A New Vision For Sustainable Urban Housing Combines Technology With Open Spaces

The Canopea project–winners of Europe’s Solar Decathlon–takes the best from both high-tech and natural solutions to create a city of stackable “nanotowers.”

As long as sustainable housing meant hay bales and off-the-grid, it was never going to inspire the masses. Now that sustainable is stylish, ubiquitous, and (increasingly) affordable, green housing is becoming a bit more mainstream in cities and suburbs: Just look at Britain’s “transition towns,” LEED-certification, and the spread of passive homes.


The Canopea project from France is looking to take this trend further by marrying the high technology aspects of sustainability–smart grids, super-efficient heating and cooling, and sustainable mobility–with the natural advantages of earthen walls, rooftop gardens, and indoor vegetation.

Canopea’s “nanotower” design (which won Europe’s Solar Decathlon competition), essentially stacks modular small single-family homes on floors with plenty of open spaces and vegetation. It tries to combine the efficiency and convenience of urban living with some of the lure of leafy suburbs. The nanotowers’ co-housing-style dwellings offer personal sleeping and bathing quarters, with shared cooking, laundry, garden, and recreation spaces. The design maxes out at 10 floors, to keep things dense yet manageable.

So far, the prototype–just the top housing floor and a common-space level have been built–has taken top honors in European competitions. But the Canopea team from the French region of Rhone-Alpes is set to see how far it can take it.

The biggest catch may still be the cost. Like many homes pushing the sustainable envelope, it doesn’t come cheap. Although the team hasn’t released the costs of Canopea’s construction, similar projects such as the Leaf House ran around half a million dollars. A response to these high prices (generally in connection with large national competitions such as the Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon) has been a new breed of competitions for sustainable homes that make cost a primary consideration. To wit, the Rocky Mountain Institute is now launching its own solar home competition, to encourage permanent green homes, at affordable prices, in cities around the country. Sustainable houses won’t mean much if only a few people can live in them.


About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment.