From pets to burgers - behind our eco-footprints

*Watch the interview in the video player above*

From cheeseburgers to pets to gas-guzzling cars, Victoria University of Wellington's Brenda Vale looks at our literal ecological footprints.

Time to Eat the Dog? was the question Victoria University of Wellington School of Architecture professorial research fellows Brenda and Robert Vale asked in the title of their 2009 'real guide to sustainable living' book. 

“I would like to emphasise there is a question mark,” Brenda Vale said in a public lecture to mark the university’s presentation to her of its inaugural Staff Sustainability Excellence Award. 

The award – for which Vale was nominated by more than 25 colleagues – is the latest of many for the couple, including ones from the United Nations and the European Solar Energy Society. It follows a sustainable design career dating back to the early 1970s, when they were practising architects in the United Kingdom, pioneering self-sufficient homes.

“This is the only time in my whole research career I’ve ever received death threats,” Vale said of Time to Eat the Dog? “There was one scientist from France who wrote and said, ‘This is science that should never be done! I love my dog!’ I don’t doubt you love your dog but it doesn’t mean the science shouldn’t be done.”

"If we do not learn to change our behaviour, there will be no point in changing our buildings.”

The science – in the book and as Vale explained it in her lecture – demonstrated how architecture alone will not solve the problem of excessive ecological footprints.

“We can make twice the reduction in our ecological footprint by changing our behaviour compared with what we can achieve by changing our buildings,” she said. “Changing how we build our houses will be a slow and expensive process, but changing our behaviour can happen right now. If we do not learn to change our behaviour, there will be no point in changing our buildings.”

In their book, the Vales calculated the ecological footprint of everything from a cheeseburger (1.4 square metres compared with 0.18sqm for a bowl of rice and vegetables) to household pets.

Your cycling is no good for the environment if you also eat cheeseburgers, said Vale.

When the book was written, the average New Zealander’s annual ecological footprint was 4.9 hectares. Their fair share would have been 1.8ha. Now it would be 1.7ha, because the size of a person’s fair share is falling all the time.

Some pets can have an annual ecological footprint equivalent to a car travelling 10,000 kilometres a year, said Vale: for instance, a chihuahua’s 0.28ha, Scottish terrier’s 0.42ha, border collie’s 0.84ha and Alsatian’s 1.10ha compared with a Smart Fortwo Coupe’s 0.18ha, Volkswagen Golf’s 0.29ha, Holden Commodore’s 0.42ha and Toyota Landcruiser’s 0.62ha (2009 figures).

When it comes to which is worse for the planet, an Alsatian or a Humvee, it’s not the Humvee, she said.

“With pets, small is always what we should be aiming for” – say, a hamster (0.014ha), a canary (0.007ha) or best of all a goldfish (0.00034ha).

“I think somebody said that with food you should eat not too much, mostly plants. If you must eat meat, kangaroo doesn’t have a CO2 overhead, nor does deer. Avoid ruminants.”

The Vales’ commitment to sustainable design and living was evident as far back as 1972 when they moved into a former pub in Cambridgeshire in the UK and – largely through a five-kilowatt wind turbine, which “drove our electricity meter backwards”, and high levels of insulation – reduced the house’s energy demand by 80 percent.

They even built a solar cooker. “It took all day, providing the sun was shining, to cook a batch of biscuits. You had to keep going out and turning the machine around into the sun. It gave you the sense that solar energy is diffuse, it’s not like electricity, it’s not all there at once when you want it, you have to learn to live with it.”

Growing their own fruit and vegetables, and with a cow and pigs, they took two hours a day to produce 75 percent of their food.

“That was all monitored and measured. Because it’s no use doing any of these projects if you don’t monitor what’s going on.”

In the early 1980s, the Vales moved to Sheffield, where they received the first of what proved to be several commissions to design medical centres.

“We said, ‘Okay, we’ve done housing, we’ve saved 80 percent of the energy, we’ll do you a building within your National Health Service budget and we’ll save you 80 percent of the energy of running it and it won’t cost you any extra. We thought we could do it. But the great thing about going to architecture school is it teaches you to be arrogant.”

This was the first of the Vales’ super-insulated buildings, one of which won a UK Green Building of the Year Award.

They then applied the same principles to social housing.

“The idea is it would cost about the price of a pint of beer a week to heat these houses. We were phoned up by the housing association saying we’d promised them this energy saving but actually the houses were using more energy than that. So I said, ‘Okay, perhaps we got something wrong.’ We went around to investigate. We knocked on a door and the guy comes to the door wearing a singlet and shorts. We walked inside and the house was at 25 degrees centigrade. He’d never in his life been able to keep his house as warm as that and still afford the heating bills.”

The Vales wrote their first book on sustainable design in 1975 – The Autonomous House: Design and Planning for Self-Sufficiency.

It wasn’t until 1993, however, that they were able to bring its ideas to fruition on a house they built for themselves and their children in Nottinghamshire.

Again super-insulated, it got its energy from the site (including the first photovoltaic installation in the UK), along with its water, and waste was disposed of on-site (including a composting toilet).

Water was collected off the roof and stored in tanks in the basement.

“We never ran out of water because, of course, as soon as you know you’re on tanked water, you don’t run out because you know your resource is limited and so you’re very careful about it because you husband your limited resources. I think the problem with a lot of attitudes is we don’t realise a resource is limited.”

Before coming to New Zealand in 1996, the Vales completed a community of five autonomous houses in another part of Nottinghamshire.

The project included two wind turbines for which securing permission took five years. “You don’t give up in this game. If you believe in something you’ve just got to keep going.”

After the Vales left, the community built two more houses. “They did all the drawings and designed those themselves, which is fantastic, because you’re passing on those skills to other people and that’s what you want.

“The other interesting thing that came out of this is the village that had so protested about these wind turbines decided they would have one of their own. The whole village got together and bought this second-hand machine and over a year they generated more than they consumed in the village and had some surplus they gave back to the grid.

“So you’ve only got to do one thing and then other people will follow suit. It’s all about changing people’s attitudes and mindsets as much as about what you actually do.”

Professor Brenda Vale’s public lecture was hosted by the team that leads Victoria University of Wellington’s Te Aurora–Enhancing the Resilience and Sustainability of our Natural Heritage and Capital area academic distinctiveness.

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