Green Home Building and Sustainable Architecture

Sustainable architecture is an exciting and important field, with many people reviving traditional methods of building and others creating innovations to established practices. Kelly Hart, webmaster of the popular website, posts text and photos featuring what he discovers from around the world.

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Location: Crestone, Colorado, United States

Kelly Hart has been involved with green building concepts for much of his life. He has also worked in various fields of communication media, including still photography, cinematography, animation, video production and now website development. Kelly has lived in an earthbag/papercrete home that he built and consults about sustainable building design.

March 29, 2011

Affordable Eco-homes Report

 Dr.Jenny Pickerill recently  traveled around the world on a Winston Churchill Trust Travelling Fellowship on a quest for information and insights on how folks in England (where she teaches at the University of Leicester) might better address needs for sustainable housing. One of her stops was in the rural area of Colorado state, where I live, and I had the pleasure of spending time with her, introducing her to some of green building activity in this area. Back at home in England now, Jenny has issued a preliminary report on her findings, which she is allowing me to quote below. I feel that her conclusions are pertinent to most places in the world.

We need both a technical assessment of materials and methods used, and a social assessment of people’s choices and decisions in order to understand eco-housing.

There is a diverse variety of eco-housing worldwide.  The definition used in this report is that an eco-building minimises resource use (in construction and life-cycle) while also providing a comfortable environment in which to live.

We already have the technical knowhow, and many working examples, to build resilient eco-houses in Britain. However, ecological building methods remain marginalised and often misunderstood. 

Eco-building will only be adopted if it offers what people demand from a house and that they can live how they want to within it.

The success of eco-housing is only as great as the behaviour of the people who live in it. Construction and technology cannot compensate for excessive energy use. 

There remains a perception that building an eco-house is more costly, whereas figures for the lifecycle costs of buildings have proved that in the long term they are actually cheaper. More investment may be required upfront but it pays off in costing less to run throughout its lifetime. 

Living sustainably has been associated with forgoing (doing without) many elements of contemporary life. However, a good eco-house is actually more comfortable.

It is not technology, or even politics, which is holding us back in building more eco-houses, it is deep rooted cultural and social conventions in how we live and what we expect houses to do for us.

Choices of building materials are made according to complex compromises between cost, local availability, skills and expertise required, suitability for climate, ecological properties, maintenance requirements and cultural attachments to certain forms. Thus eco-materials need to satisfy many criteria before they are adopted. 

Eco-building involves more than technical changes to construction; it involves cultural shifts in how we consider our houses and homes.  There are dynamic relationships between physical structures and individual behavioural practices, culture, history and place.

There are many simple ways to make eco-housing more affordable, including:
  • Reducing the size
  • Simple design and avoiding the use of unnecessary technology  
  • Designing affordability in at the start 
  • Designing in modular units so that a building can be extended at a later stage 
  • Internal open plan design to enable maximum flexibility
  • Using the space between buildings  
  • Building collectively  
  • Sharing common facilities and infrastructure  
  • Sharing the cost of the land  
  • Avoiding the use of experts  
  • Participating in the debate about new planning regulations to ensure that eco-building is permissible.
  • Careful choice of materials   
  • Using pre-fabricated elements or existing structures  
  • Avoiding a purist approach 
  • Ensuring design is aesthetically pleasing 
  • Using hybrid combinations of materials 
Planning favours buildings which conform to existing styles and norms and building regulations need to be negotiated.

Eco-building is gendered in that is it perceived to be a male domain where men are presumed to be better builders, more men than women actually build and women find their ideas and contributions to eco-building are often belittled. Socially constructed notions of gender have determined that strength is the most important attribute required for building, which is not true.

The replication of eco-build techniques worldwide has less to do with whether the build actually worked or its cost, but is influenced by the less quantifiable factors of foreign importation of ideas, the appeal of the aesthetics, open discussion of failure, a critical mass of support, assertive pioneers, and people understanding how their existing houses work. 

Further research work is needed on how people understand their houses, how eco-build approaches are replicated, post-occupancy evaluations and the cultural dimensions of eco-building.