Full interview with Kerry Dawborn

Our recent story about Kerry Dawborn told the story of the build of her home in Cockatoo, Victoria. However, our interview with Kerry had so much more information we decided to publish it in full here.

Kerry outside her home - still shot from SBS's The Feed.
Kerry outside her home – still shot from SBS’s The Feed.

When did you go off grid and why?  Was there a grid connection available at the time?
My house is off grid for electricity and household water. I went off the grid formally when my house passed it’s certificate of occupancy in January this year.  There is grid running past the property (my old house on the 1/4 acre block next door is connected – with solar panels and battery back up as well – as are all the other houses in my street).
I had experimented a bit with being off grid in my old house – just by turning off the mains and relying on the batteries to see how i managed and what the challenges were. Not for too long though as I didnt want to lose my feed in tariff during these times!
Being on a quarter acre block (1000m2), I was not allowed to be off grid for sewage because there is not enough land to deal with effluent. There is no storm water drainage though, so I collect that water which is sent first to tanks and then to a french drain from which it permeates the property to water my fruit trees.
I did put in gas pipes to the kitchen and solar/wood water heater in case they were ever needed, because the construction of the house would make them hard to add later, but I don’t personally have any intention to use the gas running past the house, or gas bottles.
I went off grid for a number of reasons:
I didn’t want to participate in unsustainable and polluting energy provision any more than I can help, however I do recognise that all technologies, including solar, have their environmental costs.
I was in a position to meet the expense of going off grid and deal with the consequences. Sometimes you need people who have less to lose, to push boundaries a little, find out what is possible, test the ’system’, find out if there is anything for anyone (householders, regulators, energy companies etc) to be afraid of, and open an opportunity for issues to be addressed and the truly best option for the environment and people, to be explored. People who can help show others what is possible and how it can work, and help them go in with their eyes open and less afraid.
Frequent blackouts and brownouts. I live in a heavily treed area, so there are often blackouts if there are storms or wind. And it is very fire prone here. Lots of people have generators, but I didn’t want to use a generator on the old house because of the fossil fuels. I have had a generator plug fitted to the solar system in the new house though, but haven’t needed to use it yet. Since putting solar and batteries on my old house several years ago I have not had a blackout, because the batteries kick in when power is out. In a fire prone area I think having your own power is a plus too, as in an emergency, having power to run things can help with safety, or just with the inconvenience.
I’m was really tired of dealing with utility companies. So much time wasted dealing with issues, when there are issues. Utility companies often have no problem hounding customers for late payments or other perceived costs to the company, but seem to have little issue with wasting customer’s time through ridiculously inefficient problem solving processes.
I LOVE the independence, self reliance, and direct responsibility for my power needs, and the way having a small system encourages me to recognise and learn to work with limits, and engage directly with nature. In winter when light is low and days are short, I do have to think about my use, and in this past low luminosity winter (lowest in 40 years I think?), I did lose power a few times. But this wasn’t so much a hardship as just something to adapt to. It gave me an opportunity to learn how to manage with less power, seek other technologies (hand operated clothes washer and mangle, hand operated clothes washer and mangle, Zeer pot cooler for food, broom instead of vacuum, thermal cooker etc). I use either an efficient wood range or an outside rocket stove for cooking during cooler times (electricity for cooking when there’s enough sun), water heating and top up space heating in cooler months, which is really a great contraption when you know how to use it!
Most importantly though, and somewhat unexpectedly, I have found that the way I am choosing to live – off grid and in a small house – has really put me in touch with the fact that we live on a limited planet. Sure, we may have great access to sun or wind or wave power or whatever, but to use this technology through active rather than passive systems, we have to build infrastructure, be it transmission lines, solar panels, inverters, turbines etc, to harness it. Which all takes resources and creates pollution.
Cheap fossil fuels (only cheap because the price we pay doesn’t cover all the costs to human and animal health, environment etc – it externalises the costs), have led us to believe it is normal to be able to do what we want, any time, without much direct ‘work’ on our part, and with little connection to consequences; boil a kettle, turn on an air conditioner, use a bigger fridge or have a TV in every room.
We don’t really think about these things. I have heard (but haven’t verified) that even doing one google search uses as much power as an electric kettle – not power used in our homes, but as a cumulative thing with all the servers and other technology elsewhere involved in making that search possible. We have become quite disconnected from the source and the costs, of the power we use.
Operating on a smallish system that on dark cloudy days in winter has helped me connect more with an awareness of the sun and the seasons. Similarly, when there is plenty of sun, I really get to understand and embrace the old adage ‘make hay while the sun shines’, because in sunnier seasons, and even on sunny days in winter, I can do pretty much all I want with solar power. From about mid August through to mid/late April it seems, I can run everything, including power tools, electric wood splitter, washing machine, and on and on it goes and I don’t know where it ends – I don’t have enough electrical things to find out…
Did you build your property with sustainable principles in mind?  For example verandas, higher ceilings, thermal mass etc.
