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Solutions to the Housing Crisis IV

Build with what? -- The example of corrugated iron.

Before I move onto other issues in regard to streetscape and suburban refit I want to refer you to these two house designs by the Melbourne architect firm of Designology. The house above is The Convertible House

Award winning alternative dwelling that is ecologically sustainable, durable, low cost,flat packed (or semi-prefabricated), low embodied energy, high security,storm & fire resistant for a relatively remote rural location
The example -- right -- is the same company's off grid house.

I'm sure there are thousands of permutations on such themes. Any Google search of "off grid housing" or modular kit houses, preFab construction, panelized, manufactured housing (example) will deliver a massive array of design and material options.

And if you go visit Container City you get ready made use of shipping containers!:

The Container City™ system uses shipping containers linked together to provide high strength, prefabricated steel modules that can be combined to create a wide variety of building shapes and adapted to suit most planning or end user needs.This modular technology enables construction times and cost to be reduced by up to half that of traditional building techniques while remaining significantly more environmentally friendly.
While this plethora of options is perhaps endless, the features I think warrant consideration are:

  • These buildings are prefabricated and factory built.
  • The design lends itself to portability and recycling such that many of these houses can be shifted elsewhere on the back of a truck or disassembled and the materials re-used in another build.
  • The best of them use modern materials that are considerate of the Carbon Dioxide created in their production.
This last point is important. There is a habit in the environment movement to prefer a certain organic preference in proselytizing the eco friendly house we must have. So it's supposedly has to be made from straw bale or rammed earth construction on a cement slab. That's not necessarily the case.

An Australian system, BMAS (Building Material Assessment System), based on life-cycle analysis, has been developed to compare the relative ecological impacts of various types of wall, floor and roof assemblies. Some indicative results are as follows (NB: High numbers indicate greater environmental impact; lower numbers indicate lesser impact):


Timber Frame, Plasterboard 7.2
Steel Frame, Plasterboard 7.4
AAC Blocks - rendered 20.6
Clay Bricks - rendered 49.


Timber, Brick Piers, Footings 41.9
Concrete Raft Slab 74.4


Timber Frame, Corrugated Steel 5.2
Timber Frame, Terracotta Tile 20.6

This is where the corrugated iron overlay in the top image example above -- The Convertible House -- makes so much ecological sense despite what may be first impressions. In fact many modern industrial building materials -- except bricks, cement, mortar -- combined with wood , are climate change low impact.What they don't offer as matter of course is thermal mass.

Inasmuch as I have any building knowledge the irony is that the historical preference for wood and corrugated iron construction in Australia is a lot more environmentally friendly than the modern preference for bricks and mortar.

This brings me around to a conversation I had with Roberto Perez , the Cuban permaculturalist who Green Left Weekly helped tour here during 2008. Perez was impressed with the massive potential corrugated iron had for housing in Cuba as part of the green revolution he was playing such a key part in. He had to come here for its relevance to register because Australia is, as the wonderful book Corrugated Iron: Building on the Frontier insists "the spiritual home of corrugated iron".

If we can get over the long term disdain for the Nissan Hut (right)-- and the suburb in which I lived was settled first by military personnel in Nissan Huts during the Second World War -- or the dismissal of the tin shed as an out building; in our planet of slums, tens of millions are housed in corrugated iron throw togethers using recycled sheeting.( Cape Town image- left).

In terms of where we are at now in regard immediate options :"It is quite possible in all parts of Australia to construct a 'house with no bills', which would be comfortable without heating and cooling, which would make its own electricity, collect its own water and deal with its own waste...These houses can be built now, using off-the-shelf techniques. It is possible to build a "house with no bills" for the same price as a conventional house, but it would be (25%) smaller."Brenda and Robert Vale.

The materials issue is a major concern for one of Australia's greatest architects, Glenn Murcrutt ,who is an innovator in the application and use of corrugated iron in building design and construction:

GLENN MURCUTT: It is about environment. But it's taking into account where materials come from, the true costs, to understand that timber is a very marvellous material. It's a renewable resource. It takes only five megajoules of energy to process a kilogram of timber. It's just marvellous. A kilogram of aluminium, for example, takes 143 megajoules of energy. Hugely different. So it allows you to proportion the use of materials in a building, put things together in a way you can pull apart and reuse them. That's a... that's a really important area, so we don't have the loss of materials. I've been thinking about that for a long time.

A Murcutt design

While this may be true the challenge is not to proceed one house at a time but to set in place broad scale adjustments that embrace whole neighborhoods -- regardless of where they may be located -- so that new housing can be constructed and all current ones retro-fitted as part of a collective rather than an individual solution while making radical adjustments to energy inputs.

The Socialist Alliance tackled this option in its campaign for the Newcastle City Council when it was argued to take the whole of Newcastle off the grid.

As for what may be the key tasks for retro fitting already existing housing stock, the NABERS rating scale is a useful guide to where individual dwellings may be at. Test out the house you live in.

