Green Building Blog

low cost eco-building

My house and home: Living in an eco-house August 23, 2013

We have lived in our new eco-house for six years now and at time progress has been very slow – we are only just feeling like we have got it how we want it to be. But it has also been far more transformative that I had imagined, knowing where my water and electricity comes from and where my waste goes has made me far more conscious about how I use resources. There is still something wonderful about having a sun-heated bath, and rejoicing when it rains because it fills the rainwater harvester. We had long held a dream to build somewhere that not only reduced our environmental impact and facilitated a more environmentally-friendly lifestyle, but would also dramatically reduce our running costs and increase our resilience to climatic uncertainty.

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Deciding to build an eco-house with my mother generated a surprisingly number of shocked responses from friends and family. They variously thought Maggie to be too old (she was only in her late 50’s) for such a challenge, and that she would cramp my life choices. Few understood how our skills, ideas and dreams complemented each other. Maggie had explored the idea of living in existing communities and we met with others interested in establishing new eco-co-housing schemes. But we realised we did not want to wait for the slowness of collaborative enterprises and that living together would provide enough challenges, and entail new ways of working together as it was.

DSC_0340    wood stove comp

We have taken a very pragmatic approach to the build. Inspired by the Centre for Alternative Technology and the Autonomous House we started with a utopian vision which was quickly scaled down. Our choices have been very much shaped by financial and practical limitations and a desire to complete the project so that we could get on with living the way we wanted to. We were determined to prove that older people and those with full-time jobs could still self-build and be eco. Although we had a sizeable budget it was also only slightly more than the average house price and we had no back-up plan.

DSC_0304   house 2

This budget bought us a small (10th of an acre) triangle plot in rural Leicesterhire, near Melton Mowbray. By facing south the house makes the most of passive solar heating through large A rated timber-framed windows, with thick dense block walls (made from 100% recycled aggregate) creating a high thermal mass (with sheepswool insulation in the roof) and reducing noise and vibrations from the abutting railway line. We wanted to build a house that was cheap to run and simple to maintain, only using technology we could understand and if necessary learn how to fix. The house remains at around 17 C without heating, even in winter, though we do have a Clearview wood stove as a back-up. Our solar thermal evacuated tube arrays also work all year round, and when the sun is not shining we heat water either by the wood stove or an efficient electric immersion. Our rainwater harvester feeds the toilets (low-flush IFO CERA from the Green Building Store) and washing machine, and we have low-flow showers to reduce water use. Energy use is much reduced by an induction cooker, A+ appliances, low-energy lighting and the bright aspect reduces the need for lights to be on. A couple of years ago we also installed photovoltaic panels and now (averaged over the whole year) we generate roughly the same electricity as we use.

DSC_0037  house 1

We tried, wherever possible, to source reclaimed, local, and untreated material. Our reclaimed pitch-pine floors came from an old Liverpool factory via the local salvage yard, our reclaimed-pine kitchen units and internals doors were made in Lincolnshire, our Douglas Fir deck has been left untreated, our jute and wool carpets were ordered from the local shop. We, of course, carried on using existing furniture, rescued some pieces from a tip, made some new pieces with help from my father, and added colour by painting tiles ourselves.

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We developed some golden rules during the build: we would choose environmentally-friendly products over visual looks; we could not buy anything for the house without mutual agreement; we would worry more about cost than time taken to complete things; local suppliers and workforce were best; just because it was not the conventional way of doing things did not mean it would not work.

We struggled, at times, to communicate to others what we meant by eco: it took a while for my dad to understand reclaimed, native, or FSC wood and eco-varnish; the plumbers questioned what our washing would turn out like if we used rainwater; and the painters objected to using Osmo and ECOS paint. Early on we met plenty of patronising builders who advised us to ‘forget all that eco-stuff’ and raised eyebrows when they understood we were two women building a house. But with a highly supportive eco-architect (Andrew Yeats of EcoArc) and a knowledgeable project manager willing to engage with eco-ideas we eventually found suppliers and stockists of the things we needed. My partner, friends and family were invaluable in helping is complete the build – with seemingly endless shelving to put up, a woodshed to build, furniture to strip, and gardens paths to lay. Since moving in a local carpenter has agreed to drop off his off-cuts which we use to supplement our homemade newspaper logs and purchased logs for the wood stove, and a neighbour has offered us free seedlings for our garden. Our house has started all sorts of conversations and we have often invited in passers by who have stopped to ask us questions.

 House Nov 08    DSC_0362 

At times we have to remind ourselves why we made certain compromises (often due to a lack of money or plot space). Now the project is complete we have the confidence in our choices to wonder if we couldn’t have been bolder in some of our earlier decisions. Externally the house has a big visual impact on the landscape (ironically a result of the planning permission which stipulated that it replicate the look of the previous house demolished by Network Rail). We have tried to mitigate this impact by covering the lower external walls with red cedar cladding and choosing a dark slate-effect roof (using Ardesia recycled tyre roofing), but we could have been more radical in our design. We now have the confidence to follow our gut instincts and compromise less in our search for environmental solutions. We only hope that our house will inspire others to follow their dreams too.


