Category Archives: Buildings


Vauban community self build

Vauban community self build

In the UK debates have raged for decades about whether various services or industries should be privatized or nationalized. Such debate tends to pit people into opposing ideological camps. Such static and polarized positions overlook the possibility of other models of doing things. In September 2015 I wrote a blog about this in relation to the energy sector and the emerging civic or municipal sector in Germany and elsewhere. This municipal, civic, pluralistic, flexible and networked model has many advantages over either simple nationalized or privatized systems. In that earlier blog I looked at energy. Today I want to look at the UK’s housing crisis. In subsequent blogs I may look at other industries or services through this prism of organization and ownership.

It is generally acknowledged that the UK has a housing crisis. Home ownership is falling and a growing percentage of the population live in private rented accommodation, which is often overpriced and substandard. Many people would like to buy a home of their own but can’t afford to. The UK property market treats houses as assets to profit from rather than homes to which people have a right to. Many years ago I worked for the old GLC housing department. The council estates we owned and managed had many problems and I wondered then about how things might better be organized. Margret Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ legislation helped many people onto the property ladder, but at the cost of future generations, as it massively depleted the supply of affordable housing. Council housing did offer affordability, but often at the expense of disempowering people. Families were often stuck in sink estates with little or no hope of moving to somewhere better. The right to make improvements and alterations were all taken away from people and vested with the local council, which de-motivated and disempowered many people.

Self build offers tremendous scope in all manner of ways. It can get people onto the housing ladder and into the homes of their dreams. It can be tremendously empowering. In the UK both individual and group self build has traditionally been a very small part of the housing sector. It is growing, but is still tiny, especially in comparison with many other countries in Europe, the Americas and elsewhere. House building in the UK is dominated by half a dozen or so private companies who have long had too close relationships with local councils and national government. In many countries local and national governments, and importantly also banks, work very much more closely with self build groups. At an event I mentioned in my last blog Ted Stevens showed dozens of examples. Most were from Holland and Germany. A growing, but still tiny, number are from the UK. The National Custom and Self Build Association have a fascinating selection of examples on their website. One is Vauban, near Freiburg, a place I have often cited in talks for its cutting edge sustainability. Community self build is at the core of Vauban’s success. Do read about it on the Self Build Portal and imagine if something on this scale could ever happen in UK, and ask yourself what is holding us back.

Three inspirational events


Almere, pioneering community self building on land reclaimed from the sea.

Apologies, it’s now nearly a month since I last posted a blog. I usually try and write one every week or so. It’s been a busy month. One annoyance has been the General Data Protection Regulation regulations that I couldn’t fathom, which meant that I’ve cancelled the Mailchimp automated newsletter, and I’ll have to work out how to delete the sign-up form from this webpage! Sorry to those of you who enjoyed getting the blogs via the newsletter format.

Over the last week or so I’ve been to three events that each in their own way were inspiring and indicated positive trends. All could do with strong government support to really grow to their full potential.

The first event was the AGM of Ledbury Solar Coop. The coop is doing well and the directors are doing an outstanding job. This is one of the Sharenergy renewable energy coops of which I’m a member, and which I’ve frequently mentioned in previous blogs. To me they seemed to have massive potential to meet many social and environmental challenges. Unfortunately government support has been weak, confused and generally unhelpful, which has certainly slowed the spread of such coops.

The next event was Riversimple’s launch of the Rasa in Abergavenny. It is looking increasingly likely that our car club will be part of their trials for this hydrogen fuel cell car. The Riversimple car and our car club are things I’ve blogged about before. Together they indicate a way of moving beyond the era of individual ownership of wasteful and highly polluting petrol and diesel cars. We could free up a lot of urban space, cut traffic congestion and pollution by moving toward more flexible patterns of mobility.

