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Other-worldly ideas help point a route to effective climate action

Eleanor Young

Could alien landings help us understand the climate emergency better, asks Eleanor Young

Martian House, the base using repurposed landing craft to support life on Mars.
Martian House, the base using repurposed landing craft to support life on Mars. Credit: Hugh Broughton Architects

Sitting in the park, surrounded by a desert of bleached white grass, I contemplate other worlds without greenery. Where biodiversity may only exist at microbe scale. I have heard on the radio how stars explode and about the huge nuclear forces that have thrown elements into the universe, elements that eventually became life on earth – but nowhere else we know of. 

The climate emergency focuses us on the fragility of the systems that sustain us on our own planet, but it can be helpful to zoom out. Over the summer a Martian House has landed in Bristol. Its design has been informed by artists, local people, space scientists and architect and Antarctic specialist Hugh Broughton Architects, along with Pearce+, a small team that spun out of HBA. From the ground up it puts the challenge of existing in such a hostile environment: buried to protect its occupants from radiation. 

Inflatable formwork and algae would be the raw materials to turn one of Mars’ few known resources, regolith, into a solid masonry-style carapace. It is very limited compared to the materials whose strength and protection we use, from the output of the oil age to mined metals and stone and the living crops of hemp and timber. 

The Martian House demands that the Existenzminimum (minimal subsistence dwelling) is utterly pared down. In local workshops favourite objects and what to leave behind cropped up along with privacy (and its impossibility). On Antarctic bases agricultural zones have been co-opted for relaxation. ‘People book into the hydroponic growing spaces,’ says Owen Pearce of Pearce+. So the Martian House is topped with a hydroponic living room to make the most of the nourishment of plants at a psychological level

On Antarctic bases agricultural zones have been co-opted for relaxation... people book into the hydroponic growing spaces

The Martian House mirrors what is happening in sustainability, which is about both grappling with technical challenges and all the social and cultural issues alongside; with climate justice and biodiversity among the themes fighting for a place as we try to work out what, beyond cutting carbon, might mitigate climate change. 

That is reflected in the buildings and areas we are covering in this magazine. There is the technical, with plenty of personality thrown in: we profile German physicist Hans Joachim Schellnhuber, who has brought us the concept of a temperature tipping point, Sofie Pelsmakers and team detail ways to test that your design is truly sustainable, and we examine how to design mass timber buildings that are insurable. And we look at buildings aiming to be low carbon that will make you feel good and deliver community wide benefits, with a yoga centre in Oxford and Mæ’s home for the elderly in London’s Blackheath. 

Finally, if you want to do a bit of your own star and planet gazing and think big thoughts, check out the Jodrell Bank Observatory