A verion of this article first appeared in Permaculture Magazine


Findhorn Eco-village, Forres, Scotland July 24, 2013

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Notes from fieldwork,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 3:40 pm

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Houses at Findhorn 

Trying to summarise what Findhorn is about, what it does and what contribution it makes is almost impossible. Every visitor, resident, student or employee would focus on something different. Even in its own literature it describes itself as a ‘spiritual community, learning centre, ecovillage’. It is these three things and so much more. Moreover, while I am primarily interested in its green buildings, these cannot be viewed in isolation from the way decisions are made (governance structures), people work together (community spirit), income is earned and distributed, the nature in which these buildings sit and the ways in which daily life is structured.

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I had the great pleasure of visiting for a week in June 2013. I was attending the International Communal Studies Association (ICSA) conference being held on site, but also participated in a taster experience of life at Findhorn for three days beforehand. This involved understanding community processes (such as sharing, attunement, the game of transformation and meditation), the history and evolution of the Foundation, and learning community games, singing and how work was done in different departments (I had the fun of picking rhubarb). It was a brief foray into the place, but it also felt utterly absorbing and inviting. I left with a feeling of having been openly welcomed, hugged, and shared with. This was not a normal feeling for me. I am a reserved British female academic who rarely hugs, holds hands with others, sings or dances (certainly not in front of others). But there is something about Findhorn which invites you to shed your inhibitions (no, it wasn’t the alcohol!) and to listen and share. When it was time to leave I experienced a physical shock at returning to the disconnected world beyond; that all too familiar place where we do not talk to strangers and try our best never to touch.

Findhorn map

[Click on map to enlarge]

Underlying ethos

Findhorn was not planned and its founders (Peter and Eileen Caddy and Dorothy Maclean) did not intend to start a community. They moved into a Caravan Park on the site in 1962 having lost their jobs at a local hotel. However, their spiritual practice and surprising success at growing vegetables in the poor soil of the sand dunes drew others to the area and by the 1970’s an impromptu spiritual community was already 150 strong. This drew others, such as David Spangler, who saw the potential in Findhorn as an educational space. Thus Findhorn began as a spiritual community, rather than a particularly ecological one. For many Findhorn is a deeply spiritual place where time is taken to understand yourself (‘the small voice within’) and communicate purposefully with others and nature. This emphasis is reflected in the three principles of Findhorn (the meaning of which I am simplifying):

  1. Deep inner listening: Practising Eileen Caddy’s approach to spirituality is to listen to one’s own inner voice deep within to find the answers to life’s questions
  2. Co-creation with nature: To work with and have respect for nature
  3. Love in action: Work is love in action, this includes work in the village but also the work of communication to others


The form of this spirituality is not prescribed, dogmatic, or a doctrine, rather it is yours to evolve and develop, and places such as the nature sanctuary are thus central to much of that practice at Findhorn. It is reported that there are at least 47 different cultural practices evident at Findhorn.

Findhorn as an eco-village emerged as a secondary ethos, in the late 1980s when members such as John Talbott sought to build better houses on the site and began experimenting with eco-building. Over the years the community had purchased the Caravan Park and other land surrounding it (via fundraising), and this was a space for experimentation when Findhorn became very building focused into the 1990’s. For Talbott this emphasis was not separate to the spiritual practices at Findhorn, rather they were the act of ‘translating these early principles of cooperation and working with nature into a built environment’ (Talbott, 1995, 17). Thus rather than there being a tension between spiritual practice and building an alternative ecological world, it is through spiritual practice that better environmental solutions are developed. Green building is considered a physical manifestation of the cultural and spiritual sustainability already practiced and thus Findhorn began a period of combining the spiritual with the practical.

The nature sanctuary

The buildings

This village began as caravans, many of them in poor condition and many residents still live in them (about 100 are still on site). Having caravans is a great way to start an eco-village, but they are not good for a long term living. The village is now split into different developments and for anyone interested in eco-housing is a unique place to explore so many different varieties in such proximity. Approximately 400 people now live on site.


Caravans on site

HOUSING DESIGN: The emphasis on co-creation with nature led to a focus on building better homes that were more ecological. Over the years a number of different forms and designs have been tried. There are houses made from old whisky barrels, strawbale, and tyres, but in the last few years Findhorn decided that the best houses for the climate and affordability are timber frame with high insulation. There are some excellent examples of individual buildings which are central to the community – such as the Universal Hall, Community Centre, and Guest Lodge, but what really interests me are the houses.

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The Barrel Houses

These are clustered into different areas of the village. The first eco-houses were the Barrel Houses made from recycled timber vats from a local whisky distillery. Bag End was a cluster of more conventional, though just as radical for the time, timber frame eco-houses. Then Field of Dreams was built and a whole array of self- and architect-designed buildings emerged. Soillse is a unique bomb-proof set of buildings to the far east of the village which had extra requirements placed on them because of their proximity to the air force base (since closed).

