Friday, 31 August 2012

Half yearly report 2: The inside story

Bare walls, floors and windows often have a habit of staying that way for a long time, but code of compliance can be a wonderful motivator.

Curtains, carpet, cat - just like a real home!
We’re often asked, now that we’re living in a house that we’ve designed ourselves, if we wish we’d done anything differently. Perhaps it’s a testament to our limited imaginations or perhaps through pure dumb luck we seem to have got it right, but the honest answer would have to be ‘no’. Insulation in some of the inside walls for sound dampening would have been nice, but was beyond our budget at the time. And that’s about it.

Final sign off for our code of compliance was one of those experiences involving local body representatives with clipboards which encouraged us to move away from towns and cities in the first place, but also a necessary evil if we ever come to sell, or alter certain financial arrangements.
As mentioned elsewhere, we covered as many walls with undercoat as we possibly could, which went some way to removing the plaster dust which still coated everything. But after a thorough examination the decree from the council was, not too surprisingly, a ‘Fail’. The uncovered and frankly dangerous deck and front step was a ‘fair cop’, and I could even see the point of more insulation in the roof space. But rodent-proofing a tiny cavity in an interior wall and a suggestion to finish painting our bedroom made my fingers clench as they snapped an imaginary clipboard.

Missed a bit...
Covering the deck rapidly became the focus of several weekends in a row, and once we got our customary scuffle over working methods and division of labour out of the way, progress was steady, and reasonably smooth. Rose was full time on the drop saw, while I hammered, taking a little while to get back into that state of Zen where the nail and not the timber is hit squarely every time, sinking through the wood with the minimum of blows.

The trouble with my usually being the one to take the photographs
is that it often looks as if Rose does all the work herself!
The resulting expanse of timber could probably serve as a runway for light aircraft, final sign off from the council was granted soon afterwards, and the deck will probably become our main living space when summer arrives again. Unfortunately it also seems to be the chicken’s main living space when we aren’t there, and the state they leave it in has convinced us that a run will be one of our next projects.

Rose begins a long walk across the completed deck.

Meanwhile, a special deal on carpet encouraged us to take the plunge earlier than expected and our bedrooms and office are now considerably cosier as a result. Mention of the office prompts to give the feature wall an honorary mention. We’ve been a little subdued in our colour choices so far, and I rebelled against this by painting one entire side of the office the most cheerful shade of my favourite, and Rose’s least favourite, colour I could find. The resulting juicy vista of orange nourishes my soul and makes the whole room glow as if it’s on fire when the rosy light from a sunset pours through the window.
To Rose’s chagrin, it has met with universal approval from everyone who’s seen it and now even she is coming around.

Orange alert!
Rose takes up the story of the curtains, a feature which really she is entirely responsible for and one enriches our habitat no end:
I have a wonderful friend called Helen, one of many Helen’s in my life but this one makes curtains and blinds professionally.
With me helping her with a few of her jobs she was happy to assist me in making the curtains and blinds for the house. Now this was something that had taken years to complete at Woodside Road!
I had fallen in love with a fabric from one of our French suppliers and was allowed to bring in a whole roll with one of the shipments. The living room needed about 23 metres and with Helen’s advice on the type of heading we set too and stitched up a storm. The result is a swathe of beautiful black/grey and white striped curtains that despite double glazing definitely make a difference to the warmth in the room and really make the space cosy.

Ed admires the Living room curtains.
The office blind fabric was something I had fallen in love with even before we had started building and having bought the fabric it travelled around in the car with me for many months before being made into the wonderful roman blind. The laugh is that the type of sheep on the fabric appear every so often next door in John’s paddock! Who’d have thought!

The view from the window is usually almost identical to this curtain fabric.

The bedrooms continue to be a work in progress.

Friday, 10 August 2012

Half yearly report: Working on Sunshine

What is living off-grid actually like? It’s time for a six monthly check-up.

Our hard-working solar panels - sipping the light fantastic.

When I last posted on this blog, back in March, I thought the story of The Crate Outdoors was over. Not for us, obviously, but for anyone who might have found the trials and minor tribulations of our camping and building experience worth reading about.

So I drew a curtain on our ‘year of living ludicrously’ with our solar/wetback hot water system finally connected, banishing the heating water on the stovetop for dishes and laundry and showering at work to the past. Our brand new house was a home at last.
With only the prospect of arguing over paint colours, hanging curtains and saving for carpet stretching ahead, I concluded this could only be of interest to ourselves; after all - everyone usually has enough of their own painting and decorating without having to read about someone else’s.

But I’m now briefly re-opening The Crate Outdoors, for two reasons. The last six months have seem more progress inside than either of us really expected and most importantly, people still ask what it’s like to live off-grid.
Now in the depths of winter, surely the most challenging circumstances for a lifestyle dependent upon sunlight, this seems the perfect time to give an honest account.

I’ll begin with the hot water system: We couldn’t be happier – the sun warms our water during the day and the wood burner’s wetback system warms it at night. It’s difficult to imagine a time when this arrangement won’t be able to supply us with continuous hot water. Perhaps a series of warm but overcast days in summer might pose a challenge when it’s too warm for a fire but too dull for much solar gain, but even then the efficiency of our solar tubes and the capacity of our tank will probably see us through.
The gentle gushing sound as the fire reaches the temperature required to send hot water to the radiators in the hallway and bathroom is a source of great satisfaction, and no longer frightens the cats.

The array of solar tubes on the right heats our water by day,
and our wood burner fire takes over that duty at night.
Wood consumption is high, but the combination of fallen branches on our own property, generous neighbours and a dead Kahikatea tree which we had felled have kept us well supplied.

Our off grid electrical system is predictably challenged at this time of year. At the height of summer, (such as it was this year), we were generating in excess of 200 amps – a mighty load which kept our batteries happily fizzing with more power than we could really use. This is a good time for the washing machine, vacuum cleaner, electric toothbrush, hair dryer and toaster – all at once.

Currently giving a volt reading, this monitor helps us keep track of how are batteries are doing -
staying constantly aware of our power situation is all part of living off-grid.
In winter, our amps are rarely in the positives which in itself isn’t a problem, but if it falls below -300 then we need to run our generator (possibly our greatest asset last year) to top the batteries up again. This takes a couple of hours, and mean we have to refrain from using any electrical appliances while ‘little red’ chugs away in the power shed. Since the end of June we’ve had to do this on less than ten occasions. It’s a mild inconvenience and a negligible amount of petrol, but the process does make us even more boring about the weather forecast than most. A series of cloudy days means the generator, a row of suns and the panels get to do their work.

'Little red' used to power our container, but now this little generator
tops up our batteries when the sun hasn't got his hat on. 
To be brutally honest we do miss our electric blankets at times, but that is definitely one luxury this lifestyle has banished to the past. Fortunately the house is gloriously warm. With double glazing and insulation has come the realisation that we’ve probably never lived in a warm house before – and certainly not one with real right angles.

Next: Decor, decks, drapery and division of labour...