books sustainability transition towns

Local sustainable homes, by Chris Bird

This book couldn’t come at a better time for me really, as I’m in the middle of planning a home efficiency project of my own for Transition Luton. ‘Get Cosy’ will be hitting my street in a month’s time, in partnership with the local council and the Energy Saving Trust, encouraging local residents to install loft insulation. Chris Bird’s book includes a number of similar schemes, so it’s a good opportunity to refine the idea and learn from others.

Local Sustainable Homes – how to make them happen in your community is the next handbook from Transition Books, an imprint of Green Books. It follows Local Food and Local Money, with a guide to working with your town council expected later this month. It’s another big square book, this time in a fetching orange.

The book introduces and defines sustainable housing, and then explores various approaches, from new buildings to retrofitting. Chapters are full of great examples and real life buildings, with chapters detailing the town-wide approaches in Totnes, Stroud, Brighton and Sheffield.

It’s an important topic. 30% of the UK’s energy use is at the household level, most of that through heating and hot water. Climate change requires us to chop our carbon footprint from an average of 12 tonnes per person per year down to a mere 1.5, and housing is at the front line of this battle. “We are burning fossil fuels and letting most of the energy leak out of our homes and blow away in the wind”, writes Chris Bird.

There is an urgent need to whip our housing stock into shape, saving energy, cutting CO2 and hopefully making ourselves more comfortable in the process. Local Sustainable Homes has plenty of ways to do it, from the obvious and glamorous new-build eco-homes to retrofitting and refurbishing. Natural building and local materials is the cutting edge of the sustainable housing movement, older houses are just as important. One in four of the homes we’ll be living in come 2050 have already been built. It would be far more expensive and wasteful to build from scratch, so getting existing houses ship-shape is vital. So alongside the earthships and Passivhauses, Chris Bird profiles much more everyday projects like The Yellow House, George and Annie Marshall’s refurbished 1930s terrace.

There are also some unexpected solutions, like co-housing. ‘An Englishman’s home is his castle’ they say, but sharing your house and living together is much more sustainable. There are now much more formal ways of organising co-housing, including some co-owned new build developments, so it’s good to see it included here. There are projects that you and I could run on our street too, demonstrating the benefits of working together. Open houses seem to be a popular idea, allowing people to see what others have done. Who doesn’t like to snoop around other people’s homes, after all?

Thermal imaging is another idea, eco-auditing and ‘green doctor’ schemes, and more political solutions. For example, new builds pay no VAT while refurbishing does, meaning that new homes are essentially subsidised. That’s something that ought to change. There are also planning reforms that could be implemented, and some cultural changes – only 12% of homes are self-built in the UK, something two thirds of home-owners do in France or Germany. When people build their own, they tend to build to a higher standard and spend more on insulation. In Britain we get Barratt or Taylor-Wimpey’s lowest common denominator boxes instead, and we should make it easier for people to design and build their own houses.

In keeping with the Transition series, Local Sustainable Homes is an accessible and inspiring book, and it doesn’t take itself too seriously either. Each chapter starts with a paraphrased and reappropriated quote (“We shall insulate in the lofts, we shall insulate under the floors and in the walls, we shall insulate with growing confidence and growing strength” goes one inspired by Winston Churchill). There are loads of links and sideboxes and organisations to look up, and I might have to list some of the case studies in a separate post. The only people who don’t get a look in are as usual, the private renters who have to live with what their landlords give them. Otherwise it’s pretty comprehensive, and the chapters on social housing should be read by every council and housing association. It’s also realistic. “We can’t be purists”, Bird writes, “and we must learn from all the faltering and imperfect examples, as well as from models where the faults are not so obvious.”

Yes, it made me want to live in a straw bale house. Yes, it made me wish I lived in a village, with a stream and a wind turbine and a composting toilet. But it also makes me want to pull my socks up in the unloved airport town where I find myself, and make things better right here.

9 comments

  1. Jeremy,

    Great review! I’ve been loving the Transition Books, but I’m still reading through most of them again. This pulls at my heart-strings though, as it is right up my alley (being educated as an engineer and all). The misses and I have the dream of building a super-eco-friendly, super efficient straw bale house on a co-housing farmland. Of course, I agree with you – it’s just as important to work with what you’ve got right now!

    Right now I am one of those in the renter’s position, so there are only so many things I can do. Luckily our landlords are pretty much okay with most improvements. I spend $20 and converted our toilet into a dual-flush, saving our landlords a ton of money and water over the year. So renter’s don’t despair! There are little things you can do…

    Cheers,
    Joshua

  2. What an excellent review Jeremy, I admire that you make time to read so many books!

    I feel the same way you do about where I’d like to live and what I should be doing.

    It’s not just renters who are stuck with what they’ve got. It is my understanding from the paperwork that I had to sign when I bought my house, that the council has a restriction on houses in our street that the outside of them may not be altered. It seems they’re trying to preserve the “look & feel” of this street of cheaply built late 1940s emergency housing stock (for historical reasons?)

    I already have loft insulation and cavity insulation in the walls. The fluff they blew into the walls is not enough. The front and back wall are always cold in the winter, and the air is damper there. I have been in houses on the continent built with proper thick insulation on the outside which are as warm as toast compared to this.

    The way a brick house should work is to have the brick kept warm, thermal mass heated by the warmth inside the house, protected by thick insulation outside so it doesn’t waste its heat. My heating heats the unprotected brick walls, which then radiate the heat outside and waste it. In my lounge and kitchen I found the left wall which has the alley to the back of the house outside it, is only one brick thick, so that’s only 11cm of solid brick between inside and outside. I have now lined the wall in my lounge with 7cm of rockwool & plasterboard, so it’s much warmer, but the kitchen wall which doesn’t have this yet actually gets condensation in winter, and grows mildew if anything is left close to the wall.

    These are our homes that we have to live in, not museum exhibits. Councils should put the environment and energy efficiency before keeping pristine examples of every period of poorly designed architecture in their original condition. We need to raise our insulation standards to at least the same level that countries like Poland or Germany build to, and then set about making sure houses meet them. If houses aren’t worth doing up… there used to be slum clearances in this country – demolishing sub-standard buildings and replacing them with better homes, maybe it’s time to do that again!

    John

    1. Yes, I don’t know why our building standards trail so far behind other countries, even neighbouring ones. Interestingly, the book suggests almost any house can be retrofitted, unless they were built during the 1960s and 1970s. Even the old houses from the 1700s are more efficient than that era.

  3. Wow, I found out about Transition Towns in NZ, but there’s a really active movement here in the UK too. One day for sure I will build my own sustainable house, maybe in the mould of one of those spaceships.

    Heading over to amazon now to order this book.

    thanks.

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