Sunday, June 8, 2008

Off again, on again

Inside the Straw Bale House

This is a funny little article on the perils of living off-grid, all familiar to Aimee and I because of our Bale House project. In our case, we lasted three years, and what killed the idea wasn't the lack of electricity -- we'd gotten used to that -- but the distance the house was from the college, and the 50-hour weeks we work in the months of August through May.

It was fine to hang out in our bale house during the summer and live off-grid and grow gardens, raise livestock, and generally live the Good Life. But as soon as classes started up, the amount of time necessary to feed the wood stove, pump water, empty compost toilets and tend gardens and animals wasn't there, and we became overworked, tired, and sometimes, when we couldn't get it all done, we went without heat or light or bathing.

The folks who owned the land (we own the building) disallowed the idea of putting up the wind turbine we thought would solve some of these problems, as well as cutting down the trees needed to make the passive solar design work well. Another neighbor disliked us and our dogs. The distance to work used more fossil fuels than a furnace would have. Eventually, succumbing to our own rationality, and a cost-benefit analysis of our situation, we gave up on the neighbors and on living in the bale house, and moved to what we call the "New House", really a restored 1900 Maine farmhouse, now very comfortable and energy efficient, but on-grid. Some colleagues from the college moved into the Bale House, and still live there, so the building is still in full use, after nearly 6 years. And, I suppose, if the housing crunch ever bites hard, we have a back-up house.

I get contacted by about a half dozen people a year asking for advice on building straw bale houses in Maine. I routinely try to discourage them a little. Straw bale is a fine building product where it is plentiful, in places that grow wheat or barley. In our part of Maine, farmers grow cows and corn silage, and wheat and barley straw has to be trucked in, with prices per bale actually higher per unit of R-value than than other kinds of insulation, which defeats the purpose of a straw house, which is to save money and energy.

In our part of Maine, we do grow lumber in very large quantities, so if you want to build an energy-efficient off-grid house, it makes more sense, and is more ecologically efficient in most cases, to use lumber and find some other kind of cheap insulation. I will be experimenting with sheep fleece as insulation with my next-but-one experimental building -- the extension Aimee and I plan for the farmhouse. We grow a lot of fleece.

I also give very firm advice on off-grid living. If you insist on having electricity in your off-grid home, it takes quite a lot of technology, more than a few pollutants are created, and there are good reasons to think that grid-tie solar and wind power are more sustainable forms of household electricity than off-grid solar and wind. In particular, if you go use grid-tie, you don't need to buy batteries every 4 to 10 years. batteries used in off-grid houses are usually lead acid, and they are recyclable, but they don't lst forever and are expensive to replace.

In the meantime, I'm making plans for the barn that students will build at Unity College this fall. I just heard from the college administration a couple days ago that they will fund most of the barn. I had been planning to have students raise donations of money and materials, but we won't have to do that now, at least not very much of it. The plan is to have students work with our Vice President for college advancement on a couple of fund raising ideas -- students really need to learn about non-profit finance and philanthropy if they are to be fully capable environmental professionals.

But they won't have to raise all the cash and materials needed, which is a nice thing, for which I'm quite grateful since it lets me concentrate on teaching the lost art of independent, self-reliant building.

Which, I suppose, is where I started with this rambling piece.

Of course, the important things for young people to learn about building a barn are not necessarily the barn-building skills themselves, but more the problem solving, the group process, the leadership and other skills needed to get a barn actually built.

No running water. No flushing loo. No electricity. No television

What happened when one family went back to basics for a month?

William Shaw
Sunday June 8, 2008
The Observer

Read the article

1 comment:


Hey Mick,

I'm sending this post to Dave. Thanks for informing us on your plight and all the things to consider when making these tough decisions. We hoped to live off-the-grid one day; perhaps in Vermont, or wherever life leads. My dad is off the grid, but he has the money to afford solar, wind, radiant floor heating, and gas lighting. Weighing out cost and waste are important factors.