Off The Grid literature – some thoughts (part 1)

For the past fortnight or so, I’ve been delving into the literature that grapples with ‘off grid’ features. The literature covers a whole gamut of things that could conceivably fall under the rubric of ‘sustainability’ – detailing the attributes of ‘passive house’ construction, why the footprint of buildings matters, how to integrate small-scale energy harvesting technologies into the home, and tips on retrofitting existing buildings with energy efficiency measures. Three things have really struck me about this literature: first, the books themselves, which seem to fall into two distinct camps. Second, the concept of ‘off grid’ is somewhat romanticised. And third, that literature on ‘off grid’ architecture (particularly in Western contexts) appeals to an individualised ideal, rather than a community enterprise. I will discuss the first point in this post, and the other two in a future blog post.
And so, to the books. The physicality of the books (the way they look and feel) and the content (the way it is arranged, and what they have to say) is so distinct. One of the two cohorts comprises of large glossy coffee-table style architectural tomes; the other, of much smaller and denser ‘how to’ guides, usually printed on recycled paper. The bifurcation reveals a distinction in ideals. The glossy architectural literature makes a concerted effort to marry modernity with sustainability. This isn’t necessarily about futurism or futurist architecture, but rather demonstrates an eagerness to prove that living sustainably does not equate with a capitulation of comfort. This is typified by Lori Ryker’s book, ‘Off The Grid: Modern Homes and Alternative Energy’. All of the examples of homes here ooze style and luxury; they quietly whisper that being sustainable, and managing your own waste, and generating your own power does not mean a life that is difficult or filthy. Quite the contrary: it is attractive and contemporary, as well as ecologically aware. This isn’t a book about the ‘down and dirty’ of self-sustenance, and it is in no way a return to a kind of wilderness existence. This is having your modern amenities cake and eating it sustainably.
The second group of books really appeals to the self-builder. This selection of literature is much more about the individual’s ability to promote sustainability and achieve energy self-sufficiency with her/his own hands. Christopher Nyerges’ ‘The Self Sufficient Home: Going Green & Saving Money’ is the archetypal example. This do-it-yourself manual demonstrates ways to save money by minimising your home’s heating costs, promotes solar and wind energy to help manage the household, and discusses ways to integrate permaculture. Here, there is much more of a sense of a return to nature. These books are not so fussed about the aesthetics of living off grid. There is a sense here that modern life is altogether too obsessed with luxury and appearances, and that these have to be eschewed in order to live in a way that maximises reliance upon localised resources.
There is, then, a real contrast within the ‘off grid’ literature, and I think it comes down to a difference of opinion about what modern living really is and what that means practically. There is something divergent about the aspirations of how to live… and this will be covered in more detail in my next post! Stay tuned…


Stephanie Terreni Brown