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Off the Grid: Photo Essay

Posted on 19 Feb 2019

'Off the Grid' is the ultimate escapist collection of self-sufficient cabins and retreats in the world’s most stunning and inaccessible locations. Take a look at some of the most innovative off-grid homes from the book.

One of the greatest delights of off-grid living is getting away from it all. Advances in home-generated renewable energy have allowed opportunities for escapism and total immersion in natural surroundings. Off the Grid: Houses for Escape is the ultimate escapist collection of diverse self-sufficient cabins and retreats in the world’s most stunning locations, from snowbound cabins in the far Northern Hemisphere to coastal retreats that can only be accessed by boat.

'Organic farmstead', Spain. Tucked into its sloping site, the farmhouse offers semi-private guest accommodation on the lower floor, private family space at the top and more social areas in between. Image credit: Richard Powers

An Organic Farmstead for the 21st Century
Henning Larsen Architects: Granja Experimental Alnardo, Valladolid, Castilla y León, Spain

The winemaker Peter Sisseck has long been committed to biodynamic methods of production. This holistic organic philosophy has governed his work in Ribera del Duero, Spain, where he produces the celebrated Dominio de Pingus from his own vineyards. As part of an all-encompassing approach, Sisseck decided to create his own sustainable farmstead, which would allow him full control over the formulation of the organic compost that nourishes his vines, as well as providing him with a new home.

Having worked with Henning Larsen Architects on a bodega for his other label, PSI, the Danish-born Sisseck asked the practice to design a farmstead on 20 hectares (50 acres) of land in Castilla y León, northwestern Spain. Given the remote setting, well away from mains services, the farmstead was designed to be self-suffcient and off-grid. ‘It’s been an ambition to create a farm for quite some time, and now that it’s up and running it’s proving to be one of the best decisions we ever made,’ says Sisseck. ‘We are using the old methods of wine production and it’s really important for the vineyards that we stimulate them in an organic way, because you need a lot of micro-organisms in the soil. Here we can guarantee that the compost is 100 per cent organic, which is important for the quality control of our vineyards.’

The farm has its own water source, as well as the facilities to harvest and store rainwater, and a solar array near the farm buildings provides electricity. The chief source of heat is a biomass boiler, which is currently fed by wood pellets but could be fuelled by cuttings from the vineyards in the future. There is also an independent back-up generator for use in the winter, if required.

‘From a purely practical point of view, it was important to
be self-suffcient,’ says Sisseck, ‘because the infrastructure here is non-existent. We could have brought in an electrical line, but the connection is so far away that it would have cost a lot of money.
We also tried to use local materials, and built the house with local artisans. It is a personal project, but also a wonderful collaboration with people who have a real talent for architecture and landscape design.’

'Organic farmstead', Spain. Important living spaces such as the sitting room/library flow onto elevated balconies, to connect with the capitvating views of the countryside beyond. Image credit: Richard Powers

'Skyhut', Wales. The hut has everything a home might need, all in one compact space, reminiscent of a crafted yacht cabin. Image credit: Anthony Coleman

'Skyhut', Wales. In the evening the opening roof turns the house into an observatory, framing a picture of the night sky. Image credit: Anthony Coleman

Sleeping Under the Stars
Waind Gohil + Potter Architects: SkyHut, various locations, Wales, UK

One of the legends that surround the mountain of Cadair Idris suggests that anyone who sleeps on its slopes under the stars will wake up as either a madman or a poet. Some believe this legend is linked to an
old tradition whereby poets and bards would camp out on the mountain seeking inspiration for their work. Such ideas have informed the evolution of the SkyHut, an off-grid cabin whose unfolding roof turns it into an observatory for gazing at the stars.

‘The SkyHut is designed to provide a unique place to experience the Welsh sky, with doors and roof that open fully to transform the hut into a glamping observatory,’ says the architect Phil Waind of Waind Gohil + Potter (WG+P) Architects. ‘The idea of a retractable roof is particularly relevant to Wales, the country with the highest percentage of “international dark sky”.’

‘The SkyHut is highly engineered, as it’s no easy task to design a space that is transformable, transportable and off-grid,’ says Waind. ‘We had to ensure that the actuators could take the weight of the roof and that the roof panels did not bend or twist when being opened. At the same time, we had to ensure that the interior would be totally weathertight when the roof was closed.’

