Transition Culture

An Evolving Exploration into the Head, Heart and Hands of Energy Descent

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15 Mar 2010

The Economic Potential of Local Building Materials

princesfoundatiuonA while ago now I was in London for the launch of the Prince’s Foundation for the Built Environment’s ‘Building a New Green Economy’ conference, where I was a speaker alongside Tim Jackson, David Orr and Stewart Brand.  You can read about the event here, and films of our talks will be posted soon.  I mention it today because I want to draw your attention to the report launched at the conference, Sustainable Supply Chains that Support Local Economic Development, available to download here As someone who has, for many years, been fascinated by local, natural building materials, this is a fascinating piece of research, one of the first things I have seen which starts trying to calculate the financial benefits to an area of moving towards more locally-sourced building materials. 

In particular, the paper focuses on the use of locally manufactured aerated clay blocks. As well as analysing the potential of this one product, the authors reflect on the potential of scaling up the approach of using local materials more widely;

“Although this study only explored a single element of the building supply chain – structural clay blocks – these findings suggest that certain general lessons include tailoring construction techniques to local skills, designing building components which provide a range of secondary and tertiary benefits, and taking advantage of the positive impacts of simplified, generalisable approaches to complex, high-tech, specialised ones” (page 18)

The paper identifies a range of benefits that such an approach would bring:

  • The simplicity of the systems means “it enables a local workforce to be used … this ensures that a greater proportion of economic value is captured in the local economy”
  • Jobs would be created by the manufacturing of the materials
  • It would also result in professional skills development
  • a heightened sense of personal dignity and respect resulting from long-term professional employment
  • enhanced social well-being
  • improved social capital
  • healthier buildings
  • a more resilient building supply chain
  • reduced CO2 emissions and
  • increased longevity of the building stock (page 15)

While many of the natural and local building materials and techniques outlined above have advantages from a Transition perspective, what has almost never been mentioned in the natural building literature is the potential for local materials in the retrofitting of existing buildings, arguably a more pressing concern than new build homes. This theme is, however, picked up in the Prince’s Foundation paper;

“beyond new build construction, a natural approach to materials sourcing means many of the products identified are equally suitable to retrofit in buildings of traditional construction” (page 19).

It also sets out to calculate the financial returns to an area through the use of these materials, the first example I have seen of such a calculation, based on some case study developments the Foundation is involved in.  It is also intended for developers and architects, and presents the argument that more sustainable building need not necessarily mean more technical building, that more of a focus on materials could still produce buildings of a very high level of energy efficiency.  This fascinating report is highly recommended and of great relevance to those exploring the relocalisation of construction.

Comments are now closed on this site, please visit Rob Hopkins' blog at Transition Network to read new posts and take part in discussions.


Andrew MacDonald
15 Mar 2:51pm

Local materials, YES! What a difference that will make.

Like every issue, this one “localizes / localises” uniquely. Here in rural Canada where I live, we have wood . . . and more wood; a unique problem and opportunity.

The Ottawa Valley where I live was the source of vast quantities of straight and tall White Pine used in the masts of the British navy. The early settlers, most of them from the British Isles or France, cut down trees and shipped them off for cash as fast they could. Ever since we’ve cut down the trees for export, largely to an international market.

Commercial logging is to forest management very much what agribusiness is to small local farming.

Now we have smaller trees that are cut as soon as they become marketable . . . growing in profusion so that none of them has the space or time to come to maturity. (Like raising 10 puppies in a box, with none of them having the space they need.)

Incredibly, much of our wood isn’t turned into fine wood products here, but is shipped away. Our revolution could involve vast re-employment with people thinning the forest to allow full vigor in the trees, selective cutting, and sale of the products direct to consumers (like farmer’s markets). In the process sensitive and nature-loving young people will have a life lived close to the forest and a chance to revitalize their communities in a harmonious way.

Trees grow much slower than food so the turnaround is slow.

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Susan Butler
15 Mar 8:31pm

Rob’s point about the potential for locally sourced material in the retrofitting of existing buildings is well taken, since, as I understand it, Transition envisions a steady-state economy in which new construction would not be a “growth” industry. Rather the upkeep, improvement and replacement of existing housing stock would be what the construction trades would be involved with. So that no new factories, such as those described in the Prince’s Foundation paper, would be required, with their need to supply 12,000 new homes per year in order to provide 150 local factory jobs. This idea is nicely green in many ways. However, it’s still based on the same continuous growth model which is so clearly unsustainable and fast becoming obsolete. A better way to envision a really sustainable building sector would be based on local, natural materials, yes, but instead of relying on new factories, it would be based on a tradition of local knowledge and skills in the harvesting and use of local materials, just like thatching, stone-dressing, clay-based cobb and brick-work was done before the industrial revolution, with of course more attention paid to insulative properties, siting to harvest microclimate effects, including solar gain, –factors not taken into account in the old days.
In the steady-state economic paradigm it is social capital –the knowledge, experience and skill resident in a living community –which is critical, rather than financial capital or hard assets like a factory, generally owned by interests separate from the communities they serve.

Harriet Stewart-Jones
16 Mar 2:49pm

Good to realise that among our local resources in Poole (Dorset) we have supplies of something useful – clay. From Roman times to the present day the clay has been used for pottery, pipes and bricks – and could be again. Indeed, I’ve been told that one of the reasons the nineteenth-century houses round here have cavity walls instead of the more usual solid construction is because there was a plentiful supply of local bricks.

Charles Fourier
16 Mar 4:14pm

I appreciate your comments and agree with you wholeheartedly. We do need to “wake” the silent 800 pound gorilla in each community and reconnect with the skill sets that have existed prior to and in present day use.

A tap in to social capital through local re-skilling initiatives would be a great place to start. We are beginning this process in our community; especially with respect to local food production and distribution.

Andrew MacDonald
17 Mar 12:14am

Nice site, Charles. You guys are blooming!

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20 Apr 7:11pm

Iam one of those that believe in the sustainability of housing development. This should be through the of total local content and earth as material offers unquantifiable potentials. Presently, Iam into the use of Compressed Earth Bricks. Thank you for being there to look up as an inspirator.