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Copyright © 1998, MCB UP Limited
A crooked figure may attest in little place a million
A crooked figure may attest in little place a million
My lifelong friend (our mothers went to ante-natal clinic together, and you cannot get much more lifelong than that), an architect, refuses to involve himself in ecological issues, because he thinks that one person cannot do much to influence the world. Leaving aside slightly greater one-man influences, such as Jesus, Buddha or Mohammed, Shakespeare's remark in Henry V, which has just opened The Globe's first full season is nevertheless relevant. Just as one figure stuck on the end or beginning of a string of other numbers can enormously change its value, so one voice speaking out at the right time can have an effect disproportionate to its volume.
A few issues ago, I wrote an article about trying to be ecological, the conflicting claims of low-cost results from high-cost initiatives among other things. One cheap solution to produce an effective result which I mentioned was shredded paper insulation. Lo and behold, a borough council happened to read that issue of Structural Survey, and have approached me for details of the material, so that they may use it for their council house-building programme. If one little article can convert one borough council, they may convert others and away we go.
Since writing that first article, my own efforts to learn more about environmentally-sound practice have continued, and I recently attended the Sustainable Energy Exhibition in Amsterdam. I have ordered a solar water heating installation for my own house, and I have just purchased three more books on the subject, the benefit of which I propose to share with you. The books are:
Low Impact Developments, by Simon Fairlie, published by Jon Carpenter, at £10;
Simply Build Green, by John Talbot, published by Findhorn Press, at £9.95; and
Green Architecture, by Brenda and Robert Vale, published by Thames & Hudson, at £14.95.
It is up to us, as responsible and technically minded members of the community, to inform ourselves and to take the lead in preserving the world for the future. What is the point of all this fuss about the millennium if we are simultaneously pushing the planet towards self-extinction? (What is the point of all this fuss, anyway?) Celebrate this millennium: it may be the earth's last.
There has been a long gap since I wrote those introductory remarks, and since then the solar panels have arrived, while this morning the scaffold was erected to get the panels on to the roof. Meanwhile, I have also obtained details of the Aquasaver system.
This collects water from basins, baths and showers (or from the roof), but not from sinks or wcs, filters it, and re-uses it for flushing, car washing, or watering the garden. If you are on a water meter, there is great scope for saving money although I should think the pay-back period must be at least 20 years, since it costs about £1,000 for a small house while if you are not metered, there is still scope for saving the planet, or at least its scarce resources. I am not metered, and I have a septic tank, but I am going to give serious consideration to re-using my waste water.
(Talking of rain water. I have a client who tells me that British Waterways charge him £500 p.a. to take away his surface water, by canal. This is the same British Waterways who close locks for long periods because they have not got enough water to use them.)
The first chapter of the book by the Vales which seriously grabbed my interest, perhaps because the subject was on my mind, was the one on "Water, an undervalued resource". They point out (as do the manufacturers of Aquasaver) that the water used to flush a wc is of drinking quality, which has been expensively treated only to be sent straight back to the sewers. Yet that represents very nearly one-third of the average household's water consumption! Only baths, showers and washing approach it, while drinking and cooking the sole uses for which such purity is essential account for a mere 3 per cent!
A disquisition on fuels follows. Apparently, "wave power is capable in theory of supplying the entire electricity demand of an industrial country surrounded by sea". Sounds like England to me. (I say England, because I am writing on the day after the Welsh devolution vote, and we therefore have two hostile powers with land bordering on ours.) Even the Department of Energy reported in 1988 that 50 per cent of the UK energy demand could be met from renewable sources, such as wind, wave and solar power! But where is the governmental drive or assistance towards development of these supplies? I put some BES money into a wave-power development company: lack of encouragement drove them into insolvency.
As the Vales point out, greener architecture reduces demand on energy resources, whether renewable or not. It is impossible in a short article such as this adequately to deal with the many aspects of energy saving and environmentally-conscious building techniques which I suppose is what green architecture means but a few notes may give the general idea.
Orientation. When the site allows it, a building should be oriented to give good exposure to sunlight.
Design. But it should be designed to maximise heat gain in winter, and minimise it in glaring summer sunshine. Light shelves, or brises-soleil, which intercept high rays of sun, but let low-angled rays pass, are a great contribution to this aspect of design.
Artificial lighting. If a building is designed from the outset to use modern low wattage fluorescent lights, the money saving, as well as the fuel saving, will be considerable. I have just purchased low wattage lights for my offices, only to discover that half the fittings will not take them. Changing all the fittings as well is not such an economical move.
