Wishing you a happier, more sustainable Christmas

Anne Liddon, Science Communications Manager and Carmen Hubbard, Lecturer, Centre for Rural Economy, School of Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, have written a thought-provoking post on how to make Christmas more sustainable.

It’s Christmas Eve and already shop assistants are scraping seasonal gift advertisements off their windows as they prepare to sell us even more stuff in the New Year sales.  Coloured lights have festooned the streets for weeks and we are all sick of eating turkey.  Christmas is the biggest celebration of the year for most people in the UK, so we risk sounding like killjoys if we try to bring sustainability into this festive picture.  But is the emphasis on continuous consumption for up to three months before Christmas actually reducing our enjoyment?

In mediaeval times work stopped on Christmas Eve and the population was on holiday for the traditional “twelve days”.  Daylight was short, there was no electricity and few agricultural tasks to be done, so staying indoors and making the most of the enforced idleness made sense.  But now Christmas begins earlier and earlier, with gift catalogues posted out in August and shop window displays unveiled from September onwards.  Festive lights are switched on up to six weeks before Christmas, usually by a well-known celebrity.  This year London’s Oxford Street will be ablaze from 12 November to 4 January with a new £1.5 million display.  That’s the cost of the lights themselves, not counting the energy that they will consume.  Newcastle’s display is more modest but is also illuminated from mid-November onwards.

Christmas lights Newcastle

Christmas lights Newcastle

Of course the lights bring pleasure to many residents and visitors.  Businesses in London insist that they bring in extra visitors to the capital during the winter season, but do those of us who live here in Newcastle really notice our own Christmas lights after the initial “wow” factor?  If they were alight for just a few days over the holiday itself might we enjoy them even more?

It is certainly true that many people complain about the early start to the festive season.  A poll carried out by IPSOS ASI in 2012 found that 76% of respondents thought that “Christmas advertising starts too early”  – and few would deny that it is commerce that drive this early start, with mince pies on sale from September and parties beginning weeks before the day itself.  Is our enthusiasm “unsustainable”, and do we risk it running out well before 25th December?  Economists talk about a “law of diminishing marginal utility” to describe the way that the perceived satisfaction derived from a good reduces with each additional unit.  Could this also apply to the experience of Christmas?

Excess – whether of gifts, food or alcohol – is now expected.  How many unwanted presents are immediately passed on to charity shops or even thrown in the bin along with the paper and plastic debris of crackers, wrapping paper and leftover food?  Figures published in 2012 concluded that we waste the equivalent of two million turkeys, five million Christmas puddings and 74 million mince pies over the festive season, because households routinely overbuy at this time of year.  We seem to fear that the shops will never reopen, even though most are back to business as usual by Boxing Day.  Then there are the extra calories that we actually consume – and attempt to compensate for in January with resolutions about dieting and gym membership.  More serious still are the manifold consequences to individuals and to society following festive alcohol binges.

Christmas decorations Eldon Square, Newcastle

Christmas decorations Eldon Square, Newcastle

Eating, drinking and partying are fun, particularly in the depths of a dark winter, as our ancestors have always known.  But in the modern world these activities might cause us fewer problems if the celebrations didn’t last so long.  A big Christmas dinner is not, on its own, going to make anyone fat.  A couple of glasses of wine on Christmas Day will not have long-term health implications for most adults and a small, carefully chosen gift will give more pleasure than an expensive but unwanted one.

So we don’t want to cancel Christmas, rather we want to increase everyone’s enjoyment and, in doing so, we argue that we could make it more sustainable.  If the only Christmas dinner you ate was on Christmas Day itself, wouldn’t you savour the roast turkey and mince pies that much more?  And if the illumination of the festive lights actually launched your celebration on Christmas Eve, wouldn’t that be even more exciting, as well as saving energy?

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Sustainable development in northern Peru – a personal experience (part 4)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainability at Newcastle University, travelled to Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru, in March 2014 for five weeks to help develop the town’s infrastructure. In the final post of a four-post series, Jennifer tells us about her trip.

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What a trip – we have been back a week, and it is already hard to remember that we were away, that is until I look at the pages of notes I have to get through to properly begin my analysis! I wonder if the readers are interested to know a bit more about our specific projects, so I will try to explain a little here before completing the story of how it all went.

