Episode #129 Net Positive: Designing Regenerative Cities with Professor Janis Birkeland
How do we design our built environment to be more than just ‘sustainable’ (doing things slightly less badly) and instead to be genuinely regenerative where all we build and make heals people and the planet?
Professor Janis Birkeland is Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning in the University of Melbourne. Janis has dedicated her personal, professional and academic life to figuring out what is genuine sustainability – how to plan for a built environment that is not just ‘less bad’ than the alternatives, but actually returns more to the land and the people who live in and around it thn whatever went before.
Throughout her professional career, she has been drawn to figuring out how cities and buildings, despite their huge impacts, can transform society and save the planet. First, she became an architect and urban designer, transferring into city planning. Later, she became a lawyer to better understand the barriers to systems change. Now she is an academic, author of many dozens of papers and a number of books, of which the most recent is ‘Net- Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development’. She is a clear and consistent advocate for the design of human settlements that are socially and ecologically ‘net positive’ and has just published “Net-Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development” (Routledge) which provides methods, models and metrics to enable practitioners and students to create eco-positive environments. It also includes a free computer app to facilitate net-positive design
In this wide-ranging conversation, we explore the myriad ways we could choose to design our buildings differently – and the many practical ways we could upgrade what exists as well as creating new models for what might arise.
Manda: My guest this week is a designer, a planner and a deep thinker about how we can change the world that we live in and that we create so that it’s not just sustainable, which is to say doing less damage, but actually regenerative. So that we give back to the world around us, to the more than human world, as well as to the people within whatever built environment we’re talking about, more than we took in creating it. Professor Janis Birkeland is Honorary Professorial Fellow in the Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning in the University of Melbourne. She has dedicated her personal, professional and academic life over many decades to figuring out what is genuinely net positive and how to achieve it. She’s the author of many books, including Positive Development; From Vicious Circles to Virtuous Cycles through Built Environmental Design and Net Positive Design and Sustainable Urban Development, her most recent. Professor Birkeland, lives in Tasmania and the line was not perfect. So I apologise in advance for the quality of the sound, but the content, the concepts of how we can change our built environment which is having such a huge impact on the planet, so that we can begin to be what Janis describes as net positive, seems to me well worth bringing to you. So, with apologies to your ears, people of the podcast, please welcome Professor Janis Birkeland.
Manda: So Janis Birkeland, all the way from the very far bottom of the earth as far as I’m concerned, in Tasmania. Welcome to Accidental Gods. How are you down there at whatever time of the day it is?
Janis: It’s evening and it’s really nice here. It’s cool of winter and we actually use maps that are upside down here in Australia. So we’re actually higher on the map than you are.
Manda: Yes, you’re at the top of the world and we’re at the bottom. And I’ve been reading your books and realising that had I encountered them, probably all that long time ago, I might well have wanted to become a designer rather than anything else, because they’re so inspiring. But in default of that, we’re going to talk about some of the ideas that you have been mulling over for decades and that we sincerely hope are coming to the fore and might be incorporated into our building of a better world. So to start off with, because this is a very deep and complex subject and we could become very dense very quickly. Can you talk us through why, in your opinion, the built environment is the solution or at least a large part of the solution to the environmental crisis?
Janis: Yes, almost every environmental and social issue you can think of, is influenced in in a major way by the built environment or the design of communities, infrastructures, cities and buildings. It’s not just the direct impacts, but the shape of cities and how that affects transport and resources and of course, the resource extraction in what used to be wilderness areas. So when you look at the supply chain of the built environment, both upstream and the downstream impacts, it’s really hard to think of anything that isn’t shaped by the built environment. Including, as I like to point out, democracy itself. Because if people cannot have access to basic needs in their immediate area, then they’re really subject to threats and political manipulation. And they’re just not autonomous. They don’t have real choices about their life quality. So I think the built environment has been regarded as a source of negative impacts, but through design it could have positive impacts on both nature and society. And that’s something that people have only begun to realise in very recent years.
Manda: So that in itself feels like a podcast all on its own, of how we impact political choices and people’s choices. But let’s begin to unpick, if it is being recognised in recent years, then if we were to assume that everybody takes this on board, which is a big assumption. And I would say looking around building that’s happening near me, that’s not the case. But let’s leave aside how we make it happen and look at the what to begin with. In your view, what are the steps that designers and planners and I guess politicians could make to change what we have already? Before we look at what we might build new. We’ve got existing cities that were built with a very old mindset and with an ethos that was not considering net positive. So maybe we first have to have a look at what net positive means and then look at how we get there. Can you fill us in on that?
