(Courier-Mail, 20171. Brisbane [?] Housing Estate)

Housing/Shelter

Section
2. Reduce Consumption
Page
2.6

The next, ‘big ticket’ item, is housing, or shelter, which – depending on the measurement system – ranks alongside food as the major personal consumptive impact. Shelter consumes enormous resources in its construction, maintenance and operation, but it is less amenable to change at the personal level because of inertia, the vagaries of cost and availability, and the choices supplied by ‘the housing market’. Despite this, there is much that we can do to ‘do better’ in this realm as I witnessed on a fieldtrip on the edge of my capital city, Melbourne, just recently.

I was on the urban fringe ostensibly to inspect some native grasslands and to be brought up-to-date on the progress of creation of a grasslands national park – much needed, as there is almost no grassland left. While inspecting grassland sites we toured across and around numerous housing estates in various stages of construction and it was a depressing sight indeed. Melbourne is a large city – five million – with rapid population growth (a minimum of 1.6%, or 80,000/year in the pandemic-affected 2019-202) and this was where a lot of the growth was being accommodated. Everywhere I looked, dark-brick houses, with dark tile rooves, all alike, crammed onto little blocks with almost no garden, no eaves, no trees, no shade, paved surfaces everywhere, bleak. This area is in a rainshadow and is hot and windy, but there was no recognition of this in construction except for the seemingly mandatory installation of huge air-conditioners. Construction rubbish and jettisoned household rubbish – mattresses, whitegoods, packaging – were strewn across the grasslands, and what they didn’t cover, the weeds did. Local services and work are non-existent and have to be driven miles to. Every aspect, not just the housing, is about as unsustainable and blind to local conditions as could possibly be.

It was a grim display of exploitation. Most of the new residents were recent migrants, brought in to feed the growth machine. The housing was mass-produced to do the same: public and private profit at the expense of people and the environment, a deeply cynical, soulless, experience, that, I fear, can be replicated in many other places on earth.

Of course, there is worse than this, even if perhaps not in a consumptive sense. The UN-Habitat organisation states that: “By 2030, UN-Habitat estimates that 3 billion people, about 40 per cent of the world’s population, will need access to adequate housing. This translates into a demand for 96,000 new affordable and accessible housing units every day. Additionally, an estimated 100 million people worldwide are homeless and one in four people live in harmful conditions to their health, safety and prosperity.” Without turning our backs for a moment on this unfair and inadequate situation, some of this meagre housing is of relatively low environmental impact (except for wastes) because of the large numbers of people per unit area, the small dwelling size, the poverty-restricted use of power and water, and the extensive use of recycled materials in construction.

(Rodrigues, L. 2016. Favela do Moinho, Sao Paulo3)

 

With now, for the first time ever in human history, over 50% of people living in urban centres, their housing ‘reality’ is increasingly of huge blocks of flats and apartments. These have enormous environmental ‘cost’ through their use of concrete, steel and glass, but reduce this somewhat through their very high population density and reduced land area.

 

(World Atlas, 2018. Tower Block –Hong Kong)

 

Assessing the impact of housing is extremely difficult as there is so much variation in shelter types, even within broad categories – such as ‘freestanding’ – so we will have to broadly generalise and focus upon the big consumers in this regard, the housing in the Developed and Developing World.

A simplified diagram of impact categories is presented here4, and we will, as flagged, be most concerned on this webpage with site (orientation, etc…) and materials, and to an extent, energy, with water largely covered already in 1.5 ‘Food’. (Indoor air quality is important, but a small enough ecological impact to be left out here). Elaborating on these broad categories is the excellent summary diagram produced by ‘Green Builder’ in Colorado, USA, for American conditions. It covers all the main actions to make your dwelling ‘greener’ and organises them into a pyramid with easier to do/bigger impact at the bottom.

