Imagine no household bills forever. Well that’s the reality couple Daren and Adrianne created with their eco house in the picturesque countryside of Brittany, France. For the price of a terrace in Stockport they designed and hand built Groundhouse, with the help of friends, volunteers and local craftsmen it was completed in 2006. For those of you who watch Grand Designs, it was the house made of tyres and in the words of Kevin McCloud, Groundhouse is ‘ecologically sensitive and treads lightly on the planet’. Daren’s reasons for wanting to build the house are cited as being the fact that ‘people have lost touch with providing shelter for themselves. Property has become a commodity for someone else’s profit with little concern for working with nature to reduce impact and living costs’. He also says that in the UK the concentration of land is owned by the few which drives prices up, citing this as the main reason for building in France.
The building technique Daren and Adrianne used is based on renegade architect Michael Reynolds’ Earthship principle, which produces homes built by using recycled materials that generate their own heating, collect water for drinking and washing and most importantly, allow people to take care of themselves. My own fascination with these buildings began after watching the a documentary about Reynolds called Garbage Warrior, which shows his development as an eco architect and environmentalist, and his battle with the political system to create buildings that look after people and have no connection to the national power/water grid.
As my surprise 30th birthday present, my partner and 4 friends rented the Groundhouse Eco Gite for a week. This is the inspiration behind this article. As well as offering an overview of the eco gite experience, I have spoken to the builders themselves to give you a breakdown of what eco houses are about.
An excited five year old is the only way a can describe how I felt anticipating this trip. I have always fanaticised about living in an Earthship one day and for a week this was to become a reality. Unfortunately with time constraints we had to take a short flight from Stansted to Dinard then took a 2 hour drive to the house near the small town of Mellionnec. It was dark on our arrival but stepping out of the car and collecting the key in a stashed in a secret safe in a tree was just the beginning of this mesmerising trip.
It’s as if you can feel all the love and hard work that was poured into this project upon entering the house, and you immediately get a sense of calm and warmth from the building. It was a bitterly cold evening but without any heating the building was quite warm even with the window vents open. As you enter the bi-fold doors which run the entire south face of the building you’re in the kitchen which was the place we spent most of our time cooking, reading and chatting around the large oak table. The kitchen combines modern efficiency with salvaged oak work surfaces and is equipped with a stainless steel cooker, double butler sink and designer eco lighting. This is connected to the large ‘roundroom’, which is great for yoga, meditation and just hanging out and playing Carrom (an Indian board game). Not a TV anywhere in sight. The roundroom is six metres across with a vaulted ceiling rising up to an open skylight in the centre of the peak, lazy sofas and comfy rugs are situated around a wood stove making this feel like the heart of the house.
All the bedrooms have a very natural feel with lovely big double beds, subtle furnishings and lime cob walls with recycled glass inlays. As it was my birthday I was lucky enough to have the large room with the four poster bed. All the rooms apart from the bathroom have bi-fold external doors bringing streams of natural light in. They open on to the front garden area so you can lie in bed with the curtains open looking out at rolling countryside without any worries apart from what to have for breakfast. The flooring varies throughout the building with buffed York stone and fossilised limestone that was unveiled in the excavation process used alongside earth cement. However the floor in the roundroom has wood incorporated into a sun design into the centre of the flooring which is of great architectural merit.
Using reclaimed and recycled products was of major importance for Daren and Adi in the build and this belief is continued into the furnishings. Glass bottles have been used to allow interesting, stain-glass window effect light to flow into rooms. Driftwood has been salvaged and used for the bath surrounds and the kitchen. The building is very light and airy with no straight lines or flat walls so the building is very calming. For me the bathroom is the most fascinating space. This is situated to the back of the house with only a small amount of natural light coming in from the south facing windows breaking through the bottled wall which divides the bathroom from the kitchen space. Natural light and ventilation is provided by a sky light. The magnificent bath is large luxury stone resin that is cleverly made with airspace that keep helps the water warm for hours. This is complemented by the dual shower mounted above. The sink is a solid piece of granite on salvaged oak. The biggest talking point in our group was the state-of-the-art Swedish dry toilet which ensures no pollution leaves the Groundhouse. Daunting at first with two holes to aim for with one taking the grey water to the reed beds in the garden and as gardeners will know, that is liquid gold for the plants! The other hole is opened like a trap door from the pressure of you sitting on the seat and collects the rest and has to be emptied when full. This is done by tying the compostable bag from inside the toilet and taking it to the compost bins at the back of the garden, a bit smelly up there and I was designated this job with groans of ‘gross’ and ‘yuk’. But I understood the bigger picture, and as Daren says, ‘why should we waste good drinking water just to get that stuff out of the house’?
