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Sustainability is not superficial
The term sustainability can refer to different things and we often have different, or partial, ways of interpreting it. If we are building a house, it would be wise – and even necessary – to build sustainably. And if we are investing large resources in the construction and a lot of will to change our lives accordingly, it is very important not to perceive sustainability partially. The same goes for urban and spatial planning, which determine where we can build and how.
As soon as we search for sustainable houses online or in magazines, we'll come across a whole range of different images. If we take a look at these images, we can ask ourselves which one is sustainable.
I would opt for «I don't know» because I simply don't have enough information based on a single image. The first house obviously uses renewable energy, but it might be unreasonably big, which would have required that we produce and transport an unreasonable quantity of materials, produce all the panels and, perhaps, occupy valuable natural land. The second house is probably built with local and natural materials, but its inhabitants might work in a distant city which can't be reached by public transport so that their everyday car rides have a large ecological footprint. The third house is small and probably has a small eco-footprint, but it might be inhabited by a family of six with nowhere else to live, which would have a negative effect on their health, and a sustainable society is dependant on healthy and happy people. The fourth house is an apartment building, which is a more rational approach in terms of materials and heating energy, but it might be an old building without thermal insulation. The fifth house is an old stone house, made of a traditional and natural material, but without ample southern glazing it might be very dark inside, which would have an ill effect on the residents’ mood, and it might not be able to soak in the warmth of the low winter sun.
Judging quality and true sustainability of a house just by its outer appearance isn’t easy. And yet, we often do it. Just like with people, in order to get to know who or what we’re dealing with, we need to know how it functions on the inside and how it affects its context. In the meanwhile... images sell stories. They sell us the promise that they hold the key to the way in which we’ll fulfil our needs. They sell us a sense of identity. They sell us a sense of belonging to a group. They sell us all that with particular strength when the topic is as important and intimate as our home.
That doesn’t mean that all images lie, but that we need to understand sustainability more deeply. That’s why this text will lead us on a metaphorical path that will take us through a current “forest fire” and then through long-term “forest management” in order to reach a deeper understanding that will lead us to practical tips for building a sustainable house.
“Putting the fire out”
Let’s begin with a fire that needs to be put out immediately: the climate crisis. This diagram, from a lecture by Branko Grisogono of the Faculty of Science at the University of Zagreb, shows us how the mean temperatures in Europe are rising (the black line). Natural causes (green) cannot account for the increase, but the simulations that include human activities (red) are spot on.
We can see the consequences with every drought, storm, flood, heat wave, extreme cold-air fronts, forest fire, forest disease, species extinction, more frequent landslides, drops in surface- and underground-water levels, decreasing agricultural harvest quantities, and all related social and economic consequences, including migrations. We are faced with the possibility of a civilisation collapse and we caused the extinction of 68% of living species in the past 50 years, while on our way to changing the planetary climate into one that is unsuitable for us a species.
What are the causes? The climate crisis is fuelled by greenhouse gases that we are emitting into the atmosphere, especially the carbon dioxide resulting from burning fossil fuels. In a house, we burn fossil fuels for heating, for producing the electricity we use for cooling and light, but also to produce and transport the materials used in building it. According to the data from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the construction sector is responsible for 32% of the global final energy use. It is estimated that a quarter of that is related to the production, transport and use of building materials, while three quarters are related to heating, cooling and lighting.
Obviously, there is much to be changed in the construction sector in order to reach the goal of carbon neutrality by 2050! The typical technological response to the challenge consists of using renewable energy sources. On one hand, we can address renewables at the scale of individual houses. It’s high time to stop implementing gas heaters and oil tanks. It’s time for solar collectors and heat pumps. If we burn wood for heat, we need a high-efficiency burner and use wood only from sustainably managed forests – not only on paper, but in reality too. It’s time for our roofs to produce electricity.
On the other hand, we can address renewables at the scale of local communities, cities, regions, countries and wider. It’s time that our district heating and power plants start using renewables. If we want to use energy rationally, it doesn’t make sense to always try to get every house satisfy its energy needs on its own because that requires much more technical equipment. Neither does it make sense to transport energy very far or to be completely dependent on gigantic centralised systems. Energy transition at the scale of local communities is therefore very important.
