Construction educators ‘Common Knowledge’ promote empowerment to improve the environment, quality of life and the community. Their Co-Founder and lead instructor is on the television every Wednesday
If inadequate housing remains Ireland’s biggest problem, new policy needs to be developed and implemented without delay.
“Within Common Knowledge, lies the potential to empower Irish people to create their own destinies, to build or improve their own homes and shelter”.
— Manchán Magan
Running since 2018 out of West Clare, Common Knowledge is a social enterprise founded by a small, talented and cosmopolitan group whose mission is to empower people with the skills, resources and sense of community for a more sustainable life. Social impact rather than profit is the aim: to support members in creatively managing just transition, removing stigma about actually building, and make living more affordable.
The team at Common Knowledge
They supplement intensive training with research and development, and community projects including plans for a building-tool library and sheep-fleece mobile scouring-unit. Their mission goes beyond mere concept or metaphor. High-spec Tiny Homes created by course participants got significant media coverage.
Common Knowledge’s popular week-long house-building courses combine instruction, demonstration, and practice, shorn of common constraints and prejudices. They provide a comprehensive introduction to construction, covering basic principles so that skills learned on-site are relevant and transferable.
“The course is designed for you to leave feeling equipped with the skills and confidence you will need to apply to any structure. So whether you’re planning a new build, dreaming of renovating a stone cottage, want to build your DIY skills and knowledge, or simply fancy the idea of collaborating and working alongside others for a week outdoors, this is the ideal introductory course for you”.
Common Knowledge is a successful example of a type of organisation appearing around the country delivering potentially huge help for people to solve not just the housing but also the wider climate crisis.
The State of Irish Housing
According to the OECD, Irish houses now cost slightly more than the world average.
The Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage, which has lead responsibility, published the Housing For All policy in September 2021. This multi-annual, multi-billion euro plan promises to improve Ireland’s housing system and deliver more homes between now and 2030, to suit housing needs across the spectrum.
The chief objective is universal access to good quality homes –
- to purchase or rent at an affordable price
- built to a high standard and in the right place
- offering a high quality of life
All fine general principles with which few would disagree.
For steady supply in right locations, and economic, social and environmental sustainability, an estimated 33,000 new homes are needed annually, to boost home ownership; eradicate homelessness; reduce resource-wasteful dereliction and vacancy; increase social housing delivery, new housing supply, and affordability; and support social inclusion.
Multi-stakeholder input is reflected in 213 delivery actions. A newly-established Housing Commission is to examine themes such as tenure, standards, markets functioning, sustainability and quality-of-life issues, and to suggest wording for a housing referendum. When these exercises may become significant for ordinary house-seekers is unclear.
Also emphasised is the non-commercial statutory Housing Agency, established by 2012 regulation to support government and local authorities perform functions under the Housing Acts, through services including:
- Housing Research and Analysis
- Housing Supply Supports and Advice
- Local Authority Services
- Approved Housing Body Services
- Mortgage Supports
- Acquisitions Programme
- Housing Projects and Procurement Services
- Pyrite Remediation
The dearth of information on their website for everyday homeowners suggests a predisposition to a burgeoning professional and often multi-national corporate class involved in housing provision and management, not unlike the direction evidently being taken by the Residential Tenancies Board (RTB), a public body set up to support and develop a well-functioning rental housing sector. That existing tenants have no option rights on houses they live in if sold is a simple illustration of priorities.
Though there has been a precipitous decline in their direct construction of housing in the last 40 years, local authoritiesare still heavily involved, through:
- building and purchasing houses
- supporting Approved Housing Bodies to buy and/or build
- providing accommodation using the private rented sector e.g. Housing Assistance Payment scheme, Rental Accommodation Scheme , Social Housing Leasing Expenditure Programme
- provision of grants e.g. housing adaptation grants
- other schemes which expand or improve current living conditions
With many rental houses of low BER rating and accommodating resident who are unemployed or on low incomes, the Irish National Organisation for the Unemployed (INOU) and related bodies insist they need consistently distinct attention. The reality that families are being forced to split up to keep their housing eligibility not only violates social rights but confirms the need for new housing formats.
State agency Solas is charged with fast-tracking construction training qualifications. A Feasta proposal argues for promoting regenerative hands-on technology in mainstream education. Starting up more organisations like Common Knowledge would foster such practical creativity while helping achieve energy-efficiency goals.
Revenue also offers various, sometimes overlapping, reliefs relating to land and property.
