Findhorn Ecovillage eco houses with passive solar design in Moray, Scotland

We first became involved with the Eco Village Project in 1986 when we moved up to Findhorn in Morayshire to complete an RIBA part 2 and the scheme was the subject of our architectural diploma thesis project.

That one-year student academic proposal quickly turned into a hands on design and build as you go project, as we became resident community architects and novice builders within the rapidly expanding village building programme.

Some thirty years later we are still working on the Findhorn Eco Village Project (along with many others) up holding my deep respect for the onsite building process. Developing mutual empathy and constructively supportive relationships between clients, architect and building team has become increasing important in achieving a high quality finished building.

The Findhorn Ecovillage situated in the beautiful Findhorn Bay of Moray is a synthesis of the very best of current thinking on sustainable human settlements. Within the ecovillage, sustainable values are expressed in the built environment with ecological houses, innovative use of building materials such as local stone and straw bales, beauty in the architecture and gardens, and applied technology in the Living Machine sewage treatment facility and electricity-generating wind turbines. Sustainable values are also expressed in the community’s social, economic and educational initiatives.

  • a low carbon pioneering ecovillage since 1985
  • UN Habitat Best Practice Designation since 1998
  • a major centre of adult education serving 14,000 visitors a year from over 50 countries
  • ecological footprint is half the national (UK) average
  • 61 ecological buildings, including the famous whisky barrel houses
  • 4 wind turbines forming the village wind farm
  • a biological Living Machine sewage treatment system
  • UK’s oldest and largest Community-Supported Agriculture (CSA) system
  • numerous solar water-heating systems
  • comprehensive recycling scheme
  • publisher of UK’s first technical guide to ecological housing
  • own bank and community currency
  • site of Gaia Education – offering cutting edge sustainability education in 33 countries
Findhorn low carbon pioneering ecovillage
eco house design interior
ecological building

Building Community

“There is hardly anything more appealing, yet apparently more elusive for humankind, than the prospect of living in harmony with nature and each other.” Diane and Robert Gilman

The Findhorn Foundation residential community welcomes more than 14,000 residential visitors every year, from more than fifty countries. Participants in courses come to understand and experience life in a community where relationships between individuals and with nature and spirit are honoured. A major part of the Foundation’s success lies in creating a genuine and vibrant sense of community as much as it does in building innovative structures.

Today it is at the heart of the largest intentional community in the UK and the centre of the rapidly developing Eco-Village Project. The Eco-Village project received a ‘best practice’ designation from the United Nations Centre for Human Settlements (Habitat).

The Eco-Village Project

The community members who live and work in this rural area of Scotland come from over 40 countries to join an experiment in discovering what is necessary for joyful, sustainable living. The built environment is gradually growing to reflect shared ecological, social and spiritual values, working with the simple principle of not taking more away from the Earth than one gives back.

The Eco-village is moving toward sustainability by putting a high priority on:

  • ecological building
  • renewable energy systems
  • local organic food production
  • sustainable economics
  • social and family support schemes.

It is a constantly evolving model providing solutions to human and social needs while at the same time working in partnership with the environment to offer an enhanced quality of life for all.

Having purchased the 35-acre caravan park the intention is to replace the ageing stock of mobile homes with permanent ecologically sound buildings. Many ecological buildings have been erected to date, including the completion housing clusters, a guest accommodation, community buildings and right livelihood business premises.

ecological architecture
Eco-Village Project
vapour permeable’ structure

Energy Conservation & Eco Building Systems

The construction of zero carbon buildings and the retrofitting of existing buildings offer some of the most cost-effective and most immediate strategies in response to climate change.

The ecovillage at Findhorn has erected 61 ecological buildings to date and there are ongoing plans for the continued construction of an ecologically respectful built environment. Over the years we have developed a unique construction system, environmentally sound and energy efficient. Using natural and non-toxic materials we have developed a ‘breathing wall’ structure, which allows the fabric of a building to interact beneficially with people to moderate humidity and air quality. We have also experimented with straw bale construction, the ‘Earthship’ system using recycled car tyres, and remain open to further new and innovative ecological solutions for the built environment.

The publication of Simply Build Green, the UK’s first technical guide to ecological housing, based on our own research and experience, has helped the ecovillage become a major resource for environmental education locally, nationally and internationally.

The Eco-Village Project originally developed the unique energy efficient construction system now, commonly called the ‘breathing wall’ or more correctly ‘vapour permeable’ structure using natural and non-toxic materials which allows the fabric of a building to beneficially interact with people, to moderate humidity and air quality. The buildings generally have 2.5 times the insulation level required by Scottish building regulations, which has dramatically decreased energy use and increased the percentage contribution of solar and other renewable energies.

