Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Off-Grid Living: Part 2 - Ignoring Stereotypes

“So you’re one of those weirdos who lives in their van in a hippie commune, sits around smoking pot all day, and doesn’t believe in bathing, aren’t you?” That’s a question that I guess must cross the minds of most people when they think of someone living off-grid. Imagine if I mention that I’m living off-grid in an Earthship. Cue the blank looks of complete unawareness about this particular subject.

What’s an Earthship? Well, it’s not a van or a ship or even a funky spaceship-looking dwelling. It’s a self-contained home that’s typically built with recycled material, such as old tires, soda cans, and glass bottles. The tires usually make up three sides of the home and are filled with earth for stability and thermal mass. These retaining walls back up to an earthen berm. The south wall primarily consists of windows for light and heat – and if you’re lucky, a breath-taking view.

Much like sailing a boat, the Earthship residents routinely perform tasks to make sure the vessel is running smoothly. However, since the home has no “traditional” heating or cooling systems, those tasks are minimal. They’re mindful of the power and water levels on a daily basis, clearing the solar panels after snow falls, and watching the weather forecasts in order to prepare for low solar days or snowbound days. In the winter, they keep the firewood stacked, ready to use in the wood-burning stove or fireplace, but that’s needed only for the coldest and stormiest of days since the home averages a comfortable 60 to 70 degrees year round. In the summer, the windows work in tandem with the operable skylights, which are opened to pull the outdoor air from the open southern windows through the home to cool it. The insulating shades on the windows are lowered at night to hold in the warmth of the day during the winter and raised in the morning to let the sunshine back in, just as one might hoist a sail.

The first misconception about off-grid living is that everyone who participates in that lifestyle is either escaping the watchful eye of Big Brother or the chaos of modern life in general, flying just below the radar of society. The stereotypes range from eccentric hermits to “granola-heads” to renegade rednecks harboring arsenals in their barns. According to Nick Rosen, author of Off The Grid: Inside The Movement For More Space, Less Government, and True Independence In America, the off-gridders “might be middle-class environmentalists or right-wing survivalists, victims of foreclosure or long-term pot growers, international business travelers with their own islands or groups of friends who decided to start a community.” Just as their motivation for living such a life varies greatly, so too does the type of home that these people live in – anything from vans, to houseboats, to tents, and converted barns.

While there are many reasons one might consider living off-grid, I firmly believe that the primary reason should be a desire to live in harmony with nature rather than unnaturally against its rhythmic and cyclic flow. By choosing to live off-grid, I would simplify my life and reduce the amount of electronic gadgets in my home and limit the time spent using only those I deemed necessary and worthwhile. That’s the lifestyle my friend has chosen: one where she will also grow much of her own food and home-school her children. Growing your own food and becoming less dependent upon outside resources seems rather appealing to me during these tough economic times and where an uncertain future looms on the horizon. While home-schooling isn’t an option for everyone, it definitely would have been my preference for my own son if I had had the opportunity to do so. The education system and I don’t agree on many levels – but that’s a topic for another blog.

The second misconception is that living off-grid means giving up all of the things that most people take for granted, like electricity and plumbing. As I mentioned in my last blog, living off-grid doesn’t mean that one barely survives without any of the creature comforts to which we’ve become accustomed. In fact, an off-grid house has everything that any other house would have – the systems simply function differently than a conventional house. In an Earthship, for example, the primary difference in structural design (besides the obvious building material, of course) is a lack of windows on the north wall of the home. Otherwise, this particular type of dwelling boasts an invitingly open and airy floorplan. The same can be achieved in a variety of other fully-sustainable home designs, including straw bale.

The next time someone tells you that they just built a new home, ask them how many hours they spent “pounding tires” or plastering walls or hanging doors. Chances are, they didn’t participate in anything more than selecting the colors or cabinets or fixtures. More than likely, they never even saw the home until it was completed. Few people ever participate in the actual physical labor that goes into constructing the building from the ground up, installing the plumbing or electrical systems, or putting the finishing touches on it themselves. Those privileged few who have truly built their own sustainable houses know their home like the back of their hands, because their tired and calloused hands contributed to its completion. What a marvelous sense of accomplishment that must be, and what an inspirational thing to aspire to doing myself one day.

Quote from:

Rosen, Nick. Off The Grid: Inside The Movement For More Space, Less Government, and True Independence In America, 1st edition, London, England: Penguin Books, 2010.

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