Life in a Mud Box
Why this is called Buildingshed
I loved the essay by Arianne Shahvisi in this month’s London Review of Books. Called “Life in a Tinderbox,” it addressed the danger of the present state of the UK building stock, and the danger of the government’s proposed (and past) attempts at improving it.
Cladding and insulation are only the most notorious problems faced by those living in new developments. Lax building regulations mean that careless gaps between cladding and internal walls function as chimneys through which blazes can surge. Timber balconies, arranged like kindling over the cladding (and often used for risky activities like smoking and barbecues) are also implicated. Flammability isn’t the only concern. A survey conducted by Shelter in 2017 found that half of newbuilds have serious and costly structural defects. Some have shoddy mortar that crumbles within months, leaving bricks wobbling like loose teeth. A recent audit concluded that three-quarters of developments shouldn’t have been given planning permission.
It snowed last night in Albuquerque. I live here in the North Valley in a house built piecemeal over many years from good materials, often put together incorrectly. Our neighbor is 92 and has lived in her house for the last 87 years (her children, grand-children, and great-grandchildren live in the houses all down the street). Talking with her through the fence, my husband learned that all the houses around here were built like this: “You found a two-by-four on the side of the road and brought it home for your addition, and if it was too short you put two together.” As families grew, the houses sprawled. The older half of our house is adobe in a passive solar design, with a beautiful brick floor, the bricks laid in a graceful arc, following the curve of the long, large room. It was once the barn of the house in front of ours (we’re tucked behind them, off the street). Everything behind it—the rest of our house and yard and the home of another neighbor behind us, who owns the gravel road we drive in on—was orchards. Our neighbor through the fence remembers raiding the cherries and peaches as a kid.
A field of crops in Albuquerque’s North Valley c. 1969 (Albuquerque Museum)
Living in the house means: hours of lovely slanted sunlight, intermittent and costly systemic failures (electrical, plumbing) that my dad can sometimes help us fix, being very cold when it’s cold outside and very hot when it’s hot outside. The adobe half of the house, with its thick walls, slanted roof, and high south-facing windows, is much more resistant to external variations in temperature, and thus more comfortable in the winter and summer. In the summer, our solar panels generate more power than we use, and we get a check instead of a bill from our utility. When the days are short and we run electric heaters, our electricity bill comes in, seven times the amount of the checks from the summer. In New Mexico, the electricity we draw from the grid is mostly generated at plants burning coal and natural gas (the most recent numbers from my utility say that 27% of the generation capacity in MWh is from coal-burning plants, 36% from gas, and the remainder from nuclear, wind, and solar, plus a little sliver of geothermal; they plan to add more wind and solar to the mix, and have published a goal of being emissions-free by 2040).
The high south-facing windows of our passive solar living room allow sunlight to enter, and the thermal mass of the opposite and adjacent walls absorb the heat.
Because the house is all-electric (electric water heater, no gas stove), when the grid becomes emissions-free, so will we. In the meantime, we hope to reduce the operational emissions our house is responsible for by making improvements like sealing thermal leaks around doors and windows, hanging solar shades in the summer, and eventually replacing the windows (which are single-pane, untempered glass).
As we undertake those improvements, though, we’ll likely be adding to the embodied carbon of our house. Finding ways to minimize the emissions associated with the production and transport of construction materials by limiting the quantity of new materials we add, minimizing waste, using salvaged or repurposed components where possible, and choosing materials that take less energy to produce and transport will require care, attention, and financial investment.
We’re in a position to do it, but cumulatively, the repairs and improvements we’ll make to our home are a drop in the ocean.
Citing the New Urban Agenda adopted by the UN Conference on Housing and Sustainable Urban Development in 2016, the European Commission projects that the global urban population will nearly double by 2050. If things continue to be done as they are now, the materials for buildings and infrastructure to support this growth will account for over 100 gigatons of embodied carbon—49% of all the emissions attributed to the building sector. (Buildings and construction account for about 40% of global energy-related* carbon dioxide emissions.) Over the last century, North American and European cities have built, demolished, rebuilt, and expanded rapaciously. In the coming decades, the most rapid urbanization and the bulk of new construction will take place in Africa and Asia.
