Designing and building our off-grid home

This build has been a long time coming.

We have been sharing the ups and downs of the process on our blog and its socials for a while now, and have been surprised (and a little bit chuffed) by how many people have taken an interest.

It seems there is a whole tribe of us out there who are keen on incorporating greater sustainability into our homes, but are not quite sure where to start, what products to use, who to believe…

When we started this crazy journey, all I wanted was to find someone who had already been down this path and ask…‘How the hell did you do it?”

In my research phase I had no problem finding plenty of technical data and companies wanting to sell me green products, but not many personal this-is-how-we-did-it stories.

So, I am going to attempt to answer a few of the most common questions we get asked.

Before you push on though, I suggest you read  HOW (NOT) TO BUILD A SUSTAINABLE HOUSE, which basically explains we have no skills when it comes to building a sustainable off-grid home (quite unfortunate really). We are just two regular bite-off-more-than-you-can-chew dreamers who are keen to build their home in a more mindful way.

So lets answer some questions…

What exactly are you planning to build?

We set out a few years ago with the ambition of not only building our family home, but also demonstrating sustainable design principals are free to incorporate, or at the very least, come at no greater cost than a conventional build.

In essence, we wanted to ‘normalise’ sustainable design and prove that high performing homes need not be restricted to architecturally designed masterpieces with king-sized budgets or hippie yurts.

This all sounds rather lofty doesn’t it?

Well, that’s because it is…but it remains to be seen if we will succeed.

When we first saw our unlikely site in 2012 it could only be described as – ugly. It was not hard to see why it had been for sale for many years without much interest. The site was degraded from many years of sand mining, however one beautiful sandy rise prevailed (read the story of the epic battle to purchase our block here).

Our region is known for its wide open spaces and flat, treeless landscape. Therefore, this one remaining hill (probably more accurately described as a bump to genuine hill country folks) can be considered an anomaly. With our rose coloured glasses firmly in place, we decided we could see past the weeds, vermin and destruction (even if no-one else could) and put in an offer.

We knew we also wanted to build a home that reflects the rural, simple lifestyle we love. Therefore, the aesthetics of the home became inspired by childhood holidays spent on pop’s farm, the highlight of which was shearing time…throwing fleeces, pushing up sheep, the smell of lanolin – ahhhh.

IMG_0577 Shearing shed inspo: Photo credit Bel’s Rural Photography

Around this time we acquired a magnificent four-meter-long wool table out of a shearing shed in Byron Bay and converted it into our dining table – it still has the lanolin smell.

The table will be the centre piece of our new home and has inspired many of our design choices…it is perfectly imperfect, with boxy shapes and made of sturdy, rugged materials such as timber, glass and steel.

With all this in mind, Shearing Shed House was born – a simple, gabled, double-pavilion structure connected by a flat roofed walkway.

A pavilion style home is a good choice for us as it allows us to make the most of the unique site. Given we wanted the design to be one-room-wide (for cross ventilation purposes), the entire house was not going to fit on top of the hill. Therefore, the home has been split into two pavilions, the second of which (the kids pavilion) is lower on the hill but still has 100% north solar access.

The shearing shed inspired pavilion design has also allowed us to blend our love of contemporary architecture with rural living.

The double pavilion design gives us the capability to shut down one pavilion (from an energy perspective) with the flick of a switch. This is because three of our children are not with us every second weekend, and the older kids will begin leaving home in the next five or so years (well they better be anyway).

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Given our motivation for the build, one of the main considerations has been sticking to conventional building techniques. This is to ensure the techniques we use are easily replicable by others, whether they are building a volume home or a custom designed monstrosity. It also keeps the cost down – always an excellent motivator!

Are you using an architect?

No.

Instead, we have a building designer who has turned our sketch design into construction plans. After many years of working on community sustainability and home energy projects, we had a clear idea about the design of our home and the passive, green principles we wanted to incorporate.

The team at McKnight Bray Building Designers have done a great job pulling our ideas together in an easy-to-construct package.

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Shearing Shed House

Do you have a budget?

Hell yes!

At the beginning of this project we sourced quotes from volume builders (think Metricon, Simmonds etc) for a home of similar size and specs to our sketch plan, because if we could save big dollars we were willing to consider going down this path. These quotes all came back around a similar figure –  AND considerably higher than we were hoping.

