Community Technology An Autonomous House
At a time when it is becoming common knowledge that the sources of energy and materials which our society has taken for granted in the past are becoming rapidly exhausted, alternative technology, which is independent of finite resources, is becoming increasingly relevant to our future. Technology which has a 'soft' impact on the community's environment creates a constant flow of energy, as opposed to the existing 'hard' technology in which energy is used once and never recovered.
The idea of building an 'Autonomous House' using alternative technology came to a group of 2nd and 3rd year Architecture students at Sydney University in 1974. They sought an ecologically responsible alternative to conventionally powered and serviced houses, both because of the overall impact on the environment of the corporate forces (e.g. on Lake Pedder, urban creeks, etc.) and because of the ruthlessly profit-oriented organisations responsible (e.g. A.V.Jennings Homes).
The Autonomous House was to use only naturally powered energy systems and, ideally, demonstrate total self-sufficiency in all energy requirements. At the same time it aimed to provide a standard of living for five inhabitants (students) comparable to that of the ordinary community.
Design and work on the house was undertaken by seventeen students,, resulting in a rectangular shaped house with a large communal living area and kitchen at ground level, and separate sleeping quarters in a loft overhead. A north facing beer bottle wall is responsible for the heating and cooling of the house (the sun's heat is stored in old water-filled beer bottles and convection currents can be introduced to control the temperature). Doors and windows can be sealed to prevent heat loss and the house is equipped with fibreglass insulation, so that it is as thermally efficient as possible. Electricity for lighting and power is generated by a "Quirks" 12V/300W windmill and stored in batteries.
The floor of the house is made of rubble from a demolition site, the timber walls are built from scrap, the roof is old galvanised sheeting, and the floor of bricks comes from the driveway of a demolished timber factory.
A methane digestor is in use to convert human and organic wastes into a nitrogen-rich fertilizer, though a larger community system would be needed to produce enough methane gas for lighting and cooking. From just one house, too little waste is available to really get the system going. Rain water is gathered on the large roof area and stored in a tank for drinking and general use. A solar water heater is mounted on the northern side of the roof.
The Autonomous House is therefore built almost entirely from second hand materials, from what is normally treated as garbage. This ensured that construction consumed as little energy as possible - merely human energy and time.
Here are a few comments from individuals who have experienced building and living in the Autonomous House:
The Autonomous House is not just a house with a series of technological systems used to supply an assumed amount of energy, water and shelter, but it is also one of our first steps in a search for a lifestyle more in harmony with the natural world and with other people.
We feel that it is important to begin living the alternative way now.
Most of our material resources in building in general are geared towards building barriers between one another, and yet, by circumstance or desire, people still live close to one another. The house is a small house (and uses less materials), yet inside there is still a feeling of spaciousness. The whole house is basically one room that can be adapted for our many uses, and we each have small visually private alcoves between the rafters in the loft. A terrace house in the inner city for five people often seems crowded and claustrophobic, yet this house, at about half the size, feels spacious.
"It is very much a house of the present. Much of the interest in living in the House comes from a section of the present community that is aiming for an alternative lifestyle: a lifestyle closely sympathetic to the changing cycles of nature, seeking closer community with other people and greater fulfillment in all life's activities - aiming to embrace a wider range of activities in the fields of work and leisure and gradually eliminate the distinction between the two. An important aspect of this quest is to begin living the alternative way now. So, whilst seeking a reduction and scaling down of hardware, we seek an expansion of our software. As contacts between people in this search become more widespread, the products of their labours will surely become more refined."
Living in the House, I began to see more and more of both the workings of my needs, and of the technology created to satisfy these needs."
If we really want to begin living in ecological harmony with the earth then we must reconsider our style of living as much as our techniques.
From Chain Reaction Vol 2 No 3, 1976.
Magazine published by Friends of the Earth (Australia)
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