When temperatures drop to sub-zero in the Swedish winter, most residents leave their summer homes behind for warmer properties. But Marie Granmar and Charles Sacilotto came up with a creative way to make their house inhabitable all year round. They decided to build a greenhouse around their home – and it changed everything.
Granmar is a civil engineer who also works as a science journalist. During the past two and a half decades of her career, she has written for newspapers as well as working in television and radio. What’s more, Granmar penned a book called Operation Child, which came out in 2013.
Granmar is in a relationship with Sacilotto, and they share a young son. Sacilotto, who hails from France, works as a teacher at Naka Gymnasium school in Stockholm but also trained as an engineer. And that sparked his interest in creating the unique home that the couple inhabit in Sweden.
Sacilotto’s mentor was the late eco-architect Bengt Warne. He lived from 1929 to 2006 and was known for his work that connected people with nature. In particular, he was revered for creating a “nature house,” in which a living area was surrounded by glass to make it more environmentally friendly.
“Even if ecology has been misunderstood as moralistic, boring, uncomfortable and expensive, it is now proved to be radically the opposite,” Warne once said. “Living in a greenhouse gives architecture a fourth dimension, where time is represented by movements of naturally recycled endless flows of growth, sun, rain, wind and soil in plants, energy, air, water and earth. I call this NATUREHOUSING.”
Evidently, Sacilotto was enthused by what Warne had created through his work. So just like the architect, he decided to develop his own nature house. It wasn’t the couple’s original intention to build a greenhouse around an existing property, but he explained that in the end, that move made the most sense.
“The first idea was to build a new house. But since it was so difficult to find a lot around Stockholm, we did it here,” Sacilotto explained when the couple gave Fair Companies a tour of their distinctive home in 2015. Instead, they worked with something that was readily available. “It was a big lot with a small tea house,” he added. “We decided to build the Nature House around this small house.”
Sacilotto continued, “In fact it was the architect Bengt Warne who designed the greenhouse. And afterward we built and enlarged the house inside the greenhouse.” The property that they chose was in an area close to the city of Stockholm. But most people would not live there throughout the year.
“From the beginning, this was an area of summer houses just outside of Stockholm,” Granmar said, explaining that it wasn’t designed for cold climates. “It would not be a very nice place to live in the winter unless you had very good heating. This was a summer house. It was not really made for year-round living.”
However, that was the point behind the inspiration. “That was also part of the idea, that you could actually put this greenhouse around the summer house and actually live in it with nice comfort all year round,” Granmar said. “The greenhouse is the big thing here to save your own energy and the energy from the sun, to use that heat in a natural way and not being too cold in winter, even in the Nordic climate.”
Inspired by Warne, Sacilotto installed glass that is four millimeters (one-seventh inch) thick around the outside of the property, and it cost him approximately $84,000. “This is a normal greenhouse like any greenhouse you can buy on the market,” Granmar said. “This idea of building your own house inside, it’s like a bubble.”
Furthermore, Sacilotto explained that it wasn’t dangerous to be surrounded by the glass, because it was designed so that it couldn’t hurt them even if it smashed. “It’s security glass,” he told Fair Companies. “So in principle, this can’t break. If it ever does, it will break in tiny pieces to not harm anyone.”
The greenhouse makes the most of the natural elements. But it also protects Sacilotto and Granmar from them at the same time. The glass prevents any wind or rain coming through and landing on the building itself, meaning that the structure of the house inside doesn’t require a lot of maintenance.
In fact, the couple restored the house using linseed oil, which according to Granmar is “all that’s needed” to protect the wood because it’s not exposed to the weather. She divulged, “It makes it simpler to take care of. That is also made possible when we save our own solar energy because then you don’t need a lot of insulation.”
The solar energy warms up the property, and it doesn’t need much sunlight to make a difference. However, that is not to say that it’s always temperate in Sacilotto and Granmar’s property. “It’s a house that’s very dependent on the sun,” Sacilotto shared. “If there’s no sun, it’s almost the same temperature inside and outside.”
Granmar agreed, “Even in this greenhouse it gets cold in the winter. If you have minus 20 degrees outside, it gets maybe minus ten in here, so we still need some insulation and we also have heating inside of course.” Nevertheless, Sacilotto explained that it “only takes a bit of sun for the temperature to rise.”
The couple revealed that in January, it can be below freezing outside. But as long as there is some sunshine, the temperature within the greenhouse would be like a warm spring day. Granmar pointed out that while it’s not always the ideal temperature, they appreciate what a difference it does make – and how much it saves them from needing further insulation.
“This is not a house where you get a perfect climate all year round,” Granmar said. “It’s more like an older house that varies with the season. So it could be a little cold in the mornings in the winter when you step up. You need to put warm shoes on and you need a fire.”
As well as getting cold in the winter, it also can be hot during the summer. But it’s not an issue for Granmar, Sacilotto and their son. “We open the windows big and then we enjoy the heat because we like the sun,” Granmar said. “It’s also what your expectations are.”
