Sustainable Architecture: How to Go off the Grid

WORDS Graham Wood PHOTOS Sarah de Pina/Courtesy of the Paragon Group, Courtesy of the V&A Waterfront, Barry Goldman/Courtesy of Era, courtesy of Daffonchio & Associates Architects, Ecomo Home RENDERS Courtesy of Daffonchio & Associates Architects

Planning a new build or renovation, and tempted by the idea of getting off the grid? We spoke to some of South Africa’s top architects about what it really means to do so.

In practical terms, going off the grid is simple. Essentially, it involves three key services that the municipality would normally provide: power, water and waste. You could have a generator, a borehole and a septic tank, and free yourself from the grid. There are houses far from municipal services – on farms or at nature reserves, for example – where living off the grid has been the norm for years. But here’s the kicker: it isn’t necessarily the most environmentally friendly way of living.

Ken Stucke, director at Environment Response Architecture (ERA) and senior lecturer in the Department of Architecture at the University of Johannesburg, says that between the growing awareness of the global climate crisis and the erratic or threatened delivery of services by local municipalities, interest in off-grid architecture has been growing. Stucke designed a totally autonomous landmark house in Hurlingham a few years ago, which operates like its very own complex, multilayered ecosystem.

Pieter Mathews, principal at MAAA, who recently completed an off-grid house in Pretoria, notes, however, that the term “off-grid” is used broadly, and frequently misunderstood. Photovoltaic panels and batteries can provide a few hours of back-up power during load-shedding – which might free you from the electricity grid for a few hours but, he says, “Simply using PV panels and batteries does not mean you’re saving the planet.”

Sean Mahoney of StudioMAS Architecture & Urban Design – who worked on the Deloitte building at the V&A Waterfront in Cape Town, and is embarking on a carbon-zero museum in Stilbaai – says that, to him, “off the grid” should imply carbon zero. He says many buildings with green credentials and certifications remain what he calls “less bad” buildings – that is, they might not be as environmentally damaging as conventional buildings, but they do not actually do any good for the environment. (Let’s not forget that the construction industry is the biggest CO2 producer in the world, accounting for 38% of all energy-related CO2 emissions globally.)

Enrico Daffonchio, principal at Daffonchio & Associates Architects, designed the buildings at 78 Corlett Drive in Johannesburg, an early project to receive Net Zero Carbon Level 1 Certification from the Green Building Council South Africa. His firm recently broke ground on its neighbour, 76 Corlett Drive, which aims to be carbon negative. It is what he calls “regenerative architecture”: it actually helps to make things better; to undo damage.

sustainable architecture
Daffonchio & Associates Architects recently broke ground on 76 Corlett Drive, which aims to be carbon negative – an example of “regenerative architecture”.

Despite these pioneering projects, Pietro Russo, architect for Ecomo Home – which creates chic modular houses ideal for low-impact construction, particularly in out-of-the-way locations – says that so far (he set up shop in 2008), he has only built three totally off-grid houses. But he adds that since the drought in Cape Town and the pandemic, during which people realised they can work from anywhere, there is considerably more interest in off-grid living.

“The trouble is that people think of green architecture as simply throwing technology at normal architecture,” Stucke says. But it’s not. “Technology is not the solution,” says Mahoney. “It’s part of it, but not… business as normal.”

Here are five principles to keep in mind to help you go off the grid meaningfully.

Passive Design

Stucke says that perhaps the first principle when designing an off-the-grid house is to reduce its energy, water and waste treatment requirements before you start trying to satisfy them. Mathews points out that the design principles that allow for more efficient buildings have been around for a long time, and could benefit all architecture, low-cost housing included. Designing your house so that

it faces the right way and using the right materials (which can be decidedly low-fi – after all, thatched roofs and stone floors can help regulate temperature) can go a long way towards reducing the amount of additional energy you’d need for heating and cooling, for example.

Reducing Waste

The Outpost, an off-grid lodge that Daffonchio designed more than 20 years ago, could be unbolted and removed, leaving the site almost undisturbed by its presence there. Building in ways that reduce the use of materials, and that do not damage the ecology of the site, is central to the environmental impact of buildings. Russo’s modular houses are designed proportionally according to the standard lengths of manufactured beams and panels, so there are no offcuts and no waste. His designs are largely pre-manufactured off-site, so construction leaves no mess on the site itself. He uses pile foundations, minimising the use of concrete and thus reducing environmental impact, and uses almost no water during construction.

Another approach, as Mahoney points out, is to use local materials manufactured on site: rammed earth or sun-baked bricks, for example. Cutting out the transport costs reduces the carbon footprint. (In addition, more labour-intensive building methods create opportunities for employment and skills transfer.)

Multiple Systems

Russo says that his designs often use multiple systems. For water: a black water system (sewage); a grey water system; a rainwater harvesting system. By using grey water – from your bath or shower, for example (and using biodegradable soap) – to water the garden and grow vegetables, you can start a cycle that provides fresh produce for the kitchen; and by composting vegetable offcuts, you complete the cycle. It’s about living in a “happy, healthy, harmonious” way that contributes to the environment.

Stucke takes it a step further, advocating for “symbiosis between systems”. By this, he means that one thing can satisfy more than one need – a sun shade that captures solar energy, for example – but also that systems help back each other up. “Whatever threats there are [to one system], try to capture them and use them somewhere else,” he says. Essentially, design so that the house becomes a self-sustaining ecosystem.

Changes in Lifestyle and Behaviour

“For me, ‘off-the- grid’ also needs to be focused on behavioural changes and how you want to live,” says Mahoney. Designing an off-the- grid house is not just about replacing one type of technology with another, and leaving your lifestyle unchanged.

StudioMAS’s design for the Deloitte building encourages the people working there to open windows and let in fresh air, which is in fact essential to the efficient functioning of the building.

Many green corporate buildings encourage the use of alternative transport – cycling, for example – or the recycling of plastic, paper and so on. Mahoney says that other simple changes – living outside in summer and around the fireplace in winter – also contribute to the effective functioning of a building. Put on a jersey, not
a heater. Wear short sleeves, don’t turn on the air-con.

Poetry and Philosophy

Stucke has adapted iconic architect Mies van der Rohe’s dictum “form follows function” to “form follows flow”. This is similar to the first principle of passive design: the shape a building takes on is not preconceived, but takes its cues from the systems and efficiencies the design demands. He says this still leaves him with enormous aesthetic control, but essentially allows the building to work with and become a part of nature. The natural rhythms and cycles of days and seasons, he says, are “the key to unlocking performance in architecture”. “The inherent energies within the climatic system enable the architect to tap into performing strategies,” he says. “And by performance, I mean comfortable buildings.”

Mahoney adds that, for him, a building needs to go beyond behaviour. To function, it should foster and even enhance your relationship with nature. “What you want to do is design buildings that make you interact with nature,” he says, “with the climate and the seasons and the sun and the rain, expressing and enjoying the seasons, and embracing them.”