A Formula One racing car may seem an odd choice for the headline image of an article about sustainable houses (especially as it includes sponsorship by an oil company) but this is one of the most instantly recognisable visuals for a product that operates at the highest levels of performance. And what makes an ecohouse “eco” is how it performs.
The importance of performance over visuals was a key part of the strategy by architects Robert and Brenda Vale for their own house in Nottingham, England, the Autonomous House. In their book “The New Autonomous House” they state:
“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.”
Performance relies on two aspects of any product: how it is made and how it is managed. The image of an F1 in the pits conveys this perfectly: engineering a high performance vehicle is just the start, it takes the driver and a team of support crew and equipment to optimise its performance.
So how does that apply to an ecohouse?
How an ecohouse is Made
To optimise the environmental performance of an ecohouse, sustainability must be the priority from the outset. This ensures sustainability features are fully integrated to the design and build process, not extra layers added at the end. This means designing for high levels of energy efficiency, including appropriate renewable energy and water technologies, and specifying materials that are low in embodied carbon and meet circular economy criteria, to ensure high Indoor Environment Quality (IEQ).
But this is where the analogy to a racing car falls down: an F1 is, quite literally, based on rocket science, an ecohouse is not. An ecohouse built today using readily available materials, proven technologies, and standard construction methods, can deliver energy efficiency and IEQ at the highest levels. Whilst the latest high-tech equipment can help it isn’t essential, and we absolutely do not need to wait for a magic bullet.
How an ecohouse is Managed
So what about the driver and the pit crew? I don’t want to make it sound like living in an ecohouse will require a huge amount of commitment and effort compared to a standard house, it won’t. Most of the systems will need no more maintenance than current items, such as gas boilers. But in order to optimise performance it does require the residents to be more aware of the impact of their actions.
To manage energy consumption, you might need to set your washing machine or dishwasher to have a delayed start. To avoid overheating, blinds or shutters might need to be closed on a hot summer day. If you have an MHRV system (Mechanical Heat Recovery System) you have to remember not to fling all the doors and windows open all the time.
One of the biggest issues for IEQ which is totally in the hands of the resident is the cleaning products and toiletries that we use. Many contain synthetic chemicals which will release toxins into the air we breathe and the water we flush down the drains, so the use of natural-based products can significantly reduce that environmental load.
Performance versus Bling
There is another slightly cheeky reason for using the F1 image: as much as we might like to believe we will not be swayed by what an eco-friendly product looks like, marketing research tells us that we do all like a bit of “bling” of one form or another, and the point is we can have it. To use another overused pun, we can have our cake and eat it too.
Because achieving high levels of environmental performance does not depend on aesthetics, the aesthetics are up for grabs. If you want your ecohouse to look “au naturel” that’s fine, but so too is giving it the powerful and dynamic aesthetic of a Formula One racing car.