International architects were asked to design a village of eco-homes in Tenerife. And they’re now available as holiday lets
Among Tenerife’s big attractions are a Thai-themed water park where visitors can surf on fake waves, and a zoo that keeps its penguins chilled with the help of a snow machine. Then there are the all-you-can-eat hotel buffets, where as much food is thrown away as is eaten. You might be forgiven for believing that the closest Tenerife comes to green thinking is sloshing Midori into the “mile highball” cocktails.
Yet Tenerife is further along the sustainable line than you might expect: 47.5% of the island is protected under national, natural or rural park designation. And there are plans for a new railway line running the length of the island. Greenest of all is a €10m building project, Casas Bioclimáticas, started in 1995 on land belonging to Tenerife’s Technological Institute of Renewable Energies (Iter), near Reina Sofía airport on the south coast.
Architects submitted ideas for a village of “bioclimatic” homes – adapted to the local climate and self-sufficient in their energy needs. From 397 entries, 25 houses were selected and, five at a time, they are being built. The project opened to the public in March 2010 (though the final few houses are still under construction) and the finished properties are available as unusual holiday lets.
“We need tourists to try them out,” says Miren Iriarte, the project’s development manager, meeting us at Iter headquarters, beside the village. Each house, she explains, has been built using different technological solutions to the sustainability problem, from thick walls and solar panels to underground rooms, high-grade insulation, sensors that switch off lights when people leave the rooms, taps with aerators to reduce water flow and wind-powered air conditioning. Water comes from the sea, via the village’s desalination plant and all the houses are built using natural, recyclable materials.
Crucially (and this is where the tourists come in), each house is fitted with sensors that test temperature, humidity and air movement – and compare the data with that taken from external sensors. The scientists need the houses to be occupied if they are to gather valid data.
“Without occupants,” says Miren, “the doors, windows and curtains are not opened and closed, and humidity is not created in the bathrooms and kitchens.” Eventually this monitoring will tell Iter which building solutions work best and, they hope, allow the houses to be replicated in any area with a similar climate.
The first house we visit, La Estrella, is built from pale yellow pumice stone in, as the name suggests, a sleek star shape. “The stone is local,” says Miren. “Some materials, like wood, have to be imported – you have to compromise when you live on an island.”
The Madrid-based architects behind La Estrella orientated the building east-west to make the most of natural light. Kitchens have induction plates, energy-efficient appliances and four rubbish bins – for glass, paper, plastic and compost. The garden has been planted with local species.
“Generally 30-50% of the energy used on Tenerife is in homes, so there is a real need to find a way of reducing that,” explains Miren. “Another aim is to show that sustainable building can be beautiful.”
In the case of La Estrella and the third house we see, French-designed El Rio, with its high glass walls, Habitat-showroom furniture and a “river” running through the lounge area, it definitely is. In the second house, Noche y Día, the beauty is of a more distressed kind. Gloomy inside, with high chipboard walls, Noche y Día has flatpack cardboard furniture that even Miren finds hard to praise: “This is not very sustainable – the cardboard soon deteriorates and you have to keep replacing it.”
The village’s only British-designed house, Casa Bernoulli, hasn’t quite come up to expectations either, as we see when we step inside and are met with rain-stained wood and plaster. “People think it’s always sunny here and it’s not,” says Miren. “We want guests who stay with us to enjoy the experience, but they will also be helping us to test which houses work perfectly and which need improving.”
As laboratories go, it sounds pretty cushy. So I ask if we can stay there, this evening, as we’re leaving the island next day. Gamely, even though it’s Easter and Miren is about to head away for the weekend, she agrees. “Give me your passport numbers and a credit card and come back this afternoon. I’ll leave a key and all the information on the gate.” She smiles, kissing us goodbye. “It’s a wonderful place to enjoy. You’ll have a different experience.”
And we do. There are no other guests that night, so although we have the key to just one house, Italian-designed El Caminito, we have the village to ourselves.
Accompanied by the gentle whirr and slightly spooky sight of Iter’s wind turbines, we explore our slightly Truman Show surroundings. From the outside, El Caminito is not the most winsome of “architectural solutions” – it’s surrounded by what appear to be unfinished Lego-like blocks of pumice stone – but there is a pretty vegetable patch, ripe with lettuces and tomatoes.
Inside, there is no indication that we’re being monitored (the sensors must be tiny, or very well-hidden). The decor is simple but smart, with an open-plan living and dining area, two bathrooms, two double bedrooms, two single bedrooms and a colour scheme that nods, ironically, to the 1980s with orange, brown and white details. There’s a bunch of wild flowers on the dining table and in the vast – and well-equipped – wooden kitchen we find supplies of milk, tea and coffee – and organic cocoa pops. (Guests can hang a little bag outside their door, and it is miraculously filled with fresh bread overnight.)
We stroll around Iter’s educational garden, watching the wind turbines reflected in its ponds, then head to the beach, a wild rocky cove five minutes’ walk from El Caminito, where locals have camped out to fish and to party.
If we were staying longer we could hike through the “moonscape” around the village of Vilaflor, spot seabirds in the Montaña Roja nature reserve or go windsurfing. As it is there’s really only time for dinner. Miren has left a note and a map. “El Médano is a nice village 10 minutes from here. I suggest Restaurante Astillero Avencio, but there are plenty of others. Enjoy it! M.”
An hour later we are at Astillero Avencio (+34 922 178220) by El Médano’s harbour, eating grilled fish, drinking wine from the local Monje winery and toasting sustainable living.
We wake next morning to a jet-fuelled alarm clock. At 6.30am a stream of planes begins flying over as they land or take off on the nearby runway. The project wasn’t designed to remind guests how profligate their own energy use is, but staying at El Caminito has prompted us to go a bit easier on resources – and the vapour trails being crocheted together overhead are a good reminder why we need to.