Housing: The Simpler Way perspective.

                        Ted Trainer.

                          25.8.2016.

The topic of housing provides one of the most powerful illustrations of how extremely unsustainable and irrational consumer-capitalist society is.  Following are firstly reasons for this judgement and secondly an outline of how the issue would be dealt with in a Simpler Way society.

  The situation.

The typical Australian house being built today is,

Š      Far too big. We recently held the world record with an average for new houses of around 220 square metres.

Š      Far too expensive. The house (excluding the land) will cost you maybe $300,000, meaning it will probably cost you around $900,000 … because the bank will want back in interest twice as much as you borrowed, and to have that $600,000 you will need to earn $900,000 so you can pay the tax man one-third of what you earn (…and this does not include all sorts of other fees and charges.) You will have worked about 70,000 hours to pay for your house. You will have spent several decades worrying about changing interest rates, whether you will lose your job, be unable to keep up the payments, and be forced to sell the house (…at a fire sale price.)

Unaffordable for hundreds of thousands of people, especially young people. Australia is returning to slum housing; a million live in poor conditions now. (Baker, Beer and Bentley, 2016.)

Š      Grossly unsustainable, being badly oriented to the sun, built from energy-intensive materials and containing energy-intensive appliances including air conditioning, and being fitted out in unnecessarily luxurious ways…and not built to last. Your house might have been a KDR job (knock down and rebuild) when the old house on the site would have been quite good enough for years yet.

Š      Located in ecologically undesirable settlement patterns, requiring cars to get to shops etc., with too little space for vegetable gardens, no provision for edible landscapes or commons (other than sterile “parks”) or community productive and spontaneous leisure activities, and thus requiring expenditure of money and energy on leisure. Houses are not built as elements in integrated communities that enable and prompt interaction, mutual aid, cooperation, sharing etc.  Most are dormitories for isolated families. Many houses are way up in high rise unit blocks involving lifts and pumped water, with no connection to the earth or other people. Most face onto streets that take up about one quarter of urban space and are only used to get cars out to main roads, then remain deserted all day. Most are located up to thousands of kilometres from where the food consumed comes from, requiring huge expenditure of energy, (…and more to throw away nutrient-rich wastes.)

Š      A major element in growth and greed culture, where property is coveted and housing is a conspicuous symbol of success, wealth, prestige, and superiority. Everyone wants the best, the most luxurious, the biggest, the most expensive house they can get. Magazines and TV makeover shows idolise extravagant houses.

The context: We are far beyond the limits to growth.

Few people realise that the present per capita resource consumption in rich countries is grossly unsustainable.  The basic figures on our Footprint, resource use and environmental impact show that we are around ten times the consumption levels that all people could share. (For the detailed account see thesimplerway.info/LIMITS.htm.) Thus a sustainable and just society cannot be achieved unless we develop systems and lifestyles that allow us to have a high quality of life on far lower levels of consumption that we have now.   This means the consumer-capitalist economy has to be scrapped and replaced by a zero-growth economy which enables all to be provided with quite low but sufficient levels of material goods, and that consumer culture obsessed with wealth and affluence has to be replaced by one in which people are satisfied with frugal ways and non-material sources of life satisfaction.

This sets the focus for a discussion of housing, (…and all other fields such as food production, energy, clothing and entertainment.)  The overriding goal must be to provide satisfactory housing at a very low cost in resources. The concern must be with what is sufficient, for convenience, comfort, fire safety, leisure etc.

Easily overlooked is the need to think beyond the house to its location. The key sustainability concern is settlement design. Houses should be within landscapes which minimise the need for transport to work, trucking in of food and other goods, moving out wastes, importing energy-intensive leisure provision, health and aged care, and bureaucratic and professional services, and which maximise micro-local production, e.g., at the neighbourhood level. Above all good design enables social synergies, especially those informal and spontaneous interactions that maintain healthy community, as well as keep productive landscapes in good shape. Thus extensive commons are essential, to maximise local self-sufficiency and even more importantly to spontaneously create and reinforce local community, solidarity, responsibility and morale.

            Thus, the implications for alternative housing design.

In a sustainable settlement most and probably all new housing, offices, premises and community buildings would be made from earth, along with locally-produced stone and timber. Houses would be very small by present standards, with low ceilings.  In my view tiny houses are in principle beautiful and big houses are morally ugly.  The general building height limit would be four stories, eliminating the need for lifts.  Most of the floors of single storied buildings would be made from earth, hardened by for instance linseed oil, turpentine and bees wax. Some roofing would be earth (sod) over timber supports, and many would be domes and vaults from mud bricks, surfaced by a thin layer of cement. (These are common in the Middle East, some domes being over 20 metres across.) Much new roofing in the near future would have to be corrugated iron, but eventually this would be replaced by ceramic tiles made from local clay and wood-fuelled kilns. Research would go into the production of durable sealers and paints from plant and animal sources.  For instance for centuries a seal for earth walls has been a whitewash made from lime and milk.