The third event I’d like to flag up was the launch of Hereford Community Land Trust’s Building Momentum project. They had two outside speakers who I thought were excellent and showed how the UK’s housing crisis might best be addressed. Keith Cowling spoke about the achievements of Bristol Community Land Trust while Ted Stevens gave an inspiring talk setting UK community self build in context with the extraordinary projects being built in many other countries. (eg Berlin)

Together these three events show how energy, transport and housing outcomes could all be improved.


Australian Solar (Again)


Baldivis: of 5,765 houses 3951 now have solar panels

In 2012 I wrote a blog entitled ‘Re-powering Port Augusta’, advocating large scale concentrating solar thermal power stations be built to replace Northern and Playford B ageing dirty brown coal fired power stations, which were due to close. Since I wrote that blog a number of coal fired power stations have closed and many parts of Australia have experienced power cuts. For many decades Australia has had excellent pioneer academic solar thermal researchers but still has no large scale solar thermal power stations with thermal storage. India, South Africa and Chile have all overtaken Australia on that front. Now, rather belatedly, there is a flurry of interest in building various types of solar power and energy storage systems in Australia, and especially in the Port Augusta region. Port Augusta in South Australia is ideally located for such projects with good grid connections, a very sunny climate and a workforce with relevant skills.

Sundrop Farms, with Aalborg CSP, have built the excellent system that I blogged about a few months ago (here and here). This however was relatively small scale and just for the tomato farm, not for feeding electricity into the grid, but does provide an excellent example of what can be done.

Australia’s adoption of solar power has been very unusual. The vast majority of its solar power, about 80%, is domestic rooftop arrays. (Solar farms only account for about 8%) Rising gas and electricity prices, recent power cuts, government policies that favoured small scale arrays, large numbers of detached owner occupied houses and falling prices of solar panels and batteries are all factors contributing to the rise in rooftop solar systems in Australia. Thirteen months ago Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg stated that 15% of Australian households had photovoltaic solar panels on their roofs. Renate Egan of the Australian Photovoltaic Institute claims this figure is now 26% (higher than any other country, except perhaps a few tiny island nations). In Baldivis, a suburb of nearly 6,000 houses to the south of Perth, the figure is 69% and rapidly increasing. Within a year or two it is likely that some such places will have solar panels on 90% or more of households.

Rooftop solar looks set to increase. So far this is mainly by adding solar panels to existing buildings, which are often not ideally suited due to their orientation and many having hipped roofs. If new houses were designed and orientated to maximize solar generation very much more power could be produced at very competitive prices. The next steps will be to increase energy storage and for people to switch to electric transportation systems. As I’ve said before, Australia could become a 100% solar powered economy. It is happening piecemeal, but could be very beneficially aided by clearer government goal setting and forward planning.

Locomore & Railway Renewables

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Locomore: German Innovative Railway Start-up

Trains are inherently a better system than cars or buses for moving large numbers of people between cities. They tend to both faster and more energy efficient. Steel wheels on steel rails produce very much less friction than rubber wheels on tarmac, and being very long and narrow they need displace little air relative to the number of passengers they carry, again adding to their efficiency.

A couple of years ago I wrote a blog about municipalisation and contrasted this with the limitations of both privatized and nationalised industries. Allowing space for start-ups to try new ideas is part of this pluralistic provision. In banking, health care, energy infrastructure and much else Germany has a much more diverse provision of services. One exception is Deutsche Bahn which still runs 99% of the trains in Germany.

A couple of weeks ago a new Crowdfunded start-up company called Locomore started operating its first train which runs between Stuttgart and Berlin. They only have one train, an old 1970’s model, painted in retro orange and brown. It’s innovative in so many ways, offering very low fares, with trains using 100% renewable electricity and selling organic fair trade food and drink. Perhaps most innovative of all is a system where you can book a seat near people with similar interests, with the intention of sparking interesting conversation.