The story so far:

6 Com:

Ben Courtice | April 05, 2009

As well as the embodied energy, energy efficiency and so on in houses it's good to consider their impact in terms of taking a plot of land and turning it from grassland or forest or whatever into a sterile surface of tin, concrete etc. Green Roofs Australia have an approach to reduce impact here. QUT academic Janis Birkeland has a good textbook of "positive development" which looks at ways to make the urban environment compensate or even over-compensate (in terms of "ecological services") for its impact in resource and land use. The book is published by EarthScan and I recommend it. Here's a synopsis.

Dave Riley | April 05, 2009

I've ordered the Janis Birkeland book.
However, the argument I'm exploring -- as a hypothesis -- is that building lite and using supplements to extend such structures environmentally -- insulation for example-- is preferable in regard to flexible options than building solid, as you'd require, I'd assume, to support a green roof.

Any 'green roof approach' presumes a reasonable flat or low incline roof and with enough structural content to support the collective weight.

Technically any roof can be greened with climbers without any special ontop plantings. But climbers will foster faster deterioration of , say, a corrugated iron roof surface underneath because of organic and acid build up on the surface.

The first problem I think is retrofitting. The second is finding the space ( and win the community support top exploit it)in already existing urban areas to locate the housing (and accommodation) we need so that already existing infrastucture is utilised more efficiently. The third problem is developing the means to build sustainable houses quickly, and cheaply which also offers a option that , in fact, they can be moved elsewhere if needed, or raised up or dismantled and recycled...

EG:The one piece of lumbar harvested and cut in 1910 can still be in use and recycled a century later.Whereas a house brick isn't always so long lived.

Here in Qld thermal mass isn't a major factor in ecological design so much.I'm also considerate that the houses we need to build are bush fire and cyclone resistant.( and when you talk tin roof you have to be careful on how that roof is pitched and curved). And in my head -- relative to the grid, I think there is a lot to be said for designing allotments that are as much plug in /switch on as a caravan site's are.

On the question of space --while we can go up, how far do we want to go up? Three stories?

Aside from unused industrial land and the possibility of dividing already existing blocks , one third of the suburban space is taken up by roads. So how much can that be harnessed for living and recreational and community use? And how is that done?

It's easy to imagine a 'future' house but altering the ecology of already existing suburbs now, today, is another matter altogether.

We know it can be done becuse we've witnessed so much inner city renewal and gentrification.

The related issue I think, is the complication that the brick house -- even where they already exist in western Sydney for instance is threatened by soil salinity -- just as on the urban fringe in the southern capitals, bush fires lick the family home.

The question that is the most pressing is that given the politics of home ownership how do you move beyond the present mindset to a more community and collective neighborhoods which will willing give up even "privately owned" real estate for the sake of a collective ecology? Related to this is the complication that you cannot so easily remake the use of the road network without dealing with the transport challenge .

In my head I'm thinking that the politics we need to consider isn't so much technical at all. But if we are going to ask people to live a different way in smaller spaces we have to offer a trade off.

And this is where the caravan , camping park comes in or the retirement village model. You have to generate neighborhood services that will encourage people to loosen up on their peasant attitude to real estate. And before you can do that you need to make their lives economically much more secure so that their home isn't so layered with security hopes.

Bugger I've started to write my next post...

ADMIN | April 05, 2009

The problem is private ownership.

That's not so easily overcome, but one way, especially with the option of building lite, portable and sustainable structures is for communities or governments to long term lease land parcels from private family home real estate owners and to build these structures on that land.

That way there's a return for the fact that your plot is suddenly much smaller and en route, the neighborhood gets to experience the crowding while still having the option to pull out of the arrangement at a later date.(eg: after 10, 20, etc years) That way you support the original home owners with a cash commitment which they could rely on while you restructure the local urbanscape without recourse to legislative or authoritarian means .

In many ways you want to draw lessons from the problems, disasters and achievements that were experienced in the past with collectivising agriculture. You don't do away with home ownership -- even the Cubans know that -- but you foster a nuanced means in order to introduce collective activity and shared responsibility.

In that sense people trade aspects of what they may value now for a greater promise and convenience as they learn to have confidence in the changes being wrought.

So as you add to the neighborhood more community facilities you expand the local population by using these trade off methods to build more housing on 'privately owned' land. At the same time you restructure the road system and local traffic flow to free up more land for housing and community amenities.

In my head, the game plan is a sort of long term caravan park that invades localities and the longer it consolidates and takes routes the more changes are possible and the more permanent -- and socialist -- they become.

I cannot imagine any other way that such massive demographic changes could be engineered with community consent.

Realtor in Toronto | April 07, 2009

Do you happen to know any price tags on these houses? The Convertible House seems like a great idea, although I wonder what life-span these houses have. I'm pretty sure they age a lot faster than a normal house, right? Thanks for an interesting read,

take care, Elli

ADMIN | April 07, 2009

You'll have to contact the comp[any about the house's cost. As for longevity well, that's materials question. There are corrugated iron structures over a century old.

But i only referenced the house as a example not as a blueprint.

Carol | August 18, 2009

A great idea, a definite solution.

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