Low Impact Developments – Defining a Vision

Home buyers, and some real estate developers, are realising the impact of subdivisions on the environment and are looking at ways of minimising the environmental harm from building new. The movement to protect the environment (global and local) is also being led by enlightened local bodies which enact bylaws to meet Low Impact standards.

In Great Britain is this Stoneham Green affordable housing development near Southampton which, Green Building Press reports, is one of the UK’s first to achieve Code for Sustainable Homes Level 6 because of its utilisation of Biomass digesters amongst other energy-saving techniques. The focus here is on energy conservation. Other developments stress different benefits of sustainability.

What makes a dwelling Low Impact?

Before we can establish laws for sustainable, low impact housing we really need to understand and define what we are talking about. ‘Sustainable’ and ‘Low Impact’ are such easy words to throw around, especially when they refer to houses or buildings, but it is vital that the same definitions are held in everyone’s head.

A survey of definitions throws up a range of yardsticks used to measure Low Impact Dwellings, both in how they physically affect their surroundings to how they affect the people who live in them,

Simon Fairlie definition

Low impact dwellings (LID), in the UK sense of the term, was described by Simon Fairlie, a former editor of The Ecologist magazine (*1), in 1996 as: “development that through its low impact either enhances or does not significantly diminish environmental quality.” (*2)

For Simon Fairlie: living the good life gave him a clearer perspective of what is meant by ‘Low Impact Development (LID)

Fairlie later went on to study the ‘green’ assumptions of diet when he wrote a book ‘Meat: a Benign Extravagance’, in which he challenges conventional thinking about the sustainability of the vegan and vegetarian diets. He claims we ignore the high impact on resources necessary (and travel distances required) to gather vegan/vegetarian food and that feeding animals on waste food production could have less impact on the environment.

During his time with The Ecologist, Fairlie wrote: “Neither the term (Low Impact Dwelling) nor the concept was new. People have been living low impact lifestyles in low impact buildings for centuries; indeed until very recently the majority of people in the world lived that way.” (*3 ) In 2009 Fairlie revised his definition of a LID as: “development which, by virtue of its low or benign environmental impact, may be allowed in locations where conventional development is not permitted.” (*4)

Does low impact require fewer restrictions?

He explained: “I prefer this revised definition because wrapped up in it is the main argument; that low impact buildings need not be bound by the restrictions necessary to protect the countryside from ‘conventional’ high impact development ­ a.k.a. suburban sprawl. There are two other principle arguments in favour of LID:

  • (i) that some form of exception policy is necessary because conventional housing in a countryside protected from sprawl becomes too expensive for the people who work there; and
  • (ii) soon we will all have to live more sustainable low impact lifestyles, so pioneers should be encouraged.” (*5)

The LID connection with land

Others have expanded on the definition. A study by the University of West England (*6) acknowledged that: “LID is usually integrally connected with land management and as much as describing physical development, LID also describes a form of livelihood.” (*7) However, it also states that as LID is a “multi featured and intrinsically integrated form of development,” a simple definition cannot capture the meaning of LID and goes on to develop “a detailed themed definition with detailed criteria.”

No simple definition of Low Impact

In 2013, Dr Larch Maxey (*8) held the main features of LID to be:

  • locally adapted, diverse and unique
  • based on renewable resources
  • of an appropriate scale
  • visually unobtrusive
  • enhances biodiversity
  • increases public access to open space
  • generates little traffic
  • linked to sustainable livelihoods
  • co-ordinated by a management plan

Government commitment to Low Impact Dwellings

Already European countries, perhaps faced more obviously by the results of decades of disregard for the environment, are looking at options for low impact development. For example: all new homes in the UK are to be carbon-neutral by 2016

Low Impact must reach beyond buildings

In New Zealand, Claire Mortimer, Landcare Research November 12, 2010, posed the question: “Can we design cities to cleanse urban waterways and increase NZ’s biodiversity? Low Impact Urban Design and Development (LIUDD) is an approach which works with nature, using design features such as rain gardens and green roofs to reduce pollutants entering urban streams and harbours, while creating green spaces for NZ plants and animals to live in and green spaces for people to enjoy.”

This concept acknowledges the role many plants play in neutralising or filtering excess pollutants from waste water. While green roofs are catching on in other parts of the world (e.g. France where laws insist new houses must have either solar or rooftop gardens), in areas where water is captured for household use in holding tanks a green roof is not practical. We also have to decide if the green roof is sustainable – will people maintain the roof garden without coercion?