The building itself is clad in corrugated metal panels that echo the simple outline and materiality of local farm buildings. A line of high clerestory windows between the panels and the roof suggests a modern twist and introduces light, while also accentuating the roof itself. Birch-faced plywood was used for the interior joinery, which includes a bed, cupboards and other simple facilities.

The SkyHut is fully insulated and off-grid, with two roof- mounted solar panels for electricity and warmth generated by a wood-burning stove; there is also a composting toilet and a sink. Water is stored in a separate container, brought to the site, while additional communal facilities on a campsite model – such as barbecues – can be provided when the cabin is used in combination with other retreats.

A hybrid home somewhere between permanence and the tent, the SkyHut offers a way of connecting with the natural surroundings and the night sky. ‘We wanted to create a space that was functional and catered to the needs of its inhabitants,’ says Waind. ‘But we also wanted their stay to be fun and provide a unique experience. We have given the user the opportunity to transform the space at the ick of a switch and, being off-grid and transportable, that unique experience could be anywhere.’

'Skyhut', Wales. The SkyHut is a hybrid of cabin and caravan, with retractable doors and a folding roof that open the retreat to both land and sky. Image credit: Anthony Coleman

'Bridge Studio', Canada. 'The Bridge Studio' is one of several small, sculptural artists’ retreats on this sparsely populated island. Image credit: Bent René Synnevåg

Apostrophes in the Landscape
Saunders Architecture: Bridge Studio, Deep Bay, Fogo Island, Newfoundland, Canada

The ecology of remote and extreme places can often be summed up in the phrase ‘fragile beauty’. These are places where flora and fauna work hard to survive, and where the ecosystem is finely balanced. Fogo Island, off the northeastern coast of Newfoundland, is a good example.

The island was historically a base for fishermen, who pushed out into the open waters of the Atlantic in search of cod. Today it is best known for its artists’ residency programme, supported by the Fogo Island Arts corporation, which is in turn funded by a foundation established by two entrepreneurs who grew up there.

An important element of the residency programme is the provision of six sculptural studios on different parts of the coast, designed by the architect Todd Saunders. Each was designed individually in response to the specific conditions of its site. But they do have elements in common: all are modest in scale, sensitive to the environment and self-sufficient. They play with ideas of elevation in various ways, providing lookout posts facing the water, while splicing contemporary sculptural forms with inspiration from vernacular fishermen’s huts and storage sheds. Together, they form a family of buildings that share a common language.

‘The studios are like apostrophes on the landscape, and they can be viewed either from a distance or close up and from many different angles, so it was really important that they weren’t all the same,’ says Saunders. ‘There are a lot of hiking trails on the island, and as you walk past the studios they seem to change in form and shape. They are extremely sculptural.’
Given the remote nature of the site, as well as of the island itself, the studios had to be fully off the grid; most are designed for daytime use, but sometimes in some of the six studios (where there’s enough space) artists have the option of staying the night. The building materials had to be light enough to be transported by hand, while the specification of insulation and glazing had to be high. Most of the studios are raised above the ground on piloti, not just to accentuate the views but also to avoid disturbing the plant life and lichens.

The Bridge Studio is in Deep Bay, in the west of the island. Projecting from a ridge that overlooks an inland pool, the studio forms a floating platform suspended in the landscape, with a compact, crafted living space culminating in a fitted desk before a picture window that overlooks the water. The studio is warmed by a wood-burning stove, and power is provided by a solar array nearby. The studio is paired with a restored saltbox house nearby that provides a composting toilet, fed by harvested rainwater.

All six studios are fully autonomous, as Saunders explains: ‘The whole idea was that these were such pristine sites that you couldn’t start digging into the ground for sewage pipes or dragging electricity lines out to them, which would be absurd. They feel new every time I visit, depending on the weather, the seasons, and who I am experiencing them with socially. When I am there in person they feel almost mystical.’

'Bridge Studio', Canada. Image credit: Bent René Synnevåg

'Buck's Coppice', Dorset. Glazing frames views over the quiet water, as here in the bedroom. Image credit: Sandra Whipham

Between the Woods and the Lake
Boutique Modern: Buck’s Coppice, Hooke, Dorset, UK

For many years the carpenter Sid Allen spent time living in a caravan on a picturesque plot of land in Dorset, near where he grew up. The setting is rural and remote, overlooking one of the small lakes that punctuate the hinterlands around the River Hooke, south of Yeovil. Eventually Allen and his partner, Sandra Whipham, a documentary film producer, managed to buy the land and began thinking about how they could create a holiday and weekend home that would suit the setting and – in the absence of any utility services – be fully off-grid.

