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It’s Not Easy Being Green

Built Environment November 4, 2008

It's Not Easy Being Green


Making our Built Environment more sustainable is a passion for TV presenter and environmentalist James Strawbridge. Here he explains how we could all be doing more.

James has always been interested in environmental issues and obtained a First in History from York University, specialising in environmental history and anthropology. However, he first came to the public’s attention in the BBC 2 series It’s Not Easy Being Green, which documented his family’s attempts to live a more sustainable lifestyle. With his father, Dick, James adopted green engineering concepts, and a very hands-on approach to environmental development. Subsequently, he was employed by Ben Keene of TV’s The Tribe to spend four months on a remote Fijian island as the project’s Sustainability Manager, installing solar panels, a wind turbine, and compost toilets.
On the day of his interview with Real World James looks every inch the eco-warrior with long hair, tanned limbs and a shovel stuffed into his rucksack, but describes himself as more of a nature geek: ‘I’m not an eco-purist, it’s much more about choosing which battles to fight and doing so intelligently,’ he says. One place he’d like to start is with university campuses themselves. ‘The infrastructure on campuses needs to be improved. The majority of students live in a bubble where their campus is their island, and they forget the bigger communities of their cities and towns, and if they got more involved in that environmentally they might make more sensible decisions. There needs to be much more thought about power solutions and energy on campus; in fact they are perfect places for micro-generation (from solar panels and turbines) because we’ve got small communities, lots of funding, and lots of experts using cross-party expertise to push forwards results.’ A recent issue of Times Higher Education highlighted this when it reported the results of the second year of the People & Planet Green League (which ranks UK universities based on their sustainable practice) where no university in the UK scored full marks on energy sources, while 13 actually used more energy from non-renewable resources than the previous year.

Although James believes students are becoming more aware of the built environment around them, until they can actually quantify the savings better environmental solutions give them, he does not think they will have the incentive to adopt them. ‘I think everybody should be given an electrical monitor device so they can see exactly how much energy they are using and put it in terms of how much that energy is costing them,’ he explains. ‘How much per day is it costing you to run your computer and TV and lights. Water conservation is another huge area for concern, and you can make really, really simple changes like using a dual flush loo, or using a Hippo (displacement device in your cistern), installing a grey water system, or rainwater harvesting to make a real difference.’
James would like to see planning permission laws changed so more people can have wind turbines on their homes and places of work, and he also believes financial incentives for environmentally friendly new builds would help speed up the process. ‘There is lots of new technology coming through, and lots of new ideas that will help massively,’ he says. Here are a few to look out for.


- Renewable Energy Systems

Photo Voltaics

Although Solar Panels for home use are not new, the technology is changing rapidly and the newest kid on the block is the PV (Photo Voltaic) tile. These are smaller, lighter, and do not need the bulky storage batteries of traditional panels. New developments in thin, strong films are revolutionizing the way with increases in efficiency, and the capacity to be connected to the grid to sell on any excess electricity that is generated.

Wind Turbines

Advancements in wind turbine technology have been growing rapidly and one expanding sector is residential wind. The new domestic wind turbines have increased efficiency at low wind speed, and highly sophisticated controls and inverters to allow home owners to interface directly with utility companies, or design off-grid systems. These systems are increasing energy independence, competing with current energy prices and reducing environmental impacts.

- Energy Efficient Appliances and Systems

Heat Pumps

Heat pumps are one of the most energy efficient methods of domestic heating, using electrical energy to reverse the natural flow of environmental heat from cold to hot. They have two great advantages over other heating systems: in every case, the useful heat output is greater than the energy required to operate the pump itself; and they have a relatively low carbon dioxide output, less than half than that of electric, oil and gas heat production.

Green Boiler Technology

MicroCHP (micro combined heat and power) technology is put to best use in period houses which have inefficient technology, as it can have a huge impact on energy consumption. Basically, a MicroCHP boiler generates both electricity as well as heat, thus reducing carbon emissions and reducing the load on power stations. A new type of MicroCHP boiler has been developed by the Energetix Group using components that are already common in other mass produced items, so the engine is a pump from a car air conditioning system, and the pump comes from an industrial espresso machine.

- Water Harvesting/Recycling.

Grey Water Systems
Greywater is non-industrial waste water generated from domestic processes such as dish washing, laundry and bathing. There are two systems that are now available: one recycles the water without purifying it (for flushing toilets or for watering gardens); the other decontaminates the water for reuse.

Brown Water Systems
Brown water systems are used with a growing frequency, as more and more people build earth friendly houses. Many of these use reed beds to treat and clean brown water – the water flushed down toilets. The principle behind the systems is simple. The reeds absorb oxygen from the atmosphere, channel it down their stems and pass it on to aquatic bacteria. These bacteria, which degrade waterborne effluent, depend on oxygen to survive. The bacteria destroy organic material in the effluent that would otherwise starve aquatic life of oxygen. They also destroy nitrogenous material.

- Use of Environmentally considerate, Recycled and Locally Sourced Materials

Cob housing
Cob is a traditional building material that is making something of a comeback in Devon, where it has been used for centuries. It is a mixture of subsoil and straw, a very strong material, and good at evening out temperature and humidity changes. So, not only is it a cheap material, it also saves on heating and ventilating bills.

Permeable Paving
Permeable paving is a blanket term to describe any sort of paving method that allows the movement of water and air through the paving material, something that is becoming increasingly important as run off from roads and covered driveways was partly responsible for last year’s flooding – drains simply could not cope with the massively increased flow of water. There are lots of types of permeable paving including Porous asphalt (used on motorways to improve safety), and Porous concrete (which can bear frequent traffic, and is universally accessible).

To see where your university is on the People & Planet Green League go to

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