This article was first published on Blogger in 2014.

Autonomous house is a generic term, referring to a building that functions entirely on the resources it can draw from its immediate site and which is not connected to any mains services (electricity, gas, water and sewerage). Many autonomous houses have been imagined as part of a Utopian vision, and some have been built as practical examples. The most well-known built example is probably The Autonomous House built by Robert and Brenda Vale in Southwell, Nottinghamshire, in 1993. I have leafed through their book of the same name many times and feel I know the house as if I had lived in it, but when I first heard about it, at a lecture given by Robert Vale at the RAIA in Sydney in the mid 90’s, I knew nothing about it.

I shall always remember the start of that lecture. This was in the days of slides (as opposed to PowerPoint presentations) and the lecture hall at Tusculum was darkened so that the slides took all ones visual focus. Robert must have talked for at least 5 minutes without changing the opening slide: a house that looked like the “spaceship-has-landed” stereotype of a modern eco-house, all shiny metals and bristling with technology. I cannot now remember exactly what building it was, but it was something like The Autonomous Dwelling designed by Michael Jantzen in 1979.

I had, of course, assumed this was the Vale’s Autonomous House. It was only when Robert turned to look at the screen himself and said “oh, by the way, that’s not my house”, and flicked to the next slide, that I realised we had all been tricked. For that next image looked nothing like the stereotype, but rather like an old and fairly ordinary house, more likely to be the subject of a heritage conservation lecture.

Robert’s point was simple: the idea of an autonomous house was challenging enough for the public, and there was no point to also challenge them aesthetically, which would risk putting them off the idea all together. This worked on multiple levels. The site was within an area designated as a heritage conservation zone, with surrounding buildings dating back to Medieval times, and the planning approval process was much more likely to run smoothly for a building which was sympathetic to its neighbours in terms of materials, form and orientation. The Vales note “a deliberate effort was made to design a house that would look a natural part of its setting. If a radical proposal is made to change the way that houses are serviced, it is perhaps too much to demand that people should also have to change their expectation of what a house should look like… Had the house been very unconventional in appearance, it might have elicited a response that the idea was interesting, but that the technology was clearly not for the ordinary householder.” The imperative for the Vales was to sell the idea of sustainability, not a specific building type.

Hence, the design is very carefully fitted into the context of the site, and could in fact be used as a case study for a heritage conservation lecture on designing for urban infill. Walls are of red brick, the steeply pitched roof of terracotta tiles, windows are timber and multi-paned, and there is a simple timber porch to the street. But within this pseudo-historic envelope is every piece of active and passive technology necessary to support the demands of modern life completely self sufficiently: rainwater tanks, composting toilets, heat recovery ventilation, and solar panels feeding a battery bank.

The solar panels provide a particularly clever example of how to deal with the practicalities of designing an eco-house. The orientation of the house, determined to be the most appropriate within the streetscape, meant that there were no south-facing roof planes to take solar panels. So, instead, these were mounted on a pergola in the garden, which meant they could be orientated and angled precisely to optimise output, whilst also providing an attractive garden structure.

The key point here is that, even though the Southwell house was a bespoke design very specific to its site, the underlying objective was always to demonstrate that sustainable buildings could be accepted by the mass market. The Vales note that “throughout the project, it was realised that design alone without the potential for, or the probability of, transfer to the marketplace, would be meaningless. The sustainable house must be recognised as a marketable product by house builders and as an affordable and desirable home by consumers.”

In order to have any real impact on the sustainability of our society, whether at a local, national or global level, and all its associated impacts on climate change etc, we should be building every new house to this standard, not just the occasional one, and this comes down to market forces. The Vales quote a Canadian government housing programme on this theme, which states “greater consumer demand is necessary to achieve the potential energy savings related to a particular product by reducing per unit costs and pay back periods through economies of scale.” 

In order to meet our carbon reduction targets we need to take some big steps, not just tweak the edges, and the ideas behind the Vale’s Autonomous House represent just such steps.

I won’t write more here about the house itself, but thoroughly recommend the book. This was originally published in 1975 before the actual house was even anticipated, and revised in 2000 under the title The NEW Autonomous House to include details of the completed building. It includes both dry factual data and inspiring background research.

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