Friday, 9 August 2013

Building green homes – what does this mean?

By Kirstie O'Neill (@KirstieJONeill)

Most people are probably already aware of the benefits of making small changes around the home like fitting low energy bulbs (which last longer than ordinary bulbs, use less energy and therefore cost less to run), buying A-rated washing machines or cookers, and most people probably recycle things like bottles and newspapers at home.  However, as energy becomes more expensive and oil-based fuels become scarcer, there are more significant actions that can be taken to make our homes more ‘green’ or environmentally friendly – but the best way to achieve this is not agreed and a range of different approaches exist.

We have spent the last two and a half years researching ‘green entrepreneurs’ and businesses working in green building and construction.  Such businesses are working with straw-bale building, growing hemp for construction and as a source of biomass, as well as providing products and services for green homes and buildings (e.g. architects specialising in a range of green building designs or ‘green’ builders merchants where sheep wool insulation or triple glazed windows can be purchased).  While change is happening within the mainstream construction industry, with technologies like solar panels becoming more common, we need a step-change in the way we build and use our homes.  As new products become available which could make our homes perform better in terms of carbon emissions, it is essential that we have skilled people able to install such products effectively and to explain these clearly to home-owners and tenants.  Ensuring the availability of such skills would mean that our homes are more environmentally friendly and cost less to run – at the moment, such new technologies are not widely available so knowledge about their installation and use is limited, but evolving.

What might a green home look like?  In the future we will have to rethink our expectations of our homes’ appearances so that we can live comfortably and affordably in a changing climate.  Below are some images indicating the degrees of difference between what can be argued to be a ‘green’ home:

The solar settlement, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany (designed by architect Rolf Disch)

The buildings in the ‘solar settlement’ have roofs which face south and have solar panels to provide electricity, they are connected to a district heating scheme (which heats water in one place and then channels this out to individual homes within a given district, so that separate boilers are not needed), and the homes are oriented to take best advantage of sunlight so that the buildings towards the rear of the development are higher than the others in order to still have sunlight hitting their solar panels.

 Straw bale holiday cottage, East Yorkshire (photo: Carol Atkinson)

This building is built using straw and other natural materials like wood (different building materials have different amounts of carbon 'embodied' within them).  The building is oriented to make the most of natural light for heating and avoiding the use of artificial light.  The building is heated by a wood-burning stove and there is no central heating – the thermal mass of the straw walls means that heat generated is stored and released slowly.  The building is fitted with low energy equipment such as a low-flow shower and water-saving toilet.

More radical designs are also being experimented with, which look significantly different from most homes at the moment.  It is likely that such experimental designs won’t be built in great numbers, but they help to challenge our thinking about how houses should or could look and be built in the future.  The following photos illustrate this:

Low-cost straw bale house in southern Scotland (see * below)

The same material, straw bales, is used in this house which looks markedly different to the straw bale holiday cottage in East Yorkshire (above).  While straw bale building can be a low cost approach there are certainly differences in construction costs – the one pictured here cost the owner just £4,000 to build (Hill 2008).  Affordability is a key concern for green buildings as some new technologies (biomass boilers, solar panels and so on) are expensive to purchase.

 The ‘Heliotrope’, Freiburg-im-Breisgau, Germany – a rotating, cylindrical building designed to maximise exposure to the sun for generating heat and power.

As these images suggest, ‘green’ building is of great interest in a range of countries where governments are trying to encourage a more environmentally-friendly building stock in order to reduce emissions, improve energy security and reduce resource consumption.  Many of the UK green entrepreneurs we have spoken to suggested that Germany was a forerunner in such environmentally friendly buildings and associated technologies – the British Academy funded a short piece of research where we looked at green building entrepreneurs in Germany, and we will report on the results of this research in a future blog post.

At a time when more conventional building and construction companies have been in recession, we've been surprised that the businesses we've interviewed are doing so well and expanding.  However, a clear message that we've been getting is that these businesses are particularly concerned about the lack of direction and inconsistency from the UK government which is seen to be stifling investment and growth.  Another core concern has been access to finance, especially as banks look to avoid risk and other sources of money dry up.  The time is ripe to encourage and support these green businesses and ensure that we make the most of the available opportunities so that our homes have lower emissions, running costs and are, above all, comfortable, pleasant places to live.

See Jenny Pickerill’s excellent Natural Build blog ( for a further discussion of such issues.

Research results from a research project with Professor David Gibbs, University of Hull.



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