Janis: Okay. Well, net positive, I first used to refer to buildings that give back far more than they take. And in fact, a building has to be better than no building at all. So it’s not just a building that has more positive impacts than negative ones. Otherwise, every new green building is making things worse. So buildings actually can’t just do more good than bad. And that’s what our best green buildings are doing today or trying to do. They actually have to leave the environment and society better after they’re constructed than before; and that’s including all the embodied energy and impacts caused during resource extraction, waste and eventual demolition. And we really haven’t tried to do that. Designers have always tried to make positive impacts. They’ve always thought they were making society better. But when the environment problem became widely recognised from like the 1960s and we started doing environmental impact assessment, everything was about measuring negative impacts. And so designers, when their buildings were assessed, were just looking at how much worse they were making things and if it was better than a typical bad building, it was called sustainable. So there’s been a confusion between design and and how buildings are assessed.
Janis: And that’s a very big factor. Because design is about creating something new that never existed before and has positive impacts, even though designers never really considered the wider public or the natural environment back then. But when they started to, they were forced into a mindset, really, of how to make their negative impacts less bad. And when you reduce impacts, you don’t have a mindset of increasing positive impacts. It was just assumed that positive impacts would cost more, and it was decades before people were able to prove to developers and sort of ordinary, non sustainable architects that green buildings actually saved money. Now that’s obvious to people today, but for a couple of decades there was great resistance to that idea. And it was only when the property fields and the economic fields argued that that was the case, that people in general believed that – they didn’t sort of believe sustainable designers – that would argue that energy and water efficiencies and saved money. And healthy buildings certainly save a lot of money when you consider the whole system impacts.
Manda: Okay. And again, so much to unpick. So design is about creating things that weren’t there before. That feels to me like a statement worth pulling out. And then if I’m understanding, we have the concept that a branch of what we would loosely call sustainable design, was about doing things less bad than other people and therefore pretending that this was good. And what we’re heading for now is endeavouring to create things that were never there before, that do things in a way that are enhancing the entire world. So. If we’ve got that, what can we do? It strikes me – I’m very, very struck still by David Wengrow and David Graeber’s book The Dawn of Everything, and really trying to sit into how indigenous cultures shaped landscapes but shaped them in ways that felt or feel to us to have enhanced them. The Amazon turns out to have been an entire shaped landscape by the indigenous people within it, but their shaping of it has enabled it to thrive. They were using local materials that were essentially compostable if we state things in a non design fashion. We are designing cities from things that currently don’t recycle that easily. How can we possibly design a built environment that could become genuinely beneficial to people and the living world?
Janis: Well, this is where science and design come together. Just recently, now that people are really focussing on things like materials and buildings, we’re coming up with new materials that can actually frame buildings, but are organic. Just want to preface it by saying that for years the fields were entirely different. Environmental planners didn’t think about the built environment. Built environment planners didn’t think about the natural environment. They were two almost to separate fields that didn’t really talk to each other. Today, people are focussing in on sustainable solutions and a lot of ideas that were really around years ago that designers were working with, now have more scientific and interest from people with scientific and technical knowledge. And I’ll just give one example. You can now build very tall buildings like skyscrapers out of timber, and it’s fire resistant and has a lot of good qualities. And you can also make houses from straw bale or straw board. Straw board is as good as any other engineered timber and so on. So you’ve got renewable materials that can build houses, if not buildings, and certainly the panelling and the furnishings into all buildings. But that takes land. You can grow hemp and it’s a very good material. You can turn it into concrete like material called hemp Crete. You can turn it into fluffy insulation, you can turn it into boards. And hemp in growing, generally uses less water and less fertiliser and toxins than other organic crops. But it takes land and that land, I think 70% of the land area of the planet is used by agriculture now.
