Radical activists ‘shaped eco-housing industry’

Radical activists brought green ideas into Britain's mainstream construction business, laying the foundations of the eco-housing industry, new research suggests.

A study from the University of Sussex traced green technologies like microgeneration, super-insulation or rainwater harvesting, now widely promoted in the name of sustainable development, back to the 1970s when they started out in alternative communities of what the study calls “green idealists.”

Dr Adrian Smith, who led the research, examined “green niche” activities and developments that had managed to survive beyond the 1970s. He found that, as sustainable development crept up the Government agenda, policy and regulation directed conventional builders towards ideas first championed by green innovators.

One example he looked at was the Hockerton housing project in Nottinghamshire, a collection of six low-energy, earth-sheltered, passive solar homes, which received extensive publicity and official approval over the years.

“The project involved architects who were part of the original green building movement in the 1970s, Brenda and Robert Vale,” Dr Smith told edie.

“Hockerton influenced a regional, conventional housing developed called Gusto Homes, who has now incorporated some, but not all features into his conventional houses,” he said.

A major strength of the green building movement was its practical attitude. Dr Smith quotes Brenda and Robert Vale as saying: “One live, working experiment, however impractical if it were applied universally, will transmit an idea far better than a shelf full of theoretical reports.

“Something that can be seen and touched and shown to work to some degree arouses curiosity, and curiosity in turn leads to solutions.”

The ideas that did make it into the mainstream were the most adaptable ones, the study found. Energy-saving wall insulation, for example, was taken up as it could be easily slotted into traditional designs, but cavity spaces proved too big an adjustment for traditional brick houses.

But because radical ideas were not implemented fully, many activists were not aware of their own influence on the mainstream, Dr Smith added.

“Activists often struggle to keep projects going and fail to produce the radical transformations they originally envisaged. This lack of breakthrough inclines them (and others) to under-estimate the effect of their ideas.

“But we found that although their influence is more subtle and beyond their control, it is still hugely significant in many cases,” he said.

Apart from eco-buildings, the study also looked at the importance of radical innovators in the areas of wind power and sustainable food production.

The full report is available from the ESRC website.

More details about the research project can be found on the Sussex University website.

Goska Romanowicz

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