Ecobuild 2014

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My hours have been significantly reduced since the Christmas peak and I’m pretty much down to weekends and the occasional weekday. Good news is that I got to take a trip down to London for Ecobuild 2014, also taking a look at an exhibition at The Architecture Foundation on the way back.

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Ecobuild is a three-day event that brings together those interested in sustainable building practices. There were lots of interesting stands and features of varying sizes. Some promoting generic environmental and sustainable organisations looking to build networks and launch campaigns with other like minded people in the field, others were there to sell their stuff; solar panels, green roofs, living walls, eco-concrete, rainwater harvesting systems, electric cars, you name it.

 

One of the seminar arenas marked out by wooden pallets; a popular building material for upcoming up cycling DIY-ers

One of the seminar arenas marked out by wooden pallets; a popular building material for upcoming up cycling DIY-ers

Then there are the seminars, and talks with appearances from celebrities, MPs, and ‘starchitect’ leaders in the industry. Exploring and debating issues such as fracking through to the Green Deal initiative. One talk I didn’t manage to get to (I’m hoping to find a recording released soon) explored what we need to do to build resilience for future water management. Floods AND droughts. A very current issue given the record breaking floods we’ve seen this winter.

A selection of some of the many stands

A selection of some of the many stands

It is absolutely massive, so much so it took up both halves of the ExCel arena and would have been impossible to fully engage with everything there in one day without a bike! I joined for the second day and the morning of the third.

Main themes

Whilst there could have been many other focus areas for my trip (green energy, Building Information Modeling (BIM), refurbishment and retrofitting etc.) My primary interest was the biodiversity pavilion, and that’s where I made a beeline for. However, there were a few interesting talks on adapting towards a ‘circular’ building economy that caught my eye and I ended up also spending a bit of time there too. I went to two separate talks for each area and will post about them more later.

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Designing for Nature

Man-made environments don’t usually bring good news for wildlife and biodiversity, yet when we incorporate nature into our buildings there can be multiple benefits for both man and beast (and plant!) alike. Did you know, for example, that some bees do better in cities than the open countryside? Neither did I. There were plenty of nature-friendly green roofs, living walls and nature bolt-ons one could add to their ecobuild such as integrated brick birdhouses (pictured) and these basically took up the majority of the south arena.

I really think our future cities will literally be a lot more green if they truly are to be sustainable. There is a massive potential to make the most of our ecosystem services and in combination with the longer term economic benefits their value is still unrealised, in my opinion. Imagine a housing estate that INCREASES the biodiversity!

Circular Economy

There is a transition occurring, amongst industry, from a linear way of thinking (extract → produce → use → throw away) towards a more circular approach, diverting ‘waste’ from landfill and championing “reduce, reuse, recycle” attitudes, and pretty much any verb that starts with ‘re-‘; recycle, remodel, recover, rethink…

Sustainability proponents of course have long been campaigning for this, and it is interesting when we take those considerations to the scale of entire buildings. How can we make our buildings more ‘circular’? Should we build for longevity, so the time until end-of-life is prolonged for as long as possible; or easy deconstruction, so materials can be easily recovered after a building’s change of use?

“Building for the end, from the beginning”

In the corner of the South Hall was RESOURCE. An entire sub-section dedicated to the circular economy. This area was much bigger than before, if not completely new, indicating  the scale of how important this really could be. The theatre held talks about how we can incorporate the circular economy into the designing of our products and really how far this thinking has got.

Programme schedule for day 2 at the resource theatre

Programme schedule for day 2 at the Resource Theatre

Sir Ian Cheshire, the Chief Executive of Kingfisher gave really good insight into industries such as retail and commerce. Kingfisher owns home DIY store organisations such as B&Q and Screwfix and are one of the leaders in bringing sustainability to retail – B&Q are now able to trace 100% of its wood to source and are developing the market for renting tools and equipment to people (rather than the customer wasting products that are only used for a relatively short time).