Sustainable water systems

With environmental warming extreme weather patterns are hitting every country. Even in our area in Golden Bay we experienced such an event. Water is very powerful and can cause unimaginable damage – and this is an area where roof water is captured in household tanks.

Rain runoff must be part of the consideration for low impact development

Can you imagine how much worse the damage would have been without tanks to reduce the runoff?

The household water tank is a relatively cheap way of reducing immediate run-off in extreme weather events. However, systems for later disposal of used (grey) water are not so cheap, especially if the water is intended only for watering a vegetable garden. Roof captured water has fallen out of favour, in that we have come to believe it is full of impurities that must be removed. Just how much of that belief is related to location and how much to superstition is unclear. The Drinking Water Standards for New Zealand focus only on public supply and so strive for optimum absence of any level of pollutants.

So what are the differences in impact (health, environment and cost) between a water system that reduces or eliminates storm water run-off through tanks and water treatment on site, and one that simply removes the runoff from the house site and at the same time delivers treated water via another public pipeline?

And this is where we come up against the differences in definition – in Canada and the US the definition used to describe low-impact development is based in a planning and engineering design approach to managing storm water runoff, while in Britain the definition is used for developments which provide little or no environmental impact, such as the housing estate pictured above.

According to the New Zealand Centre for Sustainable Cities blog: “The fundamental principle of low-impact development is that it’s better – both for people’s pocketbooks and for streams – to prevent storm runoff than it is to treat it (the water). That means building green roofs and rain gardens, installing rain barrels and cisterns, and using porous concrete and pavers.”

To balance a healthy water supply with sustainability is a challenge. Mains supply requires regular maintenance and repair of many kilometres of pipes from a treatment source. Using individual collection puts the onus of treating and maintenance on that individual. An interesting table (though totally without data) is published on the Government Health Education website. The message seems to be for a sustainable individual water supply all you need is household bleach regularly administered.

New versus old

While our focus is on changing bylaws to allow new low impact sustainable developments, we cannot turn our back on helping owners of low value housing stock to lower their environmental impact. For many, the cost required to upgrade is beyond them for the very reason that they live in low value housing.

We cannot advocate for new development as a panacea for fixing the problems of sustainability. As a Landcare Research initiative discovered, “Retrofitting an existing old building is always a challenge. We worked with the family … to build their awareness and ability to manage the ongoing operational decisions involved with balancing energy and water cost savings with comfort and health improvements.” Nor can we ensure that new low impact designs will always house people who understand their responsibility in the process.


New Zealand construction and housing companies are catching on to the idea of ‘sustainability’, but it is hard to marry that with the cost of such a home.

Here are some New Zealand examples:

  • Ekohome offers a range of affordable eco houses that have been specifically designed “to be flexible, sustainable and within the price reach of ordinary New Zealanders at just 5%-10% above the cost of a standard NZ home”;
  • ebode “provides architecturally designed passive solar homes for New Zealanders”;
  • The Zero Energy House company incorporates passive and solar energy, rain water collection and grey water disposal systems to reach its claim to zero energy.

However, if you look at their house designs, extravagance of space is an obvious issue. When these low impact houses must compete for buyers with extravagant house plans, as seen in some recent developments around Christchurch, genuine low impact houses such a Little Greenie will wilt in comparison. We have been sold the House Beautiful concept for too long. We actually need to question why we need so much space to live in – ourselves included!

Issues to be addressed

Any move toward sustainable housing development has to address:

  • Education – landlords, renters, owners, local government and even MPs to make them aware of the economic and social benefits of low impact development
  • Affordable access – are new low impact homes only for the middle-class?
  • Building materials – why are the costs so high in New Zealand and should we import cheaper housing materials despite the social implications?
  • Economic system – will the economic system of loans coming only from Banks at relatively high interest continue to put low impact development out of the reach of most New Zealanders?
  • Maori (first people’s) values – has low impact development been ‘captured’ by European values / are Maori values being overlooked?

These questions are not posed for YES/NO answers; they are asked to generate discussion and to trigger some innovative thinking.

Further Learning

PDF academic research document on Providing Incentives for Low-Impact Development

Booklet on Low Impact Development from British perspective


1. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Ecologist

2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-5

3. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-Pic kerill-6

4. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-Pic kerill-6

5. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-Pic kerill-6

6. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/University_of_West_England

7. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-West_England-7

8. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Low-impact_development_%28UK%29#cite_note-8

By Heather Sylvawood

Don’t be overwhelmed by environmental issues

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Just had an email from a good friend who said: “There are no end of things we have to fight against and for these days”. And it does feel overwhelming if you’ve subscribed to receive newsletters and email announcement from various social campaign groups. More and more issues are emerging because social media is connecting us.

