5 Eco-Home Development Projects That Are Shaping the Future of Sustainable Design (Video)

With the ongoing threats of climate change and resource depletion, architects and designers are increasingly focusing on sustainable, eco-friendly strategies, from using recycled building materials and solar energy to including permaculture gardening and composting solutions in their projects.


In the United States, sustainable building design is of critical importance. According to John Quale, an assistant professor at the University of Virginia School of Architecture, the nation generates and uses more energy than any other, with more than half used in the construction or operation of buildings.

"Sustainability can't be like some sort of a moral sacrifice or political dilemma or a philanthropical cause," Danish architect Bjarke Ingels said in a 2012 interview. "It has to be a design challenge."

Around the globe, several eco-home development projects are meeting that challenge, employing cutting-edge innovative solutions, some of which fuse social justice within the framework of sustainable development. While these projects have been successful, there remain fundamental challenges in the area of sustainable housing.

"One issue limiting the development of sustainable housing is the lack of consensus over its definition," writes David A. Turcotte, senior program manager at the Center for Family, Work and Community at the University of Massachusetts Lowell. "Disagreement exists over whether the number-one priority should be preserving the environment or meeting the needs of people."

The five visionary eco-home development projects below do both, helping to solve problems on a local level while shaping the future of sustainable design.

1. New Jerusalem Orphanage

This forward-looking orphanage in South Africa houses 40 children in a contemporary residential facility built from recycled shipping containers. Half of the children at the orphanage were relocated from crowded conditions into spacious and colorful accommodations. Established by Anna and Phina Mojapelo, with help from volunteers, the government and donations from private and corporate sponsors, the orphanage has welcomed more than 1,000 kids since 2000, ranging in age from infants to 18 years old. New Jerusalem, an agricultural smallholding in Midrand, part of the Johannesburg metropolitan municipality, was set up within a framework of sustainability. Any new construction must meet eco-friendly standards, including strategies to recycle and reuse materials, as well as minimize the carbon footprint. A large permaculture garden provides vegetables for the complex. New Jerusalem's eco-friendly philosophy harmonizes with its goal of providing holistic development for the children in its care.

2. Torri Superiore Ecovillaggio

Located just a few miles from the Mediterranean, an abandoned medieval village that had existed in the foothills of the Ligurian Alps in Italy since the 13th century had fallen into ruins. Thanks to a group of ecologically minded residents who view the village as their collective recycling project, it has been almost completely restored, with every family having a private home and a kitchen. 

Joined by volunteers from around the world, they have used natural materials, bio-architecture principles and eco-friendly restoration work to create homes and food for their newly revitalized community. In addition, they have created jobs by opening the parts of the village to eco-tourism, educational tours and courses about restoration and ecology. The residents' main goal is to succesfully transition to a post-petroleum world, so they have launched a series of environmental initiatives such as a solar cooker, an electricity-free hydraulic ram water pump, a composting toilet, and a reed bed, an aquatic plant-based system that allows bacteria, fungi and algae to digest sewage to clean greywater. The 20 permanent residents also oversee the small-scale production of olive oil, beekeeping, organic gardening for fruits and vegetables, and housing and care for chickens and donkeys.

3. ModCell Straw Technology

ModCell is an insulation technology using straw bale to create prefabricated panels used in constructing carbon-negative building projects. Locally sourced and sustainable, the materials allow the construction of high-performance buildings, including schools, offices, commercial buildings and housing projects, that are super-insulated and have low energy requirements. ModCell buildings, which are air-tight and have zero heat requirements, have thermal performance ratings three times that of current regulations for buildings. The company recently completed the Yeotown Eco-lodges, a health retreat located in North Devon, United Kingdom, about 15 minutes from the Atlantic coast. Yeotown uses the ModCell straw technology combined with natural stone and timber to complement the rugged surrounding countryside.

4. Hockerton Housing Project

The Hockerton Housing Project in Nottinghamshire, England, began in 1993 with the goal of building houses sheltered by the earth on a property of 25 acres located near the village of Hockerton. The focus was to create a development that was sustainable, had minimal environmental impact and consumed little energy.

By employing super-insulated single-skin concrete walls, the homes needs no heating system and are kept cool in the summer. They consume up to 25 percent less energy than a typical home, and the energy they do use is supplemented by renewable sources. The Hockerton community owns and maintains a wind turbine, and shares seven solar arrays, both of which help to offset carbon emissions.

The members share collective billing and purchasing so they can monitor energy use and work together to improve it. The homes share a large capacity heat store and heat exchanger. The community harvests and treats rainwater using three distinct purification levels: untreated water for irrigating plants; non-potable, medium treated water for washing, bathing and flushing toilets; and potable, highly treated water for drinking and preparing food. Hockerton also uses a floating reed bed for wastewater treatment, a natural process that takes about three months for wastewater to pass through the purification system.

The unique co-housing method provides each Hockerton family with a house they own privately and a private garden. They share the energy and water systems, buy food as a group and share their skills to make the entire project work smoothly and continue to be cost-efficient. Their collaborative approach to living requires 300 hours of adult community service annually, but their community allows and supports co-operative business and social entrepreneurship, which benefits the community as a whole.

5. Camphill Community Clanabogan

Camphill Community Clanabogan in Northern Ireland is located on a 70-acre site about four miles from Omagh in the countryside of County Tyrone. Founded in 1984 on the principles of architect and social reformer Rudolf Steiner, Camphill has created a shared living community for adults with learning disabilities, co-workers and their families. With more than 80 people in six main households, Camphill offers a variety of therapeutic sessions, including eurythmics and riding lessons. The community provides a work life that focuses on sustainable agriculture, horticulture and crafts. Residents grow vegetables for daily meals, weave Irish tweeds and cotton fabrics, create sculptures out of found wood, bake bread for their meals and to sell to the public, make hand-dipped candles, and dry herbs to make tea, oils and kitchen herb blends. 

Renewable energy projects at Camphill teach residents about the seasons and the environment. The community has worked with biodynamic agriculture to create pathways and access roads linking purpose-built houses within the context of the natural habitat. An aquatic wastewater and sewage treatment system was built on the property to effectively sanitize and provide an efficient method for returning treated waste to the natural environment. The site uses a biomass woodchip heating system, a 20kw wind turbine for generating electricity, a ground source heat pump that extends the growing season inside a poly-tunnel, solar water heating, and a photovoltaic array to generate electricity while displacing the grid.

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