Ouch.

We then decided these quotes would be our magic number – if we were going to achieve the goal of building a sustainable home for six on a realistic budget, we could not go over this figure.

Currently our budget is looking good – as all budgets do at the start of a build (insert nervous laugh).

We are well under the magic number and have managed to incorporate all the features we feel passionate about. The trade off has been, months and months of researching and quoting, and taking on the responsibility of owner builder.

But you can’t have your cake and eat it too.

Is it scary being owner builders?

Yes!

However, having very clear roles and responsibilities makes things easier. Lisa is the designer, coordinator, lay-awake-at-nighter. Steve is the calm, methodical, doer.

Steve is a fairly handy bloke, so he will be assisting the builder with as many fiddly jobs as possible, including all the fun stuff like painting, insulating, cladding, cleaning and staining (*not fun).

The best advice we can give (to date) is to gather a bloody good team of trades around you. We have picked our trades based on their ability and willingness to communicate well. You need to know your trades will call you back.

Owner building is not for everyone, however we decided we had already invested such a large volume of time and energy into the build – we might as well see it through.

Do you have a builder?

Yes.

Our builder, Leigh Huggard, worked with us on our last project to restore a 100 year old farmhouse using passive and sustainable design principles (read about that project here).

He understands our vision and we trust his skills. It’s a fantastic partnership.

What sustainability features are you incorporating?

The home incorporates many principles of passive sustainable design. However, budget has remained king throughout the entire project. This means, that to incorporate a green idea into the home it had to make sense aesthetically, environmentally AND financially – it had to deliver excellent bang for buck.

Some of the principles we have incorporated include:

  • Off-grid (no connection to mains power), this includes 8 kW of solar PV with 26 kWh salt water battery back up. This is overkill for our needs, however we do not want to live every day concerned we will run out of electricity. We love sustainability, but we also love living a comfy existence – we don’t believe you have to trade one for the other.
  • Use of recycled materials (see below)
  • Heating is a bio-fuel heater that runs on feed grade corn or wheat we source locally
  • Burnished concrete slab and internal recycled brick wall for improved thermal mass
  • Sealed building envelope
  • Home runs east-west to maximise north face and minimise east and west walls
  • All glazing is double-glazed with black aluminium frames, these frames are not thermally broken (we wish they were) as it doubled the cost of the glazing. We hope we are not regretful – stay tuned.
  • North glazing is maximised for solar gain in winter – almost every room has solar access
  • Appropriate shading over north windows to exclude summer sun
  • The home is largely one room wide for cross-ventilation purposes – cooling breezes in this region come from the south. It will be essential on cool summer evenings to open south and north facing windows to flush heat out of the thermal mass (slab).
  • Minimal east and west glazing
  • Minimal hallways and other wasted space
  • Spaces are multi-functional, including combined pantry/laundry, hall/study, lounge/music-room, entry/walk-way to reduce square meterage
  • Ceiling fans in all rooms
  • Evaporative cooling
  • Spine up the length of the main pavilion for airflow and connection with site
  • Living opens up outdoors to extend living space
  • Large internal doors to zone areas
  • Use of local trades
  • On site water harvesting
  • R6 insulation in ceiling, R2.5 in walls

How are you making use of recycled materials?

To pay homage to the site’s time as an orchard we sourced reclaimed apple bins to clad select internal walls. These bins are 50 years old and are stamped with both the names of my pop and dad.

The local high school have recently demolished their home economics wing. We salvaged the fifty year old hardwood cabinetry, shelving and benches and will use them in our butlers pantry/laundry – this will be in stark contrast to a sleek modern kitchen.

It’s just a shame about the four layers of enamel paint Steve is having to strip and sand before we can install it!!

We have purchased a slab of Bunya Pine for the bench in the study. This tree once stood in a local park but was cut down due to OH&S issues – it was dropping massive pine cones on people’s heads! I’m such a sucker for a story.

A floor to ceiling barn door will zone off the main living area from the master suite. This has been made out of salvaged Vic Ash floorboards that have come out of another local school.

Both pavilions will be bricked using B grade recycled reds. This is for minimal maintenance, but more importantly makes good use of a waste product that also happens to be beautiful. We were worried they would be pricey, however we have been lucky to source them cheaper than new bricks.

