How to build an Eco-hideaway

Bob Kirkwood

We are Bob & Diane Kirkwood, we live in France, have done so for about six years, and over the last two we have become accidentally involved in the world of off-grid living and holiday lets.
About three years ago we managed to get hold of a small parcel of woodland, two and half hectares, just down the lane from our house. Its a lovely spot, a heavily wooded valley with a small, source-fed lake. Set back from the edge of the lake is our holiday rental cabin. It is small, only 5 meters by 4 meters, but it contains all you need to live.
At the beginning, the cabin, such as it was, was a singularly uninspiring building. It had been built some years ago by the previous owner and was essentially a reinforced concrete box with a single, steel door to the front. I considered knocking it down at one point, but decided against it when taking into account all the work involved, not to mention getting rid of the rubble. We decided it would be easier to alter the “box” than to remove it, so I set to, adding a second floor and knocking openings through for the windows & doors. A roof was added, the main timbers being chestnut poles cut directly from the woodland, the tiles were salvaged from a nearby barn conversion. We’ve spent very little money on the building, our main cost saving comes from having a mobile sawmill. I bought the mill a few years ago when I was converting a barn on our land. I already have a fully equipped joinery shop, so to be able to cut my own timber seemed a good idea. I’ve no need to cut healthy trees, there’s always stuff being blown down or damaged to keep me going.
I converted chestnut logs into waney edge boarding to clad the outside of the cabin. The doors, windows and stairs I made from oak, along with the kitchen units and some of the furniture. We tacked a small wet-showerroom on the side, added an oak deck and that is essentially it. We left the boarding bare as we wanted it to go silver and blend in with its surroundings.
The flushing wc goes into a 3000 litre tank that has to be emptied when full, my intention is to install some kind of natural filtering system to deal with this. Our water is drawn from the lake using a wind-operated, belt-driven, pump and stored in a 1000 litre tank, fitted with filters, behind the cabin. The pump works well, has few moving parts and pushes the water around 8 metres up and around 50 metres along. I made the windmill from oak and various parts salvaged from an old woodworking planer. The pump itself is just off-the- shelf plastic plumbing parts and an o-ring.
The hot water for the shower is heated by the woodstove, a 10mm copper pipe coiled around the flue pipe acts as a heat exchanger and works really efficiently, heating around 25 litres in an hour and storing it in a small, lagged tank. We managed to find a chain-pull showerhead and with this fitted, we have the perfect delivery system. The showers it produces are hot, economic and unexpectedly pleasurable!
For lighting we use mainly candles, they’re always reliable. We have a rise & fall candelabra on a counterweight for the main lights, with various other fittings mounted on the walls. We’ve used fittings that are safe to be left unattended and use mirrors to reflect as much of the light as possible. There is a collection of wind-up things kept at the cabin; torches, radio, fully working gramophone, mobile phone charger. We also have a wind-up reading lamp on the wall, over the bed.
The cabin is never finished, we are always doing some improvement or the other, me doing the woody stuff and Di taking care of decorating, furnishing, running the website and everything else! It has a cosy, cluttered feel. Anything that goes in must have a useful purpose, there’s no room for ornaments.
We decided last winter to see if we could rent out the cabin, not so much for the income, more to see if there were anymore people out there who would appreciate it. We thought of a name, covertcabin.com, built a very simple website and naively sat back, expecting the enquiries to roll in! Of course, that didn’t happen, so we started to think about how to advertise it. We would email two or three worthy organisations a week, people we thought might find it interesting. We got lucky almost immediately when The Guardian newspaper responded and ended up doing a small thing about us in their travel section. Our hits went from about 50 a week, to over 1500 a day. Its settled now to around 500 a week, which we’re very pleased with. I did at one time email MI5 suggesting covertcabin as being the perfect holiday retreat for spies. As yet, we’ve had no response, or maybe we have and we don’t realise it!
I’ve already begun work on another cabin, of a different style, more of a pioneer/frontiersmans cabin. That should be done by next summer. Im already thinking of other more ambitious cabins and would like to build a burrow type dwelling, hobbit-like, using the local granite and of course, plenty of oak!
We’ve had a good response, so far, from the people who’ve been. Its good when that happens, we must be on the right lines. If you fancy a look, go to www.covertcabin.com, all the info and prices are on there and Di is always on hand to deal with any enquiries.

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  1. For Some Architects, the ICEAlity of Sustainable Building is Easy.