Jen and Mark on the fish quay in Lobitos

Jen and Mark on the fish quay in Lobitos

My husband Mark is a renewable energy policy advisor, and is right at the end of studying for a part time Master’s degree in Renewable Energy Enterprise and Management at Newcastle University. For his dissertation, he is writing a feasibility study for solar energy use in Lobitos. This involves analysis of the different potential applications, funding opportunities and barriers (both technical and social), and finally a full business case for one or more of the applications that he thinks are the most promising. This will be directly beneficial for EcoSwell and the inhabitants of Lobitos, because he will be basing his analysis and recommendations on the reality on the ground and with existing funding options and mechanisms. The intention for the team in Lobitos is for them to actually take this case forward and implement it.

My research interest is primarily the social dimension of sustainable development, although taking account of the physical, environmental aspects. What I intend for Lobitos is to get a good understanding of the different stakeholder groups and their ‘dynamics’, essentially: the relationships between them; their role in the town and its development; and the risks and/or benefits to them of the changes that are likely to take place. This information will then be analysed and disseminated in straightforward terms to those with the power to bring about change, or planning to implement particular projects.  The intention is that this will aid those groups designing the process, provide a solid platform for multi-stakeholder consultation and ultimately result in a socially beneficial, sustainable outcome. Dissemination will be to EcoSwell, supporting them in designing the projects they intend to implement, as well as the Municipal and Regional Governments.

During our fortnight in Lobitos, we conducted interviews with over 25 different individuals and groups. We spoke to the decision makers, the business owners, the visitors, the inhabitants and external experts. We were extremely fortunate to find that, on the whole, people were very happy to talk to us and share information, as well as their views and aspirations. Our main EcoSwell contact in Lobitos, Alejandro Pizarro, had laid a significant amount of groundwork in setting up meetings with Government officers and local business owners, but a lot of the interviews were gained simply by walking around and knocking on doors. It was a strategy that worked from day 1, so we were happy to run with it! We wouldn’t have got far without Alejandro, and his EcoSwell colleagues Andres Bustamente and Luis Miguel Meza, with their translation and local knowledge.

We learned a lot more detail about the problems faced in Lobitos, but also the opportunities. Of course, not everyone agrees with each other! We spoke at length to certain individuals about the complex political situation and some of the associated difficulties and frustrations, whilst others were proud of the efforts of the Municipality and felt they were proactive in the town’s development. Reports of declining fish stocks were unanimous, with various reasons proposed – noise from the oil platforms, over fishing by bigger vessels from elsewhere trawling in the bay (legally and illegally), pollution from sewage or petroleum extraction. The Regional Government in Piura were less concerned with the water quality in Talara Province (in which Lobitos sits) than neighbouring Paita – where the production of fish flour and the discharge of untreated sewage has apparently resulted in faecal matter readings in the ocean of 55 times greater than the permitted level. Actual readings for Talara were not available.

Education was often mentioned; it appears that the state funded schooling available in the town suffers from poor provisions and a lack of coordination. There are reception, primary and secondary schools on the same site but managed and run separately. The lack of communication is such that the electricity supply was cut off last year because of an internal disagreement over splitting the bill. There is a small but non-compulsory charge for attending school that many families do not pay. Very few of the children who follow this local school system, where there are no national exams, end up with professional jobs and almost none go on to higher education or to work outside Lobitos. Some parents told us that they send their children to Talara for better schooling, but others insisted that the only decent education available in the region is in Piura, and that sending children there, or even Talara, was far too expensive for the majority of Lobiteños. Many of the locals are employed by the Municipality, some in clerical positions but most as drivers, security officers or street sweepers. None of the officials that we met were from Lobitos, nor were most of the professionals or business owners with the exception of one local woman, educated in Lima, who is Director of the Lobitos office of international charity Waves for Development.

So, now we have to wade through the interview transcripts and get on with our analysis. I hope that these posts have given some insight into the nature of fieldwork in countries like Peru. One thing I have learned from 8 years doing this sort of research, though, is that everywhere is different and seeing really is believing – you need to experience it for yourself in order to get close to understanding what is actually going on and how people are affected. Enjoy!

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Sustainable development in northern Peru – a personal experience (part 3)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainability at Newcastle University, travelled to Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru, in March 2014 for five weeks to help develop the town’s infrastructure. In the third of a four-post series, Jennifer tells us about her trip.

