A few decades ago, the concept of off-grid living meant surviving in the wilderness — but not anymore.
You can live off-grid or even semi-off-grid in a beautiful, functional home that is comfortable, as well as being eco-friendly. It’s a feeling of freedom, without reliance, it’s embracing living well and co-existing with nature, and with today’s advancements in technology and better building practices, it’s a far cry from roughing it. Here we explore an eco-friendly off-grid living home.
Living off-grid is within the realm of every eco-environmental warrior. You might live on rambling acreage, a generous rural block or a dwelling in the burbs — it doesn’t mean compromising on quality or lifestyle; you can still have your creature comforts and a stylish home.
Chris Bligh from Bligh Graham Architects says historically off-grid living was perceived as a remote and rural way of life. “But more and more it’s considered possible within an urban environment,” he says.
When you live off-grid, it means you’re essentially self-sufficient. You use alternative methods such as wind turbines or solar panels to power your home, your water is harvested from roofs and collected in rainwater tanks, and your toilet is a composting one or an
on-site septic system.
Shaun Lockyer from Shaun Lockyer Architects says power is the key player in off-grid living. He likens one source, solar, to the mobile phone revolution and how that changed the way we live. “Before mobile phones you had a calculator, torch, phone, compass, camera and a diary … now with solar power usage and batteries we’re looking at it as a much more three-dimensional thing,” says Shaun. “How we get to work, with house batteries charging cars, how we power our houses, how we feed ourselves, how we keep cool — it’s all becoming a much more centralised concept through solar.”
Be a sun worshipper
Harnessing the power of the sun through solar makes good sense — it’s inexpensive clean energy. The ability to generate, store, use and export your own electricity has been a revolution. With modern battery storage you are all set.
There have been some inspiring developments in solar. John Right from GoodWe says the solar industry is constantly evolving and innovating in new technologies to meet a growing market with new requirements. “In our case, we recently doubled our research and development department to offer a full suite of solutions, what we call our ‘EcoSmart Home’ offering,” he says. “This encompasses a large range of solar and hybrid inverters and solar batteries using the safest Lithium Ion Phosphate (LFP) chemistry on the market.”
John adds that if you’ve never considered solar before, it really is a gamechanger in eco-friendly living. “Energy storage is most definitely the hot topic right now as feed-in tariffs have reduced over recent years; homeowners are now being paid very little for exporting back into the grid,” he says. More consumers are looking to install larger solar systems of 8kW–10kW and adding solar battery systems to generate the most solar energy possible, store it in batteries and consume it when needed to lower bills. “These larger energy storage systems are also a great foundation for adding an EV charger as Australia adopts electric vehicles at a rapid pace, to be able to use the stored energy to charge vehicles at home,” he adds.
John says energy storage systems are also vital during increasing power outages and hazardous weather conditions to keep essential loads powered. “Due to raw materials shortages and supply chain issues following the pandemic, solar systems are likely to increase in price, so it is wise to take advantage of all financial incentives and state government rebates sooner rather than later,” he advises.
A drop of water
Harvesting rainwater is a wonderful way to reduce your ecological footprint. Having rainwater tanks improves your drought resilience, saves you money, and it’s pure — it doesn’t contain any chemicals or additives. Rainwater legislation and regulations can vary from council to council and state to state, so always check with your local authority. According to Sydney Water, each person uses around 200 litres of drinking water daily — a huge demand on mains supply over dry times. With your own supply there’s less reliance on mains water.
The term wastewater refers to grey water and blackwater. Greywater is wastewater from showers, basins and taps. Greywater is ideal for garden watering, and treated greywater may be used for flushing toilets and washing clothes.
Blackwater is water that has been mixed with waste from the toilet. Generally water from kitchen sinks and dishwashers is considered blackwater, because of potential contaminants. Blackwater needs to go through treatment processes before reuse, and it can often only be used for subsurface irrigation. This can vary depending on where you live, so always check with your local government authority for requirements for your area.
Off-grid or semi-off-grid living also embraces greenspaces that work with the environment, with low water requirements and minimal maintenance. Madeline Sewell from Breathe Architecture says more than ever before, greenspaces are important. “Right now, we are in a climate and biodiversity crisis which means every inch of greenspace matters,” she says. “Even when we work on tiny inner-city sites, we seek out opportunities to contribute to biodiversity though landscaped courtyards, rooftop gardens, green walls, balconies, beehives and more.”
Madeline adds that vegetation is also a good tool for managing thermal performance. It allows deciduous plants to shade buildings in summer while still permitting light penetration in winter. “Landscaping can also contribute significant amenity to a home, creating a visual connection with greenery and improving mental health, air quality and wellbeing.”
Greenspaces in, around or on the home are creating beautiful, functional and liveable homes that connect to nature. Shaun Lockyer from Shaun Lockyer Architects says as a practice they heavily promote the integration of landscaping in an environment. “We like to think of it in a three-dimensional sense — we don’t just plant grass and trees — we plant landscaping on our buildings to reduce reradiated heat off roof forms, so buildings are cooler and generate less heat to their immediate surrounds,” he says. “Landscaping in that format also produces the most efficient thermal mass of just about any built object.”
Off-grid homes are becoming more prevalent as we seek to reduce our reliance on diminishing resources, including fossil fuels. But we still have a long way to go. Governments and other key players need to work harder, to work together for better and more sustainable outcomes. Shaun says there is still much work to be done. “Legislation doesn’t look broad enough and its metrics are flawed; the silver bullet isn’t to use less power, it’s to be smarter about it,” he says.
Cape tribulation house
This off-grid house is close to the beach at Cape Tribulation in the Daintree Rainforest. Ben Vielle from m3architecture says the sensitive nature of the ancient ecosystem demanded sustainable design choices, which were championed by the owners of this property.
“The new pavilions are deftly positioned in natural clearings, deferring to the rainforest setting and avoiding any mature tree removal,” he says. “Furthermore, the pavilions are designed to camouflage; with black plastic cladding and mirrored glass, they melt into the shadow of the rainforest canopy.”
Ben adds that the project was a journey for the owners — “from their city home to this remote place and from the rainforest track, along the path, through the house pavilions, and culminating at the coral sea on the beach,” he says. “The experience is bewildering in the awesome scale of this rainforest. However, a playful white rope anchors and orients. It marks the path from the rainforest track through the pavilions and to the beach, acting as a guide and offering domestic utility as it passes through the home.”
On the inside, the pavilions open to a high south view of the rainforest canopy. “The warm plywood interior is human scaled, providing a sense of comfort and contrast with the cool rainforest surrounds,” says Ben. “The relaxed pavilions accommodate multiple sleeping arrangements; couple rooms transform into bunk rooms and living spaces serve as a makeshift campsite.”
The Cape Tribulation House accentuates the tropical qualities of the rainforest and provides a relaxed setting for holiday life at the beach. This site is located adjacent to the World Heritage-listed Daintree Rainforest. Ben says there are no fences — the rainforest ecosystem is continuous across the arbitrary property boundaries. “Limiting impacts on this ecosystem was a primary concern of the design,” he notes. “Integreco provided key advice through its detailed Life Cycle Assessment, Water and Energy Analysis and Transport Impact reporting. These metrics were vital to understanding the relative impacts of the project on the planet.”
WORDS CARROL BAKER