Sustainability in Architecture meets the Rural Housing Crisis

Arguably, sustainability in architecture lies in its accessibility to users and the wider community. However, this has a different interpretation within rural communities than in large urban cities as there are unique challenges - land ownership, inadequate or non-existent housing, and low value jobs or lack of employment opportunities - all factors that have resulted in a continuous demographic shift to more prosperous urbanised areas.

A different way of thinking

So how can we make rural areas sustainable and solve these issues? The answer may seem simple: build more homes. But land prices continue to rise in the remote rural parts of the country, as do construction costs due to the need to transport building materials, plant and skilled personnel from elsewhere, with associated accommodation costs for the latter. The volume housebuilder rarely ventures into this environment: too few houses are required in each location and too many costs and uncertainties are involved. It is, however, possible to create genuinely affordable, and sustainable architecture in rural communities, it just needs a different way of thinking. With access to land, local skills and local forestry, we can take the factory to the forest and introduce modern methods of manufacture to create sustainable mass timber systems. Eminently deliverable as and when the need arises, it is possible to build back rural and, in the application of this modus operandi, sustainability is a given.

An endemic problem, a holistic solution

Previous journal posts focused on the evolution of the mobile factory concept as a response to the lack of affordable housing in the country’s rural communities, but this solution to what has hitherto been an endemic problem is not simply one of manufacture and construction, essential as these are: the natural, human and social issues affecting quality of life need to be taken into account too.* And it is the long-term need to stimulate future growth in these communities that has caused the mobile factory to emerge as the core element in a holistic plan designed to maximise the value of the three primary resources available: the land, the forest and the human capital provided by the community itself.

carbon offsetting

Addressing Climate Change

Underlying this proposition has been the recognition that heightened levels of ambition and innovation are necessary to ensure the construction of new, affordable and energy-efficient homes in rural areas is achieved sooner rather than later. The innovative model offered by this project aims not only to develop a mobile factory to take offsite manufacture (OSM) onsite, but one that also responds positively to the reality of climate change with a strategy that minimises the impact of newly-regenerated settlements on what are often fragile areas of landscape.

A response to the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals

The project thus takes cognisance of the urgent issues set out in the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals since these apply equally to small, remote rural communities as much as to large urban conurbations. The mobile factory concept directly addresses nine of the 17 goals and the other eight indirectly. The UN’s statements for each of the nine are condensed and edited here, with the Build-Back-Rural response shown below.

UN Sustainable Development Goals

Goal 1 - No Poverty

Poverty is more than the lack of income and resources to ensure a sustainable livelihood. Its manifestations include limited access to education and other basic services, social discrimination and exclusion as well as the lack of participation in decision-making. Architecture cannot lift people out of poverty, but the built environment can affect the impact of poverty on people’s life through access to housing and institutions that are affordable. Build-Back-Rural: aims to deliver affordable housing in remote rural communities with a mobile factory to make use of local skills and forest resources. Goal 3 - Good Health and Well-Being

Most people spend the majority of their life indoors, making indoor climate an influential factor of health. Architecture plays a crucial part in creating a built environment that supports good health and well-being. Building design must enable a healthy indoor climate concerning light, acoustics, air quality and exposure to radiation and degassing. Build-Back-Rural: Dowel laminated timber panels not only have excellent thermal and airtightness properties, the inherent hygroscopicity of the material, when left exposed internally, ensures improved air quality levels.

Goal 7 - Affordable and Clean Energy

Universal access to energy, increased energy efficiency and the increased use of renewable energy through new economic and job opportunities is crucial to creating more sustainable and inclusive communities and resilience to environmental issues like climate change. The building industry must put a focus on total energy consumption, from the extraction of materials through the construction phase to the use and disassembly of buildings and structures. Build-Back-Rural: The project’s ultimate objective is to introduce a method of construction that makes net-zero carbon homes in remote rural locations an affordable possibility. This together with the use of complementary passive systems aims to obviate energy poverty in these locations.

Goal 8 - Decent Work and Economic Growth

Having a job does not guarantee the ability to escape from poverty. We need to rethink and retool our economic and social policies to promote inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all as poverty eradication is only possible through stable and well-paid jobs. Build-Back-Rural: The introduction of a mobile factory that can be leased as and when required to build homes and other community facilities also creates a range of new skills training and employment opportunities.

Goal 9 - Industry, Innovation and infrastructure

Advancing sustainability in the built environment requires a development of industry away from current practice towards new ways of producing and assembling. The building industry is by nature site-specific and we must aim at utilising local industries and advance the development of sustainable products locally. This requires much more focus on industry’s use of local materials and resources. Build-Back-Rural: By ‘taking the factory to the forest', the project enables the quality benefits inherent in offsite manufacture (OSM) to be delivered onsite by local communities using the local forest resource. A sustainable, circular economy solution.

Goal 10 - Reduced Inequalities

We cannot achieve sustainable development and make the planet better for all if people are excluded from opportunities, services and the chance to of having a better life. To reduce inequalities, architecture must be designed and executed so that it is socially responsible, inclusive and take into consideration the needs of all members of society, leaving no one behind. Build-Back-Rural: The social economic and cultural aspirations of remote rural communities can only be defined locally and, wherever possible, delivered locally by people within the community. Inequality is also a question of identity: the mobile factory approach offers the opportunity to reappraise and nurture the individuality of each community.

Goal 12 - Responsible Consumption and Production

Sustainable consumption and production aims at “doing more and better with less.” Design and construction of new buildings must give priority to reducing the amount of material resources employed and waste produced. We need new components and solutions that reduce the use of non-renewable natural resources and emphasise local materials. Build-Back-Rural: The mobile factory solution is an innovative response to the needs of remote rural communities. By using the local forest resource efficiently, material wastage can be minimised and embodied and operational energy costs significantly reduced. Dowel Laminated timber panels offers a positive, alternative approach to sustainable construction.

Goal 13 - Climate Action

Climate change is happening and existing buildings and settlements must be adapted to the changing conditions. This requires new design solutions…solutions that are sensitive to local culture as well as local topographic and climatic conditions. Build-Back-Rural: Homes constructed from solid laminate timber panels not only have good thermal and airtightness properties, they also, importantly, sequester large amounts of atmospheric Co2 for the lifetime of the building and beyond through material re-use. Local forest replanting replaces the harvested trees. Local environmental conditions and culture together with the use of dowel laminated timber panels offer new design and placemaking opportunities for rural communities.

Goal 15 - Life on Land

Forests are key to combating climate change, protecting biodiversity and the homes of the indigenous population. The building industry can help promote sustainable forestry and combat deforestation by using wood only from sustainable sources and using materials that are renewable and sustainably produced. Build-Back-Rural: Local manufacture of dowel laminated timber panels raises the value of the local resource, thus providing the means and the sustainable employment necessary to maintain the forest and continue to upgrade the timber quality through the application of improved silviculture techniques.

The unrecognised global challenge

Ultimately, the Build-Back-Rural project aims to address a series of current and urgent issues with a radical approach to localised construction. Yes it is a small project, but one that once implemented can demonstrate its potential to be scaled up - not only for application in different parts fo the UK, but also in other countries where remote rural communities, located within or near forest resources, are affected by poor infrastructure and limited employment opportunities. In the grand scheme of things, its impact may only be a pimple on the face of the global construction industry, but a desperately needed disruptive one for those communities the industry fails to reach or support *The ‘Five Capitals’ model for sustainability