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Another one of the main exhibitors, I’m not sure if they were a sponsor, was Interface; now these guys were really exciting to talk to as they are the leaders in sustainably designed carpets. They were one of the first companies to take up cradle-to-cradle manufacturing and have used biomimicry (my favourite thing) to eliminate the toxic dyes and glues in their products producing high quality, fully recyclable, environmentally safe solutions for hundreds of customers worldwide. Take a look at their Net Effect range, inspired by the ocean, and see how they’re getting fishing nets out of the ocean and into a usable resource cycle. The Ray C. Anderson Foundation, re-launched after the death of Interface’s chairman in 2011, is a not-for-profit organization whose mission is to create a brighter, sustainable world through the funding of innovative projects that promote and advance the concepts of sustainable production and consumption.

A great place to be!

Ecobuild 2014 was a fantastic place to be. If there were any negatives I would say that amongst the smaller stands I felt slightly overwhelmed at the choice there was on offer. It really was too big at times. Clustering similar fields together was a good idea but you could walk past dozens of solar panel fitters or green roof ‘solutions’ then find yourself asking “what really is the difference between all these companies?” “Why should I bother with any of them?”. There was quite a trade-fair feel to it but my overall experience was one of encouragement and optimism. The positives were knowing there are thousands of others who share our passion for a more sustainable world and that real, proactive solutions are out there for people to get stuck into, I used my two days as a giant careers fair – finding out what is going on in the industry and whats out there. Its a great place to be; for graduates, for designers, for builders, for thinkers, for consultants, for students, for change makers. Did I mention its free?! See you there next year.

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Key Concept | Peak Oil | Solutions

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

Image: Richard Heinberg, Peak Everything: Waking up to the Century of Decline in Earth’s Resources

So is there a solution to peak oil? Not exactly. The actions and strategies we will have to take emphasise a reduction of oil consumption so the impacts of peak oil are not so catastrophic, rather than “solving” peak oil itself. We can mitigate peak oil’s impacts, but we can’t stop peak oil itself.

It is important to emphasise here that there is no “techno-fix” solution. Technology cannot “solve” the problem of oil depletion, and as we’ve seen technology can in fact worsen the problem by accelerating resource exhaustion. The opening of unconventional oil reserves does not reduce oil consumption and has huge problems of its own, and because of the geological timescales needed to renew oil reserves it can only be treated as a finite resource. So what can we do?

The end of globalisation?

Global transport, both of goods and people, relies on inexpensive, energy-dense fuels like oil. 96 per cent of world trade transport and 70 per cent of all global freight is via shipping, which itself is heavily dependent on oil. Professor Fred Curtis predicts that peak oil will contribute to a phenomenon he calls “peak globalization”, after which “the volume of exports will decline as measured by ton-miles of freight” due to oil depletion and the rising cost of oil-based fuels. This will reduce the length of global supply chains and thus cause the production of goods to be located closer to where they are consumed. As environmental scientist Peter Newman said,

“Localism is the required modus operandi for the post oil-peak world, just as globalism was for the cheap-oil era.” [x]

Although there are political issues with localism (see here and here) it will more likely than not be forced upon the world due to oil depletion and energy availability declines – as Richard Heinberg said, “It is reasonable to estimate that we might see a 25 to 45 percent decline in energy available to the world’s growing population over the next quarter-century”.  A localisation (or re-localisation) of industry and agriculture will be necessary to not only adapt to peak oil but also to re-integrate human society with its wider environment. Quoting Murray Bookchin at length is relevant here:

“The recent emphasis in environmental theory on “self-sufficiency,” if it does not mean a greater degree of prudence in dealing with material resources, is regressive. Localism should never be interpreted to mean parochialism; nor should decentralism ever be interpreted to mean that smallness is a virtue in itself. Small is not necessarily beautiful. The concept of human scale, by far the more preferable expression for a truly ecological policy, is meant to make it possible for people to completely grasp their political environment, not to parochially bury themselves in it to the exclusion of cultural stimuli from outside their community’s boundaries.” [x]

Regarding food production, an increase in farms using organic agriculture1 would aid in peak oil adaptation with a reduction of energy costs when accounting for the energy requirements in the manufacture and transport of agricultural inputs such as fertilisers and biocides2. Localised organic agriculture would also boost local employment (UK models can be found here and here), improve economic independence and improve sustainability and producer-consumer relations.

An end to growth?