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Houses in the Field of Dreams

Most of these houses are ecological, inspiring, colourful, inviting and because there are so many it is hard to know where to start in exploring them. Of the buildings I stayed in and explored it was clear that timber frame worked well here and they are comfortable buildings. It is notable, however, that as with every development time changes things. At Bag End the houses were built to be passive solar, but at the same time Findhorn was on a tree-planting mission. These trees have since grown so that Bag End feels like it is in a deep woodland – thus cutting off much of the passive solar gain. In another example, in Field of Dreams which were more individually designed, not all residents have made sensible ecological choices, for example determining where to locate the wood stove according to looks rather than need. The houses have two other noticeable tensions; fences and vegetable growing. There are few private gardens growing vegetables, whether that is due to climate, pests or desire, food provision is obviously a central ecological practice. Findhorn had intended to discourage fences around houses, preferring to keep space common and shared, but gradually fences are being erected.


Soillse houses

The latest stage in eco-housing are the new co-housing developments (East Whins) complete in 2013 and planned for West Whins. These signal a shift for Findhorn in releasing land for developer-led construction (an experience which has not been entirely positive) and a search for a less individualistic housing structure; seeking to extend their practice of community into new houses.


Co-housing in East Whins

PRIVATE OWNERSHIP: This shift to co-housing has in part been because of the rise of private ownership of houses and land at Findhorn. People have freehold and thus can sell on open market. Findhorn is now trying to restrict this and restrict absentee landlords by determining that all homes must be occupied. Findhorn has also introduced social contracts as part of purchase agreements using Common Ground guidelines (see below). Despite these restrictions the complicated and private ownership of much of Findhorn has limited their capacity to then deal with issues of affordability.

LACK OF AFFORDABLE HOUSING: Housing remains a significant problem at Findhorn. There continues to be a need for affordable housing for co-workers of the Foundation, but much of the property on site is now owned privately, is very expensive and sought after. They are trying to find cheaper ways of building homes. The co-houses cost £180,000 per unit and the Findhorn Foundation has purchased a few flats in order to provide affordable housing for its employees, though it is limited in how much capital it can raise to do this. At the same time they have looked at the caravans they still have on site. The Foundation has planning permission to replace caravans with equivalent structures, and thus has developed the Ecomobile. At a cost of just £40,000, using minimal foundations, they have developed an elongated structure with simple internal design and open plan living and kitchen with outside deck space, they are fantastic small eco-houses.

DSC_3922 Ecomobile

Governance structure

Given Findhorn’s haphazard growth and development it is not surprising that it has had to develop (and then re-develop) its governance structures as the community grew and needs changed. In the 1990’s there was significant change, triggered in part by its continued growth, but also financial difficulties.

Findhorn was separated into the Findhorn Foundation (which includes the Findhorn Foundation College and New Findhorn Directions, and does the work of running the infrastructure and visitor facilities) and the broader community organisations and individuals working onsite. In the 1990’s many of the business which had been developed within Findhorn became independent (such as Findhorn Press, Trees for Life, The Phoenix shop, and The Game of Transformation), but remained physically in the eco-village. The umbrella organisation over the whole village is the New Foundation Association (NFA), formed in 1999. In seeking to outline what communality there is across these potentially disparate groups a statement of Common Ground which outlines 14 guidelines for the Findhorn Foundation Community was developed.

Findhorn Common Ground  Findhorn mind map

[Click on images to enlarge them]

In essence the village is divided between those who are part of the Foundation (co-workers, get paid by it, eat communally) and those who are not (and can live relatively separate lies), and the NFA is the community association which is attempting to bring together the diversity on site. This is helped significantly by the Rainbow Bridge community magazine which is printed and distributed weekly and includes minutes of committee meetings.

The Foundation is no longer run by consensus. Instead decisions are made by a management committee who liaises with a Council of all members of the Foundation. The management committee gets elected and the heads of the work departments/ units are chosen by the committee. Despite this quite formal structure decisions often made through spiritual and cultural practice such as attunement – silence and reflection to attune to the task or respond to a question about a decision which is needed, often while people are holding hands and standing in circles. What is most surprising about this practice is how well it seems to work. The focus for the Foundation now is on good management, through greater coherence across the village, but also greater transparency and accountability.


Office space

There are some interesting tensions around money. Co-workers get a small monthly stipend of £200 and free board and lodging, though housing is limited. Findhorn is a place of growing private businesses, private land ownership and wealth, alongside co-workers on very low wages. There is no obligation to share personal money, although they have their own local currency – Eko – which helps keep wealth in the region.

Self-sufficiency and autonomy

Being ecological is not the same as being self-sufficient, but there are important overlaps. Findhorn has an interesting relationship to place – the focus on spirituality overshadows attempts at environmental self-sufficiency, yet it has had a significant positive impact on the region and internationally. Findhorn is located in north east Scotland on the shore of Findhorn bay, just east of Inverness. It can be a harsh environment in which to live, with a short growing season. They do not provide much of their own food onsite, growing roughly 5% of their needs. In the early 1990’s Findhorn had a Community Supported Agriculture scheme but it collapsed; now few people work in the gardens. However, it has half the ecological footprint per person of the UK national average (Tinsley and George, 2006). They have several large wind turbines and many homes make use of solar power.

