architecture sustainability

Building of the week: the autonomous house

It’s election season in Britain again. The various political parties have been declaring their plans for improving the country’s housing stock and raising standards for new homes. Labour want all new homes to be zero carbon by 2022, the Conservatives by 2025. The tragedy is that we should have had them already – the zero carbon standard was due to come into force in 2016, and was binned by the Conservatives. We have wasted a decade on something that we already know how to do.

autonomous-house-1975It’s worth remembering that it’s been possible to build a home with no heating needs for a while. Among the pioneers are Robert and Brenda Vale, a husband and wife team of architects. They researched how to build an ‘autonomous house’ that could provide all its own energy, heating, water and waste treatment on site. Having dreamt up this theoretical house, they published a book about it in 1975, The Autonomous House.

autonomous-house-2000A few years later, their architectural practice turning out some of Britain’s earliest low carbon buildings, they decided to build their own home according to their design. It was completed in 1993, and is notable for being the first house in the UK with a grid-connected solar array. The book was duly rewritten as The New Autonomous House.

Electricity for the home came from solar power and battery storage, with the panels mounted on a pergola in the garden because there wasn’t a south facing roof.


Heat is captured through a double-height conservatory on the back of the building, which warms up in winter and traps the heat within its triple glazing. With a high level of insulation, this is enough to warm the home. A heat recovery system ventilates the home mechanically, bringing in fresh air without losing heat.

Water is captured from the roof and cleaned, while advanced composting toilets deal with the waste. The house has no sewage connection and no gas.

The Vales knew that if sustainable homes were going to appeal to ordinary people, they shouldn’t be visibly different: “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.” From the outside, the autonomous house looks like a fairly normal Nottinghamshire village home, with a tiled roof, timber windows and brick walls.

Some of the technologies used in the house, such as composting toilets, are still a long way from the mainstream. Others are closer, such as solar and battery storage. But really, even the obvious idea of extra insulation is still far from standard.

Regardless of who wins the election and gets these new standards into law, by the time they do we will have known how to build zero carbon homes for 30 years. We will have known that all homes should be that way for 20 years, and deliberately putting it off for ten years.

That’s decades of carbon emissions, money wasted on bills, and people suffering from cold and substandard homes. We’ll get there eventually. And when we do, we’ll have Robert and Brenda Vale to thank.

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