Sustainable dwellings come in many guises, from super-insulated structures to retrofitted Victorian terraces. Here’s our top 10 projects that push the boundaries.

1. Less is more

Top 10 Eco Homes9

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; it 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 (+49 711 849 6341;

The timber structure is very airtight and has a ground-to-air heat exchange to moderate the temperature of incoming fresh air. It cost around €330,000 (approx £272,778) to build.

2. Down to earth

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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 (+1 512 481 0092;

It was created for a science-fiction writer in Houston, Texas, and inspired by Native American pit houses, which are partially dug into the ground to keep them cool in summer and warm in winter. 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 groundsource heat pump provides additional heating.

3. Salute to the sun

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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 (+61 3 9417 0995; 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 and cost $210,000 (approx £116,674).

4. Retrofit for the future

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Bere Architects (020 7241 1064; 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 per cent. Gas bills are now a maximum £130 a month in winter, and electricity bills are £100 a month, which includes charging an electric car.

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 (0844 800 3016;, 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 (01509 262 924; for the side and back, which, amazingly, created the biggest challenge: they had to win a landmark planning appeal to get permission to add it.

5. All grown up

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All grown up When French architect Djuric Tardio (+33 1 4033 0641; built this house on the outskirts of Paris, it wanted to remain sympathetic to the pitched roofs of the local area, but without the large wasted attic space.

Its 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. This stunning eco house was prefabricated with sustainable larch panels and assembled on site in two weeks, minimising construction waste and disruption. The 246sqm house also has a rainwater harvester for the plants, and super-efficient external insulation, so that the underfloor heating is hardly needed. It cost about €600,000 (approx £496,000) to build.

6. Heart of glass

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If Mies van der Rohe was alive today, he might have built something like this German home by Werner Sobek (+49 711 767 500; 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.

7. Reuse it or lose it

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It’s not just the materials used in a home that have an environmental impact, but also those hauled away to landfill. Not for this house 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 (01590 670 780;, 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.

8. Shipshape solution

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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 (+1 303 955 0562;, 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 (0800 068 3103; jameshardie. 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.

9. Pop-up house

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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.

10. Self-sufficient wonder

Top 10 Eco Homes9

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.


Words: Luke Tebbutt

Images: Brigida González; Paul Bardagjy; Tom Ross of Brilliant Creek (; Jefferson Smith; Zooey Braun; Clément Guillaume; Braden Gunem; Nigel Rigden; Multipod Studios; Rural Urban Framework.

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