Ali Turnbull spent every weekend for two years building mud bricks.
In doing so, he discovered why the material is so little used nowadays.
“It’s a crazy way to build… it’s very labour intensive,” he said.
Finally however, last year he was able to move into the property, with his wife Di, and three children, Reuben, Pearl, and Hugh.
The modest three bedroom mudbrick home sits on an 18 acre property in Mandurang South.
It is not connected to mains electricity, water or gas.
Instead, the modest mudbrick home relies on solar power, a passive solar design and a wood stove.
The northerly aspect, awning and double glazing mean the main living area catches the sun in winter, but is shaded in summer.
A wood stove and solar panels meet all of the family’s domestic energy needs.
Rooftop solar panels catch energy from the sun, which is stored in a battery bank for use overnight.
As well as cooking and heating the house, their kitchen stove includes a boiler, which heats their water.
The enterprise was Mr Turnbull’s dream.
Since he was a teenager, he had been mulling over how to live sustainably.
For him, moving off the grid was an ethical decision. In Australia, he sees that it is easy to live comfortably, but that other countries often reap the consequences of that.
“We’re acutely aware that there’s a lot of places in the world that are worse off because of our lifestyles that we have in the developed countries,” Mr Turnbull said.
“There’s a growing consciousness that we can’t just keep living the way that we’re living… perhaps with the off grid thing, you end up compromising a little bit more on lifestyle, but for me that seems right.”
“We’re sheltered in Australia from a lot of the social and environmental degradation that’s happening in other countries.”
Mrs Turnbull had no such plans, but she happily joined in on her husband’s dream. She has been converted to the lifestyle however.
“I didn’t really know much about it,” she said.
“We just wanted to move out of town a bit, and this property didn’t have power connected, and it was always his dream to try and live off grid, and it just worked out really well.”
Building the dream
The couple hadn’t initially planned to build a home. Initially, they were looking for a house to renovate.
However, they realised they would still have to pay service fees for an electrical connection they weren’t using.
Their current property has never been connected to the power grid.
While the solar panels are wholly modern, Mr Turnbull also wanted to incorporate a historical shape and feel.
There’s a growing consciousness that we can’t just keep living the way that we’re living… perhaps with the off grid thing, you end up compromising a little bit more on lifestyle, but for me that seems right.Ali Turbull
He had a particular love for the design of Bendigo’s old miners’ cottages.
At one point, this saw him knocking on his neighbour’s door in Long Gully, asking to measure the interior dimensions.
It’s not just the design which looks to the past. The wood stove at the centre of the home could have been built 200 years ago.
“Things like that for me were as important as some of the meaningful, practical aspects of it,” Mr Turnbull said.
“I just reckon in Bendigo we’ve just got such a great example of historical architecture to base things off.”
Their life is comfortable, but there’s no doubt the Turnbull family has to make the occasional sacrifice in terms of lifestyle.
The challenge always was, where to make compromises.
“We’ve got three kids, from nine down to two, and for me as a parent just to see them really comfortable in the house and warm and cosy was really important,” Mr Turnbull said.
A relatively small battery pack means they have to be careful of their energy use at night. This can mean having to plan more carefully than they otherwise might, for instance, to do washing during the day.
Water is another challenge. They have to be careful with their usage, to avoid the expense of buying water from trucks.
Back in Bendigo
It’s not just out of town that people live off the grid.
Russell Wilson lives without mains power, gas or a phone line. The only service his Bendigo home is connected to is water and sewerage.
He relies on a wood stove for most of his cooking and heating needs, with bottled gas as an occasional fallback.
As much as Mr Wilson is driven by the need to minimise his own impact on the environment, living off the grid isn’t the key for him.
The high proportion of greenhouse emissions created by the production of animal products is destroying the planet, he said.
“We’re on the knife edge as far as our planet goes, with global warming and stuff like that,” he said.
“Not burning coal for electricity is a good idea, but even more important to that… is to eat off the bottom of the food chain.”
Mr Wilson first got rid of his power connection nine or so years ago. A dispute with his electricity provider mobilised him to get solar power.
The set up was as simple as a few trips online to Ebay. With a few solar panels, batteries for power storage, an inverter and a charge controller he was ready to go.
Because it’s just him at home, Mr Wilson’s system is fairly small.
He’s found over the years, he has got to know just how much power each appliance uses, and roughly how much that will leave him with.
“You can watch how much power you’ve got, and if that appliance is going to run you down, and you won’t be able to watch the television later tonight,” Mr Wilson said.
“But my system is just a small marginal one person system… but you can set up whatever you want, you can meet whatever criteria you want.”
And as well as saving the planet, living off the grid is saving Mr Wilson money.
Mr Russell estimates running costs for his system have been maybe $50-$100 a hundred each year, over the past 10 years, thanks mainly to wear and tear on equipment.
Living off the grid has had its challenges, but for the Turnbull’s it has undoubtedly been worth it.
It’s been affordable, comfortable, and their kids love the space on the Mandurang South block.
And ultimately, they are more comfortable living lives that don’t hurt the environment.
“At the end of the day you feel good for those choices that you make, because you know that you’re doing something that’s good for the environment,” Mrs Turnbull said.