Chris Bird “Local Sustainable Homes”

ISBN 978 1 900322 76 8. “Local Sustainable Homes – How to make them happen in your community” by Chris Bird was published in 2010 by Green Books/Transition Books. This is a paperback in the usual Transition-style consisting of 240 pages including an Introduction by Rob Hopkins, fifteen chapters, references, resources and index. This is the first book we’ve seen that lists as a resource. That was very sweet of them. We are not sure we deserve it but thanks anyway. We were listed under “Information, advice, education and research” as a “down-to-earth website that includes updates on the refurbishment of a 1980s home”. Well, now you know. Chris is a Totnes resident so pretty much he comes from Transition-central. His career as a freelance journalist has included writings on sustainable buildings for the likes of The Observer and Selfbuild & Design. It is difficult to know what to expect from a book like this. We naturally thought it would be dominated by eco-retrofit projects and self-builds. Although there is that element you will find far more inside the covers. It may not be all to everyone’s taste though.

We felt that a lot of it seemed a little like padding. Almost as if there wasn’t much to write about so Bird went on a Transition-tour of Totnes, Brighton and Sheffield. Bird’s work had a lot to live up to seeing as we had just previously read Alexis Rowell’s excellent “Communities, Councils & a Low-Carbon Future – What we can do if government won’t”. The Rowell work is beyond compare as a useful “how-to”. Somehow you are setup to expect the same level of practical detail from Bird. Now we weren’t expecting Bird to go into detail about how to build a home or do a retrofit. He provides plenty of links to websites and resources that will get you started. However we did expect a bit more coverage of what communities can do to retrofit existing housing stock to sustainable standards. As the author often reminds the reader – 80% of all the homes standing in 2050 have already been built. Only around 12% of UK homes can be classed as “self-build” in any respect. That would leave the casual reader with the impression that the book’s contents would reflect this. However, it does not. Instead it takes the reader around the houses (if you pardon the pun) and to places you would never expect. The ideas then seem to become a little jumbled. After a good start in chapters 1, 2, 3 & 4 we drift off into the realms of “building together”, “social housing” “planning permission & finance” and so on. Bird even finds room to briefly discuss the land revolution in Portugal in 1975 and the art of squatting.

You would think that making homes sustainable is largely a technical exercise. Bird sets out to prove that that is only half the story. He injects a heavy social-ethical-content, seemingly more interested in HOW people live together rather than the fabric of the buildings they occupy. This is refreshing but it doesn’t always hold the reader’s interest if you are from retrofit heaven as we are here at PCL. To each his own. If we have to take specific issue with some of Bird’s philosophy then it is with his obsession with embodied energy. He rarely ever mentions full lifecycle or the lifetime of a home. In only one section does he mention that some homes are better off being torn down and new ones built – but then he argues for retrofit on the basis that the short-term carbon footprint is smaller. We hate to disagree but surely the move to a sustainable way of living is a generational transition. Houses should be built to last. They are capital projects not consumables. You don’t (or shouldn’t) build disposable homes. When Bird waxes romantically about vernacular build and its low carbon content you get no sense as to how long these old technologies might last. Common-sense would dictate that if you build a home with half the embodied carbon but it then falls down in one-third of the time then you have a false economy. These full lifecycle elements don’t raise their heads in Bird’s book. Having said that he did dig up three separate references to prove that Photovoltaics repay the energy put into them in under four years. Which is nice – but we would like to have seen more of this sort of content so that amateurs (like us) could make informed choices. This is not the Green Building Bible and it doesn’t set out to supply the sort of information that many householders wish for. There is no mention of Transition retrofit microgeneration projects anywhere in the book.

The other issue you may have with this work is the implicit assumption that “small” and “local” are somewhat better than big and corporate. Now it seems strange to say this. This is a Transition book! However, on the topic of house-building, we are in an area where everyone needs one, but few of us have the expertise to make a house happen. Most of the general population are quite happy to have Barratts build their box for them. Surely we can expect major national house-building firms to be around for years to come? They are the experts. Their business model might change. The building technology will change too. However to assume they will all disappear to be replaced by small local outfits is as likely as Tescos being replaced by farmers’ markets. We might wish for it but we have to be practical. Small and local works well for food, energy, culture and governance. Building homes may not necessarily fit this logic. By extension several of the community-run projects Bird lists did not build very sustainable homes. He admits it. So bedazzled is he by the role of the community and embedded carbon that he heralds any community that saves an old building even if the subsequent building work is by no means sustainable. To his credit though Bird is big enough to admit than none of us are going to be living in Earthships. On page 88 he concludes that “as a mass zero-carbon housing solution (earthships) are practically a non-starter” because of their low-density and high labour input. This doesn’t stop Bird from returning to praise rammed earth building on page 192!

Bird is often more wrapped up in correcting social injustices as he was into curing fuel-poverty. As we would come to expect there are some romantic outings to vernacular building projects which, although nice, are not of much practical use for most Transition initiatives. Straw-bale is interesting but it has a long way to go before this is significant. Unless you believe in a post-peak-oil world in which people will have to build their own homes out of local mud and straw then this isn’t really a flier.

If you DO believe in this sort of Mad Max scenario then can only give credence to those in our society who would say “look at those environmentalists, they want to condemn us all to live in mud huts in the woods”. We cannot revert to primitivism or learn too many lessons from communities that select a sustainable lifestyle. Most people are not going to be making this choice. They are stuck in the towns and cities we have, in the homes we have already built. So, please, less of the flights of fancy. Let us learn about the sort of Transition where your mates turn up at your house with a barrow-load of insulation and we all get busy. We need practical down-to-earth guidance on how our communities can make there existing housing stock sustain them through the years of unaffordable fossil fuel energy. Afterall, the Romans built an empire from brick 2000 years before the discovery of fossil fuels. We need a Passivhaus revolution in home building and in everyone’s DIY skills. One would think you should start down at the local B&Q or Homebase rather than this book. However, if you are a true Transition-devotee then this is the book for you. We just fear that you will turn the last page and get up to have a cup of tea rather than take a trip to the DIY store. A missed opportunity?

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.

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