Thursday, May 31, 2012

Building with Nature

Using the elements of the property you buy, such as slope, water, sunlight and shade, are all important considerations. If you drive through any urban setting you'll find houses all lined along the roads, square to the street. In many cases the same style of house is turned to face north, south, west depending on which street it's on so that the exact same house on a different street might operate thermally very different from it's neighbour. For example your big living room window that faces south-west is lovely in winter and overheats your house in the summer. Your neighbour whose same window faces north east finds it a heat drain to the outside and a very cool room in their house. I know you've patiently read as I rambled on about passive solar gain, house sites, and using available materials, and I appreciate that. Reading about that is all well and good. Living off grid is terrific. But my goodness it can be expensive!

There seem to be 3 different camps in the solar energy department.

1. The first group have sufficient funds to build a large fancy house and maintain a high consumption of power by installing large photovoltaic power systems or wind turbines to generate and store power or bringing in and storing propane. As pointed out by some of you readers, these homes are costing $300,000 or more to construct. Owners are basically living a modern lifestyle and prividing the same amount of power they typically use, just from an off grid source. The maintenance costs will be expensive over time as batteries need replacing and propane needs to be refilled.  I'm not saying that this isn't a good way to live your life, it's just not for me.

2. The second group are the near opposite of the first group. They will convert a vehicle to live in, build their own small home, live in a yurt and heat with wood. For them living off grid means having no modern conveniences like a refrigerator and possibly not running water. It means going back to the very basics of shelter and the simple, comfortable life. Stories abound in Mother Earth News and online about how to live this ultra simple life and how to re-prioritize your life and find contentment. It's a good life for the many who enjoy it.

3. I would propose that there can be a third group, a middle ground if you will, where each family or individual takes into consideration the ideas and principles from both camps and makes their own version of a comfortable life with the flexibility to adapt and change over time. This is the group that Stephen and I fall into. Yes, we want to use passive solar techniques, generate our own power and live simply on the land. But at the same time we plan to have our home connected to the electricity grid at least while the kids are at home, and we'll run a fridge and stove in the kitchen, at least while the kids require large quantities of food prepared fast.

The beauty of being in this third group though, is that we can adapt as our lives evolve. Maybe I'll become very proficient at cooking on the cookstove and use that instead of my electric one over time. I hope so. Maybe we'll discover that we can generate enough power to run a small circulating pump for water heated on the roof and reduce our use of the hot water tank. Maybe the kids will use less power with their computers because they will be outside more often. Who knows. Well, I guess we will over time. And as we live in a place for some time we can evolve our ideas to suit our site and the changing needs of our family. Flexibility is key to happily living any alternative life. Just think back to my living in the travel trailer with a garden hose hooked to the washing machine!

Here's an example of a brother and sister who took a barn in the hills of Spain and made a beautiful and modern home. They are not back-to-the-landers in the typical hippie sense. They're not growing their own food as far as I know and they definitely have a flair for architecture and design. But the thing I like is their use of the materials and setting they already had and their adaptation to it. I would have used it differently of course but I really admire their vision. I also love the rolling shutters and want to use that idea in our home if it's feasible given the winds here in the fall and winter.The idea that their house wouldn't stand out like an eyesore on the landscape is close to my heart too. Living in harmony with your surroundings is important.

1 comment:

  1. This is very cool, Elizabeth! I love the natural a/c and heat, the smooth clean lines/styles and the way they bring nature into their house! Very impressive! ~Carrie