Gentle Decline 1/14: Housing & Habitation
Hello. It's June, and the weather is sort-of, kind-of warming up, although there was a morning early in the month where it was only 4C, and it's rainy and cool this week. Last summer, as I'm sure we're all aware, was really hot in Europe, and I didn't cope very well with it; indeed, last summer's weather was part of the stuff that provoked me into starting this newsletter. That's had a definite impact on me, such that I now have a kind of small-scale reverse SAD; I have a small but definite dip in mood and attitude when I see sunshine. I don't like this, but it has the definite effect of making me wary of situations where I'll get overheated, which is good for my long-term survival and sanity.
Long term forecasting - anything more than 5 days - is still pretty much science fiction, so I don't put much stock in seasonal prognostications. The very best forecasters I'm aware of have about a 40% success rate. One of those, however, has said that this summer will be close to average, and I really, really hope he's right. If not, I'll be spending a lot of the summer having to replace the damp towel on the back of my neck every half hour, or lurking indoors in air-conditioned buildings.
But that does bring me on to the topic of this particular issue: housing. I touched on this last time around when I said "move inland", but I want to have a look at it in more depth. I want to consider mostly from an optimistic point of view (while still in the context of catastrophic climate change), and keep the absolute-immediate-disaster situation for a future issue. A lot of it assumes you have a choice about where to live, so another future issue will look, in as much as I can, at things you can potentially do to make life better if it all goes pear-shaped. Some more of it is to do with the kind of housing that should be being built, and an acknowledgement that our current methods of providing housing don't accommodate that 'should' very well.
What do you need in housing that will futureproof you, as an individual, for the next few decades?
Ideally, you want (1) a house, on about (2) 1 hectare of reasonably fertile (3) non-flood-prone land, in (4) a position that's fairly sheltered by the landscape, on a (5) south-facing slope, which has (6) its own water supply, is (7) well-insulated, has (8) slightly more room than you need right now, both storage and living, has or can have (9) solar panels placed on the roof, has (10) a chimney or chimneys and ways to burn solid fuel, does not have (11) idiosyncratic wiring or plumbing and (12) is in good repair. While it's safer to own than to rent, renting will work for most things here.
Let me break that down by the conveniently placed numbers.
(1) - Houses are better than apartments for handling unexpected circumstances, mostly. Apartments come with a few countering advantages - they're usually less in need of insulation because they have limited external walls; they often don't need as much heating because heat leeches in from neighbouring apartments; water supplies (and sometimes gas and electricity) are a shared responsibility in terms of infrastructure if not payment; there are neighbours right there if there's an emergency. But an awful lot of items 2 through 12 here do depend on a house.
(2) - One hectare of reasonably fertile land is enough to sustain most families if things really go mad and we need to plant all our own food. It's also enough to put in a meaningful number of fruit trees, nut trees or trees for timber, plus currant bushes, gooseberries and other low-maintenance soft fruits, if you like growing your own food but don't have the time for vegetables. Less than that is also workable, of course, you just need to think more. John Seymour's New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency is an essential work here, and I'd go so far as to say that everyone should own a copy just to know what's possible, and because it's a lovely book in and of itself. You can get it on Amazon or eBay or wherever for less than the price of lunch. Our own back garden is way (way) less than one hectare, but it's still enough to grow stuff in if we need to. Allotments, shared land, and other such things might let you away from the necessity to have the house on the land, as long as it's within comfortable walking distance. Consideration (5) is also relevant for this.
(3) Having your dwelling not flood is going to be more and more important. This sounds like a simple thing, but the last two decades have seen sizable floods in places that never had them before. Lancaster, in the UK, and some of the villages around it, for example, had flooding in November 2017 which brought thigh-deep water into houses that were nowhere near any water channel - and this is in a part of the world where high rainfall is ordinary, and where channels and canals and flood controls have been in place since the Industrial Revolution. Broadly, if there is more than a trickle of running water anywhere near your house (as in, you can look down a slope toward it), and there's higher ground behind the building from the point of view of the stream, then you have a chance of flooding. Our house in Maynooth is probably safe from this; there's a stream/small river within a hundred metres, but the surrounding land is very, very flat, and the volume by which the stream can expand before it reaches us is many, many times its current volume. The catchment area for the stream also isn't all that big.
The habit in the 80s and 90s in the Isles of building in flood plains was just stupid, and nobody should live in those houses if they can help it.
