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It's Not So Hard to Build Quality Housing, Just Follow the Recipe

Last updated: 03-21-2021

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It's Not So Hard to Build Quality Housing, Just Follow the Recipe

The standard trope is that building healthy, ultra-efficient housing is expensive and difficult, and that the houses are not attractive. Oh, and they can be stuffy and dark inside thanks to teensy windows. None of that is true, but what is true is that building them takes more care and skill, and that they do not need gas furnaces.

That's why developers and gas companies just hijacked the International Code Council (ICC) that writes the building codes in the United States. As Robert Ivy, CEO of the American Institute, says,

It's also why this project by British developer Citu in Leeds is so important. It puts paid to the fibs and distortions that the industry in both the United Kingdom and North America use to avoid building the kind of housing we need to cope with the climate crisis.

Designed by White Arkitekter, it is a Climate Innovation District, turning "a central brownfield site into a resilient, green, mixed-use neighbourhood of 516 low energy homes with integrated amenities for everyday life." Once home to a steel mill and chemical works, Geoff Denton, lead architect at White Arkitekter, notes:

The timber homes are built at Citu works, a factory they built to fabricate them. Oliver Wainwright of the Guardian writes that "these terrace houses are made from super-airtight timber panels stuffed full of wood-fibre insulation, with triple-glazed windows and solar panels on the roof, each erected in less than a week."

It is not just the homes that are important, but also the planning of a walkable city. The architects note:

The houses have Passivhaus features like heat recovery ventilators and are topped with solar panels, There is no gas now and no need for hydrogen later, since you don't need much heat when you build this way in the first place. Because the designs are simple and straightforward without a lot of gables, bumps, and jogs, they are efficient and affordable to build.

What is so remarkable about this project is that they are not kidding around about building a different kind of housing. Treehugger recently showed an American development from KB Homes that was being sold as healthy and efficient, and it just demonstrated the difference in approach. Here we are seeing the real thing, and an acknowledgment that we have to be serious about change, as they note on the Citu Website:

But they can still do traditional marketing:

The biggest problem I have looking at these projects in Europe is that I start feeling like my friend Mike Eliason, who spent time working in Germany and came back to Seattle right when the pandemic sent us all home to look at our screens. Because there is no reason that our planning has to be so bad, our building codes so lax, our build quality so crummy, or why a KB Home couldn't be doing housing and neighborhoods like this in North America. The British housing industry, in general, is no more progressive or less schlocky than North America's, but there do seem to be more green shoots popping up. And it isn't that hard to do; Emma Osmundsen of Exeter City Living tells Oliver Wainwright how it is done:

It is true that when I look at the last 10 speakers at the Passive House Happy Hour, six of them are women. Perhaps Osmundsen has a point.


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