Let’s go a step deeper. It doesn’t make sense to produce a heap of energy-production facilities based on renewables – regardless of their scale – if we can use less energy. The typical building-sector response to that challenge consists of thick thermal insulation and carefully designing systems for heating, cooling and hot water so that we can be energy efficient and avoid under- or over-dimensioned systems.
Let’s go another step deeper. There is no point in implementing large engineering systems if we can get most of our energy from the sun without using technology: through big south-facing glazing that is, due to carefully designed overhangs, exposed to the sun in the winter and protected by shade in the summer. That is, at least in the EU, and increasingly so in Croatia, the typical architectural response to the challenge of energy efficient design. All of this can save us a significant amount of energy, but that doesn't make the huge building-material-based quarter of the construction carbon footprint any less troubling. Especially because we’re probably using bricks and concrete, which have a big carbon footprint.
That’s why we’re going another step deeper. We’re choosing wood from sustainably managed forests. We’re choosing earth, which can be used for building big and reliable buildings, such as the Sheppard Auditorium in Wales (Centre for Alternative Technology) pictured above. Or straw, whose thermal-insulating properties are the same as mineral wool's at one seventh of its carbon footprint! Or stone, if it’s available locally and if – as in the Mediterranean – we need its thermal mass the keep us cool in the summer and warm in the winter, along with being resistant to wind and salt. Or we choose recycled materials, as long as they are good for health, such as the cellulose-flake thermal insulation, i.e. recycled paper.
But we can go even deeper: Whichever materials we use and however carefully we design south-oriented glazing, a big house will require a lot of energy to get built and used. We can therefore ask ourselves what we truly need. What are wishes and what are real needs? Do I need a big space or the feeling of spaciousness? The thing is, we can feel cramped in a lot of square meters if they are badly designed. So, with no need to “go back to the stone age”, as some like to scare us, in addition to the efficiency principle, we can adopt the sufficiency principle: “What is sufficient?” As the architect Dinko Kovačić says, we can take to the birds: a swallow has all the mud in the world, and yet, when it builds a nest, it builds just as much as she needs.
By going ever deeper, we came to what needs to be the starting point, so let’s reverse-engineer: In order to use the construction sector to contribute to putting the climate-change fire out, we need all of the following steps: design as much as is sufficient, design wisely, use mostly “natural” and local materials, use the sun’s energy passively, thermally insulate the house and, when active energy use is needed, use renewable energy sources. These steps are not conflicting. They are synergistic, but we need to be willing and able to achieve the synergy.
The side effects of “putting the fire out”
As we know, putting a fire out is an emergency measure. We need to invest in prevention too. Furthermore, emergency measures can have side effects, just like when a fire-fighting plane leaves salty fields behind. So let’s see some of the, perhaps, unexpected ways in which building and dwelling affect their contexts.
We already mentioned one of the effects: transportation. Do we have low-carbon public transport where we live, or will we pollute by commuting by car? If we look at the issue from the other side, we can ask, “How will the investment into public transport (especially railways) by the municipality and the state facilitate high-quality, sustainable living outside of overcrowded cities and metastasising suburbs?”
Other infrastructure is similar, and planners and municipalities are aware of that: What is the required investment into water supply, sewage and energy grid, stemming from new buildings and building zones? To what extent would the system be relieved and rationalised by encouraging the implementation of local constructed wetlands, compost toilets and rainwater use?
What is the effect of construction on the land? Have we made sure that we do not build on valuable agricultural land? How about protecting trees and forests, in order to preserve biodiversity, prevent erosion and landslides, mitigate climate change, avoid storm flooding and regulate the microclimate? How about not overloading rivers and not channelling them? How about not building in flood-prone areas?
Then there is the issue of financing. Will construction be financed by loans? If so, this will mean that the investor is indebted, but also that the whole society will be indebted because someone will have to take out a loan in order to create the additional money in the system, which will be used to pay the interest. The profit will leave the local community and contribute to the stratification of the society. Alternatively, several people can come together and finance a shared house more easily, and the state should allow the operation of ethical banks. That is a way to treat dwelling as a human right in practice, and not just on paper. How can we expect people to be interested in the common good and sustainability if the economic system is based on rent, rewarding those who are already privileged and endangering the livelihood of those who are not?