Yes, absolutely – sustainability was a key driving force. My old house next door is on the same open north facing block of land – I bought the place for these qualities. But it is a brick veneer house which is oriented completely the wrong way and clearly had no attention paid either to sustainability or happiness and wellbeing, in its design. It has large windows facing the street to the south, small windows on the north, kitchen is on the south and very dark and dingy, no useful wall or floor insulation, etc.
I lived there for 7 years, trying to figure out how to fix it. Yes there are definitely things that can be done to improve it and I did add a grid interactive battery backed solar system, a wood heater and replaced the defunct wood cooker with a reconditioned one with a  water jacket, plus solar hot water system. This immediately reduced my energy costs and I think too, my emissions, as wood can be used very cleanly as an energy source, IF done properly.
I made lots of plans to improve the old house, but after a time I began to realise I would always be playing catch up. The house was just poorly designed from the start, and with three bedrooms, it was much bigger than I needed.
The sad thing is, the old house used materials and effort to build, and the block it is on gives it a great chance to work with nature to be comfortable and sustainable. But the design and construction method make this really difficult. What a waste! If the intention in building it had been to use the passive solar opportunities the block offers, and to build a house that nurtures the soul and makes people happy, the very same materials could have been put together in quite a different way, for a much better outcome.
Living in this dark, cold, unhappy house, I came to realise how intimately connected we are with our built environment. How buildings can cause or perpetuate ill health, disconnection, depression. And conversely how buildings designed well, can do the opposite. Churchill once said ‘We create our buildings; thereafter they create us’. He was so right.
I’m grateful to the old house, because it taught me just how powerfully our build environment can affect us, for better or for worse. If in our design intentions we are focused only on build cost and not operation cost, environmental impact or liveability, we’ll tend to build cheap houses that cost money, the planet and our wellbeing, during their lifetime.
The values out of which we build create our future, and keep reinforcing themselves through what we build, throughout the life of the building. In thinking about this for a chapter in a book I was involved in, I came up with the ‘equation’;
Intention + Design + Action = The future.
We create our future with every thought, feeling and action, in every moment.
Unfortunately at the time, I just couldn’t find it in myself to try any longer to heal that house. So I turned my energy to imagining another way to live, and another house. Now the new house is built, I am turning my attention to slowly improving the old house for a tenant.
The new house I have built is carefully, yet simply built, to a passive solar design. At 55m2 (same footprint as an average three car garage), it is half the footprint of the old house, but it also has a small loft. It has larger windows on the north, smaller on the east (could have been bigger on east except for overlooking issues), south and west, and all windows are double glazed.
There is lots of thermal mass (concrete and slate floor, central chimney and lime-cement internal render), and serious wall and ceiling insulation. There is a glasshouse/sunroom on the north, which is the key baseline heater for the house (just close it up to the outside and open the french doors or window to the house and it warms it up beautifully).
Added heating comes from the wood range, which has a glass door on the fire box behind the main door. But basically the house maintains a comfortable temperature most of the time, if I ‘operate’ it like an appliance, closing it up to keep heat or cool when needed, or opening doors and windows for cross draughts, or letting heat in from the glass house. Mostly from about early September through to mid-late April, there is no need for the fire, and there is no need for air-conditioning as long as I open it up at night to cool down in summer.
In designing and building the house we made a conscious effort to keep the embodied energy down, and to make the house last as long as possible and serve those who live in it as well as possible. It also had to nourish those who built it. To me these are also important aspects of sustainability – not just how energy efficient a house is.
The builders – Aron Deuchar and Martin Croydon from Metamorphic Solutions in Menzies Creek – told me at the start that they were excited to build this house, because they felt it was designed to be here for hundreds of years. Both had worked on houses they believed were designed to last only 30 years, before needing major work, and they didn’t want to be a part of that again if they could help it. Having to replace or do major changes to houses that often is not sustainable no matter how energy efficient they might be to operate. They might be cheap to build, but not over the long term, and not cheap to the environment in terms of materials and resources used.
With my house, architect Alvyn Williams from Soft Loud House Architects in Warburton and I were very deliberate in designing it to last. And also to be kind of timeless – to not follow fashion, so much as to design and build for quality in design and workmanship, attention to detail, and functionality. I think it is true that when form meets function, and is built with love and skill, the result will be beautiful and timeless. Fashion to my mind, is mostly a massive marketing exercise and a huge drain on the environment. During the building, I was really touched that the builders decided to put a time capsule in one of the walls, with bits of information about themselves and all who contributed, money, a piece of a newspaper, business cards etc. They believed they were building something that would last, and they were proud to put their names to it. I wonder how many builders and tradespeople get to feel this kind of pride and engagement with many of the houses built today?
All the bricks used in the house are recycled, along with timber for cabinetry, loft floor, glasshouse/sunroom and other areas as much as possible. I made a big effort to source things locally, even if they were more expensive. I wanted to internalise the costs to the environment and society by avoiding buying cheaper products from overseas, which would have transport emissions etc. I did however try to balance this with quality and aesthetics, and did get some things from further afield if I couldn’t find anything suitable here. The render is lime-cement, which is breathable and applied by hand so yes, labour costs were high but I was happy to play local artisan renderers and have it remain in the community, rather than paying for machinery to be used and reward corporations elsewhere.
