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Thursday, July 26, 2007

It was a good home


A few words about alternative energy.

Some of us think alternative living maybe comes first.

Greentech is a hot topic, but the unglamorous fact is that using less stuff will generally give you the most returns.

Beloved and I are currently residents of that worst of all worlds, empty-nest suburban two-car commuting. Yes, we're working on that, but, with middle-class outgo, deliberately or otherwise, calibrated by our industrial/consumerist society to stultify downwardly-mobile home innovation, it's been slow. Like the rest of our generation, we've aged, and age seeks the line of least resistance. Economic comfort and personal-environment comfort being closely related.

T'wasn't always so for us. Low-energy low-tech living is practiced by most people on the planet, and it's something Norteamericanos can re-learn if they have to. If you are young, or if you have an extended family, it's not all that difficult.

In the late '70s and early '80s the Bear Family lived on twelve acres in the middle of the Coast Range here in Oregon. We didn't have our extended family with us, as is often the case, but we were young. So we built our homestead for off-grid living.

We had a friend level off a platform on our hillside, with lots of eastern exposure, bought some pier blocks and a lot of 4X4s, 2X10s, 1X12s and the like, and assembled several structures. The largest was a 24'X48' double-loft house with almost 1400 square feet of floor space. Most of the construction was done with an 18" level, a chainsaw, a brace-and-bit, a hammer, and a 9/16" socket wrench. The lumber for this house came to, at 1979 prices, less than eight thousand dollars. Needless to say, the county building code would not have permitted this. But it got through an eighty-mile-an-hour windstorm without a scratch, and kept us warm and dry, and two children were born there, so I'd say it was a good home.

We were several miles off-grid. Sanitation was provided by an outhouse. We piped in water from a springhouse with a pitcher pump at the sink, cooked with a propane stove and a wood cook stove, refrigerated with a propane refrigerator and also in the spring house, and lighting was 12 volt, with propane and Aladdin lamps for backup.


Clothes could be washed in a tub. When the kids came along, we added a washer that ran on a gasoline generator.

We raised much of our food, which we still do, but also canned a lot, which we haven't had the "time" to do for many years.

Our transportation provided the structures with juice by means of a storage battery on site, coupled to golf cart batteries in the car, which were charged whenever we went anywhere by a RV dual-battery switch.

We wired the house with heavy-duty solid core wiring suitable for running DC 50 feet or more, and spot lighting was provided by 1/2 amp car taillight lamps. For lampshades we used carved-up gallon milk jugs and the like. They worked fine.

For ambient lighting we waited for daylight or moonlight. That worked fine, too. Our skylights were insulated horizontal windows, facing east under the clerestory provided by a double shed roof.

Besides the inefficient but rather appreciated washing machine, our one real luxury was a freezer kept at a friends house, for which we paid a small rental to cover the electric bill.

The county did discover us, but was disposed to adjust our tax bill for "agricultural sheds" rather than for a home, which was fine with us. When we sold out and moved away, for what seemed to us good reasons at the time, the new owner changed over the twelve volt system from automotive to solar, but otherwise kept things the same for eighteen years. When she decided to replace the main house to meet code, she was able to recycle all the original materials into the new structure, as we had used lag screws throughout, to enable waste-free dismantling.

I don't know how "green" our footprint was -- I worked in forestry, and had to commute great distances in order to run a chainsaw for a living sometimes. But I do know that life was an adventure that we were able to live to the full, at an annual family income of some ten thousand in 1980s dollars.

At Stony Run we keep hoping to re-learn some of the things we knew then. If anything worthwhile comes of that, you'll be the first to know.

risa b

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