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A remote UK community living off-grid (bbc.co.uk)
244 points by cmsefton 6 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 102 comments



Apropos: A few years ago, I went to a remote resort (in India) for a vacation. It was in a forested mountainous area. A few km. from the resort, there was an earthship. It had been built over a period by a British guy who lived in it. Rather large. Like a cylinder capped with a roof. Lots of glass to let in sunlight. Partly self-sufficient, for water, electricity via solar, heating via the glass windows, etc. (it was in a cold place). It was at the edge of a high cliff with a direct line-of-sight view to the plains. He had even set up some kind of way to catch the Internet signal from the plains and supplied it to the rooms of the resort for a fee. He was also a remote web developer. Rather cool.


Google search for info about him and his work:

https://www.google.co.in/search?q=alex+leeor+earthship+karun...


Does he have a website? I'd love to read more about his place!

I spent a couple of years traveling and living in remote permaculture communities before starting my own project six months ago, so far I feel like I'm living the dream but I'm just at the beginning. Having some successful examples help a lot.


>Does he have a website? I'd love to read more about his place!

Yes. http://www.earthshipkaruna.net/

https://www.linkedin.com/in/alex-leeor-2a3b8222/?originalSub...

>I spent a couple of years traveling and living in remote permaculture communities before starting my own project six months ago

Cool. Suggest you write something about that experience and share it. Also maybe check out Rico Zook (you might know of him already). A person I know, in the same town (Kodaikanal) somewhat near where Alex's earthship is (whose website link I gave above), is getting a permaculture farm and farmhouse done with consultancy by Rico or someone trained by him.

https://www.linkedin.com/in/rico-zook-0abb3241/


Thanks for the links!

I'll definitely share the experience in the future. At the moment I'm still doing a tone of learning and trying to reproduce the basics of what I saw in the past years. There's so many things to do just to get through the winter and be ready for the next growing season.


Welcome. And good luck. Yes, it's not easy. But it is fun. I have some past experience, early on in my career, with organic gardening, using a biogas plant, dairy farming, etc.


Would love to learn more about what you're doing. I just read The Market Gardener and am getting a little bit of land, but still very new.


>I just read The Market Gardener

What's your impression of that book? Asking because interested in that area, have done some on it (organic gardening in general, though not the intensive kind like in that book), and have read a similar book by John Jeavons:

http://www.johnjeavons.info/

Excerpt from this page on his site:

http://www.johnjeavons.info/john-jeavons.html

[ A political science graduate of Yale University, Jeavons worked for the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) and Stanford University before launching his career in small-scale agriculture education. He is the author of the best-selling sustainable farming handbook How to Grow More Vegetables, Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine, now in its 8th edition in eight languages ]


I really enjoyed it, particularly the focus on business and pragmatism and not woo. It's a quick read. I'm curious to read Jevons now too, thanks.


Thanks for the comment about that book. I'll check it out too.


I got the land at the beginning of this year, started living on it last summer (northern hemisphere), I'm not really much ahead of you!

The first year you just watch the land, see what happen naturally with the seasons. And then oh shit, so many things to do to get ready for the second year!


What's an earthship?


There's a decent film [1] documenting their origin and architect Mike Reynolds.

[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Garbage_Warrior


Good question. Sorry, I had meant to put the link in my above comment.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthship

Also see permaculture, a related thing.

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Permaculture


I kind of like this purely documentary-style article. Simply pictures and quotes. It really pulled me in.

I've always wanted to live remotely but I'm not yet finished with school. One day! I live in the rockies. Most of that part of Alberta is a national park, but I think I could find some land and build a little house.

I'm surprised that one fella was building windmills. Definitely something to aspire to.


That article includes a comment from resident Hugh Piggott, somewhat of a rockstar in the DIY wind turbine world.

http://scoraigwind.co.uk/about/


I was pleasantly surprised to see this too - I bought a charge controller directly from Hugh to load control an immersion element direct from DC solar and he was extremely knowledgeable and helpful.


