Diffusing the benefits of sustainable housing niches

The process of building with bales includes the possibility of making a profound change in the fabric of human societies around the world. In fact, this vision is not exclusively a matter of straw bales; the questions we are trying to pose ... are basic: how do we build, and how does that process occur in relation to the community and to the life around us? Straw bales happen to be a material that has inspired many to look at the process of building in a different light (Steen et al., 1994: xvi).

The two sustainable housing initiatives examined above represent a very particular, New Economics perspective on green buildings. Although they differ in terms of technical strategies and operational methods, their approaches have much in common. They are both bottom-up, value-led innovative organisations, founded by individuals following a social and environmental vision. They both practice and promote a new system of housing provision, embodying alternative socio-technical arrangements, to mainstream building practices in the developed world. We can see them as green sustainable housing niches, different in many dimensions from the mainstream, emerging from grassroots community activism, and aiming not only to thrive as niches, but also to influence the wider socio-technical regime.

In this section the potential for such diffusion of niche ideas is considered, with reference to the case studies described above. Smith describes the ways in which 'green niches are constructed in opposition to incumbent regimes. They are informed, initiated and designed in response to sustainability problems perceived in the regime' (Smith, 2007: 436), and they therefore have little compatibility with the mainstream system of provision. As a result, sustainable housing niches have little linking potential and growth prospects across all the socio-technical dimensions: guiding principles, technologies and infrastructure, industrial structure, user relations and markets, policy and regulations, knowledge base, and cultural meanings (ibid.: 429). This distinctiveness is evident with the sustainable housing examples discussed here, and as the previous sections of this chapter have outlined, the characteristics of these niches which distinguish their system of provision from the mainstream are manifold. They advocate a small-scale, affordable, self-build approach to housebuilding; use local, natural and recycled materials in inclusive and creative construction processes; they reduce consumption in building and inhabitation with highly energy-efficient designs and low-carbon technologies; they make explicit the consumption patterns and resource use which are otherwise inconspicuous, and challenge the accepted wisdom of centralised power and water supply; and they embody ecological citizenship principles, offering a route to an alternative lifestyle: Athena Steen of the Canelo Project explains: 'People are becoming fed up with things the way they are, they're looking for a change. Somehow straw-bale holds that for people, it's a symbol of something different'.

Of course, these green housing niches do not exist in a vacuum; they have complex interactions with the mainstream regime, for better and for worse. Given the incompatibilities between the green niches and the regime, how have the Canelo Project and Earthship Biotecture fared in their efforts to spread their ideas and transform mainstream building practices? This diffusion of knowledge and practice can take three routes, namely replication at the same scale, upscaling, and translation of ideas to the mainstream regime; these are examined in turn.

The main way these two sustainable housing niches have grown to date has been through the replication of individual buildings, multiplying the base of green buildings at the same owner-builder scale, allowing for bespoke designs and adaptations as construction takes place alongside learning and experimentation. Concurring with the 'innovative niche' perspective of grassroots initiatives, Reynolds describes the approach Earthship Biotecture takes in terms of innovation:

We are not a production outfit, we're an R&D [research and development] outfit, we're a demonstration outfit. Right now, we're going all over the world and planting seeds, and that's the best we can do because we don't have the government behind us, we don't have the corporations behind us.

He claims to have succeeded in developing these autonomous buildings only after being allowed the freedom to experiment and fail for 30 years, and is quite clear that 'the rules are inhibiting our evolution' (Reynolds, 2004a). Indeed, one of the main barriers facing green sustainable housing niches is posed by planning regulations and building standards which were not designed with these building methods in mind. In their study of autonomous sustainable housing, Van Vliet et al. found that 'new modes of provision can be limited by regulatory frameworks designed for public provision and infused with certain notions of what constitutes a safe and efficient method of supply' (Van Vliet et al., 2005: 93).

Reynolds benefited from lax planning codes in northern New Mexico, and supportive local planning officers encouraging him to build experimental houses that would not be formally approved, but as political regimes have changed, stricter codes have been enforced and he has faced many legal battles to continue working to develop sustainable housing. At the same time the struggle to gain planning approval and meet regulatory codes spurs on greater innovation and improvement. In Taos, Earthship Biotecture has the world's first subdivision (residential neighbourhood) fully approved with no utilities, and they won the battle to build autonomous houses out of recycled waste, but they lost the battle to do it cheaply. High legal costs and investments to meet the regulations have resulted in land prices rising from $1600 a lot to $25,000, with implications for the inclusivity of the resulting community. His proposed solution is 'sustainable housing test sites' where experimental buildings could be constructed free of building regulations and the need for planning approval, to allow faster evolution of ideas and experience.