 

 

 

(Green Builder Media. 2008. How to Green Build5)

 

Addressing the bigger-impact items in turn:

Site/Siting: In countries such as my own (Australia) and the USA and Canada we have a bad tendency towards urban ‘sprawl’, whereby we consume significant land area with our built environment (e.g. ‘my’ capital city – Melbourne – covers a ridiculously large built-up area of around 10,000km2 for 5 million people, whereas Grand Paris covers just 800km2 for its approximately 7 million people!). Worldwide, this urban built-up area is relatively small, variously measured as between 1-3% of land area6, but this is expected to grow as urban population grows and its import for people and the direct consumption of the natural world is exacerbated by its location on the urban fringe where so many humans interact with the remnants of Nature7 (see 1.1.6 ‘Articles’). The style of urban development commonly practised in my part of the world actively consumes these remnants, as per my brief story earlier about the Western Plains Grasslands on Melbourne’s fringe. A study in ‘Ecological Restoration and Management’8 quantified my observations with: 55 per cent of the 1200 native plant species found in Greater Melbourne are threatened with extinction within the next 100 years, and grassland species alone are forecast to be reduced by 21 per cent (184 species) during the same timeframe. Just 2 per cent of the original grasslands between Melbourne and Adelaide remain, and much of Melbourne’s remaining grasslands are in private hands, with the land likely to be sold to developers as the city grows” (Hahs & McDonnell, 2014). Clearly, housing sites and estates that have been insensitively sited need to be avoided and those that use already degraded land, or are in-fill, or are a form of higher density living, will reduce the footprint significantly. (There is a caveat here, though, that a push to higher-density living, while consuming less land, also reduces one’s independence and flexibility to live sustainably: there is usually a commensurate loss of land area to grow food, capture water, grow native vegetation, etc., and less opportunity to implement individual energy-saving practices. Despite this, as a generality, it usually leads to significantly lower environmental impact and should be supported).

Once a suitable site has been found, siting the dwelling is one of the simplest and most fundamental ways to reduce one’s footprint. If there is any existing native vegetation or water features they need to be avoided, and intelligent solar orientation will have profound effects upon future heating/cooling and lighting (and wellbeing).

House/Dwelling size: As Green Builder’s diagram informs us: “Doubling the house size triples its annual energy use for the life of the home”. We are particularly bad in this regard in Australia where the average floor area of all new residences (including flats) is more than 200m2 9. This is more than 4 x, per capita, countries like Russia and China! – see diagram below10 – so there is ample scope for major improvement here.

 

 

Number of people per dwelling: Impact can be further lowered by increasing the number of people per dwelling, thus dividing the size and other impacts. As I have mentioned before re Footprint calculations, it is probably fairest if these people are not offspring, as this is really a multiplier of impact in so many ways for the years to come, but if it is purely an increase in occupancy numbers, then that shares the house resources in question, and reduces pressure for new housing resources.

Despite the environmental benefits of sharing housing and other resources, actual household population sizes have been steadily dropping in many parts of the First World (e.g. by 20% in Britain between 1971 and 2001 – see webpage 2.2) making gains in this area difficult, as the dominant demographic trend would have to be stopped and then reversed.

House construction and materials: This important contributor to environmental impact is often overlooked. The following doughnut chart from the Australian Government ‘Your Home’ website – Embodied energy | YourHome – calculates it, for the average Australian home over 50 years, as equal to or more than, operational energy. (Note: recurrent embodied energy = maintenance, etc…).

 

The embodied energy of construction will depend on the construction type, e.g. brick veneer, or timber/weatherboard, and the materials used in that type. There can be a trade-off here as often thicker, better insulating materials with better thermal mass can have greater embodied energy than thinner, lighter materials that have less embodied energy, but will require more operational energy. Keeping this in mind, we can still check how much and what sort of materials tend to be used for an average house in our home country and target for reduction those that use the most energy. The graph by Crawford11 outlines this for the average Australian home, but note that it is total embodied energy represented here (quantity used x energy/per unit mass) and not the embodied energy per unit weight of production.