Yes, I've purchased the designs to one of his turbines.


Getting Not Found for that link right now. Just FYI. Will try again later.


Perhaps the ycombinator equivalent to being slash dotted has occurred.

Here's a copy https://web.archive.org/web/20181013192728/http://scoraigwin...


Thank you.

Update: That link worked. Looks like a good article.


He was into wind power before wind power was cool.


After reading about the Biosphere project, I've always thought that there should be a bunch of similar projects - some with an emphasis on government policy choices and some with an emphasis on economic systems and self-sufficiency choices. Why not? Countless billions are already spent on doing these things wrong. Why not figure out how to create a high-functioning society which can be self-sufficient? With robots, AI, and power, it seems like a lot should be possible now. There should no longer be a need for self-sufficiency to mean hard labor and high risk (unless that is desired.)


If you've never been to the BioSphere in the outskirts of Tucson you really should check it out. As much as the original idea of the place never really come into fruition, there was a lot of really neat engineering that went into building the place.

One of the coolest things are the giant billows that help regulate the air pressure in the whole _air tight_ building. The expand and contract as the air heats and cools, preventing all the glass windows from bursting from overpressure. Quick video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cVYIy_cO4e4


It is pretty hard to build an off-grid society that is capable of producing the high technology needed to sustain it. Raw materials for windmills and solar panels don't grow on trees unfortunately.


It is possible to define starting conditions. The goal is to test theories - and many theories may assume that automation will solve many problems in the future. (If we create utopia and it needs supercomputers, well, we can then invest in figuring out what it would take to build those supercomputers.)


I was just watching a tutorial by Hugh mentioned in the article on carving windmill blades out of wood which does grow on trees. Though admittedly there are some metal bits too. https://youtu.be/QlWAihvSYxY


The blades are not the hard part. Windmills for grinding wheat have, after all, existed for quite some time. You need a lot of copper wiring and strong magnets. Especially the magnets are quite difficult to make.


An interesting idea, but you have to account for issues:

Small communities tend to do well.

People who believe in the policy they are implementing will work to make sure it secedes, while those who disbelieve will try to make it fail. Your subjects cannot be blind to the policy.


Well, there are many such issues that it is possible to bring up. Do we really understand which specific issues are related to community size? Have we tried any mitigation techniques? Any ways to force a small community to have characteristics of a large community in order to test new theories?


I wonder if people get hassled to no end by planning boards about one-off dwellings, infrastructure, etc. It's wonderful to see this sort of thing still exists, and you can in fact have a home without working on dumb shit that doesn't matter (aka most jobs) for 5-10 years to pay for it.


In large parts of Africa we generally have two types of land. "Official" land that comes with a title deed and tribal land that you can be allocated by your chief or local leader. To build on "official" land you need your building plans approved. Inspectors will come and inspect your building during all the stages you are building. On tribal land you build whatever the hell you want. There was a time when upcoming African professionals shunned the village but now I sense we are starting to see things differently. Mansions are being built in villages. Less expensive than building in government areas. Less corruption too.


Thanks for this - I found some gorgeous homes after reading your comment and doing a search for tribal land homes.

https://www.reckontalk.com/the-painted-houses-of-the-ndebele...


That's fascinating - I'd be really curious to learn more about this system. Perhaps the initial intentions were good (I don't want a school next to a lead smelter) but planning seems to have become a tool to reduce access to housing and strangle places' growth.

Of course, do these mansions handle their own services? What do they do about externalities?


It's a continuation of pretty how much Africans lived in the past, before colonisation. My theory is when colonisers arrived it was probably too much of a headache to try and assign everyone a title deed. Lead smelters and mines will need government permits. I meant you can build any house that you pretty much want.