Renewable Energy Systems

Solar, Wind and Wood: A local company AES was set up producing solar panels, and many systems have been installed for heating water. New buildings also incorporate passive solar design. A wind farm with several turbines was erected which now supplies the electricity needs. Increased use of wood from sustainable managed forests for space and water heating has reduced the projects reliance on fossil fuels.

Biological Sewage Treatment: To improve the cycle of water use for the settlement the project (with the help of the EC) has built its own wastewater treatment facility called the ‘Living Machine.’ This system uses natural non-chemical biological systems to clean sewage and creates a mini-ecosystem within a greenhouse environment, mimicking nature’s own water cleaning system.

Recycling: The project has implemented an extensive recycling programme (metal, glass, paper, batteries, and a clothing bank) and has been instrumental in encouraging local authorities to expand the range of recycling services to the local area.

Local Organic Food Production: A Community Supported Agriculture Scheme called Earthshare, based on organic and biodynamic farming methods, was established to increase the cultivation of local produce. The scheme has expanded from one acre to 25 acres, spread over two sites, and currently provides more than 50% of the community’s fresh food requirements and supplies 312 individual households. While Earthshare provides for the fruit and vegetable needs of the community, organic milk, cheeses, eggs and meat are produced by Wester Lawrenceton Farm, which covers a 65-acre area.

Sustainable Economics: Over the last 55 years the Findhorn Foundation Community has diversified into more than 40 different local businesses and initiatives, providing a valuable insight into sustainable living. There are also two LETS schemes, and an Industrial and Provident Society, which assists investors wishing to support community projects.

timber frame, timber clad structure
Eco Village

R & J House – Plot 9 The Field Case Study

The house is a low embodied energy, timber frame, timber clad, super insulated, vapour permeable structure with a prominent south facing, passive solar conservatory buffer space running up through two and a half storeys.

The compact plan 7.5 x 9m with a vertical emphasis on a tight site forms a minimal surface exposed envelop to accommodate a four bedroom home with additional study, counselling room, studio and shared family work space for a family of four (sometimes a family of six when the two older children return home.) The house bears some resemblance in form and function to the large family homes found in Shaker or Amish Communities acting as a focal point for local gatherings, a refuge for an extended family and a shared work place.

Following the Eco Villages recommended high standards for sustainable building the house is made from locally harvested un-treated soft wood, clad with Scottish Douglas fir and insulated with Warmcel cellulose within the hydroscopic vapour permeable building fabric. Low E double glazing forms the conservatory envelope and that in turn opens up to the main living spaces via large 3.6m wide bi-fold doors allowing valuable warm sun light to penetrate into the heart of the house.

The open plan living space on the first floor houses an efficient Scan wood burning stove providing a strong social focus within the large space and acts a as winter counter poise to the magnificent views from the conservatory and first floor balconies across to the mountains and tidal Findhorn Bay estuary. Auro non toxic paints and stains through out the house and waxed timber floors to the living room have contributed to the light spacious and healthy feel of the interior.

All household black and grey sewage is treated in the village biological treatment plant as mentioned above and the community 75kW wind turbine supplies a proportion of the houses electricity.

Besides the house’s ecological credentials the greatest area of learning has been in the positive development of supportive relationships between the architect, development director, client and builders throughout the procurement and building process as reflected upon in the first paragraph above and in the contributions from those involved below.

The Clients and New Home Owners Perspective.

Let’s start at the end. A house that is finished on time and in budget, culminating in builders leaving bottle of champagne, a plant, a candle and a welcome to your new home card signed by all. A small party a month after completion given by the owners to thank the builders and the architect. The owners toast the builders and architect and ask them what they enjoyed most and what they appreciated about their own and each other’s input. Nervous laughter, a comment that it’s dangerous to talk in front of two psychologists, but goodwill prevails – as it has all along and much wonderful appreciation ensues. The architect returns home (400 miles away) and writes back that he has a feeling of sadness, a hole, (as opposed to relief) now that the project is finished and how the owners had been perfect clients.

This may read like a fantasy but is the truth. I think it may be unusual, so it would be good to look at why and whether there is any learning for others. It starts with the owners deciding to build six years previously and having a bad experience with their previous architect a mismatch. Another try four years on and another mismatch, burying possible warning signals, as both of them were competent architects just the wrong temperament for their clients. A meeting with their current architect Andrew Yeats and an instant rapport. So choose not only for competency (vital) but for relationship. It has helped enormously to know we have found a friend who could still work as a professional architect and not blur boundaries.

