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Creating Sustainable Shelter PDF Print E-mail

Written by Laura McDermid


Most of us who are familiar with Mazlow's heirarchy will know that shelter together with food and water rank as the most fundamental human needs, without which we cannot survive. However, shelter offers more than protection. It serves as the nucleus of our family life. It is here that we and our loved ones share our lives, grow, and celebrate life's victories and mourn intermittent defeats. Our homes can provide peace, solitude, and a place for reflection and quiet contemplation.

But shelter, like many other elements of human existence, comes at an extraordinary cost to the planet and its inhabitants. More than 251000 units of high density housing the likes of flats, townhouses and clusters were built in South Africa from 1995 - 2010; this number excludes private residential homes. Construction of these dwellings results in a massive drain on the Earth's natural resource base. This involves deforestation as well as excavation for materials the likes of slate and granite not to mention bricks which when baked further pollute the air with fossil fuels from coal.

Home construction is also a source of enormous waste. An average 700-square-meter home for instance generates three to seven tons of waste. This small mountain of waste which is typically hauled off to landfills, contains an assortment of materials, including scrap wood, cardboard, plastic, polystyrene, fibreglass and glass. However, the environmental problems created by shelter continue long after the construction of a home ends. Huge amounts of water, electricity. food and countless household products stream into our homes throughout their useful life span. The fossil fuels needed for heating, cooling, lighting and running appliances are hugely responsible for carbon dioxide emissions, which is contributing to climate change.

The day-to-day operation of conventional homes is also a source of other types of pollution. In industrial nations, billions of litres of water are released each day from our homes. This waste, containing human excrement. toxic cleaning agents, and other household chemicals, is routed to the municipal sewage systems in cities and towns.

Furthermore, researchers have found that our homes contain many building materials and products, including furniture, appliances, paints, stains and finishes, that release toxic fumes into the indoor air. Not to mention the pool of radiation that we are constantly bathed in due to wireless networks and cellphones.

The Rise of Green Buiding

Before you get totally depressed after reading the above - hope is definitely out there! A new generation of home owners, builders and architects are emerging. They are intent on creating homes that meet human needs without depleting the planet's resources, polluting the environment, poisoning their occupants, and driving innocent species to extinction.

Environmentally responsible homes, often called green or eco homes, come in many forms and use a wide variety of building materials - some conventional, some unfamiliar and innovative. They all have one thing in common: they provide shelter at a fraction of the environmental impact of conventional housing. They are built to promote human and animal health and to emancipate us from fossil fuels and other costly inputs.

Unfortunately Americans and Europeans still hold the corner on the market, but at least conscientious South Africans have seen the light and are starting to embrace eco buiding principals and concepts. We need champions to drive these changes and to show the community that living sustainably is attainable.

As Ghandi said "Be the change you wish to see in the world". This simple sentence carries more weight and meaning than most of us are aware of. Making changes of this nature requires relentless introspection and honesty. It is not enough just to read an article - we have to live the change - become it.

My enthusiasm often blinds me to others' complete disinterest. I initially approached a very dear friend who happens to be in construction, to involve him in our project. I thought that this could be a massive opportunity for him to learn green building principles and to incorporate them into his multi-million Rand homes. He often complains that he is unable to start a new project as Eskom cannot provide additional power as the existing grids are already past their capacity. Using solar or wind power could surely provide the solution - not only will it relieve the burden off Eskom but the occupants will enjoy the use of much cleaner source of electricity!

So I am learning too - I cannot convert everyone, and neither is it my responsibility to. I can be the change that I wish to see in my environment, and hopefully that will inspire some of you to start making changes. And by that I don't mean tearing down your brick home to build with straw, you can start by recycling your waste, or growing your own produce, or not using your kettle as much. Every conscious contribution goes a long way to saving the collective.

If you are interested in learning more, please join us on to follow our progress

For more reading on this subject, you can order the following books:

The New Ecological Home by Daniel D Chiras

Living homes by Thomas J Elpel

Ceramic Houses and Earth Architecture by Nader Khalili

Energy Efficient Homes for Dummies by Rik DeGunther

More Straw Bale Building by Chris Magwood, Peter Mack and Tina Therrien