A3 Example home

The housing crisis goes deeper than just a severe shortage of homes. It is rooted in the toxic materials we are building homes from.

News that the housing industry today is fundamentally flawed will not shock many in the midst of the housing crisis we face here in the UK. However, few understand the severely limited material supply chain options available to the self-perpetuating volume housing model and just how toxic and oil-influenced that supply chain is. 

Beyond the severe housing shortage we face, there is a crisis around the synthetic, short-lived and toxic components employed to build our homes. The continued use of these single-use oil-based components in the face of climate meltdown is part of a mindset that cannot be allowed to continue: that of Take, Make, Use and Discard, coupled with a command and control 19th and 20th-century business organisation model particularly prevalent in the construction sector. 

If contemporary agriculture is about turning oil into food you wouldn’t want to eat, volume-built housing in the UK has become about turning oil into houses you wouldn’t want to live in. 

But the attitude and culture of a former century mindset goes well beyond toxic materials, car-dependant suburbs and short termism. The oil age was characterised by force and working against nature. If force didn’t work, even more force could be applied due to apparently boundless fossil energy. This allowed architecture and its poor relation in the UK –housing, to take on forms reliant entirely on energy and large amounts of it for heating, cooling, ventilation, maintenance, lighting, etc. We are now struggling with this legacy of a built environment that results from a period now bankrupt, as we face the existential consequences.

From a 21st century perspective, this seemingly reckless approach to the most natural of human needs, shelter, is cathartic to some and some organisations. At MAKAR, a coming to terms with the urgency of wholesale change has driven us for twenty years.

How we dwell defines us.

Carbon negative and affordable healthy homes.

MAKAR homes UEA embodied carbon measurement study affordable negative carbon homes Portrait

This picture was taken 10 years ago as four MAKAR homes commissioned by the now-renamed Communities Housing Trust were handed over to families.

These modest semi-detached homes were predicated on minimising steel, concrete and plastic, all high energy and carbon intensive materials. In their place are timber and other renewable natural materials, many of which were sourced within 50 miles of the homes themselves.

When assembled, all of our homes have intrinsic comfort, health, and longevity. They are autonomously robust enough to function in life support mode in temperatures of 40 degrees plus, without grid electricity. They are as close to net-zero as it is possible to be at the present time by way of a Nature-based and Circular-aligned Solutions.

Primary toxic components in modern homes and what they can be replaced with:

  • Polyurethan Insulation
  • Bituminous waterproofing
  • Chemical-treated timber
  • Plastic cladding
  • uPVC windows
  • Wood-fibre insulation
  • Woven geotextiles
  • Naturally durable timber
  • Timber cladding
  • Laminated timber windows
02 Insulating portrait

With researchers at the University of East Anglia, these four homes, designed, manufactured and delivered in the Highlands by MAKAR, formed the basis of a Carbon Measurement study.

After preparing the mother of all spreadsheets, the headline outcome was that more carbon had been extracted and stored within the new homes than was generated in their delivery. These homes were carbon negative on delivery when carbon sequestration was taken into account. They were also delivered within exacting affordable housing cost benchmarks.

  • Total embodied Carbon 26.5tCO2e 309kgCO2e m2 
  • Original RIBA Climate challenge of 300Kg/​M2 later watered down to 650kg / M2 as it apparently couldn’t be met.
  • 39 tonnes sequestered

Image: Wood-fibre insulation

Despite making these findings available at the time, neither the Scottish Government nor its agencies were interested. Back in 2014, the lack of engagement, suspicion and marginalisation from government agencies left companies like ourselves as lone voices, stranded, and treated as extremists.

First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.

Mahatma Gandhi

With the recent experience of a change in attitude, we have reason to believe that we are moving into the fourth stage set out by Mahatma Gandhi. It has now been over four years since the Scottish Government declared a Climate and Nature Emergency. Policy intentions have slowly emerged. Just Transition, for example, suggests radical change, with justice and solidarity at its core. To Scotland, this critical economic and workforce transition has to ditch fossil fuel extraction for an economy founded on regenerative carbon-efficient skills, jobs and businesses. 

When it comes to an appropriate response to the post-oil healthy building agenda, every region will have particular opportunities. In Scotland and Highland, we are blessed with a considerable standing timber resource matched with processing companies able to turn these biogenic renewable materials into forms which allow the very highestbuilding performance. Noted, we are missing particular materials currently imported from Europe that could be produced here and hopefully will be in time, but we have a base to spring from with modern sawmills and other materials plants. Clearly, taking an abundant raw primary resource, adding value to it while offsetting imports and sequestering carbon is a multiple win-win. To then turn the resulting materials, with the addition of high skilled high wage jobs, into much needed near Net-zero Passivhaus performing homes is outrageously positive. This is why the same agencies missing from the discussion until recent times are now seeing the opportunities, and the enthusiasm is tangible! 

In Part 2 of from toxic housing to healthy homes, we will discuss how operational energy requirement is only half the story, and the importance of measuring embodied carbon, or up-front carbon, in contemplating the full Life Cycle Assessment of our homes and work places.