Tuesday, 6 May 2014

Eco WHAT!?

I started to write a while ago about the Grauniad's 'eco-homes' competition, and then shelved it because it felt too negative; and, in any case, the competition had passed (needless to say, the worst house - from an ecological point of view - won). However, people are still blogging about these houses, and it needs to be said: they are not good enough. If this is the standard British housing aspires to, we're in even deeper trouble than I thought.

Let's start out by saying this. I don't claim to be a pioneer or an ideologue or a sage. The Winter Palace is - by the Grauniad's standards at least - a fairly extreme eco-home, and I was thinking to some extent about its impact on the landscape when I built it. But I didn't use straw and clay and softwood primarily for ideological reasons. I built of straw and clay and softwood because I needed a comfortable home, and I was broke. That's why my insulation is (recycled) glass wool, not the sheepswool I would have preferred - it's less 'green', but it was cheaper. Similarly, an earth closet does have lower environmental impact than a septic tank, but it's also - much - cheaper. Mind you, I would have had an earth closet anyway, for ecological reasons, but... What I'm saying is that deep economy, not deep ecology, drove my build. Mine is more an economic house than an ecological one.

So what has this to do with the Grauniad's competition for 'the best eco-home'? Well, the Grauniad's competition, being a competition in the prestigious end of the public press, attracted mainly architects who wanted to show off their grand designs in order to attract new customers. And these are, primarily, 'grand designs', worthy of that appalling Channel 4 programme: a third of them are bloated plutocratic mansions of the hyper-rich, tinted with a very thin coat of greenwash. A third are somewhat more modest versions of the same thing. And a third, by my standards, sort-of qualify.

Three with brazen knobs thereon affixed


Let's start with 'Underhill' in Gloucestershire. Mr Baggins would not recognise this Underhill. It's no modest, finely crafted dwelling. It's huge. But, like Mr Baggins' home, it is - mildly - earth sheltered
(although not underground) - and to achieve that, the builders have dug or blasted out half a hillside. It's then fronted entirely with glass (full disclosure, so's mine - but it's a lot less glass). The structure of the house is 'entirely concrete'.

Sorry, you cannot call this an 'eco-home' in any sense at all. Digging that hole, making that concrete, wiped out any energy savings that the building may deliver over its lifetime. And building a house on that scale for one family - spending half a million pounds on a house for one family is not in any sense sustainable. The architect said of it, "We want to bring the Italian catwalk to eco houses." She's failed. She may have brought the Italian catwalk to the Cotswolds, but 'eco'? Nonsense.

The Blackheath Pavillion is again a plutocratic monstrosity - again, built by an architect for himself, this time at a cost of a million pounds (less change). The soi-disant eco greenwash is here even thinner. My contempt for this sort of cognitive dissonance is unutterable.

Plummerswood in the Borders is similar. Yes, it's built primarily of softwood - prefabricated in Austria from timber grown who knows where. The food miles involved are extraordinary. And, again, 1.25 million pounds to house one family: you could build one hundred and eighty homes like mine for that money (or, more practically, 90 homes each twice the size of mine and housing a family).

Three wannabes

On a more modest scale, the 'Zero Carbon House' (yes, seriously!) recyles some of the same nonsense. Again, it's an architect building for himself, at least partly as self-promotion. This one cost only a third of a million pounds, or twenty-five houses worth - but that is, I think, not counting the pre-existing house onto which it was built. As for zero carbon, it incorporates a lot of sheet glass, bathroom fittings of either enamelled steel or ceramic (the pictures aren't clear enough to distinguish), glass kitchen counters, and thirty five square metres of solar panels. Low carbon it may be, but zero carbon it is not.

But it does have genuinely good features, including newspaper insulation, and a lot of reclaimed materials. It's not a dead loss. Give it two out of ten, for trying.

Slip House, in London? Look at that glass.

Let's be clear about this, transparency is a good thing. Before I had the Winter Palace, I lived six months on a platform in a tree. So long as the daytime temperature stayed above ten degrees celsius, it was actually quite nice, but when the daytime temperature fell below that - as in Scotland it often does, even in summer - it was pretty miserable. And allowing the breeze to waft through your living space may be pleasant on a warm summer day, but being unable to exclude it when it's driving a thin cold condensing mist is much less pleasant. I think that we many of us go too far in excluding the weather from our lives, but... My house has glass. Currently it has about five and a half square metres of glass; when I finally get round to glazing the front gable it will have about nine square metres.

I do keep thinking about alternative ways to gain the transparency of glass without its embodied energy, and so far I haven't found one. Friends have built their homes around reclaimed window units, and that's obviously more ecological than having new glass specially cut; but I want my house to have a formal grace, and that's not easy to achieve with odds and ends of repurposed glass. Japanese paper is not transparent but does admit light; it's a possibility for my next serious build. I'm not an absolutist about glass.

But the use of glass at Slip House is on another scale altogether. Even walls which are of solid opaque material are clad on the outside with glass, and that glass rises a metre above the roof. Where it is transparent, that glass is triple thickness - which undoubtedly has a significant insulation benefit. At what point does that insulation benefit cancel out the energy cost of the extra glass? To my shame I don't know. My instinct is that this much glass just isn't sustainable. The cost isn't sustainable, either - this fairly modest house cost two thirds of a million pounds.

