Features — November 14, 2011

The green house – alternative living starts now

Photograph: Adrian Cheah

Green Acres is the culmination of one man’s dream to create a fully sustainable house, surrounded by nature. With efficient solar panels and piped spring water, it is proof that comfort and conscientious living can go hand in hand.

By Marie Tan 

Hidden away from the many sprouting housing developments and townships in Balik Pulau is an ongoing experiment in sustainable living. This is a project brought to fruition by Eric Chong, a corporate trainer during the week and a farmer during the weekend – think Lat’s The Kampung Boy meets Town Boy.

On an orchard farm stands an impressive two-storey kampong house, its frame mounted traditionally sans nails. For now, it functions as a model show house, doubling up as Chong’s weekend home. The wooden construction blends in with its surroundings and is a self-sustainable entity placed completely off the grid. Literally.

The house stands unconnected to either the electrical grid or water mains. Chong circumvented the need for this after doing careful and extensive research, and after plenty of cost-benefit analyses. The kampong house itself provides part of the solution as its raised structure on stilts and wooden frame, coupled with its location on elevated land, automatically reduced the need for air conditioning.

The main impetus behind realising Green Acres was Chong’s worries about how he was to bring up his young son. “I didn’t want him to grow up to be a mallrat!” As a result of weekends spent at Green Acres, Chong’s son now lacks fear of nature, is highly inquisitive about his surroundings and displays a strong sense of responsibility (this thanks to having to help dad with chores on the farm). Chong himself has become much fitter from tending to his orchard.

Chong explained that the concept of sustainable living is nothing new. During his time as a student in Canada in the 1990s and travelling through Taiwan more than a decade ago, he had already come across communities practicing lifestyles of health and sustainability (Lohas). Digging deeper into his roots, Chong realised that his grandparents, who were farmers, were already practicing this kind of lifestyle, with the health benefits and longevity to show for it.

Somewhere along the way, this simple wisdom got lost and is only now slowly but surely making a comeback in his life.

Photograph: Adrian Cheah

As he gave me a tour of the house, Chong pointed out the tiny little fans running on 1.5 watts, which are no different from the ones found in old, pre-air conditioned cars. These fans suffice for humid days, when breezes run low.

For lighting, Chong went with one-watt light emitting diode (LED) bulbs; there are 42 of them in the house. To power these, Chong invested in two solar panels capable of producing and storing 110W each (taking two days to charge fully) – rendering enough energy for a whole night’s needs, recharging of mobile phone batteries and laptops included!

For water, there is a spring about a kilometre up the hill. Four other neighbours share it for drinking and irrigation purposes. In addition, there is also another spring at the foot of the hill. Chong had the water tested at the forensic lab at the Penang General Hospital and it turned out that the water is pure and potable. He will install a ram pump to get water from this spring up to the house. No electricity is needed to power this, as ram pumps utilise hydraulic forces to move water against the force of gravity.

Making Green Acres a reality was no easy feat. The land was acquired two years ago after more than three years of active searching for a suitable piece. Chong told the story of how he came across one piece of land that was seemingly ideal – until his friend who had come with him pointed out that it was too quiet. There were no insects buzzing, no birds humming – the land was sterile from overuse of pesticides.

Photograph: Adrian Cheah

Economically, Chong acknowledged that “Green Acres doesn’t make sense in the short term – you’d get better returns on investment putting your money in bonds or the stock market. You’ll only see the returns that you get from investing in this kind of venture in the long run, but it’s the intangible and unquantifiable returns that you see immediately.” These non-quantifiable returns that he speaks of include the privilege of getting to eat home-grown produce and the health benefits of staying away from the pollution of the city. For those of us who have thumbed through Lat’s The Kampung Boy, no convincing is needed about the benefits a child enjoys from having all this as part of their growing-up experience.

With seven acres to spare, there is room for other like-minded Penangites to join in. Chong intends to develop Green Acres into an eco-community of sorts, and will build similar houses for other families interested in this way of living – however, he emphasised, “We’re not just looking for buyers, we’re looking for good neighbours!”

Marie Tan is capable of eating three bowls of laksa for lunch and loves nutmeg juice in all its variations.

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