It took over our lives,” says architect Piers Taylor, looking back on his experience of raising a family in a home with an off-grid heating system. It was the first step that he and wife Sue Philips took towards being energy independent when they built their own home in a remote woodland with no car access on the outskirts of Bath, in south-west England.
The 2005 self-build project involved extending an 18th-century stone schoolhouse to create a modern family home. The house was connected to mains electricity, but not gas. Instead, Taylor installed a wood-fuelled biomass boiler — effectively a large stove — to provide heating and hot water. The system was effective, but highly demanding. “The sourcing and chopping of wood was an ongoing issue,” recalls Taylor.
Things became easier when the couple bought 40 hectares of adjacent woodland, giving them a steady supply of wood that, as a result of ash dieback, couldn’t be used for much else. But the process was still a continual strain on their day-to-day lives and that of their four children. Everyone would have to pitch in on splitting and stacking the wood, and the house was often filled with logs in various stages of drying. “The kids were fed up and they became embarrassed by it,” Taylor says.
Fast-forward to the present and things are much changed. Taylor’s architectural practice, Invisible Studio, has overseen a renovation bringing the house’s energy efficiency in line with current standards. He upgraded walls and windows to make the structure more insulated and airtight, and installed an underfloor heating system that is powered by electricity rather than the biomass boiler.
The demand for wood has since been reduced by half, and will be cut back even further when Taylor goes ahead with his plan to install an air-source heat pump. The house now also provides its own electricity, via a 15kW array of photovoltaic (PV) panels and a solar battery.
“We have made life so much easier for ourselves,” says Taylor.
Like Taylor, many rural homeowners are discovering it’s now possible to live off-grid without lifestyle sacrifices. Homes are increasingly being built to higher standards of energy efficiency, so they can function effectively with less demand for heating and electricity. This means their needs can often be met by renewable energy technologies alone, with minimal user effort required.
In the past, self-sufficient homes relied on coal or wood burners as an alternative to gas, but now air or ground-source heat pumps can do the same job. These devices require little upkeep beyond an annual service, and they provide heat without filling your home with toxic fumes, unlike coal or wood.
They’re pricier than gas boilers — the Energy Saving Trust estimates the cost of an air-source heat pump at between £7,000 and £13,000, while a ground-source heat pump can be upwards of £20,000. (Last week, the UK government announced it would extend it’s boiler upgrade scheme in England and Wales until 2028, offering subsidies of £5,000 to the cost of an air-source pump, and £6,000 for a ground-source one.)
At the same time, advances in solar and battery technology have been transformative. Solar thermal offers a highly effective source of hot water, while PVs are becoming increasingly efficient at converting the sun’s rays into electricity. Pairing these with rechargeable lithium-ion batteries such as the Tesla Powerwall means that homes can store this electricity for later use, making it available on demand rather than just when the sun is shining.
This shift means it’s possible to build off-grid homes without compromising on architectural ambition. US architect Craig Steely did exactly that at Musubi House, a home he designed for a pair of artists on the Big Island of Hawaii. This highly innovative glass-and-concrete residence generates all of its power from a PV array with solar tracking — which means the panels tilt to follow the sun as it moves across the sky — while its oversailing diamond-shaped roof captures and filters rainwater for use within the home.
House at Loch Awe, a seven-bedroom property in the Scottish Highlands, is another example. David and Margaret van der Hoeven worked with architecture studio Denizen Works to build this retreat for their extended family. Despite its monumental appearance, this 650 sq m country house is designed to be energy-independent. A ground-source heat pump serves its heating requirements, while a PV array is set to be installed at a later date (as budget allows) to provide electricity. The house even has its own source of water, thanks to a borehole on-site.
David says the design was driven by a desire for “the freedom of being independent of everything”. The building is set in a completely wild landscape, so he and his wife felt it made sense for it to be as self-sufficient as possible. “Part of the attraction of building in a remote place was that sense of getting away from everything, of being cut off from the outside world,” he says.
The ongoing energy crisis is encouraging others to follow suit. Gas prices in the UK rose 129.4 per cent between February 2022 and February 2023, while electricity prices went up 66.7 per cent in the same period. Many have been looking to go off-grid as a way of protecting themselves against future price rises.
Wendy Perring, of Hampshire-based architecture office PAD Studio, which specialises in eco-friendly buildings, has noticed the shift among her clients. “There’s definitely a change in mindset,” she says. “There is a fear factor. There are people who are genuinely frightened of being reliant on the grid, of being unable to control the rising cost of energy.”
