As we drive up to the entrance of Atardeceres de la Pradera, a gated community north of Popayán, a guard emerges, flashing a smile and waving us in. Tony Clark is behind the wheel and I’m riding shotgun. Kim Macphee, Tony’s girlfriend, occupies the backseat with Ally, the couple’s five-year-old pooch, who’s chewing on a rubber ball and taking up more than her fair share of the seat.
I check out the homes in the development—one- and two-story dwellings, with well-manicured lawns, some with visible swimming pools. Nice. As the pavement ends, a dirt road begins. Approaching what appears to be the end of the road, a white single-story house appears on the right. It looks like a normal home, as Tony and Kim had described it. But it’s actually not so normal, because this house operates completely off grid, the first of its kind in Cauca.
“We’re not hippies,” the young couple is quick to point out to anyone who wants to talk about their house. Truth is, Kim and Tony are innovators and have been since they moved here from Scotland in 2006. They opened Popayán’s first backpacker hostel, Hostel Trial, which virtually put the city on the map as a destination for foreign tourists. The house is just another example of how they approach life, with an air of curiosity and determination that sets a course for others to follow.
At first, their neighbors, many of whom are older, were not keen on welcoming Kim and Tony to the neighborhood, or embracing their newfangled concepts. “When we first came in here, with our strange, foreign ideas about building an off-grid house, people thought we were crazy,” Kim said. “But now, people walk down, look at the house and congratulate us on the job we’ve done. Some even want us to help them put solar in their houses, too.”
A developer started building the community back in 1998, with the intention of creating a country club-style environment for Popayan’s privileged class, but went broke after finishing just 35 homes. The government took possession of the remaining 100 lots and sold them at auction. Lots in the back of the development had no water or electricity, so Kim and Tony were able to get theirs at a bargain basement price.
Standing in the front yard, I don’t notice anything out of the ordinary. In fact, I don’t see anything unusual on the inside of the house, either. Flip a switch, and the light turns on. Turn on the tap, and out pours piping hot water. It’s only when Tony takes me on a full tour that I see modifications and equipment that most houses don’t have.
Seven 500-liter water tanks sit along the back of the house. They’re filled by runoff from the roof, which is covered with what looks like an ordinary roofing product. But it’s not. The red panels are a specialty product, called Onduline—a roofing material approved for rainwater harvesting by the World Health Organization. A pump delivers the water to a header tank on the roof, which feeds taps throughout the house.
They generate electricity using four 435-watt solar panels mounted on the roof, which aren’t visible from the street. A single solar hot water heater provides enough hot water for showers and cleaning, even when the house is full of overnight guests. As we step back inside, Tony guides me up a ladder leading into the attic to show me the rest of the electric system. There, I see just two deep-cycle batteries, which look like regular car batteries, but hold enough electricity to power the house after dark.
With the exception of a water pump, which they ordered from a company in the United States, Tony and Kim were able to find all the solar electric and water collection components they needed at building supply stores in Cali. The price of modifications, equipment and materials added just US$5,000 to their construction costs, which they can easily recoup in a few years, since they pay no water or electricity bills.
“We wanted to build something that would look traditional—a nice Spanish colonial style house, with modern conveniences, but using alternative energies,” Tony said. And that’s exactly what they’ve done.
They might not sport dreadlocks and toe rings, but Kim and Tony have become somewhat obsessed with sustainable living. They now have a few chickens, which supply them with eggs, and they’ve added a tilapia pond and bee hive to the backyard. “Sometimes I feel like we’ve become farmers,” Kim said. “We get up in the morning and look up at the sky, wondering if today we’re going to charge up the batteries or fill up the water tanks. It’s actually nice, because I feel like I’m more in tune with what’s going on around me.”