The Green House
Past the scaffolding and collegiate setting, the house looks like any other.
Neat, simple cubes coming together in the unassuming manner of most traditional homes in the sultanate.
Less apparent, though, is the subtle marriage of the time-tested and the modern.
Come July, when a blue cascade of solar panels crowns the Higher College of Technology's (HCT) Eco House in Al Khuwayr, that will become plain to see.
For now, seven months into the construction of the 600sq m hope for environmentally sustainable living, its purpose isn't immediately obvious to the uninitiated.
“When we live in concrete boxes with artificial ventilation and artificial light, it shuts us off from the environment. We have lost something. An old, sustainable method of living,” said Mona al Farsi, who helms the project conceived three years ago in response to The Research Council's (TRC) call for a eco-friendly home prototype.
“Most people today like big rooms, which aren't easy to maintain or cool. But a long time ago, every space was a multi-use space. We didn’t have corridors. It was just rooms opening into more rooms.”
A return to that compact design model with the adoption of green concepts like reusable water, plant-regulated micro-climates and replenishing solar power saw the Eco House take second place in the TRC competition's design phase.
While that initial design has seen revision as work has progressed, the premise has not.
“Ultimately, this is a green home aimed for families (who, it is hoped, will be the drivers of change in the housing market). As much as possible, we have tried to make the technologies and concepts understandable to the average person. As simple as clicking a switch.”
Though the rationale for compact multi-use spaces and orienting the house to the north and the prevailing wind (a passive cooling method) may not be evident to the consumer at first, the reduced dependence on air-conditioning, particularly in the cooler months, will be.
Not that cool air will be a problem with the built-in “green nest” coming standard.
Besides the planned cultivation of date palms in the surrounds, a low maintenance green wall literally a vertically growing garden of native plants does away with windows in the sunbathed west wing.
It will not only make better use of the space and add to the décor, but will also improve air quality, reduce carbon dioxide emissions and noise pollution, encourage biodiversity and insulate the building.
“The only windows, in the east side, are designed to allow sunlight in and to prevent heat loss as well. The high-activity areas have been zoned to the north (as is the entrance) to take advantage of the wind. Areas in the house have also been segregated in keeping with tradition,” says Mona.
The wall and plants will be irrigated with 'grey water' collected from the showers and sinks, filtered and treated for contaminants, while food waste will make for organic fertiliser.
“The most green feature are the 76 solar panels that shade the roof and raise enough electricity to power four ACs during the day. The idea is to not only reduce the consumption of electricity, but produce it using a green, renewable source.”
Being in Earth's equatorial sun belt, there's plenty of radiant sunlight to work with year round.
This harvested energy is fed directly into the house, so as to not store any in batteries that are bad for the environment, heavy and expensive.
Indeed, much of the materials used in the house are recyclable and where possible locally sourced with the caveat that quality and standards the LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental design) certification being the benchmark would not be compromised on.
“Whatever was produced locally we managed to use like the tiles, the cement, the steel, but a lot of the materials needed to build a high-performance house like this one aren't available here.”
For instance, build-specific materials like the Nudura insulated concrete blocks used to reinforce the walls, making them the actual load bearing structure instead of beams and rails are said to have increased the life expectancy of the Eco House from the average home's 50 years to a 100.
It's a house directed to the consumer, after all.
“Acceptance of this house by the public will be one of the challenges. It does not have very large spaces (preferred in modern homes), but once people see the well-furnished interiors that make better use of the space and resources available, they will understand that less can be more.”
At the very least, the Eco House team hopes some of the techniques they have used will be adopted by others.
Which is why nearly 150 students, cutting across disciplines and departments as broad as the varied engineering fields to photography and marketing, have worked on the project alongside private contractors and construction teams.
“They start working before the sun comes out, stay after school and will likely have to give up a major part of their holidays after their exams. But they are happy to do it. My dream is to see Omanis build eco houses on their own. It's a continuation of our old traditions of sustainable living,” says Mona.
Rowan Mohammed al Sameen, Architectural engineering
To design a house like this is really hard and green architecture was new to me. You have to think of comfort, of traditions, of ecofriendliness. I’d really like to see this done in the future in people’s homes.
Yasser Mohammad Salim al Kathiri, Civil engineering
I'd like to make the eco house, but unfortunately I'll have trouble with the cost. It's not logical to expect people to build eco houses if they don't have enough money. Maybe the government can provide incentives for people to build such houses.
Haitham Suleiman Salim al Aufi, Civil engineering
We have built many things. But haven’t learnt yet how to be sustainable. I’ve seen the difference between the eco house and regular house. This is new for us.
Aisha Hamdan al Mamari, Chemical engineering
I learnt how materials go into the house. I was interested about the conversion of solar energy to electricity without affecting the environment.