Ideally we’d like our railways to be powered by renewables. Five years ago I blogged about Deutsche Bahn’s plans to move to 100% renewable energy by 2050. Over the last five years the cost of most forms of renewable energy has come down dramatically and that timescale now looks hopelessly lacking in ambition. Locomore buys renewable electricity for its train, and is one of the first to do so. In Chile the metro system of Santiago gets 60% of its energy from renewables. Many train operators are installing on site renewables. One of my favourite buildings is Blackfriars Station in London, which has an impressive solar roof. Some train tracks are having solar canopies installed and these could in theory supply all the electricity needed to run a whole countries train network.

Tesla & Energy Innovation


Tesla’s new solar roof tiles.

Elon Musk and his Tesla company are making multi-billion dollar investments in a number of mutually reinforcing technologies, which taken together point to a very different energy future. His $5bn gigafactory is being built near the appropriately named settlement of Sparks, Nevada. When completed in 2020 it will be the biggest building in the world and will be churning out electric cars and batteries on a prodigious scale. It will be powered entirely by its own on-site solar, wind and geothermal energy, with no doubt plenty of battery storage!

Tesla has just unveiled solar photovoltaic roofing tiles that look great and are cheaper and more durable than building a traditional roof and then retro fitting ordinary solar panels. I see this as the future for solar roofs on new houses, and on many retrofits. Simultaneously Tesla is in the process of buying SolarCity for $2.6 bn, which will give them a huge entrance into the solar roof market. Tesla has also recently unveiled the new Powerwall 2, a higher capacity, more energy dense battery for domestic households. Many Californian households will be able to generate all their household and motoring energy from their own roofs, and store it to match domestic supply and demand. They might also use the battery to buy cheap grid electricity at times of oversupply on the grid and sell it back at times of peak demand, so making money in the process, and helping the grid level out fluctuating supply and demand.

A few weeks ago Tesla signed a contract with Southern California Edison to supply 80MWh of their Powerpack grid scale energy storage batteries. These grid scale batteries and the domestic batteries, combined with various other storage technologies, are changing the nature of the electricity industry. Couple this with falling demand as a result of ever increasing energy efficiency, and the results are profound. Baseload becomes an obsolete concept. Pacific Gas & Electric have just announced that they plan to shut down the huge 2.2 GW Diablo Canyon Nuclear Power Plant in 2025, many years earlier than planned, simply because it is too costly and inflexible to operate. It is old technology. Diablo Canyon is the last nuclear power plant in California. Coal has pretty much ended as a part of the Californian energy mix but its place has largely been taken by gas, but that too will diminish as efficiency plus renewables plus storage become ever more important. It is a moot point which should be phased out first, gas with its carbon emissions or nuclear with its risks (and Diablo is very close to geological fault!). Either way, California is heading toward a 100% renewable energy future. It will be fascinating to see how Tesla develops over the next decade and what contribution it makes to that 100% renewables goal.

Better Buildings

Oakmeadow Primary

Oakmeadow Primary School. First Passive House School in UK

Every time a new building is designed and built it should be an opportunity to improve energy efficiency. Standards are gradually improving, in some places quite dramatically. In Ireland, about a month ago, Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown was the first place in the English speaking world to make Passive House standard mandatory on all new housing. Dublin has just voted to do the same. Meanwhile in UK we had the lower, but still very good Zero Carbon Homes legislation that Labour introduced, stupidly this government scrapped last year, and now the House of Lords are trying to re-instate.

One argument one often hears against these higher standards is that they increase the cost of building. However this does not have to be the case, with intelligent design and construction. Oakmeadow Primary School in Wolverhampton was built in 2011, the first Passive House standard school in Britain. It was built within the normal school budget, so no additional cost for building, yet it resulted in a reduced annual energy bill, from £85,000 to £12,000. What’s not to like?

Some cities, such as San Francisco, are now making fitting solar panels to all new buildings mandatory. Again by doing this at scale and integrating them into the buildings during construction rather than retrospectively fitting them onto existing roofs costs should be kept down.