Properties meeting conservation and heritage criteria may qualify for grants from bodies like the Heritage Council, local authorities, the Irish Georgian Society and others. Homelessness services are increasingly linked to the HSE and also, like health services themselves, being increasingly privatised.
On building renovation, the Climate Action Plan 2021 focuses almost exclusively on retrofitting, even releasing a dedicated National Retrofit Plan emphasising four pillars: driving demand and activity; financing and funding; supply chain, skills and standards; and governance. The Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland (SEAI) administers grants and schemes. The budget levy on concrete, a major producer of greenhouse gases, was for accounting rather than environmental reasons. But climate impact assessment should have top priority by now. Regarding the Plan’s Enterprise commitment to update eco-design legislation and improve product energy-efficiency with a stated goal of Nearly Zero, more research would enhance confidence that structures made of such products would still be standing and functional in twenty years’ time. Health is mentioned only once, as if all retrofits are equal. Self-builders are not mentioned at all; nor is collaborative or co-operative housing. The foregoing conclusion seems to be that only professional developers and investors can really deliver solutions needed: one on which past experience already casts doubt.
The Retrofit Option
Carl Elefante, former president of the American Institute of Architects, said: “The greenest building is the one that already exists”. Optimising habitability of existing dwellings would reduce construction emissions and save lives.
Long-term reliability, local suitability, and quality of life are important retrofitting considerations. Moisture ingress and capture, so common in Ireland, can undermine heat gain. Protecting against weather is critical. Irish homes lose heat mainly through wind on the outside, and through windows from the inside. Organisations like the Irish Green Building Council provide guidance on best practice (see A Bristolian’s Guide to Solid Wall Insulation, the BS 5250 guide, and this on moisture management ) Another expert in safe lasting insulation is the Natural Fibre Insulation Group of the Alliance for Sustainable Building Products (ASBP). An assessment of building stock resilience could help Irish builders.
Natural insulation is not necessarily more expensive than more problematic oil-based materials. Experienced eco-builders value products made of wood fibre and lime or clay mixes. Unlike cement, lime is re-usable, flexible, and reabsorbs carbon.
Insulation designed from first principles can also keep houses cooler in summer. Breathability is essential, and different from ventilation. No mechanism can ventilate away over-heating. Adding lasting value that avoids inadvertent harms should be the guiding principle. Testing work done for fire-proofness and safety is vital. Because retrofitting is expensive, people should know they can introduce some immediate provisional elements to keep dwellings warm, for example draught excluders and drapes.
Construction materials vary a lot in terms of embodied carbon and global warming potential.
Thermal mass, so integral to older buildings for temperature storage, acting essentially as a passive battery, is finally gaining recognition in insulation planning. This is where initiatives like Common Knowledge comes into their own, demonstrating fearless curiosity, ingenuity, and respect not only for traditional methods but for the forces of nature such as gravity, compression, tension and their interactions, and other external and internal forces unique to each site and substance, affecting load distribution, longevity and upkeep. For example, a strong material resists being bent, pulled apart and/or pushed together. Materials and shapes chosen direct momentum of vertical load, taking into consideration expected live load – where people go e.g. rooms – or dead load e.g. roofs. Altering shape can turn a tensile substance compressive. Once understood, combining new and old techniques for synergistic results is no problem in practice, barring official insistence on a one-size-fits-all approach. Availability of resources including budget, site location, machinery and labour matters, but exploiting existing structures and getting personally involved saves time and money.
With concrete splits widespread and hard to fix (concrete succeeded brick which succeeded stone), and sand a scarce commodity (quarries are crushing rocks to create extremely energy-intensive ‘sharp’ sand), finding alternatives to exclusively new builds is essential. An obstacle is the regulatory obsession with measurement for insurance and mortgage eligibility: sturdy pre-modern stone foundations for example are no longer allowed unless encased in Gabion cages, making boundary identification easier but defeating optimal shelter purposes. All pre-modern buildings were custom-made.
The idea of twentieth-century cavity walls was to create clear thermal and moisture barriers, now being filled with insulation, often without enough thought to type match. Likewise for timber frame houses, whose walls now mainly comprise insulation blocks. The oft-cited U value of thermal transmittance conveys performance but not improvement.
