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Travels in the Off-Grid…

3. Roads to discovery

ROADS ARE PATHS to the undiscovered. In earlier years during my annual, month-long holiday from work I would toss a few things in the car and set out north along the Pacific Highway. I had no particular destination, no particular place to be, no particular purpose other than that of taking a road trip. Those weeks on the road were the opportunity to discover new places.

In later years I made similar journeys with my partner, a smart and enterprising woman who had made her own road trips. It is how we ended up following the backroads inland of Port Macquarie and northward of the Mid-North Coast NSW town of Wauchope that led to Hans Erkin and partner’s converted and comfortable off-grid cow bail home. A different backroad led to Jeff and Kay Jeffed’s largely-unconverted cow bail in the hills behind Tyalgum in the Tweed Valley of the far-north coast, a basic sort of building they made into a temporary home. I learned how existing utilitarian structures could be repurposed into dwellings either fully or partially off-grid.

A turnoff from the secondary road that goes west from Kempsey took Fiona and I to her friends on their bush property with its little geodesic dome. South this time, it was to the mudbrick houses of Penrose Rural Co-op which introduced me to how what were then-known as ‘alternative building’ techniques could make for economic and comfortable rural living. Later, a longer road trip took us to the Crystal Waters Permaculture Village, home of Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond where their small house demonstrated that family homes need not be big to be comfortable. Sydney’s urban roads led to Michael Mobbs and Keelah Lam’s retrofitted suburban homes which showed how resource efficient design is no stranger to the suburbs. Terry Bail’s ‘Classroom’, designed for Randwick Sustainable Hub, provided an example of how energy and water efficient municipal buildings could utilise reused and recycled materials in their construction.

I discovered off-grid by following the highways and backroads of Australia’s East Coast. I also discovered it by living in places that were partially off-grid.

Today, there are numerous examples of resource-efficient homes and commercial buildings in Australia. The annual Sustainable House Day showcases many of them and provides inspiration for those who want their own homes to follow a similar design path. Their presence muddies the waters when it comes to defining what ‘off-grid’ means. Many of the occupants of those partially-off-grid homes go off to work at conventional jobs. Their installation of solar hot water systems, grid-connected photovoltaic rooftop installations, some connected to batteries capable of powering most of the energy needs of a house, is an adjunct to a conventional life. Once, such technology would have signified a socially-fringe counterculture lifestyle. It is an example of how the alternative’s ideas of the 1970s became the socially mainstream ideas of today.

Recent increases in the cost of household utilities has been a further driver of domestic rainwater storage and photovoltaic systems. Price increases are driving the uptake of solar panels and home energy batteries as householders hedge their future against what looks likely to be increasing energy prices.

Permaculture and the off-grid

Moonah, an uninspiring suburb of Tasmania’s capital city, Hobart, is where I discovered the permaculture design system one Saturday afternoon in 1978. My partner of the time and I were visiting a friend who had turned his suburban backyard into a large organic food garden. It was impressive, especially compared to the tiny patch growing a few vegetables along the rear access to our West Hobart flat and to the vegetables growing in disused containers that cascaded down our front steps. Growing your own was an idea popularised by the variously-called alternative or back-to-the-land movement of the day that was popularised in the pages of Earth Garden and Grass Roots magazines which fed the movement with ideas and know-how.

After inspection his garden, our friend showed us a new book he had picked up in town. It looked interesting, but we weren’t sure what it was all about. I bought my own copy the next week. It was called Permaculture One.

As I learned more about the permaculture design system, it came across as running closely parallel to the alternative social movement that came into its own during the opening years of the 1970s, before permaculture appeared late in the decade. Permaculture is a system for sustainable living that brings together a range of practices spanning do-it-yourself food production, energy and water efficient building design, waste reduction and reuse, cooperation and mutual assistance, all attributes that became part of the off-grid tool kit.

Practitioners of the permaculture design system have done much to stimulate interest in off-grid as well as energy and water efficient building design. Those are a core component of the Permaculture Design Certificate course and have been ever since it was first taught by Bill Mollison in the early 1980s in Stanley, Tasmania. Many a home has been retrofitted for energy and water efficiency as well as for domestic food production as a result of the courses. Architects like Terry Bail, who completed the permaculture design course we ran when he was a university student, went on to specialise in energy and resource-efficient building design and to reusing building materials. When Fiona Campbell was sustainability educator for Randwick City Council in Sydney’s Eastern Suburbs, she employed Terry to teach resource-efficient renovation in her permaculture courses.

Like other ideas adopted by the permaculture design system, off-grid and resource efficient building design migrated into the wider society.

Publications stimulate the movement

A new idea, practice or social movement risks attracting few unless news of it spreads. Spreading it is the work of its media and of educators and popularisers within the movement. In his year-2000 book, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell writes of the importance of ‘connectors’ — the networkers responsible for spreading ideas — and of ‘salesmen’ who go out and spread enthusiasm for it.

In reporting a trend or social movement, specialist publications are both connectors and salesmen. They create a feedback loop by reflecting a social movement back at itself, reinforcing its sense of identity as well as informing, educating and, as the publications are found by people outside a movement, recruiting them to multiply the movement or practice. That happened with owner building and the other skills the new settler off-gridders needed for their new lifeways in rural towns and land-sharing communities.

Earth Garden and Grass Roots, two Australian magazines launched in the early 1970s and still in publication today, filled that function. They networked people across the country, people who would never meet in person, provided instructional articles and news and reflected the values and practices of alternative culture back on itself. The publications gave the movement a self-consciousness and a sense of commonality and purpose. Unlike today’s instant gratification in finding information on the internet, the print publications were quarterly, leaving readers waiting for their next dose of information and inspiration. In doing that they demonstrated the importance of media in building social movements.

