For many years Benjamin and Ingrid had wanted to self-build on the remote Norwegian island where they grew up. The couple were encouraged to start their project after reading an article about a nature house in Sweden. The building that kick-started their self-build desire is a timber house and gardens that sits inside a large commercial greenhouse, combining ecology with a comfortable, luxury lifestyle. Motivated and inspired, the couple started to plan their own unique home-building project within a green house to fulfill a dream of creating a sustainable, self-contained environment.
The design brief started with a square glass structure, but after some research the Hjertefolger’s decided on a large geodesic glass dome to cover the entire house and partial garden. Benjamin and Ingrid wanted a new home that dramatically reduced heating bills and enabled an abundance of plants and produce to be grown, that would not normally survive the extreme Northern European climate. The dome itself needed to withstand the Norwegian island’s high winds and extreme snow loadings at the same time as providing an environmentally friendly way of maintaining a uniform temperature throughout the year.
“It was after we found Solardome that I drew up new plans for a dome structure rather than a square,” explains Benjamin. British company Solardome Industries took on the challenge to make this quirky eco-home a reality. The scalable architectural system allows custom design and manufacture of geodesic domes up to 25m diameter. It was decided a 15m diameter dome would be sufficient to cover the house and garden. Following the design and manufacture, it took three weeks for the 15m diameter, 7.5m tall dome to be built on site. With no deep foundations needed, it has very low impact on the environment itself.
The dome contains 360 glass panels and a total length of 832m recycled aluminium framework. The decreased surface area of the dome means it requires 30% less building materials than conventional rectangular structures enclosing the same space, and the aluminium frame that has a structural lifespan of over 100 years doesn’t require regular maintenance. The bespoke geodesic dome-structure includes a set of double doors, 11 windows – five of which are digitally controlled – and a large door aperture linking the internal house to the outdoor living area.
The home within was to be, very literally, a self-build as the couple set about building everything inside the dome themselves by hand. The Hjertefolger’s managed the entire project, building all apart from the dome with a little help from friends, family and visitors from all over the world who had heard about the fascinating project.
“Building a 240m² house ourselves by hand whilst also making the building material on site was a challenge and of course took some time – especially as we both have full time jobs and three kids!” continues Benjamin. “We wanted the house to be as organic and clean as possible so we used raw materials like sand, clay, straw and wood. This gives us a house that breathes and keeps the humidity stable. As for the dome, we wanted it to be glass and aluminium as both are recyclable and durable.”
The project took them a total of three years, finally moving into their new home just in time for Christmas last year. The young family did exceed the budget a little bit, mostly because of the extra time it took to finish, which in turn increased the cost of the building loan, but it was entirely worth it: “The house looks exactly the way I imagined it to be when we started to plan it back in the fall of 2010. We have created a wonderful house with a great view of the ocean and surrounding mountains – it’s everything we had hoped it would be!” explains Benjamin.
The house sits proudly within its breathtaking surroundings where it stands as a testimony to possibilities of sustainable living. Nestled into the landscape between the fjords and mountains it is sympathetic to its surrounding. Sitting within the minimal framework of its protective glass ‘bubble’, the eco-conscious family is able to make the most of the beautiful vistas. The self-build is surrounded by grassland in the summer months, where horses roam free around their home.
Benjamin and Ingrid’s home is built on three levels using long-established building methods, including COB walls on the first floor – soft bricks made from a mixture of clay, sand and straw – and straw bales stacked, compressed and finished with clay plaster on the second floor. Traditional building methods, materials and recycled products have been used throughout to create a warm, inviting, yet eco-friendly home.
The self-build responds to many passive house principles with good levels of insulation with minimal thermal bridges, passive solar gains and internal heat sources, excellent level of airtightness and good indoor air quality – provided by a whole house mechanical ventilation system with highly efficient heat recovery.
“We have built the house out of sand clay straw and wood,” explains Benjamin. “The first floor is COB, the second floor is straw bales stacked, compressed and finished with a clay plaster. The COB on the first floor is very good in the summer since we are inside a green house, meaning very high thermal mass. In the winter the first floor is not as well insulated as the straw bales on the second, but because we have the dome around this isn’t an issue. It is always nice inside regardless of the time of year. Our home is protected from the cold winds in the winter and we can heat the whole house with just one fireplace. A wood-burning stove heats the water. This is connected to a water tank which delivers radiant floor heating in the COB floors of the house and gives warm water to the sinks and shower. Additionally, in the summer water is heated by solar-heat collectors.”.
The technology and systems in place mean a uniform temperature can be maintained throughout the year. The dome’s electronic windows allow natural ventilation and help create the desired uniform temperature at the same time as helping the internal garden the flourish. A water filtering system in the basement means clean water comes in and out, where water is recycled and reused within the garden areas.
Along with five bedrooms, two bathrooms, and a garage in the basement, the house also benefits from a greenhouse courtyard. As the dome encapsulates the garden as well as the house they have been able to grow fresh fruit and vegetables for the family and the local community. This enables self-sufficiency and provides the family with a beautiful garden flowering plants and bushes – something not normally achieved in this extreme climate. The plants also provide natural insulation and sound absorption. The northern property sees no sun in the winter meaning that the garden is yet to be sustained all year round, but they will be experimenting with how to achieve a year-round garden on the roof of the house, with the help of LED growing lights.
“I like to be able to eat from the garden,” beams Benjamin. “So to design a garden that is able to provide lots of fruits, berries, and vegetables with as little work as possible adheres to our belief in permaculture and “no dig” principles.
“Everything is curved, natural and personal. Our self-build has created a space for us that makes it easy to be ourselves. Looking back, the only thing I would have changed was the order in which some things were done, purely to make some of the technical things easier. But this was our first time building a house, so we were learning throughout the process. I would definitely do the whole thing again! The past two years have been the most fun, interesting and educational that we have had.”
This innovative build has brought the community together as friends, family, and volunteers from the local area have all been involved with its creation. It has also been embraced by the wider community, with volunteers from all over the world, including America, Argentina, Denmark, Sweden and Columbia. It has provided a talking point and a location for education on sustainable living. The Hjertefolgers have hosted international workshops in the dome to teach how to build using the COB method. The inspirational building has become somewhat of a popular attraction for tourists visiting the island and since having an influx of visitors asking about their new home, they have now organised tours for the summer. They also plan to hold concerts within the nature house and to build several small natural cabins on the land to fulfil their dream of hosting yoga retreats and family summer camps.
“Our house is amazing – we have been blown away by the magnificence of the dome and the life it is helping us to lead. We have all worked really hard to create our eco-friendly home, our dream, and our little sustainable bubble that supports our eco values and that will allow our family to grow up in a beautiful, ecological and healthy environment. We are excited about the years ahead.
“My advice to those anyone looking to self-build is not to build bigger than you need to,” concludes Benjamin. “Take time to consider the materials you use and build in a way that fits you, your climate, and your local resourses. Have fun!”