(4) Landscape shelter is the best shelter when it comes to wind, and we're going to have more frequent, bigger wind storms. Shelter from trees or from other buildings is also good, although they can take damage and provide debris. But if you have a nice sheltered hollow, you're probably in good order. It can be edifying to look across the hillier into mountainous parts of Europe, and see where the old houses are built. In France, in Norway, and in the Isles, it's very clear that houses are seated into hollows and folds wherever possible. Wind damage is usually fairly repairable, compared to floods (tornadoes aside), but debris thrown around by wind can be lethal in the moment.
(5) South-facing slopes are sometimes seen as being an outdated consideration in land (or north-facing if you're in the Southern hemisphere). But they make a huge difference, particularly if you compare them with their north-facing equivalent. The thing here is the angle that the land forms with regard to sunlight. The more it slopes southward, the more photons per square centimetre are landing. North-facing slopes can have the light essentially pass over them. This is important for several things - for growing things, for solar panels, and for drying things out, be they clothes or wet ground.
(6) The importance of this varies a bit depending on where your house actually is. In an urban area, it may be impossible; in a rural area, it may be the only way to get water. What you absolutely ideally want is a filtered gravity feed from a spring that's never gone dry. Having your own well is good too, although most modern wells need electrical pumps, rather than being pumped by hand or having buckets to draw water. Mains water supplies can be affected by flooding, by storms (pump failure in electricity cuts), and by very cold weather. And of course in long dry spells, there may not be enough water to go around in a mains system. In Ireland, at least, we're unlikely to see much in the way of real groundwater depletion for a long time, so having your own well will continue to function.
(7) House insulation seems to be a difficult thing in Ireland. Most houses built before the late 20th century simply didn't have any, and thereby need active heating in cold weather, or they make a solid attempt to return to ambient temperature. Older houses, with thick stone walls and solid roofing (or even thatch) don't suffer from this so much, but the concrete-built stuff of the 1900s is just no good for it. Newer-built houses have better insulation, but it's still not taken seriously by builders, as far as I can see. So if you can get a house that's well-insulated, or insulate your own (a thing I'm currently looking into for ours), then you have a potential benefit in cold and in hot weather. I know this is much better in Scandinavia, and I can only imagine it's similar in North America, since the weather up to this point has hit greater extremes there than here.
(8) More room than you need right now can be a slightly contentious statement; some people really want to downsize. But consider: we're about to have less actual space, and less living space in particular. It might be really useful for you to have a room into which a friend or relative can go for a while, or which you can use as office space to work from when your coastal-city workplace gets flooded or affected by floods. It'll certainly be useful to have storage space, both for your own stuff and for the stuff of people you know who are moving and need some emergency space. I'm not saying that you should go for a full-size mansion, because those tend to be difficult to heat and maintain without a fleet of servants, but an extra room or two and/or some outbuildings could stand you in good stead.
(9) Solar power is decreasing in difficulty and cost of installation all the time, and the new build houses here in Maynooth seem to have solar panels on the roofs almost by default. It's another thing on the list of stuff-I'm-looking-into. And if you're on a south-facing slope, then you have a distinct advantage for solar power generation. Since solar power also avoids the idiotic NIMBYism of wind turbine opposition (and I have no sympathy for those people; windmills are great) by being almost invisible except for a slightly shinier roof, planning and objections from neighbours are not a big concern. Solar power, coupled with good batteries (a technology that's advancing in great leaps right now) is a key way to mitigate the effect of power cuts, which I anticipate having in ever greater numbers, and to cut down on your energy costs, because that's not going to get any cheaper.
(10) Chimneys and solid-fuel fires are an important backup to solar (and wind and water, should you be inclined) power. I don't trust houses that don't have fireplaces of some kind; what do you do when the power goes out in winter? Fire is one of humanity's earliest technologies, and in many ways the most reliable. Obviously, the solid fuel matters - peat and coal are going to be adding to long-term problems. But wood is sustainable, essentially carbon-neutral as long as there's replanting (or coppicing) happening, and it's useful for cookery and even some level of metalwork. Also, a good hearth fire generally makes people feel better, which is an important consideration.
(11) The notion that odd plumbing or wiring could be an issue might seem odd. But I speak from pretty direct experience in that this house was maintained by a dedicated maniac at some stage, and almost no part of it is standard. Screws are different sizes and shapes and sorts for the same piece of fitting, plumbing uses non-standard pieces at non-standard angles, and I don't understand enough about wiring to know what specifically is odd about it, but the couple of times we've had electricians in, they've made some very confused noises. A previous rented house had such bizarre arrangements that it took a plumber and me three hours to find how to get to a blocked pipe, and we had to smash through a tiled floor to get access to it.These are not problematic things when you can pass them on to a professional, but in times of possible poor infrastructure, poor supply lines, and so forth, you want maintenance to be as easy as possible. This doesn't necessarily mean a new building, just one that that hasn't been maintained by a madman at any point.