Granmar rationalized that because they used a standard greenhouse, it can’t entirely replace heating. “We are not expecting this house to warm us with solar energy all year round. We don’t have a tropical greenhouse,” she added. Instead, it minimizes the amount they have to use their internal heating system.
According to Granmar, it’s not uncommon for people in the area to have the heating on from September to May. But because of the greenhouse, her family is able to use it just from October to March. “What’s interesting here is that we can shorten that period quite a lot,” she said. “We’re cutting off several months a year that we don’t need any other heating.”
However, that doesn’t mean it’s outside of the realms of possibility. Granmar said that they are “wasting a lot” of their solar energy by letting it out. But it could be possible to save that and use it to be completely self-sufficient when it comes to their heating – and this is something they may consider in future.
“That would be very nice. But we haven’t bought that system yet,” Granmar said. “It’s a living lab, and there are lots of opportunities. We just need money and time actually to develop it. We’ve done this so far, and I’m sure there will be more to it later on.”
The house is designed to make use of as much solar energy as possible. So Granmar and Sacilotto removed the roof of the property and replaced it with a terrace that allows the sunlight directly onto the building. They now make use of the space as an “extra living area.”
And Sacilotto and Granmar’s son enjoys playing on the terrace, which gets more sun than other areas of the home. There’s also a part of the greenhouse roof that will open and close automatically depending on the weather. In the summer, it will open to release some heat and prevent it from becoming too hot inside.
But Sacilotto and Granmar didn’t just create their unusual home to save them money on heating. You see, it’s more about making the most of what they have around them to live – and using little else. “It’s all a philosophy of life,” Sacilotto said. “To use nature, the sun, water, to live in another world.”
And surrounding their home with a greenhouse didn’t just change the couple’s lives by keeping them warm in the winter. Far more than being just about temperature, they vowed to create as little waste as possible. So Sacilotto used his engineering skills to build a sewage system that fulfilled this mission.
The couple has a toilet that separates urine from the solid waste through centrifugal force. It also saves water by using only two or three deciliters – or roughly one U.S. cup – to flush. The solid waste goes into a tank that is then emptied into the compost approximately every six months.
The liquid waste goes into a cistern, and the bacteria are killed off. “It’s not worse than changing a baby’s diaper,” Sacilotto said. “It was a really interesting project because I’m an engineer by training. It’s a very simple system. Every time water arrives in the cistern, the same amount of water is sent by gravity.”
Eventually, the liquid, along with water used from the bathroom and dishwasher, can go into feeding plants within the greenhouse and providing fertilization for them. Everything else travels underground through the garden and into an outdoor pond. Although that water can’t be consumed, the couple monitors the levels of bacteria and sends samples to a lab for testing.
“If you want to be self-sufficient and not depend on bigger systems, you can have this. You can live anywhere you like,” Granmar said. “Another thing is that it does go back to the nature where there are plants around that could take care of it instead of going straight into the ocean, for example.”
What’s more, the greenhouse enables Granmar and Sacilotto to grow their own fruit and vegetables. In particular, they grow tomatoes and cucumbers. And they also have a fig tree that normally wouldn’t be able to thrive in the Swedish climate. “They don’t survive actually if it gets minus degrees,” Granmar explained.
Granmar continued, “You have to be interested in gardening. Me and my four-year-old son, we put some small seeds in the soil, and now we have tomatoes growing a meter (a bit more than a yard) high. We were really happy with seeing these tomatoes through the window here because it’s the result of our own work.”
Additionally, the couple grows grapes that they turn into juice and they keep goldfish. But the long winter can make gardening a tricky task, even with a greenhouse. “Growing things here is not easy, so we need all the extra energy and extra light that we can get,” Granmar said.
Living in their natural house has given Granmar a totally different perspective on the world. She admitted that while lots of people living in Sweden were moaning about the cold and rain during the winter, it didn’t bother her. “I didn’t consider that such a big problem,” she said. “Why is that? Maybe because we are not that touched by those problems.”
And while the couple may describe it as like being in a “bubble” at times, they make the most of their situation. Granmar revealed that she used to live in apartments but wouldn’t use her balconies when it was raining. Now she can be within the greenhouse even when there’s wet weather and still feel as if she is outside.
Granmar and Sacilotto may still have a way to go before their home becomes entirely self-sufficient. But they are making the most of what they can do. On top of their sewage system, they collect rainwater and use it to water the plants and also use their own wood for fuel.
Now decades after Warne first came up with the idea of his nature house, others are cottoning on to the benefits of greenhouses. “The idea of having a greenhouse connected to houses is getting more and more common in Sweden,” Granmar said. However, she added that it’s still “unusual” to have a home covered with one like they do.
More than one year after the release of the video by Fair Companies, Granmar revealed that she was working on writing a book about her life inside the greenhouse. She even started a Kickstarter campaign to try and raise the funds to publish the book. However, it didn’t gain enough backers to come to fruition.
Nevertheless, Granmar declared that she hadn’t given up on hopes of creating the book. And she believes that it will help give readers a different perspective on the impact they are having on the planet. She shared on Kickstarter, “My goal is a personal, popular science book that raises debate on society’s use of resources – how should we build and live so that we don’t destroy Earth’s resources?”