Janis: So the alternative that’s really been around for quite a while but is now being researched is building things out of mushrooms. And that sounds a bit odd, but the mycelium can bind up waste materials or any other materials into bricks that can actually have structural qualities, or at least work quite a bit like straw bale or masonry. So the thing about mushroom building products, is that they can be grown vertically in dark spaces. So they’re not taking up land. And that’s just one of many examples in the pipeline. But the reason I like it is that we’re going back to really basic building blocks like algae and mycelium and growing building materials. But in manufacturing locations that can be integrated with cities or can be vertical or can be put in old abandoned warehouses. Or in the case of algae production that’s a linear system, it can be grown on, say, a shading structure over a freeway that has many functions. You can even integrate that in some cases with pedestrian or bike paths. So. There are many, many opportunities when you link science with design because design is about getting multiple functions from the same materials, not just reducing the number of materials and the number of outputs or uses. So things are changing very rapidly, but it’s a race between basically smart and stupid.
Manda: Oh, and wouldn’t we like the smart to be there? And this has to be the advantage of being in the technological singularity. This sounds so exciting. So just for my own interest, because I’m intrigued and I’m writing a book, The Algae that we could grow in our multifunctional structure, where it’s being grown over something, shading a road, a freeway. What are we doing with that algae once we’ve grown it? Can we create structures out of algae?
Janis: Oh, no. The algae provides the fuel.
Janis: And the mycelium provides the binding material in order to make products and structures. There are a couple of algae integrated buildings. It’s called Algaetecture.
Manda: Oh, I’m going to look that up!
Janis: You need to Google that. For some reason, it’s been talked about a long time, and there are plenty of examples, but it’s at least been built in a couple, few places. Sometimes it’s algae integrated with the building in in shading structures because, you know, most large buildings have some kind of window shading. And basically you take sort of a carbon feedstock from some adjacent facility and it feeds the algae and they grow and produce oxygen and fuel. But it’s something to Google: algaetecture. Now, the algaetecture that I’ve seen so far is kind of ugly, but it doesn’t have to be.
Manda: So before we head off into much broader concepts, I’m also really interested in the idea of mycelia, fungi, as growing media. I imagine that they would need a substrate. That mycelium require rotting wood or leaves or something. Coffee grounds. I remember being in Devon and there was a whole circular economy unit where they had a shipping container and they collected all of the coffee grounds from everywhere they could find them, put them in long bags, and then grew mushrooms for food on the bags. So what kind of substrates are people using if they’re creating mycelium for building?
Janis: Well, my daughter is a mushroom researcher and she uses grain. So I don’t know what… There are businesses developing that are trying to produce panels for buildings and you can Google mycelium bricks and other structures, other materials, insulation, for example. And I don’t grow mushrooms myself, but I know that you can grow it from grains or coffee grounds. These are grain husks, not the grain itself. So you’re using waste. And not only can the mushrooms grow on waste, the mushrooms use waste as a feedstock, but they can also bind waste, even carbon. You know, carbon sequestration in the bricks themselves. I’m not sure about toxic waste. It would depend on what kind of pollutant that you’re sequestering to get out of the way. But you theoretically could sequester toxins to remove them from the environment and put them in building products. But that really depends on what material, what pollutants you’re talking about. But certainly waste products and carbon containing, you know, for carbon storage or sequestration.
Manda: So how do we do this? Because this feels really exciting and it feels, as you say, exactly an answer to where we need to go. Is that we have a sense that designers, policymakers, politicians and the public are aware that it’s possible to create buildings that put back more than they take, and that presumably we end up with exponential returns if we get this right. That one genuinely green building is okay, but it’s completely outweighed by all the light green or not green at all buildings. But if we have an entire city that is net positive, then the benefits are potentially enormous. So can you begin to talk us through how that could happen? Or perhaps it’s easier to say, what does that look like?
Janis: Well, every building would look different from the rest, presumably. Because environmental design is site dependent. It depends on the very precise environment that you put the building in. But overall, they would all look like gardens. They would be designed as gardens for living. So we have to move away from the Bauhaus design concept of the turn of the century. Mies van der Rohe and these people that were saying a building is a machine, a machine for living in. That’s caused all kinds of problems. It’s created the idea that we’re reproducing the same buildings around the world, regardless of the climate. And I think most people understand that that’s been a disaster. But in a net positive building, it would look and feel like a garden, and that garden would depend entirely on where it is. Because it would use native plants and buildings could actually create what I call biodiversity incubators. And that means like you might have balconies or roofs or even whole floors dedicated to gardens that are actually designed to stimulate the growth of the kinds of bugs that the endangered birds in the region need and that sort of thing. You’re not just looking at keystone species, but you’re designing for the food chain, what is necessary or needed in that region, you know.
