Sustainable design

How growing trees can help avert climate change


While many farmers are opting to install more equipment that use less power, not enough are growing trees as a way to create sustainability.

This may be because traditionally, broad-acre farming, and even small crop growing, requires a certain expanse of acreage without any trees. However, farming isn’t always about planting crops. Graziers who grow cattle, sheep, horses or any other animals realise the necessity of growing trees on their farms.

These benefits of trees are they:

  • Provide essential shade for animals when the temperatures soar.
  • Give birds and insects a place to rest and breed
  • Provide food for native birds, insects and animals
  • Release oxygen as a by-product of their photosynthesis
  • Absorb carbon dioxide
  • Have roots that help to hold soil in place and prevent erosion
  • Can form a windbreak to shelter farm animals from cold wind in the winter
  • Provide valuable timber for building, fuel and crafts
  • Replace nitrogen in poor soils in some countries, such as Africa

So what happened to all the trees?

When Australia was first settled and for many years afterwards, trees were plentiful. However, they were cut down in order to grow food and for space to build homes. Logging was also a major source of income for many people, as it was hard work and slow without the use of mechanical aids.

Once chainsaws and bulldozers were invented trees could be cut down much faster, so they were. In the last 60 years it’s been estimated more trees have been cut down than ever before in Australia, especially along the coastal regions. It’s not only human intervention that has decimated the tree population; trees are also lost from bushfires that are often caused by lightning. They can also be lost due to floods or disease. If a region is left almost treeless, the surviving trees are often wiped out by the many insects that feed off them.

Tree loss linked to climate change and environmental damage

According to SinksWatch – a not-for-profit organisation that tracks and scrutinises carbon sequestration projects – tree loss has led to numerous problems. SinksWatch explores how tree loss contributes to climate change, soil erosion, the depletion of the ozone layer and loss of habitat for many native species: placing them in danger of extinction. Without the mulch provided by dead leaves and twigs that fall from trees, soil quality is poor and lacking in nitrogen. Tree loss has affected just about every country in the world. With the constant need for more food, they are still being cut down at a high rate.

Cutting down deeply rooted trees is also a major factor in causing secondary salinity of the soil, making it unsuitable for agriculture and even the grazing of stock in many areas.

What is being done to alleviate the problem

Many countries are now realising and addressing the problems caused by cutting down trees. In Australia, some farmers can obtain grants to help with replanting trees lost by bushfires or other disasters.

People in some developing nations in Africa are now being taught how to grow food using Fertiliser Tree Systems (FTS). This ensures that the soil is fertilised by the trees making the crops more bountiful. It also makes up for the loss of soil used up by the trees.

Volunteers that are interested in sustainability and climate change offer their time and efforts to help plant trees, which reduces the cost of replacement even further. Volunteers also help out in tree nurseries so there are plenty of small trees ready to plant at the right time.

How long will it take to fix things?

It’s going to take a long time to undo the damage already done; how long exactly it’s hard to know. We know that trees are a necessary part of life for humans and for the environment. Years ago, this wasn’t known; which is why so many trees were cut down without question in the first place.

As scientists find out even more about our environment – and how it’s essential to create a balance for every animal and human to survive – it’s hoped even more tree-planting projects will come into fruition. Other things, including an increase in solar power, wind power and hybrid vehicles, will also help reverse or at least minimise the effects of climate change.

How farmers are helping

Meanwhile, farmers continue their efforts to make their farms sustainable so ecosystems aren’t destroyed. Doing this also helps them cut costs, sometimes unexpectedly. For instance, fitting a variable speed drive to a vacuum pump in the dairy farm reduces the amount of both power and oil needed to run it, which in this case, saved over a thousand dollars a quarter.

As more people realise the financial and health benefits of trees, perhaps one day climate change will go into the history books as a disaster that was successfully averted.

Sustainable design

Prefab and modular homes reduce building costs


Prefab and modular homes are coming into their own as technology, new materials and design allow for faster and cheaper construction. And one advantage is that there are newer building materials available that have much better insulation properties than traditional building materials, meaning that the cost of running the new build will be lower.

Most people are familiar with the high cost of building. It’s traditionally been more expensive to build, than to buy a lived in home. Additionally, the cost of accommodation that is necessary as you wait for the new home to be built must also be taken into consideration. If that was not a factor, the costs of building vs. buying an older home align more closely. Then again, the type and size of the home you build or buy also has to be taken into account.

