In the new and to many bewildering world of climate change there are dozens of supposed ‘solutions’ to make our buildings more ‘sustainable’.
Solar PV, solar thermal, biomass, heat pumps, renewables only electricity, ‘green’ gas, ‘blue’ hydrogen fuel cells, triple glazing, Passivhaus, battery storage, SIPs, geothermal, etc. Armed with two or three of these architects often assert that their buildings are ‘zero carbon’ or ‘net zero’. Of course buildings using these technologies aren’t zero carbon at all.
Take for example solar photovoltaic panels. These last on average thirty years or so. After which time they are useless for what they were made for. A building material that lasts just thirty of so years? Hmmm. And so what are we to do with a whole world of solar panels when they reach the end of their service life? Do we use them to construct new buildings? Who wants to make a new building out of used solar panels? And what size of landfill can accommodate a world supply of thirty year old non-functioning solar panels? And the minerals that are mined to make solar panels – the silicon, the aluminium for the frames, the resin that holds the silicon? Where are these mined, and where shipped, smelted, poured into moulds or extruded, machined, stored, shipped again, packaged, and shipped again to local distributors? The whole process is carried out by people who drive or are driven to work each day and rely on being fed by factory farms producing packaged food. Food packaged in plastic. The same goes for wind power – the turbines, their massive magnets and their blades have huge energy/shippage/carbon embodied in them, and the turbines are made in factories out of components imported or mined thousands of miles away. And how long to wind turbines last? Likewise tidal and nuclear – but with embodied carbon and industrial resource use on an even more insane scale
We have been duped into believing that these new technologies somehow provide an answer to climate change. Not only do they not provide an adequately carbon neutral replacement for fossil fuels but they virtually guarantee the continued annihilation of Nature and its natural carbon balancing processes. Such is the nature of an industrialised civilisation – growth is required, globalisation the goal, profit the motive, and Nature the loser – every time.
Climate change is terminal for human civilisation, we are told. But nobody appears to appreciate that even the tech devised to battle climate change involves heavy loss of biodiversity because it sustains the capitalist industrial system. And biodiversity loss is terminal for human civilisation too. As soon as the Arctic is ice-free it is game over for climate change mitigation, we are advised. alternatively, as soon as the pollinators are gone it is game over for human civilisation. And biodiversity is currently bombing all over the Earth. All due to the illusion being pedalled that we can ‘solve’ climate change with more tech and ‘sustainable growth’. We architects are complete suckers for that one.
There is a form of energy that doesn’t have this industrial characteristic, but virtually nobody uses it and it is not taught in architecture schools. It is solar passive design, and there are very obvious reasons why it is not mainstream.
Solar passive energy comes straight from the sun and doesn’t require pipes, cables, tankers, any form of ‘shippage’, refineries, storage tanks, or factories. It does not require an industrial base at all. It doesn’t have workers making it who go home and eat factory-farmed food wrapped in single-use plastic. Moreover it is free, democratic (available equally to everybody irrespective of colour, sex or creed), decentralised (available in the most remote locations and not under government or corporate control), non-toxic (sunlight is a proven antiseptic), non-polluting, silent and odourless. Nobody fights over it because it is limitless. Remember the Kuwait/Iraq war? The Biafran war? What was that about? Everybody knows – it was about oil. The toxic geopolitics of oil and gas. Also, solar passive doesn’t belong to a group of people because of an accident of geology (Arabian oil, for example).
Humans have known of and used solar passive energy to heat their buildings for thousands of years. The diagram at the top of this article is a gnomon – a primitive solar tool used to determine the path of the sun. It was used at least 20,000 years before the birth of Christ to help our ancestors face their huts towards the sun for its warmth.
However, fossil fuels changed all that. After the arrival of fossil fuels buildings became fossil-fuel dependent. To the extent that 90% of buildings today are uninhabitable without a fossil fuel ‘fix’. An industry has grown up around fossil fuels, which, like the cigarette industry, has used deceit and lies to keep us hooked – knowing all the time (like Shell and Exxon Mobil) that the ‘drug’ is killing us.
Solar passive architecture has been swept under a carpet because it is free and cannot be bought or sold for profit. By contrast the fossil fuel industry is currently very interested in diversifying into solar PV. That is because they can sell the equipment needed to get solar PV electricity (the solar panels) for a profit. They will invest in anything they can sell for a profit and denigrate anything that cannot profit them. Solar passive they cannot deal with – there is no equipment needed. Nothing to sell for a profit. The fossil fuel lobby is soaked into the skin of modern architecture to the extent that schools of architecture teach students to design carbon-junky buildings and promote the ideals of industrialised building processes. Look at the buildings of any of the more ‘successful’ British architects – Foster and Grimshaw. Imagine their buildings with fossil fuels withdrawn from them – they would be uninhabitable.
You may not know much about solar passive design yet. The system has ensured this is so. Dig into solar passive and learn how glass and insulation have supercharged this natural form of energy collection. Learn how solar passive can assist in both heating and cooling a building and learn how it does not require mass-produced materials or any machinery to work.
Finally, gather how solar passive doesn’t promote the poisoning of the natural environment through supporting industrialisation. And that it should therefore be at the forefront of the battle for human survival, because it is zero carbon, and zero toxicity to Nature too.