You’re a good little greenie. You carry re-usable bags to Bonus to pick up your biological yogurt and Earth-friendly dish soap. You rock hemp cloth, don’t use hairspray and ride a bike with a bell that goes ring. You separate your glass from your plastic from your paper. You feel swell, like you’re making a difference, and in a small way you are. But is there something else you can do? Yup. You can just say fuck it all.
Off-Grid housing, or houses that rely on no utility services, is not really a new idea. Here, smack dab in the First World, it has been mostly the territory of survivalists, separatists and dirty hippie types. In the Developing World of course, it’s not really known as ‘off-grid’; it’s mostly known as ‘all we have.’ The past 15 years or so have seen a renaissance in ecological thought; a theory called Global Warming, which was once scoffed at, is now more or less universally accepted as a clear and present danger. As humans we are now beginning to recognise our role as stewards of the environment, to greater or lesser degrees. But the concept of abandoning the comforts that civilization has afforded itself – the ability to flush your waste away, to open the tap and get potable water – is intense. Why would you do such a thing? And how?
I’ll address the How. First, as of now, off-the-grid living is unfeasible in urban environments, barring some notable exceptions such as (surprise) San Francisco, California. City building codes most often require that structures meant for habitation must be hooked up to water, sewer, heat and electrical lines. This means a retreat to the countryside. Once you, legally, and if possible, secure your holding out in the boondocks you have a lot of options as far as construction materials and methods. Eco freaks from around the world have been doing their homework and most of their findings are on the Internet. However, unless you happen to be independently wealthy, prepare for the hard graft.
The actual make-up of your house is up to you and will depend on where you are building: stamped earth works well in dry hot climates but not so well in wet ones; reclaimed brick and stone are sturdy but will sink in wet land and hold moisture; and reclaimed wood is a dodgy idea under all circumstances. Somewhere, someone has used old tires, tin cans and bales of hay to build a home. The material you use is up to you, what is not are the three basics: water, heat and sanitation. The water problem can be handled as primitively as building next to a stream from which you will carry bucket after bucket every day, or drilling a well from which you will do the same. Heat can be created though the use of clever fireplace situations and ducting or putting up solar panels on your home in West Iceland and praying for the sun. As for sanitation, you can create a series of three reed ponds connected to your privy by drainage courses to filter and purify the waste. Or you can shit in a bucket, throw it out your window and hope for the best.
Now, why? The answer to that is why not? Maybe you want to minimize your impact on God’s green Earth, that’s reason enough. Maybe you want to live you life entirely on your own terms, from what you eat, what you think, down to where and how you live. Maybe you enjoy hard labour and hate neighbours. Any of these reasons are fine. But maybe the best reason for giving the metaphorical finger to apartments with WI-FI hook-ups and video intercoms, parking spaces, Tuesday morning garbage collection, hot showers and cold tap water is simply the sheer joy you get from doing something yourself.
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