Can a Green Home Really Be Both Gorgeous and Affordable Right Now?

Keyword: green house 


TITLE:  The Impossible House Project Asks The Question: Can a Green Home Really Be Both Gorgeous and Affordable Right Now? 


Sub: Yes, you want to build a green house. But you also want your home to be comfortable, beautifully-designed, and reflective of your personal style.  


Think about a green house. What picture comes to mind? A dank, mud-walled hut? A hippie treehouse that looks like it would crumple in a strong wind? A cramped tiny house? Shipping containers stacked haphazardly atop each other? Something institutional and plain? A domed earth-ship? 


Maybe you picture a house made of glass and metal, highly modern and stylish. But this house seems expensive, and it’s not your style.   


What setting comes to mind when you think of off grid living?  


Is it rural and pastoral, surrounded by gardens and rainwater collection systems? Do you envision a desert house covered in solar panels or perhaps a coastal home powered by wind turbines? 


I’m guessing what doesn’t come to mind is an inner city home, packed sardine-like alongside its neighbors, with shadows from other buildings rendering solar powers less effective, and historical designations limiting visible modifications. 


Another thing that doesn’t come to mind? Interior design that is colorful and effusive, rather than sparse and modern, with patterned wall-paper, cosy furnishings, and lots of creature comforts. 


We’re Building a Green House That’s Neither “Earthy” Nor Contemporary  


I am currently involved in a very unique renovation to my two-bedroom, 1,120 square feet (104 square meters) heritage workers cottage. There are three major challenges: 

  1. When I’m done, my house will be off-grid…but in a suburb of Sydney, which is Australia’s biggest city. 
  1. I’m a finance professional, not a tree-dwelling hippie or a bohemian artist. And this green house will be my home. I want it to be sustainable, but I don’t want it to look sustainable. I want it to look like a custom-designed home, similar to the type of homes my colleagues live in. 
  1. My goal is for this project to be replicable by middle-income people all over the world. To that end, I need the cost on this renovation to be on par with that of any renovation of a similarly-sized older house.  


What I’m going for is a green house that people visit without ever knowing it’s off grid. I want to host dinner parties where people compliment me on my exquisite decor, not my incinerator toilet. The Impossible House is about proving that the “impossible” is actually quite possible. 


Tips For Green Design 


Thus far, there has been a lot of trial and error involved in the Impossible House project. I’ve learned a lot along the way. 


  1. Find the right collaborators. 


Easier said than done, right? But I’ve been through seven architects, 15 water specialists, 10 solar experts, three sustainability experts, two legal experts, and a project manager. All of them designated my project “impossible.”  


Then I found my core team. My latest architect, Paul Adams, and my designer, Denby Dowling, are on-board because they’re not motivated by money or a flashy addition to their personal portfolio. They’re as passionate as I am about what we’re doing.  


Sustainable building is less about providing a service and more about collaborating with the homeowner. Any building professionals you hire need to be willing to put in the time and do the research. They need to care as much about the project as you do. 


  1. Outline your standards.


Every custom home-building or renovation project has goals, and every project will require some of those goals to be compromised. Before you start building your green house, make a list of what standards you are willing to compromise on and which you aren’t.  


Maybe your goal is for all of the materials you use to be recycled. But maybe you’re willing to compromise for sustainably sourced and manufactured materials, when recycled materials aren’t available. (This was one of my compromises for the Impossible House.) However, you may not be willing to compromise on being off grid. One of my “no-compromise” tenants is no new concrete. 


Include the objectives you’re not willing to compromise on in your contract. 


  1. Start tackling the big issues, such as water,sewageand power, before you even hire an architect.  


Begin with your list of objectives for your home infrastructure. Do you want to be completely off grid? Are you okay with being on grid for some services but not others? Do you want to be connected to the grid in order to put energy back into it? 


These challenges will take longer than you think, so as soon as you have your objectives outlined, talk to engineers and sustainable building experts. They can use your list to offer various solutions.  


  1. Be savvy.There’sa lot of hyperbole and a lack of transparency when it comes to sustainable building.  


Many materials seem sustainable at first, but when you look deeper into the sourcing or manufacturing, the story is darker. For example, you may find out that your renewal bamboo lumber is covered in a synthetic finish or that your terrazzo floor is held together by toxic glue.  