The cheapest form of earth building is cob, a mixture of earth, clay and straw, dumped on walls and shaped by shovel as it dries out. Barbara Bee’s The Cob House Book provides an inspiring introduction, showing that

Š      Cob enables curved walls, which are strong and save space by avoiding corners where straight walls met.

Š      It can be easily modified; if later you realise you need a window, get a hatchet and hack one out.

Š      Like all earth buildings, cob provides excellent insulation, and thermal mass, and sound insulation. It is fire proof and termite proof.

Š      It lasts for hundreds of years.

Š      It is close to costless.  Dig a big hole in the garden for the clay … and later fill it with water to make an ornamental and fish pond. (If your soil is too sandy, pay for a truck to bring in a load of clay, or build a rammed earth house.)  A young couple might build themselves a nice little and fairly conventional-looking house for under $1000.  A one room vault could be built for well under this. (A vault is like a tunnel with a rounded roof. It can be made from mud bricks without scaffolding, or from cob. There are some very big vaults in the Middle East.)

Š      Cob is a delight to work. One of life’s most enjoyable adventures should be building your own beautiful, idiosyncratic, little house (..helped by friends and the village’s expert builders)

Because in a Simpler Way society most people would only need to work for money two days a week, they would have much more time for home-making, and therefore for cooking with wood.  A more vegetable based diet would reduce the amount of cooking needed. Rugs mostly made from wool would replace most carpets, eliminating the need for vacuum cleaning.  (Take the rugs out and shake them, and sweep and mop the floors.)  Matting, seating and screens, as well as many other items like baskets and hats, can be woven from local reeds, rushes and willows.

Remember that we are talking about a stable situation, in which construction will eventually only take the form of maintenance and replacement, not increasing the housing, office or factory stock. In other words most of the present construction industry would not exist and most of the building that was needed could be carried out by hand tools (…because this is more enjoyable.)

If this approach was seen as acceptable no one would be unable to have a nice house.  At present maybe 100,000 Australians are waiting to get a house, and large numbers never will.  Why?  Because it is taken for granted that the market is the best way to determine the supply of housing, and everything else.  But markets never attend to what is necessary or sensible; they only ever attend to what will maximise profits, and it is always much more profitable to produce and sell what richer people want to buy.  The result is that no small, cheap houses are built and only absurdly big, and ecologically unacceptable houses are available…at prices ordinary people cannot afford.

            An itemised example.

Here is a breakdown of components, energy and dollar costs for what I see as a very small house suitable for a young couple or small family. It is intended as an illustrative example, so the figures (put together in 2009) should not be regarded as precise estimates. It is the kind of house I would be happy to live in.

The ground floor would be one room perhaps 8m x 3m, plus a 3m x 3m toilet, washing and shower room (no bath), plus some storage.  The main room would have a kitchen area at one end, with a wood fuelled stove, and a large table at the other for dining, writing and art etc. purposes.  In the middle of the long wall would be an open fire, an easy chair and a reading light. 

The solar passive design would provide most heating and cooling, via air ducts and valves built in.  A water jacket around the fire would siphon hot water to an insulated tank.  Wood boxes would be built into the walls, to be loaded from outside.  Ceilings would be low.  A tiny stair way would lead to the sleeping area in the triangular attic, which would also provide storage space.  There would be a small veranda to catch morning sun in winter, and rain water tanks.  (I make tanks from cement plastered over chicken wire against a form, for about 1.5c/l. Plastic tanks cost about 70 times as much.)

The walls would be cob, straw bale or rammed earth.  Floors would be rammed earth over a plastic membrane, and surfaced.  They would have pipes set in for circulating hot water.  The roof ideally would be hand made tiles fired in the local pottery (only about 50 square metres needed), but in the near term would probably be corrugated iron over heavy (perhaps woollen) insulation.  Roof frames would be from sawn 3x2.  Ceiling beams would be unsawn saplings.

I would make all fittings, cupboards, window frames and furniture mostly from wood.  There would be minimal use of metals and plastic.  There would be no wall-to-wall carpets but there would be some squares and rugs.  No fridge, but a solar evaporation cooling cupboard.

Indicative dollar and energy costs

(Assuming new materials prices.)

                                                       ($A 2009.)

