Homes fit for us All Sustainable Development

 

What have we learned from a year of lockdown? For some of us it will be that living alone makes the space we exist in feel large, empty, and unwelcoming. For some that we are crushed into space that doesn’t allow us as individuals enough “decompression” and it has become a place that brings focus to the negative aspects of our lives.

But for all of us there is an acknowledgement that having a home is important and that home is where the heart is. Hopefully a vast majority of us are finding that we are co-existing with the correct space and company and that it has been manageable if not truly enjoyable.

I’m lucky I have a home that is filled with the laughter (and computer game noises) of children, that has heating, that doesn’t let in the rain, and has access to outdoor space in a part of the world where there is walking distance to local parks with woodlands and access to nature.

I know I’m blessed. I don’t take it for granted.

I’m interested in what we can take forwards as learning from this year of staying home. The SNP are pledging to build 100,000 new homes, 70% for social rent if they are re-elected, and that has got me thinking about what shape and facilities those homes, and regeneration of those that exist currently could take.

Some new homes will be needed in cities and some in rural areas, but should we base the split on the current population divide of 83% urban 17% rural?? or should we make greater provision for rural areas and encourage folk out of the cities and central belt??  I’ll let those more informed than I am argue about land ownership and land reform that is a current showstopper to many people being able to get access to rural homes, but I would love to see more homes, more families getting a chance to move to rural areas and help to boost their communities and schools. The more of us that get to live outside of the central belt the easier it will be to provide sustainable transport to those areas, schools, GP surgeries, libraries – all the things that the Central belt take for granted and need to be supported in rural areas to ensure that Scotland closes the equality gap.

First and foremost, everyone has a right to a home. Homelessness is a modern plague based in inclusion and exclusion and based on ability and willingness to conform to society demands of behaviour. If you don’t have somewhere secure to sleep, you can’t be expected to sort out anything in your life.

Housing First is a policy that works in Finland, where it has been proven to cost less in healthcare, social services and justice services of €15,000 per year less for every homeless person in proper housing. In Canada the savings are $20.72 for every $10 invested. It is pretty much proven worldwide it is a policy that makes sense. If people have a place to be, then they can be contacted more easily and helped with medical, nutrition needs and support. Housing First projects in Scotland are underway including Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee, Stirling and Aberdeen. They make use of 800 homes to support vulnerable people. Projects like Social Bite are making immense contributions to getting people back on their feet and into independent secure living. The Social Bite village has 10 Nesthouses, providing secure housing for 20 residents who are anticipated to be there for 12-18 months learning skills and confidence before moving on to better things.

But what could or would we put into a home that will contribute to a sustainable Scotland?

It would mean that homes should be carbon negative if possible, contributing back to the natural resources of the world by their simple existence rather than depleting the planets resources in their construction. It would mean that they should need minimal heating and cooling, be able to generate electricity, be able to be use water efficiently and I wonder if it would also be possible to make a contribute to feeding the occupants as well??

Could the chocolate box ideals of the Cadbury brothers be brought to Scotland to encourage similar thinking that they employed in the design of Bourneville 150 years ago? They understood the need for light, for green space (10% of the town area design was open space including swimming pools), for access to individual gardens for growing vegetables and with fruit trees.

We know that looking onto wide vistas is important, but also being able to look out onto communal areas and seeing other people, that helps to create a sense of place within a community which some of the “villages in the sky” failed to deliver.

New housing should be sympathetic to the environment, not use any, or at most minimal amounts, of concrete, and be well insulated. Ground source heating can maintain the internal temperature year-round for minimal costs (after installation) and all buildings could have solar panels, contributing to renewable energy generation for their own use and contribution to the national grid. Rainwater harvesting for irrigation of gardens and roof-gardens (and vertical growing) can help to encourage greenery which cools urban environments and enhances wellness. Looking out onto grey concrete does nothing for the spirit and the amount of heat that is reflected by glass surfaces and urban structures adds to city temperatures, known as the Urban Heat Island Effect. Something simple like painting a roof white can lower the internal temperature of a building by up to 7 degrees.

But we could go further we could go back to the use of turf roofs, a common roof until mid-1800’s. We could plant flowers and encourage bees, and insects. We could plant gardens. Boston Medical Centre has such a successful 2658-square-foot roof garden it shares its bounty with the local community.

True sustainable living provides community, opportunities, green technology for transport, and also reduces or eliminates waste.

There are many examples of eco-villages around the world a lot of which are younger than the Findhorn community of Scotland, and increasingly there are urban areas within cities which have been intentionally developed. Vauban quarter in Freiburg in Germany has over 5,000 inhabitants: only 30% of them own a car, housing is exceptionally well insulated requiring only 25% of average power consumption, there is a district heating system powered by biomass (wood chips) household waste is fed into an aerobic digester producing biogas which is then in turn used for cooking. Grey-water is cleaned and returned. Lawns can only be mowed twice a year which has encouraged and “markedly revived the biodiversity”.

These possibilities can be achieved. They are not new, they aren’t radical. They are increasingly accepted as normal when you move away from a society that uses housing as only dormitories for workers that spend more of their time commuting rather than socialising with other household members.

Hopefully the post-Covid world will enable more of us to work from home at least part of the time. This will free up a lot of time for a lot of people to do more of what they want to do, including, hopefully, being able to re-engage with food and enjoy preparing meals from locally obtained fresh ingredients (see earlier rants).

But in our new sustainable eco-homes in our eco-villages and our green cities served by plentiful electric and hydrogen powered public transport we need adequate space for life. Comfortable space for us to sleep – for us and guests – for cooking and eating, for entertaining and increasingly for home working. Perhaps that will mean an office with fast internet access, but equally it could be a light and airy space inspiring creativity and artisan cultural and creativity. No longer smaller and smaller room sizes and tighter stairwells all filled with flat-pack furniture as it’s the only way to get the stuff in.

Let me finish with a few thoughts for the future. The Capital cities of Europe are assessed across CO2 emissions, Energy, Buildings, Transport, Water, Waste and Land Use, Air Quality and Environmental Governance and the current top 5 are: Copenhagen, Stockholm, Oslo, Vienna and Amsterdam. I wonder what it would take for Edinburgh to take its place in the Top rankings??

Do we have the ambition as a nation to demand a return to the EU and the changes that would enable truly sustainable living to happen for us all, all across Scotland?

 

First published in iScot Magazine Issue #73 April 2021 (available from www.iscot.scot)