Making houses in factories and assembling them on-site allows for greater accuracy and air-tightness and should also reduce costs. I’ve blogged before about ArchiHaus’ plans in UK and this week Jeremy Williams has blogged about Acre homes who are doing something similar in America. All great stuff, and clearly the future of construction, despite the chaos and confusion of current British government policy!

I’ve met a number of individuals recently who live in homes that not only have no energy bills, but receive an income from energy. Some even recharge electric cars as well as provide their own heating, lighting and other energy requirements and an income from selling surplus electricity. This could be a goal for the vast majority of new buildings.

Air Conditioning & Refrigeration

air conditioning in China

air conditioning units in China

Cooling is one of the fastest growing uses of energy. Domestic refrigerators and air conditioning systems are selling very quickly as incomes rise in China, India and other parts of the world. Heavy industry, data centres and food storage, processing, distribution and retailing all use a growing amount of energy intensive cooling. Many of the chemicals used as refrigerant coolants are themselves powerful greenhouse gases. All this represents a very serious problem from a climate change point of view. What could be done?

Well designed and insulated buildings can reduce demand for cooling just as they can for heating. Passive house style housing is beginning to take off in countries like Germany and Austria where the main requirement is for heating. High thermal mass, good insulation, breeze capturing windows and towers and well situated shading have all been used in the past to provide comfortable buildings in hot climates and could all be developed and incorporated into more modern urban contexts. Where this kind of design is applied the need for air conditioning will be very much less.

Solid Solar are a pioneering Austrian company designing and installing large scale solar thermal heating and cooling systems. A few weeks ago they installed a 5,000 square metre solar thermal roof to provide air conditioning at the Desert Mountain High School in Arizona. Where air conditioning is necessary this seems to me to be the best way to do it.

In many tropical countries huge amounts of food are wasted due to lack of cold storage and transport, and so naturally more refrigerated trucks are being used in, for example, India. Refrigerated trucks are doubly polluting, using diesel both for movement and cooling. Again, what could be done?

Peter Dearman is the British inventor of the Dearman engine, which uses liquid nitrogen as a fuel for power and cooling. The Croydon based company is expanding with a particular focus on refrigerated trucks especially in rapidly expanding markets such as India. The basic technology could have many other uses where both power and coolness are required at the same location, for example in data centres or supermarkets. This is very exciting and might well be my technology of the year!





Deutsche Bank twin towers

Deutsche Bank twin towers

I’ve been in Frankfurt, looking at the Energiewende, the German term for the transition from an energy wasteful fossil fuel economy to one based on the efficient use of renewables as the basis for the entire economy. There really are some impressive things going on here.


Frankfurt has more Passiv Haus and other green accredited (LEED, DGNB, BREEAM equivalent) buildings than any other city in the World. Much of the current buzz in the city is about energy positive buildings, ones that actually generate more energy than they consume. The possibilities with new buildings are tremendous and the additional construction costs usually can be paid back very quickly in terms of reduced energy bills, or income from surplus energy. However, of course, retrofitting existing buildings is more problematic, but still it is staggering just what is being done here.


The twin towers of the Deutsche Bank were built in the 1980’s, 155 metres high, with 38 floors in one, 40 in the other. From 2007 to 2010 they underwent a very comprehensive eco-retrofit. The achievements are worth listing: during the reconstruction over 98% of the building material was recycled, the building now uses 67% less energy for heating and cooling, 55% less electricity, 74% less water, and 89% reduction in carbon emissions have been achieved. This was the first retro-fit to be awarded LEED Platinum accreditation. Many other buildings across the city are now being retrofitted, which collectively and over time will substantially improve the energy efficiency and sustainability of the whole built environment.


But it’s not just the buildings that are impressive. Public transport here is excellent as are conditions for walking and cycling. Note the cycle taxi in the photo above. In the Deutsche Bank reconstruction the car parking provision was reduced and that for cycling expanded.


