There is currently a great deal of policy and academic focus on housing. Yet this is mainly with respect to urban housing issues, with far less concern for problems affecting rural areas, such as fewer resource infrastructures resulting in a reliance on expensive and environmentally damaging oil-fired heating systems.
Despite this lack of attention, some of the most imaginative, experimental and affordable housing in the world is being built in rural areas, where land is more affordable and planning regulations more relaxed. Rural areas offer wonderful opportunities to design homes differently.
For my Churchill Fellowship in 2010, I wanted to see examples of this opportunity for greater creativity being used to produce innovative eco-homes. Eco-homes seek to minimise resource use and waste, and maximise use of renewable energy and renewable materials, across their whole life-cycle.
Having built a rural eco-home myself, I was keen to understand whether using ecological principles could actually reduce costs and create more affordable housing. I also wanted to explore ways of countering some of the prevailing myths about eco-homes – that they are expensive, quirky and uncomfortable – that have led to resistance to building houses differently in the UK.
My travels to rural parts of Spain, Argentina, Thailand and the USA made me realise that there were clear practical commonalities in how to build affordable eco-homes and that much of the resistance to them was due to cultural assumptions about what a house should look and feel like.
Below: A cob house in Thailand made using mud and straw
One particularly inspiring rural housing initiative I encountered was the Earthship project (Earthship Biotecture) in New Mexico (below). Built in a desert with no infrastructure (no electricity, water provision, sewerage etc.), these are homes built using what would otherwise be considered waste material – tyres, cans, bottles – to create large insulating walls. The inexpensive homes are completely autonomous: they generate their own electricity, collect their water and reuse waste water.
Below: an Earthship, near Taos, New Mexico, made using waste materials such as car tyres and old bottles
When I returned to the UK I began writing a book on my research, entitled ‘Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics‘. Yet just as it was nearing completion, the government stripped away all their commitments to building zero-carbon housing and the Green Deal that had been supporting eco-retrofitting in existing housing.
It became apparent that there was a great deal of work still to do in making the link between ecological features in housing and making homes more affordable, a link that I continue to try and communicate through magazine articles, talks, broadcast media and academic research. Now, more than ever, there is a need to push policy makers, planners and construction firms to think more creatively about how we can build affordable, efficient and suitable housing for people and planet.
by Jenny Pickerill
[Published as Pickerill, J. 2018. Affordable rural eco-homes. Winston Churchill Memorial Trust blog, , August]