Dr Robert Rich
An article from EARTH GARDEN Magazine

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Building as if the Future Mattered

[From Earth Garden December 1999 - February 2000]

   How much was stolen from your children's future when your house was built?

   Everything has a cost, and this is not only in money. Some of the resources used are irreplaceable: mineral ores, old growth forests, topsoil, fresh water, clean air. Even though some of these are replenished by nature, we currently use them up far faster than the natural repair rate.

   And everything has to be processed and transported, and all this uses more resources, eats up more energy.

   I will never see a tiger or an orang-utan, except perhaps in a zoo. Just the same, I will be impoverished by their passing. This will happen through habitat destruction, an inevitable consequence of the hunger for raw materials in wealthy countries.

   When something is used up, eventually it is turned into something else. Energy use generates heat, greenhouse gases (trapping more heat), air pollution and solid wastes. Almost everything industry does leads to chemicals in the water. Is it an accident that in 1994, cancer in Australia was increasing at 3% per annum? Since then, this rate itself has increased. This is not due to the ageing of the population, for cancer in children is increasing too, as is asthma.

   When I first got interested in building, there was a vigorous demolition industry, supplying second-hand building components. It has all but disappeared. Most demolitions and alterations yield only solid waste, taken to over-full garbage tips.

   But there is little need to convince Earth Garden readers: we should build as if the future mattered. Here are a few suggestions on how to achieve this.

  • Large is Lousy (the opposite of Dr Schumacher's 'Small is Beautiful'). The first house my wife and I bought in about 1970 was 12 squares, an average size then. When we built a 15-square house in 1980, it was considered a little small. New houses now are typically 24 squares and up. And in the meantime, average family sizes have dropped. So, fewer people occupy more space.

       The amount of space you 'need' is a matter of habit. You can get used to anything. So why should we allow the media and industry to con us into an upwardly mobile set of 'needs'?

       All sorts of costs go up in proportion to size: cost of materials, cost of labour, environmental damage caused by the resources used, cost of heating in winter and cooling in summer, cleaning, repairs and maintenance. We could not afford the extra space if we had to pay the true value. We can because much of it stolen from the future, and from people now living desperate lives in poor countries.

  • Build for your climate. 99% of houses currently being built are obsolete, because they ignore climatic requirements. In tropical areas, use plenty of roof insulation, keep out the sun, use natural ventilation and evaporative cooling (there are pump-free ways of doing this). In desert areas, copy Arab architecture: heavy earth walls, small windows, flat, heavily insulated roof, everything blinding white. In temperate and cool climates, use 'solar efficient' ('passive solar') design. Details are available from many sources, including the Earth Garden Building Book.

       A house in Melbourne's climate should not need air conditioning, and can be built to need no installed heating. Without going to extremes or spending up big, you can heat a solar efficient house with a very small heater.

       Climate-appropriate building saves heaps of energy. Over the life of the house, it will also save you a great deal of money. It need cost no more than the conventional mis-designed house.

  • Recycle. My house cost me $10,000 in materials. Much of it was free, the throwouts of others, or second hand. There is a cost in time. Seeking, collecting and processing recycled materials is time-consuming. For example, I'd like a cent for every rusty nail I've pulled out of old timber. But the result is an environmentally cheap house that is actually stronger and more durable.
  • Choose materials with care. My pet hate is fired bricks and roof tiles. As a first approximation, the manufacture of one brick generates 1 Kg of CO2. How many bricks are there in your house? In Australia? In the world? How much better off would we be if all of them were replaced by something less energy-hungry?

       A brick is not even a good building material. Moisture penetrates it. Being a good transmitter of heat as well as having a high density, it amplifies the outside temperature. On a hot summer's day, it is hotter inside an uninsulated brick house than outside. The converse is true in winter: the bricks cool the house.

       A fibro or weatherboard house is cheaper, faster to build, is no more endangered in a bushfire (as long as the outside is painted white), gives you a better internal climate, and is far less damaging to the environment. It does need more maintenance, but you might use fibro-cement weatherboards.

       Aluminium is another energy-hungry material. If electricity was properly priced, aluminium would be dearer than gold. The only situation aluminium door and window frames are warranted is where a flood can be expected. But the best thing is not to build on flood-prone land.

  • Timber. Where possible, use recycled timber. The next best thing is plantation-grown timber, though it would be good it less chemicals were used in timber plantations. Also, we should discourage the practice of clear-felling forests and replacing them with plantations. Trees for timber should be planted as shelter belts on farms, on land spoiled by salinity where they help to lower the water table, on cleared land that is eroding, or where fertility has fallen because of poor farming practices.

       Try to avoid timber from old growth forests, particularly tropical rainforests. Even selective extraction is bad, because it transforms the ecosystem. In Europe, where this has gone on for over 1000 years, nature has adapted to man. That is, all the damage was done a long time ago. But in Australia, in the tropics, even in America, the complexity of the forest is decreasing, and this endangers the existence of many species. Try not to add to this.

  • Repair instead of replace. This used to be the rule, and must be again if we are to survive as a species. The throwaway razor is the symbol of our society. A tool you use many times, sharpening and maintaining it, is far better.

       Actually, there is an even better option: resist. You can do without all that consumer junk, and believe it or not, live a happier life for its absence.

       I don't need a razor at all. You see, that's why I wear a beard.

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