Heating. Modern boilers, especially condensing ones, are much more efficient than old-fashioned ones. Stoves are more efficient than open fires. I recently replaced the open fire in my living room with an ultra-efficient stove, which is also extremely elegant. Made by Clearview, as its name implies it gives a very warming view of the fire within, but even without lighting it, I reckon that the temperature in the room went up at least 5°C, simply by closing off the former massive loss up the open chimney. If you use central heating, all radiators should be fitted with individual control valves, so that different rooms can be differentially heated, according to need.
There is a substantial portion of the book on transport, but I dare not get started on that subject. To sit beside a canal, as I do, and see the most economical (although admittedly slow) means of transport so neglected, and to travel to work by under-funded public transport, as I do, while so many single-passenger vehicles and goods vehicles unnecessarily clutter the roads, is enough to drive anyone except the most hardened teetotaller, which I am, to drink.
The Vales propose six principles for "Design in Action", and give (which I shall not) numerous examples of buildings and methods which embody those principles. "Due to an earlier person under a train, normal service is now resumed." That sentence has absolutely no relevance to this article, but is just about the funniest London Transport offering I have ever seen (at St James's Park). I was just about to write "Due to constraint" or something like that, when I was irresistibly reminded of this notice, which I saw two days ago. Anyway, it should be "Owing to". So. Owing to constraints of space, I shall merely list the principles:
working with climate;
minimising new resources which includes adaptation of old structures to new use, such as the Gare d'Orsay becoming a museum;
respect for users I am not really sure what they mean by that, or that it is a principle in the same way;
respect for site, of which a lot of buried or half-buried houses are examples; and
This really means that all the above principles, and a bit more, must be embodied in your approach to green architecture. A school in Sheffield and a bank in Amsterdam are chosen to show as close an approach as possible to this ideal.
As the authors say, it is very difficult to adopt a holistic approach to design, architecture, and planning, but a study of this book, by two people who have put their money where their mouths are by building one of the most (if not the most) self-sufficient and "green" houses in the UK, will give everyone ideas, of which at least some could probably be incorporated in their own properties or developments.
The second book to consider is Simply Build Green, and is of particular interest to me since it is based on work at the Findhorn Foundation: of interest because the solar panels installed on my house (a week ago, now) come from Findhorn.
It is not until you see these panels in action in your own surroundings that you really appreciate how effective they are. Show them a glimmer of sun, and the temperature soars. In mid-October, as I write, they are producing enough hot water for a large bath and a shower, in reasonably quick succession. Because of this personal experience, I will write about Chapter 4 first, which deals with energy. I wish I had read it a month ago, because it suggests a twin-cylinder solution. Our back-up system is not heating the single cylinder very well yet.
I am very pleased to see that the author recommends changing one's habits to make the best use of solar heat. Obviously, if you have a bath last thing at night which I prefer there is not time for the sun to heat the water for your morning shave or wash. If you have been doing your clothes washing in the middle of the night to save electricity, the same problem arises. Yesterday, having worked this out for myself, I did a load of washing in the morning, and had a bath in the late afternoon, when I calculated that there was just enough daylight left to reheat the tank. (I was wrong, as it happened, and we needed the oil-fired boiler to top it up, but I had the right idea.)
Passive solar heating also relates to the main structure of the building. How large are the windows? How are they oriented? How well are they sealed? The more daylight, the more potential heat loss, and even the more, sometimes undesirable, heat gain. John Talbott points out that the best windows are made in Scandinavia, and a somewhat shamefaced lecturer once pointed out that it was more economical to import from Sweden than to buy similarly specified windows in Britain. (Because, of course, it is ecologically unsound to transport goods which can be obtained close at hand.)
The walls and roof in which the windows sit have to be equally well constructed. It is no use spending a fortune on triple glazed windows for a draughty old building with holes in the roof. You must have some ventilation, however. Mr Talbott thinks that Britons are genetically adapted to colder temperatures than Americans or other Europeans, but then they fling the windows open and have to put on another woolly jumper.
Some people argue that roof insulation should be at rafter, rather than joist, level. In that case, it is essential that the roof timbers themselves should be ventilated, to avoid rot conditions.
Findhorn has experimented with some weird house shapes, which will not appeal to everyone. (In my youth, I worked on a school at Sydenham designed by Sir Basil Spence. The school-keeper's cottage, a four-square, Victorian building, was replaced by a house without right-angles, and you should have heard what its occupant had to say about it.) They tried round, 12-sided, and five-sided, for various functions, and discovered that there was a lot to be said for rectangular, even if it was not so ecologically sound or interesting.
