We have recently built a house off the grid and completely run by solar power.  I wanted to give you some insight into what I have learnt, from the importance of insulation and insulation types, to glazing and passive design, but from a female perspective who is trying to decipher building and supplier talk.

Our decision to not connect to the grid was pretty much a monetary one. We have built on a 130-acre block that is 10 minutes from town. Technically a “rural” block, but not very far from town and amenities. When we were told the cost to connect the then non-existent house to power, we were for want of better words, “blown away”. Luckily, we had a local electrician contact who had recently become very interested in solar applications. When we compared his price of installing solar panels and a system to ensure we could exist solely on the sun’s rays we were pleasantly surprised to find it was fairly similar. To then take into consideration the fact we would never pay an energy bill again – well that was the clincher.

This decision led us down a completely different track to what we were originally envisaging for our home. And seeing as I work so closely to experts in the building field (and had the time and resources available to put towards making decisions on many different aspects of our house design), I took on the role of ‘site manager’. We did not technically take on the owner-builder approach, however we may as well have as we had to involve so many different trades and businesses to achieve what we did. As full on as this was, I have learnt so much which has been of benefit to my current job. But what stood out the most is that, even though I’m JUST A CHICK, I did a bloody good job of being “site manager” and I wanted to share some insight with you other “chicks” out there that might be considering the same thing.

I’m not being derogatory when I class my fellow females as “chicks”. I’m no dummy – I studied environmental science so I am a bit of a greenie, but I’m also married to an agronomist. So, I guess we are the epitome of sustainability versus productivity!!! But I found it very interesting the different way SOME builders, professionals, tradesmen have treated me while being an on-site “chick”. (N.B just a little side note – it was moreso the younger ones that didn’t want to deal with me and only wanted to speak to my husband!!!)  Don’t they realise that as women we are probably the best people to take on that role? We make a million decisions every day based on our families and work, juggle tasks continually and can do more than one thing at one time!! But I guess that’s another debate for another day……..

So as I was saying, now that we had decided to go down that track, we had to carefully consider the concepts of Passive Design. The Passive design concept is to build an energy efficient home that makes the most of your climate to reduce the energy required for heating and cooling. This can be met utilising both design and orientation, sealing your home, thermal mass (the ability of a material such as concrete and bricks, to suck in and store heat energy) and the appropriate use of materials such as insulation and glazing. We sought an architect that could incorporate passive design concepts (as well as designed houses that we thought looked really good!).
Our house design has incorporated solar hot water with a gas booster to heat our hot water in the summer (we have a gas bottle because we cannot connect to natural gas out there). Our heating for winter is via a wood fuelled hydronic floor heater which also supplies the hot water to the house. We have 12ft high ceilings, triple glazed windows throughout the whole house with less windows on the north west side of the house which cops the most sun. We have a bank of windows in the living room to allow the winter sun to heat the concrete floors to aid with heating the house in winter, we have ceiling fans that are reversible to push heat down during winter, and most importantly we have insulated the crap out of the house.

Just an aside – did you know without efficient glazing your home can lose up to 40% of its heating energy and can gain up to 87% of its heat in summer (McGee, 2013 – Did you also know how difficult it was to source triple glazed windows in Australia that didn’t cost more than the house itself? We tried to source all our building material and products as locally as possible. Unfortunately, we had to source our windows from Holland because Europeans are obviously the experts when it comes to glazing and insulation requirements. They were cheaper AND they are absolutely beautiful. One good thing is that at least we were able to utilise a local business to source these! (P.S. I love where I work!)

Insulation is such an important aspect when building or renovating a home, but it doesn’t seem to rank high on people’s priority list because it cannot be seen. People will pay huge amounts of money for beautiful windows or barn doors but won’t investigate spending money on insulation. The decision to go completely solar meant insulation was one of the things we had to explore more than anything. We don’t want any of our winter heat escaping or that summer heat coming into our house – again did you know that air leakage accounts for 15-25% of winter heat loss in homes?
Insulation is the most effective way to improve the energy efficiency of your home, which is why I think it’s crazy that it doesn’t rank higher on people’s priority list when building or renovating. Studies have shown that simply insulating your home reduces the cost of heating and cooling by over 40%. Therefore depending on the type of insulation used, it should pay for itself in almost 5 to 6 years ( Although we aren’t paying any energy bills due to being completely solar, we still wanted a product that is going to reduce the amount of time that our floor heating is required to be on (as timber is not a renewable resource) and reduce the amount of time the solar power is used to cool the house in summer so we can utilise that power for other areas of the house.

Again, lucky for me we have a local business that sources an insulation product called SuperQuilt.

SuperQuilt is an innovative multi-layer insulation blanket for roofs, walls and floors and provides massive thermal insulation in a thin, flexible, easy to fit multi-layer membrane. SuperQuilt is a reflective foil that is non-irritating, non-asthmatic or allergenic. It is also an aluminium foil material which dramatically improves the non-flammability of the material.
Blah, blah, blah – there’s some technical jargon for you.  Here’s my interpretation of this. So, there aren’t a lot of insulation products that you can use in different applications. You usually need to purchase one product for your roof, one for walls etc. Therefore, this SuperQuilt is fairly novel as you can use the same product to do your whole house!  Also, a lot of products get larger in size the higher the thermal performance (meaning the more powerful the product is at reflecting heat out in summer and reflecting heat in during winter). But SuperQuilt is really thin considering it has such high R-values (R-values) are the measure of how well a product resists heat flow – therefore the higher the R-value the better the insulating properties are). SuperQuilt has this aluminium outer layer so it looks like some space age stuff – our house looked like it was wrapped up like a Christmas present! But it’s non-irritating (apparently lots of insulation types require you to wear dust masks so you don’t inhale tiny fibres which can irritate asthma sufferers). And it’s made from recycled plastic bottles, so not only is it reducing the amount of energy I’m putting into my house; the production of the actual product is sustainable as well – I’m sold!!!!

So apparently this SuperQuilt, being only 40mm thick, is really easy to install. Even the photo on the website shows a chick in a bright yellow t-shirt looking very capable at installing SuperQuilt. It’s supposed to be perfect for DIY home renovators and owner builders which further reduces labour costs. Needless to say, I had a go. I know the boys had a good laugh at my expense, but I did it. I certainly didn’t look as cool, calm and collected as the chick with the yellow t-shirt. But gees I was proud of myself!!

We ended up using SuperQuilt in the roof and walls. From my research into this decision, I understand that the minimum requirement when building is an R-value of 2.5 in the roof and 1.5 in the walls. After we applied SuperQuilt, we ended up with an R-value of 6 in the roof and 4.5 in the walls. You don’t need to be a builder to understand that is a big increase!!! We don’t have any before and after data (sorry that’s my nerdy scientist coming out in me) but we can definitely say, now that we have been in the house for a full winter and summer, that the house retains a lot of heat in the winter and the hydronic heating is on a very low setting to simply maintain a comfortable heat during the really cold months. And in summer we still use the air conditioner on really hot days, however we turn it off before the sun goes down and the house maintains a cool temperature overnight with the aid of ceiling fans.
So after the turmoil of building a house, I think the combination of our sustainability and productivity approaches, we have resulted in a house that has reduced its environmental footprint, is sustainable, but also economical and practical. Plus I think it’s beautiful – it really is our dream home. I am so lucky to work where I do. Not only did C.H.I do ALL the cabinetry in our new home, they also (through their sister business Aus Home Insulation) supplied and installed the SuperQuilt insulation AND sourced and installed our beautiful triple glazed windows (with my help of course – because CHICKS ROCK!).