Far from the Madding Crowd
A lifestyle block self-sufficiency survival guide. Owning a lifestyle block is a dream for many and it’s easy to see why. Fresh country air, picturesque panoramas, more privacy from your neighbours, the space to grow your family, keep pets, explore your green thumb or run a business from home.
Living self-sufficiently off the land, or living as sustainably as possible, goes hand in hand with the rural lifestyle.
Lifestyle blocks are perhaps the most ideal-sized parcel of land for the transition to self-sufficiency and we are seeing many ways through which sustainable living practices are being incorporated.
1. Building sites
It generally goes without saying nowadays but north-facing building sites soak up the most of the sun’s rays.
Prioritise having the main living areas on the north-facing side, and service areas (for example garages and toilets) on the south side. Bear in mind that the sun is lower in winter – you can use apps like Sun Seeker to see how much sun your site will get year round.
Engage architects, designers and builders who understand energy efficient design principles – preferably a Homestar practitioner or a certified Passive House designer or consultant.
Size: think about how much space you actually need to use. Smaller houses are cheaper to build, easier to heat and use a lot less energy.
Style: The more complex a home’s shape is, the more floor, wall and ceiling area it has to lose heat through.
Simple house designs, for example compact rectangular shapes and multi-level homes, have less external surface area so are easier and cheaper to keep warm.
Properly designed overhangs over northerly windows limit summer sun whilst allowing plenty of sun in during winter. Overhangs don’t work well on east and west sides as the sun is too low – deciduous trees and movable shades or louvers are better options here.
Minimise plumbing and electrical services inside external wall cavities as they compromise the insulation and airtightness in affected cavities.
3. Heat systems, insulation, ventilation and airtightness
Heat systems: Good design will limit the amount you need to use your heating systems, but it still pays to make heating systems as energy efficient as possible.
There are log burners, pellet fires, heat pumps and fluid gas heaters on the market, either as central heating systems or as individual heaters to heat areas of your house as required, and most systems are designed specifically for certain settings so it pays to ask a pro.
Thermal mass: Materials like concrete when exposed to the sun will soak up heat during the day and release it when temperatures drop at night. If you have wooden floors, thermal mass can be added by pouring 50mm or more of concrete on top of the wood. Check with a builder to see if your floors are suitable for this option.
Insulation: Excellent for trapping the free heat from the sun, but it needs to be balanced with ventilation so the home doesn’t overheat and fill with humidity and condensation.
First and foremost, have the insulation installed carefully without any gaps, tucks or folds, to meet the New Zealand insulation standard NZS 4246. Insulate any concrete flooring, both underneath and around the perimeter, as well as between any attached garage and the rest of the house.
Ventilation: Especially in summer, ventilation is the key to keeping your house cool and comfortable. Most houses can be ventilated with adequately-sized and located windows, however when it comes to ventilation systems, they like heating systems offer different designs for specific settings and it pays to ask a pro.
Windows: The sun sends around 500 watts of heat through each square metre of unshaded north-facing window and this heat can be captured and repurposed. Double-glazed windows work best with insulated frames and low-E glass.
Air tightness: Use air locks at external entrances to keep out cold draughts. Balance airtightness with controllable ventilation provisions, like a heat recovery ventilation system.
Outdoor water retention and collection systems are becoming far more accessible.
The main problem with a small house size is that the small roof area restricts water collection.
You can maximise your efficiency however by getting creative: one couple living on a lifestyle block near Kerikeri have two storage tanks and a diesel pump to transfer from the lower to the upper one, where gravity takes over to feed the household supply.
They can also take the pump to the river on a trailer, along with cubed cage tanks, and use this system to fill an extra 5,000L tank for supplying the troughs and the garden hose.
Indoors, consider efficient water heating systems like solar water heating or heat pump water heating and opt for a water-efficient washing machine that reduces water demand.
5. Power and energy
Many hope to be on an alternative power supply like windmills and solar panels, but the set-up costs unfortunately prohibit this in far too many cases.
Instead, make sure you take full advantage of a sheltered, north-facing site and insulated house, and run a gas hot water system to keep power bills down.
Live by candlelight where possible for an equally eco-friendly and romantic experience!
6. Recyclable materials
Recycling free materials is one of the easiest and most-cost effective ways to be sustainable.
Old tyres are great for creating retaining walls and culverts, as tree protectors to stop chickens and ducks scratching down to the roots, and to provide a wall for filling with mulch.
Discarded pallets or wood scraps can also be put to good use in creating fences, bridges, storage or animal housing.
7. Grow your own
With New Zealand’s temperate climate and arable soil profile it’s so easy to grow your own produce.
First and foremost, use no chemicals in the garden.
Select seeds from your hardiest plants to save for next season’s plantings.
Using raised mounded beds in the vegetable garden provides an increased soil layer above the clay and is bound to add to your vege patch’s longevity.
The leftovers from crops not eaten directly are saved as relishes, chutneys and pickles, jam and dehydrated surplus fruit and tomatoes.
Most of this can be done by open-air drying on racks, with the dehydrator only used in winter.
Horses and cows produce prime manure for the garden. A home-made seaweed fertilizer can be easily made in a 200L drum.
House cows are also great for producing the milk needed for the family. Many homeowners are enjoying then turning this into butter, yoghurt, camembert and feta, and even condensed milk.