22 Apr 2006
New Article on Building Miles published in Resurgence Magazine.
Building Miles – Building for beauty, efficiency and abundance – by Rob Hopkins
I wrote the following article which appears in the latest issue of Resurgence Magazine. They have given me permission to reprint it here.
A recent report argued that food can only be called sustainable when consumed within a twenty-mile radius of where it is grown, organic or not. The concept of food miles is generally accepted now, but for most of us it applies no further than food. While green building from the point of energy efficiency is becoming more commonplace, we need to consider the issue of building miles. We need to ask how far have building materials travelled?
Food and building miles are only possible because of an abundance of cheap fossil fuels, which will soon come to an end. At some point in the next decade world oil production will peak, and we will enter a period of continuous decline, where the price of oil will rapidly rise and supplies will decrease, a phenomenon known as ‘peak oil’. The implications for our society, with little indigenous manufacturing and increasing dependence on China for everything from computers to toothbrushes, are profound. Moreover, even if there was no shortage of oil, its constant use produces climate change and global warming. Therefore shortage or no shortage, the reliance on oil for transportation of goods over long distances is inherently unsustainable.
Some argue that there is no point in considering embodied energy – the energy it takes to source, process, manufacture, store and transport a material – into new building codes as the amount of energy that goes into a house is only between 5-20% of the energy a house will consume during its lifetime. This percentage depends on how energy efficient the house is: the more energy efficient we make a house, the more consideration we need to give to materials. Many of the most efficient buildings, such as the German Passivhaus, use large amounts of high embodied energy materials such as concrete. If we wish our new construction to be truly ecological then we cannot ignore the question of where our materials come from.
Many so-called ‘green’ building materials have high levels of dependence on the globalised economy, such as sheep’s wool insulation that is sheared in Australia, flown to Germany to be processed, and then trucked to the UK. Even ‘ecological’ insulation fibreboards, clay plasters and ecological paints have to be imported from Germany. You can now buy whole houses, made from timber, manufactured in Estonia and Latvia, and imported to the UK as kits. Such houses may give an appearance of being ‘green’ but in reality they contain a hidden energy subsidy which will very soon make them prohibitively expensive at best, and at worst unobtainable.
As with food, so with buildings: we need to move towards the local. Until the 1930s we had vibrant local industries producing timber, tiles, bricks, windows, lime and stone. Our historical dependence on locality for building materials gave rise to distinctive regional styles, as documented in Alec Clifton-Taylor’s seminal book The Pattern of English Building. In today’s globalised economy our materials come from whichever country can produce them the cheapest. We import slates from China and stone from India!
Rising oil prices will necessitate a move towards relocalisation, which will affect all areas of our lives – not just food and building. As economist David Fleming writes “localisation stands, at best, at the limits of practical possibility, but it has the decisive argument in its favour that there will be no alternative”.
Constructing with building miles in mind
Two recent building projects provide the model for the new approach to building miles. Firstly, the home I built in West Cork in Ireland, which contained no cement (a highly energy-intensive building material) and was built to be highly energy efficient. Local materials were chosen wherever possible, then recycled, and lastly natural. From the local stone foundations to the three-foot thick cob walls, and from window-frames made from our own trees to the hand-made clay plasters, most materials were sourced locally.
The house was beautiful and cosy. At the end of the process we proved that it is possible to build a house using mainly local materials. Cob walls do not reach the levels of energy efficiency of, say, the Passif House, but they have a far lower embodied energy and are far more attractive and healthy to be in. What we are seeking in natural building is the best of the old and the best of the new; modern design and thermal modelling to minimise ongoing CO2 emissions, combined with the use of natural and local materials in their most appropriate applications.
More recently, at Kinsale Further Education College in Ireland, we built the Kinsale Playhouse, an amphitheatre performance space. The building was based on the idea of using entirely local materials, which could be handled by unskilled students rather than professionals. We used the cordwood technique for the walls, using cob as the mortar. The only thing in the building that didn’t come from within about ten miles was the nails and the lime (both of which are possible to manufacture locally).
The finished building is both a useful space and a work of art, embellished with relief sculptures and gargoyle heads made by the sculpture students. It is sculptural, elegant and functional. It is a magical venue for plays and concerts much admired in the town.
Designing from the ground up.
What is important about both these projects is that materials were considered from the beginning. As in cooking food we should design meals around what is available locally and what is in season. Similarly, the first step in designing buildings should be identifying what materials are available locally. This then guides the whole design process.
One of the biggest challenges for a post-peak oil contracting economy will be how to retrofit the houses already built. How will that be possible when we no longer have access to industrial building materials? Hemp, lime, clay and straw would appear to be among the most promising materials. If we are to retrofit the UK’s 25 million homes using indigenous materials we will require a profound rethink of the materials we use and how we use them.
