Since my last post we’ve been progressing quietly. Fine tuning the design, getting detailed drawings done and in for building regs, organising the legal side of things, applying for conditions to be discharged etc. A small spanner in the works has reared its head however. Nothing so severe as to derail the project, but enough to scupper my plans of getting a good bit of the prep work done before a main contractor might start in September. That spanner comes in the form of a piece of paper called a ‘Natural England Licence’. A licence whose purpose I have not yet fathomed, other than the creation of red tape, and a nice little earner for an ecologist who gets to complete said red tape.
Invariably the response I’ve have got from people in and around the building trade when I’ve mentioned a bat was found during the surveys we had done is along the lines of “why didn’t you make sure you smoked any bats out before the survey”?! Whilst I’ve perhaps not said it out loud, I’ve definitely thought because surely this is as equally anti-social as the likes of fly-tipping? Indeed it’s a driving force of our project that we should have a positive impact on the environment!
Attempting to fill in the forms for this Natural England Licence however has definitely elevated my blood temperature several degrees. First off let’s be clear that our site is in fact a very low impact one in terms of bat habitat. The single bat that was found inside the stone barn that entails the conversion element of the design was only found during one of the two surveys and there was no evidence that it roosted in the building. It was a Brown Long-eared bat, which I now understand to be common across the UK and Europe. The lean-to garages with corrugated tin roofing was described from the outset as a low quality habitat for bats though a single dropping was found inside (!). We were of course happy however to put in a belt and braces mitigation strategy to ensure in fact that there will be more bat habitat after the development than before. This strategy was designed by the consultant ecologist and signed off by the authority ecologist.
I was a little aggrieved that we have to pay for an ecologist to be on site during the demolition of the garaging and the stripping of the roof of the barn, given that no bats were found roosting, and that the garaging has been described as poor bat habitat! Seems a little bit of a ‘jobs for the boys’ type scenario. I also understood at the time the mitigation strategy was set out that a Natural England licence was required to carry out this work. In my naivety I had understood this to be a licence the ecologist must possess to carry out the work. Seems sensible really, and given that our ecologist confirmed she could monitor the demolition I thought we were set.
But I have now of course learnt that the Natural England Licence is a licence that must be applied for simply for its own merit. It appears not enough to have two ecologists sign off a pretty comprehensive strategy for a scenario where one common bat was found to temporarily be present in the building and where the other building concerned in the development is of low-habitat value, but we have to tell Natural England all about it so they can give their seal of approval. And when I say all about it I mean all about it. It’s not simply having them check off the bat survey report. The forms they require completed are utterly ridiculous. I once at university did an exercise completing an Environmental Impact Assessment for a large off-shore wind farm, and the forms required for this Natural England Licence are roughly equivalent. £350 I have to pay the ecologist in order to have these forms completed; and it takes Natural England 8 weeks to turn them around!! They want to know what the “need” is for the project, couldn’t it be “avoided”, what would happen if we did “nothing”. Then they require all your answers to be backed up by evidence! If you are so concerned about every detail of the project then READ the PLANNING APPLICATION I found myself screaming in my head.
But what irritates me the most is that all this wholly unnecessary red tape is surely completely counterproductive to the supposed aims of Natural England and ecologists. A nice little fee earner it may be for the bat ecologist fraternity, but in terms of supporting the bat population surely all it will end up doing is encouraging the less scrupulous to take the necessary steps to ensure that they don’t face a scenario where they have to deal with organisations that behave in such a way?!
I’d like to write early on about our preferred method of construction – Brettstapel. I say preferred because there is still a considerable amount of feasibility work to be done before being able to say with any confidence whether we can actually use it. Whilst it is an established method in Germany/Austria/Switzerland it is not so here in the UK (though it ought to be!). Brettstapel is a simple solid timber construction; softwood lengths are stacked side by side and connected together using hardwood dowels. Needing no nails or glue the system works by using dowels of a lower moisture content than the softwood lengths. Over time the dowels absorb moisture in order to achieve equilibrium, in the process expanding and locking the timbers together creating load bearing-structural panels.
As the video touches on, the benefits of Brettstapel are many. It has excellent structural properties and has been utilised in hotels, industrial buildings and bridges. It offers too all the benefits of off-site prefabrication, with savings from the refinement of the manufacturing process and ease of erection on site. The accuracy of manufacture it affords also means extremely high standards of airtightness are easily accomplished. It also has very good fire resistance properties (a property many erroneously don’t associate with massive timber).
