ISBN 978-1-898130-05-5 & 978-1-898130-06-2 The Green Building Bible Volumes 1 and 2 (Fourth Edition) were published by the Green Building Press in 2008. We last reviewed the Green Building Bible vol 1 – 3rd edition – in 2007. We received the latest two volumes as a free gift when we subscribed to the Green Building Magazine. A quick glance over at www.greenbuildingbible.co.uk shows that this fourth edition is the latest, however it is now four years out of date. In this fast moving market that makes it a dinosaur – well at least the first volume is extremely dated. Back in 2007 we didn’t have vol 2. This (although much slimmer) is actually far more interesting as it contains much technical material that doesn’t date as quickly.
Volume One has not changed significantly since our review in 2007. It has been updated here and there but looking back at it from the year 2012 this seems almost academic. Our feelings about it now are much the same as in our first review. Volume 1 is a very mixed bag qualifying as a mish-mash of opinions from various sources. It bills itself as:
“essential information to help you make your home, buildings and outdoor areas less harmful to the environment, the community and your family”.
The trouble starts right there with the phrase “less harmful”. This opens it up to all kinds of unscientific mumbo-jumbo. Green Building Magazine used to be called “Building for a Future” which (for us) seemed like the perfect title. But then the hippies took over and rather than making buildings futuristic & sustainable they had to be “green”. And “green” means all things to all people. It is thus meaningless. Ironically this has come round to haunt the AECB whose most recent conference had a tag-line about avoiding the “greenwash”. Maybe if the “green building” industry itself started to use a different language it could avoid this nonsense! Buildings can be sustainable, low-impact, low-energy, made of locally -produced materials, etc – but they are not “green” nor “eco”. Since the very lack of a definition haunts this volume it ends up going round in circles offering apparently contradictory advice. (Note here how the equally wishy-washy “EcoHomes” build standard has been phased out in favour of the more-credible-sounding “Code for Sustainable Homes” – because that is what it is all about.)
What the reader really wants to know is “can I make a Passivhaus out of straw bales?” This Green Building Bible has no cohesive thread that joins the dots between the various technologies. Does anyone ask: what is better? Locally sourced poorly-performing materials or highly processed but highly effective materials? Given that most homes are expected to last 100 years or more it seems intuitive that we need long-lasting and highly effective materials. What we then need is an economy that can produce these materials efficiently with more local manufacturing. Cob, rammed-earth and straw bale building are not answers when we need a LOT of homes. These are low-volume artisan solutions. That isn’t to say they are not valuable.
There is a lot of value in retaining old, and developing new, building techniques and materials. This is valuable in the same way that keeping heirloom seeds or mapping the biodiversity of a rainforest. Knowledge is always useful because it may come in handy one day. Diversity is always good. It was nice to see the straw bale solution where local farm buildings could be utilised to make preformed wall slabs. This seemed to tick all the boxes. It was a technology that produced ‘standard’ product that could be used by regular builders. Yet the product was local and produced by experts. This is the sort of hybrid solutions we need on the roadmap to a sustainable future. Something that blends the advantages of industrial society and its hi-tech special skills with the need for lo-tech solutions that can be built with a lower-skilled workforce. We need evolution not revolution otherwise the building trade will simply goes with what it knows. To illustrate this we plucked this quote from page 287:
“Perhaps the defining aspect of the environmental design movement, at present, is how it manages to remain true to its ideals whilst acknowledging the need to be mainstream and influence a majority.”
Volume One is split into eight sections totalling 455 chapters plus Appendices. There is very heavy emphasis on building from scratch. Indeed this work is exceptionally poor at helping the retrofitter. Most of us will be living in homes that are old and in need of retrofit. Only a tiny minority will ever get to move into a brand new home built to the latest Building Regulations. If you are an amateur self-builder then this may well be the book for you but it is too dated. Our other concern was the obsession with unquantifiable embedded energy & carbon. It seemed to us that materials were being chosen because they took little energy to manufacture and had carbon embedded in them. However at no point was this “solution” quantified through the full life-cycle. Does it really yield net carbon sequestration through the 30 to a 100 year life of a building? If it does is this actually large enough to matter? Surely there are better ways for us the capture and sequestrate carbon? How about biochar? What about from the smoke stacks of power stations?
Mixed with highly qualitative writings we also have some more objective works. Large sections talk about the opportunities arising from the Zero Carbon Homes standard coming into new build regulations from 2016. Certainly we can never hear too much about Passivhaus and its ilk. There are plenty of good solutions out there backed by hard scientific evidence. We strongly suggest that the Green Building Press attempt to update their “bible” with a more disciplined approach. Less scatter-gun, more ‘building for a future’. They need to answer the questions that buzz around your head: how do I buy solar? Should I retrofit, buy new or build myself? How do we approach upgrading community buildings? What sort of civic society groups do we need for these tasks? How do I quantify the costs and benefits of local artisan materials versus high performing materials from further afield? Does the choice of paint really matter? And so on…
So let us move onto Volume Two which is altogether a different beast. It has nine sections of 220 chapters plus Appendices & Index (about 3/5ths the length of Volume One). It promises to offer “in depth technical information and data on the strategies and the systems needed to create low energy, green buildings“. Isn’t it wonderful how when something becomes “technical” that all talk of straw bales and cob building magically whither away and we are left with computer models and U values? For a while we didn’t even think we would read this volume but we are glad we did. It cannot be criticised quite in the way that Volume One was in that the ‘wishy-washiness’ is absent. However it still focuses on the selection of design and materials for NEW BUILD. The retrofitter will still struggle.
That is a minor quibble. Volume Two cuts through all the mumbo-jumbo and greenwash to tell you how stuff works and what doesn’t. Page 152, in a section on Heat Pumps, is worth the asking price of the two volumes alone. Ever been told that you can install a ground source heat pump and just up the size of your radiators by 30%? Think again. So much commonsense squeezed into such a small book. It probably is largely an academic work. If you want the background on the industry buzz-phrases this is a code-buster for you. If you read one useful book this year make it this one.
So, would we have paid for these two volumes? Somehow we doubt it. They are a dry read. You really have to be interested in the topic to plough through them, and you have to be in the building industry to make use of them. As for us Joe-blow amateurs looking to retrofit our old homes – well, we can recommend better books than this. It isn’t a big publishing area yet. We urge the Green Building Press to “get real”. New Build maybe glamourous but in an era of the Green Deal retrofit is now king. Get an update. Get relevant. Ditch the green.