The Sustainable Self-Built Home in the Age of Consumerism

Sandy Patience Dip Arch RIBA is a well-known and respected architect he is editor of the popular web-based open resource Greenspec and the recently launched Green Self Builder website. Sandy specialises in the writing and delivery of information supporting the design of 'green' buildings. The views and opinions expressed in this article are his own.

 The Future belongs to You!

The Sustainable Self-Built Home in the Age of Consumerism

Should your new house be sub-standard? A health hazard? Unsustainable? If you live in a modern developer-built house, the chances are that your home isn’t as sweet as you think. At a time when doubts are cast over our faith in safe food, clean-air and benevolent technology, the new focus is on the place we call our castle.

The convenience of volume built mass housing, the instant suburb with the ‘Executive’ tag can come at a steep price to our health and sanity as well as our pockets. We would be forgiven for thinking that with the proliferation of apparently beneficent technologies, that our welfare would figure highly in the priorities of house building companies. Indeed it’s true that those companies are looking to improve their offerings through construction technology, but not for you and me. The beneficiaries are the company shareholders. Profits need to be made and volume house builders know how to make them. The sad news is that the costs of those profits are inevitably being born by the homebuyers and our natural environment.

No stone is left unturned. Right from the start when planning law is exploited, to the moment the keys are handed over to the impoverished homeowner, the developer is out to optimise the deal at others’ expense.

The incoming family will pour over the must-haves of their new home. Features will be matched against aspirations: ‘detached house’-tick; ‘cottage’ facade - tick; ‘contemporary kitchen’ - tick; ‘garage’ - tick; ‘three toilets’ - tick; ‘energy-management system’ - tick. Even the streets are named yearningly after the very foxes/badgers/larks/oaks/bluebells that have sacrificed their habitat to build this new Jerusalem.

So what’s up? The new owners might take a while, but they'll notice that their dream home is, well, a bit on the tight side - it might even be smaller than their last one. It’s no accident that developers are building the smallest houses in Europe: its because they can. Space standards were abolished in 1979 and since then there’s been a constant erosion of overall house sizes. Modern abodes are up to half the size of equivalent houses built in the 1930s. Gone for good are pantries, porches, inbuilt storage spaces; Prams and bicycles can’t be parked in the hallways; Dining rooms in the more modest properties have been superseded by small tables in the kitchen. Bedrooms, of course, are only for sleeping in. There’ll be enough space to squeeze past the bed, but you can leave the dressing table outside.

Perhaps the only saving grace for the ‘fun-sized’ house is that it won’t cost too much to heat. But think -  if we can easily build houses that don’t need heating, why build ones that do? Ask that to a developer and the gob-smacking reply is ‘There’s no demand’ - which turns out to be the catch-all excuse for building just to regulations and no further. After all, where’s the profit?

‘Indoor air quality’ isn’t a phrase that most of us are familiar with. We assume that the worst days of belching factory chimneys belong to the era of back-to-back housing and tuberculosis. But the fact that we can now see the sky is deceiving. In the 21st century, air pollution is still there, it’s just that we can’t see it. Particularly in urban areas, it’s all around us, indoors and out. We know that cars poison us in the street but poison fumes in our homes? Really?

Walk into a recently completed house and your nose is overwhelmed by the odour of new paintwork, carpets, wallpaper, flooring and furniture. The smells spell ‘new home’. The apparent ‘freshness’ though is misleading - far from being benign, these smells actually betray the presence of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs).

‘VOCs include a variety of chemicals, some of which may have short- and long-term adverse health effects. Concentrations of many VOCs are consistently higher indoors (up to ten times higher) than outdoors. VOCs are emitted by a wide array of products numbering in the thousands.’ (US Environmental Protection Agency)

The warnings are already out that some of the materials we use in our homes can be dangerous. Add in gas cookers, air fresheners, cleaning products, dust mites and mould and the result is a powerfully noxious cocktail. A recent report by the Royal College of Physicians was concerned that vulnerable adults are at risk of strokes and heart attacks from indoor air pollution; but even more disturbing is the revelation of the threat to children: ‘Research is beginning to point towards effects on growth, intelligence, asthma, and development of the brain and coordination. Harm to babies and children will have an impact that lasts far into the future.’

Equally alarming is the impact that our lifestyles have on the wider natural environment.  The construction industry has a rapacious appetite for raw materials. At any one moment, epic amounts of resources are being continually hewn, blown-up, dredged, scoured, chopped down and excavated. Much of what we use to build with is available in plenty, but some minerals such as oil are becoming increasingly rare. Diminishing too is the natural habitat such as forests and oceans that we often take for granted. Whilst some natural resources are replaceable, many aren’t - so it is that we compromise the capacity of succeeding generations to enjoy the same natural wealth as ourselves.

Equally, the transformation of raw materials into building products causes pollution, landscape degradation and the output of significant quantities of climate-change gases through the burning of fossil fuels. Globally we’re consuming resources and polluting the planet at a level forty percent higher than the earth can sustain. Even at a glance, it’s easy to see how our chronic consumption habit is ruining our environment and compromising the future of our children.

But we shouldn’t take this regime of poor housing for granted. This future of developer-led, substandard, badly-built, dangerous and unsustainable housing need not be set in (artificial) stone. As house buyers we don’t have to take what’s given: Rather than buying off-the-shelf from an anonymous corporation, we can literally build our own. The process is a little bit more involving, but the payoff can be considerable - including dispensing with the otherwise developer’s profit margin. The home we build will be to our own higher standards; It will be safe and energy efficient. The materials and components will be benign to health without, literally, costing the earth. Above all, we can build and live better lifestyles for ourselves and our children.


How to make it happen? The building technologies and materials are already available. In a quiet corner of the vast complex that is the construction industry there works an environmentally-aware group of architects, building technicians, manufacturers and suppliers who are set to change the way the industry thinks and operates. Their view of the future is one that you might share; One which involves building energy efficient buildings with safe and sustainable materials; one which cares for you, your children and the planet.

For more information about building your own ‘green’ or ‘eco’ home, visit

Sandy Patience Dip Arch RIBA

May 2018

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