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11 May 2007

Urban Heat and Rural Heat – by Simon Fairlie

limpI don’t read Building for a Future magazine anywhere near as often as I ought to, but recently I picked up a copy and read an excellent article by Simon Fairlie, drawing a new angle on the zero-energy buildings debate. I have been a huge admirer of Simon’s work for years, in particular his work on rural planning through the campaign group Chapter 7, and always enjoy reading his work. This article has a particularly important take, I think, on the dangers of blindly putting cutting carbon emissions above the creation of resilience and the rebuilding of a rural economy.

**Urban Heat and Rural Heat – by Simon Fairlie.**

Stepping out into the Waterloo night after reading George Monbiot’s latest book, Heat, on the train, I was confronted by a glaring manifestation of the problem he tries to tackle. Along the banks of the Thames tower blocks spewed light from a thousand empty offices. Plane trees were decked with fairy lights seventy-five days before Christmas — perhaps nowadays they don’t bother to take them down. Night clubs competed for punters with kilowatts of neon, like that notorious fishery in the Sea of Japan, where the boat with the most powerful lamp attracts the most squid.

Arriving at my destination, my host apologized for the heat in his attic flat, generated, so he told me, entirely by surplus warmth rising from his downstairs neighbours. I slept under a single sheet with the window wide open, so that the heat could waft out into the October night. In the tiny kitchen, a fitted fridge/freezer which left no room for a larder contained nearly all the household’s food including all those pickles, preserves and condiments which people long ago invented for the specific purpose of storing food at room temperature. Next morning, in the street below a barrowman was hawking fruit, not a single item of which came from Britain —and this in our season of mists and mellow fruitfulness.

When Marx wrote about the “idiocy of rural life

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12 May 9:22am

That is a really good piece. Particularly interesting to me as I am just researching “Sustainable Housing Criteria” or codes of practice that could be used to define “sustainable housing”. This is in connection with the Carberry Housing project and the Unicorn Foundation in West Cork. As soon as you start however, you come up against the same issues Simon has raised: what is sustainable in one place may not be in another, and it very much depends on lifestyle, employment etc.- how far do people drive to work? Will the design of the house be adabtable for different numbers of occupants over its lifetime? I have always felt for example that all new houses should be constructed with zone 1 gardens in mind, conservatories and walls for climbing plants, larders and food stores etc.
Rob has written a section in the back of the Kinsale Energy Descent Plan which offers some proposals for a Sustainable Housing Charter; does anyone else have any links to projects with charters or codes on this?

Jan Steinman
13 May 3:13pm

I do fear for everyone’s lungs if the entire industrial world switches to wood heat. I’m battling hypocrisy here, as I heat with wood, but it seems to be ideally suited to rural areas, and poorly suited for urban areas.

This brings up the basic problem with building codes: they are “one size fits all” solutions. Here on a rural farm on an island off the coast of British Columbia, Canada, we are located within the Capital Regional District, and are subject to the same building regulations as the capital city of BC, a city of some 100,000 people!

So I think Monbiot and Rob each have it half-right: the real patter we need to capture here is that such things must be locally appropriate, rather than imposed from afar.

Tom Atkins
14 May 10:52am

Interesting article by Simon as always – thanks for posting it Rob. It’s interesting to me as a person about to embark on a triple glazed, no cold-bridges, highly insulated rural house project.

I too like to have the windows open as much as possible – but on a cold windy wet winter’s day I’ll be glad to be able to ‘batten down the hatches’. We also have abundant supplies of firewood surrounding us. We’ll be installing a small wood burning stove for winter hot water and ‘for the soul’. But I’m keen to burn as little wood as possible. OK, burning wood ‘warms you twice’ but I really do have better things to do than felling, chopping, storing and burning any more wood than I have to. And if I think that now – then I know I’ll think it when I’m 70! We’ll be managing our woodlands for food products, wildlife and timber. Any surplus firewood will, I’m sure, be useful to someone in the nearby village. I’d rather sell or barter this wood than send it up my own chimney simply because I didn’t make an effort to build carefully.

Our home will have considerably more embodied energy than Simon’s – but I’m hopeful it’ll last 300 years and be occupied by several generations. Thus sharing the initial ‘costs’.

I agree that people shouldn’t be forced into expensive building codes. But I don’t agree that rural housing shouldn’t be built to as high an insulation standard as possible. Governments should subsidise the insulation thus making it affordable to all. We’ll all benefit then as there will be more wood to go round. Wasting energy is after all – wasting energy!

Mike Hall
20 May 1:16am

I would suggest you consider something a little more of a compromise. Something akin to what i’ve just built, details below. I am very happy that the result is both very sustainable & good to live in.
Often overlooked is the trade off between super insulation & the need for airtightness and heat recovery ventilation, neither of which offering optimum air quality. The energy needed to run heat recovery vent fans can be substantial. Also, to build to this high specification is usually much more expensive, maybe that money would be better invested in photovoltaics or wind or extra land planted with trees ?
Which brings me to my 2nd point, which is to emphasise a one already made – there is really no ‘one size fits all’ – location/ materials (for both ‘build’ & subsequent ‘use’)/ budget / lifestyle are so unique to each of us. Overly rigid planning ‘rules’ & inflexible ‘planners’ make it difficult here for the various ‘sustainable’ options to be developed. I have built a wooden house of 84sqm (900sqft) to slightly better than current Irish regs (tho’ implemented, in practice, to much higher spec). It has about 8 sqm of Sth facing 1.1 u-value double glazing, argon filled ‘soft’ coat. Tho’ we have above ave. cloud for this lattitude. Airtightness is reasonable. I’m using about 4,500Kwh/year Airtricity for space heating, but plan to install a small woodburner, buffer tank/thermal store & my own 2.5Kw wind generator + ~4sqm of solar thermal. This should make it almost energy self-sufficient, without needing much wood at all. I have 2 acres bordered with trees but won’t have much to burn for some years. I calculate that my house & foundation (not including roof material, 2nd hand tin) has caused ~ 420 kg of CO2, but is sequestering (storing) about 2,000 kg. (Maybe this is a better use for wood than burning it ?)
Hope that’s of some use to you.

Shane Miller
25 Apr 12:50pm

Hi Mike,
In my experience with Heat Recovery Ventilation you can be assured of nothing other than optimum indoor air quality. Infact the entire purpose of installing HRV is to 100% ensure that the indoor climate is maintained as a healthy, comfortable environment. I believe there is noting that you could make a better investment in than an airtight super insulated structure.
Every project we’ve examined has pointed to high quality workmanship & alignment with the passive house standard as the optimum build strategy.