  1. Source locally when possible and avoid mass production. 


Make Sure Your Green House Materials Are Truly Eco Friendly 


There’s a lot of confusion about which building materials are actually sustainable. That’s because “green building” is a buzzy phrase, and lots of vendors use it to reassure customers and increase business. Some vendors who use this phrase may not actually know or be willing to share the sourcing and processing of their products. Transparency is key in buying actual sustainable building materials. Just because a vendor labels something “green,” don’t take their word. Ask for information and supply-tracing.  


Common Greenwashed Building Materials 


  1. Concrete


Concrete is often touted as a green material, but the cement industry is actually one of the top producers of carbon dioxide on the planet. This single industry emits up to eight percent of this greenhouse gas, which is a large contributor to climate change. 


  1. Bamboo


Bamboo can be a green, renewable building product, but only if it’s carefully and locally sourced and processed. Often bamboo is grown with toxic fertilizers and pesticides and coated with formaldehyde finishes. If you’re not based in Asia, it’s likely imported. Bamboo has been linked to Asian forest-clearing, harming bio-diversity. 


  1. OTHERS ???


Actual Green Building Materials 


First off, recycled materials are always better than new materials. And refurbishing great furniture pieces and lighting fixtures is the way to go, rather than buying new. 


With the Impossible House, we’re keeping the front two rooms and demolishing and rebuilding the back of the home. We plan to reuse as many of the demo materials as possible in the new build. We will recycle the bricks and may use the old concrete to create a thermal envelope. Additionally, a kitchen cabinet is going to be refurbished and relocated, to serve as a bathroom counter / shaving cabinet. 


We’re outfitting the bathroom and kitchen with tap-ware from a company that uses recycled brass.  


Part of the renovation includes converting the attic to a study. We’re searching for a recycled spiral staircase to make the attic accessible.  


For wallpaper, we’re using a Sydney-based company, Publisher Textiles, that uses non-toxic ink.  


For wood, ceramics, or fabric, there are environmentally-friendly dyes, stains, and paints on the market.  


The Impossible House floors will be a mix of handcrafted, ceramic porcelain tiles with a non-toxic glazing, wool and sisal rugs, and Australian hardwood. 


Organic, sustainably-created materials are great for cushions, furniture, rugs, curtains, and carpet. These include cotton, silk, and wool. In Australia, wool colored with plant dye is one of the greenest options available. In fact, we’re using wool insulation rather than synthetic fiberglass. 


The bottom of this webpage has a list of vendors we like and use. 



Green Appliances Are The Exception To The Rule 


You don’t want to recycle or refurbish old appliances, since they’re less likely to be energy-efficient. Instead of retrofitting, buy new, energy-rated refrigerators, ovens, and washers. 



The Bottom Line On Sourcing Materials For Green House Design 


  1. The origins of the materials matter. Where did your vendors get the raw materials for the products they sell? 
  1. Consider the chemicals, energy, and water used in the processing.  
  1. Do a bit of research into how the workers are treated. It’s not sustainable for a company to misuse any sort of resources, including their human resources. 
  1. Research any toxic off-gassing or soil-leaching in the final product. If you’re going to live with this product in your home, you don’t want to always be breathing toxins or putting toxins into the groundwater. 
  1. Take a hint from Indigenous communities. Often the most eco-friendly way to produce products (particularly ceramics and tiles) is the same way that they’ve been produced for thousands of years. If you can find a company that does things the old way, you can be pretty sure they’re sustainable.  


A Prefab House Can Be A Green House 


For the new addition to the Impossible House, we’re using prefab walls created from Australian hardwood and shipped from Melbourne to Sydney. We went with prefab because it’s affordable and the company we’re using, Fairweather Homes, is careful to build sustainably and minimize environmental impact during production.  


Prefab construction creates less site waste and takes less time and money to build. Since we are trying to make this renovation sustainable and affordable, this was pretty important to us.  


A Few Take-Aways About Eco Houses 


  1. You can renovate or do a new build. Both can be done sustainably. It’s more about how rather than what you do. 
  1. You don’t have to compromise on style. Any style can be created sustainably, where that’s sleek and modern, traditional, or—like the Impossible House is going to be—bold and eclectic.  
  1. A sustainable house or renovation doesn’t have to cost any more than a traditional new home or renovation.  

Denby Dowling, our interior designer, likes her projects to “move and breathe and have a personality of their own.” To that end, this green house that we’re building will be a designer house with designer furniture. As the homeowner and project leader, I’ll know that first and foremost it’s a sustainable home, but no one else has to. In the end, that’s the beauty of the Impossible House. It’ll be impossible to categorize it as anything other than a comfortable, custom-styled home. 


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