Dishing the dirt

Posted March 23rd, 2010 by Christopher Tweed

Several posts here have emphasised the importance of focusing on the difficulties of delivering sustainable design in practice. It is easy to get carried away with the enthusiasm in pushing technological boundaries (particularly the promises of the renewables industry) forgetting that these solutions have to work in the messy world of actual buildings with corners that are rarely square and openings some distance from metalworking tolerances. For sure, we need to hang on to the enthusiasm as well as courageous and radical thinking, but ultimately it has to work to make a difference.

A new blog, Building Energy Exposed (hat tip to Mel Starrs for tweeting the link), reminds us how difficult that can be, documenting the problems a building services engineer can face in trying to advance the low energy/carbon agenda. These horror stories shouldn’t deflect us from pursuing realistic goals for reducing energy consumption and carbon dioxide emissions. Instead they are pointers to the issues we need to consider in developing strategies.

In Purity and Danger, the anthropologist, Mary Douglas, wrote about the phenomenon of ‘dirt’ which she defined as ‘matter out of place’. I recently examined a PhD thesis which applied the concept of dirt to the operations of the construction industry, even for the simplest jobs, such as a loft conversion. I am grateful to the student for showing me the potential of this idea in everyday, mundane building practices. I hope he develops this idea further, because it is important for us to acknowledge there is dirt in every system and how we deal with it often decides the success of our projects. If anyone tries to tell you they have eradicated dirt from their product, system, or technology, they are either trying to fool you or themselves.