The 7 Green Building Techniques We Used to Design Our Dream Home

Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

When my husband and I decided to build a house in Sweden, we were under no impression that it’d be smooth sailing. Our greenish standards (some musts, some dreams) would require extra work. Especially with two little kids along for the ride. But when we found the land three years ago—a little over 12 acres, located in the very southern part of Sweden, close to stunning coastlines, epic beech tree forests, and nature reserves, as well as bigger cities like Copenhagen and Malmö—we knew we’d hit the jackpot. So we rolled up our sleeves and began. The idea was: Build a foundation, four walls, and a roof, and incorporate all the eco-friendly ideas, materials, and systems we had the time and budget to handle. Here are some of the more earth-kind choices we ended up being able to use in the building process.

Clay plaster

We have been lucky to work with one of Sweden’s greatest clay experts, Hanna Nilsson, and sourced local clay for plastering the walls. Some of the benefits of clay plaster are that It makes your walls nontoxic and 100 percent natural, lowers the exposure of electromagnetic radiation, and creates an incredible indoor environment by balancing humidity and clearing indoor airborne toxins. (Editor’s note: Clay naturally produces negative ions, which repel the dirt and grime that normally build up on walls.) It also feels amazing to touch—the end result is very alive and natural. Plus, the cost is comparable to standard plaster, most of which has toxic components.

Creamy plaster walls around a picture window.

Tadelakt

Tadelakt is a very old way of applying traditional Moroccan lime-based plaster that’s been used for centuries upon centuries (fun fact: It was used all through the Roman empire in aqueducts and baths). This gem of a plaster is breathable and, if well-made, works as ithough waterproof without needing any chemicals. It’s made of Moroccan lime, water, and pigment if you want to color it. Simple. The application method is not as simple—for example, during the last two steps of sealing the pores of the plaster and creating that trademark smooth surface, you use two different gemstones!—but the result is incredibly unique. My mum and I were guided by the brilliant Stucco Italiano, who helped us tadelakt the bathroom. It’s labor-intensive to create, but it’s a work of art.

The texture of the tadelakt bathroom walls is unbeatable (and waterproof!). Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

Paint + Finishes

We used two kinds of paint in the house: locally produced white flax oil paint for all wood panels, and egg oil temperas (made of eggs, water, flax oil, and natural pigment; not to be confused with tempura, which should stay in cooking and be kept off walls) for all clay plastered walls. The latter was quite the adventure, and I loved the process so much. Few things inspire me more than using materials that can go back to the earth as is, if there are leftovers, which is possible with both of these paints. For the doors we used two differently pigmented natural wax blends; for the stairway and wood floors, a white-pigmented flax soap with some added beeswax for extra durability; and for the concrete floors we used a natural wax blend, specifically made for concrete.

Flax soap blended with beeswax gave the stairs a glossy white tint, and the floors were also waxed. Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

Wood

The indoor roof, second-floor walls, and floors are all FSC wood (Forest Stewardship Council), which lets us know that the wood has been sourced with care, in a way that supports sustainable forestry. Using reclaimed wood is an even better idea if you can find a good source near you.

A sustainably sourced second floor that’s also very open to the rest of the house. Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

Insulation + Walls

This was a tough one in terms of cost, and we ended up having to use EPS (styrofoam) insulation in the foundation to make budget. Our walls are built with 50-centimeter-thick lightweight concrete blocks—these are full of air pockets that in themselves act as insulation, so our first floor is covered this way. An even greener (but pricier) choice would be to use similar blocks made of terra-cotta. Our roof and second floor are insulated with cellulose made of recycled paper by iCell, which is free of toxic flame retardants.

Behind the plaster, concrete blocks insulate the first floor walls. Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

Heating

Because we have so much land, the best option for us was geothermal heating, which we have built into the foundation. This way, we only had the initial cost of the installation and then the earth provides the rest. We also built a Finnish mass oven, which, as the name indicates, has the ability to hold and evenly distribute heat thanks to its mass. (One single mass oven can, if placed in the right spot, provide an entire home with all the heat it needs, if it’s used every other day—no electricity needed!) This beauty also has a baking oven, so sourdough pizza parties are definitely in our future.

This Finnish mass oven is capable of heating an entire house without electricity! Photo: Elenore Bendel Zahn

Sewage system

One of the things that required plenty of research was finding a good sewage system. We went with Alnarp Clearwater, which utilizes the properties of specific water plants and bacteria to filter all water coming from the house. Countless studies of this specific system have been done, and the water released into nature from an Alnarp Clearwater is much cleaner than any state-run system. Plus, it requires the addition of zero chemicals and does not cost a dime to manage, as opposed to other sewage systems available. Using fresh water to flush toilets is of course insane, but this was the thing that worked best for us where we are now.

  • If you are curious (like me) and want more info on our home, feel free to check out @Wildlyh on Instagram. There are also a few more in-depth articles on wildlyh-home.com

Elenore Bendel Zahn(*) / Architectural Digest

(*) Elenore Bendel Zahn is a chef, stylist, and photographer living with her family in the south of Sweden. Her background in organic gardening led her to imbue her modern, busy lifestyle with green-ish ideas, both personally and in her work.