architecture sustainability

Can you build a house to last a thousand years?

There are various ways to make something sustainable. As this post about toasters demonstrated, you could take one of at least three different approaches. You can make something easy to repair. You can make it 100% recyclable. Or you can make it indestructible.

These approaches can be seen in architecture too. Waste is a serious problem in construction, and in many places houses are built as cheap boxes to live in. They might last a generation or two, and then they will need to be demolished and replaced – a waste of energy and materials that we can’t afford in an age of environmental crisis.

So can we use that same logic, and design buildings to repair, to recycle, or to last forever?

Here’s an iconic example of that first approach. There has been a mosque at Djenné, Mali, for hundreds of years. The building is made of mud, and as Barnabas Calder describes in his history of architecture, it is constantly eroding and being rebuilt. Regular refurbishment is done by the community as part of their culture of worship. The wooden beams that jut from the walls are decorative, but also serve as user-friendly scaffolding platforms for replastering. So easy repair, using readily available materials, can be an approach to longevity.

You can recycle a building too. There is growing interest in buildings as ‘material banks’ that can be reused by future generations. I wrote about the corporate headquarters of the Triodos Bank recently, which is designed to be dismantled and reused. This is a more formalised and systematic way to do something that people have been doing for a long time. Visit my hometown of St Albans, and you’ll see that the stone used in building the cathedral is the same as the Roman ruins a short walk away. Medieval builders treated the ruined Roman city of Verulamium as a giant materials bank.

Finally, you can build something to last forever – or at least a very long time. This isn’t theoretical, given that Britain has dozens of truly ancient buildings that are still in use. St Martin’s church, Canterbury, was completed in the year 597 and has hosted a worshipping congregation for 1,425 years and counting. The oldest continuously occupied house in the country is youthful by comparison, but a succession of people have called Saltford Manor home for almost 900 years.

These are rare examples of course, but they prove it’s possible. So if you were to purposefully design a home to last for a thousand years, could you do it?

The architect Clay Chapman has attemped exactly that in the new town of Carlton Landing, Oklahoma. It looks like this:

Chapman is reviving the brick construction techniques that were common in the United States before the Second World War, and that have been almost entirely forgotten post-war. They rely on thermal mass to provide insulation, and the basic structure of the building is very solid. The idea is that the brick shell of the house will endure for as many as thirty generations, with the interior re-fitted every once in a while in-between. A metal roof and exposed conduits for utilities make it easy to refit, so there are elements of repair here as well as overall durability.

This style of building will be more familiar in Europe, and I see mass brick buildings re-fitted here in Luton. It’s normal to make use of existing structures where possible, saving materials and preserving heritage. It’s much more unusual to see houses created specifically for longevity, and designed for easy refurbishment in future.

Interestingly, Chapman had to build his home, and then a further development of 16 brick homes, in a new town. Building codes make it difficult to get permission to build in brick elsewhere, and so cheap boxes are built by default. That’s something that needs to change, and projects like Chapman’s can help to demonstrate the alternative.

Hope for Architecture is a campaign Chapman set up in order to advance his ideas, “born out a hope to subvert our disposable building.” You can find out more about that here. And you can read more about the award-winning mini-village at Carlton Landing here.

6 comments

  1. Great article, thanks! It’s perhaps worth commenting that it could be argued that ‘recyclable’ homes were the norm for most of our history – timber frame/wattle&daub, cob. Most of these just merged back into the environment (or were straightway recycled); only the more prestigious stone-built buildings (or well constructed timber-frame ones) made it through to the present day. And with ~0.5M cob homes still standing in England, techniques like this arguably offer both longevity *and* recyclability. Does all this hold some useful lessons for today??
    I have some reservations about ‘thermal mass to provide insulation’ and also about metal roofing. I believe we need to target insulation U values of 0.1 W/m²/°C. Even the best structural insulator (strawbale) requires 0.5m thick walls for this. Trying to achieve the same with brick would be prohibitive. The alternative is going for ‘subjective thermal comfort’ rather than insulation, but I think that needs *much* more research and investigation before we can be sure that’s a suitable philosophy that today’s building occupiers will operate in a sustainable way. And any metal parts are serious heat conductors and condensation traps, which makes me concerned about metal roofs.
    What’s wrong with timber construction with wood-fibre or straw for insulation, provided you follow careful design for fire-worthiness? That would lock up lots of carbon for the long term; something that most uses of biomass today fail to achieve.
    If you do go for brick, it’s perhaps worth being reminded of this approach used in Copenhagen:
    https://www.architectsjournal.co.uk/buildings/old-into-new-recycled-bricks-form-facade-of-copenhagen-housing-project
    I suspect you may have reported on this in the past?

    1. All good points, and I’d be interested to know what the energy efficiency of the building is. I suspect there is more you could do on that front, and if you’re going to build a home for a thousand years, you really want it to be as near to zero carbon as possible.

      I didn’t go into it, but the architect has been experimenting for quite a few years with these techniques, including monitoring the heating performance at a university building in this style. He reckons that the triple-thickness brick that he uses has been under-estimated for its efficiency.

      This is very clearly an American project too, with different building techniques and heritage. If you were doing it in Britain, you’ve got other things such as cob to draw on. And yes, natural building materials can be absorbed seamlessly back into nature and that too is a useful approach in the toolkit.

  2. I did a bit more digging, and the construction Chapman advocates seems essentially 19th century construction – like mill-workers housing, except grouped in circles, and with tin roofs. The Hope for Architecture site references research by a brick research centre (I worry a bit about motivated reasoning here?) and SPAB (spab.org.uk). But SPAB don’t seem to have readily analysable data. Given the importance of heating energy throughout life (one of our major carbon emitters in UK), it’s important to have correct perspectives in this area, and I worry about promoting a construction method with claims that seem to go against basic physics, based on research that appears still to be suggestive not definitive (https://www.spab.org.uk/advice/energy-efficiency-old-buildings), and with various other confounding factors also involved.
    I hope this contributes to constructive debate rather than otherwise, and I’d still applaud principles of durable and/or recyclable construction.

    1. Yes, I think the main takeaway from this project is the ambition to create something long lasting. To do something truly sustainable, it needs to be long lasting and also low energy. It’s possible to build a house that needs no heating – so how about a thousand year passivhaus?

  3. And brick never needs painting!
    I watch some of those renovation shows on HG TV here in the US.
    It drives me crazy when I see them rip out a perfectly good kitchen because someone doesn’t like the look. And I never see them give the sink or counter top to charity. Everything goes into the dumpster.

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