Life stories Science stories

Deconstructing construction

There’s a lot of people who would appreciate owning a piece of property, whether that is a house, a condo, a downtown flat or a suburbia mansion with its own pool and/or gazimbo. Up to a recent point in the past, it had been possible for young professionals, newlyweds and solo careerists to accummulate enough wealth and experience for banks to loan them some cash to put down for their own housing projects. Note the past tense.

It’s a real estate pandemonium out there and it’s slowly and steadily getting worse. Population growth means housing demand growth, which basically translates to Bob the Builder graduating to Bob the Real Estate Developer (without passing an examination first), who -in spite of the forever upgraded building efficiency requirements- manages to lift a budget-friendly, leaky, creaky, too hot in the summer and too cold in the winter house in just under 18 months. And that is, if you’re lucky and the order you put in for tiles wasn’t forgotten on some admin’s pile of incoming mail.

It’s not Bob’s fault though; he’s just trying to keep up with the demand, the guidelines and the poor socioeconomic situation that constraints budgets so much. We want new shiny houses, we want them to be smart, accommodating to our present lifestyles and adjustable to our future needs. And so, we wind up sacrificing our quality of life. Maybe it’s time to consider alternative models that ensure our social, economic and housing wellbeing; one that sacrifices (parts of) modernity instead.

turf houses in Iceland. not hobbit holes.

It wasn’t long ago when folks would use materials found readily in their surroundings to build houses, many of which are still standing strong and have become remnants of a past culture we cherish. It’s called vernacular architecture now and it describes construction based on locally available resources and traditions. “Construction” sounds weird when placed in the same sentence with “traditions” but completely normal when placed next to “sector”. We should be contructing buildings that serve us without removing value from our future, but instead we measure the impact of the construction sector in terms of GDP, carbon emmissions and gigawatts consumed. And what’s worse is that we’re not even living in comfort; most of us have multiple issues with our housing situations, be it the high bills, the leaky roofs or the wind whistling through all the openings of the flat. We have successfully turned our most essential needs into the most problematic aspects of modern society and entrapped ourselves in impossible lock-ins. Ones that take generations to make, and generations to dismantle.

So what do we do when our hard work and perseverance take us to narrow paths leading towards impending doom? We go old school – all the time, in every fault we locate and try to fix. French supermarkets are prohibited from throwing away food, practically driving a shift to food donation, like mom feeding the whole neighbourhood with Saturday’s roast. Stores are selling products without packaging; you need to bring your own, fill them up and pay the price of what you use, instead of the petroleum embedded in your shampoo bottle. Remember when grandma would give you a plastic container and send you off to the corner ice cream shop to fill it up? Might’ve been embarassing at the time but we get it now. And what about transport? We spent decades building streets, bridges and highways, endorsing all the new car models and pushing for electric mobility, when the answer was right there all along; streets were once accessible to bikes and legs. Now we have to spend a few more decades readjusting the streets, bridges and highways to make room for bikes and actual humans who want to walk.

Why not with construction too then? What’s holding us back from going back to traditional structures and materials? Regulations. Perceptions. Lack of critical mass and loss of the ancient knowledge we now think is too poor to support our lifestyles. Earth homes, soil bricks and sustainable materials locally sourced have been in development for decades too, but unsupported by authorities and en masse consumers, they remain in the shadows. Systemic construction does not allow for deviations and has no time to deal with them either, because it’s a race to reach sustainability our governments are at a loss. We can support grass root actions and initiatives, we can advocate for what makes sense, but in the end, if we can’t force a top-down systemic change, we’re going nowhere.

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