Transition Culture

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

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I no longer blog on this site. You can now find me, my general blogs, and the work I am doing researching my forthcoming book on imagination, on my new blog.

12 Jul 2012

‘Can Totnes build itself?’: a new paper from Atmos Totnes

[Here is a press release just put out by Atmos Totnes] When it comes to building houses, which offers the best return to a local economy, concrete blocks or straw bales?  Gypsum or clay plasters?  Imported timber or local timber?  Atmos Totnes today announces the release of a ground-breaking new paper, ‘Can Totnes build itself?’ (a kind of successor to 2009’s ‘Can Totnes and district feed itself?’ study), which looks at the local building materials potentially available for the construction of the Atmos Totnes development.

Atmos Totnes is a community-led initiative seeking to bring the former Dairy Crest site into community ownership to develop it as ‘the heart of a new economy’.  Its patrons include Dr. Sarah Wollaston MP, the Eden Project’s Tim Smit, Kevin McCloud and broadcaster Jonathan Dimbleby.  It is currently in negotiation with Dairy Crest over the details of an Exclusivity Agreement that would see the site withdrawn from sale and Atmos then able to advance their plans for the site.  Here is a short film telling the story of Atmos so far:

This new report is a national first.  Atmos Totnes’ Rob Hopkins says:

“The idea that local food is more beneficial to a local economy is well established by now.  Everyone understands that by buying locally produced food we are supporting local businesses, putting more money into the local economy, reducing food miles and carbon emissions, creating more opportunities for training and livelihoods for our young people, and making our local economy more resilient.  What we want to do with Atmos Totnes is to apply that thinking the building materials.  Totnes is a town whose very fabric is defined by the building materials local to this area, stone, slate, timber.  This report asks what are the materials at our disposal in this area that could allow us to meet our target of using 80% local materials in the construction of Atmos?”

The report was written by building surveyor, building conservation specialist and teacher of natural building techniques Robert Somerville.  It identifies the 5 principal materials that can be sourced within a 15 mile radius of Totnes as being crushed stone aggregate and sand, sub soil appropriate for cob walling, rough-sawn green timber, bales of waste sheep’s wool from Buckfast spinning mills and straw bales.

It also explores the materials that could also be sourced from within Devon and Cornwall, the natural building materials available nationally, as well as materials that could be salvaged from the dismantling of the existing Dairy Crest facilities.  The Atmos team will be seeking to design buildings which reach the highest standards of energy efficiency while also maximising the potential of local materials to revive and regenerate the local economy, and this report will form part of their brief to potential architects.

Dave Chapman of Atmos Totnes says:

“Atmos Totnes is about returning control over development in this town to its residents.  It will be a community-owned development in which everyone will be able to invest.  It is about maximising the social return to this community of the development that takes place within it, and the materials we choose to build with will be a key part of this.  What we are modelling with Atmos Totnes is what localism means when taken to its logical conclusion.  Totnes can lead the way here”.

Additional information

The report can be downloaded from, and the latest developments on Atmos Totnes can be found at www. atmostotnes or on Twitter at @atmostotnes.

Downloadable MP3 files of ‘Atmos Voices’ interviews can be downloaded from and you are welcome to use any of them in any audio pieces you are creating.

The story of the Atmos project, and of the Dairy Crest site since its closure, can be found at


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


12 Jul 4:56pm

Excellent report.

However, I’m concerned about the overall design process…will there be community led design workshops using “Planning For Real”?
Maybe I’ve not read the fine print, but at the moment the plans give the impression that housing layout and design has been settled already.

Rob Hopkins
12 Jul 5:03pm

Hi Jan, not sure if we will be using Planning for Real as such, but there will certainly be a thorough consultation, and the plans you will have seen so far have only been for discussion and to start a process of exploring what is possible, in terms of what is built, that will all be up for discussion, in terms of what is built where, there are a number of constraints on the site that restrict what can be built where. All being well, this will be begun in the Autumn… thanks…

12 Jul 8:49pm

sounds good, thanks Rob

Adam Dadeby
14 Jul 12:01am

Reading ‘Can Totnes build itself?’ on page 4, the claim that airtightness products are delivered on over-sized lorries is incorrect. Modern day logistics may lack systems resilience but inefficient they are not. Any compentent logistics manager will plan to avoid using inappropriately sized vehicles. While it is true that some airtightness products are made from fossil fuels, they represent a tiny proportion of the mass and volume of material used in a building, and in any building that claims seriously to be addressing energy use, such products make a much larger proportionate contribution to reducing energy use, at lower cost energetically or financially than simply adding further and further to insulation.

The marginal extra cost in embodied energy and carbon incurred by using airtightness products can be off-set by using Passivhaus energy modelling (PHPP) to optimise the design of the building to minimise unnecessary use of building materials. Even if a project is aiming for the building fabric performance standard required for “zero carbon”, rather than the more stringent Passivhaus standard, modelling the design in the PHPP will allow much more informed decisions to be made (and from that money, energy and carbon savings).

Going back to the Atmos project itself, my understanding is that part of the site is seen as being at flood risk. My feeling is that, in the lifetime of the proposed buildings, the whole site is likely to be at risk of flooding. Are the assumptions being made conservative enough? If not, will not the buildings need to be built with raised ground floors. (On stilts? What local, natural material could be used in this case?)

Jack Evans
14 Jul 3:06pm

The economy in Totnes seems to be mainly built on its status as a worldwide distribution centre for legal highs and synthetic cannabinoids. Is this the future for the town?