The need for beauty
We need beauty as much as we need energy efficiency. Houses we can sculpt and form with our hands, houses with secret spaces and niches in the walls, houses that feel as though they have always been there and probably always will. We can have healthy, breathing and energy efficient homes that require no space heating, we can create vibrant local markets and more diverse forms of land use, and we can reintroduce a sense of beauty and an elegant simplicity to our buildings which many people believe went out with the mangle.
A resurgence of local building materials will lead to a cultural renaissance. The rethinking of how we will house ourselves in an ecologically-sustainable way is a huge task, but as with all aspects of rethinking our economy and communities beyond oil, it is our great opportunity to build the world we actually want, one which could be far, far preferable to the present.
Issue 236 of Resurgence Magazine is just published and also includes articles by Vandana Shiva, the Prince of Wales and Stephan Harding among others. It is available from Resurgence.
22 Apr 4:32pm
as ever it’s a pleasure to read your common sense outlook – the notion of shipping agri-business wool from Australia to insulate UK housing is as absurd as the claim that this is somehow sustainable.
Meanwhile our farmers’ sons are being forced off the land where fleeces get £1 apeice in a good year . . .
Yet the idea of building-miles surely stretches the already dubious rationale of food-miles as a campaigning tool –
personally I’d far rather buy organic trout from, say, Dorset than pisci-business produce from here in Herefordshire.
In this sense, I wonder if you’d agree that an item’s production impacts should be the primary concern, which should then be weighted according to the miles travelled, i.e. the distribution impacts ?
23 Apr 10:29am
Nice article, Rob. I’ve added a link to it on the Period Property UK Forum at
24 Apr 10:27am
“One of the biggest challenges for a post-peak oil contracting economy will be how to retrofit the houses already built.”
Recently thinking about this issue has become more and more important to me. Both because I’m not in a place in my life where I can go and build my ideal eco house, and because I know that even if I was most people are never going to be in a place to do this.
Most of us are going to be living in houses that already exist today for the rest of our lives. These houses represent a lot of embodied energy we can’t just afford to just waste by abandoning and demolishing them (using more energy) to build new houses (using more energy).
And of course all the issues about land ownership and planning in the UK are factors as well as the prohibitive costs for the average person to build their own house. These issues can be worked around to a certain degree – but can they be worked around for 60 million people – and should they be?
It seems to me that we need to be spending a lot more time and energy right now, discovering ways to make our established housing work in a period of energy descent. This planning is going to need to be extensive and detailed and is going to uncover lots of problems we don’t even recognise yet.
Some of the many issues for us to consider:
A core issue for me is always “what are people going to do with their shit?” – this seems like a base piece of work we need to explore. How can we make composting toilets work in towns ands cities at our current urban densities (with their limited garden spaces)?
What’s the future for people living in flats (and for those flats), especially high rise ones?
26 Apr 4:20pm
I agree. My wife and I are getting ready to look for a house. I’ve pitched the idea of building a cob/strawbale house. Her response was less than enthusiastic. Retrofitting an existing house to be as energy efficient as possible seems like the most viable option at this point. In your research, have you come across any good resources? As for the composting toilet, I was listening to an interview on Global Public Media yesterday, and the person said something to the effect that a human’s waste provided much or all of the nutrients that said person would need to grow their food. Certainly an interesting concept.
– Mike Lorenz
26 Apr 4:29pm
There is a real paucity of information on the use of natural materials in retrofits. Feels to me like it is the most important area for natural building to explore next, but I don’t see it happening. There is much research to be done on how these materials respond to moisture when used to retrofit non-breathable walls… and much more besides. At this point, I think hemp and lime has much to offer, but again, most of the research seems to be to do with new build. Where I am in Devon, new build is staggeringly expensive, retrofit is a far more universally relevant model.
In terms of compost toilets, yes, that figure is about right. I used a humanure toilet for 6 years, and there is something alchemically amazing about the whole process. I recommend The Humanure Handbook by Joe Jenkins, which will have much of that information in it. Every time I use a urinal in a pub (not something I do THAT often) I think how easy it would be to be sending that somewhere for reuse. I heard at a talk once about towns in Norway and Sweden, where the toilets in the larger buildings separate the urine into big tanks, which is then collected by farmers on a regular basis and used instead of nitrogen based fertilisers. A very good book called ‘Liquid Gold’ published by Chelsea Green (I forget the author) is a great place to start exploring the wonders of wee.
12 Nov 9:23pm
Has anyone out there done any building the old way using rubble stone and lime mortar? We have stone (LOTS and LOTS) on site and could get the newer version of lime mortar that sets faster. The idea of building a house from the resouces we have is very compelling. Not of course, counting our labour in the equation. Any advice?