Choice of builder. We did something many would consider mad we did not go out to competitive tender. We chose our builders because they were part of our community and because they had just formed their own company and this was their first job we advanced them money before they had started. We could do this because, being part of our community, they could hardly up and run but in some sense it was still an act of faith. We wondered whether we had been naive and should have gone out to tender, but we kept our faith that they had given us a genuine price for the eco house we wanted (we had checked with a quantity surveyor too so we were not totally reckless, but it was a concern to think that there might have been someone who could have done it for much less.) All I can say is that our faith was well rewarded. How many other builders would, when they hit a snag, sit around and say (and mean) well if this was my house I would*** They would suggest nice little touches neither us or our architect had thought of like cutting our quarry stones in our conservatory to make a lovely diamond design instead of just laying them in squares, or making the staircase into a work of art instead of just functional.

passive house interior
timber frame
ecological building garden

The Builders, Mark Jones Perspective.

Build One is an employee owned company specialising in ecological timber framed houses. We cut our teeth working on various innovative projects within the Findhorn Foundation, a community in the north of Scotland and part of the worldwide eco-village network. We are now very familiar with both the principles and practices of ecological building as it currently stands in the UK.

We were delighted when R & J asked us to build their house. They had been trying for some time to get something off the ground with many disappointments along the way. They knew us and had seen our work, and they had decided not to go out to tender. Our quote was compared to that of an independent Quantity Surveyor, and found to be favourable, so it was all systems go.

The architect lives 400 miles away and visited about once a month so it was crucial that all communication followed strict guidelines. Ground rules were established early on and we all stuck to them, which mainly accounts for why things went so well. In general these were that the client visits site by appointment only, and that all communication between client and builder goes via the architect in written form. This initially felt quite awkward and formal, especially given the nature of the Findhorn community, which has an atmosphere of openness and direct communication between individuals. In reality it gave us all a framework within which accountability, trust, and eventually friendship could flourish. Of course we would discuss various issues and snags that arose, directly with R & J, but the conversation would always end with “OK, I’ll get Andrew to confirm that in writing”. This format tended to negate the cause of most disputes that typically arise between client and builder, namely misunderstanding, differing assumptions and lack of clarity.

I believe that most builders take pride in their work and want the client to be happy. R & J were perfect clients; they weren’t pushovers and wanted to understand the process, but they were always ready to reach a compromise when a snag did occur. Problems did of course arise, as is par for the course in most building projects. The fact that no cross words were uttered, speaks volumes for the goodwill that was brought to the project by all concerned. (For a large part of the project, we had a Discovery Channel film crew on site, filming their “Village Green” series, which added an interesting dynamic, as they filmed us warts and all ! )

All of us at Build One thoroughly enjoyed this project. The atmosphere on site was great, and we completed on time and to budget, gaining valued friends along the way. We hope that we will be involved in many more projects like this.

Nick & Henrietta’s House. Case Study

The new 8 sided conical roofed house is a low embodied energy, part recycled steel frame and part timber frame, timber clad, super insulated, vapour permeable structure with a prominent south facing, passive solar conservatory buffer space.

The compact 8 sided octagon plan with 12.4m diameter on a tight site forms a minimal exposed surface envelop to accommodate a three bedroom home with an additional art room / study, open plan kitchen dining living room, a utility room and an entrance draft lobby.

The house is made from locally harvested un-treated soft wood, clad with Scottish Larch and insulated with efficient Warmcell cellulose recycled newspaper insulation within the hydroscopic vapour permeable building fabric and triple glazed thermal envelop windows and doors..

E argon filled double glazing forms the conservatory envelope and that in turn opens up to the main living spaces via large 3.7m wide bio fold double glazed doors allowing valuable warm sun light to penetrate into the heart of the house.

The open plan double height living space on the ground floor houses an efficient Hwam Vivaldi wood burning stove providing a strong social focus within the large space and acts a as winter counter poise to the passive solar gain of the conservatory space.

Nontoxic water based wall emulsion paints and OS natural stains throughout the house and OS hard wax / oiled oak timber floors to the living room have contributed to the light spacious and healthy feel of the interior.

Appropriate Energy Systems AES solar hot panels mounted on the standing seam zinc roof provide most of the domestic hot water heated by the sun.

All household black and grey sewage is treated in the eco village solar aquatic biological sewage treatment plant. The Eco Village community wind farm turbine supplies the house’s renewable electricity.

As ever the greatest area of learning & enjoyment has been the supportive working relationships between the architect, client and John Duncan Construction throughout the procurement and building process.