In addition to this development-within-the-niche, replication of both Earthship Biotecture and the Canelo Project's work has also occurred through publication of books and articles explaining their rationale and providing technical know-how for the self-builder, and also through educational courses offering hands-on experience with these unfamiliar building techniques. These methods have been successful in spreading ideas, best practice and lived experience among committed green builders and individuals searching for an alternative way of life. And this approach is slowly growing the movement across the world. In the UK, 'Amazon Nails' are a social enterprise working towards mainstream adoption of straw-bale building techniques, disseminating best practice and training community groups and construction professionals in low impact design and construction. They have been involved with over 50 projects in the UK, some with full planning permission and building regulations approval (others are used as sheds, animal shelters etc), and estimate that from the UK's first straw-bale building built in 1994, by 2001 the UK had approximately 70 such buildings in use (Amazon Nails, 2001). Although it is possible to obtain planning permission building approval for Earth-ships and straw-bale buildings in the UK (see Amazon Nails, 2001; Cowie and Kemp, 2004; Hewitt and Telfer, 2007), the unfamiliarity of local planning offices with the concepts make each application a laborious and potentially off-putting task for the green self-builder, and can prevent very low-impact buildings being developed at all in rural areas (see earlier discussion). Moreover, to the extent that this strategy relies on the continual recruitment of committed environmentalists, and ecological citizenship is a niche value, the scope to continue growing in this manner is limited in terms of numbers.

Compounding this limitation is the fact that mainstream framings of eco-housing 'continues to focus predominantly upon technical and economic aspects, whilst overlooking the social processes and guiding principles underpinning those developments' (Smith, 2007: 437). The specific circumstances which give rise to these green socio-technological niches relate to geography, climate, personality, economics, culture, politics and values: these socio-technical conditions cannot easily be replicated in an effort to reproduce innovative potential (Lovell, 2004; Shove, 1998).

Figure 6.8 A straw-bale house built in a mainstream style by Paul Koppana, Crestone, Colorado

The second route for niche sustainable housing practices to influence the wider housing regime is through scaling up the existing small-scale, one-off housing projects to industrial mass-production. This brings economies of scale to housebuilders, through standardisation of plans, materials and techniques, resulting in a profitable construction business. As a first step, the European branch of Earthship Biotecture have recently won planning permission to build a development of 16 autonomous Earthships in Brighton, England, delivering the first such buildings with residential planning permission in the UK (see www.earthship.co.uk), and the first Earthship colony outside New Mexico. Straw-bale building could likewise be adopted by mainstream housebuilders as an economically rational, energy efficient material (Amazon Nails, 2001). However, the models of sustainable housing discussed here are not necessarily practical for high-volume building. They both rely heavily on manual labour (making the techniques well-suited for self-build and community projects) which is costly for commercial businesses, and they were each developed in a context of cheaply available land and low density development, neither of which is applicable in the UK. Indeed, Hewitt and Telfer (2007) conclude that this combination of cost and the need for high density housing in the UK means that Earthships as they have evolved to date are impractical for a mass zero-carbon housing solution.

The third way that sustainable housing niches can influence the regime is to translate ideas and practices from one to the other, adapting them for the different socio-technical setting of the mainstream building industry. Examples might include the use of thermal mass to stabilise internal temperatures, shading from the sun, south-facing windows to capture solar gain, rainwater harvesting and grey-water recycling, microgeneration, etc. Modern methods of construction include using highly-insulated pre-fabricated wall panels, built in a factory and assembled on site; these can be filled with straw, hemp-crete and other recycled products, adapting niche material-use practices to mass-production. For this to occur, a pre-existing condition of a crisis in the existing regime and an opportunity for niche practices to inform mainstream solutions is required - this can be said to exist in the current need to develop low-carbon housing to mitigate climate change. The first step is for the mainstream conditions to open up opportunities for niche ideas to bridge the gap: government initiatives to encourage greener building standards represents this type of top-down adaptation of the regime to adopt niche practices. But as Shove (1998) reveals, there is a chasm of meaning between the differing socio-technical contexts between niche and mainstream. Incremental improvements in insulation standards, for example, do nothing to challenge the mainstream paradigm of housebuilding reliant upon finite supplies of fossil fuels which niche autonomous housebuilders reject at the outset, and these conflicting perspectives prevent what might otherwise be seen as a purely technical transfer of knowledge. Therefore the regulation-driven mainstream only adapts in an ad hoc and piecemeal manner, failing to transform the regime (Smith, 2007). The second way to achieve a transfer from the niche is through the niche adapting itself to resemble the regime, as with intermediate projects such as BedZED in London, a low-energy high density inner city development. This was a 'space where the practicability for volume housebuilders to operate more like green builders can be explored' and where 'values, processes and circumstances actually bring contrasting socio-technical contexts together' for more effective learning than is achieved simply through regulations (Smith, 2007: 439-40).

Getting Started With Solar

Getting Started With Solar

Do we really want the one thing that gives us its resources unconditionally to suffer even more than it is suffering now? Nature, is a part of our being from the earliest human days. We respect Nature and it gives us its bounty, but in the recent past greedy money hungry corporations have made us all so destructive, so wasteful.

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