Hebridean blackhouse vs volume housebuilder home – energy profiles compared
The blackhouse, by contrast, was built with very low embodied energy, of which close to 100 per cent was renewable muscle power. The only significant heat-energy inputs were for the few iron components of the building. A 5kg wrought-iron pot chain and hook for a blackhouse would have cost, in the pre-modern period, around 200kg of renewable wood for charcoal-based smelting and forging. If zero carbon housing was possible to achieve with the simple technologies and constrained resources of the pre-modern Hebrides, it’s certainly possible today.
From Donald Trump’s executive order on public buildings to the UK’s ‘Living With Beauty’ report, national architectural debate in Britain and the USA is wearisomely prone to restage 1980s battles between lovers of Modernism and those who want new buildings to pay cumbersome tribute to Classical architecture. In the face of the climate emergency, it’s time to say ‘a plague on both your houses’ – and, for that matter, on Victorian and Georgian architecture, too.
With today’s emphasis on energy efficiency and staggeringly advanced materials science, new British houses could be much more energy-efficient than the blackhouse. This is rarely the case. Operational energy in the Winstone, according to a 2013 study, is about 35 per cent lower than the average detached UK home, but the building still emits 2.86 tonnes of CO2e a year – as much as an average new petrol car driving 24,000km. A blackhouse, in comparison, consumes 30-50 per cent less energy in the form of 1.4-2.1 tonnes of peat per year.
The blackhouse was probably less warmly heated. It is also smaller, but would have housed a comparable or perhaps larger family, so, in terms of domestic heat energy per person, the blackhouse’s simple masonry and thatch performed around twice as well as its technologically advanced modern counterpart.