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Bag End houses

Its education programmes provide the main avenue for income. Since the 1990’s they have worked hard, and developed specific programmes line Building Bridges, to reach out to others and extend their education programmes, corporate links and to bring a wider diversity of people into the village. In addition, their presence and their business have meant that in 2003 it was estimated that Findhorn created £3.8 million in value of economic impact for the local area. Thus, ironically for an eco-village, they are perhaps more economically sustainable than they are environmentally self-sufficient.

Remaining questions

My time at Findhorn was brief and I have doubtless missed many nuances that only come with an extended stay. My visit prompted many questions for me and I am left with these:

? The importance of age in community: Findhorn has only recently engaged with the issue of having an aging population, and they do not have any pension provision. Several conference speakers talked about their work exploring co-care in age specific living (50+), while others wanted to commit to building intergenerational communities. Either way there remain many questions around how to better plan for aging residents and care.

? Food production: There was a lack of emphasis on this at Findhorn, and it is notable how many eco-communities lack agricultural skills. I would like to know more about why this is and what can we do to correct it.

? Local economic and social impact: There was much talk at Findhorn about the positive impact on the region, and some economic figures, but I would like to know more about what residents not associated with the village think about it. Many people are associated with Findhorn beyond the site itself, but what impacts is it really having?

? Housing affordability: Ironically Findhorn has become such a desirable place to live that they have pushed up the local market house prices. We still need more and better models of housing affordability which work. What do we need to do to change our housing system?

Thank you

I would like to extend special thanks to Findhorn residents Craig Gibsone and Dürten Lau, the focalisers for the taster experience, and for all the residents of the Guest Lodge and in my taster group that week for a whole lot of fun. Also to Graham Meltzer for the best conference I have ever been to.


Findhorn Foundation Community (2012) 50 Findhorn Birthday Book Spirit of the Future. New Findhorn Association, Findhorn.

Forster, P. M and Wilhelmus, M (2005) The Role of Individuals in Community Change Within the Findhorn Intentional Community, Contemporary Justice Review, Vol. 8, Iss. 4, 2005

Hawken, P (1975) The Magic of Findhorn. Book Club Associates, London.

Inglig, M (1996) Findhorn Foundation: Nature Spirits and New Age Business, Chapter 11 in B. Metcalf (ed) Shared Visions, Shared Lives: Communal Living around the Globe. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland, pp.119-129

Metcalf, W (2004) Community Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland

Riddell, C (1990) The Findhorn Community: Creating a Human Identity for the 21st Century. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Sutcliffe, S (2000) A Colony of Seekers: Findhorn in the 1990s. Journal of Contemporary Religion, Volume 15, Issue 2, pages 215-231

Talbott, J (1995) The Findhorn Community, in Eco-villages and Sustainable Communities: Models for 21st Century Living. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Talbott, J (1997) Simply Build Green: A Technical guide to the ecological houses at the Findhorn Foundation. Findhorn Press, Findhorn, Scotland.

Tinsley, T and George, H (2006) Ecological Footprint of the Findhorn Foundation and Community. Available at:

Further contact

Findhorn Foundation

The Park


Moray IV36 3TZ


To visit Findhorn: You are able to visit Findhorn for a day and walk around the village, stay onsite at one of the many private B&B’s or join an Experience Week. There is an excellent cafe onsite – Blue Angel – that serves food and drink.

[July 2013]


Book review: The Birth of an eco-village by Paul Wimbush

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Politics of building — naturalbuild @ 11:09 am

Book cover

Starting an eco-village is such an enormous and ambitious task that few attempt it and many fail early on. Despite a plethora of books about eco-village living, few detail the full painstaking journey of founding one (Diana Leafe Christian’s Creating a Life Together and Jan Martin Bang’s Growing Eco-Communities being the two main exceptions). This book does just that, and more, by reflecting upon the birth of the Lammas eco-village (now called Tir y Gafel) in Pembrokeshire, west Wales. Still in its early stages (planning permission was awarded in 2009), the book is a beautifully honest and personal account of how Lammas came into being.

It is the honesty of the story crafted by Paul Wimbush which makes this a joy to read. Interspersed with snippets of personal diary the book is raw with emotion, struggle, energy, disappointment and ultimately success. By including all the detail of the four year journey from inception to reality, Paul reflects upon all the difficult moments when the project looked set to fail, the intractability of the British planning system, and the sheer slow and laborious work of the early years of the project. Yet this book is all the more inspirational for being honest about what happened and what was required. This honesty extends to including details of costs involved, the difficulty of forming convincing business plans, and the reliance on volunteer input.

Paul begins the book in his early years as he discovers and lives in Tipi Valley, then Brithdir Mawr and finally Holtsfield, all in Wales. At each place he learns more skills (living with fire, living on the land, carpentry, working as a group, animal husbandry etc) and more about how he would ideally like to live. Through this journey of different communities he develops a need for permanent purpose-built eco-housing, space for privacy, freedom and more structured social organisation. His experience of various planning battles and fraught legal situations created a desire to secure planning permission upfront for Lammas, rather than endure the retrospective planning fights of so many other eco-villages in Britain.