Getting in front of the construction that will accompany urbanization and growth—construction that needs to happen in some form to ensure that people have good, safe, healthy places to live—will require the widespread adoption of policies designed to reduce embodied carbon. And policies and initiatives aimed at embodied carbon reduction can have powerful co-benefits.
Reducing the distance components of a building travel before construction is just one possible intervention to reduce embodied carbon. Sourcing materials locally can mean investing in and enriching the ecosystems that produce them, investing in the skills and livelihoods of laborers in manufacturing and construction, sustaining local economies, and strengthening the kinds of connections that support circularity.
Man Making Adobe Bricks c. 1950 (Albuquerque Museum)
I don’t know where the adobe my house is partly made of was sourced. I don’t know where the earth was dug, or whether the brick makers needed to add clay or sand to it to achieve the proper composition. One of the only commercial adobe brick suppliers remaining in New Mexico is ten minutes away from my house in the North Valley, run by a brother and sister whose father started the operation in 1972, selling the bricks at 4 cents apiece.
This newsletter is called Buildingshed (like watershed, foodshed, or fibershed) because I’m curious about where materials come from, how interrelated systems of energy, labor, and transport turn agricultural products and mined resources into built things, and how places depend on each other. A city skyline or a house like mine looks particular and sits in one spot, but represents a history of extraction and exchange with other landscapes, whether quarries, landfills, or timberlands.
The last two paragraphs of Arianne Shahfizi’s essay land heavily on the importance of reckoning with this history, and changing. Read them before you go:
The point at which we’ll have to reckon with rash, careless building is fast approaching. A recent paper in Nature noted that in 2020 the weight of human-made stuff exceeded living biomass for the first time. (It was just 3 per cent of biomass in 1900.) While trees and other vegetation weigh in at around 900 gigatonnes, buildings, roads and other infrastructure add up to 1100 gt (animals contribute 4 gt, half the weight of plastic on land and sea). There is now more concrete in the world than any other man-made material. After fossil fuels, it is the largest source of carbon dioxide, contributing 8 per cent of emissions, which puts it ahead of aviation and agriculture. Each of its ingredients has a calamitous footprint. Around 2 per cent of all water withdrawn from circulation is locked into concrete, contributing to aquifer stress and drought. Cement production involves intensive quarrying, dust pollution, high-heat kiln combustion and the release of carbon dioxide through calcination reactions. Then there’s sand, which is beginning to run out, triggering vast illegal networks around its extraction and trade. Desert sand is abundant, but its wind-sculpted grains are spherical; it’s the angularity of sea-eroded sand that makes the grains stack and bind so well (the ‘crackle’ that Vitruvius was talking about). Most land sources have been depleted; the dredging of beaches and riverbeds is wrecking marine ecosystems in many parts of the world.
Yet we need more homes. The government claims that its ‘green building revolution’ will hold new houses to higher standards of energy efficiency, leading to a reduction in emissions (improved insulation delivers a large share of that efficiency). They also boast of a six-year low in the numbers of rough sleepers, but this is down to the exceptional measures taken during the pandemic, and ignores the fact that deaths among homeless people rose by a third last year (more than a thousand people died on the streets in 2020). The government’s environmental claims focus too narrowly on the homes once inhabited – the ‘operational’ emissions – while neglecting the colossal ‘embodied’ emissions of the resources extracted and sunk into them. A badly built home may never make good the initial outlay in environmental terms, even if it does tick all the ‘green’ boxes. And there is the cost of all those vacant houses, embodied in bricks and mortar, but also represented by darkened windows, security guards, alarms and paid ‘guardians’: the expensive business of keeping houses empty when there are people who need them.
More about embodied carbon:
Sustainability Glossary: Embodied Energy (David Benjamin, Metropolis)
Embodied Carbon: What You Can Do Right Now (AIA California)
City Policy Framework for Dramatically Reducing Embodied Carbon (Bionova, Carbon Neutral Cities Alliance, Architecture 2030)
Embodied Carbon: Key Considerations for Key Materials (Anthony Pak, Canadian Architect)
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*energy-related greenhouse gas emissions are emissions resulting from the extraction and consumption of fossil fuels for energy, and do not include emissions or sinks resulting from land use or changes in land use, agriculture, forestry, etc.