Most people will acquire the land in their village. Typically a young couple wanting their own home. There are two options. If you family has some land available, you can just go inform the headman that you will be building your home there. Second option is you approach headman who keeps tabs on land that is available. He will show you were to build. The community is always consulted before land is allocated. For example someone may object that you are too close to them and your livestock might cause problems with his garden. Other objecttions might be that the family closest has a son who is going to build there in near future. The headman tends to be aware of all these maters though and he tends to have spots ready to allocate.

In the past we used to build Blair toilets[0]. People still fetch water from the well. Carrying the bucket on their head or pushing it in wheelbarrow. We are starting to dig boreholes (very expensive) and flushing toilets with septic tanks are starting to appear. Very few though have piped water. Gas stoves also starting to appear along with solar panels for lighting. We still have a long long way to go though.

[0]https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blair_toilet


That's really interesting. It sounds like long-term indebtedness isn't part of it? Or am I naive to think that? What happens if there's no land available?


Now that is an interesting question that I think the next generation is going to have to answer.

There is still plenty of tribal lands available. Currently, people tend to settle in the tribal lands that are close to roads and towns. Next step I guess is moving further away from towns. People also have land which they grow crops. This tends to be separate from the homestead and quite substantial in size. A good 100metres by 50/100metres. I see people have started subdividing these fields and settling in them. Fewer people are depending on the harvest now to survive so some of this land is not in use.

I know I haven't answered your question. I really don't know how we are going to transition from the rather informal way in which land is dished out and houses built to the more formal approach. What I do know is it is going to take a long time. Africa currently has other pressing problems. Healthcare, education, corruption ... Whilst there has been the odd controversy here and there land in the tribal areas is not one of the big issues. A lot of it is allocated to families that have lived in the area for generations.


Far enough away from civilization one can generally build anything without any permits etc.

By the time anyone 'official' finds out about your building, it will have been there decades, and usually it will have exceeded any time limit for them to tell you to pull it down.


Wales introduced the One Planet scheme in 2011 to try and make this easier [0] (it's debatable whether it is, in-fact easier).

The Lammas eco-village [1] in Wales is very similar to the one in the OP, and is one of the driving forces for this kind of movement (and the One Planet scheme).

[0] https://gov.wales/docs/desh/publications/090521susdev1wales1...

[1] http://lammas.org.uk/en/welcome-to-lammas/


Thanks! I considered moving to an eco-village in Ireland (Cloughjordan) but they told me it would be at least a year before getting planning permission to build anything.


Elon Musk appears to be developing a Two Planet scheme


It’s a step up from the No Planet scheme we had before.


I've been making plans for a three planet scheme, but the complexity keeps increasing so I'm not sure I will finish them.


You can find their planning applications here by searching for "Scoraig":

https://wam.highland.gov.uk/wam/


One of the interesting things now about being off grid, is that the problem of generating sufficient kWh per month via photovoltaics is very nearly solved. Even in winter. If you can afford to buy solar panels by the pallet load, the cost is about $0.42 to $0.58/W STC rating. Then it becomes a relatively low tech construction question of how do you build a ground mount for something like qty 80, 360W 72-cell panels, each of which measures 2.00 x 1.00 meters in size.

In the northern hemisphere, you'll have to size the PV+Wind system's predicted kWh per month production to the shortest sunlight days of the year, from mid November to mid February. December and January are particularly bad. If you have a home that you are certain will not draw more than 1500kWH per month in those times, the PV system will need to be able to produce a cumulative 2000kWh in December. This does mean that you'll have a significant excess of kWh in all other, longer months of the year, even enough to run small air conditioners from late May to mid September.

Forget ever using electrical element heating, which is 100% efficient from a thermodynamics perspective, but uses a ridiculous amount of kWh per heating unit. Household heating will have to be designed another way, with passive + insulation + natural gas/propane + wood stove + other BTU heat sources considered. Anything that's not electrical, unless you're quite wealthy and can afford to build a gargantuan ground mount PV system.