The book is organised so that you get theoretical discussion followed by a description of the foundation's experience with the various theories: result, a practical guide. Mostly, my experience bears out theirs, but I seem to have been luckier than them with organic paints. We tried some on a radiator, and it was fantastically successful. When (and if) we ever repaint the interior of our house, we will certainly use organic paints.
Water conservation gets a lengthy discussion. I agree with their statement that lavatory flushing is one of the biggest wastes. In my house (which has three wcs) all the cisterns are dual flush. A short press on the handle gives a short flush, and to use a full cistern you keep the handle pressed down. In the office, I am told that the cisterns conform to the new Euro-standard, and are not large enough to allow for dual flush. I do not know if this is true, but I have certainly failed to have such a system installed, despite requests. Bath water is so much good material down the drain that I am determined to do something about it, when opportunity shall serve. In Findhorn, their solution is to install showers, but I love a long, hot bath, and do a great deal of reading there which is impractical in a shower. They tried to recycle their bath water, but are now aiming at a total treatment for all their liquid waste. They had not got it under way when the book was written, so you are invited to write for details.
Simply Build Green is the record of something more than a self-build experiment, but it would be an excellent tool for anyone aiming to build their own house, or to improve their existing one. I certainly intend to draw on it in my future upgrading.
That leaves Low Impact Developments, but I carried that around with me for a while, and have mislaid it. When I find it, I will complete this article... which having been done, I will now confess that I found this book much more readable than I had expected. You may well ask then, why did I buy it? And the truth is that my wife bought it and told me to read it.
Simon Fairlie starts his book with the statement that "Planning is boring", and suggests that that is why environmentalists have not fully engaged with the system. He is particularly concerned with the impact of planning on the rural community, and laments the decline of agricultural workers, from about a million just after the war to about a quarter of one million today. At the same time, a farmer has needed to increase his stock and his acreage in order to maintain the same income. As I have said, I found all this introduction very readable, but the meat of his book is concerned with people who need a roof over their heads and do not want to live in a row of semis.
Many people live in or move into dwellings that require planning permission, often without realising that they do. Apparently, people have been found living in allotment sheds, and often put caravans on to smallholdings, as well as repairing ruined sheds or even houses. Such people do not understand why they are doing wrong by living peacefully on their own land. Although their numbers are not great, the author thinks that the planners see them as a threat, but should see them as an opportunity.
The 1992 Earth Summit in Rio produced what is known as Agenda 21, urging the preservation of the earth's fragile resources, and in the UK a guide to local authorities has been published, indicating how they can assist this aim. They are encouraged to make travel less necessary, and easier by public transport, while also promoting energy-efficient development. Those who wish to live in caravans, sheds or benders think that their life style is very energy efficient and, as the book's title indicates, low impact.
The nine ideals of low impact development are that it should be:
made from predominantly local materials;
protective of wildlife;
consuming little in the way of non-renewable resources;
generating little traffic;
used for sustainable purpose; and
linked to a positive environmental benefit.
These are far from revolutionary criteria, and few buildings can or will honour all of them, but it is hard to find objections to any of them as worthy aims.
Many temporary dwellings are moved regularly, not just to dodge the planners but also to let the ground recover. There is a great difference between this sort of living and the "mobile home" which never moves. An interesting question is that of the "plot-lands". Between the wars, many enterprising land owners sold off small plots to low-income city dwellers to provide them with rural or seaside dream sites, which they could develop as they pleased. Many never saw a brick laid, but on the Gower peninsula there was a group of chalets built by people who brought the materials by bus and then walked two miles to the site. They were only leasehold, and fairly recently the owner wanted to sell the land for development, but Swansea City Council declared the site a conservation area. Had the properties been built after planning legislation came in, they would not have been likely to enjoy such a happy end and indeed, some of the chalet owners have since been evicted.
In his closing chapters, Simon Fairlie discusses how such developments can be encouraged and protected, including if necessary, the grant of temporary planning permission. Co-operatives are an obvious way of securing the future of schemes of housing, since almost any other eventually falls into the hands of people other than those for whom it was intended. Finally, he proposes wider use of Simplified Planning Zones. I thought that these must be a pie-in-the-sky idea of his, but apparently they exist only planning authorities do not use them. No specific application is needed for a use envisaged by the Zone, and it should be possible to impose conditions which bring about the desired type of development: low impact, in this case.
The last of these three books is the most philosophical, and therefore the hardest to summarise in a few paragraphs. Really, it should be read first, and then the other two books afterwards, in order to see how to put into practice many of the ideals of low impact development. As I keep reiterating, it is the sort of person who reads Structural Survey who should be in the forefront of environmentally-conscious building.