A “manifesto” house of integral ecology in Italy’s Veneto region

Is it possible to live in a place without polluting, without disfiguring the environment, and at the same time to live there comfortably while saving money? Giorgio Malavasi, journalist and chief editor of the Italian Catholic weekly 'Gente Veneta' managed to answer this question by renovating a farmhouse in the town of Spinea, inspired by Laudato si'.

By Aurora Simionato – Venice*

Talking about integral ecology in domestic life is a considerable challenge now-a-days: sustainability is often associated with the idea of inconvenience or renunciation, while comfort and the modernity of a building are immediately associated with expensive and ecologically unfriendly high-tech solutions.

However, in this match between livability and sustainability, there is no longer space for winners and losers: instead, we need a deep and careful reflection on the possibilities offered to us today by technology in favour of an ecological lifestyle that respects our common home, which is certainly more useful.

This is what Pope Francis asks of us, and Giorgio Malavasi, a journalist of 'Gente Veneta', the diocesan weekly of the Patriarchate of Venice, knows this well. Since 2021 he has been living in his new home in Spinea, in the province of Venice, which is entirely designed according to the inspiring principles of integral ecology. The 160-square-meter house is designed in every detail to make the most of the energy produced naturally, and guarantee a high quality of life at a very low cost for the whole family.

Thanks to his research work in the field of environmental issues, Giorgio was able to find a solution that could respond to the principles of ecological sustainability, landscape care, and economic saving. His strong sensitivity for ecology, which he matured after reading of the Encyclical Laudato si', led him to carry out an ambitious project aimed at complete energy self-sufficiency, which he practically has almost achieved.

The work plan started with the renovation of a dilapidated farmhouse, to which the Venetian journalist dedicated his time and energy to recover as many materials as possible, with a view to recycling. Tiles for the roof, wooden beams and bricks were then reused to preserve the historical memory of the place and ensure the least possible waste.

Using the resources that the earth has made available to each of us, the entire structure is almost energetically self-sufficient and the house is not connected to the gas network. Thanks to an underground piping system and the excellent insulation of the fixtures, the temperature remains warm in winter and cool in summer, allowing the house to obtain an energy self-sufficiency of around 85% over the year.

Giorgio Malavasi in front of his sustainable house
Giorgio Malavasi in front of his sustainable house

Domestic relationships enlightened by Laudato si'

In addition to the purely technical aspect, the launch of this project inspired by the canons of integral ecology has also transformed the lifestyle of the Malavasi family, composed of Giorgio, his wife Daniela and their two sons Francesco and Giulio, increasing its quality on a personal and relational level.

Visiting the building, we get the impression that the real change is not given so much by the comfort of the house, but by the fact that, as a result of how it was designed, more quality time is available for everyone.

“For example,” he explains, “in the old house the heating was obtained thanks to a wood-burning fireplace. Fire has many pleasant aspects, including that of creating a domestic, intimate atmosphere, but it takes up a lot of time: you had to collect the wood, stack it, load the fireplace, light it and then clean out the ashes… We can now dedicate that time to ourselves and to relationships in the family and with other people.”

There are not many eco-sustainable buildings built like the house in Spinea, probably also because of the long work to gather the materials. Also, for many buildings, houses or facilities it is impossible to source building material suitable for new constructions, and even where it is possible, it is not a consolidated practice.

“To do this, costs increase,” explains Malavasi, “unless those commissioning the work take the job on themselves, as we did by dedicating a few hours of our time to demolishing and recovering every little bit with a pickaxe, hammer and chisel. It is a time and energy-consuming effort, but which gives great satisfaction, and most importantly, gives concreteness to that 'no' to the culture of waste that the Pope himself urges us to cry out and put into practice."

Giorgio, who has always been passionate about the environment, says he is aware that he has done something beautiful and good for our Common home. “Every corner of this house,” he says, “echoes Pope Francis’s appeals for the care of Creation. For a number of reasons these appeals still go unheeded. Moreover, we are often led to think, erroneously, that in order to live sustainably we need to invest money that most people don't have, and instead all we need is to understand, study, become passionate, and wanting to make a difference.”

“I have read Laudato si' several times to understand how my family and I too could contribute perhaps by setting an example, and I realized that paragraph 180 of the Encyclical explicitly invites us to build or renovate our homes so as to reduce pollution at the maximum and to turn towards renewable sources.”

There are no uniform recipes, because each country or region has its own problems and limitations. It is also true that political realism may call for transitional measures and technologies, so long as these are accompanied by the gradual framing and acceptance of binding commitments. At the same time, on the national and local levels, much still needs to be done, such as promoting ways of conserving energy. These would include favouring forms of industrial production with maximum energy efficiency and diminished use of raw materials, removing from the market products which are less energy efficient or more polluting, improving transport systems, and encouraging the construction and repair of buildings aimed at reducing their energy consumption and levels of pollution. (LS 180)

Photo-voltaic panels installed on the roof
Photo-voltaic panels installed on the roof

The principles of an ecological renovation

In building his sustainable home, Giorgio Malavasi identified three fundamental principles that should underpin innovation and ingenuity in the renovation and construction of a housing compound according to the paradigm of integral ecology proposed by Pope Francis.

In the first place, there is the need not to waste resources, not only during the building process, but also in a future perspective: studying a structure that is thermally insulated allows you to save energy in the long term, making the most of the potential offered by the surrounding environment, as well as using the resources needed for heating or cooling.

The second principle is linked to the use of renewable and clean energies, a great step that allows saving and respecting the environment by largely if not completely giving up the use of energy produced by coal plants or gas. The Venetian journalist has installed a photovoltaic system and storage batteries in his home that allow excess energy to be stored so it can be used when energy production is low.

Finally, the last fundamental ingredient for an ecological renovation is the "relationship with historical memory", that is, the respect and recovery of material from the previous home or building. Not only does this allow one to significantly save on the cost of building materials, such as roof tiles, beams or bricks, but it creates a link between the old and the new, between modernity and the original identity of that environment. An integral ecology that does not forget its roots and its history, but enhances them by drawing something new and beautiful from them.

The renovation project was overseen by the architect Denise Tegon on a portion of the dilapidated farmhouse, from which many materials were recovered, including beams and planks—probably from the late 1800s, early 1900s—in addition to the tiles then used for the porch flooring. A 24-cm-thick coat of wood fiber was applied to the walls, while a 30-cm-thick insulation, also in wood fiber, was applied on the roof. On the top of the building, 27 photovoltaic panels have been installed for a total power of 10 kWh and the excess electricity is regularly accumulated in 16 kWh batteries.

Finally, the house is equipped with a geothermal system installed one meter under the ground, which exploits the almost constant temperature of the soil (between 12 and 14 degrees Celsius depending on the season) and operates through an air exchanger. Thanks to geothermal energy, the house is in fact heated in winter, and cooled down in summer.

"There is always a way,” concludes Malavasi, “to implement the change necessary for the survival of humanity and the environment: the first one is undoubtedly to change mentality, becoming promoters of that ecological conversion that passes through our minds, our attitudes, but also through our hands and a skillful work.”


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27 December 2022, 17:05