As is hinted by its name, House Gaia reflects the principle that all the physical components of our planet are linked together in closely integrated systems.

Owner Johan Nel says the first winter in their innovative house “was great and most systems are working well.” While he did have to call in a few technicians to sort out minor glitches, he says that it was quickly sorted

Following an overall philosophy not to be wasteful of resources, Nel told us that “rather than simply wanting a flashy house… I wanted to give back to the environment, while enjoying what we know is a privileged lifestyle.”

His brief was thus to build in as sustainable a way as possible, using non-toxic, local and recycled materials. He wanted a well-insulated building and an abundance of natural light with a natural flow for family use, thus creating a cosy feel despite the house’s size.

Extensive use of natural stone and recycled building materials contribute to the organic feel of the house. An earlier dwelling on the property was demolished, but a lot of the bricks, slate and bathroom fixtures could be re-used. Because timber for the floors was recycled and came from various sources, “special procedures had to be followed when sanding and oiling. Installing and shaping the timber to size became a specialised task, as each timber was treated according to its luster and character,” said Martin Jeppe of MJ Flooring. Blue gum wood, among others from large trees that had been growing on site, was left untreated to weather somewhat before being used for beams, flooring and wall cladding.

Architect John Barrett of Earth Temple Architects said the home “is a living body embracing light and energy: all its functions are like organs perfectly synchronised to create a completely sustainable ‘off grid’ home.”

Some of the most notable features include:

Energy: solar energy generation and management through a large array of photovoltaic (PV) panels. There is gas production for cooking and heat through a biodigesting system. All the windows are double glazed and adjustable LED lighting is used throughout. The heating, power generation and communication systems for the house are fully automated.

Heating: two arrays of solar heating panels and a small boiler built into the chimney of the indoor fireplace means less heat escapes and can be fed into the hot water system.

Cooling: passive cooling is achieved through natural air flow and remote-controlled, mechanised louver window systems.

Water management and gardens: a waste water management system irrigates the water-wise gardens. The outdoor natural bio pool, compost system and vegetable garden also contribute to sustainability.

According to Nel, now that they have been in the house for a few months, the biodigester is in full operation and “is working perfectly. We are in fact getting a bit too much gas, because we’ve only used it for cooking, as the heating guys have not managed to get the gas boiler to fire up yet.”

He adds that he “got the most pleasure from the fireplace that also heats water for the heating system. It is great to have a big fire and know that not all of the heat is just released out of the chimney.”

The full project feature appears in the April-May 2011 issue on p22.