Off-grid living gets glamorous

Off-grid luxe living has never been more attainable. Dominic Bradbury explores the sustainable technologies that are driving the latest advancements

Designed by architect Lily Jencks as an eco-home for her family, Ruins Studio in rural southwest Scotland is coated in black rubber and partially enclosed by the stone walls of a 17th-century farmhouse
Designed by architect Lily Jencks as an eco-home for her family, Ruins Studio in rural southwest Scotland is coated in black rubber and partially enclosed by the stone walls of a 17th-century farmhouse | Image: Sergio Pirrone

Heading off-grid is a liberating experience when it comes to house and home. It opens up a world of opportunity for those in search of self-sufficiency, a more ecological lifestyle or simply a retreat in a remote corner of the world. And we’re not talking here about rustic shacks and cabins but a far more luxurious unplugged lifestyle, which has become increasingly attainable over recent years with advances in both passive design (creating buildings that are less reliant on artificial heating and cooling while conserving resources), and microgeneration, enabling homeowners to transform their residences into small-scale power stations.

Steve and Margaret Cegelski’s guest pavilion on their California ranch, which was designed to make as little impact upon the landscape as possible
Steve and Margaret Cegelski’s guest pavilion on their California ranch, which was designed to make as little impact upon the landscape as possible | Image: Erin Feinblatt

Designing and building an enticing off-grid house calls for a combination of strategies. Most are common sense, from the use of heavy-duty glazing and high-levels of insulation to creating a home with a smaller footprint that requires fewer resources for comfort. In the absence of traditional mains services, there are now a number of readily available alternatives. Some are low-tech, such as ecologically sound woodburning stoves and the provision of private water wells. Others have become standard over the past 10 to 20 years, from solar panels harnessing the power of the sun to ground-source heat pumps drawing on naturally occurring heat reserves below the earth, to wood-pellet boilers and heat-recovery systems that recirculate warm air. Battery storage, which harvests home-generated energy and releases it at night or when the weather takes a turn for the worse, is also playing an increasingly important role in self-sufficient living. 

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Architect Lily Jencks drew upon a spectrum of such ideas when designing a family escape in rural Dumfries, which she shares with her husband, Roger Keeling, a director of a firm of agricultural-seed developers, and their two young children. Ruins Studio is a single-storey home overlooking open pasture, which Jencks built within the remnants of a 17th-century farmhouse. The old stone walls form a partial outer layer for the heavily insulated building, which is coated in black rubber, creating a slick exterior that juxtaposes dramatically with the original ruin. The house’s white interiors are fluid, sculptural and playful, and allow the beautifully framed views of the landscape to take centre stage. “Being inside a small cottage in a remote landscape feels wild and even a little desolate at times,” says Jencks, who worked on the house with architect Nathanael Dorent. “But we derive such pleasure from the feeling of independence and self-sustainability it gives us. When we’re at the house, we live in tune with the rhythm of the day and are very aware of the changing dynamics of the light and weather.” 

The hexagonal shape of a self-sufficient holiday home in the Napa Valley makes the most of the natural light and the views
The hexagonal shape of a self-sufficient holiday home in the Napa Valley makes the most of the natural light and the views | Image: Bruce Damonte

Ruins Studio relies on solar panels with battery storage and additional heating is provided by two woodburning stoves. Low-energy appliances and lighting reduce the home’s electricity needs and a back-up gas-powered generator can kick into action when required. The water supply comes from a nearby farm and wastewater is treated via an on-site septic system. “There’s not one solution for going off the grid but many different ways that make the lifestyle easier, more attainable and enjoyable,” says Jencks. “We used a collection of technologies, but also ensured the house is so bright during the day and in the long summer evenings that we rarely need to turn the lights on – and in winter we simply light the fires and use candles.” 

Much of the energy in the Haysom Ward Miller Architects-designed three-bedroom Lochside House in the West Highlands is derived from photovoltaic and solar panels
Much of the energy in the Haysom Ward Miller Architects-designed three-bedroom Lochside House in the West Highlands is derived from photovoltaic and solar panels

The wilds of rural Scotland have proved fertile ground for off-grid adventurers. Haysom Ward Miller Architects recently designed a three-bedroom house in the West Highlands, on a site almost 5km from the closest road and as much again to the nearest village. “It wasn’t really a decision to go off‑grid,” says Tom Miller, the architect of Lochside House, which was named RIBA House of the Year 2018, “but the owner, a ceramicist, saw this as an interesting challenge and felt it intrinsic to the project.” 