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After my last post, we began to get stuck into the research, interviewing as many people as we could and investigating the surroundings more closely. Lobitos is actually quite a sprawling town, with around 1,500 inhabitants. It is split into distinct areas: Nuevo Lobitos, where the Municipal Government, school and a number of newer restaurants and hostels are located; Primavera, the town centre hosting the Plaza des Armas, security post, health centre and where most of the Lobiteños themselves live; Bellavista, a residential area up on the dunes overlooking the beach, made up of British Colonial built houses in varying states of disrepair and inhabited by a mix of Lobiteños and newcomers; la Playa, beachfront strip with a lot more hostels and restaurants; and the Military zone, a real mix of wooden colonial dwellings and brick built houses in all states from almost entirely destroyed to fully refurbished houses for newcomers, restaurants and hostels, with everything in between!

Lobitos fishermen

Lobitos fishermen

Our impression so far is that this is a friendly and relaxed place, where the people very much appreciate the safety and tranquillity of their town. This is particularly stark in comparison to Provincial Town Talara, a 20 minute drive away, where crime is a big problem and the inhabitants live in a busier, more polluted, smelly environment. Another contrasting comparison is made to Mancora, a tourist resort town further up the coast with a densely populated shoreline right up to the sea, land prices pushing locals out of the market, infamous nightlife and drug problems.

Lobitos, whilst currently resisting the problems of Talara and Mancora, is not without its own difficulties. There are at least 20 oil platforms within sight of the beach, and the sand is scarred with a crusty black layer in places. A significant oil spill last year was virtually unreported and little was done to remediate the impacts. The water supply is variable – it is officially available for 2 hours per day, 3-4 days per week, but is not always reliable. Those who can afford it fill tanks to supply their needs, others are reliant on the intermittent service and depend on the Municipality to provide water tankers if the taps run dry. Electricity is available via the grid, but is expensive and prices are increasing rapidly. Many, certainly not all, inhabitants have a connection and the penalty for getting behind on payments is disconnection, a fine and high price for reconnection. The Health Centre is very basic, and only really able to provide First Aid and simple procedures. It is only open until around 2pm Monday to Friday, and there is no service outside of this time. The Municipal Government have recently provided an ambulance, essentially a transport service to the hospital in Talara, with no medical equipment or paramedics. Land disputes, particularly along the beach, are a real concern for many residents. If someone fences off an area and manages to defend the position for 10 years (sometimes by violent means) they can claim official ownership. There is a Central Government organisation, Biene Nacionales, working on planning restrictions and trying to stop beachfront development that is too close to the shoreline, but the local perception is that this is largely ineffective and that Lobiteños are being negatively impacted by relatively uncontrolled invasion of the territory in this way. We have also heard concerns about the quality and affordability of education, the management of household waste and sewerage, the decline of fish stocks and the lack of skilled employment opportunities available.

All in all, an interesting start to the trip, and we are looking forward to getting more information from the inhabitants, business owners, government officers and anyone else we can talk to. Let the hard work begin!

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Sustainable development in northern Peru – a personal experience (part 2)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainability at Newcastle University travelled to Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru, in March 2014 for five weeks to help develop the town’s infrastructure. In the second of a four-post series, Jennifer tells us about her trip.

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If you read the previous post, you will know that my husband and I were preparing for a research trip to northern Peru. Well, we made it to Lima and from there it was just a simple 90 minute flight and 2 hour drive to Lobitos. The drive was interesting – from Piura (the Capital City of the region of Piura where Lobitos is situated) out to the coast, passing through predominantly desert landscape with the scars of what are presumably wet season rivers. The road was surprisingly good for most of the way, and pretty much dead straight. As we neared the coast we were joined by gas pipelines following the route, a reminder of the influence of the petroleum industry in this region. We did also pass a brand new looking wind farm, with the sign at the entrance announcing it to be a 30MW instalment due to be operationalised in 2014. For the whole journey we were also accompanied by electricity cabling along the roadside, confirming what we had heard that the area is serviced by grid electricity connection.