“Planting the forest”
Obviously, the type of a house can affect social sustainability. Let’s take a closer look at how a house can be sustainable by affecting long-term change. In Europe, cohousing is increasingly popular: People don’t have random neighbours; instead, they choose their neighbours in order to build a sense of community and, based on that, engage in common sustainable projects. Cohousing normally includes shared spaces, from tool sheds and heating stations to kindergartens and spaces for indoor and outdoor play, spaces for coworking, entrepreneurship or agricultural production. Another increasingly popular option is coliving, where the chosen neighbours aren’t in a different flat or nearby house; instead, we all share a common living room, a big kitchen and everything else we want to have, from a library and a playroom to a sauna. Such arrangements are successful when people consciously design and care for interpersonal relationships and communal decision making methods. Despite scepticism, there are many successful examples. A house, as we can see, influences social relations, trust, cooperation and the sense of safety, which is crucial for bringing about change at the systemic level advocated by Transition initiatives and conscious local communities.
In addition to the contact with other people, a house affects our contact with nature, including natural materials, other living beings, healthy water and air, and daily and seasonal rhythms. The biophilia hypothesis claims that we have evolved in close contact with nature and that the presence of nature in a dwelling is essential for our psychophysical health. That concerns all our senses and more. It’s related to the deepest perception of ourselves, our identity and what we perceive as reality. In his exploration of the complex relationship of humans and architecture, the architect and systemologist Igor Toš mentions the biologist Portmann, who claims that humans live through two uterine periods: one is the biological, before being born, and the other is in the first year, when the human being is dependent on the care by others and is ontogenetically shaped through the intense coexistence with the natural, social and artificial environments. Put simply, our home shapes us, and does so strongly. One of the crucial questions is whether we can shape homes so that they remind both us and future generations, that we are biological beings and that we are a part of nature, because we have been behaving as if we had forgotten that nature not only formed our bodies, but is allowing us, every day, to breath, eat, get dressed, and create every form of progress and wealth.
Such a change in perception, or worldview, where – as Daniel Christian Wahl would put it – worldview follows design and design follows worldview, is similar to planting a forest. As the proverb says, “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” It is a long, but inevitable process. Because, while we are putting the fire out, we need to repair all the damage we have caused to each other and to nature. Nature is something we belong to or – as Pope Francis said in his encyclical “Laudato si’” – our common home. And – as the philosopher Aldo Leopold said – “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community.”
This has not exhausted all aspects of a house’s effect on its context, but we have seen that dwelling has a profound influence on the ecological, social, economic and worldview dimensions of sustainability and that all those dimensions are interconnected. We have seen that there are fires we need to put out, as well as long-term changes we need to initiate now. We have seen that a single house is not enough and that we need strategic, expert and sustainable decisions in spatial plans, laws and tax-and-subsidy policies, too, in order to support deeply sustainably investments and enterprises, just like we need strategic decisions in education and collaboration practices of all stakeholders in construction.
“Forestry tools” for creating a home
For those who are about to embark on the adventure of creating their own home, in addition to the above mentioned approaches, here are some concrete things one would do well to keep in mind.
When you think about home, think about how you want to feel in it, what kind of life situations you want to live in it, what kind of encounters and what kind of communication, and how you want your home to help you get inspired, rest and be yourself. Rooms, square meters, furniture and styles all come later.
If, while feeling your true needs, you conclude that you need a change in order to achieve wellbeing, assess whether or not it would suffice to adapt an existing space or a building that’s already built. With a creative approach, unexpected buildings can be imbued with new life. That option usually results in a lower eco footprint. If that isn’t possible, don’t build more than you truly need.
When looking for a plot for your house, make sure it gets sunlight in winter. There should be no risk of landslides or floods and the house shouldn’t be in a place where water is prone to gather. A gentle slope is good, as is a northern approach and good air flow while being protected from the wind. The plot should provide contact with nature without too much exposure to noise and various forms of pollution. There are many other parameters, depending on lifestyles and goals, but these are the fundamentals.
In order to be resilient to climate change, you would do well to have several sources of water available and to use them all: water mains, rainwater storage, a well. It’s also good if you have the possibility of growing some of your food. Use intelligent design to eliminate the need for air conditioning and minimise the need for heating, bearing in mind that summers are going to be increasingly hotter. Have a chimney and a wood stove, just in case. Count on ever stronger storms and winds. If there is exposed wood or clay plaster on your house, protect them well from water and snow and allow every drop of rain to flow off without accumulating on the structure.