The main structural wall is situated at the back of the house made of tyres pounded with the excavated earth. Daren said “they [the tyres] are the bricks of this house and provided the thermal mass by storing the heat from the daytime sun and gathering heat from the earth the house is built into. They then release this heat during the night and in the winter like a battery”. Tyres are one of the most energy-intensive products we consume and are very difficult to dispose of. So using 1000’s in the building of thermal mass walls seems a great way to recycle them. All of the electricity for the house is created via the 14 solar panels on the roof and a hi-tech design of silicon rubber tubes under glass tiles runs along the front of the roof are there to heat water. All of the water needed for the house is collected from the roof and stored in two huge tanks dug into the earth at the back of the building. This water then passes through a filter system to become drinking water and washing water.
With enough food you could easily spend a whole week just lazing about the place, exploring the 5 acre woodland, playing on the numerous rope swings, enjoying night time socials around self-built fires and taking gentle walks to two very sleepy nearby towns. We were a bit more adventurous than this taking a 30 min cycle to Rostrenen’s Farmers Market, stocking up on local delicacies and wandering around the many shops, cafes and bars. The Brest-Nantes Canal is also very close by and we took a lovely stroll along it connecting with nature and getting some much needed exercise after consuming all of that French cheese! We also took a day outing to the lake at Foret de Quenecan followed by a visit to the Abbey of Bon Repos which has some great historical tales. For those wanting a day at the beach the closest is a 45min drive but for the effort I would recommend La plage de la palue on the west coast about a 1hour 45min drive. The shoreline is around 2 miles long with many secluded bays and caves to explore, but make sure not to leave early as the sunset there is spectacular, unmissable.
After our week of sleeping in, drinking French wine, playing our own version of Come Dine with Me and over-indulgent relaxation; the general consensus was we would all love to visit again, maybe as a group but definitely when we have our own families. So if you are a group of friends or an open-minded family I would whole-heartedly recommend a visit to this eco chic gite.
As the owners themselves say providing shelter is a basic human need and we are very disconnected from this process. The Groundhouse is aligned with nature in all three aspect: Architecture, Systems and Materials and as Daren says, “most old house are badly made, very inefficient and cost far more than it costs to build something like Groundhouse”. Architect and environmentalist Reynolds feels, “we have corralled ourselves with laws and codes, written to protect us but they are also keeping us from evolving at the pace necessary to keep up with global change and population explosion”. The fact is that it took three years to pass a law in the US to allow these Earthship buildings to be built. This was only after the Hurricane Katrina disaster happened and people needed shelter. In India it took Reynolds 14 days to pass the law. We need to make sure we don’t have to witness more disaster before these building practices become common practice. One of Reynolds team who has been living in an earthship for 12 years has said that, “children growing up in them see them as normal, providing them with water, food and heat”. Reynolds cites that he wanted to be free and own his life. Just imagine; no long calls to gas and electricity companies and even better no bills. This is the reality he created. The main selling point for these buildings has to be that they are healthy for the inhabitants with minimum ecological footprint, easy and inexpensive to run.
Reynolds states that, “nature in an instant can wipe out humanity so let’s live in harmony with it”. That is just what Daren and Adrianne have done by creating a home that is sustainable, affordable and beautiful.
With thanks to Daren and Adi for all their cooperation and input.
Other sources used include
www.groundhouse.com and www.greengite.com
Groundhouse Build+Cook by Darren Howarth and Adrianne Nortje
Garbage Warrior directed by Oliver Hodge
Comfort in any climate by Michael Reynolds
Grand Designs Magazine by Justin Levett
Words by Liam Browne