The Need for Sustainable Building

Charlotte Haworth
Friday, 11th July 2014

Buildings are huge part of our daily lives. Charlotte Haworth looks at the need for sustainable buildings in new builds and renovations.

The majority of us live in some sort of building. Everyone, especially in towns and cities, have to interact with buildings on a pretty much daily basis. They are an important part of our lives and in some ways, define them. But are we really relating to these structures in the best way?

Sustainable Buildings?

The UK government has released a new National Policy Planning Framework requiring “all new homes to be zero carbon from 20161", amongst other guidelines aimed at reducing carbon emissions. In spite of this, throughout the country, different regulations exist on when and where you can construct your own buildings, with England leading the way in the sometimes torturously complicated number of planning permission criteria it is necessary to satisfy. 

Nevertheless, in some places, sustainable building is being supported. A key example is Brighton, home of the iconic Brighton Earthship, a community centre completed in 2006-7 which hosts tours, courses and numerous community activities, and is made out of 1,000 used tyres. The Earthship has apparently appeared in the mainstream press 125 times and the Low Carbon Trust, who run it along with Brighton Permaculture Trust, received in 2007 a ‘Green Apple’ architecture award for the structure.

The EU Landfill Directive is now in effect in this country, banning used tyres from going into landfill so they have to be recycled in some other way. Since they are a key ingredient in Earthship construction this seems a perfect match. Despite all of this, the Earthship in Brighton remains the only one in England, and only one of two in the entire UK.

Also in Brighton is the Waste House project, an experimental building that aims to be ‘one of the first A* energy-efficient rated sustainable buildings in the UK’ and to use ‘85% waste materials’ in its construction. As a ‘living laboratory’, the house cannot be actually used as a home, but at least the monitoring that is happening on it may lead towards a new way of thinking about which materials can be legally and safely used in home-building.

Another great example of sustainable building comes from Ben Law, who applied for and obtained retrospective planning permission for his self-built roundwood timber framed house in Sussex (most popular episode of Grand Designs on Channel 4). Ben argued the need to live in the fwoods as part of his work, and so gaining the right for himself on condition he continues to use the woods to make a living. The conditions of this are quite strict and do not necessarily include all work you could do in a wood; rather, only those that are seen as absolutely necessary to live in the there (and this does not include growing!). 

Lammas community in Wales have successfully used Policy 52 from the long-pushed for Low Impact Dwellings law to obtain permission to build, on condition they provide a detailed plan and can prove that a certain percentage of their income is generated through the community. To some these goals may seem quite strict, and it is estimated that the community spent £50,000 on applying before being granted even this conditional permission. A method involving far less paperwork but possibly more risk could go along the lines of Grow Heathrow. Although those who originally set up the community questioned local residents for about a year before moving in to ensure that their presence would not be too unwelcome, and currently the site has support from many community members including the local MP, they are not legal occupants. This has not deterred from the construction of a number of very low-impact buildings, including the straw-bale house which is made almost entirely from recycled materials.

Working with your surroundings

While there is a large amount of unused or misused land and buildings in Britain, in some places there are more problems than simply getting access to land. It may be that the land itself is contaminated, as is the case with the Grow Heathrow site in Sipson, that was used as an illicit rubbish dump for some time before the current community project began inhabiting it. As a result, it is rather risky to grow plants in the ground on the site even four years on, though the community has had a lot of food-growing success using raised beds. 

On the other side of London, is a larger contaminated area, the Greenwich Peninsula, where around 72 acres of ‘toxic sludge’ was left over after the closure of Europe’s largest gas works at the time - East Greenwich Gas Works - in 1985. This became part of a huge development project funded mainly by English Partnerships, now the Homes and Communities Agency, a government-sponsored national ‘housing and regeneration agency’ for England. The project included the building of the Greenwich Millennium Village, ‘one of the biggest regeneration projects in Europe’. This at the outset was supposed to be a development of ecological, sustainable and mixed income homes using specific energy efficiency goals; hardly any of which ended up being met. Sadly, many of the targets were reduced or not met. 