The Hill Country House is a prototype for a sustainable residential project in Texas and generates 80 per cent of its power from solar panels
The Hill Country House is a prototype for a sustainable residential project in Texas and generates 80 per cent of its power from solar panels | Image: Paul Finkel

The exterior of the property is clad in Scottish larch and blends unobtrusively into its surroundings. It is relatively modest in scale, formed of three interconnected pavilions, and the guest rooms can be shut down or opened up as needed. Much of the energy comes from the sun and water is pulled up from a borehole. The idea is that in the summer, photovoltaic and solar thermal panels complemented by MVHR (mechanical ventilation system with heat recovery) meet most of the house’s supply. “In the winter, the panels – working with the underfloor heating and MVHR – are sufficient to keep the house ventilated and above freezing when unoccupied, and there’s a log burner and back-up generator to help meet demand,” says Miller. “We spent a lot of time on this aspect of the design. The homeowner wanted the house to be user-friendly and the entire system was designed so that it functions as it would in a typical house. She has the comfortable and convenient home she desired – it just happens to use less energy.” 

The house built by architect Nadine Engelbrecht for her parents in rural Pretoria
The house built by architect Nadine Engelbrecht for her parents in rural Pretoria | Image: Marsel Roothman

As Lochside House testifies, off-grid houses need to work sensitively with the landscape rather than fight against it – and the same is true across the world, even when the impetus for going unplugged addresses a local problem. In South Africa, architect Nadine Engelbrecht has built a self-sufficient home for her parents in rural Pretoria, where the mains electricity supply can be erratic at the best of times. The Conservatory perches on a hillside with open views of the countryside, and its passive design focuses on extensive glazing that provides solar gain in the winter and natural cross-ventilation in the summer when the doors are opened up. The house is built into the side of the hill in a stepped formation, and for much of the time, Engelbrecht’s quantity-surveyor parents, Andre and Charmaine Freyer, live on the upper-ground level where the glass-walled conservatory is located (and the sense of connection with the surrounding grasslands is palpable), only opening up the lower storey when friends and family visit. “We have photovoltaic panels on the roof for electricity that’s stored in batteries and the hot water comes from a solar water heater. There are also three private dams,” says Engelbrecht.

Engelbrecht's house uses photovoltaic panels on the roof for electricity and a solar water heater
Engelbrecht's house uses photovoltaic panels on the roof for electricity and a solar water heater | Image: Marsel Roothman

The Freyers tend to use appliances such as washing machines in the daytime, when electricity is more plentiful, and the lighting is also low energy. “For Pretoria, where this kind of technology is more reliable than the mains, it’s a no-brainer once you understand the principles and do some very basic financial calculations,” says Andre Freyer, who can imagine a time when similar homes will be an everyday solution in southern Africa. “The environmental issue is a massive responsibility for everyone, but given that utility rates here have risen hugely over the past 10 years, going off-grid has also become more realistic financially.” 

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The idea of treading lightly upon the earth resonates globally and is behind the design of Steve and Margaret Cegelski’s new guest house on their ranch in California, which is around an hour from the nearest town and has no mains services. The contemporary concrete and glass pavilion by Anacapa Architecture and Willson Design cantilevers over a hillside overlooking a natural reserve and the Pacific coast in the distance. “Many aspects of the build came out of their desire to have as little impact on the land as possible,” says architect Dan Weber. “That includes the reduced scale of the house, the way it nestles deep into the hillside and the green roof that helps to camouflage it in the landscape.” The Cegelskis purchased the ranch knowing they would have to invest in off-grid technologies, but believe it is more than worthwhile. “We love that it is disconnected [in terms of services] but at the same time totally connected to what we should all be linked to: the land,” says Steve Cegelski. “When you are completely free of the grid you are forced to live differently – it pushes you to be more aware of what you consume and when. It’s very compatible with the environment we live in.” 

IwamotoScott Architecture used a similar principle when creating a self-sufficient holiday home in California’s Napa Valley for electrical engineer Ken Goto. The single-storey residence is hexagonal in shape, which makes the most of the views and natural light. It benefits from its own photovoltaic panels sited on top of the garage nearby, backed by battery storage, while water is sourced from a local spring. “As an electrical engineer, Ken was very comfortable with the technology and very hands-on,” says co-architect Craig Scott, “but it’s definitely a lot easier than it was 10 or 15 years ago, and there are more systems and appliances than ever before.”

Miguel Rivera of Miró Rivera Architects hopes the partially off-grid house he and his team designed as a prototype for a sustainable project in Wimberley, Texas, will become a blueprint for new communities of unplugged homes. The Hill Country House is a new kind of farmhouse that generates 80 per cent of its power from solar panels with the remainder supplied by the grid, while a rainwater-collection system is designed to provide up to 900 litres of water a day. The owners also embrace the conservation status of the land around their home. “They want the house to be a model for conservation and sustainability and garner support for similar off-grid developments nearby,” says Rivera. “It’s exciting that a residential design with almost invisible sustainable elements has struck such a chord with people.” 

Lily Jencks is optimistic about a more sustainable future. “Going back 150 years, we were all self-sufficient, but we’ve just become so comfortable with the way our power and water is supplied, it now seems difficult to separate ourselves,” she says. “However, our infrastructure is rather old-fashioned and at some point our use of national energy and water grids will seem as outdated. As clean technologies become available and more people are able to produce their own energy, my wish is there will be a time when unplugging from the grid is as easy as turning off data roaming on your phone.”

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