I tried to have the house contribute to the community by including art work from local artists and emphasising artisanship, in the construction. To me, aesthetics and art contribute to sustainability by giving a place to the heart, and creativity, both for the artisans and artists, and to those who enjoy the building later. Buildings that feed our souls as well as sheltering us, tend to last, and they contribute to our deep wellbeing, which can only be a good thing for society and the environment I think. If they make us feel bad, we will always be having to compensate for their negative effects, or always wanting to change them.
For Warburton artist Sioux Dollman this was the first house other than her own, where she had the opportunity to do artwork inside the house rather than only outside. And the work she has done is a delight that makes me and others happy – it really makes the house special and feeds my soul every day, because it represents something that matters greatly to me – biodiversity and our local endangered species. I plan to build on this work in the future.
The work of Ferny Creek glass artist Kirsten Laken in my front door has a similar effect, as does the butterfly the renderers sculpted into the wall in the sunroom – without asking me. I was delighted that they felt able to do this, and that it was at the instigation I think of the builders, whose logo is a butterfly. It just felt great that they were happy to put their mark on the house in this way. The kitchen and other cabinetry are salvaged timber built with immense care by artisan cabinet makers Tim Kennedy and Jason Franzke from Bowerbird Saved Timbers in Wesburn.
Building a house this way – with care for environment and people which to me is what holistic sustainability is about – costs more in money terms up front, sure, but over time, and beyond my lifetime, the costs of this house should be very low. My only utility bill is for water for the mandatory CFA tank which is fed off a roof but is connected to mains water just in case and for sewage and drainage. So far this has been $27/quarter. If this house lasts as long as we hope it will, I think the monetary cost over its life will be shown to be MUCH less than that of many houses that are cheaper to build, and this means its cost to the environment in terms of operation and renovation or rebuilding, will be low or negligible. It’s a house built with a broad view of its impacts, and a long term view of benefiting people and the environment.
Tell me about your solar system.
The solar system supplied by Ian Connibeer from Energy Connections, is 2kW (there is room for more panels to be added if necessary on the garage roof but no plans for now to add any), with a grid interactive inverter (not connected to the grid but able to be if a future owner wishes), and a small bank of nickel-iron (NiFe) batteries – about 7kw storage I think.
These cells are shock and temperature tolerant, and if one has an issue the others aren’t affected. They also have a very long life, are easily recyclable and low in toxicity. Where other batteries may die after 5-10,000 cycles or 5-10 years depending on usage, and may not be easily or cleanly recycled, these may lose performance after that usage but when they do, you just empty out the fluid, clean them up, fill them up and off you go again like new. There are examples of these batteries that are many decades old and still going.
However I recently found out about molten salt or sodium nickel (SoNick) batteries that seem to have all the advantages of NiFe’s and more, and Ian thinks they’re great, so I would most likely go with these if putting in a system now. The system runs all power needs including cooking in spring, summer and autumn, but not winter, when I rely on the wood stove or an outside rocket stove to cook most of the time. But i can cook with electricity in winter too, if it’s sunny enough.
There is also a solar water heater with evacuated tubes, and an Esse wood cooker with wetback, all supplied by Pivot Stoves, which supply hot water, cooking, and space heaters.
What’s the best thing about being off-grid?  
Well as for most people, the low operation cost and knowing I am using a renewable resource, and having less nasty impact on the planet, is a big plus. And the independence and not experiencing blackouts and brownouts (apart from winter if I’m not careful enough with power use) – that’s great. Not having to deal with utility companies, and being responsible for the system myself with help from Ian if I need it (not needed now it’s up and running but nice to have it there) – all these things are great.
But by far the BEST thing is what I have learned and how I feel I have grown because of living this way. It has brought home to me what it is to live with limits, and the understanding that the earth’s resources are limited, as is its capacity to absorb our pollution and adapt quickly to the changes our activities are forcing on her.
I could have designed a house and put in bigger systems that yes, used cleaner energy, but made no demands on me to consume less or live more simply. And yes this would still have been better for the planet than how i lived before. But it wouldn’t have put me so closely in touch with the rhythms and limits of nature. And most importantly, it wouldn’t have forced me to become aware of and to reassess that tendency which I think our modern lives support and promote – to answer most problems or challenges with ‘more’.
More stuff or more energy and resources to meet our perceived ’needs’, more space to store the stuff, more energy to power more stuff, more stuff ‘just in case’… We tend to respond to challenges with ‘more’ rather than by adjusting our needs or adapting how we meet them. This house has shown me that even after years of permaculture and of trying to live more sustainably, I still do this. And I still could. I could add more panels, or other things. But I don’t want to. I find learning to live with limits and to adapt, really empowering and creative, and i feel it helps me stay more closely in integrity with myself, and with the planet.

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