Lobitos boat yard

Lobitos boat yard

As we approached Lobitos, having turned off the main road at Talara – Provincial Town covering this area – the road turned to dusty and bumpy dirt track, still following the snaking gas pipelines and electricity cables. We passed even more petroleum infrastructure as we negotiated the sprawling dunes; nodding donkey pumps littered the landscape with their rhythmical and repetitive action providing some background percussion. We arrived in the town, right on the coastline, and set about looking for our lodgings (which we had managed to arrange finally 2 days before leaving the UK!). Eventually someone pointed us in the right direction, and we drove along the beach to find the place. The manager knew nothing of our booking (!), but had space and gave us a lovely room overlooking the beach, which will be our base for the next fortnight. There are definitely worse places to be working!

That afternoon we met up with Alejandro Pizarro, an independent researcher and one of the founders of EcoSwell, who had been living in Lobitos for the past month. He welcomed us and got us up to speed with his activities, in terms of setting up meetings with the Municipal and Regional Government offices, local businesses and residents. We also talked about what we were each hoping to get out of the trip, including EcoSwell – as our projects will both feed directly into their planning process and represent the first bit of external, independent research they have facilitated. It was soon time for our first walking tour of the town, so off we went.

I will update what we found out in the next post, but just by way of background Lobitos was originally developed as a base for a British Petroleum company who began surveying the area in around 1900. They obviously found what they were looking for, and set about building up infrastructure for their workers, which included bringing in fishermen from surrounding areas to provide food. All of the building materials originally came in from ships, and they gradually built up a thriving and wealthy seaside town which had its own cinema, casino, desalination plant, schools and facilities. Around the 1960s, the British company sold the contract to American company International Petroleum, but within 10 years a change of government in Peru, which became a military State, resulted in the expulsion of foreign companies and the petroleum industry was nationalised. Lobitos became gradually run down, until conflict with Ecuador in the 1980s and 1990s led to the town being taken over by the army and used as a military base. A large proportion of the old colonial part of the town is still owned by the army and leased to tenants, although the means for securing properties does not seem to be clear, or straightforward. Many of the buildings are in disrepair, and parts of the former military barracks are no-go zones. Lobitos therefore has a relatively short and turbulent history, but those who remember the prosperous times of the British Petroleum company are hopeful that it can once again be a thriving and vibrant place.

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Tourism development in northern Peru – a personal experience

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Coordinator for the Institute for Sustainability at Newcastle University travelled to Lobitos, a small town in Northern Peru, in March 2014 for five weeks to help develop the town’s infrastructure. In the first of a four-post series, Jennifer tells us about her trip.

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I am writing this blog in the final throes of preparation for a research trip to northern Peru, which I am undertaking in less than a week’s time. As with any absence, there is a lot to do in the office leading up to it as I try to clear the desk and hand over tasks to colleagues – particularly as I will be away for 5 weeks! And, as is often the case, I have been so busy doing everything else that I have not had as much time as I would like to prepare for the research aspect and instead am just piling up materials to read on the plane…

Peru map

Fig 1: Map of Peru from GoogleMaps, showing the location of Lobitos on the northern coast.

The overall aim of the project I will be working on is to support the inhabitants of Lobitos, a small town in northern Peru, to develop the town’s infrastructure and, accordingly, their livelihoods. This is to be achieved sustainably, preserving the ecological integrity and resilience of the area alongside development of tourism, infrastructure provision and connectivity. I will be working with primarily non-academic colleagues through a Non-Governmental Organisation (NGO) called EcoSwell, during the project’s consultation phase.

I will be in Lobitos for 2 weeks in total. In this time I need to follow up on the initial social assessment undertaken in August last year by Alejandro Pizarro, one of the EcoSwell founders who is an independent researcher specializing in local governance and development. I have been working for the past few months to analyse the data from focus groups and interviews that I helped him to design and plan. Alejandro will also be in Lobitos with us as a guide, interpreter (my Spanish is rusty!) and gatekeeper; all of which will be completely invaluable!

My fieldwork will include clarifying specific queries highlighted during the analysis, but will primarily seek to involve the community in the planning through informed multi-stakeholder consultation. I am going to modify and apply a method that I developed during my PhD research, which I designed to help understand and map stakeholder dynamics in bioenergy projects from Africa and Asia. This is a fantastic opportunity for me to further that work in a new context and geographical location, and I am really excited by the prospect.

