Category Archives: Environmental sustainability

Social sustainability: a framework for design integration

Framework for socially sustainable design – the Young Foundation (2011)

Social sustainability has long suffered from perceptions of it being  a somewhat “fluffy” addendum to urban design and masterplanning processes. So it is heartening to see a growing recognition of the positive impact of rigorous and systematic social planning and social impact assessment processes in the development of our urban environments. After all, what are successful places without people?

In this context, I’m excited about the publication of an excellent new report by the UK-based Young Foundation.

Design for Social Sustainability proposes a “framework for creating thriving new communities.” The esteemed Sir Peter Hall introduces the paper with references to the social cohesion questions that arose out of the recent London riots. He in part attributes this to the problematic aspects of environmentally-expressed social divides – an issue which is increasingly prescient in Sydney’s urban landscape. Social planning does not purport to solve such issues. But effective planning requires us to be fully conscious of them, if we are to enable the creation of communities that will endure – and indeed thrive – for generations to come.

The framework proposed through the Foundation’s report (pictured) offers some excellent food for thought for planners, social planners, urban designers, architects, approvals bodies and all those in professions whose work will directly impact on the liveability of our urban environments. This paper is well worth a close read.

 

Earthships are coming to Oz

Earthship HQ in Taos, New Mexico – the concept is readily adaptable to the Australian climate

 

Earthships are really quite something.

The concept grew from the desert of New Mexico, where then-architect (now “biotect”) Michael Reynolds began experimenting with “radically sustainable” architecture. It’s radical in that it is entirely self-sustaining, including grey and black water reuse, which nourishes plant life of sufficient quantity to feed the household.

Without going to deeply into the technology behind it, these beautiful buildings – which are created largely from recycled materials, including tyres and bottles, and powered by the sun and wind – are now well established.

Earthship Biotecture has taken the concept to disaster zones, including through the Earthship Haiti project, where local populations learn to build the Earthships and are given blueprints for adopting techniques locally.

A Global Model Earthship has been developed: concept plans are readily available online and adaptable for almost any climate. And there are wonderful concept plans of a large-scale Earthship community – a self-sustaining mini-city.

These are now being built worldwide, including in China (a multi-storey model), Brighton in England, and there’s even a tower model ready to roll in New York City. They are notably passing local building codes in every country.

Earthship interior greenhouse design

Michael Reynolds has recently been on a speaking tour of Australia and he’s bringing the concept to fertile ground. The Sydney event, hosted by Milkwood Permaculture, was a sell-out. The potential for these to be built in Australia’s remote, climatically-challenged communities is wonderfully apparent.

Reynolds’ inspirational message is far more than environmental sustainability – although it is exceptionally, impressively, that.

These buildings are intended to be affordable for everyone. Homes can be built from $10K upwards. And for those who cannot afford the land on which to build, there is the EVE initiative – a self-sustaining community where people can lease earthships for $100 per week.

Reynolds’ message, the earthship message, is environmental, social, political.

What would it mean, he asks, for people to be able to live in entirely self-sustaining houses, which do not rely on connections to the infrastructure grid, and can be affordable enough that people don’t require a lifelong mortgage?

Earthships effectively enable people to become largely independent of prevailing political and economic conditions.

These creations have been fine tuned for the last 40 years, and it certainly feels as though their time has come.

McMansion mash-up

An inspiring story which has come about through Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants program… it goes something like this:

Step one: Take one McMansion

Step two: Deconstruct it

Step three: Reuse the building materials to build a bunch of smaller, eco-friendly homes on the site.

This wonderful Reincarnated McMansion concept by architect and artist Mathieu Gallois is shortlisted to win the $50K prize in Taronga Zoo’s Green Grants initiative. It was one of 209 entries in the scheme, which focused on “reducing pollution and waste, guiding consumerism to socially and environmentally responsible products, providing local habitat for important Australian species and developing monitoring mechanisms for environmental action and progress.”

For those unfamiliar with the term, “McMansion” has become common parlance for those oversized Aussie homes (now the largest in the world, on average, in square metre terms)the ones built to a single, primary specification: cram as much floorspace onto the site as is humanly possible. Needless to say many of these ginormous edifices are obscenely under-occupied.

I use the term obscene because Sydney – among other Australian cities – is currently facing a chronic housing shortage and associated affordability crisis. The proliferation of McMansions is a symptom of poorly managed urban growth. This has a range of detrimental social impacts, not least among them the ever increasing journey-to-work times faced by those who are forced to the urban fringe in a bid to find affordable housing.

But the question of the social and economic drivers for this trend, and its associated impacts, is best left for another time.

The key question for Mr Gallois is the environmental effects of McMansions. The Reincarnated McMansion concept is a brilliant way to raise awareness of the ecological footprint of these elephant-homes, and to create something positive in the process.

All Mr Gallois needs now is someone to donate a suitable home and the funds to finance the rebuild of a low carbon, medium density scheme on the site. Any volunteers with a spare supersized home should contact Mr Gallois at reincarnatedmcmansion@gmail.com.

Infrastructure for urban animals

Ohlin Studio’s crossing system for a six-lane highway

Our sprawling cities continue to creep into land which was once home to abundant flora and fauna.

One unfortunate impact of this development is the animal fatalities resulting from road networks cutting a swathe through native habitats.

The ARC International Wildlife Crossing Infrastructure Design Competition sought creative solutions to this problem from engineers, ecologists and landscape architects from around the world. They were asked to come up with highway overpass designs for our furry friends. The brief stated:

ARC seeks innovation in feasible, buildable, context-sensitive and compelling design solutions for safe, efficient, cost-effective, and ecologically responsive highway crossings for wildlife. In the broadest context, ARC will challenge competitors to reweave landscapes for wildlife using new methods, new materials, and new thinking. In doing so, the ARC competition aims to raise international awareness of a need to better reconcile human and wildlife mobility through a more creative, flexible and innovative system of road and habitat networks in our landscapes.

The recently announced five shortlisted designs, including Ohlin Studio’s scheme (pictured), are fantastically innovative. It would be great to see some of these stylish, verdant animal bridges built across our Aussie roads.

Environmental standards waived in UK housing drive

The UK government’s regeneration agency, the Homes and Communities Agency, allowed developers to avoid compliance with new environmental standards in a bid to increase housebuilding activity.

The news, revealed by Inside Housing magazine, shows that major developers were permitted to ignore the UK’s Code for Sustainable Homes for up to 86% of the 500-plus homes they developed under the former Labor Government’s regeneration push. This is despite grant funding to developers being officially dependent on compliance with Code level three.

Whilst the HCA has defended the exemptions as being justified for ‘specific reasons,’ the news is disappointing.

In difficult economic times (and the severe ongoing impact of the GFC on the UK housebuilding industry is fully acknowledged) short termism often becomes the order of the day. New sustainable development standards have unsurprisingly been a casualty.

But what is particularly disappointing is the fact that government failed to defend the very standards it claims to uphold. The costs of constructing to lesser standards will have be borne in the future, through increased maintenance and running costs. Not a good outcome for the social housing sector and those who depend on it.