School of Mathematical Sciences

MASS visits sustainable housing development

Hayley with a donkey

Hayley Mills with the Hockerton donkey

On Friday 14 October 2016 the MASS: 'Modelling and Analytics for a Sustainable Society' Leverhulme Scholars group took a trip to the Hockerton Housing Project (HHP), a sustainable housing development of five earth-sheltered, low-carbon, zero-heating homes. The project has been running successfully for the past 20 years with the community striving towards total autonomy, and over the course of the day we were able to see first-hand the practical ways in which they are able to bring sustainability to life. During our tour of the project we experienced how the group live with minimal energy consumption, no water mains connection and cooperatively grow their own food, all with minimal impact on the environment. We even got to meet a super friendly donkey.

Highlights on the day included “the house tour as we got to see how it all came together in reality” (Lorna Burnell, Leverhulme Scholar), and were all surprised at the toasty warm floor despite the absence of any central or secondary heating! Others included “the aquaponics, as this was not something I was aware of before, including the conservative and careful use of water (e.g. less filtered water for showering and the toilet), their own water filtration systems and being off the grid for water” (Burnell). We also had the opportunity to get involved in a number of challenges, for example considering how the supply of energy to the development depends upon, among others, variables such as the angle, area, efficiency and transfer rate of solar panels and the availability of sunlight throughout the year to eventually determine the requirements necessary to achieve a balance with the total energy demand.

It was also interesting to debate between ourselves the practicalities of the project and the ways it could be extended to the general population, stimulating discussion which helped us get to know each other as a group. Chris Lanyon, Leverhulme Scholar, thought that “it could be difficult (and expensive) to maintain comfortable living and autonomy from the electrical grid using current technology. Though it is possible, it requires a large quantity of expendable income within the community”. Ernst Schäfer, Leverhulme Scholar, initially felt the same, stating that “learning about sustainability inevitably entails becoming aware of the monumental obstacles there are between our current way of life and a truly sustainable society. For me personally, this has caused me to believe that we will not be able to solve these problems without giving up many of the luxuries we enjoy now”, however our visit to The Hockerton Housing Project has given much cause for inspiration and optimism;

“HPP showed me that I was wrong and it is possible to live in a (much more) sustainable way without diminishing our quality of life. I would even argue that the 'Hockerton lifestyle' might even be far more enjoyable than the busy, consumption-focused lifestyle most of us enjoy” (Schäfer).

Lake and Buddha Waving on house

Whether of immediate relevance to our own research or a broadening experience to help us to consider the wider context of our work in Mathematics for a Sustainable Society it was a valuable experience for the entire group. Within MASS our vision is “for mathematics to have genuine societal benefit in addressing the challenge of resource sustainability” with mathematics intersecting the areas of food, energy and water. All three were touched on during the day allowing us to learn more about both the work of our peers and where our own expertise fits into the wider solution. For example hearing about the destructive effects of disease in organic crops as a problem which could potentially be impacted by our research in modelling plant calcium dynamics or, for Lorna Burnell, working on changes in rainfall due to engineering of the climate through solar radiation management, who said “the knowledge of how they dealt will careful management of water at the Hockerton Housing Project will definitely be something I will consider when thinking about how different regions of the globe will cope with water deficit”.

We would like to thank The Leverhulme Trust, who are funding MASS, and all at the Hockerton Housing Project who showed us with such enthusiasm “how this way of living can build not only a more sustainable society, but also foster a sense of community that has disappeared from many places” (Schäfer). Overall “the trip was a good reminder that to resolve a problem, you just have to roll up your sleeves and start working on it, even if it does not remotely seem like solving it is possible” (Schäfer), an attitude fittingly applicable to both sustainability and mathematics.

Report by Hayley Mills, Leverhulme Scholar

Posted on Tuesday 18th October 2016

School of Mathematical Sciences

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