The trip is not without its complications, of course. We have still not actually agreed and confirmed the accommodation in Lobitos, which will be basic but probably significantly better than the homes of the locals; we don’t actually have a programme or schedule so it will be a bit of pot luck and a lot of work on the ground to make sure we get to see everyone we need to. There are a few medical arrangements as well, and all in all it is a good example of how research in remote areas is rarely straightforward! It all adds to the appeal, though, and I’m not sure I would be so keen if I thought it would be easy. Luckily, whilst this is my first time visiting and working in South America, I have had quite a lot of experience in Africa and Asia, and am already finding that there are definite parallels!

I will write again during my trip, to give an update of how we are getting on. I am travelling with my husband this time, who is going to be doing a feasibility study for the use of renewable energy in Lobitos. This is a new experience for him, so it will be really interesting to see how he copes with the uncertainty and constantly changing parameters of working in a developing country!

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Sir Joseph Swan: A Pioneer Ahead of His Time

Tuesday 27 May 2014 marks the centenary of Sir Joseph Swan’s death. The inventor, pioneer and scientist was an icon of the North East, and his outstanding contribution to modern technology is still relevant today.

To celebrate the occasion, a special exhibition, ‘Sir Joseph Wilson Swan: a shining light of his time’, organised jointly between Newcastle University and the National Trust, on Swan’s life and legacy will open at Cragside House and Gardens and will run until  2 November.

There will also be a lecture on 27 May at 1pm at the Newcastle Literary and Philosophical Library (Lit & Phil), site of the original demonstration of Swan’s incandescent lightbulb. The lecture, which has been organised jointly between the University and the Lit and Phil, will be delivered by Dr Ian Edwards, who previously lectured on Swan as part of the 130th anniversary celebration of the invention of the lightbulb and appeared on the BBC’s One Show, giving a live demonstration of Sir Joseph Swan’s original technology.

If you would like to attend the lecture, please contact the Lit and Phil directly to register. Bookings can be made in person, by telephone 0191 232 0192 or by email library@litandphil.org.uk. Please note that there are very limited tickets available for the lecture, so early booking is strongly advised.

If you are unable to attend the lecture or exhibition, but would like a copy of the commemorative centenary brochure or details of the online resources which will be available following the celebrations, please contact us at sustainability@ncl.ac.uk.

A number of other activities and events will be taking place across the North East of England to mark the centenary, including at Newcastle’s Discovery Museum.

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Calling all guest bloggers!

We are on the lookout for guest bloggers! We want the blog site to have a range of opinions and discussion points about sustainability-related topics, and we are particularly interested in posts that are topical; we’re not averse to controversial viewpoints, all in the interests of getting a good, healthy debate started!

We are looking for posts that could be used as either a single post or as a mini-series, so if you think you have something suitable please get in touch by e-mailing sustainability@ncl.ac.uk. We look forward to receiving your contributions!

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Sustainable Retrofitting – the Passivhaus way (Part 2)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Co-ordinator in Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS) at Newcastle University, recently stayed in a Passivhaus bed and breakfast. In the second post of a two part series, she speaks to the owners, Adam Dadeby and Erica Aslett, about their experience of the renovation process.

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Is it more difficult to retrofit an existing building to Passivhaus standard than start from scratch? “Absolutely!”, Adam divulged. For example, the house was not originally designed to have such thickly insulated walls, and so they had to use thinner, more expensive materials to cover the outside to avoid expanding too much outwards. In addition, the structure had to be stripped right back to its fabric much more carefully than would be required to demolish it, then built back up piece-by-piece with all of the additions detailed in Adam’s blog,2 which didn’t always fit easily around the original layout and structure of the house. They had problems with the planners, financial difficulties associated with required changes and issues that cropped up along the way, and a few other retrofit-related glitches, but, in Adam’s own words: “here in the UK, building plots, particularly where we live, are scarce and expensive. It is a practical choice for us, given our other constraints. Renovations are important because most of the buildings we will be using in 2050 already exist today; renovating our existing housing stock is inevitable. Each renovation is an opportunity to reduce the building’s future running costs by reducing its energy use”.[1]

Is there anything that would make this building more sustainable? Adam and Erica told me that they would have liked to go even further with the sustainable aspects of their house, including using rainwater storage on their roof to provide “grey water” for toilet flushing. This would have sat alongside the photovoltaic (solar) panels that currently harvest electricity from the sun and feed it into the National Grid. Unfortunately they couldn’t afford to implement this at the time, but it is something they would consider in future.