World environmental problems overwhelm us

How easy would it be to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of the world’s problems? How easy it would be to feel we have to fight every unethical company in the world? We assume it would be near impossible for one individual to make a difference – but is the answer to sink into lethargy?

Taking ethical action

The reality is that individuals are taking ethical action. They’re not taking on the world or ALL the big corporations who act unethically, without regard to the citizens of the world. They’re taking on one issue and acting on that.

Let’s look at some of the groups I personally know about which stand for a more ethical future :

Project Jonah – Whale rescue teams training others to act quickly whenever there is a whale stranding. They also speak out about issues that are becoming apparent for these amazing sea-going mammals.

The Sum Of Us –  a global movement of consumers, investors, and workers all around the world, standing together to hold corporations accountable for their actions and forge a new, sustainable and just path for our global economy.

Upworthy – a social media site with a focus on entertaining and enlightening. For those enrolled to receive notifications expect a steady stream of links that could shock or enlighten.  Because it’s shareable, ethical and enlightening stuff Upworthy is enabling us to  spread the word.

Greenpeace – The environmental movement that has been actively defying nations in its determination to stop environmental degradation of ecologically vulnerable areas, wildlife and peoples. Although there was no one founder (five people are given credit on the web page) the over-arching philosophy is: ‘Greenpeace exists because this fragile Earth deserves a voice. It needs solutions. It needs change. It needs action!’ The group has received varying reviews because of its members’ determination to be heard and its startling tactics.

Causes – This is the place to discover, support and organize campaigns, fundraisers, and petitions around the issues that impact you and your community. From fundraising for individuals who need support for life-saving operations to petitions about child-abuse or to stop GMO production, the topics are diverse but always about an ethical issue facing the world populations.

Revealing ethical or environmental stories

Each of the above groups were started by friends/acquaintances with the similar views – individuals who recognised that alone they could do little to cause change, but together they could use social media/the Internet to educate and join forces with millions.

They were activists. They had the courage to step outside of their comfort zones and be counted. They stopped fearing that they would be ridiculed for having an absurd idea. They stopped listening to the naysayers and the disbelievers. They felt the fear and did it anyway.

Safeguards against suppressing information

The Internet, in fact, was the key to getting the ‘other story’ out to the millions who had always believed the ‘official version’.  Why do you think that totalitarian states want to shutdown or censor internet access to their populations? Why do governments (even so-called democracies) try to counteract breaking stories about unethical activity by putting a new ‘spin’ on the stories?

Note: The word ‘spin doctor’ is only a recent addition to our language – it wasn’t in my Pocket Oxford of 1975 or even in my Collins Concise in 1995.

No group of worthy causes would be complete with out mention of Wikimedia which was founded in 2003 by Jimmy Wales, co-founder of Wikipedia, as a way to fund Wikipedia and its sister projects through non-profit means. Jimmy Wales and Larry Sanger launched Wikipedia on January 15, 2001. Wikipedia, the online encyclopaedia, has become one of the most visited sites for verification of information. Because of its policy that information can be edited and updated by anyone, the chances that information can be suppressed is greatly reduced.

Changing the standards you live by

Many people have felt the fear and taken a step into the unknown with an ethical idea. Here are a couple:

Snap Judgement – jointly founded by Glynn Washington – Host & Executive Producer and Mark Ristich – Executive Producer, Snap Judgement aims to bring ‘community’ back into community radio at a time when most home-grown shows are struggling to survive. According to the show’s website: before creating the Snap Judgment radio show, ‘Glynn worked as an educator, diplomat, community activist, actor, political strategist, fist-shaker, mountain-hollerer, and foot stomper’. Boy, does the World need plenty of those!

The Secret – Many of you will know about Australian Rhonda Byrne and her life-changing film The Secret. Not only did Rhonda turn her whole life around, she and her writing have brought a new positive outlook to many. Critics claim that the people she has influenced are being deluded. According to the website: Skeptoid “The “secret” turns out to be nothing more than the old motivational speaker’s standby, that positive thinking leads to positive results.” However, if millions of people are feeling happier through applying her ‘discoveries’ won’t that lift the collective energy and inspire more of us to step outside our comfort zones and help others?

