The Verse’s Zoe Greenslade reviews Green Architecture Day at the Grand Parade Building on Saturday 10th March 2018, organised by Brighton Permaculture Trust and Low Carbon Trust.
Essentially, Green Architecture Day was a six and a half hour conference on building houses. Sounds dull, but it turns out the details of it are surprisingly fascinating. What do you build with? At what scale, cottage or neighbourhood? How do you build? What sort of person are you and how do the materials, shapes, and spaces of your home reflect that?
Officially, this year’s theme was scale, specifically whether it’s desirable (and feasible) to implement green building principles at medium and large scales, but the talks addressed a bit of everything. And it worked: I was concentrating hard on a Saturday morning, happily following as the talks jumped all over the architecture and design spectrum. It did take a while to recover though. I emerged at 5 o’clock enthusiastic but with my head ringing from information overload.
The very first lecture was delivered by Eileen Southerland of Straw Works. I sat in the audience getting more and more indignant as I watched her PowerPoint flash through pictures of houses you would never say were made of straw once the plaster is on, learning how easy it would be (and how cheap!) to use straw as a construction material instead of burning enormous quantities of it nationwide as an agricultural waste product.
The next talk jumped up an order of magnitude, to the (sustainable) neighbourhood scale, and introduced this fascinating question: what if you could customise your house online before it’s built like you do with running shoes? Instead of choosing model, colour and size, you are given a “shell” (a standard-sized house) and you decide where the rooms are, what furnishings they will have, whether you want open-plan or partitioned spaces. What this means is maximising customer choice with the advantages of mass-produced building elements (they’re cheap) and neighbourhood-wide planning (which makes it easier to improve energy efficiency and expand green spaces). This talk, by Johnny Anstead of TOWN, was captivating: neighbourhood-scale in green building is definitely large-scale and that makes it conceivable, possible and even feasible to build entire green cities, little-to-no concrete required.
The next two talks were an interesting sideways swerve from ways you can build towards how you might approach the issue of building itself. The first was an informative talk by Andrea Jones of Brighton and Hove Community Land Trust about housing co-ops, otherwise known as “how many people can beat down the terror-inspiring house prices currently on the market by working together”. The second talk (Lex Titterington and Keith Ellis) was about how one might incorporate a personal set of values into the physical structure of an edifice, essentially a bit of philosophy of design. The speakers tried to make it a little more interactive, but learning games with people moving about fit awkwardly in 20-minute time-slots, so it ended up being more of a taster of what a full workshop with these speakers might be.
Right before the lunch break we had an astonishingly random 15-minute Ceilidh – traditional Scottish dance – which confirmed once and for all that at least 50% of humanity is wired to fail at twirling in elbow-locked pairs. The other 50% does just fine, for an added element of social shame. It was, of course, loads of messy, limb-flailing fun.
One light lunch and a browse through eco-product and book stalls later, I was back in my seat, marvelling at how you can dig a hole in the ground and build walls from the earth you dug up, provided it has certain characteristics and you compact it properly. Still, talk about cheap building materials. The speaker, Rowland Keable (UNESCO Chair on Earthen Architecture) also had some interesting insights on how most resistance to building with earth comes from a sense authorities and traditional builders have that it’s somehow “not legit”. Is it regulation-standard, they wonder? Turns out, if you have it delivered in official-looking bags usually used for carrying cement, everyone assumes it must be legit and no more fuss is made.
I’ve got nothing on the next talk, I was too enthralled by this guy’s designs to take notes. I mean, William Hardie of Studio Hardie and his team invented a house made out of one rotating room. It turns on a horizontal axis, so floor becomes wall becomes ceiling, and on each rotation, you can pull furniture out of the walls that specifies what “room” you’re now in.
Finally, the last talk was a Skype lecture delivered by Athena Steen of the Canelo Project. Steen has been building with straw bales, cob (a mixture of earth and straw) and other natural materials for decades, though what really sets her work apart is her style: she seems to treat each house as a sculpture, with evident care for shapes, colours and swirling clay decorations to adorn the walls.
On the whole, more than with answers about building at scale, I was left with two persistent impressions. One, as diverse as the cast of speakers was, they were not a disjointed set: each of them described an aspect of building that could be integrated or implemented in parallel with the others. Two (and this one’s IMPORTANT, my people!), the greatest obstacle to a lot of these green building approaches becoming mainstream appears to be lack of knowledge. It’s not that if you build a house with straw bales, rammed earth or reclaimed materials it’ll be less durable, more flammable or badly insulated (in fact, they often perform better than standard materials/methods), it’s that you can go through a whole architecture or engineering degree course and never even hear about them.
Anyone who wants to build their own house or the houses of others, or even plan and contribute to raising cities, needs to know about green architecture. It’s a world of alternatives to building as we know it and it should be considered if only because every “normal” and usual way of doing things must to be challenged to be made better. And the way we currently build, with its massive environmental impacts, desperately needs improvement.