What was most important aspect in making this project a success? Perhaps not what you might think! According to Adam, it was the high level of collaboration between the client, architect, builders and all of the tradesmen that made the biggest difference in this project. In order to achieve the Passivhaus certification, everyone working on the house had to understand their role alongside the others. They took responsibility for their own tasks, as a blame culture leads to bad workmanship and cutting corners, and supported each other. Because the certification is so stringent and everything needs to be perfect, the tiniest error has to be addressed and remedied, and sometimes that meant everyone getting involved. By working together, they were able to reach the high standard required to achieve the Passivhaus goal of ultra-low-energy performance.

All that is left is to say massive congratulations on behalf of NIReS to Adam and Erica for persevering with this project and achieving what they set out to do – retrofit sustainability into their building. They have also ended up with a beautiful family home and business that will pay back the money and effort that went into it many times over during its lifetime.


[1] Dadeby, A. 22 Nov 2009 [blog on the internet]. A Radical Renovation. Available online at URL: http://passivhausrefurb.blogspot.co.uk, last accessed 03.04.2013

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Sustainable Retrofitting – the Passivhaus way (Part 1)

Dr Jennifer Hazelton, a Research Co-ordinator in Newcastle Institute for Research on Sustainability (NIReS) at Newcastle University, recently stayed in a Passivhaus bed and breakfast. In the first post of a two part series, she speaks to the owners, Adam Dadeby and Erica Aslett, about their experience of the renovation process.

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I was recently afforded the opportunity to stay in Totnes ‘Passivhaus’ bed and breakfast during a trip to visit family in Devon. Further investigation revealed that owners Adam Dadeby and Erica Aslett were awarded this status in September 2011 for their 1970s detached house, which they painstakingly retrofitted over two years. A Passivhaus building is designed to “use vastly less energy than conventional buildings, irrespective of the climate. This is achieved by careful design informed by building physics, and, crucially, by thoughtful and careful construction by a properly skilled and motivated team”.[1] The standard originates in Germany, where certification is much more widespread (though, even there, still only one in five Passivhaus building owners ever obtain the full certification).

Adam and Erica’s home is not the only certified Passivhaus in the UK, far from it, but it is the only one to be run as a bed and breakfast, and only the third to have achieved the coveted status on a renovated building. This added in a whole new level of complexity and difficulty, as Adam explained, but considering planning and other restrictions in this (and many other) areas of the country, not to mention the lower carbon impact of retrofit over new build, ultimately the building is all the more sustainable for it.

So, how do Passivhaus buildings achieve their ultra-low energy requirement whilst being very healthy and remaining a comfortable 20°C? They rely on high levels of uninterrupted, all-round insulation, airtight design and on heat gained from the sun through the windows. Solar gain is not in itself sufficient to heat a Passivhaus in most climates, however, so a trickle of heat is required to maintain the temperature (though not nearly enough to justify a central heating system). There are no draughts or cold spots in a Passivhaus, making it more comfortable, and it is healthier as the air is fresher than in a conventional building.1

What is a Passivhaus building actually like? Does it really feel healthier and more comfortable? Well, when my husband and I arrived, we were informed that they were terribly sorry but that the heating system had been off for four days and they had only just realised and turned it back on, so it would take a little while to get back up to temperature. Given it was the coldest March for over 65 years and frosty outside, we were understandably concerned (had our own central heating been off for four days, we would have been camped inside our wood burning stove and making hot water bottles continuously). However, the house was remarkably warm and I could fully understand why they had only just noticed. This illustrated for me perfectly the thermal properties of the building, and we were not at all uncomfortably cold, or warm, for the remainder of our two night stay. As for being healthy, we are lucky not to suffer from any allergies or asthma so it wouldn’t be as noticeable, but the atmosphere inside the house was certainly very fresh and not dingy or dusty in the slightest. That may have been down to Erica’s efforts to keep the place spotless, but allergy sufferers and asthmatics have confirmed that they find Passivhaus buildings to be extremely comfortable and allergen-free, a fact that is primarily down to the filters. The air is circulated around the house, and a constant zero pressure gradient between the outside and the interior is achieved by a specially-designed system which maintains the pressure balance in order to prevent air from being drawn in or leached out, which would create a draught. As the air is drawn through the system, filters remove airborne particles to ensure the fresh and healthy feeling.


