The fight for ‘Eco’

  • Building Design Expert
  • 5 years ago

Imagine a world where we all live in a green, sustainable, eco-friendly, low carbon environment. Agreed, it’s a tall order. For one, those headings are confusing to many who think that if it’s green, then it must be sustainable, and if it’s low carbon, it must be green. For those people all these words are almost interchangeable. Until they stop, and look under the hood at the true meanings, and then those words attain definition.

If you refer back, a recent blog which explores the idea that absolutely nothing is in fact sustainable, because there is always a weak, or broken link in the chain that binds any idea of sustainability together. The most sustainable resource we have is our own sun. Current estimates for this predict that it will only serve us for the next 5 billion years before it burns out. So we’ve got 5 B yrs. to come up with a plan! Or have we?

I have also previously put forward the idea that ‘Green’ does not equal ‘Sustainable’. Similarly ‘Green’ does not equal ‘Low carbon’. Of course all of these words are descriptors devised and put forward by the marketing world to give people and companies different ‘angles’ – How cynical am I? But true enough we just have to look at what is being done under these different banners to expand their definitions.

There have been numerous venn diagrams produced in recent years which outline the three spheres that contribute to what we have come to understand ‘Sustainability’ to be – Economy, Society and the Environment. I have adapted the idea (below) to represent what are the headings under which we are currently operating in our strive to live in a more balanced eco-system / sphere.

This Venn diagram illustrates the idea that we should be using the ideas of Sustainability, Low Carbon and Green lifestyles to work towards the ultimate goal of a balanced ecology

In its true sense is unattainable, we can only move towards it. You might compare it to like poles of a magnet where you can edge closer and closer and at some indefinable point they will only ever maintain a distance that you cannot improve upon. In order to reach that point we have to reduce the impact of our activity, material or product. But we always find a point that tests the links in that chain, and it’s when one breaks that determines when the magnets cannot get any closer.

We have learned that there are some activities and products that can better promote a more sustainable existence, reducing the impact on our finely balanced eco-sphere, and it is all about technology:

  • Renewables – This of course is technology that takes advantage of our few natural resources that can renew themselves naturally. – The sun and water for example. Although, particularly in the case of water, the unpredictability of its rate of renewal renders it, at best unreliable.

We have come to rely on renewable technology to subsist our energy demands, all of which are 100% reliant upon the sun; either directly with PV and solar thermal panels, or indirectly as with heat pumps, wind turbines and HEP – tapping into the sun’s function as a driver of our eco-systems. The sun though, does not always shine at the right time, or intensity required.

  • Recycling – Another increasingly important technological development, allowing us to re-use our precious resources such as water, minerals and even materials. But the sustainable chain weakens, or breaks because we can only recycle by using energy. Whilst one could argue that recycling can, and is effected using ‘renewable’ energy. Current technology severely limits the scope for using it in this form, and significantly impacts recycling which is therefore constantly off-set against more traditional energy generators using fossil fuels
  • Low Maintenance – Has a foot in both the ‘sustainable’ and ‘green’ camps. If it wasn’t for products there would be no requirement for maintenance. Conceive of anything made by man and in order to keep functioning it will require to be maintained. The quest is to limit the necessity and therefore the amount of maintenance required, so that we can limit the further use of associated resources. If we can reduce use of resources we become more sustainable, and just that little bit more green.

This was one of the original buzz words released on the general public, who perhaps therefore, may be forgiven for subsequently standing it alongside ‘sustainable’ and ‘low carbon’. If you remember we were all encouraged to go ‘Green’. It meant turning off lights and not using appliances on stand-by, using non biological washing powder and driving diesel engined cars instead of petrol. Still good advice, but technology has taken us to options for hybrid and electric vehicles, and our appliances have found varying ways to use less power.

  • Insulation – Each different insulation manufacturer will stand up, look you straight in the eye and tell you their products are the most sustainable, the greenest, and have the lowest net impact. This undoubtedly is the case with all insulation products. They are man made. Yes even sheep’s wool embodies an element of man, even if it’s just the electric clippers used to relieve the animal of its coat.

Any Green building designer / specifier must assess, and try and balance resource impact against the predicted outcome of using a product whose impact may be low e.g. sheep’s wool, but by comparison to phenolic foam, the performance is also low. But we know that products derived from the petro-chemical industry, whilst they are the best performing, also have the greatest impact on one of the fastest declining natural resources, and one which we are the most reliant upon – Oil.

  • CO2 Reduction – Of course if we can reduce our reliance on energy, we will reduce the world’s CO2 emissions at a stroke. The ecological benefits are well published, so I wouldn’t proposed to expand upon them further here, save to say that of course that this is key in the overall aim to restore some kind of balance to our planet’s ecology.

Low Carbon
This is too often promoted in isolation. Sure, it is most important, but as a member of the group, a team player. But there is a growing lobby who seem to consider it enough to reduce CO2 emissions with scarcely a nod in the direction of conserving resources. I came across an article recently promoting the idea of ‘Low Carbon’ offices. They offered their fair share of renewables and complimentary low energy tech. But alongside huge areas of new high quality natural stone, brick and stainless steel.

There is no doubt it is a positive move, but the question has to be asked; if a less holistic approach, like this, is made to building design do the protocols employed reduce to that of mere off-setting rather than reducing the overall environmental impact? – Answers on a post card please.

  • Embodied Energy – Covers the energy used in processing a material or product until it reaches its final resting place. The prima-facie case should discourage the use South American beef in European sandwiches, and Baltic granite in Australian buildings in the energy used to transport alone. But not always so simple, as environmental considerations are often over-ruled by cost. So if the beef is cheaper to buy from South America, that is often what will be in our sandwiches.

Embodied energy also encompasses the fuel and emissions impact from machines used to extract, cut, shape, clean, process and package; whilst also heating or cooling the buildings in which they are housed, and the products are stored prior to, during and after shipping. EE is an absolute minefield which technology may clear over time, but until then if we are to encompass the whole – building designers, specifiers and buyers should watch their every step.

Over the years man’s obsession with development of technology has led to a most tenuous relationship and interaction with his environment. He has realised this now and some of the team are desperately trying to do something about it. To put it right. To restore some sort of balance and then to maintain it. The thinking is that we have another  38 yrs. to posture, influence, legislate, practise and implement re-ordered lifestyles across the world’s cultures in the sanguine hope that we are not already too late. This is currently the fight for ‘Eco’.

Want to know more about more sustainable construction measures? Try The Old House Eco Handbook