Book Review: Off the Grid Homes – Case Studies for Sustainable Living

Off the Grid Homes book cover

Off the Grid Homes combines beautiful images with technical information for sustainable homes.

The book by architect Lori Ryker is less of a manual for systems to be used in off the grid homes (though it does include good information about the systems and strategies that are used in sustainable off the grid living) and more of a showcase of state of the art homes at the intersection of appealing architecture and high sustainability.

For many, the phrase “off the grid home” brings associations of a rudimentary, hand-built, rustic cabin. It usually suggests a rough hewn character and images of anything other than refinement and elegance. But that image is far from the case in examples presented in this book.

The case studies presented in this book offer examples of architectural works by firms such as Arkin/Tilt Architects, BLIP design, and the author’s own firm: Ryker/Nave Design. The book includes six case studies of reasonable-sized single family homes (from 1440 square feet to 4200 square feet). Each of these private residences is a comfortable example of an architecturaly appealing home that would catch the observer’s eye in any case. The fact that they are off the grid homes as well simply adds to the appeal.

The examples are well spread out, to showcase a variety of approaches and conditions where off the grid homes can be located, though from my midwestern perspective, they are all western homes, located in Montana California, Washington, and one in Tasmania. Two of the examples are situated in urban environments, while the other four are located in rural locations, more along the lines of what first comes to mind when the phrase off the grid is mentioned. In addition to numerous photographs of each house, there is also a section at the end of each case outlining both the passive- and the active-systems used in each project, as well as a listing of many of the materials used in order to make each project sustainable.

There are some surprises in the case study selections. For instance, the Capitol Hill House in Seattle might not immediately match with most expectations of an “off the grid” house. It is located in an urban neighborhood, and, although it is connected to the electrical grid with a net metering set-up, it’s photovoltaic panels provide nearly 100 percent of the energy the house needs on an annual basis. And not only is the Capitol Hill House an off the grid house, but it is also an example of a remodeled homerather than one that was built new; sustainable and off the grid in a home renovation.

Lori Ryker explained her criteria for what qualified as off-the-grid, saying, “it became clear to me that there are many aspects of energy and resource independence that are applicable to this term. For instance, rainwater collection, used to reduce a homeowner’s reliance on municipal water, provides a component of off-the-grid living, yet the house may not be 100 percent off the grid. In the same way, someone may elect to integrate a photovoltaic [PV] system that is large enough to support all of their electrical-energy needs but live within the city limits, which requires them to remain tied to the municipal infrastructure. They may not be living 100 percent off the grid, but they have found a way to produce their own energy while continuing to live within the density of the city.”

There are also clear, well explained sections discussing various technologies, with descriptions of Water Collection and Gray Water Reuse, Photovoltaic Systems, Wind Turbine Systems, Solar Hot-Water Systems, and Geothermal Systems. While a specific system is used in each case, the technical discussion addresses the system in a wider context, explaining various options and different methods that can be used to accomplish these systems.

The off the grid homes presented in this book are not the isolationist enclaves you might first expect, but are showcases of well designed buildings. The ideal of being off the grid is reflected in an approach to how the building works, and how it reduces impacts on the environment.

Lori Ryker has assembled a wonderful book that nicely bridges between an architectural book with fabulous pictures and a technical book on sustainable design. It shows how wonderful a sustainable home can be, both in its design and its operation, bringing together the best of both worlds and making for some truly remarkable homes.  It is an appealing combination, well recommended to anyone who is looking for examples of how other homes have incorporated sustainability.

Off the Grid Homes – Case Studies for Sustainable Living
Lori Ryker with photographs by Audrey Hall
128 pages, color photographs
Gibbs Smith, Publisher

Off the Grid Homes [Amazon]

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