Hopefully our recycled reds and black frames will look a bit like this (Photo: Instagram)

The walk-way between the two pavilions will be clad in recycled timber, as seen here on the super gorgeous Sawn Face House (photo sourced from Kennedy’s timber). This timber is Class 1 recycled hardwood with a rough sawn face. We will let it grey naturally for a rustic look.

Does a tricky site worry you?

Yes.

As mentioned, in a past life our site was a working sand mine. The mining license was revoked about 18 years ago and the land has sat largely unused since (apart from a short stint as an orchard), until we purchased it in 2014.

We feel a big responsibility to this land. There is a Native American saying:

 We do not inherit the earth from our ancestors, we borrow it from our children.

With this in mind, while we are the caretakers of this land we will do everything we can to conserve it and return it to its natural state. We are currently working with the local Catchment Management Authority and have started the process of re-vegetating the block. We will be ready for mass tree planting by next Autumn.


Every now and then we feel overwhelmed by the task at hand, but we try to remind ourselves this is a long-term project. And besides – how many people get to live on top of a sand mine?

What are your biggest challenges?

There are soooooo many – where do I start?!

Given this project has been dead–in-the-water multiple times, maintaining enthusiasm in the face of future hurdles will be challenging. We are a very busy family of six, and the investment of time and sheer will so far has taken a toll…it might also be a challenge not to kill each other somewhere along the way.

On the logistical front, our unique site presents even more challenges.

The land is cut in two by a large irrigation channel. We are building on the back portion of the block, which can only be accessed by a small bridge. We have already run into problems with getting large equipment on site and will no doubt experience more of these issues.

Our build has a ridiculous percentage of glass in it….I think I might be addicted to natural light. Steve and I have both stayed committed to the idea of living as close to nature as possible and therefore have kept the high percentage of glass in the design, despite being advised against it.

Such high volumes of glazing presents a few problems.

Firstly, it flies in the face of our sustainable design principles and therefore required lots of soul searching throughout the design phase.

Secondly, it makes achieving a Six Star Energy Rating trickier (as useless as they are).

Thirdly, even though the windows are double glazed, heating will be a challenge on the days the sun isn’t shining – which luckily isn’t too many in Northern Victoria.

Despite the challenges, the unique views to the south won the day and we are pressing on with the dream of living in a fish bowl – eek.

Another big challenge is to continue to align our design aspirations with personal values. We try to live a fairly simple life, taking great joy out of ‘less is more’, living simply, valuing experiences over things and minimising debt.

It is far too easy to get caught up in the process of the build, in believing you need everything the Jones’ have.

This is an ongoing conversation we have with our kids and we feel our house should reflect these values (so no designer tap-ware for me!).

One day, we hope sustainable design principles become mainstream considerations, so when you walk in to a building company – be it a project home, local custom builder or a high-flying architectural firm – the very first discussion you have is how to make best use of your land to build a high functioning, low-energy-guzzling home.

Sustainability should not be a band-aid we slap on a house when it comes time to Six Star Energy Rate – it’s too late then.

Therefore, the biggest challenge with this project remains to model sustainable and passive design principles in a cost effective manner, so the average family with 2.2 kids and a dog know they can do it too.

Because if we can build a sustainable, affordable home…anyone can.

Wish us luck!

Blend it your way, 

Leese x 

PS The build is finally underway – yaaaay! You can keep up with the day-to day-progress on Insta or Facey (I tend to post more progress pics on insta)… links below.

You can follow the build (amongst other ramblings) at Booken Blend on Facebook & Instagram. For more reading on our build go to How (NOT) to build a sustainable house, About The BuildI object to your objection, or Build Update 1.

 

2 thoughts on “Designing and building our off-grid home

  1. Wow – it looks so exciting. We are about to start renovating our old farm house using sustainable ideas as much as possible. We’ve designed a passively cooled walk in pantry to store all our vegetables etc, and have reoriented all our living spaces to face north. Working in with the old farmhouse is certainly giving us a few challenges, but I’m soooo excited about the finished house. Looking forward to seeing what you’re doing too!

    1. Wow, that all sounds fantastic! I understand your pain working with an old house, it was very challenging. But the end result is worth every step. Enjoy the process xx

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