My green house

Fiona Macleod and Gavin Smitsdorp are well on their way to an eco-friendly home -- and a cheaper, cooler life

It is really not difficult to become independent of the national electricity grid. Recent outages in the Western Cape are a sign that, as with all abusive relationships, there comes a time when you have to decide to walk away and be self-reliant.

When my partner Gavin Smitsdorp and I started building a house near Nelspruit five years ago, there was no doubt that it had to be environment-friendly -- he is a green architect and I am an environmental journalist. Our eco-friendly motivation covers a lot of other grounds, too: cost savings and, as it is finally starting to dawn on spoilt South Africans, a defence in the face of diminishing resources.

Obviously, when you build a new house it is easier to prepare for natural fall-outs and the vagaries of service providers. But there are also things you can do to an existing home that help reduce your consumption and increase your independence.

When planning a new house, it is worth putting a lot of thought into its position and orientation. Making optimum use of sunlight and airflow helps to reduce your energy needs.

We built our house on concrete stilts because it is situated in a floodplain. The elevation reduced the eco-footprint of the house because it meant we did not have to blast, cut or dig the site, and we are not impeding the natural drainage of water in the valley. The stilts and concrete floors have also helped keep the house cool.

The general rule of thumb is to orientate a house on the east-west axis and make it face north. This helps reduce exposure to the sun in summer and, because the sun is lower in the north in winter, helps increase warmth in the winter.

A cool house in summer easily becomes warm in winter with thermal curtains and thick carpets. Insulation in the ceiling and under floorboards pays huge dividends in energy saving and comfort in both seasons.

Lowvelders love their fireplaces, so we built one too and now have wonderful fireside evenings in winter. We get wood by cutting down exotic trees and replacing them with indigenous ones.

Another trick for insulation is to build cavity walls on the western side of the house. Cavity walls have a space between two layers of bricks, providing insulation against the elements and preventing damp in the wall.

Design elements such as verandahs, wooden decks, large windows, high ceilings and slatted wooden screens have contributed to airflow throughout our rooms. We live in one of the hottest parts of the country, but not once have we have felt the need for air conditioners -- or even a fan.

Having decided on a site and design for our house, we set about sourcing certified eco-friendly materials off the shelves of local suppliers. There is no point in saving energy in the home if you’re going to waste a whole lot of resources, principally petrol, importing building materials from far away.

In our home we use a mix of power sources -- solar, gas and electricity. The bath water (which goes into a recycled, re-enamalled bath) is warmed by the sun through coils of thick, black plastic pipes. This is our most eco-friendly energy, but it doesn’t give us much flexibility in terms of when we have a bath.

The option is to use the shower, which heats water through a gas burner, an ingenious design with two steel pipes that sound like a jet taking off when they are burning. Our stove is also gas-powered and the hot water in the kitchen sink comes from a small gas unit.

Natural gas is cheaper, but not always more environmentally friendly than the coal-powered electricity from the national grid. We use bottled gas and two 14kg bottles last us about three months (at R120 each).

Our other domestic items still use the national electricity grid because we haven’t got around to putting in solar panels yet. When we get the panels, we will be liberated. In the meantime, these simple measures are saving us a huge amount of money: we’re spending at most R500 on electricity a year; at our conventional, gridlocked house in Johannesburg, our electricity bill used to be a minimum of R500 a month.

Water, of course, is another dwindling precious resource although, with all the water swirling under our decks after the recent rains, this doesn’t feel like as much of a pressing need as saving electricity. But the time will come.

We get our water from the municipal supplier, Silulamanzi, and use less than the six kilolitre free allowance a month, so we only pay the standard service fee of R44 a month. We recycle every drop we use into the garden. There are a number of pipes feeding this “grey” water into the garden and a friend once commented that our house was like a cow with teats.

It seems like every day now there is a news story about sewage spillages and the malfunctioning of municipal sewerage systems. Our solution has been to install what is known as a package treatment plant, a self-contained, gravity-propelled unit that treats and cleans the sewage before recycling the water into the garden.

Package treatment plants can cause problems when they are used for a number of residential units, but they work okay for a single house. We have to monitor ours carefully, particularly when it rains, because we are situated in a water source.

Such mundane things are part of being grown up and independent -- being aware of where your resources come from, consuming less and, hopefully, one day being able to say: Eskom, eat my hat!

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