 

There are some surprises here. ‘Sand and Gravel’ and ‘Insulation’ use significant embodied energy in total over 50 years (11 and 9.5% respectively), whereas more obvious items, such as ‘Steel’ and ‘Concrete’, comprise relatively little (around 3% each). As is so often with environmental impact, it is the quantity used as much as the qualities of items that is important.

 

 

(Crawford, 2014. Total Embodied Energy Various Materials Used in the Av. Australian Home)

 

 

To help reduce the impact of the above, the Green Builder pyramid recommends we follow the steps, in descending order of impact/desirability:

  • Specify Re-used/Salvaged Materials
  • Specify Highest Recycled Content of Materials
  • Specify Sustainably Harvested/Mined Materials

This last point reminds us that while energy used is an important and useful metric of environmental impact, it is one only of those that must be considered: habitat destruction, water use, CO2 emissions, etc., are all damages that occur from the extraction, transport and production of materials. The Your Home website provides a thorough list of construction types and materials (e.g. precast concrete, rammed earth, etc…), their strengths and weaknesses.

New vs Durable?: Green Builder puts it nicely on its chart when it says: “Durability is a green characteristic”. Yes it is, and I think we should always think this way first, but it needs to be recognised that there can be a tension between older, poorer-performing materials/ items/constructions, and newer, better performing examples of the same. (I am all too aware of this having lived in some very old timber homes in the country that are almost impossible adequately to insulate and heat!). Perhaps the only way we can deal with this is to be biased towards durability and aware of the high embodied energy in homes, but if operational energy and performance become very poor and are extremely difficult to fix, then we can consider new or newer options.

Operational energy: Of all the components of housing impact this category receives the most attention. Interestingly, though, even within this category, certain actions and items are much more attractive to occupants than others, even if they can be less impactful, and more expensive, than some relatively simple, ‘unglamorous’ items. The Green Builder chart highlights this when it fills its lower, highest impact/easiest rungs of the pyramid of action with: ‘Insulate Foundations’, ‘Caulk Openings’, ‘Seal Housewrap’, ‘Upgrade Shell Insulation’, ‘Upgrade Windows’. It is only after these relatively straightforward actions are taken that it is recommended that we improve our appliances (e.g. hotwater system, washing machine, refrigeration) and heating and cooling systems (solar, on-demand gas, etc…). These can be summarised diagrammatically:

(Reduction Revolution12/SA Govt., 2021. Energy Use Percentages South Australian Homes)

Two-thirds of impact (depending on local climate) are from heating/cooling and water heating (it is beyond T10 to explore the other, smaller, items).

The Your Home site lists the pros and cons of the many heating and cooling systems available (as well as an explanation of the useful energy-rating star system) – Heating and cooling | YourHome – and does the same for water heating – Hot water systems | YourHome

Encouragingly, it is estimated that up to 19% of Australian households were using some form of solar power for these and other household operations in 201413, and this figure is growing. It is very hard to generalise as to the best systems for the environment in these two categories, but solar hotwater systems and reverse-cycle electric (solar; wind?) heating/cooling systems, usually come out on top in this regard (once, of course, all the other measures, like solar orientation and thermal insulation, are implemented).

As a little indulgence, and to emphasise how eminently ‘doable’ green design, construction and operation, is, I have included here a couple of examples of houses that have won awards. Despite the oft-repeated mantra that it is “too expensive”, this is often untrue, and, if partially so, is merely a function of scale of production that could easily be changed if we wanted to.

 

 

(Architecture and Design, 2019. City of Hope, Coffs Harbour, Australia)

 

City of Hope comprises four units on a house block in Coffs Harbour, Australia. It won the Architecture and Design Eco House Sustainability Award in 201914. Its designer, Reiner Schimminger, said:

“After three decades of living in Coffs Harbour, I wanted to design a place that would celebrate and protect the natural landscape and beauty of the area.”

