Building a more sustainable future for housing

May 19, 2015

Dr Adele Leah, who graduated this month with a PhD in Architecture, has established a method for the investigation of the relationship between the environmental impact of the building materials in a house and the lifestyle of its inhabitants, both immediately after construction and in the present day.

She studied two groups of three-bedroomed which were designed and constructed in the late 1920s for rental to workers and their families. "The first were the single storey timber framed railway workers' houses located in the Tarikaka Settlement in the Wellington suburb of Ngaio, and the second were a group of two storey masonry houses located in Witham, England, built for factory workers," she explains.

Adele interviewed elderly people who had lived in these or similar houses at around the time the houses were first constructed, as well as the present day inhabitants. "I also surveyed the houses, attempted to track all of the alterations that had taken place, and compared that information to the original house plans," she says. This enabled her to assess the of the houses by calculating the amount of energy used in building materials and alterations.

Adele found that the purpose and function of housing has changed markedly over the last 80 years. "In the 1920s, the house was very much a place of production and the adjacent public spaces were for social interaction. But today, houses are typically used for sleeping, eating, relaxing, and engaging with technology, with the adjacent public space taken up by the car. This raises the question of whether modern house design reflects this change in purpose, and whether it's flexible enough to accommodate further changes in lifestyle in the future."

Adele's research showed that, when constructed, the timber framed Tarikaka Settlement houses had much lower levels of embodied energy that the masonry houses in Witham. However, subsequent alterations combined with necessary maintenance meant the cumulative embodied energy of the Tarikaka houses in 2012 was higher than the Witham houses. "The single storey timber houses are easier to alter and upgrade, but require more maintenance, and conversely the two storey masonry houses are harder to alter and require less maintenance, which is interesting since timber is promoted as being the more 'sustainable' ." she says.

"My research challenges the idea of what a sustainable house is by showing it is the people, their values and what they do that really matter, not just the materials of which the house is made. It highlights the importance of a consideration of lifetime performance and maintenance in material choice and also makes a contribution to the argument for embodied energy to form part of the Building Code and Building Regulations requirements in New Zealand and the United Kingdom respectively."

Explore further: Experimental study on dynamic behavior of unreinforced masonry walls

Related Stories

Green homes use 80 per cent less energy

April 5, 2012

Clever, inexpensive design can cut the energy used in new homes by up to 80 per cent, says a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) researcher.

Straw houses in the front line of sustainable construction

January 30, 2015

For the first time ever, an EPFL laboratory has carried out a complete energy analysis of a straw house, from planting the grass to the destruction of the materials. The results are based on the specific case of an administrative ...

Recommended for you

Enhancing solar power with diatoms

October 20, 2017

Diatoms, a kind of algae that reproduces prodigiously, have been called "the jewels of the sea" for their ability to manipulate light. Now, researchers hope to harness that property to boost solar technology.

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.