Wednesday, 12 December 2007


Book Review: Ecohouse: A Design Guide, 3rd Edition, by Sue Roaf, Manuel Fuentes, and Stephanie Thomas

Ecohouse: A Design Guide is a big book to read straight through. Whether you read it from front to back or dip into specific chapters depends on who you are and why you are reading it. In any case, Ecohouse is loaded with interesting and important — shocking, disturbing, inspiring, and enlightening — information, as well as very useful and practical technical guidance for building with both the health of our planet and the health of people — individuals, families, and communities — in mind.

This edition, for those who have not read the first and second, includes the introductions to all three. They are themselves well worth reading. In the introduction to this edition, Sue Roaf writes that the "theoretical concerns over climate change and fossil fuel depletion" covered in the introduction to the first edition were, by 2003, "firming up with the emerging reality of more extreme climate events and growing publicity over the issue of 'Peak Oil'." That is when the second edition was published. So why a third edition now?

Roaf provides several reasons for this new edition, and sees a fourth edition on the horizon. For one, "[e]ven in America the cozy talk amongst the educated architects of 'Sustainable Buildings' has turned to discussions of how we design for 'Passive Survival' in our own homes, when the power fails and the storms menace." Behind this not-so-veiled reference to America's lagging response, the point is that people are, in the face of irrefutable evidence of climate change, beginning to heed the calls for action.

Secondly, there are now politicians around the world who are beginning to take notice because of the "growing economic impacts of climate change." And finally, more to the point in terms of the content of this edition, it has become clear that the technology to survive already exists. "What we desperately need now," Roaf writes, "is the 'Eco-society' that will enable the necessary changes to happen in time to ensure that everyone, especially the vulnerable, can 'future-proof' themselves against what lies ahead." This edition serves as a technical guide and inspiration to that end.

Sue Roaf, PhD was brought up in Malaysia and Australia, and studied at Manchester University, the Architectural Association, and Oxford Brookes University. Roaf has spent ten years in Iran and Iraq, working as a landscape architect, studying building technologies, and teaching at the University of Baghdad. She has been a professional Training Adviser for the Oxford School of Architecture and is now Visiting Professor and Architectural Consultant at both the University of Arizona and the Open University in the UK. Significantly, she designed and built her own ecohouse in North Oxford in 1995, a fact to which I will return. In addition to writing
Ecohouse, she has also written Closing the Loop: Benchmarks for Sustainable Buildings and Adapting Buildings and Cities for Climate Change: A 21st Century Survival Guide.

Five of the fourteen chapters in
Ecohouse are a bit more on the conceptual side — "The form of the house": "The building as an analogy"; "The environmental impact of building materials"; "Pushing the building envelope"; "Building-in soul"; and "Health and happiness in the home." Yet even these contain various concrete examples, complete with illustrations and captioned photographs. Though all readers would be well advised to read the entire book, even if not all at once or in sequential order, these are arguably the chapters with greatest appeal to the lay reader or eco-enthusiast, as well as to the architect or builder just learning about eco-architecture. But the other chapters — "Ventilation"; "Passive solar design"; "Photovoltaics"; "Solar hot water systems"; "Using water wisely"; "Small-scale wind systems"; "Hydro power"; "Ground source heat pumps"; and "Lime and low-energy masonry" — contain a healthy amount of technical information and guidance, including formulae, charts, graphs, floor plans, diagrams and illustrations, and photographs. Less technical readers may find some of these a bit tiring on the brain.

Chapter one discusses the form of the house and useful analogies. It begins with a reference to a single analogy coined by the French architect, Le Corbusier, that has largely influenced twentieth-century architecture. He envisaged the building as 'a machine for living in.' This analogy, it is argued, is fundamentally flawed because "a machine is an inanimate object that can be turned on and off and operates only at the whim of its controller" and is a fixed, static object "amenable to scientific assessment," whereas "the driving force that acts upon the building to create comfort and shelter is the climate and its weather, neither of which can be controlled, predicted or turned on and off." This argument is a bit weak. Buildings
are static, inanimate objects, even though they are acted upon by climate and weather, and I'm sure atmospheric scientists and climatologists would argue that climate and weather, at least to a point, can be predicted, though not yet significantly controlled. Buildings, the author continues, "are part of a complex interaction between people, the buildings themselves, the climate and the environment."

I suspect the argument is a bit weak because the author is actually after something both more complex and less tangible here, and has a hard time putting a finger on it without devoting too much time to it. The machine analogy fits into, and derives from, a worldview that sees humans as separate from and above nature. Building design within this conceptual — one could say philosophical or ideological — framework is disconnected from nature and can often seem calculated, sterile, inorganic and lifeless. Three basic and very sensible principles on which all buildings should be based are proposed, and I hope architects, builders, and city planners are taking note.

1) design for climate
2) design for the physical and social environment
3) design for time, be it day or night, a season or the lifetime of a building and design a building that will adapt over time

A number of other analogies are then offered that have the potential to create a shift in how the house is regarded. The analogies suggested are: our third skin; a heat exchanger; a tea cozy; a greenhouse; a swallow; an igloo; a bucket; a brick in a storage radiator; a Roman bath house; a periscope; a tree in the breeze; a cool-core building; an air lock in a space ship; and a Hobbit hole. In discussing these analogies, readers also learn about such interesting structures, and their form-based properties, as the ice-house, yurt, and igloo. The latter two, because of their unique characteristics, can help people survive some of the harshest winters in the habitable world. Most importantly, however, these analogies help the reader see more clearly how the form and function of a building fits into various environments.

