Editor's Note: Readers know Amanda Bancroft for her column "Making Ripples," which appears regularly in The Free Weekly. Here, she chronicles her family's move into a tiny -- and off-grid -- home.
I'm not a fan of tiny houses. I just own one. Contradictory? Well, maybe. I'd live in a pumpkin if it were able to sustain my family and protect that which is most precious: the planet and all its people. (Besides, pumpkins are such a fine color!) Fortunately, we avoided the Cinderella situation and got something much better than a pumpkin.
My husband, Ryan, and I live in an off-grid tiny house on wheels with an intelligent black cat named Solo. Our tiny house rolled into our life not because we wanted one but for much deeper reasons. Happily deprived of television for over a decade, we were not enticed by tiny house shows -- although we were contacted by two of them. We're not in this to look cute or manipulate reality for entertainment. We certainly didn't make this drastic change to our lifestyle to save money. Tiny houses can be expensive, and ours cost about $63,000 plus $3,000 to build a gravel parking pad and $18,000 for necessary off-grid systems that provide water and electricity -- a total of $84,000 to live in a box on a trailer and still go into debt for it. Crazy? Well, maybe.
Instead of saving money, we hope to save the world one choice at a time -- to do our small part, in as large a way as we can. Tiny humans have a curious ant-like cumulative strength that's often used to beat up the earth and ourselves. We want to be the ants that do the right thing as often as possible -- and maybe even influence some other ants that want to do the right thing in their own way.
We decided to buy a tiny house because, in our unique situation, it was the best way to make a big difference for the good of the world. It all started in 2011, when we created a personal project called Ripples and set out to change our life in order to help others and live sustainably. In backwards fashion, we sold our car to reduce our carbon footprint, then started looking for land by carpooling and asking friends to join our adventure for an afternoon of sightseeing with ticks. Our long-shot goal? To live off-grid and save land.
Off The Grid
Behold, the myriad definitions of off-grid! There is a mighty gulf between hiding out from the government with your gun and no bathroom and getting yourself some solar panels. It's a spectrum. Nobody has to give up Netflix or human contact to live off-grid. We define living off-grid as off the utility grid, meaning that we generate our own electricity and water, but continue to shop for groceries, browse the internet, use the banking system and enjoy many other accomplishments of society.
We wanted our electricity from renewable sources and our water from the rain. We preferred a composting toilet that didn't flush away drinking water, and a native plant graywater garden that filtered sink and shower water back into the landscape without polluting it. And we wanted to do it all legally -- which happens to be possible. Imagine that!
Our land lease required a house with wheels, but we could still live sustainably in a tiny house.
We bought an off-grid custom model from Backcountry Tiny Homes based in Washington state. Our 336-square-foot cabin is an abiding place for love and lasting memories. The ground floor contains a bathroom, window seat, bookshelf with computer space, kitchen and a table with a bench for seating. There's plenty of storage in a loft and inside the bench, window seat, stairs, cabinets and shelves. People worry about small spaces, but we find our cabin very spacious, similar to an apartment. (For those wondering: No, we can't have babies, but that's irrelevant since babies and children live in apartments and tiny houses, both on and off-grid.)
The bed loft is comfortable with a gable roof, shelving, two windows and a balcony overlooking Kessler Mountain. Balcony dinners watching the sunset and star gazing make for a romantic evening! We have abundant room to cook indoors, and also employ the All American Sun Oven to cook outside year-round. It's fun to cuddle up and watch movies or read a book on the cushioned window seat. Solo finds plenty of places to hide and, as an indoor-only cat, enjoys sunbathing on the balcony.
Ups and Downs
Yep, we've made lasting memories in our cabin -- both good and bad.
If you ever had a beloved child destroy some part of your home, you will understand what our tiny house journey has been like. You may hate what your child did, but you can't hate the child. Backcountry Tiny Homes is a rare company in that they try, without completely succeeding, to design off-grid homes on trailers. They rescue and train dogs, and delayed delivery of our house for months. They help the homeless and didn't install our UV water filter correctly. Their superior woodworking skills are as astonishing as the two plumbing leaks that caused water to come up through our floorboards. In brief, they are an admirable, but not perfect, company.
Thus have we spent the past year or so trying to receive our tiny house, then trying not to regret it after arrival. We camped in through repairs to the toilet, plumbing, water filter, gutters, bathtub, broken window, and other major and minor parts. As you may have guessed, we're still fixing it. Climate control was not at the forefront of its design, so, through trial and error, we are discovering ways to cool the house in summer and heat it in winter. But the challenge isn't all about Backcountry's room for improvement. Living off-grid as new homeowners is challenging enough by itself!
Puzzle-solving skills are a must. Like a puppy, we can't leave our cabin unattended for even one day, or else! The batteries may drop below 50 percent, shut off electricity to the home, cause the fridge and freezer food to spoil, the composting toilet to stop venting, and the pipes to freeze (among other complex reactions). We shower only when it's sunny so that the hot water heater can get enough electricity. On the plus side, we have plenty of water with a 550 gallon cistern. We use a waterless composting toilet called the Separett, which has a urine diverter and a learning curve.
However, we aren't in this for a tiny house; we're here so that our lifestyle can be a tool for positive change in the world. A few glitches (and catastrophes) in our cabin cannot erase the good it does. If you take a vacation for yourself, and a hurricane is predicted, you might up and leave. But if you're there to help save lives, you batten down the hatches and do what you can. We're here to save land, and that keeps our problems in perspective. It's not really about us.
This is a new year, and our new house will hopefully help pioneer a sustainable world so that humanity can enjoy many more new years to come. If nothing else, we can share what didn't work.
Amanda Bancroft is a writer, artist, and naturalist living in an off-grid tiny house on Kessler Mountain. Email her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
NAN Our Town on 01/17/2019