Going modular

The latest trend in money-saving new builds is going modular. A modular home is built at the factory in ‘modules’ of contained space. For example, the bedrooms may be contained in one module, while the living areas are in another.

These modules are transported to the building site, where they are easily joined together or connected by walkways, also known as breezeways. Many are constructed so owner-builders can do the do the work themselves, thus saving costs again. Because the modules are smaller than the home as a whole, they are easier to transport and put into place. Each module is finished; that is, it contains all the fixtures and fittings that the room or rooms need. Cupboards, built-in wardrobes and often appliances are all included where appropriate for the module.

Prefab homes were once considered the poor relation of the traditional homes erected by building industry tradesmen. They were accepted as being fine for a temporary home or a holiday home where the lifestyle is ultra casual, but not for a ‘real’ home. This idea has now changed, especially overseas, which over previous decades has continued to refine and improve the quality of low cost modular homes. In fact, million-dollar homes are designed and built on the factory floor in Germany, then taken to the building site where they are put together, sometimes in as few as three days.

The benefits of modular homes

  • Today’s modular homes can be custom designed by architects to suit specific locations. This means any block of land, even those with challenging geographical features, can be utilised for a modular home. Steep blocks can be built upon with little worry about getting the building into place. And because they require very little actual site construction, sensitive areas can have a home without disturbing the environment.
  • Better still, some of these homes can actually be dismantled within a few hours and taken to another location. So if you move, it’s possible to take your home with you! Such homes can be very affordable, or they can be a little more expensive, depending on your budget, location and required lifestyle.
  • Most modular homes make extensive use of green technology with passive heating and cooling – large windows and sliding doors oriented to the prevailing breeze. The frames are strong but light. The wall panels are of composite materials that have a higher thermal mass than timber and many other traditional building materials. This means that the insulation qualities are much higher, so your home is both warm in the winter and cool in the summer, requiring only minimal use of heating and cooling appliances.
  • Another benefit of modular homes (something you can appreciate if you’ve ever waited for a standard build!) is the speed at which they can be built in the factory and erected onsite.
  • Since nearly everything is done at the factory, quality controls can more easily be put into place, making the modular home one that fits together properly, as well as being top quality when finished.
  • The sizes of these homes are made to industry standards. This ensures there’s no wastage or off-cuts in materials – saving on materials, as well as pricing!

What are modular homes built from?

Most modular and prefab homes use aluminium frames, which are both light and strong.

One company builds the module walls from expanded polystyrene enclosed between manufactured wood cladding. Made from Australian plantation timber, the cladding is made of compressed 50% recycled timber and sawdust treated with magnesium oxide. The latter not only provides extra strength and durability, it also offers resistance to UV radiation, mildew, fire and water – making it an ideal medium to build a home. Once the home is up you would not know it from any other much more expensive home.

Other companies use polymers reinforced with glass fibres. Commonly used in the marine and aeronautical industries, this material has high durability and strength even in extreme conditions. It also has low maintenance needs and is very light. This makes sense when you consider planes and boats must be capable of withstanding the worst nature throws at them. A home built of the same materials is therefore sure to be strong and durable.

Ideal for remote locations

Modular homes are ideal for remote locations where it is difficult to get builders and other tradesmen to work, who may be required to camp onsite because of the distance. That may not be feasible and even if it is, can add a great deal to the cost of the home. Because the primary part of the modular home is already built, the main requirement is to transport and erect it at your location. A short time – compared to building it onsite – and ready to connect plumbing and electricity.

They are also eminently suitable for smaller suburban or even space-constrained city centre blocks. But while modular homes are popular for all these reasons, they don’t have to be small. This is the beauty of them. They can be enlarged at the beginning of the build, or later on, by adding more modules – always assuming it is proportional to the size of the block

Building a modular home is not only quick and convenient, it makes use of environmental benefits such as energy efficiency and sustainable living. This type of housing is now popular in many overseas countries and is becoming more so in Australia, as people begin to realise the many advantages.

Sustainable design

Ecocapsules off the grid


Ecocapsules allow off the grid living in comfort and convenience, with in-built solar power and wind power generation facilities.

Not everyone likes camping out due to the discomfort, hassle and plain inconvenience that is inherent in living in a tent, cooking over an open fire and having to pack and unpack every time you move. Ecocapsules may change their minds. These tiny homes away from home have everything you could need for comfort and convenience; a kitchenette, dining facilities, a shower, a toilet and a double bed. They even have room for storage.

