Autartic living: living with the seasons

Now that Corona has us tight down, we see that countries are being thrown back on themselves. Local production of medicines and protective clothing is being started up, and there is growing belief that we need to arrange much more locally. Some were already aware of this and explored its extreme form: the desire to live autartic, completely independently, to use all sources from their own direct environment in a sustainable manner. A few weeks ago I wrote here about the island of Eigg, which is self-sufficient in terms of electricity. That already yielded some interesting insights. In recent months I came into contact with two projects that were thinking about living independently. And was asked to think along. One was a small cooperative housing project, the other a tiny house initiative. And there are some interesting lessons to be learned from that.

Thinking about such a project usually starts from what one wants to do, or what one wants to maintain as comfort, and how to organize it energetically in the disconnected situation. But in both cases, after some brainstorming, I came to the conclusion that if you want to pursue (especially energy) autarky, then you should not start thinking from a normal situation and consumption, and how to supply for that. In other words: not the classical way of calculating an expected use and demand, and figure out how to supply it, but the other way around: starting from scratch. Otherwise you will not be able to manage, other then introducing all kinds of weird constructions and technologies to keep the principle afloat (with, for example, a very high material impact). You have to forget everything you are used to and basically just start redesigning your life: blank sheet, empty construction site, and then weigh everything you add: is it necessary and can I invest or generate the energy for it? And if so, also look at the timing: what I learned in Eigg is that, for example, you should do as little as possible at the same time, energetically speaking.

In the case of the housing project, a graph was made of the hourly supply and (desired) demand. Which then becomes a huge puzzle to get that together, with all kinds of extras to deal with (such as storage in particular). But there seem to be two better options:

– start with an analysis of the worst case, as a reference.

– and analyse it by function. (‘heating, lighting, washing’, etc)

Take the function of doing the laundry: On the worst day of the year, you have the least energy available. You don’t want to spent that on laundry so make sure you have little. That seems strange, but for example in a so-called ‘dunkelflaute’, don’t go digging in the garden, and then throw the dirty clothes in the washing machine, when there is no energy, and no wind or sun to dry them. In fact, low energy means that you have to organize life in a flexible way: living with the weather, adapting to the circumstances. What we have established in the last hundred years or so is precisely the the opposite: trying to exclude those circumstances. Just think of food: whatever the season, everything must be available. Which creates huge energy flows, and interdependencies, which may at some point not be available. So the same with ‘life’ itself: you have to learn living with the seasons again.

In any case, when it concerns a group of houses as a autartic project, it makes sense not everyone has its own laundry machine and dryer. Better to concentrate this in a communal laundry, or a cooperative space. As has often been realized in existing residential groups or eco-villages.

Or take the function: dish-washing: a dishwasher is not that bad at all when it comes to environmental impact, compared to pre-rinsing and hot water-washing. But in both cases that requires energy or electricity. Again adjust: in the worst period, ensure that there is little dirty dishes, and then rinse cold and wash by hand, with a little bit of warm water, or even just only rinse cold: that coffee or teacup does not have to be cleaned after every use. Also think about one-pot meals, and there are more creative solutions around eating and reduced dish washing..

With regard to heating in really cold periods, you can withdraw uour activities to 1 room, possibly with a blanket around you. Its not wise to try to maintain 20 degrees throughout the house if you want to live autark… In the Belgian South Pole research center they even have a protocol for this, in case of energy scarcity. The polar station runs entirely on renewable energy, and in case of low power, switches of functions, and even stops heating living spaces, until only a core remains in which everyone contracts. And on the island of Eigg they have a traffic light at the port that warns of an energy shortage: everyone is expected to switch back to only the absolutely necessary.

For all functions the quest is to determine the minimum, and whether it is possible to shift the demand (providing the function) in time. And upscaling demand only if the situation allows. With such an approach it might be explored if some limited storage capacity can make things significantly better.

