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Travels in the off-grid…

10. Shacklife in the suburbs

The Fairlight shack in an urban backyard among the fruit trees was home for awhile.

WINTERS are freezing. We dress in layers of warm clothes and sit close to the electric heater. It is early to bed not because we are tired but to seek warmth as the nighttime temperature falls. Summers were are the opposite. With its windows facing west and with no insulation in the ceiling, the shack quickly gains so much heat that days spent inside are sweatingly uncomfortable.

This is how the seasons go in the urban shack where we live close to Sydney Harbour’s Fairlight Beach and in walking distance from the popular Manly Beach at southern tip of Sydney’s northern coastal strip. Far from an energy efficient building, for a few years it was home, a shack hidden behind a 24,000 litre rainwater tank among the fruit trees in a suburban backyard. According to the owner it was the first building constructed on the site and dates from the 1920s. Over the years it had been added to, as was the Australian tradition. It was unfortunate that when that had been done nobody had thought of insulating roof and floor. What warmth there was in winter quickly seeped away and there was nothing to pad the heat of summer. Go barefoot in winter and you learned how quickly toes and feet became chilled.

Chillout time on the verandah.

My partner and I live in the shack within earshot of the owner’s clucking chooks in this middle class Sydney harbourside suburb. It was the energy inefficient sibling of the 1930s brick house on the same block. After retrofitting the main building for energy and water efficiency and on-site treatment of grey and blackwater, the owner claimed it as the second autonomous home in Sydney, after Michael Mobbs’ Chippendale terrace house. Were we to include that early Sydney University temporary autonomous house, it would be the third.

The Fairlight house was not completely off-grid. It was connected to the mains electricity supply, however energy consumption was offset by the sale of excess energy generated by the main house’s rooftop photovoltaic array. It had all the other fittings of the off-grid lifestyle — solar hot water, on-site grey and blackwater treatment, vegetable garden, chooks, fruit trees. Recycled building materials were sourced for a new upper level. Household waste was minimised. It was mainly organic food that came from the food co-op in Manly of which the owner was one of the people who set it up. I later became a director of the co-op. She tries hard to live the lifestyle she promotes as a local environmental activist.

Kelah wasn’t all that keen on my calling our little shack what it actually is — a shack. She insisted it was a small cottage. I explained that my use of the term ‘shack’ was in the Tasmanian sense, meaning a small, basic residence made without the benefit of architect or professional builder and using economical building materials many of them recycled. I told her that there was nothing derogatory in my using the term and that it was perfectly respectable in Tasmania. She still insisted the building was a small cottage. Thereafter I used that term in her presence and called it a shack when talking to anyone else.

The main house was a prime example of energy efficient retrofitting but the shack was the opposite. It, too, harvested and stored its own rainwater in the same 24,000 litre galvanised iron water tank shared with the house. Living there, we learned to take short showers and to conserve water wherever possible. Only once, and that was during a drought, do I recall the tank emptying and water having to be sourced from the city water supply.

The owner, Kelah, was a woman in late-middle age who was active in local environmental affairs. When we moved into the shack the couple owned a van but this soon went and, true to her environmental ethics, she commuted to nearby Manly by bicycle or bus. She lived in the house with her husband, however it was she who was the environmental activist.

Despite the seasonal cold and heat we enjoy living there. I realise that this is the size of house I could live in, just a small living room, smaller sleeping space, small kitchen and bathroom, a long narrow sunroom with space for a desk, small table and couple chairs, and a modest verandah for outdoor living. Basic and adequate, and all that we really need.

Modern off-grid power and water systems can turn garages and shacks like that Fairlight cottage into viable small houses. Add a solar hot water system, some rooftop photovoltaic panels charging a household battery, a rainwater tank of good size and a water filter to remove impurities for cooking and drinking, insulation in the ceiling and floor, install an energy efficient induction stove and a small refrigerator in the kitchen and you have a compact and comfortable home.

A shack in Marrickville

Once a garage, now a shack. Home in Marrickville.

