Eco-bling, and sexy insulation
What’s a green building? One covered in solar panels and bristling with turbines? One that proclaims its greenness by looking different? One that costs 15% more than a ‘conventional’ building?
For British architect Howard Liddell, the answer is none of the above.
At a one-day symposium on sustainability in TCD recently, Liddell outlined his ideal green building: it looks conventional, costs no more to build, but is so well insulated and airtight that there is almost no need for heating, and certainly no need for what he calls “eco-bling”.
The main problem, as he sees it, is that technologies are an expensive add-on with a long payback time. The sensible and cost-effective route to a green and eco-building is effective insulation.
Unfortunately, eco-bling is flavour of the month, and Liddell was particularly critical of new building regulations in some British local authorities that now require a minimum 10% of on-site renewable technologies — expensive and ineffective wind turbines on top of buildings, when they should be on remote, windy sites.
In an inspiring presentation, Liddell, principal architect with the British-based Gaia Group, argued that we need to make insulation sexy. “Eco-minimalism, not eco-bling.”
Effective insulation alone, he said, could halve the energy demand, and significantly reduce fuel poverty.
The main challenge, in Ireland as in Britain, will be to retro-fit a high standard of insulation to existing buildings. What’s more, each building will need an individual solution.
And you can’t just fill cavity walls with foam, he argues: those walls were designed to breathe so, if you block them up, you simply create a moisture problem on the inside.
Likewise, it is not enough to seal every crack with gunge. For a start, the gunge will crack, so you won’t get an airtight seal. And again, you have to worry about moisture buffering.
Other issues that he identified are: effective testing of a building’s air tightness; and indoor air quality in an airtight building (especially moisture content, and off-gassing from materials and furniture), making choice of materials essential.
To be truly ‘green’, he recommended using sheep’s wool insulation, as he felt there were issues with the chemicals used to treat insulation made from recycled newspaper.
In a wide ranging and fascinating talk, Liddell also recommended: mass-timber construction (not just beautiful to work with, but also good for sequestering carbon dioxide); ‘nail-free building’ (securing well designed, well fitting pieces with just a few screws), which doesn’t damage the wood and makes repairs and alterations, and recycling much easier; and low-flush toilets that use less than 2 litres of water — already achieved on aircraft toilets.
If Liddell is right, and every building leaves a customised solution, then on the plus side this would be a major job creation project architects, and the insulation and construction industries.
For more on Howard Liddell’s eco-minimalist architecture, check out his new book here.