Living off the grid

Better still, you can live off the grid due to built-in solar panels with a 2.6m2 power rating and a wind turbine that generates 750 watts and feeds a 4200 Wh battery bank.

The capsules have also been designed to catch and store rainwater which is then filtered so it’s suitable for human consumption. The grey water – from the shower and washing up – is recycled to flush the toilet in those models that don’t have a composting toilet.

Uses for the ecocapsule

These amazing capsules of technology allow people to live off the grid for up to a year. They weren’t originally made just for campers. In fact, they may be too expensive for that, seeing many people go camping as a way to take a cheap holiday. However, the capsule is so handy and even (dare we say it) cute, that many people may just want one for leisure and pleasure. They have many other uses though.

  • They can be used in remote locations for research facility accommodation to save building housing. Instant good accommodation means that essential research can go ahead without delay in waiting for accommodation.
  • They can be used for emergency housing, whether the emergency springs from a tornado, flood or other causes.
  • They can be used for a humanitarian action unit, offering clean and comfortable accommodation to those who need it.
  • Tourist lodge accommodation in eco-sensitive areas. Using this type of accommodation means there is no need to disturb wildlife or flora by taking electricity into the area. And no need for plumbing or other buildings to go up.

Where the ecocapsule can be used

The ecocapsule has been well-designed with insulated walls, making it suitable for use in very hot or very cold climates. It can be used in remote locations where there is no access to power, as it generates its own with the wind turbine and solar panels.

However, rainfall is needed to keep up the water supply, so perhaps in the middle of the desert would not be the best place to live in it. With that being said, the latest water-saving and recycling techniques have been put into place. The units now use a composting toilet instead of the flushing one. Nice architects based in Bratislava are still looking for another solution since composting toilets do have a few disadvantages.

This miniature caravan look-alike that is full of modern technology can sit on top of a high-rise building just as comfortably as on the top of a mountain, or on the beach. It can be installed in the jungle, by a river or on the side of a road, in a park or on private property. This ecocapsule can be used just about anywhere accommodation is required. Speaking of eco-technology, passive cooling is also used by having a window that opens in each side so the breezes can waft through, right across the double bed.

Just how big is an ecocapsule?

It looks tiny, but that is partly due to the design.  In fact, it offers 8 square metres of living space, with half of the double bed folding to create a walkway, or a place to sit at the table. There is storage at each end, with one being accessible from outside. Even more storage space is utilised by the netting shelf above the bed, ideal for clothing and bedding. Windows and the door lift up, also saving room, just in case space at its destination is at a premium.

So how does it get to its destination?

The ecocapsules will fit into a container for shipping, should they need to be deployed overseas, or they can be towed in a trailer to their destination. As yet, there are none with wheels that can be towed like a caravan, but these are in the planning stages. The addition of wheels is sure to increase their applications as they can then be towed behind the family car. It may be just the thing to fit into a tiny, suburban backyard when Nan and Pop visit the kids for the holidays if they don’t have a spare room available. With everything you could possibly need for a nice, long stay, why waste money booking into holiday accommodation? All you will need is sun, wind and water to manage very nicely in this tiny home for two.

Sustainable design

Inspirational Green Homes

French Pop-Up House
French Pop-Up House

Energy permeates every aspect of our life at home. It’s there at a flick of a switch and it’s something we can easily take for granted.

Yet, we’re all becoming increasingly aware of how we can use energy wisely to help make a difference – to bring down our own costs, as well as to tread more lightly on our land.

It can start through small changes, such as choosing renewable energy – instead of fossil fuels – and replacing expensive halogen lighting with LED lighting.

And we can change the way we think about energy in our homes. Passive, active and present – a sustainable lifestyle can be adapted, as well as created. Innovative design principles and examples are being tested, tried and proven. Some are barely commercialised yet they are the spark igniting our imagination, propelling us towards more sustainable lifestyles.

Habitat will showcase some of these examples here, as well as surface exciting – and practical – new design elements as they emerge.

Self-sustained homes – saving money and the environment

All over the world, families are building self-sustained homes which not only produce enough energy, but have more than they actually need.

These structures are, essentially, power plants in their own right, with the ability to put energy back into the local electrical grid and get paid for it. And while some are high-end designs, there is also a renewed focus on how we do green design more cheaply.

Norway’s energy producing house

Norway is pushing beyond net-zero-energy buildings – which create roughly as much as power as they use in a year – with a new ‘plus’ type building that creates twice as much energy as it needs and uses.

