Building an Eco Home

Make your home a sustainable living space

written by

Rebecca Clarke

There are many reasons why you might want to build an eco home, but the fact of the matter is that building eco homes should no longer be a choice – it should be a necessity.

Greenhouse Gas Emissions of concrete

Concrete has undoubtedly played a major role in the development of our civilizations providing us with the solid structures and homes we’ve needed to survive and thrive. Although as the second most used substance on the planet (after water), what impact does our reliance on it have on the environment? Cement, one of the most common binding constituents used to make concrete, caused approximately 7% of global GHG emissions in 2012. Another staggering statistic from this period was the colossal amount of cement used in China, from 2011-2013 China used more cement than the US did in the whole of the 20th century! Added to the mix is the drain on resources such as water which manufacturing cement requires immensely and often occurs in regions where it is a stressed resource. Research is well under way to reduce these emissions either by substituting fuel mixes and/or efficiencies in manufacturing equipment, however, choosing alternative eco-friendly building materials for your new home is an instant fix.

A side view of a concrete building with walls stacked on top of each other. Concrete is a emission intensive material which eco houses aim to avoid.
Could the materials in our concrete jungles evolve to be more compatible with nature?

What’s the carbon footprint of building a typical house?

The carbon footprint of building a typical house (a two-bed newbuild) is about 80 tonnes of CO2, according to researcher Mike Berners-Lee. One of the main reasons this is so high is due to the unsustainable materials used, such as bricks and concrete. Indeed, the walls of a newbuild property account for 60% of its total emissions. Further to the building process, there are huge amounts of unnecessary emissions created through the poor insulation and inadequate sustainable infrastructure of such homes. Such buildings need to become a thing of the past.

In contrast, eco builds take responsibility for their environmental impact, preserving and conserving resources.

A brick layer builds a wall with the sky above him. Building an eco house eliminates the need for unsustainable materials like bricks and concrete.
Designing eco homes challenges the reliance on unsustainable materials such as bricks and concrete

How can an eco home lower your carbon footprint and energy bills?

By using healthy and sustainable or recycled materials, an eco home already has a much lighter carbon footprint than a typical brick and mortar newbuild. Yet, the environmental benefits of an eco house do not stop there. Since the ethos of eco housing is to be environmentally sustainable, a true eco home will be designed to run on green energy, to conserve heat and reduce water waste. This will not only reduce your environmental impact but will also save you money. People living in eco homes will have greatly reduced expenses on electricity, heating and water compared to people living in unsustainable housing.

Birds-eye-view of a glass jar of coins. Eco homes offer great savings for the environment and your piggybank.
Eco homes rate higher in energy efficiency, preservation of resources and money saved

Where to get started?

If you want to build your own eco home, then you first need to decide which materials are right for you. There are many different options out there, but we have outlined some of the current most popular options here:

Shipping Containers

Shipping container eco homes are a brilliant new trend that are great for a circular economy. By choosing to turn recycled shipping containers into a home, you can give them a new purpose and save them from the scrap yard. This lowers the demand for natural resources (and is an extremely affordable option for people looking to live in an environmentally friendly way), because the walls, floor and ceiling already exist. This means that it’s just a matter of altering the container into something more homely.

Whether you want to do your containers up yourself, or have someone do it for you, shipping containers are also extremely flexible. Indeed, the container experts at S Jones Containers explain: “Our modular buildings and cabins enable you to freely choose the size of your accommodation unit and specify both the layout of the rooms and the insulation and equipment within”. Since shipping container walls are thin, installing high-quality insulation in your shipping container home will be required, and it will save you a lot on heating in the long run.  

 The average cost for building a basic shipping container home is around £12,000.

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Do you want to have a direct impact on climate change? Sir David Attenborough said the best thing we can do is to rewild the planet. So we run reforestation and rewilding programs across the globe to restore wild ecosystems and capture carbon.

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Cob 

Cob builds utilise earth and often some sort of recycled or organic supporting material, such as sand and straw or discarded tyres and sacks. These kinds of houses are great because they provide a lot of natural insulation, being warm in the winter and cool in the summer. Cob houses are consequently extremely energy efficient and can have a construction carbon footprint of zero if you are able to utilise only the materials you have on your land.

Cob also provides homeowners with a very healthy living environment due to its ability to regulate atmospheric condensation. Other great benefits are that it is completely fireproof, low cost (as you can often use earth right from your site) and gives you every possibility in terms of design. However, many people can be deterred from cob homes because it is time and labour-intensive. It can take a while to build a cob home due to the nature of the materials you are working with; so, if time is of the essence for you, do think carefully before embarking on this kind of eco build.

The average cost for building a basic cob home is around £5,000, but this would not include any labour costs.

The corner of a cob house with trees in the background. Cob is a perfect material for an eco home as it is formed from materials nature has to offer.
Work with nature by building an eco cob home made out of natural materials.

Hempcrete

Hempcrete is a relatively new eco building material, made from a composite of hemp and lime. Hempcrete has great insulating properties and also provides thermal mass, creating extremely energy-efficient homes when it comes to heating. Hempcrete homes, like cob, are also extremely healthy as a building material as it will “passively regulate internal humidity” – preventing condensation and damp.

Something you will have to bear in mind when using hempcrete is that you will have to cast it around a structural frame (such as a timber skeleton). Therefore, it is advisable to seek out sustainable wood if you are going to keep the structure environmentally friendly. Bamboo is a wonderfully sustainable wood, but it would need to be imported. Another alternative is to seek out recycled wood. While hempcrete has many environmental advantages over conventional builds, the cost of building with hempcrete is usually comparable (or just below) the cost of building with common bricks.

