Thea Holm and her family haven’t used electricity from the national grid for the past four decades and their water comes from the heavens…

And now she is running a modern lodge, aptly called Sunplace, with all the bells and whistles, in Hartbeespoort in order to show people that self-sustainable living doesn’t mean returning to the dark ages and it doesn’t demand sacrificing modern luxuries.

Chatting to Thea in the lodge on the mountain with its stunning view of the Hartbeespoort Dam and surrounding mountains, it is evident that this family is passionate about self-sustainable living and the resulting positive influence on the environment. The family house, staff accommodation, a blacksmith workshop, a cottage and the lodge run on solar power and only rainwater is used. And Thea, an award-winning educator for sustainable development, is passionate about educating individuals, companies and communities about this conscious way of living.

What do you have to sacrifice to live self-sustainable?
We live no different than other people, except for the constant awareness to always save our natural resources. It is a way of life, a way of looking at life and a commitment to preserve our environment. There is nothing we have to sacrifice. We have stoves, fridges, kettles, hair dryers… all the usual amenities. The lodge even has underfloor heating, all thanks to the sun!

We are just very conscious about how we use our resources. We don’t leave lights on, or taps running… we just do what every person on earth should do and that’s to be more in tune with our daily demands on natural resources.

Why did you decide to live like this?
I married into it! My husband’s father, Prof. Dieter Holm is South Africa’s’ pioneer in renewable energy and was the first to build a modern, autonomous house that runs exclusively on solar power and harvest rainwater as the only means of water supply. My husband Henning grew up with this off the grid lifestyle. Seeing the Al Gore movie “An Inconvenient Truth” in 2008, was an eye-opener for me, I realised that I am in such a unique position to show off our lifestyle as an example and educate people about the need and the urgency for us all to change our behaviour and drastically reduce our energy footprints to a more sustainable way of living.

I studied environmental education at UNISA and then attended a UNESCO initiative training programme “Education for Sustainable Development” (ESD) in Germany. The necessity to make sustainable lifestyle changes, have almost become an obsession to me, but one can only instigate such a movement in the right direction, by being the example.

Tell us how you live self-sustainably
All our energy comes from solar panels and we utilise the sun in every way, for instance by using sun cookers as supplement to gas stoves. We have toilets that use the minimum water and a grey water recycling system in a wetland which enables us to water our edible garden. All our water for domestic use as well as for the lodge is captured during the rainy season. All the buildings were designed and built to be energy efficient. For instance, 80% of the outer walls of the lodge were built with hydraform bricks made on the property that contributes to high thermal capacity. The northern walls are 480mm thick, resulting in winter heat to be stored for up to 10 hours and in summer it keeps temperature constant as heat gets ventilated to the outside at night.

Skylights see to additional lighting and also assist in heating in winter. We are also constructing swales on the farm, letting rainwater sink into the soil. We have to keep our energy usage in mind all the time and take cloudy days into consideration. It becomes a way of life, even if you are elsewhere.

What are you really passionate about?
Waste! Waste is a huge problem and I am passionate about changing people’s and businesses’ approach towards it. Why does meat in the supermarket have to be in polystyrene and plastic packaging? Why do we buy plastic if we don’t have to? In this respect South Africa needs to drastically speed up the educational phase. The right thing to do in order to address our waste problem is to reduce, reuse and recycle. South Africans are increasingly reusing and recycling, but not reducing.

I have been involved in recycling and rainwater projects at schools and in the community since 2010 and was the leader of the ESD project on waste recycling in South Africa. I would like to see the South African government getting involved in the recycling initiative. In Germany for instance, you get paid for your waste. As soon as people get paid, there is value to waste and it will drastically reduce the amount of waste going to the landfills. However, reducing is still the big obstacle and can only be solved if we get the business sector involved. Go talk to the supplier, talk to the supermarket manager if you see unnecessary packaging…

Responsible tourism is another initiative I feel strongly about. Sunplace, is a 100% sustainable tourism venue and we offer educational tours to school and other groups to showcase various forms of an alternative lifestyle for the promotion of sustainable development. This is what green tourism should look like!

To be a ‘greenie’ today, one doesn’t have to tie yourself to a tree anymore. You can wear shoes and use a hairdryer. I just firmly believe if you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.