Going “off-the-grid” is becoming a popular alternative for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint and avoid reliance on fossil fuels.
There has always been a debate over whether a building can be both luxurious and operate off the existing power grid. The challenge for architects and designers lies in creating self-sufficient buildings with all the amenities and comforts of modern design.
A new house in Byron Bay and a completely self-sufficient 8-star home located at NSW’s South West Rocks are two examples of energy-independent homes that attempt to find a balance between sustainability, luxury and style.
The former, a house located on a 27-hectare site in the Byron Bay hinterland designed by architect Sam Zaher, is not connected to any local water, power or waste system, which Zaher said negated "the need for the owners to pay any bills."
The brief called for a modern, stylish and self-sufficient holiday home. In addition, the clients wanted every room to open out to the great views of the surrounding landscape.
Although off-the-grid houses tend to be small with little indoor space, this project demonstrated that it is possible to create a self sufficient house without stifling size limitations. The floor plan has a U-shaped cantilevered design, which makes the interiors spacious and airy, The home features two bedrooms, two bathrooms, a study room and a living/dining area with an incorporated kitchen. Outside the house there is a tool shed, a courtyard and a garage.
Two lateral decks provide an extension of the interior spaces, enabling its inhabitants to enjoy the open views. The living/dining room faces north with direct access to decks on either side. Outdoor areas are very popular in off-the-grid and sustainable design as they act as a filter between indoor and outdoors, reducing the impact of weather changes.
To make the home self-sufficient, the house boasts a system that collects and harvests rainwater for consumption of the residents and an eight-kilowatt solar power system with back-up batteries, which ensures the home is well powered without the need of outside power. The house also has an on-site black and grey waste system and double glazed doors and windows to minimize energy requirements.
Additional strategies were used to ensure the house functions autonomously, including multi-layered insulation, north-facing living areas, deep overhangs to the north-facing glazing and external shutters to the western glazing, as well as multiple outdoor spaces and the two decks that provide natural cross-ventilation.
The second project was for a completely self-sufficient 8-star home located at NSW’s South West Rocks, designed by architect Ron Hustler, with the design also taking advantage of the site’s spectacular south-facing views.
The architect explained that in the initial stages of the project, the focus was not on earning an 8-star rating, but on designing a house to give his clients a great lifestyle and comfort with a small environmental footprint.
Passive solar design principles were the main instrument to reach the goal of a self sufficient home, reducing the need for cooling and heating systems. While smart glazing passive solar design principles generally require southern walls to have small windows to reduce heat loss during the cold season, this project had to maximise openings to the south to take advantage of the views.
However, by using the latest technology in glazing, it was possible to create a design that takes advantage of the views to the south while still producing an energy efficient home. Nowadays, there are plenty of new materials and technologies on the market that offer the possibility of sustainable and off-the-grid building without neglecting aesthetic requirements.
Energy advantage ‘smart’ glass with a low U-value, which means the heat loss/heat gain of the system (frame and glass) is low, was used both in the north and south windows, allowing solar infiltration throughout the day and good insulation for thermal efficiency, helping to conserve winter heat inside the home.
The house is powered by a 3.5-kilowatt solar photovoltaic system made up of 12 PV panels, six batteries and a wave inverter. In addition, a 100,000-litre in-ground concrete rainwater tank supplies all the water needed for the home, while black and grey water is recycled and treated on site and hot water is supplied via an evacuated tube system through a 315-litre above-ground tank.
Both projects are stylish, contemporary, comfortable and, most importantly, they demonstrate that a house can be ‘off-the-grid’ and ‘luxurious’ at the same time, reducing people’s carbon footprint on the earth and also their bills.