Built for the Research Centre on Zero Emission Buildings (ZEB) the house combines clever design and technology to become a mini-generator. Gains through passive design – using thermally efficient materials and positioning the building to maximise solar gain, while reducing overheating in winter – are amplified using new technology that tracks and improves energy usage.

It’s no secret – lessons for the average build

The main secret of this energy ‘plus’ efficient building is the careful planning and calculation.

One relatively easy step you can take is ensuring the roof is built for optimal sun absorption. Also, the house shape should encourage cross-ventilation, including allowing for a natural updraught to let air out of the building.

France’s Pop-Up House

Another example of a prototype house that produces zero electricity bills – yet is inexpensive to build and maintain – is the Pop-Up House, in France.

It’s exactly as it sounds: a house built in as little as four days, with the help of a screwdriver and nothing more.

This prefabricated house – built by French architectural firm Multipod Studio – is lightweight and recyclable, as well promising to be inexpensive and extremely efficient to run. The below prototype – which at the time of writing cost €30,000 – was being revised in preparation for going on the market. Remarkably, the home requires no heating, due to the way it is insulated and is in accordance with the Passivehaus standard of energy.

Sustainable design

The Slip House – an inspiring water efficient green home

Slip House3
Slip House2

Water is one resource not lacking in the United Kingdom. So it’s perhaps a little surprising UK designers have effectively incorporated water efficiency into a pre-fabricated design.

The Slip House was built in London. To support its green and water efficient design, it features a tank collecting rainwater, mechanically-ensured ventilation, solar panels, flawless insulation and triple glazing. Described as a prototype for sustainable family living in the UK, not only does it function in a sustainable way, but it is also fits in a tight space, between two other houses – hence, the name ‘Slip’ house.

Read more about the Slip House.

Sustainable design

What you can learn from design innovation


Until we reach the point where we can live in especially-built ‘green’ houses, there are things you can do to make your own home cheaper to run, as well as a bit less harsh on the environment.

  • Maximise natural light use. Generally, we consume significantly more electricity than we really have to and that is partially because of our excessive need for artificial lighting. Maximise the use of natural light by putting in large windows (including sky lights!). Team them with rubber-backed curtains and this will help you cut back on the electricity you use and the money you spend for both heating and cooling, as well as lighting. Natural lighting and fresh air is also healthier for you.
  • Use solar panels. Installing solar panels may be the best thing you ever do for your home. You will be amazed at how much energy you can produce this way and how cheaply you can run your house. Remember, solar panels still work on cloudy and cool days. While it’s all about using what we are already getting for free, and Australia is blessed with a lot of sunshine, you need to consider whether it’s a sensible longer-term investment for you.
  • Take advantage of wind power. You can easily produce free energy in your own home using wind-generated power. Once the cost of installation is taken into account, the cost of using a wind turbine is minimal. Take into account things like insurance and maintenance to get a true picture of the costs. You only need a small one in order to cover all of your electrical needs in a way that is cheap, efficient and clean. However, you also need to have plenty of wind in your area that is not turbulent.
  • Switch to LED light bulbs – This is such a small change that is quick and easy to put into practice, but it can make an enormous difference to the amount you spend. Not only do LED – or Light Emitting Diode – bulbs consume less energy, but they burn for longer as well. The energy consumption estimates provided by Sustainability Victoria show that significant savings can be enjoyed by replacing old-style incandescent bulbs with more energy efficient Compact Fluorescent Lamps (CFLs) and LED bulbs.
  • Insulate your home – Heating and cooling makes up a significant amount of the energy bills of many households, so it makes sense to try and cut back in this area. The one thing all sustainable homes have in common is exceptional insulation. A well-insulated home means you might not need air conditioning and heating at all. The Australian Government agrees that home insulation can be cost-effective and help you save up to 40% in heating and cooling bills.
  • Surround yourself with plants – This puts the ‘green’ in a green lifestyle. Planting a garden – whether it’s a vegetable or a flower garden – increases the amount of oxygen produced and reduces the carbon footprint of your house. You can even have plants inside your home, which will help keep it nice and cool, cutting back on the need for air conditioning. Just make sure you place them in front of a window, so they can get the light and the warmth they require. In addition, if you want to save even more money, make that garden a vegetable one. By planting your own food, you can ensure that you are eating clean and organic, and you also minimise expenses.

As you can see, having a sustainable lifestyle and home is not only good for the environment; it can also save you significant amounts of money.

