Sally Starbuck is co-director of eco architecture firm Gaïa Ecotecture. Here she speaks to Emma Good about her work in eco architecture and sustainable home improvements.

Can you introduce yourself and explain what you do?

I am an Environmental Architect, accredited Client Advisor and a co-director of Gaïa ecotecture, along with Paul Leech. Working in Ireland & the UK, I have a particular interest in improving indoor air quality (IAQ), with hemp-lime construction for instance and have had research papers published on the topic. I design with natural ventilation, breathing materials for healthy vapour control and overall durability in mind.

My architectural project in the Cloughjordan ecovillage included a community building, residential-workplace units, and a purpose-built studio for Gaïa ecotecture. The project is unique as a member-controlled, purpose built community which integrates economic, social and environmental sustainability.

What is the most rewarding part of your job?

Drawing is a great love of mine, and a great method of interaction with people and places. I also enjoy the many realms that design opens up and collaborating with a variety of people and organisations on the interface of science, technology and the arts.

What sets your business apart from the rest of the market?

Our four dimensional design approach is to analyse the initial brief and develop ideas for the client; with whom, if an organisation, we use well-proven participatory practices.

We choose to build mainly with timber with durable cladding of natural materials where appropriate. The carbon saved by timber structures is equivalent to the building’s carbon emissions in use over ten years.

We design within conditions that already exist on a site, such as topography and micro-climate using permaculture principles. In that context, we propose improvements which give the project the best chance of success, be that in being granted planning permission or through minimal energy consumption.

How popular is eco architecture and has demand increased?

There will always be dreamers attracted to alternative lifestyles, taking responsibility for themselves. Nature shows us that diversity adds resilience to any system whereas a monoculture tends to skew the dynamic, leaving smaller species with no habitat.

The housing market seems to present few choices, perhaps an apartment in the city or a house on the outskirts. This generates patterns of commuting too far or for too long. Workplaces, until COVID-19 at least, were concentrated in urban centres. From now on, we expect demand for combined residential-workplaces to emerge, as many people are now working from home, at least part of the time. The payback will be perhaps a better work-life balance.

Individually, most people are attracted to the spacious quality of daylit interiors which ecological architecture delivers. Many seek the health benefits of improved IAQ especially for their children’s sake. When changes can be matched by the savings in running cost, only the period of disruption offers any impediment.

This is directly relevant to the deep-green energy refits needed on a widespread scale if we are to meet our carbon-reduction targets. Typically, those approaching retirement realise the sense of investing cash or saving on reduced running costs, while younger clients feel lucky to get onto or up the housing ladder with affordable levels of debt.

Those motivated and interested are increasingly well-informed and often concerned about the environmental impact of their project so seek specialist advice. Ecological design is typically most beneficial to owner-occupiers, and clients who consider the capital cost, running costs and longer-term maintenance.

Do you think Ireland’s attitude towards sustainable architecture and construction is changing for the better? Is this the future?

Ireland’s attitude towards sustainable architecture and construction has been improving, but very slowly. We are missing targets for carbon-emissions reduction and need some sectors to prioritise transitioning from fossil fuel consumption. We are now well within the crucial decade to 2030 indicated by the scientific consensus. Sustainable architecture and construction is key, but depends on how Ireland prioritises this. It seems that hygiene, cleaner air and minimal ambient noise are raising people’s awareness of the environmental improvements possible from working coherently together. This is hopeful.