So the idealists were right, Utopia requires constraints. Professor Sandy Halliday MCIBSE CEng

Photo: The Vale’s Autonomous House, Southwell. Robert & Brenda Vale.

By Professor Sandy Halliday MCIBSE CEng FWES HonFRIAS HonFRIBA

Some time ago, I looked at an island off Mykonos and postulated the idea of autonomous tourism. Could that island be self-sufficient? If so what would it entail in terms of water collection and storage, winter heat, summer cooling, food and buildings?

These are places poor in soil, trees and natural shelter, but seasonally rich in sun or wind and rain. Wind turbines, solar thermal, solar PV, solar desalination were all applicable, proven technologies. I contemplated the idea of solar cooling as a necessity for comfort and health. Maintaining the bee population was critical for honey. The creation of gardens inferred both the import of soil and fencing to separate vegetables from those vital, endearing but intrusive sources of feta and yogurt. Fishing was a no-brainer (this was before dredging and detonation scraped and exploded the Aegean fish population to near extinction.) What to build with proved a real challenge.

I wondered about waste from olive processing plants and whether olive trees were evergreen or deciduous! What would grow quickly? Seaweed building blocks could, I assumed, be nasally challenging. I saw concrete everywhere and pondered the vast resource of volcanic residue. Then skills – local or itinerant? Achieving even basic needs from the immediate location was going to be difficult. In a tourist/luxury context it didn’t add up. In terms of the wider global picture, I failed to factor in aircraft-related CO2. They were the days of slow travel and I had arrived overland from London by the truly magic, Magic Bus. It was 1976.

Fuel’s Paradise

Six years later, I came across Peter Chapman’s breathtaking book, Fuel’s Paradise (1). He postulates a fuel-resource poor, skills rich, island, Erg, where the currency, kWats, is based on embodied energy to which all exchanges relate. (see RIAS Quarterly Autumn 21/Issue 47 p.10/11) (2). The currency constraint encourages energy mindfulness and facilitates behaviours that benefit individuals and the community.

A decade later, Brenda & Robert Vale completed their autonomous house in Southwell (3). It was designed to function entirely on the resources of its immediate site, unconnected to any mains services. A self-defined, self-sufficient, suburban island. The site constraint demanded strict attention to limiting consumption through attention to form, fabric, orientation, layout, fixtures and fittings with sufficient storage of energy and water to bridge times of scarcity. They had space to grow a significant proportion of their food and a compost toilet to recycle human waste onto their land. It wasn’t optimized. In resource terms, and depending on context, the concept might function better on the scale of a cluster, a village, a bio-region or an actual island, but it was resource-effective by design and it inspired.

These two visionary examples, one imagined and one real, challenge our collective conscience, which is more likely to invoke the desolation of Easter Island or St Kilda than some utopian ideal. They also represent a deviation from the history of human development. A history in which perceived scarcity of resources led our forefathers (for it was mainly men) to seek assets further and further afield. Some even suggest that the moon landing provided a temporary halt when they found not riches but only rocks, before heading further still.

Islands as metaphors

More decades pass and islands become useful metaphors yet again. Few principles of sustainable development cannot be demonstrated by taking an island mindset to process the consequences of our activities. Replace planet with island in “Infinite growth on a finite planet is an impossibility” (Schumacher) and you have a powerful, self-evident and relatable maxim. “War against nature is a war against ourselves” (Carson) provides more immediate feedback at the island scale then a global view of the same truism. “Everything must go somewhere” (Commoner) (4) implies a global balance between plastic flotsam on the shoreline and trash dropped in a stream. It favours caution.

Today I stand looking at an island off Skye and postulate that same idea of autonomy in a world where conservation is increasingly recognized as common sense. These too are places poor in soil, trees and natural shelter but phenomenally rich in wind and rain – sun not so much – but still worth planning for. Scotland’s islands were once autonomous in food, energy and shelter courtesy of the black cow, peat, stone and a diverse skillset. It represented a sufficiency that encouraged many to travel, and few today would cherish! However, Scotland has transitioned from energy autonomy through peat, via coal, oil, gas and nuclear, to a situation where hydro, wind, wave and some thought to waste avoidance and enhanced storage could readily put us in surplus.

Scotland has transitioned from energy autonomy through peat, via coal, oil, gas and nuclear, to a situation where hydro, wind, wave and some thought to waste avoidance and enhanced storage could readily put us in surplus.

Properly managed many islands could support a locally-sourced well balanced diet; and of course we now understand that bee populations are not just nice to have, but critical to supporting human life itself. Shelter remains an enormous challenge but can be increasingly plant based and sheepswool is sustainable. The comfort and health equivalent of my Greek solar cooling dilemma (NB: my Solar Desiccant Cooling research project eventually got funded in 1998!! (5)) is damp: but we can solve this through enhanced knowledge of hygroscopicity, rain screens and air tightness.

An invaluable perspective

I know! Even if autonomy at some level was possible, many would not think it desirable unless there was no alternative. ‘Islands’ have differing natural resources and we need and crave things only achievable by barter and exchange. There are also benefits of being mutually dependent and interdependent, not least to the gene pool. And edges (of disciplines, landmass and cultures) are interesting. Nonetheless, envisaging real boundaries provides an invaluable perspective from which to assess our ability to provide for our needs in perpetuity.

Nonetheless, envisaging real boundaries provides an invaluable perspective from which to assess our ability to provide for our needs in perpetuity

Crucial aspect of architectural skills and imagination

After all an island is simply an area of land surrounded by water and the next step up is a continent, and the next, Planet Earth, sometimes described as an island floating in the vast sea of space. Ultimately we have to live within its limits. This isn’t idealism, it’s fact. It means we must now shift to a 2000 watt society or 48kWh/person of primary energy per day for absolutely everything – about 1/3rd of our current consumption.  As the waters rise, the flood map of Scotland suggests that some islands will be submerged and inevitably other places will become new islands. We could prepare for and mitigate the damage by recognizing that one planet living may not have a luxury option but is rather better than no planet living. Creating a just transition is now a crucial aspect of architectural skills and imagination.

Professor Sandy Halliday MCIBSE CEng FWES HonFRIAS HonFRIBA

Sandy is author of Sustainable Construction Edition/Halliday/p/book/9781138200289


Chapman P (1975) Fuel’s Paradise Penguin. Photo: Sandy Halliday

Notes and biblio




(4) The Closing Circle: Nature, Man and Technology.Barry Commoner

(4) The four laws of ecology and the four anti-ecological laws of capitalism

(5) Solar Desiccant Cooling. Sciencedirect




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