The US magazine, Mother Earth News, was another influence, however it had limited distribution in Australia.

The importance of a new idea developing its own specialist media cannot be underestimated. For those aspiring to an off-grid lifestyle, reporting design and technology is the Melbourne-produced print and online magazine, ReNew, originally called Intermediate Technology. Started in 1980 by the Alternative Technology Association, the magazine changed its name when the computer industry co-opted Intermediate Technology’s ‘IT’ acronym.

The name came from English economist, EF Schumacher. He coined it to describe technology in between traditional technology and high-technology. Hi-tech was expensive and not locally maintainable because it required parts and skills seldom available in rural or remote areas. The ITDG, the Intermediate Technology Development Group, was formed to further Schumacher’s work. After the information technology industry claimed the IT acronym, ‘appropriate technology’ was adopted to describe the organisation’s work.

Like Earth Garden and Grass Roots, Intermediate Technology became one of the magazines that took root in Australia’s alternative movement. Whereas those other magazines provided information about food production, gardening and the owner building skills relevant to homesteading rural and urban, Intermediate Technology was for the technically minded, those who built DIY solar hot water systems and the early photovoltaic installations. Rebranded as ReNew, the periodical is still in publication (, demonstrating how the ideas of a social movement of more than 40 years ago remain pertinent to finding solutions to today’s challenges.

In 1981, Owner Builder magazine published its first edition to cater to people building their homes, mainly in rural areas. It. ceased publication only a few years ago.

The first book about self-reliant urban living I came across was The Autonomous Urban House. The book was published by the Sierra club in 1979 and covered the range of off-grid needs such as energy and water, home resource conservation and domestic food production as they were practiced at the time at the scale of the suburban dwelling.

The Autonomous Urban House was one of the few titles on the topic. Today, there are many. The book was popular among people in the permaculture design movement of the 1980s and was sold at Permaculture Sydney’s little shop at the Permaculture Epicentre in Enmore. Permaculture, then starting its journey to becoming a social movement, offered people an integrated, do-it-yourself approach to a more self-reliant life whether in city or country. It was useful because it brought together many of the ideas present in the alternative movement into a cohesive package.

At that time, progressive architects were showing a growing interest in resource (energy and water) efficient building although the interest in fully-off-grid systems was less. Most of the examples of off-grid living were farmhouses distant from the electricity grid where the cost of connection exceeded the cost of installing off-grid power. For people in cities and towns, mains electricity and reticulated water were more affordable than they are today. That limited the drive to go wholly-off-grid in the suburbs.

Architect-designed buildings, energy efficient or not, tend to be expensive and so were of little direct value to the early off-gridders. They were more likely to retrofit existing buildings or to build modest, basic dwellings in rural areas. The same is true today. The move towards resource efficient building design is led by the retrofitting of existing structures rather than the construction of new dwellings.

All of these publications fed the growing interest in off-grid living.

Food goes off-grid

Pots, wood stoves, grinders and more were the kitchen tools on display at Self Sufficiency Supplies back when we walked through the door in Kempsey. At the time there was a rediscovery of the kitchen arts taking place, the same domestic arts that were daily practice for the grandparents of those discovering them in the seventies and eighties. Those arts had been put aside as the economy started to boom in the mid-1950s, when an age of cheap and plentiful home appliances and cheap food opened up.

The practice of home food preparation was submerged by the economic exuberance of the mid-to-late-Twentieth century only to reemerge with the coming of a new century. I am not talking about the deluge of books from television chefs that weigh down bookshop shelves. They are as much the product of the entertainment and publishing industries as of the food industry. I refer to the authentic rediscovery of food production, preparation and preserving that is part of off-grid living.

Peserving seasonal food is a skill of the off-gridder inherited from previous generations.

Permaculture has much to answer for in this rediscovery. Its popularisation of homesteading sent people out in search of rural properties although it was an option for only the few. Permaculture fostered the already-existing idea of urban homesteading, of turning the suburban home and garden into a productive unit. What could be better than preserving and eating the food you grow in your garden?

Food preserving, bottling, pickling and drying became the focus of courses and workshops. Home preserving supplies, bottles and jars, boilers and the paraphernalia used in preserving food were once again seen on kitchen benches in city and country. Off-grid skills of the edible kind were again in demand.

In Australia, educators like Milkwood Permaculture, Robyn Francis’ Permaculture College Australia, Tasmania’s Good Life Permaculture and Morag Gamble and Evan Raymond’s Permaculture Education Institute with its video blog, Our Permaculture Life, fed the revival of off-grid homesteading skills. So has Fowlers Vocola, the long-time Australian supplier of home preserving equipment. During her work as local government sustainability educator, Fiona Campbell arranged training in food preserving at Randwick Sustainability Hub, both for adults through the annual Festival of Forgotten Skills and for children in the Eco Heroes Club. Even local government was getting on board.

When we walked into Self Sufficiency Supplies all those years ago we were unaware we were walking into the future. The technologies we saw in that crowded little shop were the precursors of todays, as much as they were the revival of traditional skills of food growing, preparation and preserving.

In a time well after the rediscovery of the store, the tools and technologies it sold have been developed and commercialised. Now, you no longer need to be a participant in the counterculture to go off-grid.


The Integral Urban House; 1979, Farallones Institute; Sierra Club, USA. ISBN 087156 313 8.

Milkwood-real skills for down-to-earth living; 2019, Kirsten Bradley, Nick Ritar; Murdoch Books, Sydney. ISBN 1743365101.

The Tipping Point; 2000, Malcolm Gladwell; Little, Brown publishers, USA. ISBN 0 316 34662 4.



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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.