Beautiful Eco-Houses and Eco-Homes

Introduction – Why Eco-Homes Should Be Beautiful

A couple of weeks back I wrote about 5 Key Ingredients For A Sustainable Home.  They were efficiency, energy production, house size, location and embodied carbon.  In hindsight there was a blindingly obvious 6th ingredient, that people actually like the house – helps wowing if the eco-homes are both functional and beautiful.

The Guardian has been running a great little series showcasing a diverse group of eco-homes over the last week or so.  Unlike many bog standard lists of shiny “Eco-Homes” they actually got a group of industry experts together and have compiled a really interesting selection.

Here’s a quick summary of their Top 10 Eco-Homes, you can click through for more detail below any description.

Which one do you like the most?  And which one do you think is the most sustainable?  And more importantly, are they the same?

1) Marsh House, Nottingham

I think this house is just lovely.  It’s urban, prioritises natural light, is oriented to a south facing court yard and sucks its heat from the earth below with a heat pump.

Even more impressive is the effort to cut down on the build’s embodied energy by using hemp insulation, clay plaster and sustainable timber sources.  They use a composting toilet and don’t even have a fridge?!  Read more here

2) Princedale Road, London

This 1840s London terrace looks very similar to its neighbours.  But if you put a thermal imaging camera on it would be an air-tight blue, compared to its neighbour’s leaky red.  It is the first certified Passivhaus refurbishment in the UK, and now uses 94% less energy than it did before the refurbishment.

More than any other house on this list this one speaks most to the UK’s current housing stock.  The huge refurb cost of £179,000 isn’t justified by energy savings, or probably even by its increased value.  But this is a prototype like many eco-homes.  We desperately need to learn how to do this on the cheap to scale it up.  Read more here

3) Underhill House, Gloucestershire

I remember watching this house being built on a Grand Designs episode.  It was a remarkable process.  They literally suspended the heritage structure with steel while they dug a giant hole under it.  It’s the UK’s first passive home and about as airtight a building as you’ll ever see.

I know this home is trying to bring some bling to eco-homes, and I think it’s beautiful (though I would have gone for a view), but this is a classic embodied energy fail.  Once you’ve done endless digging, used tonnes of steel and hundreds of cubic metres of concrete the high efficiency of the building is a bit redundant.  Read more here.

4) Hemp Cottage, Country Down

A few years ago, as a city dweller, I might have looked straight past this house.  But these days, with two little kids, this little hemp cottage just sparkles for me.

In terms of embodied energy it’s a triumph, using hemp and lime for the walls and local fir for the frame.  It’s deceptively light on the inside, has an apple orchard, is next to a river and cost just £100,000 to build.  I’d live here just to watch my kids in that garden, but the house is a really delight.  Read more here.

5) The Pavillion, London

This house is undeniably beautiful modern architecture.  A kind of architect’s architecture.  I’ve little doubt it will still be stunning in 50 years.  It also meets Level 5 on the UK’s Sustainable Homes code.

I like this house but at 250m2, and a build cost of £980,000, it still feels like unaffordable sustainability with high embodied carbon.  I’ve no doubt it wows people though.  Read more here.

6) Plummerswood, Scottish Borders

This timber home in the Scottish Borders is big and expensive (an eye popping £1.25m development).  It’s a Passivhaus with epic insulation, but the thing I find interesting is the fabric.

It is made from softwood timber posts and hardwood timber dowels, all prefabricated in Austria.  Yes, I wish it was smaller, simpler and more local, but the materials are interesting.  It has also been properly monitored since commissioning and uses incredibly little energy.  Read more here.

7) Lammas, North Pembrokeshire

Lammas in Northern Wales is an experiment involving 9 families in a small ecovillage, what they call low-impact living on the land.  Each family bought their own 5 acre plot for about £40,000 and then each spent less than £14,000 building their homes, a kind of giant upcycling experiment.

The whole project is about much more than buildings, it is really a close knit community of smallholders.  This one really fascinates me.  I’m not sure if it would work for me, but I’d love to visit to see how it all works.  They’ve got some seriously low carbon credibility happening.  Read more here.

8) Zero Carbon House, Birmingham

This retrofit is pretty damn impressive.  It’s nice to see someone do something original to improve on the traditional Victorian terrace that dominates the UK.  But it’s brilliant that it has been done with a pallet that includes 14 reclaimed materials.

It ticks all the efficiency boxes too at Code 6 and is now off grid.  A really interesting mix of aspiration and sustainability.  Read more here.

9) Lilac, Leeds

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw that a co-housing project had made this top ten.  After all this is the type of urban dwelling that so many people live in.

LILAC stands for Low Impact Living Affordable Community.  The buildings themselves are lovely and use cutting edge prefab cells of timber, straw and lime.  But even more interesting is the community angle.

Built on an old school block it includes 20 homes, shared garden, small car parks, a central allotment, bike sheds and a common house.  The homes are owned by a society that the residents pay a third of their income into.  It’s a really interesting model for affordable urban sustainability.  Read more here.

10) Slip House, London

I love the minimalist design and furnishing of this place, it’s just the pallet of materials that leaves me cold.  In terms of repurposing a derelict garden and doing something funky this place is great.  It also ticks all the efficiency boxes.

I just can’t get past the fact they clad it in glass, with all that embodied carbon.  The minimal interior is quite something though.  Read more here.

And Which One Is Your Favourite Among These Eco-homes?

Over at the Guardian the most popular was No 5, the stunning modern Pavilion in London.

My head is telling me No 9, the Low Impact Living Affordable Community in Leeds.  To my mind this looks like a kind of sustainability for the masses that hits my 5 ingredient checklist.  I want to go for No 7, the Lammas ecovillage, but it’s probably too alternative for me.  While I also love No 1, the beautiful urban courtyard home.

But in the end my heart says it just has to be No 4, the Hemp Cottage.  Give me a decent internet connection, a vegetable patch and somewhere for my kids to get very dirty and I’m a happy man.

Lindsay Wilson
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I founded Shrink That Footprint in November 2012, after a long period of research. For many years I have calculated, studied and worked with carbon footprints, and Shrink That Footprint is that interest come to life.

I have an Economics degree from UCL, have previously worked as an energy efficiency analyst at BNEF and continue to work as a strategy consultant at Maneas.  I have consulted to numerous clients in energy and finance, as well as the World Economic Forum.

When I’m not crunching carbon footprints you’ll often find me helping my two year old son tend to the tomatoes, salad and peppers growing in our upcycled greenhouse.

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