A number of chapters are devoted to technologies that generate or save energy, such as photovoltaics (solar panels), solar hot water systems, small-scale wind systems, hydro power, and ground source heat pumps (GSHP). These chapters should prove very useful to owners of existing homes in making them more eco-friendly, as also to designers and ecohouse builders. The other part of the energy equation is also covered well. There is a good discussion of the energy that has gone into the various materials we use in constructing our dwellings, as also of the emissions for which they are responsible. The terms embodied energy and embodied emissions are used. The term embodied energy stands for all energy used to create an object, from "extraction of raw materials, transportation to processing plants, energy used in factories, transportation to site, and energy used on site to install the product," while the term embodied emissions stands for all emissions, mainly of CO2, but also of toxins, released during its creation.

When one considers how many distinct products go into a house, the mere thought of trying to determine not only the embodied energy and emissions of each product, but indeed of the entire house, may well result in an overheated brain and complete loss of motivation. It seems overwhelming. The ideal would be to have a comprehensive and straightforward list of products and their embodied energy and emissions. Figures of these things are not yet widely available, but it is argued, quite sensibly, that what we really need is to understand the factors affecting embodied energy and emissions so that we can ask the right questions when selecting materials.
Ecohouse devotes a fair chunk of space to this topic, including a section on the embodied energy of different building materials from plastics, to metals, to timber. There is also a case study and a good recommended reading list on material selection and life-cycle analysis.

In "Building-in soul," material selection is revisited in a different context. Building one's own house, though expensive, is not nearly so expensive, "perhaps not one-fifth, so expensive as having something built for you." And it is further pointed out that "most importantly, you invest your soul in what you build, which is why self-built homes are so soul-rich to live in." What buildings are made of, it is emphasized, contributes greatly to their character.

Wood, earth, brick, concrete, steel, glass or plastic buildings are totally different from each other to see, to live in, to build and in the forms their construction logically and characterfully demands. . . . So, very important in terms of their pollution and environmental costs, are their manufacturing biographies and how they end their life — do they return to nature or become refuse?

Though this chapter goes well beyond the selection of materials, discussing such things as the character and identity of a building, especially one self-built, as well as its connections to a wider community, economy and ecology, it also does a good job — better than the earlier argument against the building-as-a-machine analogy — of getting to the root of the difference between the common mass-produced house and the ecohouse. Materials, we are told, "connect us to the world from whence they came: living and life-cycle bound by nature, or lifeless, dead industrial processes." And the following quote both provides a general rule for material selection and a summary of how to create a vibrant, connected, almost living house:

We use thousands of materials in modern building, but a general rule is that the nearer something is to life, the more compatible it is: the healthier to live with, the more recyclable back to earth, thence to living matter again. It also needs more care for longevity — but this care, like the care given to its making, is imprinted into its substance and emanates from it, to nourish those who live next to it. Mass-produced products can never do this; the imprint of care is, by definition, absent.

There is a bit too much talk of soul for me here, giving it somewhat of a New Age tone, but that is mainly a matter of word choice. I would have just stuck to the language of psychological and emotional connections, as that is what it really comes down to.

Significantly, Sue Roaf has designed and built her own ecohouse. This is significant in terms of credibility. It demonstrates that she has not only a good theoretical understanding of ecobuilding, but also direct, hands-on experience. She provides it as one of the case studies at the end and refers to it from time to time throughout the book. Part of the motivation for designing it, she says, "was to put paid to the notion that pursuing a high quality of life necessarily entailed irreparable damage to the environment," the challenge being "to prove that those in richer countries could maintain an acceptably high standard of living without polluting the planet at the cost of those in poorer countries."

The authors of
Ecohouse predict that we will probably all have to live in zero fossil fuel energy homes by the middle of this century, and hope that "[t]he seeds of the ideas sown in this book by then will have grown into the New Vernacular of housing for the twenty-first century and beyond." While the hope is admirable, how this will be achieved is not much discussed. Who can afford to build an ecohouse? Certainly not the bulk of homeowners even in so-called first-world nations in North America and Europe. Of those who could afford to, the vast majority have neither the desire nor the necessary knowledge. The vast majority of even well-to-do homeowners prefer to buy large, hastily-constructed, energy-profligate houses in suburbia or exurbia. These are most often cut-and-paste houses equipped with energy-greedy cooling and heating technologies, houses from which they drive — not walk — to work and the big box store. How we can combat these things is not adequately addressed in this book, nor how to make ecobuilding affordable to the common people.

Also not addressed, though they would have fit so nicely into the discussion of embodied energy and embodied emissions, are environmental racism and green-washing. It may be argued that this is a design guide, not a book of theory, but even a paragraph or two on these topics would have rounded the book out a bit more and at least acknowledged some of the darker aspects of eco- this and that. At whose expense are the products with the most embodied energy and emissions produced? Who suffers the most from the pollution both of producing these products and, increasingly, of recycling them? The feature documentary,
Manufactured Landscapes, by Jennifer Baichwal does a decent job of illustrating this, though it has nothing otherwise to do with ecobuilding. It is often those in poorer so called third-world or developing countries. Ecobuilders should pay as much attention to these aspects of material origins and selection.

Ecohouse is, despite these minor wants, a beautifully designed, well-written and thorough guide to the ecohouse. It is much recommended as both inspiration and a technical guide to architects and students of architecture, as well as designers, builders, city planners, and eco-enthusiasts.

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