(12) Which brings me on to the last point; good repair. When you are moving inland to get away from coastal flooding, and there's pressure on land and housing, and there's going to be (more) weird weather, you do not want a fixer-upper. You want a house that is already in good nick, and that you can keep there with a minimum of effort.
Extra features like cellars, outbuildings, workshops, barns, and so forth are all excellent, but not as much on the critical path as the stuff above. However, even without those features, there are probably only a few hundred houses in the entirety of Ireland (adjust for your own populations and landmasses) that meet all these criteria, and the people living in them are very likely to want to stay there. So we're going to need to compromise with existing housing stock, or we're going to need to build more houses.
Building of houses isn't a problem in Ireland (nor in the UK, as far as I can see); almost every town has a new suburb or two springing up. Maynooth has about four new developments in progress, two having already been built in the last five years, and there are liable to be plenty more in the next few years. There's the usual level of grumbling about this from the established locals, but mostly people acknowledge that houses have to go somewhere. These places aren't meeting many of my criteria, though. They don't have attached land (tiny patches of garden, in some but not all cases - some are the 'duplex' arrangement where the ground floor place has a garden, and the two floors above, which are one dwelling, do not). They don't have chimneys, in many cases. They do have solar panels. They're not in overt danger of flooding, although I haven't taken the time to go and see what streams are there. It's pretty obvious that they're not being built with my thinking here in mind at all, and that's not surprising, because most people are still pretending pretty intensely that things are not going to change.
The kind of housing that's going to be needed, though, is not an easy question. It's moderately evident that not everybody in Ireland can live in the kind of situation I've described above - there certainly aren't that many south-facing slopes, and once you take mountains, forests, urban and agricultural land (modulo people growing stuff for themselves) into account, there probably isn't enough for every family to have a hectare of land. So there are going to have to be compromises, which probably means higher-density housing. As it happens, higher-density housing is (broadly) more environmentally friendly, and the more people that are concentrated into towns and cities, the better the natural environment can get on with things. One thing that is probably not going to work in the long term is people living on their own in a house or even an apartment, unless it's very small. We're going to see shared housing of various kinds, and probably, in the long run, a move away from people owning specific houses and toward housing cooperatives, or something of that ilk. The whole area of intentional community comes in here too, and that's one that capitalism has great difficulty with. I don't know much about the (current) legal possibilities here; most of the housing coops I know of are in the US.
In the broad sense, this verges over into urban design, and there's an interesting point of view on this from an article I'd like to quote from Front Porch Republic:
"The reinvigoration of religious and social ritual — allowing people to flourish, rather than merely consume and be stored — is as much an urban design problem as a social problem."
The article there is about the effects that not having public religious ritual has on our cities and settlements, and it's an interesting one. But the "consume and be stored" line rings out for me; urban design in Ireland is very much in that line at present, and probably for the short term future. Unfortunately, I can't see that getting any better or generally more suitable for an era of climate disaster for some time - the area of housing development is very set in its ways, and very resistant to any change that isn't providing immediate profits. Indeed, it chases those profits so hard that it can't change course, such that changes in the market can leave ghost estates all over the country. I don't know if that's different in other countries, but I can't imagine that it's very much so.
I had a conversation recently with a reader who was pointing out that an actual sudden disaster, at a moderately large scale, will probably be necessary before people start to actually react to and understand that coastal evacuations will be a thing. It might, considering the West's singular blindness toward the rest of the world, have to be a disaster that happens to well-off white people. He's not wrong, but I don't think it's going to happen that way. Instead (in line with my gradualist thinking concerning history), I anticipate a slow curve toward a new normal which is some notches less comfortable for most people and slowly disastrous for a good few, and a lot of hand-wringing and how-did-we-get-here editorials in newspapers.
I see that I've gone over 3000 words, and that's probably a hint that I should come to a temporary halt. I've made a few comments about things that I'll follow up on in future issues, and I have a list of those future issues and even some work done on some of them. Should you have suggestions for things you'd like me to cover, or things you reckon I'm not getting right, hit reply. For now, this issue has been brought to you by uncertain summer weather, almond biscuits from the Asian shop near Jervis St, and some excellent Icelandic salmiakki sweets.