Going Off-Grid with Lloyd Architects

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Rosemary Stum, AIA and London Holmgren

Going Off-Grid with Lloyd Architects

Going Off-Grid with Lloyd Architects

Living off the grid can bring a sense of peace and control. Off-grid homes rely on the land for their energy and don’t succumb to traditional power outages or grid failures resulting from demand surges. They are a great choice for those with aspirational sustainability goals and those with a remote piece of land where power service is unavailable. While they may be more expensive to build, the return on investment from energy savings more than makes up for the initial investment. Your architect can work with you to analyze upfront costs and the expected payback period. Before exploring design options, let’s talk about the characteristics of an off-grid house. 

  • Energy Independence: Off-grid houses generate their own electricity, allowing homeowners to be independent of the traditional power grid. Sources of electricity for off-grid homes include solar panels, wind turbines, and hydroelectric. 
  • Battery Storage: Off-grid houses require battery storage systems to store excess energy generated from renewable sources. The batteries make energy available during times of low production or high demand. Proper sizing and maintenance of battery banks are critical for reliable power supply.
  • Water Self-Sufficiency: Off-grid houses often incorporate water collection and purification systems to ensure a self-sufficient water supply. Rainwater harvesting, wells, or filtration systems are common features.
  • Waste Management: Off-grid houses have their own waste management systems, which can be as simple as a traditional septic tank with a leach field or include more sophisticated options like composting toilets and greywater recycling. Waste reduction strategies will help minimize your environmental impact.
  • Passive Design: Passive design principles are frequently applied to off-grid house construction to maximize energy efficiency and minimize reliance on mechanical heating and cooling systems. Design strategies include orientation for solar gain, natural ventilation, and above-normal insulation. Passive design can make the difference between an air conditioning system needing to run every hour versus every six hours. 

East Canyon Home

In East Canyon, Utah, we’re designing an 8,000-square-foot off-grid home for a family of six. When the owners purchased this relatively secluded property, the site had no power, so off-grid was a necessity. Since then, the power company has run power through the site. However, the home design includes a south-facing roof with enough solar panels to power the entire home without relying on the power grid.  

A rendering of the East Canyon Home

An important design element for the homeowners was not integrating mechanical air conditioning. Instead, our team designed a passive cooling system. A large concrete pipe in the ground brings cool early morning air into the home via fans and ductwork. At night, the owners open the windows to flush out warm air that has collected during the day. The home is built into a hillside with a green roof to reduce the cooling and heating needs. The hillside also visually hides the home, making it nearly invisible from the nearby road. The hillside provides natural insulation, and the exposed walls have exterior insulation for a high-performance building envelope. 

East Canyon Home in construction

A well on the property provides water, while a septic system and leach field take care of waste. The entire home runs primarily on electricity and is powered by the sun. An on-site propane tank is used for radiant floor heating, hot water, and a gas stove. 

Starr Valley Ranch

Dreams of homesteading and raising livestock led a couple in Nevada to Lloyd Architects to design their dream off-grid home. The property is located miles from the childhood home of one of the owners on a ranch in Starr Valley, part of Elko County. Municipal power isn’t available on the property, making the off-grid design necessary. The 1,100-acre property at the base of the foothills of the Ruby Mountains features a pond, and two streams, making hydroelectric power the natural choice for bringing power to the site. Unlike solar power, where power generation depends on the sun shining, hydroelectric power produces power 24/7. Because of this, it’s essential to have a place to “dump” the unused power so it doesn’t damage the power system components. Water passes over a dam-like structure in this system through a mini hydroelectric generator. The resulting power flows into the 10,000 sf house to charge the backup batteries, then goes straight to utilities in the house. From there, water reserves are heated in the water heaters, and finally, excess power is “dumped” into a plunge pool, heating the pool water. For frigid days, a propane tank provides backup fuel for heat during peak demand.

Plans for the property include a future barn with an upstairs apartment and a garage/workshop. The barn will be situated on the property and support solar panels. While it won’t be known if they are needed until power loads can be calculated, this orientation builds the capacity for additional power generation should it be required. 

Water is being supplied via a newly constructed well, and a traditional septic system will take care of waste. The home is designed with building performance and reducing energy in mind, including a double stud wall assembly, deep roof overhangs, good roofing insulation, limited openings for windows and doors to reduce where drafts can enter the home, and high performance double-pane windows with argon gas. These design features contribute to a super-insulated building envelope and significantly reduce energy consumption. 

Starr Valley Ranch in construction

Before beginning your off-grid project, it’s important to understand your local building codes, zoning regulations, and environmental permits, especially in areas with strict land-use policies or conservation measures. Getting your architect involved early in the planning process will help you avoid costly missteps. 

Ultimately, building an off-grid home is a commitment to a more self-sufficient lifestyle. It involves being more in tune with your home and being an active participant in ensuring building systems are running smoothly.