    “Andere Länder, andere Sitten”

    An exhibit on ecologically friendly architecture in Germany just began a world tour. It highlights the country’s position at the forefront of a growing ‘ICEAlity’ movement in green building techniques started by the US Network for EXPO2000, Worlds Fair held in Hanover, Germany.

    The German architect and engineer Werner Sobek has made quite a splash with his home, called R128, which he completed in 2000. The house — perched on a hillside in Stuttgart — is made entirely of glass, allowing unobstructed
    views over four full stories. It also relies exclusively on infrared sensors instead of handles, with doors popping open and faucets shutting on and off at the wave of a hand.

    But while R128 has received plenty of press coverage for its radical design, the architect himself stresses its importance in another area: as part of an increasing trend toward ‘sustainable’ German architecture

    R 128 is one of nine buildings featured in the exhibit “Made in Germany: Architecture & Ecology”, which opened in Barcelona on July 6, and will travel to 14 other cities before it closes.

    The buildings featured range from personal homes, such as R128 and a solar-housing settlement near Freiburg, to a daycare center whose roof collects rainwater used to flush the toilets, to a ‘zero energy’ subterranean train station (lit by cathedral-like skylights at ground level). There is also a “zero emissions factory,” a high rise that makes use of thermal energy, and the “Heliotrope,” a solar-energy powered building that rotates to follow the sun.

    Combining old and modern

    As diverse as they are stylistic, the buildings in this exhibit share a strong penchant for using renewable energy sources, like the sun, wind, and thermal air. Some architects returned to old-fashioned building-preserving techniques, such as enhancing the use of trapped air for insulation, while
    others relied entirely on cutting-edge building components and newly developed engineering methods.
    One thing these buildings do have in common: it took a client with interests in furthering the cause of ‘green’ architecture to get the job done. This is because, while it may pay off in the long run, ecological architecture is usually expensive to build.
    “Solar components pay themselves off in about 15 years, and photovoltaic roofs for generating electricity can pay off in around 20 years, but only because of strong state subventions,” says Prof. Fried Ranft, of the Aachen based ecological-architecture firm Casa.
    Ecological building is a growth industry, Ranft says. This is because “people realize it pays off, cost wise. Plus, they feel good about themselves, they feel good in their home.”
    Sobek, who built R128, refuses to say what it cost for him to build. But he does say that the design stemmed from his desire making “ephemeral architecture,” — architecture that can be removed by future generations without leaving any waste behind.

    Germany in the forefront

    In 2002, a similar exhibit in the United States — called Ten Shades of Green — featured nine instances of ecological architecture from around the world. Of these, four were German. This overwhelming presence is a testament to a general interest in conservation in Germany, and to considerable government financial support.
    German policy – in the form of legislation, R&D investment, and financial advantages for builders encourages the use of renewable resources. One key to this is the Renewable Energy Sources Act, supports builders seeking to make use of regenerative raw materials – i.e, installing a boilers that use scrap-wood pellets instead of oil. Low cost loans and other perks are funded on many levels, from state and local all the way up through Europe-wide programs.

    According to the German Environment Ministry, renewable energies are responsible for around 2.9 per cent of the total energy provision in Germany today. The stated aim is to double the share of renewables in the energy supply to 4.2 percent by 2010, from its level of 2.1 percent in 2000, and the share in gross electricity consumption from 6.3% in 2000 to 12.5% in 2010.
    But while good for the environment, ecologically-friendly buildings are not automatically beautiful or interesting to look at. However, this is not the case with those in the exhibit.
    “When most people think of German architecture, they still think of Walter Gropius and Mies van der Rohe. We wanted to show that German architecture has gone beyond Bauhaus,” said Dr. Barbara Honrath, of the Munich Goethe Institute, which organized the exhibit.

    In Cleveland, the historic ARK in Berea, is the first structure in Cuyahoga County to incorporate environmental art and sustainable German building concepts from the Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, it inaugurated the green building trend that is now sweeping America. The Cleveland Green Building Coalition is direct spin-off from the EXPO2000 Worlds Fair. Other major aspects from EXPO2000 are the renewable energy windmill display in downtown Cleveland and at the Great Lakes Brewery.

    “When most people think of German technology, we wanted to show that Germany is leading the way for Cleveland and the World into the 21st Century” says David Jakupca, founder and recognized Spiritual Father of the Environmental Art Movement.

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