PAD Studio has just carried out a post-occupancy analysis of New Forest House, a self-sufficient home it completed 14 years ago in Hampshire for Jenny and Julian Gray. This project was driven by concerns about environmental impact, rather than cost. The couple, who were previously in London, wanted to build a home with a minimal carbon footprint.
Nonetheless, the report found that their house is 42 per cent cheaper to run than a home built to 2021 building regulations, even though its energy demands are much higher than a typical household — the property would be 97 per cent cheaper to run if the couple didn’t have an infrared sauna (which are far more energy efficient than regular saunas), a pottery studio with an electric kiln, a wood workshop filled with power tools and a charge port for an EV car.
Their central heating is provided by a ground-source heat pump with its own borehole — a system at the higher end of the market, but which, they claim, paid for itself after nine years. A solar thermal system produces hot water, while electricity comes from a 9.87kW PV array of 47 panels, cleverly hidden inside a ha-ha.
But the building’s energy efficiency is as much due to its smart use of thermal mass and solar gain. The frame, basement and retaining walls are concrete, which helps to moderate the internal temperature, while windows are south facing with integrated shutters, so they can harness the sun’s warmth in winter without causing the house to overheat in summer. “Everything we do is from a fabric-first approach,” says Perring. “We believe you should make the envelope of the building as good as you possibly can before you add the other bits in.”
Jenny and Julian do, however, maintain a connection to mains electricity. This provides a back-up in case the system malfunctions or for times of extreme energy demand, such as during severe winter temperature drops. In summer, when there is no need for heating, and solar panels are producing far more power than required, the couple can sell clean electricity back to the grid (a service available from an increasing number of energy suppliers).
Perring typically recommends this approach to her clients, placing a greater emphasis on being energy independent rather than fully off-grid. “You can be connected to the grid, but have the ability to be completely disconnected,” she says. This ensures that excess energy isn’t wasted. “It’s actually more sustainable to be attached to the grid,” she adds, “because if you’re generating excess energy, what else are you going to do with it?”
Brazil-based BLOCO Arquitetos followed the same principles when designing a three-bedroom home for a family in a remote rural location near the Chapada dos Veadeiros National Park in Goiás, central Brazil. Palicourea House features split-level living spaces that can be opened up to the elements, framed by brick walls and an oversized glue-laminated timber roof. PV panels and battery storage provide a steady supply of electricity, but the house is still connected to the grid so that any surplus power can be sold back.
For many homeowners, capital investment is the main obstacle to becoming energy independent. Just like heat pumps, solar energy systems are eligible for government subsidies in the UK, but the additional expense of a battery storage system can blow the budget. It can easily be more than a decade before savings start outweighing the cost, so it takes a real leap of faith. However, with the market for sustainable technologies continually expanding, these systems are expected to become increasingly affordable.
At Nest House, an eco-home in Herefordshire, architects Studio Bark showed it is possible to introduce off-grid technologies on a budget. Built for retired couple Francine and Stephen Burns at a total cost of £280,000, this innovative house features a prefabricated structure of timber cassettes, constructed by students as part of an education programme.
PV panels were sourced second-hand from an old solar farm to provide electricity, while an experimental system supplied by M&E engineer Atamate combines infrared panels with sensors to create energy-efficient heating without the usual plumbing. “There are no wet heating pipes in the house at all, only hot water,” says architect Wilf Meynell, co-founder of Studio Bark.
Francine and Stephen’s current system only generates enough power for them to live off-grid for part of the year, so they still require some mains power in the winter. It does, however, include a solar battery, which can be charged from either the PVs or the mains. This means that the couple can take advantage of the lowest energy tariffs by only charging the battery at night. It also means they could become completely energy independent in the future, by adding more PV panels or an alternative, such as a wind turbine, and increasing the amount of battery storage.
Meynell’s advice to those on a budget is not to worry about being completely self-sufficient right away, but rather to future-proof a building so it could easily become off-grid in the future. Here, the system is set up so that, if Francine and Stephen decided to swap their petrol car for an electric one, they could connect the car battery to the system and use it as an extra source of power storage.
“The batteries in these cars are typically around 40 kWh, which is huge,” he says. “That could power this house for a couple of weeks.”
Either way, the days spent chopping logs are long behind us.
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