Janis: So, I mean, obviously, buildings would look like tropical gardens in the tropics and they’d look like snow covered chalets, presumably in colder climates, just depending on the culture and the climate. So that’s basically what they would look like. And you raised an important thing earlier. We have to retrofit buildings on that premise. We can’t just spend money making buildings more energy efficient. That’s really important and that’s a priority. But I’ve always argued that that’s picking the lower fruit and wasting the rest of the tree because every retrofit can have benefits on all levels. When you retrofit a building and you make it healthier and more energy and water efficient, the money you save if it’s accounted for, can pay for the upgrade. And back 20, 30 years ago, there were studies that showed that retrofitting a building would instantly raise its market value as well. So you might spend, let’s say, 50,000 renovating a building. It’s much nicer place to live. It’s got higher market value immediately. And the energy and resource savings pay back the 50,000 in, you know, ten or 20 years.
Manda: So given that we’re barrelling towards tipping points that seem quite close, it seems to me at the moment a ten or 20 year payback is probably largely irrelevant because I think by 20 years from now, money might mean something very different. And it would have been really good if people had taken this on board 20 years ago. It would have been even better they’d taken it on board in the eighties when I think you were probably saying it first. But as a broader systemic idea just now, suppose a miracle happened and it would be a large miracle, and the governments of the world decided that what they really wanted to do was put all of their energy and all of our remaining resources into creating a regenerative world. This is a big imaginal leap, but let’s just take it for a moment. So money up to a point ceases to be a problem because it’s all circulating. The governments create the money, they circulate it how they feel like it. Let’s assume that we’re circulating it all in an economy that is now devoted to regeneration. We’re endeavouring to minimise fossil fuel use and bring it to zero as fast as possible. Within that container, how are we going to approach the retrofitting of our cities to begin with and then the designing of new ones? Let’s deal with that later. But in the beginning, the retrofitting. So we’ve got concrete and steel, we’ve got the Bauhaus, brutalist concrete… I’m not a designer. These are probably inappropriate words. But I go into city and my soul shrinks because I cannot understand how anybody can live in that environment and not feel brutalised. What are our steps to making that space somewhere that’s regenerative for the people who live there, the people who don’t live there, and all of the more than human world. Is that a possible thing?
Janis: Well, yes, it’s possible. But let me just back up. When you talk about the 20 year payback, you’re right, you’re only talking about money, which isn’t important at all. But governments have been avoiding the opportunity to create infinite jobs that pay for themselves, in that there are thousands of buildings that need upgrading desperately. They’re health hazards and the like. And that’s certainly more true around the world as a whole than in some parts of the rich nations. But this could happen immediately. It could begin overnight. The only problem would be finding enough people with the skills. But there are a lot of things that even homeowners can do. So I just wanted to mention that when we’re talking about the big old, ugly, brutalist buildings in cities, there are many things we can do with those too. And again, they create jobs that virtually pay for themselves, if we counted the right things and if our price structure reflected value. And one of the examples that I give, is something I call green scaffolding, which is kind of putting an ecological envelope around parts of a building. One side, part of one side, the whole roof, whatever. And these are just structures that support ecosystem services or natural systems and environmental passive systems that contribute to the heating, cooling and ventilating of the building; provide fresh air, filter rainwater and store it; and provide biodiversity incubators and the like. What I call basically living wallpaper. Where instead of looking out a window to a brick wall, you’re basically looking at something like an aquarium. Could be literally an aquarium, but that might not be very practical, but a terrarium of some sort or a beehive or even, you know, structures that (this is a bit corny, but, you know) you could have a container for ants and watch them do their thing. And that may not be terribly important, but it would make the living environment far more interesting and help people understand a little bit more about nature.
Janis: One of the problems we have today is that people raised in cities are disconnected from the environment. They’re used to cold, sterile environments. They don’t really know what they’re missing. So I think many, many people have talked about bringing nature back into the cities for the benefit of people, but it can also be done in such a way that it benefits nature. For instance, building walls, roofs and streets should double as nature corridors, which everyone agrees are essential, because animals of all types are divided by cities and freeways. And they can’t mate, they can’t find things to eat. They either overpopulate or under populate in their isolated areas. So there’s a strong movement to build nature corridors. And they can be integrated with walls. Not just stepping stones from mini parks, and they can be on roofs that people can also enjoy. Or I like the idea of whole building floors. If you have a 20 storey structure, why not have an open floor for birds and bugs and the like, but particularly plants so that well, I mean, you can you can go on and on with potential for far more interesting cities.
