Review of book ‘Eco-Homes’ by Mari Martiskainen

Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics, J. Pickerill. Zed Books, London (2016). ISBN 978-1-78032-530-9

I have been researching the development of low energy homes in the UK for the past two years1 and during my research journey came across a recent book: Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics, written by Jenny Pickerill, a Professor in Environmental Geography at the University of Sheffield. Buildings in Europe alone are responsible for 40% of total energy use and over 30% of greenhouse gas emissions,3 meaning an urgent need to address the sustainability of homes. Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics is arranged around ten themes related to eco-homes, each setting out to challenge many of the misconceptions linked to eco-homes. These include: eco, home, history, place, affordability, comfort, gender, mobilisation, community and future. Throughout Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics there are case studies of eco-homes from across the world. Pickerill, who has lived in eco-homes and visited all of the book’s case studies (much of her fieldwork and participatory research was funded by Winston Churchill Memorial Trust), provides personal reflections on what it is like to live in an eco-home. This makes the book deeply rooted, connecting the reader with real-life experiences, also crossing Pickerill’s research with practice.

The book starts by outlining in Chapter 1 what actually is an ‘eco-home’: “the main purpose of an eco-house is to reduce waste – in its construction, occupation and demolition” (p.17), highlighting the need to consider the whole life cycle and use of a home. Chapter 2 focuses on discussing what a ‘home’ is and how it is understood by different disciplines and approaches. Homes, let alone eco-homes, are complex, evolving entities. Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics highlights the differentiations between a home, a house and a building. While buildings are often defined by their material aspects, e.g. bricks and mortar – or in many eco-homes cases straw-bale, homes are constructed from multitude of factors such as households’ values, habits, behaviours and identity. Homes are dynamic places, shaped by their occupants, as well as their cultural, social, economic and climatic contexts.

In Chapter 3, Pickerill provides a history of eco-homes. Rather often research on eco homes has focused on post 1970s developments, many of which were spurred on by the oil crises and Alternative Technology movements. Pickerill, however, shows that eco-homes go much further and are linked to for example seventeenth century vernacular traditional buildings in Wales. Pickerill also points out that the history of eco-homes has a footing not only in environmentalist movements, but also in anarchism: eco-homes often reflect anarchist housing concepts such as sharing homes, living in communes and being outside the mainstream housing provision and practice. Knowing the history of eco-homes is key to understanding how eco-homes are perceived today, and in many cases they are still considered to be outside of the mainstream, too radical and unnecessarily challenging existing ways of building and living in homes. This is especially relevant to those who maybe considering moving into a new location, building an eco-home there and engaging with the existing local community who may not be supportive of such developments. Pickerill is a geographer and this is evident in Chapter 4 on place, which shows how place matters not only as a physical and climatic location, but also as an emotional entity.

Throughout Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics, Pickerill aims to challenge misconceptions of eco-homes and one of those is affordability (Chapter 5). Eco-homes are often considered to be much more expensive than they in fact are. Pickerill makes a good point about how the affordability of a home is usually considered in relation to purchase price, rather than running costs. Considering that a home will be in use for several decades, a whole life-cost approach would put eco-homes in a more favourable light. There is also an example later in the book of Tony Wrench who built his Welsh eco-home for a mere £3000 (p.224).

IMG_4877

Another misconception linked to eco-homes is comfort. Eco-homes are usually considered to be good for the environment in their reduced energy and water consumption, but achieving a high level of environmental performance will also require different ways of living and using a home. While eco-homes can be comfortable, achieving an ‘ideal’ level of comfort in eco-homes can require extra effort such as timing hot water use for when solar thermal heated water is available. In Chapter 6 Pickerill provides an overview of how comfort is understood within different cultures and how conceptions of comfort may change in eco-homes, especially in relation to indoor temperatures and bathing. History is important here too, as highlighted by the example of British houses lagging behind in bathroom comfort and how that has transpired into many British eco-homes not prioritising bathing areas.

In examining eco-homes, Pickerill also highlights gaps in previous research, especially in relation to gender (Chapter 7). There is a lack of recognition of gender in eco-homes and how gender is relevant in architecture and design. While architecture and building construction are still largely male-dominated fields, many architects designing and building eco-homes have been women. However, little recognition has been given to women in architecture and this also reflects on how homes are designed and constructed. Again, there is a direct link here to the history of ecohomes, to the meaning of a home, and how still today homes are gendered places in terms of household income and labour. Furthermore, it is striking that even in eco-home communities, which are seemingly progressive, gender divisions and discrimination exist.

Despite the environmental benefits of eco-homes, the number of such homes are limited. Chapter 8 centres on mobilisation, reflecting on science and technology studies (STS) and how STS approach could aid a mobilisation process, i.e. the mobility of knowledge and practice related to ecohomes. Pickerill argues that there is a need to go beyond the focus on barriers and enablers of eco-homes, and consider “where innovative eco-home ideas come from, how knowledge and practices evolve and change, how ideas move across space and place or how barriers are ‘geographically heterogeneous”’ (p.191). As highlighted throughout the book and also in Chapter 9, there is a global community of eco-homes, and perhaps this is a network that could be called upon for the mobilisation effort. Eco-communities have experience of learning together and that learning could be valuable to others too, provided that eco-communities would be willing to share it. In countries like the UK, which has little policy support in place for eco-homes and a very conservative and risk averse incumbent housebuilding sector (Chapter 10), a bright future for eco-homes will require an enormous effort from a range of stakeholders. Climate change is unlikely to stop, hence we need homes that not only have minimal waste but can also deal with climate impacts.

Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics is one of the most rich and comprehensive books published on the subject of eco-homes in recent years. It challenges existing thinking and discusses misconceptions linked to eco-homes. While Pickerill is a geographer, Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics speaks to a wide audience and different disciplines, showing that an interdisciplinary approach is needed for addressing the sustainability of homes.

If there is something missing, it would have been to include more focus on class, which is touched upon in various chapters, but could have been included as a standalone chapter. Furthermore, while Pickerill’s case studies are diverse, examples with nomadic communities would have made an interesting addition. Eco-Homes: People, Place and Politics is recommended reading for anyone interested in eco-homes, housing transitions and sustainable lifestyles. Pickerill shows how at the same time, eco-homes can be complex yet simple, affordable yet exclusive and comfortable yet requiring new ways of doing and being.

by Mari Martiskainen

Centre on Innovation and Energy Demand, Science Policy Research Unit, Room 368, Jubilee Building, University of Sussex, Brighton, BN1 9SL, UK. E-mail address: m.martiskainen@sussex.ac.uk

[Published in Energy Research & Social Science 39 (2018) 10–11]

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