Monthly Archives: July 2009

a transition view of the uk transition housing plan

A welcomed and important perspective on the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan was posted by Rob Hopkins on the Transition blog:

lowcarbonplancover

After many months of Ed Milliband putting himself out there are a Secretary of State for Energy and Climate Change that actually gets climate change, finally his big Plan, the UK Low Carbon Transition Plan was unveiled on Wednesday, in a speech in the House of Commons that name checked Transition Towns and which is the boldest national vision for a low carbon society yet seen.  Many others have since pitched in with their thoughts, I thought it might be useful here to offer an analysis from a Transition perspective.  In his speech, Milliband said “we know from the Transition Towns movement the power of community action to motivate people..”, clearly an outcome of his attendance as a ‘Keynote Listener’ at the Transition Network conference in May. So how does the Plan measure up, and does it actually advance what Transition initiatives and the wider relocalisation movement are doing?

On Housing (of particular interest here) Rob Comments:

tpcommThe Plan restates 2016 of the date by which all new housing will be zero carbon, which is entirely laudable, although Wales has actually managed to introduce this 5 years earlier, by 2011.  It might have provided a good push to this had it been brought forward to, say, 2014. Much of this part of the report is as you would imagine, but it does contain the intriguing statement that “the Government is investing up to £6 million to construct 60 more low carbon affordable homes built with innovative, highly insulating, renewable materials”.

Does this mean that there is now £6 million for hands-on research into straw bale, hemp construction, earth plasters and so on?

Or does ‘highly insulating, renewable materials’ refer to Kingspan and other industrial oil-derived building materials?

At the moment ‘zero carbon homes’ refers only to a building’s performance once built, not the embodied energy of the materials it contains.

The role of local and natural materials in strengthening local economies is key.

My Comment: it is these points that need a wider, open and urgent debate as raised in a previous blog item here. If zero carbon is the solution what was the question? and are we defining zero carbon with enough insight?

Rob scores the Plan as follows:

Addressing Peak Oil:  1 out of 10.

Energy: 7 out of 10.

Transport 4 out of 10

Housing: 6 out of 10

Community involvement: 2 out of 10

Food and Farming: 1 out of 10

and Overall : 6 out of 10


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If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question?

If zero carbon is the answer then just what was the question

Is it ‘just because’ I am currently  seeing things from a different perspective as I re-read Cradle to Cradle, (which I feel  has more resonance with where we are now)  but a number of recent issues and events  have left me questioning our approach to zero, and that going to zero is not enough.   Indeed it may even be dangerous ‘just’ going to zero.

Lets consider the built environment in its widest sense, not just from design to FM but from wining raw materials through construction to end users, and consider the opening premise from Cradle to Cradle, and ask who today would allow a sector to :

Put billions of pounds of toxic materials in the air water and ground every year

Produces materials so dangerous they require constant vigilance by future generations

Results in gigantic volume of waste

Puts valuable materials in holes all over the planet

Requires thousands of complex regulations – not to keep people and nature safe, but to keep them from being poisoned too quickly

Measures productivity based on how few people are working?

Creates prosperity by digging up or cutting down natural resources and then burning or burying them

Erodes the diversity of species and cultural practices.

McDonough and Braunghart were referring to the industrial revolution in these ‘consequences’, but they do describe the construction sector oh so well.  OK so no-one today would allow such a sector which exhibited these ‘by- products’ a licence to trade, so why then do we allow the ‘built environment’ to continue doing so but at a reduced rate?  As McDonough and Braunghart comment – doing only a little good may well be doing no good.

Indeed Janis Birkeland comments in her argument for Positive Development – if we build all new buildings to the highest, greenest standards, then the net contribution to carbon reductions would be only 0.04%.

And with this in mind, the questions that kept forming last week included:

How much do we spend within the global built environment on waste management, (disposal, recycling, regulation, etc) in comparison to the amount spent on eliminating waste full stop, through for example cradle-to-cradle paradigm thinking?

A rule of thumb is that the built environment uses 40% materials, creates 40% waste and generates 40% emissions. Ed Mazria from Architecture 2030 puts this figure higher at 48.5%.  We need to monitor and watch these figures reduce, but at the moment the production of cement remains responsible for about 7% of all carbon dioxide emissions.  Am I the only one who feels guilty with these?

Indeed another rule of thumb puts the quarrying sector at a third contribution – but what proportion from this sector is used to derive materials for construction? If the Cradle to Cradle authors are correct then the consumer (end user) only deals with 5% of the total waste of a product, the remainder 95% is waste created in manufacture.

So why are zero carbon definitions largely ignoring embodied energy and putting them in the ‘too difficult to deal with box’ ?  Dealing only or mainly with a carbon zero definition for buildings in use?

Passivhaus is emerging as the aspirational darling or solution. But what is the true embodied energy of passivhaus, in particular the massive amounts of insulation, sheeting and duct tape?  Passivhaus will reduce energy requirements and costs. Excellent. But I would love to see the payback time on the total and higher than normal embodied energies and waste.

Why are plastic, polyurethane and uvpc now considered green (such products now abound at eco exhibitions and within green guides) based it would seem solely on their performance, not on the harm done during production.

Why doesn’t BREEAM and LEED make more of a  focus on embodied energy  in its scoring?

Oh and why isn’t responsible sourcing to BS6000 more widely known or enforced?

Are we trying to solve the built environment environmental problems with the same mode of thinking that created them in the first place? I have always accepted that within sustainability we will make mistakes, take dead ends and end up in cul de sacs, and that this is all part of the learning and moving forward. But is time running our too quickly, to be so ‘narrow’ and we are just storing another problem for future generations to deal with?

Are we looking down the telescope the wrong way?  Turn it around and we may see the scale and maybe solutions to our problems.

We are in a period of developing strategies, codes and defining zero carbon itself.  Now is the time for that debate to be wider, for a collaborative debate across the sectors that make up the built environment, from raw materials to end users. And here  is where I mention be2camp, as it is through web technologies (in both the widest and most specific aspects) that will allow and enable such debate and dialogue to take place.

And as the Cradle-to-Cradle sub heading says – its time to remake the way we make things

(This is a rewitten and shortened and hopefully bettered reasoned version of the rant I started at the end of last week)