An intention to stop contributing to unsustainable and polluting energy sources, combined with a desire to connect directly with nature, led Kerry Dawborn to a create a 55 sqm off-grid home in Cockatoo, Victoria, that was built to last. The other essential ingredient was careful attention to the embodied energy of the property, particularly the building materials, solar and energy storage system.
It’s often the case that houses in Australia are built to follow trends in fashion, rather than being constructed to last, using careful workmanship, attention to detail and simple functionality.
It was while living in such a home for seven years on a suburban block in outer eastern Melbourne that Kerry Dawborn discovered the average Aussie home wasn’t designed to encourage sustainability, happiness or wellbeing in those occupying it.
“The old house was oriented the wrong way and had large south facing windows, a dark and dingy kitchen and no useful wall or floor insulation,” explains Kerry.
“I tried to improve it by adding a grid interactive battery backed solar system, which reduced my energy costs, but led me to think that as the house was poorly designed from the start I would always just be playing catch up.”
She began to explore ideas around how our built environment is intimately connected to ill health, disconnection and depression, and how conversely, well designed buildings can have a powerful effect on well being.
Kerry also realised that house design, if focused on construction costs and not operation costs, environmental impact or liveability, would continue to be cheap to build in dollar terms, but would cost the planet and human health dearly instead.
“In thinking about this for a book I was involved in, I came up with the equation that ‘Intention + Design + Action = The future’,” Kerry says. “We create our future with every thought, feeling and action, in every moment.”
In conjunction with other practical considerations such as frequent black-outs in her area and the ‘ridiculously inefficient problem solving processes’ of energy utilities, Kerry engaged an architect and building company to help her build a small, sustainable home that would fit her vision of a new home that was built to last.
“In designing and building the new 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,” Kerry explains. “It also had to nourish those who built it – I think this is an important aspect of sustainability.”
The result is a beautifully sculpted small home built to a passive solar design and which incorporates work by local artisans and artists, while also using recycled materials that were sourced locally in order to reduce the building’s transport carbon footprint.
“I wanted to internalise the costs to the environment by avoiding the purchase of cheaper products from overseas,” says Kerry. “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 locally.”
“The render is lime-cement, which is breathable and applied by hand so labour costs were high, but I was happy to play local artisan renderers and have the money remain in the community, rather than paying for machinery to be used and reward corporations elsewhere.”
Thanks to the detailed design and thermal mass provided by the slate floor, central chimney and breathable internal lime render, the house remains a comfortable temperature throughout the seasons, with additional heating from a wood range and cross ventilation during summer.
The suburban quarter acre block on which the house sits was deemed too small for a stand alone septic system by her local authority, however Kerry sends storm water to storage tanks from which it permeates the garden to water the fruit trees.
With the help of her solar installer, Kerry chose a 2kW solar system with capacity to add more panels in future, that consists of a small bank of nickel-iron batteries which are shock and temperature tolerant, have a long life and are cleanly recycled.
“I chose nickel-iron batteries which some consider to be old-fashioned because they have low toxicity,” says Kerry. “There are examples of these batteries that are many decades old and still going – you just empty out the fluid, clean them up, refill them and off you go.”
Kerry says she loves the independence and self reliance that comes with being responsible for her own power needs, while the small system encourages her to live within her limits.
“I have had low power a few times, but this wasn’t so much a hardship as just something to adapt to,” she says. “It gave me an opportunity to learn how to manage with less power and seek other technologies such as using a broom rather than the vacuum cleaner.”
While the up-front costs of the building were comparatively expensive to a volume-home build, Kerry says these will even out over the lifetime of the property.
“My only utility bill is for water for the mandatory CFA tank which is fed off the roof but is connected to mains water, which is $27 per quarter,” she says. “The 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.”
By learning throughout the planning and building process, Kerry says she has grown to live within limits and gain a greater understanding of how modern life supports and promotes the purchase of more because of a perceived need.
“This house has forced me to become aware of and assess that tendency to answer most problems with just buying more ‘stuff’, then more space to store ‘stuff’ and more energy to power ‘stuff’.”
“Learning to live within limits and to adapt is really empowering and it helps me live with integrity on this finite planet.”
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.