30 Jun 2019

Is the Eden Project a vision of our future?

In early June, I went to visit the Eden Project in Cornwall. It's been open since 2001, so you might wonder just why its taken me so long to get there, as I have been in Cornwall many times over these years. But it seems to me the Eden Project was built as a rainy-day visitor attraction and maybe I had been lucky with the weather up till now. But a wet June day finally saw me cross the threshold, buying tickets for our party of four at an eye watering price, and following the many other rain dodgers down into the gigantic tropical biodome which is its centre piece.

It's bloody hot and humid in there and after about an hour wandering around I was feeling quite exhausted. But also amazed by the sheer scale of the structure. I've been in hot humid glasshouses before — we have several in the Botanical Gardens in Cambridge — but the Eden Project biodome is the size of a large airport terminal. Our party was pleased to get out of it into the relative coolth of the adjacent Mediterranean dome, and even more pleased to get out into the open air half an hour later.

On the way home I started musing about whether the Eden Project has anything to teach us about the impending climate crisis. If we fail to keep the average temperature rise down to manageable levels, we will render much of the Earth's surface uninhabitable. Well much of it already is, let's be frank. But parts which are now readily inhabitable will become too unpleasant to forge a life in. But spaces like the Eden Project, provided they can get good supplies of energy, will continue to function even at very much higher temperatures, because we can create an indoor climate which will be very comfortable for human beings, and indeed, animals and plants.

In a sense these changes are already happening. We are tending to move into cities which are certainly non-natural environments. We already have homes which are already heated and cooled spaces, insulated form the outside environment, and we mostly travel in cars, buses and trains which have controlled environments. Cross what we already are doing with Eden Project type biodomes and you have a viable future landscape. It's a bit like what would happen if we were to colonise another planet where the air wasn't capable of supporingus. There we would have to build an artificial atmosphere around us, as indeed many science fiction writers have postulated. It's as if we were bringing our plans for the colonisation of Mars back down to Earth to tide us through this climate emergency.

The downside to this is that it is unlikely to support the 7 to 10 billion people reckoned to be living on earth by mid-century,  not to mention their feedstock animals and plants. These biomes would probably be constructed in places which would be relatively immune to the tempestuous weather we may experience, and on high ground to avoid rising sea levels. Probably away from earthquake and hurricane zones as well, so as to maximise their chances of long term stability.

The wild, untamed outside areas would probably consist of 99% of the Earth's land cover and we would be free to explore these areas, weather and climate permitting. But live there? Not really possible anymore. There might be vast areas used to collect solar and wind energy needed to keep us humans comfortable in our biodomes, or maybe we would have all gone nuclear by then, because no one will be too worried if there is a radiation spill as there will be no one living within 100 miles.

How many people would this sort of future support? I guess that depends on how many of these biodomes we managed to build. But say each biodome was around 10km2, a 3.5km diameter circle. A luxurious one might support as many as 100,000 people (having 10m2 each). That's just about feasible to comprehend. It would be like putting a roof over an entire town.

Of course you would immediately be cast into a world where there would be upmarket biodomes (maybe 25m2 each) and low rent ones (less than 10m2 each). And then there would be those who couldn't afford to live in a biodome and maybe they'd be left to fend for themselves in the wild parts of the planet. Or maybe not....

It would be very expensive to build biodomes of this scale, but what exactly would be the alternative?  The most obvious answer is to mitigate - to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels, and keep the whole planet's atmosphere in defined limits so that it is one big functioning biodome. But despite so many people's best wishes, at the moment this seems unlikely, as the political will required to do this is sorely lacking. Another option is to start tinkering with the planet's atmosphere and try and keep it within comfortable bounds. But at the moment, this also seems an unlikely prospect.

Life on Earth will continue, whatever we do to the climate. But just how much life, and under what conditions, is still a very open question.


18 Jun 2019

Housebuilders Bible 13

The text and images are ready to go on the next edition of my Housebuilder's Bible. Final proofing stage has been reached and the book is set to be printed in July for an August launch. This will be the 13th edition. The first edition one came out in December 1994, so the "project" (for that is what it is) is now in its 25th year. The book has sold just over 175,000 copies in that time which works out at a sale every 75 minutes.

I know it's been helpful to many because I've had a lot of feedback over the years, but it's position has changed because selfbuild, as an activity, has become far better known and there is so much more knowledge out there now. Not to mention the coming of the internet, which barely existed in 1994.

Still, the internet can be a lonely place, and there are many questions that it doesn't answer terribly well. Sales patter....it's full of it. Opinions....everywhere. But a simple question, like how best to build a house, really isn't addressed at all. I hope Edition 13 can shed some light on this. Whereas in 1994, my aim was simply to be a conduit for lots of useful information, today it's become a little more nuanced. Now it's more about trying to make sense of an overload of information out there.

8 Jan 2019

Plasterboard buying and waste tips

Up until 2005, there were no restrictions on dealing with plasterboard or gypsum waste from construction sites. In that year, the government (at the behest of an EU directive) began to treat plasterboard differently. Although it's not a hazardous material in its own right, it can react with biodegradable materials to create hydrogen sulphide (think rotten eggs) and it has been deemed to be best if plasterboard isn't just added to landfill where it might encounter just about anything.

But the regulations have never had much teeth and, unlike asbestos, waste companies have tended to turn a blind eye to the disposal of plasterboard and gypsum plasters generally. This is because builders themselves either don't know about the requirements for plasterboard disposal or, more likely, don't care. In fact, plaster products are recyclable and a good waste disposal business will do just that, so that very little plasterboard need ever end up in landfill. But a skip user has no idea what will happen to the skip after it leaves site. Plasterboard off cuts just get placed in the skip, or taken down to the tip.

In fact, my local skip company does offer a plasterboard-only skip collection service. The special skips cost around 15% more than regular skips, and in addition charge of £75 for each extra tonne above the first tonne placed in the skip. On the other hand, they readily accept plasterboard offcuts in ordinary skips as long as the plasterboard makes up no more than 20% of the waste. Who exactly is going to measure that?

Plasterboard buying is notoriously difficult to estimate correctly because it produces so many offcuts. It is usually better to slightly underestimate and then buy the additional requirements in small batches until the work is complete. What you want to avoid is having to dispose of 20 or 30 sheets of the stuff.

2 Jan 2019

Housebuilder's Bible 13

Today I start work on the next edition of the Housebuilder's Bible - No 13. I haven't used blogger since 2015 as my attentions moved on elsewhere and blogging seemed to fall from grace both for me and in general. But I am thinking it a great place to get back in the swing of writing short pieces, if only to hone my rusty writing skills. My aim is to contribute a few blogs about things I uncover in my research over the coming months. All comments and feedback welcome.