Were "EcoHat" to come up in passing, you would most likely think of something chunky, organic, and woolen–—perhaps a beanie with earflaps to keep you toasty while chained to a logger’s truck. But in fact, the EcoHat is an innovative environmental housing feature created by British architects Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners (the new name for Richard Rogers Partnership) for the wonderfully un-British Oxley Woods development. The colorful set of detached homes is situated on the edge of the much-maligned planned community of Milton Keynes, about 50 miles northwest of London.
Designed in response to a government competition to create a £60,000 ($121,000) eco-friendly home, the panelized Oxley Woods houses are manufactured off-site, transported, filled with recycled-paper insulation, and erected in about seven days. To minimize costs, service areas such as kitchens, bathrooms, and heat controls are standard on all homes, though the buildings vary in size from 700 to 1,615 square feet.
Another standardized feature is the EcoHat. Perched atop the roofs of each of the 145 houses, this is a powerhouse of energy efficiency in a small aluminum box, delivering a neatly packaged system that combines solar power with a home’s circulatory system. Within the EcoHat, solar power heats air as it enters through the roof. This warm air then passes through filters into the living space, or can be used to heat water by means of a heat-transfer coil.
"Inside the EcoHat is a tried-and-tested system called Sunwarm," explains Andrew Partridge, an associate at Rogers Stirk Harbour & Partners. "What we did was manufacture housing that allows us to fit the Sunwarm to all of the properties. In it is a dry solar panel collector, which air is passed over."
The EcoHat is as typical of the Oxley Woods design as an old-fashioned chimney. The unit is easily accessible from inside the home, allowing for repairs and updates to technology without the need for a cherry picker.
The EcoHat’s casing conceals its unsightly gadgetry, while still allowing the solar panels to be angled for maximum efficiency. "Sometimes in environmental housing you have to orientate the houses quite vigorously," says Partridge. "This allows for the house to be orientated in any direction, while the EcoHat always points in the appropriate direction for solar efficiency." To that end, the architects claim that the Ecohat-wearing home can offer up to 50 percent reduction in carbon dioxide emissions.
Time will tell whether the EcoHat will be the feature that marks a new generation of British homes, but if it becomes half as ubiquitous as the top hat or the bowler once was, then this piece of rooftop millinery will undoubtedly be declared a resounding success.