An Eco-House for the Masses

REQA worker going back inside the straw-insulated FREEDOM house.

Green building often gets a bad rap for being too pricey. A new project aims to create a prefabricated house that's both better for the environment and cheaper to build.

When Alexei Morokhovets set out to build a home for himself outside Moscow, he pictured a traditional brick house. He ended up with one made out of hay bales.

Morokhovets' house has become the prototype for an energy-efficient, economy-class "eco-house" being developed by a company he founded called FREEDOM. He plans for an eco-house with many of the same features to go on sale in June as a set of prefabricated, modular components ready for do-it-yourself assembly.

FREEDOM is just one of a number of local projects attempting to apply green-building approaches to residential construction and features a number of energy-saving innovations. Besides the pressed bales of wheat straw (almost any straw will do) that line the wooden frame, insulating and reducing temperature fluctuations, the house has a boiler that can burn wood pellets or other fuels, heat-insulated, wood-frame windows and a solar water-heating system on the roof. The house consumes 38 kilowatt-hours of electricity per square meter annually, five times less than the Russian norm, according to Morokhovets.

The entrepreneur, however, is adamant that an even greater asset than the house's efficiency is its affordability: He estimated that it will cost $300 per square meter to assemble the prefab set yourself, $500 per square meter if professional labor is used. Not only is it less expensive than other high-tech, residential green-building projects, it's cheaper than analogous houses built with traditional methods and materials, he said.

"With the eco-house, there's two 'ecos' — ecology and economy," Morokhovets said.

Thanks to the second "eco," the FREEDOM house could be a game-changer in Russia, contradicting the stigma associated with green building — often projects promise future savings but are more expensive to build — and increasing its popularity for residential construction, experts said.

Cutting Expenses

The FREEDOM house embodies the three pillars — environmental, social and economic — of sustainability, according to Guy Eames, CEO and co-founder of Green Building Council Russia, which organized a recent tour of the house.

"In this case, it gets a lot of smarty points from the economical point of view," Eames said.

The 300-square-meter house cost 4.73 million rubles ($160,000), or $525 per square meter, to build. Many traditional economy-class houses in Russia cost about 20,000 rubles ($660) per square meter to build, Eames noted.

For Morokhovets, cutting expenses was what first led to cutting energy consumption. In 2009, he  set out to build a house on his 15-hectare plot in the town of Pavlovksoye on Novorizhskoye Shosse, 35 kilometers beyond the MKAD. The highway is adorned by billboard after billboard advertising "dacha communities," "cottage communities" and housing developments, many of them featuring photographs of brick or stone houses.

When Morokhovets started planning his own brick house, however, he was nonplussed by the high prices of materials. He began searching for thriftier alternatives and learned more about straw-bale construction and other techniques. That many of them are environmentally friendly came as an "extra bonus," Morokhovets said.

Morokhovets took a critical approach to both traditional and green materials, as per his credo to test everything himself. At one point he even made a short "MythBusters"-style video to test the claim that walls of straw bales encased in wood could stop a round from a Kalashnikov automatic rifle (at a 10-meter distance it couldn't, but neither could wood, brick, concrete, cement board with basalt insulation, or structural insulated panel).

"I don't believe the hay-bale construction sectarians who dance a khorovod around the house, singing psalms to the sun," he said.

"On the other hand, there's a lot of criticism [of green-building methods] out here that's entirely unrealistic," he added.

Freedom of Design

Morokhovets started building his eco-house, which serves both as a demonstration house and as his residence, in September 2011, finishing at the end of December. (The commercial version will require two months for assembly, he said).

Potential buyers will start realizing it's cheaper to build, cheaper to run and healthier to live in.

Guy Eames, Green Building Council Russia

The materials were donated by a number of partners, including Danish lumber producer DLH, German-Austrian heating technologies maker Wirbel, French construction materials producer Onduline, several Russian companies, and the German company BASF, the largest chemicals maker in the world. Morokhovets provided the financing himself.

The FREEDOM house's simple techniques and materials, many of them locally produced, contrast sharply with other energy-efficient residential projects, most notably the house built outside Moscow last year according to the international Active House concept. Although the 230-square-meter house features technology such as solar panels and a geothermal pump and can drastically reduce hot water and heating costs, it cost 28.5 million rubles (almost $1 million, or $4,350 per square meter) to build.

"The smart house idea has discredited itself," Morokhovets said, arguing that the complex technology doesn't merit the extra cost and lacks important functions.

"In general, it needs to be smarter and a lot cheaper," he added.

Eames said the two projects are geared toward different market segments.

"FREEDOM is an affordable house for your average Russian person," he said. "Active House is for the gadget-loving person who likes smart buildings."

FREEDOM house hasn't always worked perfectly, either.  At one point, indoor pipes carrying water for the conventional radiator-based heating system froze, but Morokhovets was able to improve the insulation around the area and solve the problem.  The house's modular construction and inexpensive materials accommodate additions and changes at any point — and straw isn't hard to punch a hole through, he said.

Changing the Game

Eames believes the FREEDOM house will make an impact when it goes commercial. The possibility of seeing Morokhovets's home in person will overcome skepticism toward green building and allay worries the price is too good to be true, he said.

Potential buyers will "start realizing it's cheaper to build, cheaper to run and healthier to live in," since you're not breathing in volatile organic compounds emitted by many construction materials, Eames said.

If such houses gain popularity, he added, it could significantly affect the residential housing market outside Moscow, bringing down prices as construction shifts toward the inexpensive, often local materials employed in the FREEDOM house.

One couple on the tour organized by the green-building council, Alexei and Alina Bezprozvannykh, said they were impressed by the house's combination of ecological and economical advantages and thought it would play well with buyers. They they will consider purchasing a FREEDOM house for themselves, they said.

"People like to live on the land, but building a brick house in the countryside is expensive," Alina said. "This house will be accessible to everyone."

According to Eames, the FREEDOM and Active houses, as well as other green-leaning housing projects such as the low-rise, economy-class subdevelopments built by Ecodolie, indicate that the worldwide sustainable construction trend is coming to Russia.

"These are just the first examples of this trend that we're seeing now," he said.