Taking personal ethical action

When an email arrives in our inbox urging us to act on behalf of some cause, what happens to us:

  • We feel concerned/annoyed/uncomfortable
  • We might feel embarrassed by what our friends will think of us if we take action or pass on the information
  • We pick and choose who we’ll share it with
  • We wonder if our account is being monitored by the Secret Service and whether we’re risking promotion/economic survival if we speak out

That’s pretty much where I was a few months ago. But recently I’ve decided: “What the heck. These issues are too important to be ignored.” I’m also heartened at the number of people who ‘Like’ what I stand for and are brave enough to ‘Share’. That says to me there is a ground swell of concerned citizens of the World who are based in love and want to protect what is precious no matter what the cost.

An example of personal action

I’m going to end this post with a lovely example of two men who are taking personal action. It is a story that shows you don’t have to reach the world to take environmental action, but you can make a profound difference.

The story from China comes via another social sharing site: Bored Panda. Disabled pair plant 10,000 trees in China.

So whatever you do, whether its visit a sick neighbour, singing in church, writing a book or starting a world movement, YOU are contributing to a better world.

Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Solar to the rescue when these giant babies need a feed

By Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

Isn’t it wonderful to hear of efforts to put right the wrongs of humanity, especially when the wrong is committed against animals?


What I particularly liked about this story is that the effort of the Elephant Transit Home in Udawalawe, Sri Lanka, to save and rehabilitate these baby elephants is enhanced by solar energy.

The initiative is supported by the conservation foundation set up by the Dilmah Tea Company and was triggered by the insatiable demand for firewood needed to boil umpteen litres of water used to make-up the baby formula for orphaned elephant calves cared for by the Elephant Transit Home.

Wood burning an environmental dilemma

The search for firewood was draining in human resources because dead wood (the organisation ethically chose not to fell live trees) became scarcer and had to be fetched long distances. Also, the environmental damage of carbon-dioxide released into the atmosphere from burning large quantities of wood to boil the water did not sit well with the home.


“They are fed 8 times a day each day, and they collectively consume a staggering quantity of over 640 litres of milk. The milk is made by combining dehydrated human infant formula (baby food) with water. Elephant calves are extremely susceptible to gastrointestinal complications that arise due to bacteria present in water used to prepare their milk. In order to prevent this, water must be boiled to remove any bacterial presence.”

To find out more about this heart-warming story click the link or copy into your browser address bar.


By Heather Sylvawood, Amazon Author

How memory alters our points of view

I had an amazing experience a couple of days before I turned 65. I was able to revisit the place where I had my first real job. I was also able to get some perspective on the place, which felt so much smaller than it did when I was 18 and launching into adulthood.

Glenhope Swing Bridge

Above: It was cross the river on horseback or via
the swing bridge – now in total disrepair.

Most of us have experienced the total surprise of revisiting a childhood space and realising how small it is in comparison to the memory. I was, however, a little surprised to find that effect occurring from a memory first formed at 18 years of age. My point-of-eye-view now would be from pretty much the same height as the eyes in my 18 year-old face, yet was I still surprised at how small the area seemed now compared to when I spent that formative year teaching school-aged children.

Leaving home

Perhaps my belief in the enormity of the place came from the enormity of leaving home and taking on my first job. Perhaps such life-changing events bore themselves into minds hungry for new experiences. We want to find out about everything and the experiences are etched onto a very large blank canvas.

My change or perspective on my return last weekend started me thinking about our perceptions and how they probably change throughout our lives without us even noticing.

So someone who was adamantly opposed to something in their youth may go through incremental changes in their attitude as life exposes them to new ideas. Then 10, 20 or 30 years down the timeline they will be incensed if you suggest they once held a different point-of-view.

When we hold a belief or memory strongly it is often hard for us to peep around the corner at our younger selves. To call it ‘false memory’ is too negative a word; I would rather call it a ‘blended memory’ – a memory that has evolved from experience.

Some memories stuck

Many of the spaces I saw on my trip down Memory Lane confirmed my earlier recollections. I was able to relate incidents that occurred at certain places on tracks, and was delighted to find the old ‘tank stand’ was still in place and serviceable – that’s more than 45 years later and it was old then!

The old tank stand

Above: The multi-use water tank.

The tank stand obviously still captures the water supply for the current homestead. Back then it also provided cool food storage during the heat of summer when no fridge or freezer were available because there was no electricity all those years ago. The space under the water tank was also used to store home brew beer for the shearers. Back then the station ran sheep and cattle, so shearing was a big event.

Shearer’s appetites are bottomless

Cooking for the shearers was no mean feat. Shearing was scheduled for the late summer, when the heat in the high country is highest.  Shearers’ appetites were legendary. Not only were there huge quantities of food required – it all had to be cooked on a wood-fired range in the homestead.

Glenhope shearers 1966

Above: The shearing gang of 1966. Some
I clearly remember – most are forgotten!