Attic flooring                                 1000 - 1200

Roof framing                                  700

Roof iron                                        800 - 1000

Roof paint                                      100 

Window glass                                150

Wood for cupboards, window

       frames, furniture                   1000

Floor surfacing                             200

Water tanks (2 x 14,000 l)            400

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Solar space and water heating

      panel, home made.                 200

Water pump, 12 volt                      200

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Plus:  Small wood stove (could be home-made, from stone or clay), sink, toilet, lights, wiring, switches, plumbing, pipes, taps.  The table, bed and chairs would be home-made as bush-furniture from saplings at negligible cost.

                                 Total; $(A) 5,300 ??

Use of recycled materials would lower this figure considerably.  Labour cost?  None.  The house would be home-made using hand tools as an enjoyable creative activity, partly assisted by local friends, and builders who would be paid by labour contributions. Build at a leisurely pace; move in when the roof is on and fit out slowly.  Space for storage, hobbies, crafts, workshop?  Simple sheds out the back.  Electricity supply would add perhaps $2000 for two panels plus a battery and regulator.

Lifetime repair, maintenance, and insurance costs would be very low, given small scale and simplicity; mostly no tradesmen to be paid for maintenance.  If necessary additional rooms can be added on later.  No significant energy or materials costs for operation or maintenance.  No anxiety about losing your hose because you can’t keep up the payments…for thirty years

Compare a normal small house:

Cost to build, perhaps                                        $150,000

Total sum repaid to bank,                                  $300,000

Sum to be earned to have $300,000 after tax,  $400,000.

Add lifetime maintenance, heating, water and energy costs. 

A normal house would be much bigger than my ideal, but assuming 150 square metres its cost per square metre of floor space would be c. $2,500.  The cost for the house outlined above might be $170 per square metre.

The house outlined should last more than 100 years.  In that time the rent paid for an apartment (not a house) in Sydney at the present average rent would total around $2,500,000.

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Appendix: My house.

I think I should provide some credentials here, in case you are wondering whether I’m recommending housing I would not want to live in myself.  I have built a small and council approved house for our caretakers, using only hand tools, along with many tanks and sheds and a windmill on 17 metre high tower.

But my main boast is that the house I live in is the best one in the world, although few would agree.  The basic structure was built in 1946 from an army storage igloo with a floor area of about 90 square metres. I have added verandas etc. since.  It isn’t well insulated but I have put in a fire box, made from galvanised iron. A brazed copper pipe grid inside takes hot water to a hopper from where a small 12 v pump circulates it around the house in winter. In addition there is a tiny fan drawing hot air from a sleave around the chimney in the attic and pushing it to the cold parts of the house.

The house is not connected to the city for electricity, water, or sewage services, or garbage collection. Power comes from PV panels, water from the house and shed roofs, and heat comes from the firewood we collect on leisure rambles. I buy bottled gas now but for decades we cooked on a wood stove and heated shower water in a tin “chip heater”. Washing is done by a home-made device powered by a 70 Watt car fan motor, which can also be connected to pumps and a firewood saw. All kitchen, animal and garden wastes end up in compost heaps or the garbage gas unit, or under the fruit trees. For decades we had kerosene lights, and a kero fridge. Before that the only cooling was a Koolgardie Safe, a hession covered evaporating chamber.

I still prefer heavy blankets, probably a hangover from when I was young and our bedding was sewn up from the bags that the chaff and chicken feed came in.  The pillows were stuffed with feathers from the poultry.  A house brick would be placed beside the open fire and wrapped in a feedbag to keep feet warm in bed at night. Primitive? Who cares. The point is that all this is quite good enough … not just sufficient but the way I prefer … (…and would not swap for Bill Gates house, which I believe cost over $100 million.).

I don’t live in the house; I spend all day going in and out to the garden, workshop, windmills, pumps, animals.  I live in my patch, my landscape. It is full of problems; animals that get out, gates to fix, pumps that clog, systems that need redesigning, fire breaks to clear. Problems are good.

When the original water tanks rusted out I converted the tank stand to a veranda. That’s where I practice sacred ritual …sitting there with my cuppa looking out on some of the trees I planted that are now over 20 metres high.

Most normal people would probably be borderline disgusted at my house, or if polite would say it is much too scruffy and primitive.  Even a friend recommended KDR. But it is much too big and luxurious for my peace of mind.  Nothing makes me feel more privileged and guilty than taking a warm shower; how many millions can’t do that? I could live happily in the kitchen space, although I use lots of workspace and storage in simple sheds out the back. But it is far more than sufficient for me. It’s the best house in the world and even if a dollar price could be put on it that would have nothing to do with its value.

Baker, “E., A. Beer and R. Bentley, (2016), “Why 100 years without slum housing in Australia is coming to an end”, The Converation, August 25.