Britain is facing a housing crisis that has led to a rise of both people sleeping on the streets and vulnerable families left on waiting lists for social housing to be available. Since the Recession, house prices in some regions have now recovered and, despite the speculation and uncertainty of Brexit negotiations, are on the rise along with rent.
Add into the mix of rising house prices and rents, an increase in the cost of building materials and other new build costs since 2010, plus a rise in the cost of utility bills, and it’s no wonder so many people are seeking alternative housing.
A Scottish recycling expert has built an eco home using resources that cost nothing and would have ended up in a landfill or in an incinerator. He has not stepped foot into a builder’s merchant for materials. Designed and built in the style of a traditional Scottish cabin, it has both running water and electricity without any utility bills. It has been zero-rated by the local council and so he does not pay any council tax.
Angus Carnie (55) built his eco cabin in his native Carnoustie, Dundee, using materials that were free and can live there for free.
While the interior is pleasantly decorated, the real interest is in the walls. Primarily using waste polymers, the walls are made up of ‘logs’ of shredded plastics that have been compressed together. The foundations are built with old plastic hospital bed sheets, which Angus converted into solid blocks. The cabin is insulated with photocopier toner cartridges, a plastic which is currently unrecyclable, shredded into a fine fibre after he’s used the ink to paint the cabin.
Interestingly enough, Carnie has created a type of plasterboard out of waste plastic, which is lighter, waterproof and is significantly more durable than conventional plasterboards.
“The whole theme of the house is that I wanted it to be that it used to be something else,” He said as he showed me the floorboards that were from an old church originally and is now part of his kitchen.
“From a material point of view, what I was particularly keen to use was materials that were either going to end up in a landfill or have to be disposed of in an expensive manner.”
Carnie hopes that the thinking and ideas that went into his cabin can be used to help with social housing and combat homelessness in Britain.
The cabin cost only £40,000 to build – £25,000 paid for the land to build on and Angus spent another £15,000 on processing plastic and on the services of an electrician. He did not spend a penny for the raw materials for his one-bedroom property. And what his project has shown is that if a commercial company was to take up his idea and begin producing building materials or entire homes using waste plastic, the overall cost could be significantly cheaper and turnover significantly faster.
“Basically, what I wanted to achieve was to create a social home, because it’s very difficult now in certain parts of the country to get on the housing ladder,” He said. “I felt that, with skillsets that I have of being able to work out what to do with different waste streams, I could, rather than look at individual products, I could build a whole house.”
The use of waste plastic is an interesting choice as it is a seemingly endless resource. It is a potential building material that people and businesses pay to have taken away. Something Carnie hopes the construction industry will embrace more.
Another appealing aspect of his eco cabin is that it is incredibly cheap to live in. The one bedroom property collects rainwater and uses both solar and wind power to provide electricity.
“The Council tax people have visited and zero rated the property because I have no gas, no electricity bills, and no water bills, because the water comes, effectively, from rain.” He says. “They were very impressed.”
“I wanted it to be a very, very cheap house to run, because I think where quite a lot of poverty starts is that houses are badly insulated and they’re expensive to run for heating and lighting. I wanted to erode that cost. One part of that is insulation, and the other aspect was to create your own electricity.”
The rise of utility bills across the big six providers is certainly going to put the squeeze on vulnerable households and making Carnie’s sustainable cabin prototype an attractive idea.
Much like the Oxfam’s ‘Give a man a Fish,’ campaign, this could be an opportunity to provide support to people without continuingly subsidising their utility bills through fuel grants and schemes. Not that I have anything against schemes such as Winter Fuel Payment but this could be a sustainable solution. By providing the right tools and resources, it could mean people stay out of debt and off the street.
While Carnie’s ideas are fascinating and present a range of opportunities, he is not the first to turn to sustainability as a solution to affordable housing.
Oscar Mendez, a Colombian Architect, has been recycling plastics into building blocks and creating shelters for families displaced by violence and housing in Bogota. He has formed a company that specialises in producing these building blocks for construction and has attracted significant funding. Though his venture is still in its infancy, creating a handful of properties, the potential has been recognised and the homes he is producing are cheaper to build compared to traditional housing in Colombia.
In the UK, a hospital in Newport, Wales is trialling the use of a machine by TCG which recycles their used plastic hospital bed sheets into sterile blocks. Since beginning this trial, the prototype machine has saved the hospital £864 per month by reducing waste to a landfill. The sales of these blocks have made this machine financially viable. There is further potential in the near future with the blocks being used as 3D printing filament or used to generate electricity in a biomass plant. The earning potential of a scheme like this could benefit a number of hospitals and trusts.
Last year was also a good year for renewable energy. There had only been a small increase in renewable capacity to 33.4 GW (0.7% or 0.2 GW) in 2016. However, 5.8 GW of capacity that was installed qualified for the GB Fit in Tariff Scheme (FiT). This means there’s been a 30% increase of people potentially generating revenue off their renewable energy plant and reducing their own utility bills.
While these are positive examples, this is just a drop of water in an ocean. With over 1.6 million people on waiting lists for social homes in England, for these ideas to greatly impact social housing and homelessness in the UK, we need a large shift in thinking and how we view waste.