Continuing our recent canine theme...

by Steve Harris

Time to Eat the Dog?: The Real Guide to Sustainable Living
Robert Vale, Brenda Vale
Thames & Hudson
ISBN-13: 978-0500287903

One of my favourite energy facts – I’m even on film saying it – is that an average man gives off 109 watts of heat, a woman 92 and a cat 16. The originators of this statistic – or one very much like it, as I must have corrupted it over the years – are Brenda and Robert Vale

Brenda and Robert are the grandparents of the British green building movement. I remember seeing them lecture when I was studying architecture in the late 80s. Green was at that time associated with flares and bearded engineers from the early 70s. 

Although I wasn’t impressed by the slightly postmodern styling on their buildings, I remember being very impressed that their doctor’s surgery required no heating other than light bulbs and its occupants. 

After that all my tutors would ask why I was drawing so much insulation round my designs. Earthly concerns like energy, weather, and for that matter gravity, were all equally uncool. 

The Vales wrote The New Autonomous House about their experience of designing, building and living in a super-low-energy house near Nottingham. Their records of everything that came in and out of the house, and the impact it had on energy performance, reached a glorious level of geekiness that actually became extremely readable (or does this just say something about me?). It’s here that they get into the heat output of a cat. In fact, without looking up my old copy, I think they named their pets by their heat output. It must have been entertaining for the neighbours when it came time to call them in: “Oh, Sixteen WAAAAaaatt!” 

Later Brenda and Robert were the architects for The Hockerton project, again using their ‘zero applied heating’ principles. Bill Dunster further built on these principles when he designed BedZED and I started working with him. We continued to develop the ideas through ten years of ZED projects. My wife and I have even designed our house according of the Vales’ basic practice of insulation, thermal mass and south-facing conservatories (with a little less of the postmodernism). I still find myself calculating, when I compromise a bit of insulation here and there, how many cats we would need to compensate for the heat loss. 

So to the the book at hand. I heard about the Vales’ latest offering, Time to Eat the Dog, from two sources. The first was a friend wanting to know more about sustainability. He was finding it all a bit ‘deep end’. The second was a friend with a large dog, whose heckles rose visibly at the mere mention of the book’s title. 

It’s fair to say that, though it is eminently readable, this book is not for the fainthearted. I found it best to read it from cover to cover, a little at a time. This meant I wouldn’t duplicate the effort of following through the calculations that dipping in would inevitably cause. 

The chapters go through the basics of everyday life, and in glorious detail they work out exactly the impact of what we do, with, in some cases, some revelatory conclusions. 

For example, they work out that flying in a full jumbo jet can be more sustainable, mile for mile, than walking! But before you click to lastminute dot com, the problem is that you don’t normally walk 3000 miles – and before we get accused of it, we’re not suggesting anybody should. 

Also, the carbon impact of walking depends massively on what the walker is fuelled by. A diet high in meat and processed food can actually give walking have a higher energy footprint than driving! However you really have to be going for it with the Big Macs to achieve these levels of energy footprint. 

On the other hand, a diet low in meat and high in local produce is shown to make the greatest impact an individual can on reducing their carbon footprint. 

Now, this may seem obvious, but Brenda and Robert go on through everything else you are likely to do in your life, from food and transport to buildings, through stuff, pets (of course) and golf versus tennis, to wedding and funerals. Each section begins with a review of various analyses of an energy footprint from around the world. A sensible average is concluded and a rule of thumb created. This is then used to analyse every detail – and I mean every last detail – of the activity in question.

Have you ever wondered the energy footprint of goldfish food? No, me neither – but what about the material the tank is made from – the filters, the electricity for the pumps, the material for the pumps, oh, and the water? 

All of this is on the principle that if you are going to do something, do it properly. It arrives at some fantastic statistics. For instance, the large dog of the title has the same carbon footprint as 1,059 goldfish, 51 canaries, 25 hamsters or 2.4 cats – the more carnivorous the creature, the greater the footprint. 

In a section called ‘Making the Deckchairs on the Titanic’, they describe our current lip service to sustainability as making sure the deckchairs on the Titanic are made from wood from certified sustainable sources. 

And what do you learn from this book? In common with David Mackay’s, Sustainability Without the Hot Air, I suppose it is to do less! Eat less, buy less, travel less, work less, have less. Without less we are heading to the inevitable iceberg of resource depletion, yet we will still end up being hungry. Labrador chops, anybody?