Tutors also explained how insulation, ideally containing air, slows down thermal flow whether by radiation, convection or conduction, by dispersing and deflecting heat rather than letting it escape. Substances with thermal mass – concrete, glass, steel – conduct heat (and cold) and may be treated to reflect/hold temperature e.g. double glazing. Some products branded environmentally-friendly and efficient, like cellulose, tyre-rubber and spray foam, are either oil-derived or may contain unhealthy additives likely to emit VOCs (volatile organic compounds). This is one example of unintended consequences expected from focusing mainly on energy performance of low-cost materials with high R value (heat resistance). What about preventing future defects and disease? Fortunately, exploiting solar gain and thermal mass greatly advances home energy passivity.
Hempcrete and cork lime, straw and wool, once properly prepped and set, are among healthier effective alternatives being increasingly explored. Import grade wool is over-refined, but no Irish company produces wool insulation. Currently almost valueless, fleeces rot in fields, with lanolin run-off polluting waterways. Despite poor quality of wool from meat-bred sheep, Common Knowledge hopes to develop a mobile micro-scouring plant for removing lanolin, a prized oil elsewhere.
Renovating a Stone Ruin
A building’s surviving structure dictates the response. Materials accreted on stone ruins complicate the challenge but renovation is about choice for best hybrid results, and weighing up proportionate benefits of options. There is no one right way, despite common dogmatism encountered. Compromise is the reality.
Decide early about putting insulation inside and/or outside. Keeping some original material exposed may involve some ‘unbuilding’. Intended usage should guide decisions. Insulate outside for shorter stays because stone’s thermal mass takes months to absorb heat. The sun provides plentiful passive heat, 4 hours minimum a day. Like clothing, insulation prevents convective heat loss by elements.
If adding a timber frame extension, stand the new wall against the old, connecting with compatible mortar and crossover material like extra core stones. Placing a vapour barrier in between is recommended. Cork board contains air for heat dispersal, but whatever insulation is selected deserves intimate assessment regarding type, performance, match, behaviour, amount, placement and aesthetics.
Deconstructing Housing Parts
Floors, roofs, electricity and plumbing for homes are all rigorously dissected for students in Common Knowledge classes, as detailed in the technical information inset panels.
Economist Ronan Lyons notes that “the average Irish person moves out of their parent’s home at 28, nine years after the typical Swede and later than every other country in Western Europe”.
In his book ‘Home’, Eoin O’ Broin sketched Ireland’s housing history and argued for major investment in public housing, while Rory Hearne updates this picture in ‘Gaffs’, just out, contrasting strenuous and extensive construction in times of economic hardship to multi-systemic building barriers during prosperity booms.
Strategic developments alone are insufficient, as housing solutions, to address the many intersectional issues facing society. Democratising planning requires many more diverse structures and policies. Samuel Stein suggests steps like strengthening preservation ordinances to protect working-class neighbourhoods from predatory development; regulations to prevent frequent and severe rent increases that price out lower-income residents; and policies that facilitate the transfer of land and property in mortgage default to the city rather than to speculators. What Ikea-Ingka is doing by lending money over a long-term lease for construction after which local authorities will own the properties, is another new model.
Universal design should be adopted whenever possible. Man-made structures should enhance and not dominate the landscape, in line with vernacular architecture design. Self-organised housing options allowing for experimentation in construction and ownership have much to offer if championed, for example Cloughjordan Ecovillage, with its colourful variety of quality homes.
A recent submission by Feasta on Ireland’s Enterprise Policy advocates more social enterprises, purpose-led business and employee ownership in a flourishing and resilient economy, and programmes for supporting them in partnership with the Department of Rural and Community Development. Indigenous industries desperately need more state nurture. A clear growing disparity has been identified by Social Justice Ireland between the house purchasing power of household and non-household entities Thankfully, more organisations like Common Knowledge offering useful practical skills workshops are forming. The Hollies in Cork is a cob-building centre of expertise. Architecture At The Edge encourages innovation. These approaches do not bankrupt government and citizens, unlike the corporation-biased economy. They complement slower living and even degrowth.
According to think-tank TASC, “policy failures in housing and planning have not only affected house prices, but also bear on our most recent erosion in living standards. Better planning and housing policy could have alleviated the cost-of-living crisis”.With blame also attributed to hoarding and speculation, low enforcement rates, and institutional dissonance e.g. local plans at odds with national strategy, coherent leadership on housing would engage with the whole panoply of viable sustainable solutions.
USEFUL TECHNICAL GUIDANCE
Common Knowledge mentors demonstrate their skills on RTE 1 TV series Build Your Own Home on Wednesday nights during Autumn 2022.