Concept home in Brittany offers comfort at zero carbon cost

PARIS -- The Groundhouse in Brittany is taking carbon footprints to task. UK expats implement new designs with old technology to create a zero carbon house in the French countryside.

PARIS – A new kind of house is on the market in Brittany that combines sustainable technology and modern design.  The Groundhouse, conceived and constructed by CLEVEL, an innovation and advising group that specializes in reducing carbon footprints, is available to rent for those who are looking for a zero-carbon experience. With similar homes being built across the US, Australia, and even Spain, CLEVEL decided to bring the idea to France.

Brittany, a region in northwestern France, is known as much for its cider as for its rainy climate and cold winters.  The historically Anglo-Saxton Brittany seemed like the perfect place for British ecologist and CLEVEL founder Daren Howarth to buy land in 1999 for his Groundhouse project.  “This particular part of France is stunningly beautiful,” he said, “and the economics of building a home are massively different in remoter parts of France.”

A collaboration of ideas led to the Groundhouse’s completion in 2009.  Howarth and his team wanted to use existing technologies to create an environmentally responsible space that he could call home.  “There’s a lot of reinventing the wheel going on in the technology area in stuff that we think of as smart tech” he said.  By applying these ideas, the result was an innovative and sleek house with features unheard of in other parts of France.

The Groundhouse generates electricity with 14 solar panels to heat water and to power energy efficient appliances and lighting.  Electricity input is actually lower than that created by the panels, allowing Howarth to sell energy back to the French utility company EDF.

Rainwater, which falls in abundance, is also collected in containers holding up to 10,000 liters underground.  Grey water used for washing, which Howarth calls “liquid gold,” is filtered and reused in the gardens.  Even the Swedish-designed toilet collects solid waste for composting outside while preventing any odors inside.

The house’s insulation contains materials including recycled bottles and sheep’s wool while glass bottles, limestone fragments, cardboard, and granite from the site’s ruins were also used in various parts of the construction.  Howarth also carefully chose appliances and decorations for their efficiency and design as much as for environmental reasons including organic velvet curtains from Ecotextile and appliances from AEG.

Howarth said that locals in the village often stop by to the house with a mix of curiosity and awe, unsure of what to make of it.  The design does cause the Groundhouse to stand out, but Howarth made sure to incorporate some local style.  “It gave it to some extent a Breton feel to it, even though overall it looks fairly futuristic.  Aesthetically it was a big success,” he said.  Locals are even more impressed by the home’s efficient and inexpensive heating that far trump the heaters and wood-burning stoves used by most during the oftentimes harsh winters.

After living comfortably in the Groundhouse for a year and a half, Howarth and his partner had to move back to England and decided to rent their home to let others experience the design.  “It basically looks after itself.  There’s no more maintenance than there would be on a normal house.  It’s all automatic,” he said.  “We evolved the design to make it as easy as possible.”

Short-term or long-term stays are possible and Howarth hopes the house will spark others in France to adopt innovations used in the Groundhouse.  “Whatever take they have on it, it’s inspiring and helps people in business and in their own homes to think about doing stuff like this,” he said.

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