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Stoney Cross timber eco house by a pond

10 innovative eco homes from around the globe

Remarkable sustainable dwellings from airtight new builds to retrofitted Victorian terraces

By Luke Tebbutt | 19 January 2018

Eco homes come in many guises, from super-modern new builds to retrofitted Victorian terraces. Grand Designs examines 10 projects that push the boundaries of sustainable architecture…

1. Less is more

This home for a family of six near Stuttgart, Germany, treads lightly on the planet by packing a lot of function and flexibility into its 138sqm footprint. The timber eco home is very airtight and has a ground-to-air heat exchange to moderate the temperature of incoming fresh air.

The house can even be split into two separate apartments once the children leave. The ground floor has the kitchen, dining and living areas, plus a study and balcony, so the family can be together or apart, inside or outside, in one compact space. The first floor has the bedrooms, while the top floor and attic have additional living areas, sleeping zones and bathrooms, and can be accessed by an external staircase, making it ripe for sub-division later.

‘Every square metre of space that you don’t build counts as sustainable, so an intelligent floorplan was our main goal, in order to make this house sufficient and adaptable,’ says architect Jan Theissen from Architekten Martenson und Nagel Theissen.

Just K eco home with small footprint in Stuttgart, Germany by Architekten Martenson und Nagel Theissen

Photo: Brigida González

2. Sunken eco home

Built on a plot formerly occupied by an oil pipe, this low-energy house is about healing the land, according to practice Bercy Chen Studio.

Created for a science-fiction writer in Houston, Texas, it was inspired by Native American pit houses, which are partially dug into the ground to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter – a simple idea for modern eco homes borrowed from past innovations. This one is built 2.1m below ground, with a green roof for extra insulation; more than 40 species of plants and wildflowers surround it to foster the local eco system.

The 148sqm property has direct access to its setting with a central terrace that the owners have to cross to get from one side of the house to the other. An underground tank allows them to store and re-use rainwater, and a ground source heat pump provides additional heating.

This sustainable house was created for a science-fiction writer in Houston, Texas, and inspired by Native American pit houses

Photo: Paul Bardagjy

3. Salute to the sun

This house in Melbourne, Australia, has turned its back on the bad to embrace the good. Its south-facing rear (equivalent of north-facing in the northern hemisphere) was casting shadows across the garden, and surrounded by ugly buildings on all sides, so Melbourne practice Architecture Architecture designed a clever extension across the back.

It has allowed the owners to relocate their living-dining-kitchen space to face north, so they get good natural light all day, and also includes a private courtyard garden that blocks out the unsightly neighbouring properties. A tall roof allows room for clerestory windows, which bring in more light and ventilation. Dark concrete floors also soak up warmth from the sun and release it later. The extension has added approximately 30sqm of space.

Top 10 Eco Homes9

Photo: Tom Ross of

4. Retrofit for the future

Bere Architects took a ‘build tight, ventilate right’ approach when retrofitting this 232sqm London home for a family of five, reducing the energy required for heating by a whopping 88%. Gas bills are now a maximum £130 a month in winter, and electricity bills are £100 a month, which includes charging an electric car [prices correct at time of publication in 2014].

The upgrade includes new double-glazed sash windows at the front, new triple-glazed windows at the back, and a super-sealed front door by Double Good Windows, plus a high-performance Novus 300 heat recovery ventilation system to keep fresh air flowing inside when the windows are closed. For insulation, Bere used wood fibre for internal walls at the front, and 10cm Permarock phenolic insulation for the side and back. Amazingly, this created the biggest challenge as they had to win a landmark planning appeal to get permission to add it.

architects took a ‘build tight, ventilate right’ approach to retrofitting a period family house in London

Photo: Jefferson Smith

5. Green roof with a view

When French architect Djuric Tardio built this eco home on the outskirts of Paris, he wanted it to remain sympathetic to the pitched roofs of the local area, but without the large wasted attic space.

The solution: leave the pitched structure open and use it as a pergola for the family to grow their own fruit and vegetables, with a roof terrace beneath. The house was prefabricated with sustainable larch panels and assembled on site in two weeks, minimising construction waste and disruption – an important consideration when building eco homes. The 246sqm house also has a rainwater harvester for the plants, and super-efficient external insulation, so that the underfloor heating is hardly needed.

low carbon house near Paris with open pitched loft structure as a pergola and rooftop garden

Photo: Clément Guillaume

6. Heart of glass

If Mies van der Rohe was alive today, he might have built something like this German home by Werner Sobek. It bears a striking similarity to van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House, but without any of the overheating or condensation that mired the masterpiece.

In fact, you’d be hard pushed to find a better-performing building. It’s wrapped in high performance argon-filled triple glazing and has wide overhangs to shield the interior from the harshest summer sun. Heating is provided by a ground-source heat pump, and the roof is entirely covered in photovoltaic panels. The 230sqm house, which includes a basement, cost about €450,000 (approx £372,000) to build.

This Werner Sobek build bears a striking similarity to van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House

This Werner Sobek build bears a striking similarity to van der Rohe’s 1951 Farnsworth House. Photo: Zooey Braun

7. Reuse it or lose it

It’s not just the materials used in a house that have an environmental impact, but also those hauled away to landfill. Not for this eco home in the UK’s New Forest though, which has re-used soil excavated for its basement and pool to create a berm at the front. The earthy mound blocks noise from a nearby busy road, helps insulate the house, and saved the owners £30,000 in removal costs.

The 250sqm property, designed by PAD Studio Architects, also uses solar photovoltaic panels, a refurbished well for drinking water, a ground-source heat pump and a log boiler for heating and hot water. The final cost was £1.2 million.

Top 10 Eco Homes

Photo: Nigel Rigden

8. Shipping container eco home

A challenging site led to an eco-friendly answer for this American house, perched on a rocky slope about an hour from Denver, Colorado. Architect Brad Tomecek from Studio H:T, now with his own practice, overcame the precarious plot by craning in two recycled shipping containers, which rest on a steel-framed platform, thus having minimal impact on the ground.

The containers house two bedrooms, a bathroom, kitchen, study and laundry, and cost roughly $3,000 each (approximately £1,800), and are clad in a rainscreen by James Hardie. Tomecek says insulating them was the biggest challenge, and the steel required to modify them also drove up costs. The 139sqm house faces south and has four-inch concrete floors to soak up heat from the sun, plus solar photovoltaic panels that provide all of its electricity.

Top 10 Eco Homes

Photo: Braden Gunem

9. Pop-up house

A prefabricated property that complies with Passivhaus standards and can be assembled with just a screwdriver? You’re looking at it. This prototype pop-up house by French company Multipod Studios is built with lightweight expanded polystyrene insulating blocks, separated by laminated veneer lumber boards to create an airtight structure that requires almost no additional heating.

The main structure was assembled in just four days, and the rest of the house in another three weeks. Multipod Studios says other types of insulation boards can also be used, such as rockwool. The concept could be available to the public in a year, and the prototype cost €200 (approx £165) per sqm.

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Photo: Multipod Studios/Elisabeth Montagnier

10. Self-sufficient home

This Chinese house by John Lin of Rural Urban Framework takes a stand against the country’s rapid industrialisation, and its resulting reliance on external goods and services. It is made from locally produced mud bricks, and is designed to be entirely self-sufficient, with internal courtyards, including one for a pig pen, and stepped terraces for growing crops.

An underground biogas boiler generates energy from animal waste and produces leftover slurry to fertilise crops. The 380sqm house cost $53,400 to build (approx £32,101), and Lin hopes it will work as a prototype that can be replicated.

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Photo: Rural Urban Framework