Hands on design: sustainable LEGO homes

I was recently back in Chicago for the holidays and while searching for something warm to do downtown with my family, I took them to see the city model and exhibition at the Chicago Architecture Foundation. Before we could make our way from that to the Chicago Biennial, we stumbled into one of CAF’s LEGO Build Workshops and before you know it, three+ hours had past and we were all creating architectural masterpieces.

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My sister built a bright, airy modern school building. Her partner built a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired party house. My partner built the tallest skyscraper he could (earning envious stares from nearby children). What did I build? Ultra-realist me built three UK-style terraced houses.

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But wait, there’s more! They were not just any terraced houses, they were sustainable terraced houses! Perhaps I’d spent too many hours focused on my work project the week before, but I decided to bring back a little bit of London to Chicago.

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Features you’ll find in these sustainable terraced houses:

  • Simple building form, resulting in improved fabric energy efficiency
  • Front and back gardens, providing ample private outdoor space

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  • Shallow plot with dual or triple aspects, meaning lots of daylight
  • Space for waste, recyclables and food waste/compost bins

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  • Rain barrels/water butts collecting water for use in the back gardens for the middle and one of the end terraces

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  • A greywater recycling system on the other end terrace
  • Shared roof terrace with biodiverse roof elements (ok…there were no landscaping legos, so pretend there are plants & log piles and substrates for holding water and whatnot)

Obviously I don’t win any points for originality, but for my structured mind, it was a nice creative outlet and who doesn’t like to play with Legos?

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The end of Zero Carbon Homes means more than the loss of sustainable housing

This post originally appeared in KLH Sustainability’s blog.

Over the last decade the UK, local governments and private sector industries connected to development have been working toward common definitions, workable requirements, innovative products and new processes to make “Zero Carbon Homes by 2016” a reality. This month, those efforts were tossed aside under the guise of easing regulatory burdens to speed up the construction of new homes.

George Osborn’s Productivity Plan, Fixing the foundations: Creating a more prosperous nation, promotes the decarbonisation of the UK’s energy sector, yet states:

“The government does not intend to proceed with the zero carbon Allowable Solutions carbon offsetting scheme, or the proposed 2016 increase in on-site energy efficiency standards, but will keep energy efficiency standards under review, recognising that existing measures to increase energy efficiency of new buildings should be allowed time to become established” (p. 46).

This disappointing decision has very real long and short-term consequences.

  • Money down the drain. Responsible builders have been preparing for the 2016 target for years, so backing down from it means a waste of not only effort on their part, but also money. As stated in an open letter response from more than 200 businesses, this type of abrupt change undermines “industry confidence in Government and will now curtail investment in British innovation and manufacturing.” Having no or unclear benchmarks means uncertainty, which means even more cost.
  • Squashing innovation. All of this uncertainty means confusion about what standards industry research should be working toward, which means fewer businesses are capable of investing in innovation. No standards also means no incentive to improve and no reward for delivering what used to be labelled as an achievement.
  • Pervasive fuel poverty. House building is not just about the quantity, but also about quality. Standards like Zero Carbon are more than just feel-good sustainability add-ons. Energy inefficient housing may be cheaper for builders, but it ultimately pushes the cost to occupants who will have to pay more for power and heating. In the UK, 19.2% of the population lives in fuel poverty, the worst among 12 EU peer countries, and more than 31,000 deaths in the winter of 2012-13 have been at least partially attributed to fuel poverty and poor insulation. This was the stroke of genius in the previous ‘allowable solutions’ – it offered an opportunity for the UK to improve its existing stock as well as investing in new.
  • Favouring unsustainable housing. Lower standards for energy performance mean lower standards for homes overall. People do not want to spend more of their income on ever-increasing fuel costs, and savvy consumers have come to expect improvement in building technology over time, particularly in sustainability and health.
  • Threatening the UK’s ability to meet Climate Change Act obligations. Under the Climate Change Act 2008, the UK has a statutory target to reduce emissions by at least 80% from 1990 levels. Just last month, the Committee on Climate Change released a report on the UK’s progress and recommended actions, stating that to ensure that the UK continues to meet the long-term targets and complies with the requirement to show all new buildings are nearly zero-energy after 2020, the “zero carbon home standard must be implemented without further weakening.”
  • Increasing carbon emissions from buildings. Let’s not forget the point of the Zero Carbon Homes standard: to reduce carbon emissions from buildings and their contribution to the UK’s emissions. A Parliamentary environmental audit found that without significant measures, the contribution of the housing sector to the UK’s 2050 carbon emissions target could rise from 30% to 55%.

All of this erodes the UK’s position as a leader on regulation for, and products to meet, energy and carbon targets. The Zero Carbon Home standard was far from perfect, but it was a defined, common goal for the industry to work towards. It was also a vehicle to showcase the UK’s leadership and innovation potential.

Not all is lost. The progress achieved so far and the learning that has been integrated into standard practice means that the momentum toward energy sustainability will not stop dead. Many of our clients are continuing to maintain strong standards, even in the face of the uncertainty, because they know as well as we do that sustainability is more than just standards, it’s part of the long game.