Muscat Youth Summit 2013

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Mike Oades and Dareen Mehdi lead one of the challenges set at the Muscat Youth Summit 2013

What is low cost, eco-friendly family housing?
This was the title of the challenge set for us at the Muscat Youth Summit 2013.  Firstly, we should not kid ourselves that building and construction is ‘eco-friendly’ or low cost, it is not. For example energy from fossil fuels consumed in the construction and operation of buildings accounts for approximately half of the UK’s emissions of carbon dioxide. (‘Construction and Sustainable Development’ Plain English, Constructing Excellence), approximately 27% of emissions come from housing alone. There are, however, ways that we can be more responsible about the way we resource building materials, process them, construct our built environment and manage the waste.

At the Muscat Youth Summit the students have been looking at what our impact is on the planet.  We all calculated our Carbon footprints and were shocked to discover that our own footprints ranged between 2 and 4. This means that if everyone on earth consumed the same amount of energy as ourselves that we would need 2 to 4 planets to sustain our current lifestyles – we all surely have to change our ways.

The students have been looking at simple ways to make make housing more efficient.  For example looking at orientation, maximising daylight and minimising sunlight and the benefits of thermal mass and insulation.  These simple measures will already start to reduce the energy required to cool our houses.  There are also more economical ways of cooling our houses without the need for air conditioning, by using natural ventilation and cooling the structure with air or water.  The students have also looked at the size of their houses and have admitted that perhaps the typical Omani house is now too big for current smaller family sizes; smaller houses would cost less to building and cost less to artificially light and cool. They have also looked at the notion of building communities and not a series of ‘prison houses’, as one student called them; a plot of 600 sq.m surrounded by a three metre wall and a house in the middle.

In response to the challenge the students have developed a house that, whilst is smaller than the typical Omani house, makes better use of space and looks at reintroducing the courtyard into the centre of the house.  The arrangement of houses within the development is more compact and follows a more organic pattern of development similar to more traditional development in the region.

Key of course to the task of changing attitudes is education.  People need to be informed and persuaded of the benefits of a more eco friendly lifestyle.  However, it is usually when the effects of an unsustainable way of living start to effect the money in our pockets that we really take notice.  In the UK we are encountering spiralling energy costs and homebuyers and tenants are being more discerning when looking for new properties to live in. Consumers want to know that their houses will be economical to run and will accept that there is a premium for this.  In Oman there is less incentive at present to think about more sustainable lifestyles with huge fuel and energy subsidies, but how long can this reasonably last?

So, what is low-cost, eco-friendly family housing? We found, to my surprise, probably the best examples that I have ever seen in Duqm itself – the Arish houses. These houses are constructed using renewable and sustainable resources, they are constructed in such a way that all the components can be reused and renewed easily, the building skin allows filtered air and light into the interior.  When I suggested to one of the students that the Arish house could actually be a solution for the housing development at Duqm he seemed horrified by the idea, but why not? For millennia we were able to live without air-conditioning, or central heating.  It is only in the last century that we have grown a dependency on artificial comforting of our environment.  Is this progress?  The secret to a more sustainable built environment may be found in the past.

Oman has a real opportunity at Duqm to look at development in a different way.  however, this requires leadership and willing from all the interested parties to make a tangible difference and show the world what can be achieved even in a challenging climate.

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