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Halima Doski: Buildings That Shape Us


I don’t know about you, but the image of a sustainable building is a skyscraper covered in plants that runs on some obscure new technology and somehow produces zero waste. Anything in comparison seems like a straight-up failure. These concrete wildernesses feel impersonal and disconnected from the real world, an architect’s fantasy with no reproducibility. Not to dismiss them, but they should not be the standard we compare other projects to. Community initiatives that address not only the sustainability of the building but other issues at the same time, are important. From schools to affordable housing, these projects deserve to be the hallmark of sustainable buildings as they help to shape their communities as well as the built environment.

A year on from the first national lockdown in the UK, a large portion of the population is still working from home. This means that our relationship with the buildings around us has changed drastically, with our homes now becoming learning spaces, offices and where we relax. With 40% of UK emissions coming from households, it is important to assess how we can improve. One way this is being achieved is through retrofitting. Our houses are incredibly inefficient, with the majority of houses built before energy performance regulation1. Retrofitting aims to solve the problem while remaining cost and energy-efficient; for example, Energiesprong UK has developed a model of installing insulated walls and roofs, improved glazing and solar panels. With the first project in Nottingham, other areas have followed suit. Sutton is the first London borough to have a pilot phase and it’s exciting to see how quickly the model will be picked up by the rest of the country.

I think it’s great that local councils are supporting retrofitting programmes as one of the ways to reach their climate goals. However, many local councils such as my own haven’t even declared a climate emergency with a target, making it difficult to find local action to get involved in. Looking at schools’ efforts at sustainability is great, to gain some hope in an otherwise bleak environment. The Green Schools Project is an example of an organisation that works with the local community through schools, by providing free resources and support to staff and students to develop more impactful solutions to climate change. At Kingsmead School, where the project initially started, an Eco-Team of sixth formers formed to address and improve recycling, energy and litter at the school. Now, I know small actions as individuals won’t solve climate change directly and it is a dangerous narrative to promote the solutions being as simple as using a reusable water bottle. But the organisation of students, who learn vital skills and passion for climate change action, is impressive. These actions are reproducible across different organisations and buildings as these schools are role models for the rest of their communities.

I mentioned before that new builds should not only address sustainability but other issues that the local community faces. Housing has become unaffordable, with the percentage of 25–34 year-olds owning their homes falling dramatically since 1996 from over half to a third2. In rural communities, the issue of affordability is more pronounced due to the high number of second homes leads to residents being priced out. Organisations like Rural Housing Scotland have become support networks for communities looking to solve their housing issues by campaigning with policymakers to secure funding for more affordable housing. The unique needs of a community can only be recognised through engagement, which Rural Housing Scotland leads by hosting public meetings, housing advice surgeries and meeting with other community organisations.

This wider issue of unaffordable housing is an area in which I believe new builds may be well suited to address, especially when you include Community Land Trusts. CLTs for short, act as non-profit organisations that own land on the behalf of a community, to provide affordable housing and, in most cases, aim to be more sustainable by building community gardens. These land trusts aren’t restricted to housing developments: in the case of Bonnymuir Green Community Trust, a former bowling club was transformed into an urban sustainability hub to serve the community. When I was looking into the trust, I ended up on their Facebook page and saw all the good they had done for their community, especially throughout the national lockdown. This made me quite jealous, and I was considering moving to Aberdeen just to get a slice of the ginger loaf sold at the community café!

After researching sustainability and the built environment, it is easy to see there’s no one-size-fits-all model (hell, that shouldn’t even exist in fashion but one issue at a time please!). But one observation I will make is that communities are at the heart of this issue: clearly, communities come in all shapes and sizes, and we need to ensure that sustainable buildings are shaped by our differences as much as different buildings shape us.

Photo by Ján Jakub Naništa on Unsplash


[1] climatexchange https://www.climatexchange.org.uk/blog/retrofitting-british-homes-to-make-them-more-energy-efficient/

[2] Bloomberg https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2021-01-17/wealth-gap-widens-for-britain-s-young-with-surge-in-house-prices

Halima Doski is a first-year student at University College, Oxford studying Chemistry. She recently took part in a micro-internship programme at Carbon Copy.

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