Housing: The Simpler Way perspective.

                                               Ted Trainer.


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,

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 eight to ten times the consumption levels that all people could share when world population reaches 19 billion around 2050.

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 present consumer-capitalist economy has to be scrapped and replaced by large scale degrowth to a zero-growth economy which enables all to be provided with quite low but sufficient levels of material goods consumption, and it means 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 large amounts of goods, importing a lot of energy, depending on costly and imported leisure provision, health and aged care, and many bureaucratic and professional services. Most of these can and must be devolved down to the town and 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, 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

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 130,000 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 almost no small, cheap houses are built and only absurdly big, and ecologically unacceptable houses are available…at prices ordinary people cannot afford. (But there is increasing interest in “Tiny Houses”.)

            An itemised example.

Here is a breakdown of components, energy and dollar costs for what I see as a very small  and low cost house suitable for a young couple or small family. It is intended as an illustrative example, so the figures (for 2022 costs) 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 (... for Sydney, 34 degrees south.).  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, around 2.5 metres. This keeps warm air lower in winter.  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 1.5cents/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, levelled by adze.

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.

Detailed dollar and embodied energy costs for this house are set out at HousingCostEstimates.pdf. (They are from records and not very clearly arranged.)

The total dollar cost for the house, including tank, comes to $7000. The cost of having the average Australian house built (...that is not including interest and tax) is around $150,000, 21 times as much. Taking the different areas into account indicates that the cost per square metre would be about 7 times as great.

The total embodied energy cost for the house would be 1/25 that of the Australian average house.

Consider the approximate situation of a young couple presently unable to get a house. They could enjoy building their own cosy little dwelling without borrowing, for around $7000. The conventional path forces them to pay out $150,000 + c $150,000 in interest on a loan + 30% of $300,000 in tax on earnings of $300,000, that is $400,000.  They would have a house for 1/57 of the sum the conventional path would cost.

            An ideal scheme for construction.

The organisation Neighbourhoods that Work proposes a public housing provision whereby low income receivers can build their own modest house from earth, assisted by professional builders and enrolment in courses teaching skills relevant to the creation of communities living cooperatively and sustainably. This kind system would have low long term costs, could meet work seeking requirements for unemployment benefits, and yield significant savings to the state through the reduction in social disadvantage.

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, postage, sewage 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 we 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 kerosine fridge. Before that the only cooling was a Koolgardie Safe, a hessian-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 big 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. (...knock down and rebuild.) 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.