In many write-ups of eco-friendly homes, particularly those built with carbon-neutral plans in mind, you’ll read about how the setting was carefully chosen. Setting tends to matter when you’re trying to take advantage of natural benefits like ample sunlight, natural earth insulation, and other environmental traits. Build a home in the wrong place and you’ll be using more energy to heat it, light it, and cool it, but build it in the right place, and the setting will actually help, rather than hinder your efforts.
But what happens when your choices are limited, and circumstances force you to build on a setting that’s not ideal? A test case in Austria shows that creative architects and engineers can in fact build a carbon neutral home even when the elements are against them. The Velux Sunlighthouse is the first such home in Austria, and it’s unlikely to be the last, given the growing interest in energy-efficient homes and the demonstration provided through the construction that it’s possible to take advantage of the environment even when it seems like your homesite is against you.
The home is located to the west of Vienna, on a very narrow, sloped building site. Such sites tend to be a challenge even for regular construction, because builders have to consider restrictions that wouldn’t otherwise be a problem. For example, a home may need to be narrower than is standard to create room for property line allowances, which requires creating a narrow design that still feels spacious and open. Sloped building sites are also difficult to deal with, an issue San Francisco contractors know well.
To add insult to injury, the site wasn’t positioned at a good angle to get lots of natural sunlight, which was a key part of the plan to make the home carbon neutral. To install solar panels, electricians want lots of Southern exposure, as that’s the most likely to provide a steady supply of sun, even in the winter. Thus, the architects had to work with the electricians to angle the home and the roofing to catch as much sun as possible so the home could generate solar power; the home’s energy systems are boosted by a geothermal heat pump.
As with other environmentally friendly construction, this home has a tight building envelope designed to help stabilize interior temperatures. The walls are thick and well-insulated to minimize heat loss, and the home’s many windows are also thoroughly insulated. To make the Velux Sunlighthouse feel more open, and reduce lighting costs, a large number of windows admit natural sunlight into every room of the home, creating a warm, spacious environment. While lots of windows could pose a problem for environmental efficiency, these are carefully implemented to keep the home as efficient as possible, and it still manages to generate more energy than it needs.
This home illustrates that it’s possible to design an eco-friendly home in any circumstances, even when a building site might seem challenging. For architects and designers working on such homes, it’s great evidence to provide in case studies and treatments for future home sites. And for homeowners planning renovations or getting ready to build, it’s an inspiration.