The joys - and challenges - of rural living

02:50, Jul 18 2011
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Rose and Alistair Hughes are living in a temporary solar shipping container home while they build their new house.

Building your own home can be challenging. Making it sustainable, even more so. In the start of an occasional series Alistair Hughes shares the pitfalls and pleasures of doing both.

It's a crisp winter's morning and the sun has just begun to climb a pale, cloudless sky, throwing long, emerald paths between the trees on the frosty grass.

I'm sitting on a bench I've just placed in one of these sunlit corridors, but the coffee I'm clutching is radiating more heat than the sun will for hours yet. The view of the Wairarapa countryside, looking north toward the Tararua Ranges, and the occasional rotor-blade whir of a swooping native pigeon makes this chilly vigil worth it.

Behind me, on the edge of this stand of native trees, sits a white, 12.1 metre long, 2.8m high shipping container. Unusually, this one has four windows, two on either side, and two doors at the front. At either end, a heat pump has been fitted. Inside, my wife, Rose, sleeps folded around three dozing cats.

This container is going to be our home for the next few months, possibly the remainder of this year, as we wait for our new house to be built. "Wait" is probably too passive a term, as we are keen to be involved in the build as much as possible, which is one of our reasons for living on-site.

Building consent from the South Wairarapa District Council, allegedly one of the most exacting local bodies in the country, has finally been granted and so we are now ready to begin.

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We haven't always lived in a metal box. Just a few months ago we luxuriated in a four- bedroom, fully renovated 1910 villa. Most of our past 10 years had been spent in this beautiful old house, 3 kilometres west of Greytown and surrounded by a hectare of land.

Moved from nearby Carterton almost 20 years ago, this was the last home in our road able to be connected to the limited town water supply. Several other homes sprang up in the area while we lived there, and seeing new residents forced to install their own enormous water tanks made us realise what a precious resource water is.

Living rurally, reduced services also made us consider our own impact on the environment. There was no rubbish collection, so recycling became more important than ever before. Like everyone else in the area we had our own septic tank system, and this meant taking responsibility for our own waste. Certain substances and chemicals couldn't just be thoughtlessly tipped down the sink or flushed away.

Just when our beautiful home was looking the best it ever had in its long history - with garden beds blooming, fruit trees thriving and lawns rolling - we decided to sell it. It has long been a dream to build our own home, and quickly finding what seemed to be the perfect block of land - 3.4ha this time, and sited another 5km closer to the Tararua foothills - we leapt at the chance to buy it.

A stand of original native forest fringes the eastern boundary, while the northwest outlook is a stunning view of the Tauherenikau Valley mouth and surrounding ridges. Two streams converge at the southern road end of our property, which becomes quite marshy in the wetter months.

Now we had a new house to design. Our self-imposed brief was to make it as cohesive as possible with a beautiful and sometimes extreme environent, using the best and most- affordable sustainable-energy solutions available.

Continuing our move toward natural energy production was never in doubt, so to get the "e" word out of the way now - it will be an eco- home. There are difficulties in defining this term, much loved by advertisers and armchair environmentalists, so "sustainable" is more our line of thinking.

Our new home will be compact and simple, positioned for the sun, wind and views and designed to visually complement our location.

We are keen to use sustainable materials as much as possible, choosing macrocarpa cladding rather than imported cedar, for example - but remain resigned to the fact that affordability will dictate some decisions.

Living rurally sometimes comes at a cost, and we were facing a sizeable one to connect to the national electricity grid. After much thought, we've made the decision to live without it - our new home will be powered primarily by the sun. Although the initial set up to generate our own power will cost even more, but we will eventually recover these costs rather than paying ever-increasing power bills.

Our house will face north, presenting a bank of double- glazed doors and windows for maximum solar gain, which fortunately coincides with making the most of our view. A large pitched roof has been designed to house bays of solar and photovoltaic panels. These will provide heating and hot water, as well as electricity that can be stored in photovoltaic batteries.

For the less sunny months, the size of our land allows us to grow timber to supply a large wood burner, which will heat a wet-back system to produce hot water for under-floor heating.

Depending on the energy output of our home, wind power is an option which we can also look at in the future.

Our new home will require a secondary aerated sewage treatment system - rather than a standard septic tank with soak lines - because of the occasional dampness of the ground.

After months of research and advice from consultants, we have settled on a system that uses earthworms, rather than an energy-hungry electrically driven pump, for the aeration procedure. Using a natural process and conserving our own precious power is a win-win situation for us.

One of our largest sustainability priorities will be food production. We have had a vegetable garden and enjoyed the bounty from that. We also have raised a few animals for the freezer.

Given the amount of land we now own, it seems sensible to continue raising our own animals. We have several chickens, also transplanted from our previous property and now housed in a recently completed luxury hen house. Theoretically, they will keep us well supplied with eggs . . . when they feel like it.

Our shipping-container lifestyle not only allows us to live on-site during the build, but serves as an introduction to living independently of corporately owned and supplied services.

As to why we've chosen this difficult path to better living, Rose and I are both independent-minded people, and being able to generate and conserve our own energy, draw on our own water supply and dispose of our own waste responsibly, appeals to us.

The environment we've chosen to live in is naturally abundant in solar energy and, if we choose to take this step in the future, wind power, so it seems wasteful not to utilise it.

These are reasonably self- serving reasons, but are all underscored by a sense of responsibility to the environment at large.

We have an opportunity to lessen our impact on the country's beleaguered energy resources.

To quote Grand Designs guru Kevin McLeod, whose fault all this is: "A sustainable way of life means not a diminution of choices but a change - it can be measured not in terms of standard of living but quality of life." Follow Alistair and Rose's progress at thecrateoutdoors.blogspot.com/

The Dominion Post