Shearers were not invited into the homestead; they ate their three main meals on the veranda at a long table with benches for seating.  Each day three cooked meals were produced, plus scones or a cake served up for morning and afternoon tea. These were carried up to the shearing shed along with a billycan of black tea, powdered milk and sugar.  Shearers sweat a lot and use a huge amount of energy so they needed large quantities of food and drink. Then, after a hard day shearing, they often sampled the home brew rom under the tank stand!


Above: The single men’s quarters, where shearers
and musterers, slept is still occasionally occupied today.

When we visited last week the station had clearly changed considerably in how it is farmed. Only a few sheep were on the property; the breeding stock was exclusively beef. Some of the out-buildings were still there – most were gone, including the old schoolhouse where I struggled to keep the pot-belly going winter mornings with thick snow outside.

Bending memory

I have just published a short story on Amazon’s Kindle eBooks called Searing Heat. It is based on my memories but entirely fictional. I do not recall considering that my 18 year-old eyes might be taking in the events and the nuances of high country life in order to bend it into stories I could tell to others. Now, however, I can make the spaces fit exactly to my story!

By Heather Sylvawood, author of Real Estate Rollercoaster and Searing Heat.

What’s so bad about rain?

As I write this blog, outside the rain is falling. I can hear the water running off the roof, down the down pipes and into the tank, and I am happy.

I wasn’t always this happy when rain fell. That was before we had to rely on tank water for all our drinking, bathing, washing and cleaning needs. Living here in Golden Bay, I slowly realised what a blessing rain is and started rejoicing when the rain came. There is, however, a greater realisation that has grown on me about the value of tank water.

The value of rain in a tank


In our subdivision of modern homes, almost all built in the 21st Century, we have reduced the need for dealing with rain run-off via publicly owned waste-water discharge systems. Water that falls on house roofs is collected in privately owned water tanks.

Rain is not instantly directed into the waste water system. That reduces overloading of the system during the beginning a rain storm, when the land is too dry to absorb the deluge and the water runs instantly into the gutters. Once the tanks are full and must overflow into the waste water system, the land has become wet enough to absorb the water better. Tick one for tanks.

Water conservation

When city reservoirs are running dry our tanks might be low too. Knowing this we are forced to act conservatively when using water. We know if we use it we might lose it altogether. Living that close to the natural supply and demand makes us water conservationists. Tick two for tanks.

And that’s one of the reasons why I wonder how local government councillors can be so short-sighted. We hear dire warnings about lake and reservoir levels every summer, yet New Zealand local bodies continue to insist on “quality water”.  World Health Organisation standards are set as guidelines to manage public supplies throughout the world where the potential for pollution from bacteria and organisms is high. In New Zealand we have our own “quality water standards for public supply. The intent of the legislation and guidelines is to stop people getting sick from bacteria and organisms where there is a possibility of contamination.

‘Quality’ water is not ‘pure’

What the standards mean by “quality” is the water has been chemically sanitised. In my mind, chemically sanitised water is not pure. Our tank water (pure rain) passes through a charcoal filter for drinking water – no chemical residue or smell. We clean the tanks every few years to remove any sludge that might have built-up from roof debris. We do have the potential to have bacteria and organisms in our water system from bird activity, but the filter should take care of most of that risk.

Now if you live close to chemical manufacturers, coal or oil burning businesses or near a highway, I completely understand if you stop reading. You have my upmost sympathy, and if I lived in Northern Japan, I wouldn’t be collecting rain water either. However, most homes in New Zealand are built in areas where pollution is a low risk that simple filtration systems could take care of.

The benefits of capturing pure rain water

If the majority of homes were allowed to capture and use rain water:

  • The strain on public water management systems would be reduced.
  • Localised flooding could be lessened.
  • The demand for reservoir and lake water would be reduced.
  • Fish and bird life would not be put under stress in times of drought
  • Farmers could irrigate as required.
  • People could safely drink filtered water without risk of ingesting unwanted chemicals.

That’s tick three to nine for tanks. Come on New Zealand local government. Which part of ‘pure’ do you not understand?

Hello world!

I am writing this blog to record the process of turning our suburban section (690 square metres) and house into an eco-friendly place, where we equalise what we take with what we give back.

Our plan is to evaluate and adapt our:

  • Water use and conservation
  • Energy use and conservation
  • Food consumption
  • Recycling systems
  • Garden production to organic foods

Each week, or more often, I will share with you our progress towards a more sustainable lifestyle. This will cover my research and our practical actions. Look out for photos and video!

Join me in my journey …

– Heather