The harder problem is the energy storage. Until the advent of things like the tesla powerwall and similar Li-Ion based storage systems, people bought massive banks of AGM lead acid batteries and replaced them every 5 years at great cost. The cycle lifetime of those is quite limited, they're huge and heavy, and their cycle lifetime is significantly shortened if you regularly cycle them on a daily basis below 40% state of charge.

As economics of scale for battery storage improve (due to market demand for electric cars, drops in $ per kWh stored with 21700 batteries, etc), the fully-built system $ per kWh cost will drop further. It's totally possible to combine wind and PV charging feeds, with multiple different charge controllers, into one battery bank.

It's not going to be as cheap as electricity at $0.08/kWh in Seattle from the mostly hydroelectric fed grid utility, but amortizing the cost of the big PV system over many years you can achieve a fully off grid cost in the sub $0.20/kWh range.


>Forget ever using electrical element heating, which is 100% efficient from a thermodynamics perspective, but uses a ridiculous amount of kWh per heating unit.

Insulate to passive house standard and old lightbulbs throw enough heat - https://www.nypassivehouse.org/how-three-light-bulbs-help-ke...


Lightbulbs aren't magically more efficient at heating. The other 8 months of the year wasting a ton of power on inefficient bulbs just wastes your money when you could have just used more efficient bulbs and a dedicated heater.


I think you missed the point. If you can keep a house warm in winter with three light-bulbs, then electrical heating is perfectly viable when running off solar. I wasn't recommending light-bulbs as a heating method.


> Forget ever using electrical element heating, which is 100% efficient from a thermodynamics perspective, but uses a ridiculous amount of kWh per heating unit.

A question regarding this. Why are heat pumps not used for heating, instead of resistive heating? Afaik, they should offer 3-4x the efficiency and really cut down on the electricity requirements.


Air-source heat pump efficiency really takes a dive in freezing conditions when you need it most.

Ground-source heat pumps are difficult to get right, expensive to install%, and can be painful to get planning approval for^. Plus, if you have the land for a system, you often have the land for a small woodlot.

% You'll need more land if you have to trench instead of drilling a well.

^ Some areas don't allow direct expansion, so you have to do an inefficient heat-exchange. Running open-loop would be efficient and cheap, but districts can be very afraid of groundwater contamination.


They can be a good option, but in terms of cost per BTU, and lower risk of excessive battery drain during unexpectedly cold weeks, can be more reliable to have a 500 gallon propane tank and gas heater. Depends on how "off grid" it is and the cost for propane delivery.


They exist; I've seen them in fairly remote parts of Sweden, but I don't know what the economics are.


Can one have a 10 yard x 10 yard x 10 yard water tank under the house, and use it as a massive thermal mass to use summer heat to keep the building warm in winter?


You could, but my intuition for heat storage capacity tells me it wouldn't last more than into mid October, in many places. Also building a foundation that can take the weight of a 10x10x10 tank of water is costly and non trivial, before you buy or fabricate a tank...


There is a certain degree of hypocrisy lingering: "I want to know where everything comes from and be in control and yadda yadda", but then you're using yellow plastic gloves probably made in China by some pollution-heavy factory, dishwashers, plastic chairs and sheep-shavers made by people doing those jobs you so despise, and going back to Russia every day in something that is unlikely to be a wind-powered boat... And how is the wind-power guy "off-grid", when his website was an early internet hit and he (like the violin maker) probably derives an income from the "outer world" thanks to his activities?

Living in a society is always a compromise, these people have just struck a slightly different subset of trade-offs -- but to sustain their lifestyle, they are still largely dependent on the wider world being what it is.


"No man is an island"

from:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Devotions_upon_Emergent_Occasi...

Excerpt:

No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.[22] [Donne's original spelling and punctuation]

Sorry, not all that relevant, but it sounds too good, so couldn't resist quoting it.


I find myself quoting it every few years. An obvious yet underappreciated observation, presented beautifully.