The city of Frankfurt, and the whole Frankfurt-Rhein-Main region, are planning an energy future that is based on 100% renewable energy for electricity, heating, cooling and then also increasingly for transport. And they plan to generate most of it locally, which if can be done in Germany, it can be done in UK, which overall has better potential sources of renewable energy. A very efficient district heating network is being rolled out, fed by an evolving mix of energy sources such as the combined heat and power plants at Fechenheim, which uses local biomass, or that at Niederrad that is gas powered. Currently that gas is mainly ordinary fossil gas, but increasingly the gas used will become a renewable resource. Bio-methane from anaerobic digesters is already been fed into the gas main in growing quantities. Surplus wind power is now beginning to be converted into both hydrogen and methane to be fed into the gas grid, or used as transport fuels, or stored and then used to generate electricity for when the wind isn’t blowing or the sun shining. Wind to gas is becoming ever more significant as wind power grows. It, along with a whole raft of other technologies, means that the problems often associated with wind such as its intermittency and variability can be overcome. Hats off to ITM Power, Thuga Group, Fraunhofer Institute and Mainova who are developing and implementing this most useful of technologies.


Innovation is at the heart of the Energiewende. I wish this portfolio of policies and technologies was better understood in the UK. Groups of town planners, architects, and perhaps most of all, politicians should come here and see what is going on. We in the UK have a lot to learn from places such as Frankfurt.



Susanne Petry and Architecture in Dialogue organise excellent tours of the city to highlight some of it’s achievements. and see the English version of their catalogue


Frankfurt’s vision for a clean energy future, in English


Wind to gas and and this map shows power to gas projects across Germany


What is a Green Lifestyle?



Two Visions of Green Buildings: Lammas & The Crystal

There appear to be two divergent ideas as to what a green lifestyle is. The first one focuses on simpler lifestyles, using hand tools and simpler technologies and is strongly associated with moving to the countryside and pursuing the dream of self-sufficiency as advocated by John Seymour and others. Many of us believed that millions of people would leave the cities and seek out a new way of living in the county as some kind of New Age peasantry. It was my dream from childhood. In my mid twenties I bought an old ruin with land (at a time when such things were just possible without huge financial resources) and worked my socks off renovating the ruin and attempting to grow a bit of food. This dream of moving back to the land, making self-build structures and growing food is still a popular dream. The Lammas Project in Pembrokeshire provides inspiration for millions of people. For many people the idea of a collapse of urban civilization associated with Peak Oil is part of this post industrial rural future.

Meanwhile the planet has been urbanizing at breakneck speed. A new vision of a green lifestyle is emerging that is high-tech and urban. In the developed world urbanites tend to have on average lower carbon emissions than rural folk. In dense cities infrastructure can be organised in much more energy efficient ways. Cities like Copenhagen and Oslo are planning and implementing comfortable, affluent zero carbon futures. Car use is falling in most modern cities whereas rural car dependency is a major problem. The best of modern architecture is very energy efficient. Increasingly it is the case that 100% renewable forms of energy can supply reliable energy for heating, cooling, transport, domestic and industrial needs. Cities will not necessarily collapse as the oil wells run dry, but the transition away from oil does need to be well planned and the best investments made.

The two photographs above encapsulate these two visions. One, the straw bale, turf roofed self-build at Lammas with the occupants holding a scythe and hay rake, embodying the spirit of rural New-Age Post-Apocalypse Self-Sufficiency. The other, The Crystal, built by Siemens in London’s docklands to showcase high tech low carbon urban futures. The Crystal has photovoltaic panels, ground source heat pump, rainwater and greywater collection and 3,500 sensors continually monitoring energy use and optimising the buildings performance. It is the first building in the World to be awarded both BREEAM Outstanding and LEED Platinum accreditation.

Which inspires you more? Which will provide a more useful indicator of our future? Maybe many of us will live and work in energy efficient high tech cities for most of the year and holiday in simple structures while re-connecting with nature for a few weeks over the summer? Visions of the future do not need to be exclusive: they can merge and cross fertilise in interesting and fruitful ways!

Lammas and The Crystal