‘It’s very isolated and a Site of Special Scientific Interest,’ says Allen. ‘Connecting a new building to mains water or electricity was nancially prohibitive and completely impractical, as there’s no available infrastructure nearby. So I began looking into alternatives.’

For the building itself, Allen needed something that would comply with planning restrictions on the site, which allowed only a structure that was classed as a mobile home. He settled on a prefabricated home designed and built by the English company Boutique Modern, which not only complies with such requirements but also could be delivered in modules on trucks that could navigate the narrow lanes characteristic of this part of the world. Working closely with the company, Allen and Whipham – who have a young child – were able to tailor the design to meet their needs and that of the lakeside setting.

‘The building had to be constructed so that it could sit on driven piles by the lake, and we wanted to focus everything on the water and make the most of the view,’ says Allen. ‘The house was put in place by crane on the banks of the lake, and I constructed a large deck over the water itself so that we could walk directly out on to it from the house.’

Facing up to the challenge of providing warmth, water and power, Allen came up with a collection of off-grid solutions. Water comes from the lake itself, filtered for use, while waste water is treated with a Biorock treatment system and returned to the land. A wood-burning stove is the main source of heat, helped by high levels of insulation within the structure of the factory-built house. Photovoltaic panels provide electricity in combination with battery storage, and bottled gas is used for the cooking range. A back-up generator kicks in only if other systems fail, while the services are housed in a small structure close to the main building.

‘The house ts perfectly into the woodland and the lakeside setting,’ says Allen, who completed the interiors himself. ‘We thought carefully about the position and size of every window and have views where we want them, as well as morning and evening light. It really is a beautiful spot.’

'Buck's Coppice, Dorset. The cabin is anchored to the shore but has a deck that cantilevers over the water, creating the impression that the house is floating. Image credit: Sandra Whipham

'Lundnas House', Sweden. Sheets of floor-to-ceiling glass connect the seating area to the emerald greenery and treescape outside. Image credit: Patric Johansson

Tranquility by the River
Delin Arkitektkontor: Lundnäs House, Arbrå, Sweden

The Swedish architect Buster Delin’s summerhouse evolved over the course of seven years, an experimental case-study project that is ‘completely synchronized with nature’. Both designed and built by him, it served as a way to explore his own ideas about sustainability, including using repurposed and locally available materials.
‘The biggest challenge was to carry through the project as both architect and client,’ says Delin, whose practice is based in Stockholm. ‘The solution was to build slowly and allow the design and construction to develop simultaneously, thus giving my ideas time to mature. This is also the strength of the project. It created a result that is well thought through.’

The house sits by the water’s edge in an area defined by its combination of countless lakes and verdant forest, about three hours’ drive north of Stockholm. The environmental sensitivity of the location and the beauty of the surroundings were important considerations from the start, and the architect’s aim was to craft a rounded response to this tranquil and delightful setting.

The riverfront site itself was once home to a factory that produced ceramic stoves, and traces of this industrial heritage remained. Delin was able to reuse the foundations of the factory as a solid plinth to support the new house, while also recycling stone and brick, which form the more enclosed portion of the house. Other materials, such as the timber for the roof and linen for the curtains, were acquired locally.
The rest of the house is best described as a glass pavilion, facing the water, with floor-to-ceiling windows offering constant interaction with the landscape and the river. This part of the building, which connects with a terrace to the front, holds an open-plan living space, including seating and dining areas. An important part of the whole is a curving wall that forms a backdrop to this multifunctional space and contains a replace, a wood store and –to the rear – a small galley kitchen. The more enclosed section of the house contains two bedrooms and a compact shower room plus a composting toilet.

The fireplace is the only source of heating, apart from solar gain, and the heat from the fire is diffused through the building via a layer of clay pellets under the concrete slab; this combination of clay and concrete retains warmth, as does the stone and brickwork. Water comes from the site, and waste water is filtered via a private treatment system. Local renewable energy supplies the small amount of power needed for lighting and other uses, although this is minimal given the summer-centric pattern of living. The entire house can be secured and the water system drained during the winter, when the temperature falls well below freezing.

'Lundnas House', Sweden. The summerhouse offers a picture frame for viewing the river, but also provides a sense of intimate connection with the woodland in which it sits. Image credit: Patric Johansson

'Lundnas House', Sweden. The master bedroom at the back has walls of reclaimed stone, in contrast with the transparency of the main living spaces. Image credit: Patric Johansson

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