The second half of the book traces the journey from the conception of Lammas to its planning victory; from finding the land, the people, the design and structure, to traversing the local planning system, local opposition, and coping with low morale as planning applications were repeatedly rejected. The message is clear that we need new policy and political frameworks to enable eco-villages like Lammas to be more easily replicated.

The book is at times saddening, but ultimately optimistic, and even for those unlikely to embark on such an adventure, Paul’s journey and beliefs are cause for reflection on one’s own choices, needs and life decisions. As Paul himself argues: ‘It is possible to live lightly upon this land. Development can be low-impact. Our structures can be beautiful. Farming can work alongside wildlife. Permaculture can feed us. There are alternatives. They are available now’ (p.158). Having read this book I am even more convinced of this than I was before.

FeedARead Publishing, 2012



[Review first appeared in Permaculture Magazine]

Jenny Pickerill


LILAC, Leeds: Low Impact Living Affordable Community February 5, 2013

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 2:36 pm

LILAC is a new co-housing eco-development in urban west Leeds (Bramley), Britain. It is particularly interesting because it is using straw bale, it is accessible (the definition of which I will return to), affordable, grassroots, collective, and (sub)urban. There are 12 flats, 8 houses and a communal house, building work is advancing at a pace and they hope to move in during spring 2013.


View of the site from the road in Bramley, west Leeds

LILAC grew from many years of discussions and a desire for an eco-village type settlement in Leeds. In addition to being ecological it was important for the founders that any development was urban – enabling them to travel easily to work in the city without cars – and that it was affordable – few had the capital to invest in expensive housing. As logical as this may seem, few eco-developments have really achieved this in Britain with most new community builds tending to be in more rural spaces and despite best efforts most required a significant capital investment (or large mortgage).

flat block

Community and communal space

The community and communal aspects of living were also central; notably trying to ensure that delicate balance between providing enough privacy and enabling people to share resources, space and social lives. Hence the co-housing model was adopted whereby people have individual homes (and in this case a small outside space), but share a communal house, larger gardens, play areas, and laundry facilities. Community agreements to manage responsibility and expectations are still being developed but are likely to involve a community contribution expectation of two hours a week (with board members devoting four hours a week). This is actually very low in comparison to other projects I have visited and reflects an approach at LILAC that has carefully considered the workload implications of community living. For example, rather than plant the communal gardens with labour-intensive annals, there are plans to use lots of perennial planting (such as fruit trees) in order to reduce maintenance time and tasks.

Their community house is also much bigger than other examples I have seen, it has a large light meeting area, a nice kitchen, a couple of office spaces, large film showing space, bathroom and shower. Crucially it has been built on the edge of the site so that it is directly accessible from the street and forms a welcoming way into the community. Given its size and location it is likely to become the hub of this new community and it is easy to see the potential for other local groups to use it as a meeting place too.

Building design and function

The buildings are designed by the architects White Design and it is the first residential building to use the Modcell approach. The method involved building wooden frames and packing them full of straw bale. All this is done in a local ‘flying factory’ (a temporary local space where the panels are assembled) and then joined together onsite (a bit like flat pack building). It creates straight block walls and most of the windows are floor to ceiling – giving huge views and a range of light inside.

Modcell have tested this approach and already proved its high ecological credentials, so I have little doubt that the development will achieve its aims of low carbon emissions, low energy bills, low embedded carbon and a long-lasting build. What has yet to be seen is how it will feel to live in the buildings. They could be likened to office buildings; very angular, straight and boxy. It is an interesting aesthetic which is very hard to judge at this stage without occupancy or landscaping, and could be considerably softened by both. Moreover, how furniture, storage and people fit into the space is yet to be seen.

render inside

Rendering the straw bale panel walls and inside an almost completed house with floor to ceiling windows

There is also an interesting disjuncture between what makes a building ecological and what makes it pleasant to live in. For example, in the communal house, there is an office on the north side of the building. Because it is on the north side there are very few windows, in fact most are up high and thus difficult to look out from. When I visited with some residents they immediately worried that the room was going to be too dark. But if they added in windows it would change the ecological performance of the building. So is the office missing a window or is the office in the wrong part of the building?

As with all new builds some parts of the design are really inspiring. They have used the hall space in the apartment buildings for spare rooms. It is a really interesting idea. It is a tiny space, just enough for a double bed, but it is private and cosy and is clearly going to be really useful. At the same time, I wonder how other, really small things, might work. There are some interesting problematic locations of window latches. In the upstairs bedrooms (whole, floor to ceiling length windows), two sections open, but I would struggle to reach the top one, despite being tall (5ft 10 inches). In the bathrooms there is a row of windows right at the top of the wall – I could not reach the latches. Not only will this make it inconvenient to use, but will probably reduce people’s use of them and reduce the airing of the building, which in turn could lead to mould issues. However, I am sure there is a simple solution and it is perhaps no more problematic than when I installed ceiling windows that only opened using a turning mechanism – impossible to do from a 10ft distance! In other words, it is always so easy to come in and critique someone else’s building.


LILAC have thought quite a lot about accessibility in all its forms – encouraging a diverse range of residents, ensuring disabled access, designing in affordability, choosing a suburban location (and inviting local residents to engage with eco-housing), and thinking about how the community will run on a very practical level. It is really nice to see a project where there are clearly many different people of all ages going to be living there. The houses and flats are all different sizes, catering for single occupants with one bedroom flats up to families with four bedrooms.