As mentioned in the previous article, peak oil has dire implications for the economic growth imperative via global capitalism. With volatile oil prices leading to an economic growth paradox, the place of economic growth as a basic element of modern society has to be called into question.

The shift from high-EROI non-renewable energy sources to low-EROI renewable energy sources will thus require a new economic model. The geophysicist M. King Hubbert, arguably the father of peak oil theory, assaulted what he called “the culture of money”, and advocated a steady state economy. He recommended an end to economic growth and a future society powered entirely by solar power. “We have an enormous amount of existing technical knowledge,” he said. “It’s just a matter of putting it all together.” The idea of a steady state economy is also advocated by ecological economist Herman Daly and organisations such as the UK Sustainable Development Commission and the Post Carbon Institute.

A more overtly anti-capitalist strategy is the concept of degrowth. According to Iris Borowy,

“The concept of degrowth emerged in the 1970s when scholars like Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen and Herman Daly challenged the conventional economic concept that unlimited economic growth was possible on a finite planet.” [x]

As an umbrella concept, Borowy says, it “entails a voluntary downscaling of the economy, notably its material production, consumption and waste, a voluntary, socially equitable and globally just simplicity which defines human well-being in terms of non-material meaning to life.” Degrowth is detailed by Richard Heinberg in his book Powerdown, and a (non-voluntary) example of degrowth in action is Cuba’s Special Period3.

Renewable shift

A massive shift to renewable energy is thus in order, though this will bring problems of its own. Some authors believe renewable energies will only cushion an inevitable decline in energy use per capita.

It is useful, however, to analyse the graph featured at the top of the article. As Vaclav Smil said,

“Higher energy use does not guarantee anything except greater environmental burdens. [It] does not bring greater cultural flowering…social stability…[or] any meaningful increase in civilisation’s diversity.” [x]

That said, there are alternative ideas in place. Concepts such as Solar Communism have been proposed, and a recent report by the Institute for Policy Research & Development found that humanity “can replace the entire existing energy infrastructure with renewables in 25 years or less…by using merely 1% of the present fossil fuel capacity and a reinvestment of 10% of the renewable capacity per year.”

Alongside are constant improvements and advances in solar power, nuclear fusionThermoelectronics, and even Space-based solar power. Further improvements in efficiency are also a must for a post-oil transition (although Jevons Paradox must still be contended with).

The future

The scope of the problem is enormous and cannot be overstated. It will be extremely difficult; such changes are hardly in line with the dominant industrial-consumerist paradigm. But even though we may not like the idea of a global energy crunch, it would be utterly imprudent not to take the spectre of peak oil very seriously. As geologist Kenneth Deffeyes said, fossil fuels such as oil were a one-time gift we used to lift ourselves from simple agriculture and propel ourselves into a renewable future. Oil must be conserved not for energy production but for petrochemical manufacture; likewise natural gas must be conserved for use in nitrogenous fertiliser production (securing supply for hundreds of years).

A post-petroleum society is an absolute necessity and utterly unavoidable. What matters is how soon the transition is; actions now will have far-reaching consequences as to the future state of civilisation on a global level.

“No social order can accomplish transformations for which it is not already internally prepared.” – Karl Marx

Organic agriculture is a system of food production that attempts to replace conventional inputs (synthetic pesticides; fertilisers) with more environmentally benign alternatives (e.g. manure; natural pest control; crop rotation) to create a more sustainable system, working with rather than against the agroecosystem. For further information and examples see Reganold et al., 2001Gomiero et al., 2011, and Altieri, 1995

2 For example, a Danish government study found that upon a 100% conversion of agriculture from conventional to organic in Denmark, total energy use declined by 9-51% depending largely on the prevalence of meat production in the new system. The report by Dalgaard et al. (2000) can be found here

Cuba’s Special Period in Time of Peace was a wartime economy-style austerity program following the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance (Comecon) in 1989/90. As the socialist bloc represented 80-85% of Cuban trade, Cuba suffered huge losses in imports, including fuel, food, biocides, and oil. It survived via a revival of agro-ecological agricultural techniques, localisation of food production, and emergency rationing, whilst safeguarding achievements in education and healthcare and ensuring equitable food distribution. For more detailed and nuanced information see Wright, 2005Funes et al., 2002, and Gonzalez, 2003