Dufaylite Building Eco Friendly Homes
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Future Of Eco Friendly Construction Building

We wrote last year on the importance of the construction industry spearheading a move to more sustainable building practices – but it’s an aspiration that can learn a lot from traditional building methods. After all, certain buildings have stood for hundreds of years because something worked. So what are the key considerations and how can we learn from the past while also imagining a radically different future.

Sustainable materials & longevity

A significant element of a shift to eco-friendly construction is the consideration of materials in the construction process – many modern materials have very desirable properties but come at the cost of health or environments. 

The use of asbestos in a huge amount of building materials was predicated on it being extremely cheap and extremely fire & chemical resistant – promising affordable, safe ways to achieve the tower buildings we take for granted today. Yet, as we’re all aware, the cost savings have had some serious consequences for health.

The task, then, is to find materials that perform the functions we need without compromising people’s health or our environments.

Many of the functions we need can be – and have been – performed by organic materials: wood-framed buildings have survived for up to thousands of years in places, thatch roofs have kept the elements out for thousands of years, and earthen floors have provide solid ground-floor walking spaces for thousands of years.

The ideal image of eco building is often depicted as using these natural, renewable resources in ways that don’t leave marks on their environments – but it’s worth considering the necessity for maintenance, the possibility of degradation, and how the structure goes about ‘not leaving a mark’.

That is, if everything in the building is biodegradable, but you need to rebuild every few decades, then you’re expending a tremendous amount of energy and resources just to maintain the building. Thatch roofs, for example, work extremely well but need partial renewal at least every 8 years. Ancient Roman structures made out of concrete, on the other hand, still survive!

Yet, the Roman structures that survive were specifically monumental buildings (or a few houses of the very wealthy) not intended to house a population anywhere near as large as we’re expected to surpass in the next decade.

Using non-organic materials isn’t necessarily a problem, the problem is using them gratuitously. Concrete has its drawbacks from an environmental perspective, but using it where it works best – namely, for great void-formed foundations – means we can make the most of a relatively finite resource to do the thing that it does best, and use the renewable resources for the things that they do best.

In short, you don’t need to build undetectable buildings to build in harmony with surroundings.

Building in Harmony - you don’t have to live tiny to coexist

You could argue that any building is intrinsically against the environments it’s being built on and within. After all, to build a building is, at least conventionally, to remove space for flora and fauna. This view, therefore, is the popular view that sees humans as inherent invaders, as living always opposed to nature – more insidiously, it’s the view that positions humans as a virus, destroying everything it touches.

But how different are our efforts to those of, say, termites or ants building hugely elaborate nests, of ivy blanketing land and constricting the vegetation, or of sycamores and other virulent self-seeders beating out competition and creating monocultures. We’re talking broadly here, the ivy shades some insect life and has some symbioses – but, other than scale, is it markedly different to the fact that conventional human homes offer perfect protection for spiders, for mice, or a whole host of small life at the cost of others?

If land is left to its own devices, outside of human interference, it’s unlikely to grow into a picturesque, natural paradise – it’s more likely to be overrun by other invasive species.

So we need to get away from the idea that humans exist outside of a perfect, idyllic nature. If humans are an invasive species, we are most certainly not the only one – the difference is that we have the ability to choose how we interact with our environments.

We have the ability to choose how our efforts impact surroundings, and to choose how to best coexist.

That choice, we believe, is one that needs to be continually made through innovative design, architecture, and material development. However, it’s one that is already perfectly available. An office block in Zimbabwe, for example, was constructed with inspiration from termite mounds to have a self-regulating temperature. Other buildings are beginning to make leaps and bounds with earth-integrated areas for heat retention in colder climates, or with optimising roof space for things such as solar panels or urban garden space.

The key is to make places for humans to live and work happily, comfortably, and safely, but also make spaces for natural life to coexist with us. Now, this doesn’t mean that we have to move to living in tiny-house shipping containers, it means that we need to better optimise how our houses and offices are situated, and what we do with deadspaces like roofs and walls – assuming we still build up.

So what’s holding construction back?

In cases of both home and office building, the thing holding a real eco revolution back is cost. Office buildings that utilise green methods are on average 6.2% more expensive than comparably-sized, conventional buildings. At the scale of megaprojects and modern office blocks, this percentage quickly turns a project from bright future to unfeasible.

In the case of new homes, this cost difference is markedly higher. While practically every office block will by necessity be designed by an architect, only around 2% of new homes are. This is because developers usually work from pre-approved forms that they know will get approval from local planning authorities, and if they know that they’ll get approval for the current forms, there’s no real incentive to work with architects in order to design new ones.

The solution to this, unfortunately, isn’t a simple one. 

It’s one that needs a great deal of good-faith discussion between designers, architects, and the people actually building the buildings. Hopefully, it’s one that moves faster than baby steps – as the current environmental crisis is far past its own baby steps. But we can hope that the more that architects create forms of houses that get widespread planning approval, and the more that after-market solutions (such as live walls, solar panels, and other green innovations) become possible & affordable, the more we’ll see a snowball to a greener future.

What can we do about it?

Wherever possible, we need to be pushing for greener practices – and not necessarily green-offset practices (planting trees is great, but it’s only a plaster on the wound) but truly sustainable materials and practices from the beginning.

The best thing to do is to join the discussion – feel free to get in touch or join conversations over on our social pages.

25 November 2021