Manda: Okay. So is there anywhere in the world where this is being done? Anywhere where I could find pictures to put up or links to send people? Is this actually being enacted yet?
Janis: There are some interesting projects. It’s very hard to get really innovative projects built, but we’re now moving in that direction. For decades, developers would say, Well, we really want to do the right thing and we want to have the greenest building, but we want to be second. We don’t want to be first. We want to wait till someone else has done it and it’s been a success and then we’ll try to maybe do as well or a little bit better. So with the amazing things that computer draughting tools can do now, there’s been a lot of good imagery, but fewer buildings. There are a couple of examples of buildings that, you know, have major gardens linking maybe three skyscrapers. I have a problem with those because I just don’t like the way they’re done. But there are exemplars, again, on the Internet, and when I try to find pictures for slideshows to communicate what I’m talking about, I actually have trouble finding things. But there are some out there that give an image.
Manda: So it seems to me that for all the trillionaires who obviously listen to this podcast, maybe, or might get there eventually, instead of sending rockets to the moon, you could put the finance that you spent on that into creating an exemplar regenerative city to show people how it’s done and to be the first one so that everybody else can race to be second. That would seem a kind of obvious thing to be doing. So there are a number of places around the world that are endeavouring, I think, to become doughnut cities or whatever is the most recent catchphrase for ‘we are endeavouring to be as good as we can be’. We had an example of Barcelona that’s planting a lot of trees when Rob Hopkins spoke to us in Thrutopia a few weeks ago. And it seems to me that this is less bad than it was, but it’s not actually net positive yet. Is there anywhere in the world that you know of that is really building net positive or are we still waiting for someone else to be first?
Janis: People are trying now, but they’re not really, in my view. Well, I’m sceptical because I’ve seen so many attempts before. Like I think Canberra was one of the first zero waste by 2000 or whatever it was. And when the date drew near, they simply wrote a different policy, because they hadn’t taken adequate steps to deal with waste. I know that environmental what do you call, state of the environment, reports have been concealed because it didn’t look very good for the particular government that was undertaking those studies at the time. So I just I’m a little bit sceptical, but the main problem, the main reason there’s no provable net positive developments is that we don’t measure positive impacts. We started out in 1969 in the US with environmental impact assessment, but it only measured negative impacts and we’ve been in that headset ever since. I volunteered to write an environmental impact assessment in the seventies, where I was working as a planner, because I thought that would be good for me. I’d learn something. And they said, Oh no, Janis, you’ve mentioned positive impacts. We can’t have those in an environmental impact assessment. And I said, Well, then I don’t think I can do it, because the whole point of the plan that I was assessing was to have positive impacts. I’ve had students say, Well, we don’t measure positive impacts because it’s impossible. It’s a complex system. But in fact, we’ve been claiming to measure negative impacts by drawing system boundaries. In other words, pretending that remote impacts are not important. When in fact, cumulative impacts are becoming ever more important and outweighing often the direct impacts of projects. So when you think you’re measuring negative impacts, you’re assuming that you can measure the toxins and how they affect different animals immune systems and genetics and everything else.
Janis: A toxin thrown into the environment can never really be cleaned up. We don’t know what it’s doing over time, and we’re still putting thousands of new chemicals into the environment without adequate assessment of their impacts. Let alone measuring how they interact with each other. And it goes on and on. So. A project could have lots of positive impacts, assuming we measured them and counted them. But the negative impacts could still be of a nature like toxins that just erase all the positive impacts. In other words, toxins are very small, but even a building that does all kinds of good things: multi-functional, adaptable design that meets many additional needs and provides additional benefits. But we have to look at the systemic nature of negative impacts. Now, positive impacts aren’t a problem. It doesn’t matter if you have more positive impacts. So we’ve been really silly and just measuring negative impacts and thinking that we know what those impacts are. We can’t measure them in a complex system. And when you’re having positive impacts, they by definition don’t do any harm. And the issue of how much good they do really isn’t something to worry about. So I have developed a tool for designing and in a sense, assessing the positive impacts as you go along. Later on, you can integrate LCA data into the tool to assess the the net impacts. But this is a design tool and usually when we talk about design tools, they’re not really helping you design. They’re just helping you be more creative.