The average cost for building a basic hempcrete home is about £200,000.

The frame of a timber roof. Hempcrete, a sustainable substitute for concrete, combines well with timber to create a strong eco house.
Sourcing local sustainable timber is one way to limit your eco home's carbon footprint

A house in harmony with nature is much more than a house; it is a continuation of the spirit of nature within us!

Mehmet Murat ildan

What to consider next?

Once you have decided on the integral structure of your eco home, it’s time to explore what else you want to do to make your home as eco-friendly as possible. Here are some of the current most popular trends for eco homes:

Renewable heating and cooking

Geothermal Heat pumps

Geothermal energy is emerging as a highly popular sustainable energy source. Geothermal pumps are able to pull heat up from the ground. These pumps operate a heat exchange underground, helping to maintain a pleasant temperature in your home, both in winter and in summer. These systems will cost a little more to install than traditional electric, oil or gas central heating system, but they will save you a lot in terms of both money and energy in the long run.  

Solar hot water heater

A solar hot water heater harvests the sun’s heat in order to provide you with hot water for baths and showers, washing up and laundry. With a solar heated water system, your hot water will stay in a specially insulated tank, ready to use whenever you need it. As with the geothermal pumps, these will likely have a higher initial cost, but will help you to save money long-term as you will avoid unnecessary energy consumption. To learn more, check out our guide on solar energy and how to get started.

Home biodigester

An innovative sustainable cooking solution that produces cooking gas from organic waste. The system feeds off an assortment of trash from your cooking scraps to your pet’s poop! This matter is processed by the home biodigester and transformed into cooking gas for your kitchen. Not only will you capture methane that would have otherwise been released into the atmosphere, but you also receive rich fertilizer as a by-product of the process. Surely, an excellent addition to an eco home is to invest in a home biodigester and cook cleanly. Find more details on how this system works, its benefits and price in our Home Biodigester guide.

A solar panel on a thatched roof. A true eco home will harness the sun's energy for all your daily needs.
Tap into the sun's energy to power up your hot taps

Green insulation solutions

Energy-saving windows

Triple glazed windows are a must have for eco homes today, as they help to provide optimal insulation for your home. By choosing low emissivity glass and wooden frames, which have the lowest environmental impact (out of PVC, aluminium and steel), you will also be reducing your carbon footprint.

Green roofs

Green roofs, otherwise known as living roofs, are a fantastic way to add some additional energy efficiency to your home. They help to keep houses warm in winter (by providing an additional later of insulation) and cool in summer (by absorbing UV rays). The plants will also absorb rainwater, preventing leaks and water damage. They will even help to purify your home from pollution by absorbing C02. Head over to our guide on Home Insulation to find out more about energy efficient homes.

A house with a grass roof faces a lake. Green roofs, an excellent addition to an eco home, insulate and prevent water damage.
Green roofs bring your eco build to life providing some wildlife with a safe haven

Managing consumption

Programmable thermostats

By using a thermostat which you can program in advance, you could save yourself a lot of money while also making your home a more pleasant environment. By programming your thermostat in advance, based on your habits on each day of the week, you will avoid energy mistakes such as heating up an empty house.

Smart power strips

These strips work by cutting the power to appliances which are on standby. This is useful in that it means you do not have to unplug all of your devices after use, but can simply use a remote control to prevent the energy leakage which would otherwise take place.

Dual flush toilets

While the extreme of environmentally friendly toilets – the composting toilet – is not to everyone’s taste, there are ways in which you can make your toilet more environmental. Traditional toilets use huge quantities of water for each flush, often an unnecessary amount. Dual flush toilets offer you a small flush option which can use less than half the water.

A programmable thermostat set to 63 degrees Fahrenheit.  Programmable thermostats, an essential for every eco house, help prevent energy loss by managing your usage to suit your needs.
Be smart and invest in a programmable thermostat for your eco home

A sustainable home must be a liveable home

In order to be a truly sustainable home, your eco house has got to be suited to your needs – it has to be liveable.

To make sure that your eco house is going to be fit for purpose, here are some important things to ask yourself:

  • Is the structure suited to the landscape and climate in this area?
  • Is the house going to be suitable for all seasons and weather conditions?
  • Have I met the necessary housing regulations?
  • Have I made the most of the space (e.g. will the living areas face the sun and thereby make the most of the natural light and heat from the sun)?
  • Is there scope to make it fit a zero-carbon lifestyle (for example, is there space to grow food and keep a bicycle)?

Finally, it is also important to consider other people around you when constructing your eco home. Your building will be part of the wider context in your community, so it is important to consider this when you are making your plans.

Want to find out how your current habits at home affect your carbon footprint? Use our Carbon footprint calculator to discover your personal impact and get recommendations.

A house with a grass roof faces a mountain range. Eco houses, like nature, adapt to their environment.
Safety Hand

Building an Eco home

Eco homes massively reduce your expenses on electricity, heating and water.
Look into shipping containers if you have a limited budget.
Make use of natural insulators like cob.
Choose cob and it will clean your air of condensation.
Weigh up the initial costs of geothermal energy against the long term savings.
Go for a Green roof that will insulate, prevent leaks and purify the air.
Manage your energy consumption efficiently with programmable thermostats and smart power strips.
Read more about energy efficient homes in our Home Insulation guide.
Install dual flush toilets and save water with every flush.

Sources & further reading

Peer Reviewed Research Section
  1. What's the carbon footprint of ... building a house - The GuardianExternal link
  2. Why Shipping Container Homes Are An Eco-Living Dream - Green FutureExternal link

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