“Building should be simple, fast, and should not require special skills, at least on a small scale,” argues Sami Juola, CEO of Earth House.
Earth House offers sustainable homes that can be built in 14 days by fewer than 25 people without the footprint left by traditional construction techniques.
Juola points out the irony: his family pedigree is in steel and concrete. His father and Earth House partner, architect Tuomo Juola, designed Finland’s first all-steel office building.
It was his father’s idea to create the Earth House. “Our first idea was to serve areas of catastrophe by creating a replacement for tents,” says Juola, who notes that the tent is still the most widely used solution for catastrophe areas.
“In refugee camps the average time for people to live in tent is more than three years. There should at least be a transitional shelter, something other than just a tent.” An Earth House structure’s first stage can be finished in 24 hours and serve as the skeleton for a tent. It then maybe be added to as required, until it’s a complete home.
But the catastrophe-relief idea was not an immediate success. The buyers for the emergency and catastrophe business are few, and often governments or NGOs who are quite conservative. “Even though we’re on the UN vendor list, doesn’t mean we can do business with the UN,” says Juola. “It’s a long road.”
The long road took a detour – to Zambia.
Earth House has created a scalable home, a 75-square-meter turnkey solution with the price of approximately 35,000 euros. At this price, the home offers clean water, sanitation, hygiene, and limited energy supply. The home is built with modular steel frames, inlaid adobe brick insulation, and plastered with clay both inside and out. Local labor and materials are used when available. The finished price is 20 to 30 percent cheaper than a traditional structure, including a 10 to 15 percent profit margin for Juola’s company.
These numbers require volume, however, and 100 structures are needed – basically a village. When you need to sell a whole village, where do you turn? It turns out, to a mining company.
To begin to reach the needed scale requires contracts with approximately 15 to 30 families. “We make a deal with the families, and mining companies guarantee the loans,” says Juola.
Mining companies like Canada’s Barrick Gold Corporation need housing for junior staff in Zambia’s copper belt. Barrick’s safety standards rival that of anywhere in the west, says Juola, and its in their interest to support a sustainable local economy.
Barrick, however, is able to buy only three percent of what it needs from Zambia. The country lacks a supply chain and distribution channels.
“The community around the mine has everything,” says Juola, “but it’s being sold in five kilo quantities by families.” These are amounts too small for the mining company to deal with. “So we created the mechanism to enable collection from many families: centralized storage.”
The Earth House agri-storage facility, constructed using the same technique and technology as its homes, can store the production of 200 families. At these larger quantities, Barrick will guarantee they’ll buy a family’s production. “It’s a win-win case for all involved,” says Juola. “The mining company gets a better product at lower price in a sustainable way. The local residents get a foundation for livelihood.”
From one agri-storage unit comes a positive spiral of benefits. “Families then have income which can be used to build a proper bored well. Children stay in school, because then they don’t have to carry water all day.“
Juola says this aspect was not understood in the beginning. “It’s an example of living and learning. We were there to sell houses, but the women told us that they needed livelihoods. They could buy homes only if they first had an economic basis for doing so.”
Earth House currently guarantees 80 percent of labor and materials sourced locally. “For the other 20 percent we want to be as sustainable as possible,” says Juola, and so he has chosen to source from Finland’s greenest companies, and those who share his values of social responsibility.
Ensto has supplied connectors, luminaires, and distribution boards for Earth House. And while its products are green, they also just make sense: “EnstoNet is a click-in solution which does not require specialists to install. We can’t go wrong with it.”
Juola’s vision is for Earth House suppliers to see merit in investing in developing markets and local production. “A local solution with Ensto standards. That’s our long-term goal.”
Earth House is now beginning to see some success on the long road to developing countries. A few prototype homes have been constructed, thanks to a deal made in December 2013.
A family is constructing an organic farm education center in Northeastern Zambia, and an additional 12 buildings are slated for construction using Earth House technology. And so it’s perhaps only fitting that Earth House is also a family company with what might be considered a family approach toward business.
“Our design is open source,” Juola says. “We don’t patent anything. Even though we come from as far away as Finland, we believe building a strong brand and choosing the right partners will protect us.”
Author: Scott Diel