The Story of Our New Eco House.
Megan and I have talked about owning a property for many years. It had always been off in the future, when Elen, our daughter, left home and therefore easy to dream about but never seeming to be an imminent reality. In July 2013 that reality quickly started to crystallise. Elen put it to us that she was out of school and effectively independent and there was no reason for us to put it off any longer. Economic objections came out and other excuses for inaction were dealt with until our determined daughter had bullied us into action. Within a few weeks we found ourselves being driven around the countryside of Oberon by a local Real Estate Agent, looking at properties.
We saw a couple of nice blocks, both without houses on them, which was what we had wanted. Part of our dream had been to build our ideal house on the land we bought. Over time, environmental issues had become more obvious and we had developed a growing awareness of our own desire to live more sustainably. We had installed solar photovoltaics panels on our house before any government tariffs were available and we had installed a large water tank to reduce our use of town water (and to help protect us from bushfires). These were just a taste of what we would like to be able to achieve in a new home.
After a long day looking at properties we called in to see friends who lived in the area but a bit closer to Sydney than Oberon. We had stayed on their beautiful property in the past and in some ways they had provided a template for what we were looking for. It had been some time since we had visited their farm and it was lovely to catch up on past events and tell them of our search. We then drove back to our home in the lower Blue Mountains to contemplate the days events and enjoy a warming beverage after a day in the cold of an Oberon winter.
To our great surprise, 3 days later our friends contacted us to say that the 30 acre property next to theirs was becoming available soon and that if we were interested we should come out again and have a look. We took their advice and looked over the property soon after. It had a two bedroom kit house on it that was in great condition and the land was perfect. We hadn't wanted a house but this place was to good to pass up. Within a couple of months we had completed the formalities of purchasing the land and our tree change dream was underway.
We had purchased the land but were expecting to have to wait for up to a year or more to be able to move onto the land, let alone have the chance to explore building our ideal home. A series of happy coincidences made it possible for all of the obstacles to melt away and all of a sudden, in January 2014 we were moving into the small but comfortable home on our new land.
Once we had the land and knew that we would move there sooner or later, we started to take an interest in eco builders in appropriate areas. We had been living in the Lower Blue Mountains to the west of Sydney. At the same time that we were buying our land a large series of bush fires engulfed the mountains. while we weren't directly threatened it did help bring to our attention the business of Joe Mercieca, Blue Eco Homes. Joe's display home and office were in the worst hit street in Winmalee and unfortunately his office had been burnt down. The display home was intact though and viewing it and talking to Joe led us to believe that he shared our ideals and vision for the build we wanted.
This blog is partly inspired by the television show Grand Designs where the presenter, Kevin McLeod, follows the build of a project from concept to completion during the course of a half hour show. It exposes the follies and triumphs along the way. We hope to avoid most of the follies but I am sure that some are inevitable. It will also serve as my diary of events so that in the future we can look back on the process and recapture with some clarity the experience that we have had on this adventure. Of course if any one else ever reads this and gets any ideas or inspiration, or even help them avoid our errors, then we will have been glad to have helped. It is early days yet, we have only just begun the design phase and we don't have a strict timetable for completion. We want to spend enough time getting the design right so that the build doesn't hold to many surprises. I will write as often as I can but with the pressures of work, the farm and the build it will remain to be seen how often I set fingers to keyboard. Please feel free to contact me with suggestions and feedback as we go, this is a journey to share experiences and will be richer with participation!
The past months have been spent talking with Joe and a designer, William Linehan of ‘Evolving Design and Drafting’. Joe and Bill often work together and know the way each other works. Bill is also passionate about good eco design and has been helping us with the sort of decisions we need to make at this stage. Ideally we will make as many decisions as possible now so as to avoid making impromptu choices later. They always end up costing more. A couple of early visits to our property gave them a feel for the land and the ensuing discussion over home baked muffins provided an idea of our initial vision.
Bill put together some sketches based on our original meeting. From this we refined the ideas over time and further discussions until we were comfortable with the basic shape and concept of the proposed house. The site was properly surveyed so that elevations and orientation could be accurately drafted. One or two early fanciful ideas were discarded. The property has plenty of privacy so the concept of a bathroom that opened up completely to allow al fresco bathing was contemplated but given the climate and the extra cost involved, let alone the environmental impracticality, it was decided that a nice interior bathroom would be a far better option.
Some of the big themes are the forms of heating and cooling required, how they are powered and how the rest of the house is to be powered too. Given the climate we are all in favour of in floor hydronic heating. The downside of this is the lack of green credentials for concrete in Australia. I have been hearing of so called ‘green concrete’ for some time and we will be trying to use materials that reduce our footprint as much as possible. If you have any suggestions please let me know. Hopefully these products will continue to become more available while we are going through design. Unfortunately the support for renewable and green products has taken a hit with the current federal government in place.
Another pitfall that has come up recently relates to power generation. Our property is connected to the grid but we would like to produce enough power to run both the old and the new house without drawing from the grid. Grid connected PV systems with storage are technically viable but the power generation companies are feeling the backlash over price rises due to the investment in infrastructure that has been pushing up prices. This is causing more people to install solar PV, further reducing revenue. Power companies are therefore reluctant to allow grid connected systems that are large enough to satisfy our aims. This dilemma may mean that we disconnect from the grid entirely. Power storage was already part of our planning as there are often power outages in the area due to weather but we will now need to think of backup generation capabilities in case of extended periods of poor generating weather. There is significant wind potential on the property which will form part of our green generation capabilities but ensuring reliable supply to run a modern household is essential. We don't want to use diesel generation as a backup if at all possible. Increasing the spend on PV, wind and storage would be the first choice if it is possible to achieve reasonable certainty of supply. We installed a weather station in January which is gathering data for us. This should give us a good idea as to the generating capacity of both wind and solar PV. If you care to have a look it is online at the weather at Hampton Springs.
Aside from the power companies reluctance regarding home solar pv, there are practical problems associated with implementing our ideal generating solutions. The current supply is only single phase meaning that under the regulations, as enforced by our local company, I can only connect a system of less than 5kw to the grid. I am exploring the implications of this at the moment. Ultimately I may end up having the new house off grid but keeping the existing building connected, perhaps having a separate pv system on it.
A slightly unexpected but not unheard of, cold snap left us without power for around 40 hours. This was a bit annoying but quite enjoyable in many ways. It did harden my resolve to be off grid though. The third photo shows that I went ahead with plans to install panels on this house as an interim measure while waiting for the new house to be built. the cold winter and the lack of adequate insulation meant that we were using air conditioning to get the house to a liveable temperature in the morning. Even though the lack of a real rebate now means that it is best to use what you produce rather than send it back to the grid I felt it would be worth it in the long run to have this system in place.
The rest of 2014 was spent trying to finalise the design of the house and get the plans into council for approval. In the end we just missed Christmas for submission but by early January they had been given to council so for now we just have to wait for that process to be completed. In the meantime Joe has started the process of getting the costs together to give us a quote for the build, obviously a matter of great interest for us and also of some import to how successful our ambitions can be or how much we may need to compromise. Our old home has been on the market for some time now but January has seen a buyer exchange contracts with us so we are at least a step closer to having the finance for the job sorted out.