This is one of the foundations of the life that Brigitte and Patrick Baronnet have created over the past 36 years with their project ‘La Maison Autonome’, the autonomous house. They explain that autonomy and spirituality are two very important pillars of ecology and these are inextricably linked to personal development. The word eco in ecology, economy, etc. comes from the Greek ‘eikos’ and means house, tells Patrick. Economy thus means: the management of the house. And a house reflects our interior. Unfortunately, the current economy is not taking care of this house (in the larger sense) at all, he adds. Patrick is not very fond of words such as sustainable development, which is by the way wrongly translated in French as ‘développement durable’. ‘Durable’ means something that lasts long, but is not necessarily sustainable. It should therefore say ‘soutenable’ in French. But apart from that, Patrick argues that the concept of sustainable development is too often used in a limited sense, not encompassing its depth, complexity, interdependency and wealth, including a spiritual level.
Ecology as it is meant to be
This couple is passionate about the real foundations of ecology and how important it is to be coherent and have a wider perspective on the whole concept. Ecology is not just about, as they emphasize, the environment, renewable energy, saving water, etc. It is also about personal development in a wider context of all aspects of life. This also incudes, continues Patrick passionately, a love for everything that lives, sharing, solidarity, water, health, nourishment, spirituality, etc. All these elements cannot be separated! Ecology is about connecting ecology and a ‘human’ economy. This has implications for the environment (in the large sense!) and has to be translated into every day actions on all levels, both personal and societal. “Ecology is about a simple and profound life.” This sounds familiar to me and relates very much to the concept used by Pierre Rabhi: ‘ la sobriété heureuse’ – happiness in simplicity!
Brigitte and Patrick have tried to harmonise ‘le bonheur’ and ‘la sobriété, happiness and simplicity, and at the same time joined together science, philosophy, intuition, common sense, practical expertise (‘savoir faire’), and leading technology. By ‘just’ doing it and being coherent, Brigitte and Patrick, became, without ever having this as a goal, an example and source of inspiration for sustainable living throughout France.
The autonomous house(s)
As they said: “A house reflects our interior.” Patrick and Brigitte, who raised four children, did it right from scratch. They started with their own house 40 years ago on a terrain of 3800 m2, now close to 2 hectares.
They installed and built themselves among others: solar cells for heating the water, they built their own 18m high windmill (2 Megawatt annually) and wind pump to pump the water from the wells to the house, they installed two large basins of each 4000 litres to collect the rain water coming from two other houses (3E and the Zome).
Furthermore of course adequate insulation, appropriate lighting, the use of dry toilets, solar heating for cooking, phyto-purification of the grey waters in their garden, composting, and at a later stage a so called mandala garden. The latter is now shared with a young couple with two children and another adult, who recently came to live on the terrain.
They left nothing to chance and Patrick loves finding solutions for whatever challenge! He constructed ingenious ways to hold doors open and to move shutters in between the window and the ceiling under a pitched roof. He also installed an adapted system so warm water can immediately be used in the washing machine, avoiding a waste of energy!
At a later stage two more houses were built on the terrain to host people for various other activities that the family Baronnet developed over the years.
The 3E house – ‘Entraide, Ecologie, Economie’ (mutual aid, ecology, economy), a simple and multi-functional building to host people for workshops etc. and where people can also stay.
Together with Brigitte I have practised the coating of a wall. A mixture of earth, flax straw (a natural product that has many other applications as well) and water. This coating was for aesthetic reasons, not for insulation.
The Zome, built in 2000, is a place to meditate. This is a unique building by its geometrics forms (it has 12 sides), its acoustics, no cement or reinforcements, walls made of hemp, lime and crushed bricks, and the roof made to collect the rain water, and last but not least by its soothing atmosphere.
Some surprising facts
Their achievements are quite remarkable, even more so as these involve many different activities. Just a selection:
- Since the past 15 years they have received some 70.000 visitors at this location, of which also high public officials.
- They organised the first ‘eco-festival’ in France in 1997, with 5000 visitors on their location.
- They stood at the cradle of the ‘Biocoop’ shop in Châteaubriant, some 25 years ago.
- About 80% food independency, this also thanks to a habit of eating mainly vegetables and crudity.
- They consume 4 KwH, three times less than the French average.
- They do not use a refrigerator (eating fresh from the garden and no meat makes a fridge obsolete!)
- Since 1996 no more use of the EDF electricity. They are 100% autonomous in energy by producing their own energy with wind and solar, covering all their needs. And yes, they do use a computer!
- They drink (filtered) rain water. This is officially not allowed in France. The taste was excellent and I also put it in my drinking cans on my bicycle when I moved on.
Ecology is affordable!
Brigitte and Patrick find it very important to show in practice that ecology does not have to be expensive. For them it is vital to break this myth and make eco-housing affordable. “If ecology would only be for the rich, it doesn’t make any sense”, they say. The 3E house for instance did cost less than 20.000 euros in materials.
More proof comes from the newly built yurt of wood en straw of Céline. This yurt of 35 m2 cost less than 10.000 Euros in materials! (photos) It was built in a so called ‘chantier participatif’, a participatory project with volunteers.
Céline is currently working on the interior finishing and I witnessed the work of a lady using Feng Shui to help her with that.
Transferring the expertise
Brigitte and Patrick wish to share their wealth of experience with others. ‘Diffuser’ is the key word, or ‘spread the news’ I would say. They do this in two ways, through pedagogics and the media. This means publishing books, articles, documentaries, giving interviews, doing presentations, organising workshops and hosting visitors in open door events. An important aspect is also to work together with other actors in Brittany and the Loire region, in order to influence public authorities in changing legislation that is counterproductive to real ecology.
Amazing to see the versatility of this couple and what they have created and achieved in real life over the years. Then to think that Patrick used to be a gym and yoga teacher, who left the security of the national educational system. And Brigitte was an English teacher and has a musical background. She plays the harp and the cello; beautifully as I could witness when she was preparing for another concert in autumn together with her children and others. She also composes music. La maison autonome is indeed a house full of richness!
Further reading and videos
Below books are in French and published by La Maison Autonome.
More detailed facts and figures and ‘how to’ on the building of the houses can be found in the book: “De la maison autonome à l’économie solidaire”, by Patrick Baronnet
Brigitte Baronnet and Christèle Savary published a book for children. It is called: “Raconte moi … la maison autonome.”
Jean Briffaut: “Alimentation Santé Planète, nourrir la vie”, on how we can take care of our body and our planet by eating healthy.