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Living Off the Grid: A Consciousness Extender

5/31/2011 12:00:00 AM

Tags: off grid living, California, wildfire, straw bale, passive solar, solar panels, cohousing

Robyn Griggs Lawrence thumbnailArchitects Ken Haggard and Polly Cooper have been designing passive solar buildings on California’s central coast since the 1970s. In 1994, when a wildfire that plowed through Los Padres National Forest destroyed the couple’s home and office complex just north of San Luis Obispo, they seized the opportunity to start all over again—and go active. “Once we got over freaking out about losing all our photographs, we saw that we’d been given the opportunity we had always talked about, to build a straw bale house and go off the grid,” Ken says.

The fire had killed most of the mature trees on Ken and Polly’s property, leaving abundant building materials that wouldn’t require transport or industrial processing. Immediately following the fire, the couple built a 440-square-foot straw bale cottage powered by two solar panels borrowed from a local solar company, which they lived in while building their 2,000-square-foot straw bale home and 1,200-square-foot office out of 22,000 board feet of standing dead Sargent cypress, Douglas fir, Coulter pine and while alder milled on site. “It was an opportunity to do more with more,” Ken says. “Those trees that burned would just be sitting there rotting” if the couple hadn’t used them to build.

Designed to make use of the natural energies of the sun and breezes, Ken and Polly’s home and office are masterful examples of the daylighting and passive solar techniques that they helped pioneer. Eight-inch-thick concrete block walls provide thermal mass that collects sunlight through expansive south-facing low-e windows and double-glazed skylights insulated with Skylids, an automatic louver system that opens when the sun comes up, closes when it goes down and can be manually turned off to provide shade in summer. “When people hear we’re off the grid, they look at us like, ‘Oh, you poor things,’” Polly says. “But we’re sitting here with light streaming in; we’re not terribly deprived.”

Since they completed their home and office in 1997, Ken and Polly have begun building a cohousing community of sorts, welcoming two more families onto the property. Fifteen Seimens PC4JF panels supply ample power for six structures, including the office and a shop, during summer months, as long as everyone is conscious of their use and the Xerox machine isn’t left on overnight. Two Harris Pelton hydro wheels—6-inch diameter adaptations of the water wheels used in gold-mining towns during the late 1800s—pull power from the creek when the sun is weaker during winter months. The system relies on a bank of 12 Trojan L-16 batteries and a 120-volt Trace inverter. A digital monitor keeps track of battery voltage, charging rate and use, enabling everyone to take preventative measures when stores get low.

“We’ve never found living off the grid difficult or inconvenient,” Ken says. “There’s a learning curve at first, but you have direct feedback—when you’ve got no juice, you’ve got no juice.” A chart in the office keeps everyone apprised of how much power is coming from the sun and how much from the creek, as well as current voltage use. “It’s another level of consciousness,” Ken adds. “We’re learning how the creek works, how the weather works. It’s a consciousness extender.”

After all these years, Ken and Polly have learned that they must clean the leaves and debris that have built up in the creek over the summer before the first big storm in late October or early November flushes everything into the wheels. “We hit that maybe every third time,” says Ken, who doesn’t relish crawling up the creek when it’s raining and cold to handle the task. “It’s not as much fun now that I’m in my 70s.”

The gratification, he adds, comes from connecting so strongly with the seasons. “This is very nice in California, where the seasons aren’t accentuated.”

System outages are extremely rare on Ken and Polly’s complex, and they love to celebrate grid outages by hauling out their 1950s waffle iron and feeding everyone breakfast. There have been occasions when power has gotten low and the architects have had to finish projects with candles burning on top of their computers—but those are rare. And besides, Ken says, “an occasional candlelight meal is nice.”

Efficient lighting and energy-saving appliances including a Sun Frost refrigerator, a Staber 2000 horizontal-access clothes washer, a Jenn-Air dishwasher that allows them to turn off the heat during the drying cycle, combined with vigilant energy-miser habits such as turning off lights and eliminating phantom loads, keep the entire complex’s power needs low. They charge laptops and power tools during fat times and work off their batteries when times are lean. The thick straw bale walls provide plenty of thermal protection, and the passive solar design eliminates the need for mechanical heating. “We use electricity for the things it’s best for—not the things it’s handy for,” Ken says. “Using electricity for hating is the cardinal sin. It’s so inefficient.”

In summer months, when the system generates more power than it needs, a device burns off the waste as heat. “It kills me when that thing goes off,” Ken says.

Once a month, Ken equalizes the system’s batteries by overcharging them on a sunny day and turning the water wheels full throttle. He says this has made his batteries, which had a seven-year life expectancy, last for 14 years.

Now solidly off the water and electric grid—and loving it—Ken and Polly hope to get off the oil grid by buying an electric Nissan Leaf. The car’s battery could serve as a back-up in emergencies, adding flexibility to the system. “The key thing is to have a supplementary, back-up power source,” Ken says. While he’s pleased to see that more communities are allowing net metering—in which the utility company buys back excess solar power from homeowners and makes power available when they need it, acting as a sort of battery—Ken says he just likes the bragging rights that come with being completely off the grid. “I feel a little more pure, just a little bit righteous,” he says.

haggard exterior  

Ken Haggard and Polly Cooper built their home using standing dead timber and straw bales. All phases of the trees' life cycle--source, transport, porocessing, use and source regeneration--happened on site. Photo by Claudio Santini 

haggard living room 

Left uncovered because Ken and Polly like the look, this wall of 8-inch-thick concrete blocks collects and releases solar heat for the passive solar home.  

haggard kitchen 

The kitchen's breakfast bar is made from Sargent cyrpess and sycamore from the property. 

haggard phase change 

Skylights provide plenty of natural light, eliminating the need for electric lighting. 

haggard voltage meter 

A system monitor (with handy homemade chart) gives everyone a quick snapshot of how much power is being used and where it's coming from. 

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