conversation with sustainer homes about zero impact living
all images courtesy of sustainer homes





in the outskirts of amsterdam, there is a courages team made up of creatives, sociologists, architects and technology experts that are working on the future of home livability. the young group at sustainer homes are scared of rising rent, sprawling cities, and unprecedented amounts of energy uncertainty in their lives. so they’ve decided to take it upon themselves to make housing much more affordable, sustainable and flexible than anything offered on the market of today. the team focused on four attributes: energy, air and heating, water collection and disposal, and materials. the result of their developments is a fully independent, self sufficient and comfortable container home with a price point made available to everyone. 






the electricity for the home is produced by a combination of solar panels and wind mills to make sure the home has enough energy for regular consumption, year round. a high efficient heat pump combined with high grade insulation makes it warm in the winter and cool in the summer. water is collected from the roof of the container, and filtered for safe drinking. all the used water afterwords is filtered through helophyte filter (a plant based filter), which then is releases back into the ground. sustainer homes decided to have all the materials for construction be reused as well as recyclable. this makes the home ready for this generation of consumers, and the next. the company plans on expand to accommodate hotels, cottages and even emergency housing needs, where local infrastructure systems are difficult to connect to.

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-03inside interior of the prototype model





designboom spoke with the sustainability architect, sol van kempen at sustainer homes to help explain the future of housing developments, and to answer the problematic question: – do people really need to change their habits to be able to live in their self sustaining home?


designboom: where did this idea of creating a company solely focused on self sustaining shipping containers come from? 
sol van kempen: I think a couple of things came together in the concept. as young starters, it was really hard to find an affordable place to live. we first came up with the idea of converting a van into a home, but then quickly shifted towards containers, which were a lot of bigger, were perfect for modular building, and made the whole concept transportable, and with that, super flexible. we designed the off-grid systems start of this year, comparing the production of energy we could realize (given also 20 years of Dutch climate data) with the consumption patterns of a regular household, and it turned out that according to all our models this could actually be done. so we built the first one this summer. the concept that we have now represents a lot of things we find important: affordability, flexibility, sustainability, and perhaps most of all: the chance to become independent.  

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-04solar panels installed on the roof





DB: the word ‘sustainability’ is being thrown around a lot these days. clearly define what you think a sustainable product/home really is. 
SvK: I think you’re absolutely right. because sustainability is hard to quantify it can be used by a wide range of producers and developers far too easily. in our vision sustainability consists of both social and enviroemental aspects. on the social  spectrum we want to build housing for people that cant afford to live comfortably and flexible at the moment. regarding environmental issues our vision goes even further. we strive to build a house that is not only fully self sufficient and sustainable in use, but also has a minimal impact in the construction process itself. in order to do this we harvest rainwater and filter it, we have one of the worlds first mobile systems to locally treat waste water and we have enough energy to go the year round without ever needing to use fossil fuels (even in the Dutch winter!). during the build we try to use the most sustainable materials that we can find. for example, we use a second hand shipping container and build the whole interior out of ecoboard, a plating material that consists solely out of compressed reed. in this sense, we differ from housing that uses lots of materials to make the home energy efficient (e.g. lots of extra glass, concrete, and insulation), but is not necessarily more sustainable, because extra energy is expended in the production of the home. for us, it’s about building homes with the least impact on the environment, both in production and during its lifetime. 

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-05simply transportation options





DB: you include solar panels, wind mills and rainwater systems into every project. do people drastically need to change their lifestyle, to conform to finite amounts of resources? 
SvK: the short answer is no. we have based our climate models on a regular one- to two- person household so that most people dont have to make serious concessions in living standards. one way to do this is by making the house smart. in the winter months when energy production is on an all-time low the house will provide you with information on how much energy you are using and it will tell you if your five hour oven meal is draining the batteries. the same is true for water in summer. of course we also use extremely energy- and water saving machinery to reduce the need for these resources. you can’t shower eternally, and you will be made aware of activities that costs lots of energy, but perhaps it’s actually not so bad that we are put back in touch with the fact that our energy and water supplies, also in grid tied houses, are in fact not infinite.

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-06the team from left to right: sol van kempen (architect), gert van vugt (CEO), niek schoenmakers (interior design), stephanie heckman (community design & marketing), jacintha baas (business development), nick de haas (cleantech & construction advisor), wolf bierens (CTO)





DB: are you getting a lot friction from city councils and bylaws when creating your shipping containers for specific neighbors?
SvK: we see that the fact that this house is more sustainable than almost every other building alternative makes the city councils quite eager to think along with us, and quite a few have actually helped us a lot in order to find solutions to many new regulatory issues. we have been in touch with many municipalities from the very start in order to find out what questions we had to address and have gotten a lot of positive feedback from that. one of the things we found out is that making the house mobile makes it a lot easier to avoid complex permit procedures, which are far tighter for permanent structures. in the Netherlands, for example, you can get temporary permits for up to  10 years with relatively low amounts of hassle. that being said, we still have a lot to learn in this regard – especially in other countries – and are working together with potential customers to find our what their local regulatory hurdles are.

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-07water systems diagram 





DB: your company can signal handily solve the suburban sprawl problem in north america. where do you see most of your challenges when creating homes for the general public? 
SvK: we have high hopes for the north american market. the market for off-grid housing in the U.S. is growing rapidly, and although the U.S. version of off-grid living is not necessarily always very sustainable, we see that the idea of the freedom from oil-water and electricity companies is considered quite appealing. the main challenge for creating homes for the general public is probably local regulations (especially for permanent housing) and in a positive sense, a challenge to drive the price down in order to make off-grid living accessible for even more people. perhaps it’s interesting to note that in suburbs, where most transport occurs by car, the sustainer could also provide quite a bit of excess electricity in the summer, which in turn can be used to power an electric car for free. we’re constantly working on new ways to make your home and environment smart.

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-08the home combines solar and wind power 





DB: we’re very impressed that you can fit all this self sustaining technology into a shipping container, what was the hardest part in designing all of these systems? 
SvK: right now the hardest part is solving the energy needs. although it is hard to make the water and waste systems work, generating enough energy in the winter for the lowest possible price by making the house work in a smart way was by far the hardest. in this, we’re benefitting from very large strides in sustainable technology in the last couple of years – in fact, I would say that only a year ago, we wouldn’t have had the technology to make this possible. every day, sustainable energy systems are getting more efficient and more affordable. our technological partners have also done a great job re-modelling systems previously designed for e.g. yachts, saunas or permanent homes, to fit our concept of sustainable, small and affordable living. off course the size restricton was also a very serious challenge. we have done countless redesigns of both interior and systems in order to make it a pleasant house which feels a lot bigger than it actually is. 

sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-09capable of being placed anywhere


sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-10sustainer homes offer a cottage option 


sustainer-homes-intro-interview-designboom-11the shipping containers can merge with skyscrapers and urban landscapes