Manda: Oh, that feels like a whole different podcast, too. What’s the difference between creativity and design?
Janis: The difference is a tool kind of helps you think through the design process versus tools that kind of help you think more laterally, you know. Like working with a group on, you know, brainstorming and that sort of thing. That’s all very good. I once had a class at least 15 years ago. I assigned them to each find; I made a list of like 70 different what could be called design tools, and had each student look up the tool and present it. And they were all helping people just to be more creative, not to actually be nature positive or improve health or be more sustainable.
Manda: Thank you. It’s sad that that’s the case.
Janis: So that brings us to nature positive.
Manda: Yes. Yes, it does. It brings us back to: if it is the case that we’re measuring the wrong things, we’re measuring only the negative impacts, and we’re pretending that a complex system is, in fact, a closed but complicated system and not measuring the wider stuff. Because, frankly, it would be too distressing if we did. If we were to shift to measuring the right stuff, how do we how do we turn this on its head in time, Janis? That seems to be the really big question.
Janis: How do we do it in time? Well, you can change your thinking instantly. And that seems to be happening finally. Many times in my life I’ve said, oh, I think there’s a real paradigm shift happening and things have gone back to basically, almost back to where they were before. But there is something happening now, and that’s economists are actually starting to talk about the catch phrase, nature positive. And by nature positive, they do mean counting all the impacts on nature in the supply chain and restoring it. So if you’re developing sneakers or some product, you look throughout the supply chain and say, where are you harming nature and how can you undo the damage? Now, they’re still 20 years behind environmentalists, but this is a real leap. And business and economists are listened to by the general public and by politicians. So it’s real grounds for optimism. What they have to do is shift from nature positive, meaning restoring and regenerating nature, to actually getting… I don’t want to say getting back to a point in time, but, increasing nature so that it’s more or less the equivalent of pre urban or preindustrial conditions.
Manda: And do you think this is possible?
Janis: Oh, yes, I think it’s possible, but most people don’t know or care. So how you get around that, it is possible, but there’s such an emphasis on trying to convert people and change their values, whereas we really need to redesign systems. So we need to think rather than try to make other people just agree with us. And there are a lot of people working in that area. But what we don’t have time to do is wait until everyone’s converted and agrees with us and changes their purchasing habits and changes their voting habits, because that’s not going to happen. People can be manipulated politically overnight. What we need to do is have more people actually working on changing systems. And if you’re a layperson. That means looking at your house, even if you’re a renter and saying, well, what changes can I make maybe in cooperation with the body corporate or the building owner? Because that actually makes a tangible difference. We really have to upgrade all buildings in terms of their environmental impacts, both reducing negatives and increasing positives. It can happen. There are body corporates that have gotten together and said, you know, our property values will increase and we’ll save money if we put in insulation and solar cells and that sort of thing. That’s only looking at energy, but at least that’s doing something.
Manda: So for people listening, let’s assume that they can take agency somehow and do something in their own building, either the place where they live or the place where they work. And I’m guessing most people know about insulation and solar panels and double glazing and those basics. But they’re, if I’ve understood correctly, they’re kind of light green. They’re making the damage less bad, but they’re not net positive. If an ordinary lay home owner/renter were wanting to do something that was heading towards net positive, today, now. What kinds of things could they be looking at?
Janis: Well, for one thing, they could be looking at nature positive improvements. There are, for example, people that are creating nesting places around their homes. Like where I live, there’s a little small bat that flits around my house eating mosquitoes and they’re running out of habitat. So I got nesting boxes for the particular design for that particular bat. But I have a property, so I’ve got nesting boxes around the property. So there are lots of things you can do in that regard. And of course it just depends on the people, the house, the location. But if you look at step back and look at your house, you could probably make a list of things to fix. And of course, if you reduce your energy and you have batteries and solar cells, you can actually return energy to the grid. That’s not necessarily a net positive, but it’s certainly positive. There’s a lot of things like that you can do. Now, of course, solar cells have a lot of valuable resources in them, and those resources entail a lot of exploitation, and they’re not nearly as good as passive systems. There’s a lot of ways you can retrofit your house passively so that it stores energy from the sun and emits it like at night when otherwise you would have on your heater there. Now, not everyone can hire a designer or study passive solar design, but it’s really pretty simple if someone has the time and energy and it would be a point of pride.