[1] Cotterell, J. and Dadeby, A. 2012. The Passivhaus Handbook: A practical guide to constructing and retrofitting buildings for ultra-low-energy performance. Green Books, ISBN 978 0 85784 019 6

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Summer of Soil – Living Soil Forum

PhD student Jasmine Black was supported by NIReS to attend the Summer of Soil Living Soil Forum in Sweden, July 2013. In this post she keeps us up to date with her experience, the effectiveness of the forum and what she took from it.

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This summer (2013), a small group of soil conservationists set up a 5 week programme named ‘Summer of Soil’. Their aims were to create an international soil movement in which people generate intelligent initiatives in order to create more sustainable soil practices and a greater awareness of soil issues and management globally. This included various workshops on growing and preserving food, organic agriculture practices, bee keeping and others. It also included a week long Soil Forum in which an international platform of speakers and delegates attended from a wide variety of backgrounds – scientists, farmers, organisations and consumers. Some attendees came with ideas for organisations or practices they wanted to get people involved in, others came purely of interest; it was an intriguing mix of people!

The setting was ideal for this Forum; interwoven between a matrix of forests and organic farms, bordering a coastal inlet of the Baltic Sea, the Kulturcentrum Jarna, founded in 1968, has a prevailing principle of relating to the world in a holistic, all-inclusive way. It also houses a Youth Initiative Programme as well as organisations such as BERAS (an ecological scientific institute) and SOFIA (an international sustainable development institute).

Summer of Soil Living Soil Forum July 2013

Summer of Soil – Living Soil Forum July 2013

A few key themes repeated throughout the forum really struck me. One of these was the relation of soil to food production and food security. There is an obvious need to reconnect consumers with the land their food is produced from and with the farmers who work to produce it. Hand in hand with this idea was that, through globalisation, there has been a real disconnect in communities and a great loss of community lifestyle and spirit. Communities once revolved around their local farms and farmers in order to get the food to sustain them. Farmers thus had the power to cultivate what they knew would grow well in their soil; and were not driven by the consumer.

Times have changed and this farmer – consumer relationship has been altered; practically reversed. The majority of consumers now don’t see or understand quite how hard farmers work to produce their food; and what practices are needed to keep soil healthy in order to keep producing the desired products. Key questions that arose from this topic included how can we give back farmers the authority to influence what is grown through what they know their soil can best produce? How can we awaken an awareness of this importance in consumers, and evoke the change needed?

Another key theme, and a term widely used at the Forum, was ‘living soil’. This is the concept of thinking about soil from the perspective of biota; that soil is alive and not just dead dirt. With this perspective came the idea of ‘building soil’ through composting. In this way, soil biota were highlighted as a key influence on soil health; helping to supply new nutrients, water holding capacity and the physical protection of soil. The need to spread this idea through farming communities and consumers was emphasized. Connecting consumers through the concept of healthy living and healthy soil was a key idea; relating the need to feed our bodies with the need to feed our soils. This is a cyclical relationship as soils feed us through both crop and cattle production.

Summer of Soil - Living Soil Forum July 2013

Summer of Soil – Living Soil Forum July 2013

During the Forum, several discussions and ‘world café’ sessions led to the formation of groups of delegates and speakers with ideas for projects they wanted to begin and develop into a successful, viable business or organisation. Some of these organisations already existed but needed information from soil specialists to help them develop. One such was Allveristy, an online free educational website aimed at educating communities in developing countries. Lesson topics are chosen by the communities and Allversity sources specialists to write and illustrate these.

Being a soil scientist and an artist, I felt the need to help out with this particular project, and with a group of other soil scientists wrote a lesson on the basics of soil, agriculture and good management practices and current global threats to soil health. I also gave them an illustration of a cartoon soil profile as a mascot for the lesson (initially created for the Science Festival). The lesson is still under formation but can be found on www.allversity.org once completed. It was great to be able to contribute to a project that had near-immediate effect and that there was a definite demand for.

Other projects formed included ecological restoration of large degraded ecosystems, soil and art initiatives and the idea of using best practice, ecologically friendly farms as examples to others in order to promote ecologically sound farm practices on a global scale.

Overall, the Soil Forum proved to be a success; with a passionate, involved and creative group of delegates who came together to produce projects which have a viable future and are currently being developed. A Facebook page was also set up in order for delegates to keep contact, share more ideas and potentially discuss another Forum for 2014.

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