First foor of houses being built

Disability has also been planned for. All the doors are disabled access and will have flush and smooth entrances (low thresholds). Thus all ground floor flats have disabled access. The community house has a lift, which means that they can access all areas, including a shower and bathroom area. However, there is no lift in the apartment blocks, so there is no disabled access to the spare rooms or higher flats. This might all seem logical and certainly many new developments employ the standards of Lifetime Homes to ensure accessibility, but all too often eco-developments abandon accessible designs due to cost and many eco-developments remain the preserve of the young and able-bodied, with little consideration for how people will remain in their homes as they age.

Affordability has also always been central to the plans for LILAC and they have achieved this by developing a model whereby regardless of which size accommodation you live in you pay 35% of your net income for your home. This is paid as a form of rent, but actually residents are slowly buying their home through share purchase (or equity stakes). Once they have bought it their payments reduce and the money is used for communal good. In an era of high house prices, rising rents and falling incomes, this ratio of accommodation costs seems particularly appealing. It has taken LILAC considerable work to develop this system and ensure that it is financially robust and allows for residents to leave and join the community. It still requires a deposit and still enables those with more money to afford bigger properties, but it is one of the few eco-developments to take the issue of affordability seriously, further details are available at:

LILAC has yet to be completed but has already generated significant media and political interest. It is certainly a ground-breaking project and they are hopeful that others will be inspired and adopt some of the approaches (such as the affordability model) that they have developed. They are also conducting post occupancy research and have already run workshops to share what they have learnt with others. I have no doubt that LILAC will become not just a great place to live, but a role model for community eco-building for years to come.

For more information about LILAC see their great website:, also Paul Chatterton, one of the founders of the project, has recently published an academic journal article on LILAC; Chatterton, P (2013) Towards an agenda for post-carbon cities: Lessons from LILAC, the UK’s first ecological, affordable, cohousing community. International Journal for Urban and Regional Research . ISSN 0309-1317.

[Written by Jenny Pickerill (February 2013) using information based on a site visit in November 2012 and informal discussions with founders of LILAC]


Best books on eco-housing August 29, 2012

The Birth of an EcovillageZero-carbon Homes: A Road MapGreen Architecture: The Art of Architecture in the Age of Ecology (Architecture & Design)Local Sustainable Homes: How to Make Them Happen in Your Community

Having just spent the last two months reading about eco-housing I have compiled a list of what I consider to be the best books about housing, home and eco-housing. These books encompass a broad interest in the physical architectural design of an eco-house, alongside the important social elements of how people live together and communities function.


Follow a journey through worldwide eco-projects August 23, 2012

Filed under: Inspiring examples,Photographs — naturalbuild @ 10:11 am

I have just come across a great site (IM)PERMANACE: global solutions for perninial living, which is documenting a families trip around the world visiting and teaching permaculture projects. Some of the places they are visiting overlap with places I have posted here, but there are so many more as well.

Their “Mission is to travel 40 000 miles overland through 40 countries, creating a free online documentary series about all aspects of truly abundant, healthy and integrative ways of living, farming and meeting our needs locally to share with you and the world in this time of great transition! (IM)PERMANENCE is a co- created film project realising open source learning resources for the world- from the people to the people!”

Their site is packed full of amazing commentary and photographs. I recommend a visit.


The Triangle Housing Project, Swindon, UK June 28, 2012

Filed under: Britain,Inspiring examples — naturalbuild @ 3:20 pm

The Triangle Housing Project (Swindon UK) was designed by Glenn Howells Architects  and was the vision of Kevin McCloud of Grand Designs fame. His aim was to build beautiful, contemporary, affordable, sustainable homes and still make money. He wanted to put into practice his ideology that housing should be a combination of Happiness, Architecture and Beauty (HAB Housing). In order to make it affordable McCloud worked with a housing Association (GreenSquare) who intended to sell some properties and retain others for rental.


The Triangle is a 42-home development with a variety of properties from one bedroom to four bedrooms. Completed 2011 its progress and ambitions were documented for ‘Kevin’s Grand Design TV series’ on Channel 4 (in the UK). In other words, this was a developer-led project aiming to incorporate many approaches already tested in more radical self-built housing, but rarely in large-scale British developments.

The project tried to do many things differently to a standard British housing development: it tried to make well-built eco-houses affordable; implemented novel design features to ‘mass’ housing (ventilation chimneys); used new materials (hempcrete); made the houses very small and open plan; and built large communal space. The hempcrete was grown locally and used for the external walls, and rooms were given higher ceilings to enable more light to flood small rooms and make then feel bigger. Individual gardens were small but a large communal garden was put into community trust ownership and people encouraged to grow food collectively. Overall, 50% of land is for sharing. Overall, the aim of this development was to build low-impact, low-carbon, and high-value houses.