Marsh House in Nottingham falls into the same category. A little cheaper - a mere half million, here - and a little better. Not a lot better, it's built substantially of brick, and it doesn't look like reclaimed brick. Like me they do use a composting toilet - which in a city is brave - and do without a fridge. It's an interesting house with some good ideas, and it's certainly better than most modern houses. But an eco house? Really?

Three to respect

Lilac Cohousing is in Leeds. The houses were prefabricated in Bristol, out of timber and straw from god-knows-where; and then transported to their site by road, and craned into place. And you do have to ask, what the holy god damned fuck?

Straw has a lot of benefits for building - I should know, I live in a straw house. But part of the point of a straw house is that straw bales are more or less like LEGO bricks. Each bale can be lifted by hand, placed by hand, if need be trimmed to size by hand; and a team of half a dozen completely unskilled people can build the walls of a house in a day. Bales are incredibly cheap: if you can't make your own from your own land, they cost about two pounds fifty each on the open market; and a couple of hundred of them will build a family home.

But, an assembled straw wall isn't easy to move. To hold them together during transport, ModCell, the builders of the straw modules used at Lilac Cohousing, build extremely sturdy wooden casements. These wooden casements then form the load-bearing framework for the houses, and to be completely fair about it, I would not have confidence to build a load bearing straw structure more than two stories high, so the wooden casements are probably not more expensive of timber than any other multi-story straw structure. And, again, the ModCell modules are fair inside and out, like a proper concrete home and lacking the somewhat rustic unevenness of my own walls. So there are some benefits.

But you lose. You lose community effort. You lose comradeship. You lose empowering people, letting people have the experience of building for themselves. You spend a lot of money on factory manufacture, on transport, on cranage, on specialist labour. And for what?

The other thing which slightly bothers me is cost. It's elided in the Grauniad puff-piece. Each resident, we're told 'pays... 35% of their net income rather than taking on individual mortgages'. Woah, that's a LOT! 35% of income after tax? For how long?

Again, for comparison, my house cost what I currently earn, after tax, in two months. OK, I was mad at the time, and consequently not able to earn, and consequently broke, but... So if I paid it off at 35% of my income I would have it paid off in six months. Because, after all, building in straw is cheap. So how long will the Lilac residents be paying for, exactly?

So I don't know. This isn't dreadful. I'd like to visit some day and have a look, talk to the folk. Five out of ten, maybe?

Edited to add: it seems I was too harsh on the Lilac scheme. Apparently (so they say on Twitter in reply to my post) their modules were actually built on a farm eight miles from site, partly with residents labour, using bales from straw grown there. So not nearly as ridiculous as I had thought. And Lilac does look like 'normal' social housing - perhaps even too much like 'normal' social housing - which will appeal to the innate conservatism of lots of British people.

The Hemp Cottage has wool insulation. I'm interested immediately. That's something I wanted to do and somewhat regret I did not do. Its walls are not straw, but a hempcrete mix made with lime; a sort of technically advanced cob. The proponents of hempcrete claim that it is carbon negative, which is clearly baloney seeing the lime must be kilned. But the render on my walls would be more durable if I had used lime, and I may yet re-render with lime. One cannot be purist. This is, all in all, a pretty nice build. Six out of ten.

Lammas feels very like home; like the Standingstone conspiracy, they are eight households. Like us, they've bought their land together. They're obviously much more right on than us, with their deliberately and consciously unsquare dwellings built with higglety-pigglety roundwood frames. Their structures have their own aesthetic, and I can admire it very much, although it isn't mine. But these people are doing it for real. They're building themselves, together, out of (mostly) the natural materials of the land on which they live. And their houses cost very much in line with mine - 'None cost more than £14,000 to complete.'

In short, this is the real deal. I hope to go there, and to learn from them. They provide one vision of what an eco-house looks like - a slightly rackety, post-punk, post-apocalyptic vision, but an authentic vision nevertheless. You don't have to live in a house like this to be eco. Eco houses are also available in square, and can even have pitched roofs. The windows don't have to be funky-shaped. The timber doesn't have to be round wood (although there's some fuel saved in not sawmilling it). But Lammas is probably as close as you'll get to ecohousing in Britain today, whether your eco is economy or ecology (and, let's face it, the two are closely related). Nine out of ten, and respect.

And one odd ball

100 Princedale Road is sort of an odd one out in this set. It's a traditional terrace, retrofitted with a lot of insulation. That has, obviously, reduced internal volume. It's also greatly reduced ventilation. A lot of modern 'eco-house' thinking seems to be about excluding nasty uncontrolled nature; I'm far from persuaded this is a good thing. And this process of reducing the space in the house has cost £180,000 (on top of its original purchase cost), or the cost of nine good family homes.

As a technology demonstrator for efficient insulation I'm sure it's a wonderful building, but this doesn't scale. We can't afford to do this to every terrace house in the country, and it seems highly doubtful to me that this degree of insulation will pay for itself either in money terms or in energy terms in the lifetime of the build.

Three out of ten, to be generous.
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