Opening up sustainable energy conversations with strangers

You’d think having a bunch of people you’ve never met before in your living room would be a disconcerting occurrence.  But the reality is, that when you’re with like-minded people, even strangers become friends very quickly.  Emma Sutcliffe describes her experiences opening her sustainable house to the public.

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The daggy red shirt. Pic and story from the Geelong Advertiser.

Last weekend my family and I opened our house for the Geelong Sustainability Group’s Open House Day.  An offshoot of the national event, the day attracts thousands of from all over the region, giving them open access to renovations, new builds and retrofits that have concepts of permaculture, sustainability, renewable energy and energy efficiency at their core.
We first opened our solar off-grid home in 2014.  The morning of our first open day, I put on my gardening clothes in anticipation of a quiet day and a bit of weeding on our 17 acre block in semi-rural Little River. When the first vehicle pulled into the driveway, I honestly thought it would be one of only a handful of visitors.
How wrong I was.  About 200 people turned up that day; young families, retirees, environmental studies students, a smattering of dyed-in-the-wool tree huggers and a small contingent of neighbourhood stickybeaks.  At 4pm the local press turned up and I will forever have as a memento, a newspaper cutting of me, standing with husband, son and dog, in my daggy old red checked shirt.
Lesson learned, I put on my best work duds last weekend. With the help of our solar installer to answer the sticky tech questions, my husband and I did laps of the property; PV array to inverter to battery bank to battery monitor to living areas and back again.  We answered the same questions over and over. And, in what initially seemed a bit of a weird thing to do, took people to visit the worm farm septic system so they could poke their heads into the hole next to the aeration pipe and announce that, no, you really can’t smell anything at all.
Some at that first event were attempting to get around every open house in the 6 hour timeframe, so had that determined must-get-in-get-out-and-onto-the-next-place look you often see on first home buyers doing the auction rounds. But most had some time to spend getting to grips with the system with an almost endless list of questions.
Question number one is always ‘how much?’. Closely followed by ‘have you ever run out of power?’ or the occasional favourite ‘are you a hippy?’. ($60,000 with an $7500 rebate, no and – daggy red shirt notwithstanding – not really.)
Each time we open our home to strangers it’s time consuming, tiring and leaves us with a considerable amount of tidying up afterwards.
So, why do we do it?
Because sometimes it’s nice to speak to like minded people, who also think that the vast majority of volume-built homes these days are just tents with a colour bond roof. Who think that new homes should have eaves, verandas or window coverings and that the architectural designs of the early pioneering homesteads were inspired and should be copied.
Because sometimes it’s nice to talk openly about climate change without feeling like you should apologise for bringing the mood down. To see nods of agreement when you say sustainability and reducing carbon emissions should be front of mind for everyone, everyday.
Because we meet some really cool people. Like the ladies who offered to put me forward for a permaculture blitz, with up to 20 volunteers, to help me establish my edible gardens (although they couldn’t guarantee Scott Cam in tight shorts). Or the hipster guy, who came with his gorgeous partner and baby son, who makes beautiful veggie boxes from sustainable timber. Or all the mums, dads, kids, grandparents, friends and neighbours who care about the future of their planet and simply wanted to know more about our story and to share a little bit of theirs.
Our place isn’t stylish, special or ever going to appear in the pages of a magazine. But it’s well built, with considerable thought given to sustainability, as well as it’s embodied energy. And for as long as people want to come along and talk to us about it, our door is open.
Emma Sutcliffe is a journalist, climate activist & proud owner of an off-grid property in Little River, near Melbourne. As Contributing Editor to One Step Off The Grid she meets other off-gridders, a job that makes use of her considerable skills for nattering & drinking tea. If you’d like to share your story, she’d love to hear from you.

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