Caught in the grip of the worst drought in a century, Australians are showering together. Dam levels are reported daily in newspapers, along with the equally modern environmental barometers of pollution and UV light. All manner of water restrictions are in force. Gardeners are banned from using hoses in the heat of the day. In some towns, the family dog can’t get a wash, even with a bucket.
Chris Medland has emergency measures in place. "We use efficient appliances…and maybe we throw the kids once too often in the pool instead of giving them a bath," he says. An hour-and-a-half drive to the north of Sydney, in a low-lying vacation home splayed across a hill of gum trees and scrub, Chris, his wife, Angela, and their three young boys are keeping their total water usage below 40 gallons a day. This is impressive even by local standards, where the average daily consumption for individuals has dropped to 90 gallons. For dirtier endeavors, however, the family is prepared: Four tanks, each with the capacity to hold 6,000 gallons, store water collected from the home’s vast roof. "All it requires is one storm," says Chris, "and the tank is full."
But as a mechanical engineer and head of an engineering consultancy with expertise in environmental technology, Chris had more in mind for his dream green shack than just water harvesting. With architects Joel Farnan and Michelle Findlay, the Medlands have built a home that functions entirely on its own energy, created by solar cells and a wind turbine placed up high so that it’s "never louder than the trees."
"The thing we loved so much about this place was that it was a big backyard," Chris says. "We already had a little cabin on the site. And it was so damn hot because it faced west. In the afternoons, we’d pack everything up and go into one of the gullies, where we’d cleared a big space of grass. And we’d cook on a barbecue because the oven was crap. We’d say, ‘Come on, kids, we’re having dinner,’ so the kids would disappear and come back with armfuls of sticks and we’d build a fire. And that was really a lot of the fun of the place—we didn’t want to lose that."
By being off the grid, the Medlands are the masters of their own energy consumption. The house is equipped with all the modern conveniences—dishwasher, pool filter, and clothes dryer, which they run early in the morning to warm up the house. Under the deck, 14 industrial batteries are capable of storing a week’s worth of power. "If there’s not much sun coming in the batteries, we just don’t run the dishwasher. We wash up by hand," Chris says. Organic waste becomes compost, while trash that can be recycled travels back to Sydney with the family when they leave.
The architects also had a mission—to avoid the down-on-the-alfalfa-farm, nuts-and-berries aesthetic associated with sustainable architecture. Following the contours of the land, the house gently wraps around the slope with two sections that butterfly in opposite directions: living area to the east; bedrooms and bathrooms to the west.
In all, the project combines sleekness with good old Gilligan’s Island ingenuity. "You just need to get the basic building right before you bolt the technology on. If you don’t, you’ll be placing much higher demands on it," Farnan says. Along the deck runs a double column of pipes—one structural, the other for plumbing. A raised header tank provides pressure for showers, and when the tanks are full, water is piped into the dam. Should the sun be weak or low, the solar cells are boosted by an Australian gadget called the Outback Tracker.
Farnan also considered the influence of "embodied energy"—or the hidden environmental toll of factors such as transport costs and upkeep. So there are no ceiling lights, just lamps and strategically placed, low-wattage LED spotlights, which are quite expensive—$47.25 each—although Farnan says they last 50,000 hours.
The bathroom floors are resilient colored epoxy resin, "like they use in pubs." A slab of ironbark, recovered from a closed mill, has been turned into the kitchen bench. The trunks of saplings cleared for the home’s construction are supports for bunk beds and tables.
Elsewhere, materials are raw and therefore durable—galvanized steel, concrete, recycled hardwood. "There are not a lot of finishes," Farnan says. "Things are expressed very basically, honestly, not with a lot of layers."
In this part of New South Wales, winter temperatures drop below zero while in summer the mercury can rise above 104 degrees Fahrenheit, so passive solar design was essential. A southern wall (remember, we are down under) of broken-face concrete blocks keeps the house appropriately cool or warm, depending on the time of year, while, off the kitchen to the east, the eaves create shade over the pool during the hotter months.
"The roof comes down like the brim of a hat to frame the view and limit the amount of sky, because it gets so bright," Farnan says. He points to a narrow beam of light hitting the living-room floor. In winter, the sun streams far into the space. In summer, it disappears. "This is the last of the sun inside—there’s no more sun until May."
Yet no matter the month, there are always friendly wallabies, gum trees, and the faint sound of wind on blades. Chris and Angela expected to enjoy the family weekends and holidays in their elegant shed, but have discovered another benefit, one that could be just the thing to sell green living to the broader community. "You get a real kick out of the fact that there are no bills," says Chris. "We didn’t expect it. When you’re doing the solar thing, you pay once, upfront. It’s incredible."
Karen Pakula is a staff writer at the Sydney Morning Herald. After 15 years of her own home renovations—on one old terrace, with one old husband, a builder—she headed to Melbourne, Australia, for a tutorial in pragmatic, economical modernism from ultra-creative couple Cat Macleod and Michael Bellemo. Pakula returned with a valuable lesson she plans to pass down to her children: The smartest way to build a dream home is to start from scratch.