Keep rainwater in a rain storage tank and in the ground (the garden), without allowing it to form a flood. Install a compost toilet, or else a water closet connected to a constructed wetland or a bio septic tank. The amount of water we use to flush our toilets is obscene, especially if we send it – in that polluted state – into the sewage system, rather than preserve our resources and use them locally.
If you plan a cohousing or coliving community, invest time and energy in identifying the common vision, purpose and values and in facilitation and non-violent-communication skills. Base everything on a healthy cooperative base, with clear legal arrangements. Every minute invested in that in the beginning will save days of problems in later phases, but working on the community never stops, just like the joy a good community brings you.
Keep in mind that the secret of spaciousness isn’t in square meters, or even cubic meters. The feeling of spaciousness depends on the proportions of a space, i.e. the relations of its height, length and width, but also on the relation between that space and neighbouring spaces, the light in the space, the sound in it and the disposition of various items in it. The images show a three-bedroom holiday house we designed in the Croatian mountains. When you step out of a room, kitchen or bathroom and into the living space, you feel as if you were in a roofed porch, rather than another room.
That is due to the height of the space, the light coming from above due to the different roof levels, and the contrast between the sizes of the rooms and the living space. And all that in a 70 m2 house (net surface area).
Don’t underestimate the importance of light and shadow. Ideally, light should enter every room from two different sides (one can be the roof). Such a space will be more pleasant because there will be no hard shadows. At the same time, shadow and semi-darkness are important for the sense of protection. At home, as in life, one needs to balance the needs for protection and openness. Here is another example from the Croatian mountains, a house we designed with a timber structure, wood insulation and a wooden façade. The house also has a compost toilet, rain water storage and grey water filter, and is surrounded by an ecological garden. We didn’t design a mere window towards the beautiful view; instead, the window grew into a little white cantilevering house, where people can snuggle to be between the mountains and the stove.
The section, however, shows that there is light from the roof windows too, positioned above the workspace gallery and balancing the atmosphere out. In the middle of the ground floor, next to the stove, staircase and books, you can find the more intimate and dark part of the space, whose magic is strongest when you light the fire.
Don’t let the house become your ball and chain. Use the design and construction to ensure that the house requires little maintenance. At the same time, make it as adaptable as possible to different life scenarios and changes in the present and the future. Here is an example of our home studio, which we designed so that it has a big and lively room, and a small and quiet room. Their functions and furniture dispositions change to suit our needs, from sleeping to working, hanging out, doing photo sessions, playing, having work meetings, and many others. Most of the things are stored in the big new archive/storage so that the living areas can be easily transformed.
Don’t rush. If the cabinet maker says, “measure twice, cut once,” imagine what’s at stake with a house. Fortunately, you don’t have to build everything alone or design everything alone. There are people who can guide you on the path to sustainability all the way: ethical and high-quality designers and builders. From the initial strategic decisions and looking for and analysing plots and spatial plans, to the concept design that joins your wishes and needs with the potentials and limitations of the location, the analysis of investing in renewable energy sources, the designs needed for obtaining permits, the detailed designs and bills of quantity that will add to the quality of building, and finally to high-quality construction, obtaining the permit for using the building and actually using it.
This has been a brief overview of the "sustainable house", i.e. everything that needs to be sustainable in order for the house to be sustainable. Let’s complete it with a little mental trick: don’t think about how to make a sustainable house, but how to make it regenerative: a house that will regenerate your own wellbeing, the natural environment and the social environment.
Veljko Armano Linta, September 2020
About the author:
I have been in the sustainability field as an architect and an educator. As an architect, together with my wife Ana, I am running the Studio Armano Linta, active in the fields of regenerative intentional communities, architecture, interior design, product design and critical design.
As an educator, I work individually and within the international Team for Future and the Croatian team Satelit for education on sustainability, together with Cvijeta Biščević and Ana Armano Linta. I am a certified Gaia Education trainer and have completed several UNESCO-endorsed trainings: Design for Sustainability, Ecovillage Design Education, Sustainable Development Goals Multiplier and Training of Trainers. I create teaching scenarios for Sustainable Development for primary and high schools. In Satelit, we create and facilitate participatory workshops for local communities, universities and schools, foundations, NGOs, expert associations, ministries and international organisations.