While autarky for a group of houses is already difficult, in a tinyhouse everything becomes supercritical. In normal houses, there is a lot of space , so you can easily accommodate all kinds of facilities and installations, if needed. Which makes thinking about an autartic tinyhouse a very nice exercise in awareness, since literally everything has to be discussed, you have to evaluate your entire behavior, and what is necessary, and come up with a strategy.

Its a nice metaphor for our global collective behavior. In a tinyhouse, everything has to be minimalistic, or just in time. I found that the conclusion should be that functions should mainly be delivered by the inhabitants own activity: labor as the main energy source. You can dry the laundry outside, which means that you have to go out and hang it on the drying line, and later bring it back in, and even run in between when it starts to rain. (the just in time ‘energy supply). Nothing like a collective laundry room or the like.

So it often comes down to bring in your own effort. Even in small things: With a Tiny house, the trailer size is decisive for transport, so the tiny house is built at the maximum width for the trailer, to get maximum interior space. After all, you already have so little space. But that also has an effect, for example, on the prevention of overheating (and limit cooling) with heat waves: In that case you want to keep the sun on the outside, for instance by installing blinds on the outside. But that is not possible, they go beyond the trailers width, outside the maximum width of the house. Adding these to the walls, within the maximum size is possible, but then reducing indoor space. The solution again is your own activity: during a heat wave you temporarily cover the window form the outside with a cloth or something, which you take away afterwards. (something I also do in my ‘real house’). A tiny house forces you to become more active yourself, to act according to the climate conditions.

With heating you will really have to look for an optimum, not by definition dimensioning for the coldest possible day. Since you can insulate heavily, but then the interior space becomes significantly smaller. The first thought is to start self insulating, Are you prepared to wear a sweater inside, maybe even a coat, as some cultures still do in coldest periods? And a good winter sleeping bag or introduce a box-bed for instance. Sleeping as high as possible is also a strategy, since heat rises up. Again: a personal consideration, do I invest external energy or do I adapt?

Water is also an issue, if you are parked and disconnected from all infrastructure. In principle there is enough rainwater in our climate, but a tinyhouse has only a very small roof area. Say 16 m2: rainwater that can be collected with it, at 700 mm per m2 per year, equates to 30 liters a day. And if you live in pairs in a tinyhouse, its 15 ltr pp pd. Its possible, but requires very effective water use.

In addition, in a low energy situation you want to keep rainwater high, to use via gravity, instead of a pump. Which requires a roof structure, and limits the height inside. Therefore: store it low, and install a hand pump: again your own energy, just in time.

For the toilet, without a sewer connection, you quickly arrive at a compost toilet: operating independently, does not use water or electricity, or any other infrastructure, and delivers compost.

As for a refrigerator, think of an outside air-ventilated cupboard, especially at night. And as for cooking and dishwashing, the function to be discussed should maybe lifted to a higher abstract level: how to feed yourself , and subordinate everything else to that. Some experience in camping might be helpful.

This way you can check all functions, and assume they should work the moment of greatest scarcity. If you want 24/24 hours ‘comfort’, only then do the real problems begin, because then you need to have “security of supply”, at all times.

In short, autartic living requires you to shrink and grow in energy, water and space use, coupled with a time shift of needs and functions. Adapt to the seasons, in short. And among all these solutions or adjustments, there are certainly a number that are worth considering for our current living situation, to help realize the transition we are in, and not to overcompensate with a lot of technology and material use, which we do not have locally and have to get from far. If anyway that stoll will be possible in a post corona era.




PS : for inspiration:

There are many initiatives that show the possibilities or impossibilities of autartic living. One way is to spent a weekend in such a tinyhouse, offered by the Belgium slowcabins organisation: en

I also saw a nice attempt to adapt the house to different seasons: and a mall video:

En coincidently just the past days a new research report was published, exploring in how far renewable energy can be used locally: it turns out that for a small group of houses up to 90% can be used locally . Its not autartic yet, but gives an impression ( though with a lot of technology and materials input) :

full report:

Hans Schneider also made an analyses of autartic living:

In Switzerland you can find an example of a energy autark housing project: