What is stopping us building more eco-houses?

Dr Jenny Pickerill
Monday, 31st October 2011

Are eco-houses cheaper to build and less expensive to run? What is holding Britain back from building more energy efficient homes? How can we make eco-houses more affordable? Dr Jenny Pickerill shares her research with Permaculture Magazine online.

We all want lower bills and comfortable homes so what is stopping developers and self-builders from building beautiful green, energy efficient homes? Agents such as those from John D Wood have no problem filling eco homes once they are available. Dr Jenny Pickerill reveals that there is not one or two simple answers but a mixture of cultural drivers as well as financial misconceptions. She also reports key findings on how to make eco-housing more affordable.

Key findings about low cost eco-homes 

 ~ 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. The USA has a long-standing and established eco-building culture, whereas eco-building has only existed in Thailand in the last decade.

~ 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 stageInternal 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

Less durable houses

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.

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Dr Jenny Pickerill is the Senior Lecturer in Geography at the University of Leicester. She is the editor for Social Movement Studies and has worked closely with The Lammas low impact settlement project. She writes a BLOG and also has a WEBSITE that describes her research, has a photogallery and deatils her own eco-house build. 

Useful Resources

Grounds for Hope - Ways to Live Legally on Cheap Land in the UK eBook £5.95

Ecohouse: a design guide by Sue Roaf, Manuel Fuentes and Stephanie Thomas. Discusses the energy and environmental impacts of building materials, addresses natural ventilation, solar hot water, electric system design and water conservation strategies. With 21 case studies from 15 countries, this is an excellent book.


At the other end of the scale there is Tony Wrench's Building a Low Impact Roundhouse - a classic DIY very low impact house. YOu can take a tour of the house at this link too - http://www.green-shopping.co.uk/bldg-low-impact-roundhouse.html 

Evrim Faydalı |
Wed, 23/11/2011 - 10:00
before we crash maybe there is still some changes we can make, try every aspect..
djbadger |
Sat, 03/12/2011 - 18:21
good analysis, but I think a major constraint is that a lot of eco-concious people want to live in among an existing vibrant community in a town or city where everything is closer together. When our family lived in the country we had to run two cars in order to work, shop, go out, etc but now in a city we have one which is parked more days than it is used. However we live in a badly insulated terraced house because that is the housing stock around here. A building plot would be astronomically expensive.