The Heliotrope

Freiburg is a town of 200,000 inhabitants located in beautiful countryside on the edge of the Black Forest in southern Germany.

It’s university town, an important industrial and commercial centre, and a tourist resort. But today it is best known as the ecological capital of Germany. The old town is completely pedestrianised, recycling is a way of life and people use bicycles and public transport to commute. In one part of the town cars are forbidden: drivers must park on the edge of the suburb in a special car park with solar panels on the roof. The result is that very few residents own cars.

On the outskirts of the town there is a special district where all the houses are solar-powered. Here there is a detached house which at first sight looks rather strange. It is an experimental eco-house called the Heliotrope. It looks like a smallish tower block sitting on a narrow platform. In the centre of the house there is a spiral staircase, and as you go upstairs, you see large bright rooms with triple-glazed windows and spacious balconies. Enormous solar panels provide energy for the heating, the cooker, the fridge, the light bulbs and all other domestic appliances. But the most amazing thing about the house is that it turns round, IT fallows the sun from morning to night to maximize the energy it produces. Although it rotates very slowly, the movement is noticeable. It feels a bit like being on a ship in a calm sea or in house high up in a tree. The good news is that the technology works: the house produces five times more electricity than it consumes.

Freiburg is a window to the future which shows how urban life may change. Perhaps one day we’ll all live in houses like the Heliotrope. If we do, we’ll never have to worry about electricity bills again. And we’ll never get bored with the view.