I was living up the coast in Byron Bay when my partner lived in a shack in the backyard of a friend’s house in inner urban Marrickville. There I would visit her, especially during the summer holiday season when Byron’s population trebled with tourists and holidaymakers. Getting out of town at that time of year was a good idea.

The shack was a converted garage from the days when garages were built as detached structures down the backyard. The owners had a builder reline the interior, install lighting and paint it. It was no off-grid shack, although sitting there in summer’s heat I could see its potential. Both it and the house were connected to the city’s energy grid. The shack had no water supply, kitchen or bathroom. Hot summer sun would pour through the west-facing windows. With the experience of living in the either too-hot or too-cold Fairlight shack, life in the Marrickville shack reaffirmed for me the value of insulating the roof and perhaps the floors and shading west-facing windows.

The outlook at the bottom of the yard was to a clump of banana trees by the back fence and to a big jacaranda tree. From here, my partner would go to work on weekday mornings. She was adept at converting small spaces into comfortable if minimal living space, having lived in a car-camping tent in Lismore in northern NSW. The lessons of that my partner put to use in our friend’s backyard shack where she set up a folding table and couple camping chairs for eating, a folding wire rack to hold a two-burner LP gas stove and a 20 litre water container filled from the tap in the garden. There was a bed, some shelves, a hanging place for clothing. It was minimal, basic, comfortable and reaffirmed for me that living the shack life was living the good life.

The bay

There was a living area of sufficient size along one wall of which ran a kitchen counter with cooker, small refrigerator, sink and cupboards. A kitchen table stood in front of it. The bathroom and toilet were in a small room in one corner while the space between it and the side wall served as a sleeping nook. It was cramped for the woman and her young child even though it would be more than adequate for a single person. This was no tiny house, no compact, off-grid dwelling. It was a utility space attached to a house. I think it might have once been the garage.

While living in Byron Bay I met people whose rented dwellings were converted garages simply because garage living was affordable although illegal. They were kept away from the prying eyes of council building inspectors. The town was noted for its surfing beaches and as a holiday destination, however that glitzy overlay was underlaid by chronically high rental prices and a shortage of affordable accommodation. The situation has only worsened over the years after we left, with locals moving further afield to find affordable accommodation and commuting to town for work.

Housing people is a better use for garages space than housing vehicles which, after all, are waterproof and can be left outside. Council must have known that garages were used for housing yet it never developed guidelines for the conversion of garages into simple and affordable accommodation by learning from the off-grid experience. Small dwellings, those of garage-size or a little larger, are overlooked in planning and building legislation They are what became know as the ‘tiny houses’ of contemporary times. They should have a place in urban planning because conversion of poorly-used utility spaces can relieve housing pressures and help reduce high rental costs that consume so much of an individual’s income.

I wonder if that place occupied by the woman and her child is still rented out in Byron or, like so many other rental properties, has it been repurposed for AirBnB, the financial returns on which far exceed those of renting? The conversion of properties for short term AirBnB accommodation led in 2016 to Byron council raising the idea of an AirBnB tax to fund affordable housing to replace that lost. Recently, Brisbane City Council has introduced higher rates for properties on the short-term rdntal market, like AirBnB. It has also come under criticism in Sydney and other cities for taking properties off the rental market, exacerbating rental accommodation shortages and perpetuating high rents. AirBnb remains a contentious topic in city and country and is blamed for contributing to the housing shortage and high accommodation costs. It is less the householder letting out a spare room for short term accommodation and more the investor with several AirBnB properties that is blamed for making personal profit at the expense of social benefit.

As with the Fairlight shack, the Marrickville shack taught me the values of minimalism of possessions, multifunctional furnishings and what in years soon to come we would call ‘tiny houses’.

Shaded from the Brisbane sun by a tree, the small, grid-connected one-room shack among the banana and pawpaw trees stores its roofwater in a tank and has a small kitchenette.



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Russ Grayson

Russ Grayson

I'm an independent online and photojournalist living on the Tasmanian coast after nine months on the road in a minivan.