On Greenwich Peninsula, there is even a Sainsburys store, opened in 1999 by TV chef, Jamie Oliver. The building has won numerous awards for sustainable design including the 'Design Sense Award' and the 'RIBA Journal Sustainability Award' and boasts a domed green roof for insulation and power from wind turbines and solar panels. The Sainsbury's building has 'an operational CO2 footprint 60% below a standard 34,000 square foot store', which could be better, but it does not seem likely that the future plans for the site will be more sustainable. 

Unfortunately, Greenwich Council have approved the outline planning application of a different company, Ikea, who wish to demolish this pioneering construction entirely, and replace it with a warehouse six times the size whose aesthetic is more in line with their company image. This approval went ahead in spite of protest from two councillors and a petition against the demolition of the Sainsbury’s building; although there remains hope that if more people show that such structures are desirable, the Ikea plans will not be able to go ahead. Community support clearly exists; the petition alone has almost 2,000 signatures and other possibilities abound.

More needs to be done

All of these examples show imaginative ways of building what you want, regardless of what others say. Some show new builds but through locally sourced products or recycled materials and others show projects making the best out of their space.

However we are still a long way from legislation that makes sure new builds are sustainable and low impact. For example, one of London's newest skyscraper, (nicknamed the ‘Walkie Talkie’) becomes so hot in the sunshine that occasionally the glare from the reflected light is enough to melt plastics on parked cars. The potential for energy creation from such a powerful, if inadvertent, source seems vast; yet the solution the developers have come up with instead is merely palliative. Rather than change the design of the building or utilising the heat they are simply installing a giant sunshade to prevent melting. 

Such measures seem all too common; reminiscent of the famous quote on US military policy “We cut ‘em in half with a machine gun and give ‘em a Band-Aid”; solutions that are somehow missing the wider point, and may indeed simply lead to further problems later on: What if the giant shade interferes with wind currents? Unbalances the building? Or is a danger to local birds and wildlife?

When considered from a permaculture perspective these potentialities could all be integrated; however, at the moment there appears to be more of a trend towards finding short-term solutions while ignoring the root of the issue and holistic aspects.

The problem is the solution

Permaculture engages us to find solutions in the problems and with these skyscrapers, there is a perfect one. The tall, glass buildings use a lot of energy to keep cool through air conditioning, which the Carbon Trust state, "can increase a building’s energy consumption and associated carbon emissions by up to 100%”. Instead, the hot, sunny buildings could easily be used as growing space, especially for the more tropical foods that are less suited to our climate.

The use of glass skyscrapers as greenhouses is surely about to take off in a big way. With food shortages, land contamination and massive carbon emissions from importation of foodstuff from overseas this seems like a money saving and sustainable solution. The UK banana business alone, with the majority of imports coming from Ecuador and Colombia, is worth £580 million annually. Then there is the fact that some of these skyscrapers are not even being used for office space at the moment, and are merely towers of potential. Hopefully it won’t be long before people begin making the connection.

The ideas in this article represent only a tiny spectrum of what is possible when it comes to re-imagining our relationship with buildings. One of the most important things, it seems, is to look around you. You might be surprised at how many resources you can discover; just waiting to be used in a different way.

Charlotte is passionate about premaculture with particular expertise in food and seed soverignty, communal living and use of land. She gained her PDC in 2011 in Bulgaria and has since been involved in a number of projects in Spain and the UK. She currently writes for the Permaculture Research Institute website, amongst other publications.


How to get planning permission on non-development land

Building a Low Impact Roundhouse by Tony Wrench for just £9.71 (also available as an eBook)

The Woodland House by Ben Law for just £11.21 (also available as an eBook)

The Government’s National Policy Planning Framework 

Brighton Earthship 

Brighton Waste House

A range of building articles

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