10 Ways To Make Your Ordinary House An Eco Haven
Just because your house is a normal one, doesn't mean you can't make it an eco-friendly, permacultural heaven. Stephanie Trott, from Sidestepping Normal, talks us through how she and her husband have turned a villa in Crete into a thriving, self-sufficient, green space.
My dream eco house is made of mud and straw. It’s set on acres of land planted with flowers, vegetables and trees.
The structure is built from materials found on the land, and unless we maintain it, it will dissolve back into the earth leaving no trace that it ever existed. The reality is that our house is actually a very ordinary concrete villa.
The dream had always been to escape the rat race in England and live a simple life in Greece. We were suburbanites, my husband and I, but the desire to live in harmony with nature became a yearning we couldn’t ignore any longer. We bought a small concrete villa in the Cretan countryside and set about transforming it into our ideal permaculture sanctuary.
A couple of years on, we’re living the dream. We’ve exchanged rush hour traffic for olive trees and chickens.
But is it really possible to work with what you have? Don’t you need to build an eco house from scratch? Doesn’t eco living have to be extreme? We’re challenging that notion.
What we started with
Our little 50m2 Villa is set on a plot of 500m2. It wasn’t built with any intentions of being turned into an eco house; everything was very standard. When we first bought it, the dated decor, splash pool and expanses of concrete were a far cry from the dream we’d envisaged.
Luckily we could see past that, and the location sold it. Nestled amongst the olive groves with mountain views, we knew that the things we disliked could be changed. Step by step we’ve adapted our house to suit our eco ideals and needs, and the views still steal our breathe away. This is how we've turned into into a permaculture haven.
1) Create a garden
We were overwhelmed by the amount of concrete, paving slabs and aggregate we inherited when purchasing our house.
We were very keen to revert as much as possible back to soil and plants. We dug up the concrete, removed the large gravel driveway and planted as many flowers and herbs as we could fit in!
We now have a vegetable garden, wildlife ponds, a butterfly garden and plenty of planted beds instead. It’s been beautiful to watch the wildlife attracted back into the garden that we’ve created.
Nowadays, tree frogs hop through the tomato plants and butterflies and bees flutter amongst the flowers. Living naturally means taking care of the space around you, but why not summon it in? Let’s invite mother nature in for a cup of tea and a natter, she’s great company.
2) Grow your own food
You can’t beat picking homegrown produce. Not only is it fresh and delicious, It’s satisfying to know that it’s free of chemicals.
We have no experience of growing food, and we’re making lots of mistakes, but we’re gradually learning how to make our garden productive.
In addition to growing vegetables, we’ve planted fruit trees and have a large walnut tree and nine olive trees.
We also have four chickens for laying eggs, which give us enough for ourselves and to gift and swap with our neighbours too. It’s extremely satisfying to eat a lunch made of homegrown produce. Sowing a few seeds is the first step, but watch out, it’s addictive!
Feed the soil and the soil will feed you back
3) Feed the soil
It’s a permaculture principle; feed the soil and the soil will feed you back.
Modern gardening is focused on taking nutrients from the soil and adding them back in the form of chemical fertilisers.
We enrich the soil with homemade compost, grow green cover crops, and make homemade fertilisers from stinging nettles. When we bought the house, we inherited very poor soil, filled with cement and sand. Over the last two years, we’ve been adding compost and feeding the plants. We can notice a huge difference; the plants look lush and healthy.
4) Heating the house
Believe it or not, the sun doesn’t always shine in Greece. The winters, although shorter, can be very wet and cold. We don’t have a gas/oil/electric central heating system, instead, we heat our home with a log burner.
The wood is sourced locally and we supplement it with our own wood from the trees we have. Additionally, we forage firewood when we’re out walking our dog Dora. We enjoy the satisfaction that we aren’t reliant on fossil fuels, and when it’s cold and rainy outside, our favourite thing is to snuggle around the fire with a cup of tea.
5) Use grey water
All our waste water and sewage used to be diverted into a large underground soak-away. The theory was that the contents would seep away into the surrounding soil. We realised that two valuable resources (water and waste) were being combined to create toxic sewage that could have been utilised better.
We now divert all the water from the kitchen and bathroom into the flower beds. We use natural soaps, eco friendly washing-up liquid and homemade cleaning products. The plants are thriving on the grey water and our water consumption is on the decline.
Living in a hot climate means that we have an abundance of sunlight waiting to be harnessed.
During the summer we predominantly use our solar cookers to cook and boil our food and hot drinks. In the winter we utilise the log burner as it’s already heating the house up. Although we still have an electric cooker, we don’t use it much. This means that we’re reducing our reliance on electricity.
7) Green cleaning
A few years ago we were buying all of our cleaning products. We tried to opt for the greenest options, but even those had a list of questionable ingredients on the back. We have now transitioned over to homemade cleaning products. Not only are they chemical free, they are very cheap and inexpensive to make.
8) Composting toilet
Our friends and family thought we were crazy to remove our flushing toilet and put a composting toilet in its place. “Why would you go backwards?” They asked us. It depends how you view it, we think it’s wasteful to flush litres and litres of clean water away unnecessarily.
Moreover waste from the toilet can be composted down and used in the garden. It’s socially acceptable to use animal waste in the garden, but not human waste. We’re challenging that theory and are showing our friends and family that our toilet isn’t smelly or unhygienic, it’s just different to the norm.
9) Foraging and swapping
Where’s the fun in only growing food for yourself? When we have excess produce, we swap with our neighbours or give away to friends.
Becoming completely self sufficient is not our goal. We like to feel part of the community by exchanging. Other people are growing things we don’t have and vice versa. Equally the environment around you is abundant with wild plants that can be eaten if you have the knowledge. We’ve foraged wild asparagus, wild greens, figs and carobs from the countryside close to our house.
10) Reducing waste
Our aim is to get to the point of not needing any bins in the house. Becoming zero waste is our goal. We’ve drastically reduced our waste by using reusable produce bags, sourcing loose produce, growing some of our food and making choices about what we buy and how it’s packaged. Despite all this, we still produce some rubbish and recycling. We still have a way to go yet.
Although we’ve made progress, there’s still a lot more to be done. Since implementing some of the above techniques, we’ve thought of better solutions. What’s more, we’ve also got lots of projects in the pipeline.
This autumn and winter will be focused on storing the rain water and adding a back boiler to our log burner. In Greek you commonly hear the phrase siga, siga - slowly, slowly. I think they’ve got the right idea…there’s always tomorrow.
You can follow Steph's permaculture journey to become zero waste on her blog, Sidestepping Normal, where she writes about living a simple life in Greece alongside her husband and their growing menagerie of animals.