what is possible for such groups to achieve?

Wow! The sky’s the limit. Set realistic goals but never imagine that there are limits to what can be achieved. Build on what’s already happening in your area but don’t be constrained by it. Aim for a mix of education, practical action and inspiring projects. Remember that the dividing lines between different transition theme groups are arbitrary so don’t be afraid to work with other groups on joint projects. Be organised with regular business meetings, mailing lists, events and discussions and try to involve as many people in conducting the business as possible. This creates a sense of ownership and involvement and prevents a few people getting burnt out because they are doing everything – but that applies to almost any campaigning organisation.

I think the key factor in the success of the Building & Housing Group in Totnes is that we have a solid core of people who have been involved for the past few years and just keep coming to meetings and getting involved in projects. How to build and maintain such a group will vary in each area and we don’t have any magic formula. Just use whatever mix of education, agitation, organisation and inspiration that works.

Any final thoughts you would like to share?

I’ve really enjoyed researching and writing this book and I hope people learn as much from reading it as I have from creating it. When we first discussed the idea of a book on sustainable housing for the Transition series I envisaged a very different end result from the book that will be published in a few days. So the book really is the product of what I came across while traveling around the country, trawling through the internet and talking to hundreds of people rather than just flesh on the bones of an original concept. I hope people beg, borrow or hopefully buy a copy and I really hope they’ll be kind enough to tell me what’s wrong with it!

What do you think? Leave a comment below.

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