Did it work? Maybe it is still too early to tell but the results are a bit mixed so far. This is not to say there is still not a great deal of inspiration to be taken from this project and its novelties were always bound to attract the critics. It is definitely a test case. On the one hand the design has certainly won lots of awards. On the other hand plans to sell the properties had to be put on hold because they would not have been able to sell them at a price low enough to have been considered affordable, in other words, they ultimately cost more than Kevin McCloud had hoped. According to reports so far many residents (all rental) really like it. However, some were mistakes were made. In the TV series following the development it became obvious that no one from the design team had thought to consult potential residents on what they needed or wanted. One new resident said to McCloud that he ‘had needed a woman’s perspective’ to point out that they had failed to design in any space for storage, which with lots of children was proving problematic. Neighbours were also not convinced by the higher-than-average height of the new houses which consequently towered over their existing homes.

The main problem appears to be the lack of quality building work. In a recent BBC Online article ‘Defects at Grand Designs presenter Kevin McCloud’s homes‘, residents complained of water leaks, cracked walls and ceilings, and broken rainwater harvesters. The architects are putting the blame squarely at the door of the builders describing their work as ‘bad building. There are hardly any design issues there, it’s to do with the quality of the building works’. That said McCloud himself had been shocked at the low budget allocated for each kitchen. At just £900 per kitchen he had worried that the kitchens had looked and felt too cheap. As to whether these are teething problems that all buildings go through, or a more fundamental problem is not yet clear. However, the situation does highlight the expectation and, I would argue, the need for eco-houses especially to be well constructed. Without good seals and well-fit windows, for example, the design features of houses such as this are easily undermined.

For more information about the development there is an interesting review in  The Architects Journal about Triangle, and a brochure about the project.

[June 2012]


Volunteers needed for green build project in Mozambique June 12, 2012

Filed under: Inspiring examples — naturalbuild @ 11:59 am

small environmental education and marine research association in Zavora, southern Mozambique are seeking to build a new centre using eco-friendly techniques with limited financial resources. They are going to use earth bricks, glass bottles and cocconut wood. They are looking for volunteers, peferably with some experience or expertise in eco-building, to help them complete the project. They are looking for volunteers to spend at least a month between now and November later this year. Please pass onto other lists or sites as appropriate.

[Click the image for a larger view]

Background information about the project

Volunteer application form

[12th June 2012]


Earthship Biotecture, near Taos, New Mexico, USA May 17, 2012

Standing on top of an Earthship in the New Mexico desert watching the sunset turn the mountains a deep red, makes you realise how boring conventional housing is. Earthships are a highly inventive and unusual house design by Mike Reynolds who spent years experimenting in the New Mexico deserts. There are now hundreds of examples worldwide but I wanted to come to the place of their inception to try and understand their possibilities and questions around affordability.

Sunset view from top of an earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

An Earthship is an autonomous building made from car tyres filled with waste (such as drinks cans and bottles) to produce highly insulating walls. The Earthship has been replicated in the UK (Fife and Brighton), Holland, France, South Africa and India. There are now 3,000 Earthships globally. The design, often built into the ground, not only uses recycled and natural materials, but by using passive solar heating (and cooling), water harvesting, contained sewage treatment, and internal food production (through conservatories), creates a self-sustaining building with a stable ambient temperature even in climatic extremes. Built to be cheap, efficient and autonomous, Earthships represent radical ecological architecture designed to reshape our relation to the environment and our daily lifestyles.

“The Earthship concept is meant to place shelter and a less stressful method of living within the immediate grasp of people. If land is made available for no profit; if shelter can be obtained with little or no mortgage payment; if utilities come free from the sky; if much of our food can be grown in our homes; people will become more mobile with their thinking. They will begin to have time to think of each other and the planet” (Reynolds, 1990, p.254)


An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There is a great sense of freedom from knowing that a house has everything you need to survive without needing to be connected to anything else. All the systems are holistic and autonomous. Standing on the roof I am next to the water cistern which collects the rainwater, and overlooking the PV panels and solar thermal hot water heater. Moreover all resources are used as efficiently as possible, for example, rainwater is used three times – for drinking, to flush the toilet and then to water plants. Having stayed in one at the height of summer I can also confidently confirm that it works – nice and cool during the day, warm at night and not too dark inside. Such autonomy also enables the resident to more clearly understand how houses work – if you are not careful you will use up all your water – and thus, potentially, how to look after and fix it.

Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

By watching the sunset you also realise that Earthships enable a landscape without wires. Look out of your door – do you see wires? Most houses are linked by electricity and telephone cables criss-crossing the landscape, but here there is only sky: huge big open skies. It is a liberating view compared to most outlooks from houses. In New Mexico all you can really see of the houses are the windows reflecting the sunlight. It is a very calming view.

Phoenix Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships are more than simply highly integrated autonomous houses, they are amongst the most radical and inventive green buildings I have seen. So inventive that new systems, such as water and power management systems, have been designed specifically for them. But they do have an unusual aesthetic, they do not look anything like a house as conventionally understood – buried in the ground, glass wall to the south, curved walls inside, and glass bottle walls. This of course potentially limits wider adoption. Personally I find them rather beautiful buildings to look at, but then I already love eco-houses and all things quirky. Replication is not only limited by how they look however, but also by their requirement for manual management (such as opening vents and closing blinds) which in an age of ‘on demand’ heating and air conditioning puts some people off.