It's impossible to be an alive human and don't have any contradiction. To have a couple of contradictions is a show of a reasonable willingness to compromise rather than a complete dismissal of a lifestyle choice calling or calling it hypocritical.

Since I sometimes have to drive my car I won't ever ride my bike.


I don't think off grid, means completely isolated from the rest of the world.


Pretty sure from context that the person quoted did not actually want to know where every single thing in their lives came from. Off-grid does not have anything to do with income.


Reading this I'm intrigued if only because it's a place a kid could play in the street, or equivalent, and not get killed by a driver. We have too few refuges from cars.


Central cities can be made car free too.


True, and I looked at Ghent for this very reason, but it's quite a bit more expensive.


Is Ghent car free? I don't know anything about the city.


The center is car free and around the periphery you can drive, but even on the outskirts there are still fewer cars than one might expect if you are familiar with similar sized American or English cities.


My great uncle, Tom Forsyth, lived in Scoraig and was involved in the community for decades. He was highly intelligent, well traveled, and was an unusual and interesting character.

https://www.heraldscotland.com/opinion/16610388.obituary-tom...


Ah, 2018! A dizzying time when images on a web page are blurry or altogether missing unless one has enabled JavaScript!

(the article is interesting, but why-oh-why does the Beeb site show blurry photographs instead of sharp ones? We've had an imagine tag for decades now!)


Web dev here: They're lazy-loading the images to give a perceived faster load time. You take a super low quality (often blurry so it doesn't just look low quality) placeholder and swap it in for a proper image as needed.

This is overall a slower loadtime and a bit wasteful (sending useless junk over the wire) but appears to load faster for end users since the time-to-first-render is quicker. Of course, lazy-loading the images requires Javascript to be enabled to detect when the page has finished loading and it is now "safe" to load the higher quality images.


See, now, the good way of doing this is to specify the exact dimensions of the image in html/css.

Same perceived load speed of the page, no junk.


But won't work on any device at any screen size ("responsive design"). There's a way to do server-side rendering for image assets in this regard but the front-end devs in charge of this kind of thing rarely know how to set something like that up.


It is faster and more efficient on a long image-heavy page like this, because they're not loading the larger images until the user scrolls to them (try reloading the page and scrolling quickly to see). So it's not entirely pointless.


Since there is a lot of interest in this thread, and also triggered by sclangdon's comment here about the Lammas eco-village in Wales, sharing some terms / URLs which I came across recently, so that people can search for / visit them to get more information on related topics:

- eco-village network

- intentional communities

- https://www.ic.org/

- https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Intentional_community

The Whole Earth Catalog, which was mentioned by Steve Jobs in his Stanford commencement speech ("Stay hungry. Stay foolish."), was also a great resource for these kinds of things. I was lucky to get to read it when my uncle from the States brought us a copy on a visit. Tons of useful and interesting products and techniques mentioned and described in it, including, e.g. Japanese saws, which I mentioned on HN some time ago.

http://www.wholeearth.com/index.php

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Whole_Earth_Catalog

Excerpt:

[ The Whole Earth Catalog (WEC) was an American counterculture magazine and product catalog published by Stewart Brand several times a year between 1968 and 1972, and occasionally thereafter, until 1998. The magazine featured essays and articles, but was primarily focused on product reviews. The editorial focus was on self-sufficiency, ecology, alternative education, "do it yourself" (DIY), and holism, and featured the slogan "access to tools". ]


The idea reminds me very much of the original Wicker Man, but I'm sure there's no cult on this island!


Nitpick: It's not an island - they are at the end of peninsula between Loch Broom and Little Loch Broom.


Hah, yeah. The Wicker Man was also the first thing I thought of.


The local folk seem friendly, but do get noticeably uneasy and fix their smiles, showing slightly too much teeth, whenever visiting strangers ask why the wind turbine is required to be fireproof with sharpened metal blades.


I have considered living off-grid out in the "middle of no where" for some time.