What makes Brettstapel such an attractive prospect however, and for my mind gives it the edge over so many alternatives, is its environmental qualities. The amount of timber used means massive amounts of carbon dioxide are sequestered, “locked-up”, in the building. The structural nature of the panels means that much lower grade timber than is usually used in timber frames can be employed. This means rapid growth species, such as Sitka spruce, can be easily used which is beneficial for the carbon sequestration process and simultaneously gives a high value output to what is normally a low-value product. With no glue being used in their manufacture, and the timber of the panels forming the internal finish, Brettstapel also contributes to a very healthy internal environment with no hazardous compounds, or VOCs, released as there are with other systems. The internally exposed timber via its moisture transfusive and hygroscopic properties further benefits the internal air quality by assisting in maintaining ideal levels of humidity.
All in all, with appropriate sourcing, it appears a fantastic systems from a sustainability point of view. Clearly such a system will be more costly than conventional timber frame, but just imagine if we were able to turn our housing crisis into a climate solution! In my mind I can’t see with the right controls why this system shouldn’t qualify for carbon credits? The additional financial cost to the developer could be offset by the ability to sell credits on the back of the sequestration of carbon to those looking to offset their carbon emissions, just as some forestry is planted for offsetting purposes. Anyway, perhaps it would be sensible to concentrate on the house for now. Indeed if we are able to pursue our desired intention and use domestic timber in the manufacturing process this will be the first house in the UK to do so. There is a house in the Scottish Borders, Plummerswood, which used Brettstapel sourced from Austria, and there is a visitor centre in North Wales, Coed-y-Brenin, which used domestic timber in locally manufactured panels, but as yet no residence which does so. We will have to source and assemble our own supply chain and even then the final cost is extremely uncertain so it is going to be no small challenge!!!
The opportunity to build a bespoke home, to deliver a piece of quality architecture, that will shelter and cater for my parents needs as they move into old age (or more accurately, even older age!), is an opportunity that I’m sure a great many would relish. But why build a ‘sustainable’ home when building regulations allow one to get away with something pretty far short of it??
The first question to ask of course is what exactly ‘sustainable’ means? The truth is sustainability is such a broad concept that it has become a much abused term; a prefix used to justify an action. In reality sustainability is a fairly simple concept – it is an end goal where we as humans are able to exist (extreme natural disasters aside) harmoniously and in perpetuity within the limits of the eco-systems that sustain our presence on this planet. Where the complexity falls is in measuring those limits, because although finite they are extremely difficult to quantify, as are our contributions in undermining them.
Climate change is the most obvious example of our potential undermining of the eco-systems that sustain us. The debate as to whether or not it is occurring has always baffled me. I cannot claim to be nearly intelligent enough to decipher the evidence available and come to my own definitive conclusion. However in a scenario where the consensus amongst those scientists amply more qualified to speak on the subject is overwhelmingly that we are and will experience climate change, and that the potential consequences are catastrophic, it seems foolishly misguided for the lay person to continue its binary yes or no debate. The precautionary principle has always struck me therefore as a much sounder rationale on which to move forward i.e. act now to mitigate the innately uncertain yet seemingly high risk that the repercussions of inaction will be disastrous. People are of course threatened by change, but the reality, particularly in the developed world where materially we are much more comfortable, is that this neccessity for change actually represents an opportunity.
For example, the first and obvious answer – to the question of why build a sustainable home? – is that it will be a good one. The ‘in perpetuity’ bit of the definition of sustainability means a sustainable house must be one that maximises utility and enhances the ongoing wellbeing of those who occupy it. If an environmentally sound house means sacrifices in well-being it will not endure as a solution – it cannot be a one or the other situation, to be truly sustainable it must be both. As a house it must therefore offer access to good light and space; it must be thermally comfortable whilst also providing clean water and a healthy indoor air environment; and it must be flexible and adaptable to the occupants changing needs over time.
However if we are to achieve all this whilst respecting a social responsibility toward the precautionary principle we must be simultaneously minimising the environmental impact of the house, both in construction and operation. Of course there will be those who don’t recognise that social responsibility; surely however all but the most selfish of ideologies must recognise that the health of our shared planet is the most fundamental of public goods?