The houses were designed to be highly replicable, and Reynolds has gone to great effort to build demonstration houses around the world and to create plans and ‘off-the-peg’ designs which can be purchased and followed. The use of the metaphor of the ‘ship’ in its name also signifies that such designs should be replicated elsewhere (that the ideas should travel, they were designed to run without fuel, use rubbish and thus locate anywhere); that these ships should be part of a broader network (that we should exchange and develop these ideas); that ideas need freedom to enable experimentation and radical innovation (the ship as autonomous and free from regulations); and, finally, that they will “sail on the seas of tomorrow” (Reynolds, quoted in Paschich and Hendricks, 1995, 73) (and thus continue to travel into the future).

Yet this replication has not happened in the way that might have been imagined. The design is robust, tested and cheap and yet few Earthships exist. In addition to how they look and what it is like to live in them, they are not the easiest to build – they require time and effort (and strength and perseverance) in a way that brick houses do not. Finally, they are not appropriate for all places, they have been developed to work best in the climate of New Mexico and as the Brighton Earthship has shown, if changes are not made to the design when built in other climates then they do not work as well (in Brighton the floor is rather cold). This could be overcome, but only with further experimentation and the freedom to adapt Reynolds designs.


Inside the studio earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

Earthships can be built expensively or cheaply, it all depends on choices made by the builder. They are designed to be extremely low-cost to run, but to make the actual build cost lower then there is a need for self-build (using your own labour, also called ‘sweaty equity’), build on cheap land (hence the growth of such houses in the deserts of New Mexico), use waste materials (there are some plans for Earthships using concrete), ignore building codes, and keep the design simple and small scale (thus ‘designing down’ the house so that you need less electricity in everyday running). Reynolds argues that “just as the sun allows no darkness, the lake allows no dryness, the wind allows no calm, the river no silence … the Earthship allows no poverty” (1993). However, some have complained at the high cost of the step-by-step designs to build an Earthship.

An Earthship at the Greater World Earthship Community in New Mexico, USA

There are many lessons to be learnt from Earthships which could be, and should be, applied to eco-housing elsewhere. It is a bold design that works: the result of years of practical experimentation and radical innovation. Whether it is about their autonomy, low cost, low visual impact, self-build nature, or the way in which every resource is carefully harvested and used multiple times, we need to understand and learn from Earthships. The strongest memory for me is of sitting on the roof watching the sunset knowing that I would be warm and cosy that night, that there was amble water and heat for a shower, and that the environmental cost of all that comfort was minimal. It was a guilt free sunset.

There is a Visitors Centre at the Earthships near Taos (#2 Earthship Way Taos NM 87571) which is open 10am to 4 pm, 7 days a week.


Key references about Earthships:

Freney, M (2009) Earthships: Sustainable housing alternative. International Journal of Sustainable Design, 1, 2, 223-240.

Harkness, R (2011) Earthships: The homes that trash built. Anthropology Now, 3, 1, 54-66

Hewitt, M and Telfer, K (2007) Earthships: Building a zero carbon future for homes. HIS BRE Press, Watford

Hodge, O (2008) Garbage Warrior (Film). A Co Production of Open Eye Media UK, ITVS International & Sundance Channel.

Ip, K and Miller, A (2009) Thermal behaviour of an earth-sheltered autonomous building – The Brighton Earthship. Renewable Energy, 34, 9, 2037-2034

Kemp, S and Cowie, P (2004) The Earthship Toolkit: Your Guide to Building a Zero Waste, Zero Energy Future. Sustainable Communities Initiatives, Kinghorn.

Paschich, E and Hendricks, P (1995) The Tire House Book. Sunstone Press, New Mexico.

Reynolds, M (2000) Comfort in any climate. Solar Survival Architecture, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M (2005) Water from the sky. Solar Survival Print, Taos, NM.

Reynolds, M. (1990) Earthship Volume I. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM

Reynolds, M. (1993) Earthship Volume III. One Solar Survival Press, Taos, NM


NEW REPORT: Low Impact Communities in Britain March 27, 2012

I have recently given several talks around Britain about how we can encourage the building of more low impact communities. I have collated the talks into a short report on the topic, available here as a PDF: Low impact communities in Britain.

The report identifies three key types of barrier to low impact communities: political, economic and cultural, and outlines what these barriers entail and some possible solutions. It also outlines four different case studies, and some other issues which are important to consider when encouraging eco-housing. Finally, the report outlines common pitfalls and the best way to successfully build low impact communities, which I argue involves:

      1. Use hybrid materials or straw bale
      2. Have a mutual housing ownership or a rental model
      3. Build collectively
      4. Have a pioneer and a risk taker driving project
      5. Share key infrastructure, by having a co-housing organisational structure
      6. Build on ‘marginal’ land or remove land from the market mechanism
      7. Build small with an open plan design
      8. Use locally available materials
      9. Minimise use of technology
      10. Plan long-term maintenance
      11. Establish strong community agreements
      12. Have a good simple passive design

 Please share the report freely and I would welcome any comments.

[27th March, Leicester]



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