One of the things that has always held me back is access to decent internet. Has anyone found a way around this or has set up any major "wireless tower" to get internet from another distant location?


From what I have read, it is kind of a "movement" to develop co-ops or other DIY rural internet. It is being compared to the movement to electrify farms about a hundred years ago in the US.

So it's not hard to find stuff on the subject, for example:

https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2689496/Remote-vill...

https://offgridsurvival.com/offgridinternet/



/r/homelab has examples of people using wifi point to point links.


A little help for the lazy:

https://old.reddit.com/r/homelab/


I would hazard a guess that internet is generally easier to solve than questions like mental preparedness for isolation.


It's a beautiful, surprisingly rich piece with details about the history and geography of the area. It makes me feel like someone who lived there could start a blog and probably make money waxing poetic about life there and many people would enjoy living vicariously through them.

Many people fantasize about a simpler life, but actually making it happen can take years or simply be completely out of reach. There is probably a huge market for catering to feeding those fantasies and satisfying them to some degree virtually.


In the scuttlebutt community there are actually quite a few off-grid people hanging around. They're part of what makes ssb so interesting. This is just stuff that's very nitty-gritty, dirty, and somehow meaningful, compared to lots of other social media posts. :)


i romantically think that I'd enjoy this arrangement (somewhere more tropical however) ... but in reality I'm not sure how long I could last without fiber to the home ... j/j


This is why I'm excited about Starlink (and potentially other big LEO constellations as well -- but Starlink is the one I'm most optimistic about right now).


Looks like they have decent LTE coverage on EE at least, which I was surprised at.


Signals can propogate fairly far when there's no buildings or other stuff in the way (just sea!).


Must be nice to live in a country where you can live without working, pay no taxes and still get free healthcare and university.


The healthcare part is correct - you'll get that regardless of your working situation. But university is not free in the UK.

Also, if you go for long periods of not paying any "national insurance" (similar to social security) you can actually not receive the govenment pension on retirement.

Still, having the major stress removed of worrying about healthcare is reason enough to enjoy living in the UK over the US.


> But university is not free in the UK.

It is in Scotland.


Only for Scots or for EU citizens - English people have to pay(due to the fact that Scots willing to study in England have to pay for their universities, to it's reciprocal).


I think the requirement is "normally living in Scotland".

(I'm not 100% sure how this is enforced. It rather seems as though getting a cheap flat north of the border and declaring that as your normal residence for the duration of studies could be worthwhile if you can afford it...)


I originally thought this was based on N years of schooling in Scotland for some value of N but after a bit of searching it seems the "normally resident in Scotland" bit isn't really very well defined.

It's debatable whether it's very ethical to do what you suggested - though I don't imagine it's particularly common.


I mean it can't be all that it takes - as a student you need a place to stay at anyway, and renting a place could be far cheaper than paying tuition.


I imagine you'd need to be normally resident at the time you're applying to university, which is a bit more difficult for the average 17-18 year old busy with their final year of school.

The university would presumably also expect a Scotland-resident student to take Scottish exams at a Scottish school, which is a separate system to England, so even more hassle.


I don't know Scotland's rules, but other places I've lived usually required living in a place for 6 months or a year before starting your studies in order to be considered resident for tuition.


Perhaps. But then, it appears at least some of these people work (Luthier, sea taxi operator, etc.) and saying you _have_ to work your life away in drudgery because someone else decided those things were obligatory is a shame too.


Also, I would hardly describe running a croft as "not working".


What does that have to do with this article? It seems the only people not working are the retired ones, and even they are involved with making the community function.

Besides, even on Scoraig, people are paying tax, and probably at a high proportion of their small income. Everything bought from the mainland will charge VAT; fuel, alcohol and cigarettes brought to the island pay high duties; and I have no reason to believe they're not paying council tax either.


Yes, I think it would be. I sincerely hope I live to see this become widely possible.


Sounds insanely boring. All the people interviewed come off as misanthropes.




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