From earthship homes to eco-houses, sustainable living gains ground

A sweeping, wing-like roof shelters a stairway in a four-bedroom, 4,600 sq ft eco-friendly home in Byron Bay, Australia. The house is warmed with hydronic heating built into the concrete slab, has many floor-to-ceiling gliding glass doors and require
A sweeping, wing-like roof shelters a stairway in a four-bedroom, 4,600 sq ft eco-friendly home in Byron Bay, Australia. The house is warmed with hydronic heating built into the concrete slab, has many floor-to-ceiling gliding glass doors and requires no air-conditioning. PHOTO: NYTIMES

LONDON • Healthy homes, natural homes, earthship homes, offgrid homes, rammed earth homes, strawbale homes – a huge variety of eco-friendly housing is available for the growing number of people in search of sustainable living, estate agents say.

And eco-homes are not just for those in search of an organic, self sufficient lifestyle – luxury homebuyers are seeking them too, the agents say.

More than 20 per cent of emerging luxury consumers – defined as those with US$250,000 (S$340,000) to US$1 million in investable assets – in the United States, Britain, the United Arab Emirates, India and China have their sights set on sustainable or eco-friendly homes, according to research published by Sotheby’s International Realty this year.

Luxury homes include a US$149 million, 14-bed property in Colorado with staff quarters, a spa, bison pastures, an airstrip, a helipad – and geothermal heating and cooling.

Mr Hugo Thistlethwayte, who heads the international residential business at Savills, a British estate agent, said buyers are increasingly looking for ways to reduce maintenance costs, especially for country houses which can be “money pits”.

“If they can do that in an eco-friendly way, then they want to do that,” he said.

The push to cut costs and go greener has been helped by the rapid improvement of technologies that cut energy costs – such as solar panels and window glazing.

“A really good eco-home will involve not just new technology, but also the oldest forms of technology”, including positioning houses and their windows and doors so they catch  the breeze in hot climates, he said.

That is more likely to happen when people build their own homes, rather than buying from developers.

“If it’s a development, it’s a bit more about how it looks and the wow factor. So you see a lot of glass in development, but if you’re not careful that can turn into a greenhouse,” he said.

At the other end of the spectrum, house hunters can bag a mudwalled cottage in Portugal with a wood burner, a composting toilet and river water for €50,000 euros (S$79,500).

Other options include earthship homes – off-the-power-grid structures designed to use sunshine to produce free heating and built with natural or recycled materials, with added features such as water harvesting.

“Most people are looking for a more meaningful way of life, with a simpler lifestyle that allows more time to connect with the natural world,” said Mr David Edge, who runs a website advertising sustainable properties.

He initially set up the website to sell his own off-grid farmhouse in southern Spain in 2011.

“The fantasy of owning your own chunk of land and being able to survive off it is still a driving force,” he said.

“If buyers aspire to an urban lifestyle, then some of the modern, well-designed properties are truly exceptional with their use of green resources for heating and lighting.”

He said: “However, if they aspire to the ‘whole package’, then a rural property could be better suited.”

A sustainable lifestyle is not to be taken lightly, he added. “It can involve a large amount of physical work and a change in habits of eating, washing, sleeping, computer usage.”

And the cost savings are not always clear.

“If you expect life to be just the same as before – with unlimited electricity, water – then off-grid systems are quite costly,” he said.

In countries which produce a large amount of electricity from renewable sources, it may even be less environmentally friendly for houses to have their own small solar system instead of being connected to the grid, he said.

“However, rural properties sometimes have no choice.”

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 29, 2017, with the headline 'From earthship homes to eco-houses, sustainable living gains ground'. Print Edition | Subscribe