Creating a sustainable home for you and your family is not difficult; it just requires some planning and outside-the-box thinking. With a little effort and the right tools, anyone can cut back on electricity, fuel and water consumption and costs, achieving an inexpensive and clean lifestyle that limits the impact on the environment.

Sustainable design

Off-the-grid, sustainable home built from recycled materials


Earthships – custom-built, off-the-grid, radically sustainable homes built from recycled materials – are blasting off around the planet. Now one has landed in Australia.

Earthships – custom-built, off-the-grid, radically sustainable homes built from recycled materials – are blasting off around the planet. Now one has landed in Australia.

Conceived in the early 1970s by architect Michael Reynolds of Taos, New Mexico, Earthships have since landed in every state of the US and nearly 20 countries on five continents. Thanks to Martin Freney, a lecturer in industrial design at the University of South Australia, Australia’s first Earthship has now touched down at Ironbank in rural South Australia.

A 30-minute drive from Adelaide, the Earthship Ironbank is built from earth-filled tyres, bottles and straw bales, uses solar power, rainwater, recycled greywater and recycled sewage and runs completely off the grid. The dwelling, completed in early 2015, was built to accommodate two people, took five years to build, is council-approved and was constructed almost entirely by volunteers.

“Earthship Ironbank will be a bed and breakfast open to anyone who wants to experience Earthships,” says Freney, “and it will be a test site where I can continue my Earthship research.

“Earthships are made only from natural and recycled materials and draw nothing from local water or power sources. They require no conventional heating or cooling but are comfortable in any weather. It’s a wonderful solution to many of our modern problems.”

Though each Earthship is highly individual due to the different materials used in their construction – and many are highly creative in their design – there are six principles that make an Earthship function like a living, breathing building that do not vary:

  1. Electricity from wind and/or solar power.
  2. Water catchment from rain or snow.
  3. Heating and cooling achieved using a combination of solar gain (warmth from the sun), thermal mass (building materials that store the sun’s warmth) and convection (air flow for warming and cooling).
  4. Grey water recycling and sewage treatment.
  5. Food production indoors in an internal greenhouse and outside.
  6. Construction using only natural and recycled materials.

Earthship Ironbank includes all the features you would expect in a standard home, plus additions such as a hot tub and walk-in wardrobe concealed behind a mud wall inset with recycled bottles. Filtered greywater from the sink, shower and bath is used to flush the toilets and irrigate food-producing plants in the internal greenhouse. Rainwater, collected off the roof, provides drinking water, and sewage water flows into a septic tank for filtering and later use for watering the gardens.

Electricity is produced by solar panels and stored in batteries. Photovoltaic panels convert the sun’s energy into DC current electricity which is stored in “golf-cart” type batteries. An Earthship Power Organizing Module (available pre-packaged from Earthship Biotecture) draws electricity from the batteries, inverts some of it for AC electricity and supplies it to the home. Freney, however, says very little electricity is required as the tyre and earth walls provide thermal mass that soaks up heat during the day and radiates it at night during winter, while in summer the orientation of the building provides protection from direct sunlight, and cross-ventilation allows cooling breezes for natural air-conditioning. Heat generated in the north-facing greenhouse is also released through top opening vents, while cool air is pulled in through tubes buried beneath the structure.

Freney points out that a wood-fired combustion heater has been included in the living area, not for any functional need for additional warmth but purely as a romantic touch.

Earthship founder Michael Reynolds’ company, Earthship Biotecture, encourages people around the world to learn how to build sustainable housing on their own and also completes several relief projects every year in poorer countries hit by natural disasters.

As a young architect, Reynolds felt that modern homes failed to meet the basic needs of their occupants and, in the early 1970s, he began using old tyres as a construction material and forming ‘bricks’ from recycled cans by pounding used cans into moulds. Reynolds’ dream was for others to be able to build their own home, without using expensive materials, having all the conveniences of a modern home without any reliance on local infrastructure.

Power Organising Modules (POMs) and Water Organising Modules (WOMs) as used in Earthship Ironbank, designs, structural drawings and more can be ordered from the Earthship Biotecture site.

Owners of Earthships report they have little or no mortgage payments to worry about; no electricity or gas bills or water rates to pay; the pleasure and health benefits of having their own supply of fresh fruits and vegetables year round; and a less stressful life overall.

Taking a look at many of the amazing Earthships already built, many of these people are also privileged to live in unique and extraordinarily beautiful homes that will last well into the future with little or no negative impact on the environment.