Soillse Ecovillage Project
Findhorn eco village community
eco timber clad building

Soilsie Cohousing Cluster Case Study

Soillse Ecovillage Project is a six-house carbon neutral co-housing project within the Findhorn Community. The site is a compact one acre but includes; biomass boiler district heating system, a 64m2 polycarbonate polytunnel, plenty of outdoor growing areas, a communal yurt space for accommodation, workshops and gatherings, wood fired pizza oven, a flock of ducks and a wood fired hot tub. The houses are built from 425mm pre insulated clay block wall construction with insulated external render to get up to Passive House levels of insulation. Triple glazing and roof conservatories with an upper deck add to the magic of this project. The ongoing and future projects include; the building of a communal outdoor kitchen, a compost toilet, experimenting with hydroponics, aquaculture and integrated growing systems, and establishing the site trees, berries, fungi and herbs as well as vegetables.

Below is series of extracts from Soillse Shines the Light on Eco-housing residents blog postings which convey’s the spirit of living in the eco cohousing project:

‘Fun!’ is a word that sums up living at Soillse, according to five-year-old Isabella. And best of all, she says excitedly, is the time she shares with the chickens visiting from a neighbour’s garden. There are also ducks in a pond out back, while deer roam nearby, although a recent fence discourages them from feasting in the organic vegetable gardens.

Soillse, which means ‘light’ or ‘ray of light’ in Gaelic, is the name of a new multi-generational co-housing development that is home to a small intentional community within the wider Findhorn community. Thirteen souls, ranging from a year-old babe to an elder in his 70s, live in the six-dwelling cluster and cherish a vision of ‘actively practising and sharing the art of living in a sustainable way.’

For Isabella’s parents Iain Davidson and Bettina Jespersen their double-storey home is a dream come true, although they admit it was slower manifesting than originally anticipated, and only happened after a protracted process of stakeholder meetings and a minefield of agreements and permissions.

‘I love the house,’ Iain insists. ‘It is the closest to a perfect home that I have lived in.’ His wife Bettina shares that delight and says: ‘What we’ve done is amazing, especially on top of all the personal challenges that have included the deaths of two parents and a grandparent.’

First impressions are of wonderfully bright and airy spaces and commanding views over the adjoining woods, farm fields, Findhorn Ecovillage and waters of Findhorn Bay. Mercifully, air traffic from neighbouring Kinloss Barracks is rarely intrusive these days, although the proximity to a Ministry of Defence facility necessitated some expensive blast-proofing on one side of the development.

eco cohousing project:
carbon neutral co-housing project
ecological architecture

‘Wow, I could live here,’ a BBC Scotland journalist announced enthusiastically on entering the home of young mum and artist Lisa Shaw and her husband Galen Fulford, echoing the sentiments of most first-time visitors.

‘One of the best things about living at Soillse is that we are all good friends,’ Lisa says. ‘We have a lot of fun together, often sharing dinners and having singing or poetry nights.’

Part of the vision is to embrace living in harmony with the land and creating a beautiful environment together through ecological passive solar design and permaculture gardening. They’re also committed to carbon neutrality and using renewable energy and ecologically sustainable building materials, composting toilets and rainwater harvesting.

‘Our project is educational in the broadest sense of the word, inspiring both individuals and the larger community, local and worldwide.’

‘I feel really good about the fact that we don’t use fossil fuels in our home,’ Lisa adds. ‘Knowing that our heat, electricity and hot water comes from renewable sources is fantastic. I find the house to be always warm and light and I wake up in the mornings so grateful and delighted to be living in such a beautiful house. I also love working in the garden and eating food we have grown ourselves in our polytunnel.’

Her dad Michael Shaw recalls: ‘Pioneering a small co-housing community within the broader Findhorn community was both a satisfying and challenging learning experience. From the beginning the future members of Soillse were involved in the whole process from buying the land to creating the design and choosing the architect, negotiating access roads, permitting, financing, constructing and finally occupying the homes. We invested a great amount of time over the seven or eight years it took to complete these phases of the project.’

‘We wanted one architect ( Andrew Yeats from Eco Arc), one essential design and one construction contract that would result in an economy of cost savings, and we handled most of the facilitation ourselves. We were our own developer and as such dealt with the Moray Council, Ministry of Defence, the Park Planning Group, the negotiation of the construction contract and the collective financing’

All joke that there were plenty of opportunities to practise what Findhorn Foundation co-founder Peter Caddy referred to as the three Ps – patience, persistence and perseverance.

‘We were working towards carbon neutral homes that used no fossil fuels in their operation and we achieved this goal. We also realised that many groups run out of money and sacrifice green features, so we took a loan to put in the green infrastructure. This included a biomass boiler that uses wood pellets, a common laundry and the purchase of our own transformer to connect to the windmills.’

‘In the end we have homes that we enjoy, neighbours who are friends we love, our family conveniently next door, land we own in common and now we are working on creating other aspects of community together.’

‘We have just erected a yurt we can use as a common space, we have a greenhouse well planted and are planting extensive outside gardens.’

He echoes the sentiments of the others when he says: ‘Soillse has been a lot of work, but it has paid off.’