Manda: So my question is my understanding of passive house building was that a lot of it was to do with the orientation to the sun, wherever you are, and that most people retrofitting, a building is oriented the way it’s oriented. And it it would be hard to change that. Is it the case that it’s possible to retrospectively create more of a passive effect where where you basically harvesting sunlight in the embodied energy of the building?
Janis: Absolutely. It’s not all about orientation. About 50% of roofs at least. Even in an area where there was very poor planning and no thought to orientation, 50% will generally be facing the sun. And there’s a lot of passive systems for, for instance, collecting heat on the roof passively without solar cells, in other words, storing the heat in the attic. Or Trombe walls. If you have a sun facing wall and let’s say it’s brick. You can cover that with basically a glass window, drill holes at the top and the bottom and and the heat comes in the glass. It heats up the brick, but it’s also building up in the in the fifty millimetre space between the glass and the wall. And that’s a very good source of heat and cooling. You can ventilate and cool a building with trombe walls and large buildings have used trombe walls. So it’s not all about solar cells or orientation. For instance, you can have a solar collector that just collects heat, not solar cells, and it can be separate from the house. Say you have a garden where there’s a lot of direct sunlight. You can have your heat collector there. Now, of course, if there’s a long distance from the house, that’s not going to be very efficient, but it does work. There are many, many passive solar systems.
Manda: So it sounding to me as if anybody who wants to really retrofit their house is going to need to get a designer or become an amateur designer and have spent a lot of time on the Internet. If you were put in charge of the entire world and money was no object. How fast do you think you could change enough cities to bring us into net positive living around the world? I’m thinking London or Glasgow near where I grew up, or any of the big cities in the world. How long would it take? If we just put every resource that we’ve got into regenerating cities into net positive? Could it be done and how long would it take do you think?
Janis: Well, the thing about retrofitting is that in theory, you could be improving every building in the city at the same time. But of course you don’t have the labour or the designers and so on. So it’s really very hypothetical. But, you know people can’t sort of take the view that they need a guarantee that something can be done in time. You don’t try to save the planet only if you think you’re going to succeed. Or you don’t give up trying to save the planet because you think you might succeed, but a gamma ray will hit the earth after that, and all your work will be for nought. So I think you really don’t have to think about how long something takes. You have to be going in the right direction. For everyone, I hear that there are people that are depressed, and I think perhaps that’s because they don’t feel that they’re doing everything they can to the extent of their ability to try to make a better world. It’s very healthy to try to save the planet. Everyone has limitations and they do what they can.
Manda: Okay, that sounds like a really good place to end. Everyone has limitations, but we do the best that we can with what we’ve got. And with any luck at all, if enough of us do the best that we can with what we’ve got, we’ll generate the ability to do more. That would feel good. So we’re going to end there. Professor Janis Birkeland, thank you so much. I can feel the depth of your knowledge and I feel I haven’t really mined it as well as we could have done. But I will put links to all of the places you are on the Internet, in the show notes, so that people can follow up and explore the amazing stuff that you have thought about and written about. Thank you so much for coming on to The Accidental Gods podcast.
Janis: Well, thank you very much for having me. It was my pleasure.
Manda: And that’s it for another week. Enormous thanks to Janis Birkeland, for the depth of her knowledge and for the hope that she gives that we can still change everything around us. It feels complicated to me. This feels more complex than almost any other area that we’ve approached. And I realise how little I know about design and development and planning and the politics and economics that go into them. And that all of these need to be addressed before we can really begin to shift the built environment from throwing toxins endlessly into the world, to actually being regenerative. What Janis calls net positive. And this has to happen. So if we can start with our own buildings and we have the resources and the privilege, frankly, to do that, then clearly we should. But somewhere along the line, we have to shift the system so that regenerating the built environment becomes a key part of what we do and how we think. Answers on a plain brown postcard. Because just at the moment, I don’t quite see how to do that. But it needs to be done. So let’s collectively think about it. We will be back next week with another conversation.
Manda: And in the meantime, thanks to Caro C for some astonishing acrobatics with the producing of this one and for the music at the head and foot. Thanks to Faith Tilleray for the website and all of the conversations that keep us going. Thank you to Gill Coombes and Anne Thomas for the transcripts. And as ever, an enormous thanks to you for listening. And if you know of anybody else who wants to wrestle with the concepts of net positive design, then please do send them this link. And that’s it for now. See you next week. Thank you and goodbye.
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