Solar Barn: A Study in Self Sufficiency with The Kiwi Family Robinson

by | Apr 8, 2012

Johann David Wyss’ The Swiss Family Robinson (1981) is a favourite book from my childhood. Shipwrecked on a deserted island, the intrepid family are forced to quickly devise ways to meet their basic needs; one of which was to tame an ostrich to help them travel!

As days and months go by, they learn about how to live within the new environment, finding food sources and working together to build themselves a home, while crafting essential every-day living tools and materials that most of us take for granted these days.

Jump in time to 2012 in New Zealand, the Kiwi Family Robinson’s Solar Barn project is a modern-day adventure story toward self-reliance. We spied a picture of Will and his bees in the local rag. A phone call and a couple of days later, Will and his wife Karen generously welcomed us for a tour with open arms.

Auto-mechanic extraordinaire Will is a delightful man, full of warmth, enthusiasm and practical DIY expertise. Lively Karen’s self-professed ‘sprinter brain’ spills forth a relentless and fascinating stream of knowledge and stories about their daily life, and together, they paint a colourful picture of the Solar Barn, seven years since its inception.


They started with the huge solar panel ‘sail’ and windpower, and Will engineered the infrastructure himself. The sail can be manually pivoted to maximise solar energy capture from early morning to late afternoon. The reason behind the sail device? A crucial mistake made in the very beginning, with positioning the barnhouse.

The short side of the barn faces north, long sides east and west.  “We worked with an architect in the beginning and really had no idea,” Will said.

It was pretty disappointing to realise, too late, that the house should have been orientated with its long side to the north. We’d been given the wrong advice, by an architect!

So, with minimal roof space to work with on the north side, Will devised the solar sail to compensate. If they were doing it again though, the barn would be positioned with the long side facing north, and he’d simply fix them to the roof on the northern side.


Will’s also converted a car to run on filtered fuel obtained from the local fish ‘n’ chip shop.

I can tell you, there’s nothing quite like the feeling of driving by the gas station when you’re on home-made fuel.

In NZ, as yet there isn’t a tax on home-made fuel, as there is in Australia. The next step is converting their old Ford Courier ute to electric, which he estimates will cost a minimum of NZ$8000 if he does all the work himself. Will’s currently writing an e-book on converting your car to run on bio-fuels, so watch the Solar Barn website or Facebook page for a future release.

Hot water

Marks of Will’s mechanical genius are everywhere. He opens a shed door to reveal a huge Nissan car engine built up into a bio-diesel generator (it runs on both diesel and bio diesel). The hot water system can also run off his electric batteries, and directly off the solar panels on the roof. He ALSO can make hot water with his Marshall Heater – a a wood-fired water heating system. You may get from this that Will likes to have “a backup within a backup within a backup”.

Grey water

Grey water from the kitchen, bathroom, and laundry feeds into a filter system then irrigates evergreen food producing trees like citrus, feijoa and olive trees. Their system is set up to go to one place, and can sometimes be overwhelmed. If they were to do it again, Will and Karen suggest growing evergreen fruiting trees in separate dedicated grey water garden beds for kitchen, bathroom, and laundry.

Veggie garden

Karen’s impressive veggie garden has a lovely bio-diverse mix of herbs and veggies, which she feeds with fertilisers she makes herself. There’s always a brew of fish emulsion on the go, as well as a comfrey compost tea. Alongside the veggie garden is a small orchard, and Karen makes use of the space planting up beds around trees with comfrey, borage and herbs.

Bees and healing creams

Karen makes healing creams with help of bees from their bee hive, using honey, bee pollen and wax in lip balms, creams and ointments. She plans to develop workshops in the near future to teach others about natural healing methods straight from the garden. Will loves the bees and says for him, working with them is a spiritual experience. The garden has bee friendly plants around the north east side of the barn, and Will and Karen suggest if you’re planning to have bees, create a specific area for them on this side of the house or property. Will’s adamant that bees love chestnut tree blossom so plant one of these in the vicinity if you have a lot of space. They grow very big and can live past 100 years!

A milking contraption

The house cow, we were told, is away being serviced at the moment. Will has created an impressive milking device from recycled items which will soon be used for the goats and cow to provide fresh raw milk for the household. The project began Will sourced a rusted up 2 horsepower electric motor for next to nothing. When Karen saw it, she thought it was a piece of junk they wouldn’t be able to do anything with. The picture tells a different story now. They think they should be able to get around four animals all milked, clean up done and dusted within about half an hour using this incredible bio-fueled milking device.

What’s next?

Karen and Will have carried out some of their farm development projects with the help of woofers from around the world, and they’ll continue to bring together people to help out, learn and share their journey. A longer term plan is to creat four chalets on the property, and Karen is particularly interesting in providing a retreat for woman undergoing cancer treatment, following her own experience with the illness only two years ago. They’ll plant macadamias and avocadoes, as these are good crops for eating and if needed, bio-fuel production.  They also foresee creation of a food forest, comprising fruiting and deciduous trees for food, animal fodder, and coppicing. Will will also ceate a biodigester, he said, from a marine toilet. They’ll then recover methane gas off it as a backup cooking fuel for the gas oven.


From Karen’s love of bartering and her swag of skills from gardening to dressmaking, to Will’s talent for getting something for nothing and fabricating whatever they need, these two make a formidable self-reliant living team. For more, check out their website.

I couldn’t go without mentioning the wonder of Karen’s healthy homemade soda bread with much-loved creative pesto, well enjoyed for lunch. 

Recipe for Creative Pesto

To make creative pesto, throw in anything green from plaintain ‘weed’ to sorrel, rocket, nasturtians or a mix of whatever herbs you have on hand. If you don’t have any nuts it’s not a bother.

Throw in pumpkins or sunflower seeds or simply suffice with nutrient-rich mixed greens, good olive oil and a traditional touch of parmesan cheese. I like a squeeze of lemon and a bit of honey too; they help preserve food, are good for your health and add a nice balancing flavour.

Bio diesel generator

Milking machine