The houses boast: zero greenhouse gas emissions, produce 100% renewable solar energy, display urban agriculture, and use sustainable and healthy materials in the process, the judges said:

“It was patently obvious that in every way this house was designed, the concepts of sustainability, renewability and liveability were central to the design and planning process. This is what sustainability should be about- no ifs or buts – this is quite literally the blueprint for the future of residential buildings in Australia.” Read more at: City of Hope wins ‘Best of the Best’ Award (schimmingerdbl.com.au)

A more modest house still is the Blooming Bamboo House which was recognised at the Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design 2015 Green Good Design Awards15.

(See https://www.dezeen.com/2013/09/25/blooming-bamboo-house-by-h-and-p-architects/ ).

Their commendation read: “The Vietnamese practice H&P Architects designed the house, which is built from tightly packed rows of 8-10cm bamboo cane, and can be adapted to make use of locally available materials, such as bamboo, wattle, and coconut leaf. The entire structure is formed using simple bolting, binding, hanging and placing methods, with 3.3m and 6.6m building lengths available. “Its ability to withstand flood waters up to three metres makes the Blooming Bamboo House the first of its kind, and the design received a special mention from the judges for its “unparalleled humanistic value.” This responsiveness to flooding was a core consideration for the architects, with floodwaters presenting a periodic threat in Vietnam.

(Chicago Athenaeum Museum, 2015. Blooming Bamboo House)

“Natural light and ventilation are key features of the design, which serves as a versatile template for all sorts of uses. Elements of the house can be opened and closed to respond to the needs of the occupants and weather variations.

“It is an ideal model for mass production, with the total cost of building estimated by the architects to be $US2500 and with the structure able to be built by users within 25 days.”

These are but two small examples of a whole field of sustainable housing innovation.

 

 

 

 

 

1 Courier-Mail, 2017. Australian House Prices Surge in Several States. Courier-Mail Online, 31st October, Brisbane, Australia.

2 Australian Bureau of Statistics, 2021. Regional Population. ABS Online, Canberra, Australia.

3 Rodrigues, L. 2016. Favela do Moinho, Sao Paulo. Fotospublicas, June 28th.

4 Adeyemi, A., Martin, D., Kasim, R. 2014. Research Framework for Identification of Waste and Inefficiencies in Existing Public Office Buildings in Developing Nations for Sustainability. British Journal of Applied Science & Technology, VL – 5, August 10th.

5 Green Builder Media, 2008. How to Green Build. Green Builder, Colorado, USA.

6 Zhifeng, L., Chunyang, H., Yuyu, Z., Jianguo, W. 2014. How Much of the World’s Land has been Urbanized, Really? Landscape Ecology, April 12th, 29:763–771.

7 McGregor, R. 2021. Everyday Enchantment: a short history of birdwatching. Wingspan, Vol. 10, No. 3, September, Birdlife, Melbourne, Australia.

8 Hahs, A., McDonnell, M. 2014. Extinction Debt of Cities and Ways to Minimise their Realisation: a focus on Melbourne. Ecological Restoration & Management, May 19th.

9 CommSec, 2020. Australian Houses are World’s Biggest. Online, November 9th, Commonwealth Bank Australia.

10 Shrink That Footprint, 2009. Average Residential Floorspace Per Capita. Shrinkthatfootprint.com.

11 Crawford, R. 2014. Post-occupancy Life Cycle Energy Assessment of a Residential Building in Australia. Architectural Science Review 57(2):114–124.

12 Reduction Revolution/SA Govt., 2021. Energy Use Percentages South Australian Homes. Reductionrevolution.com.au.

13 Australian Bureau of Statistics/Energy Matters, 2014. Energy Use and Conservation Survey. ABS, Canberra, Australia.

14 Architecture and Design, 2019. Eco House Sustainability Award. Architectureanddesign.com.au.

15 Chicago Athenaeum Museum of Architecture and Design, 2015. Green Good Design Awards. Chi-athenaeum.org.

 

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