Off Grid Couple Answers Questions about their Mortgage Free Life


image via vela creations

Last week, we introduced you to Abe and Josie, a young couple in the Chihuahuan Desert who built their own home with virtually no experience, designed a popular and inexpensive wind turbine, and raised their newborn without diapers. Last week's article was a very basic introduction to the wonderfully successful off grid life of Abe and Josie and we urge you to explore the specifics from their site and blog, Vela Creations.

Last week's article was boing boinged, and many interesting comments and questions have been triggered, mostly how's and why's about their unique lifestyle and choices.

Please read further for an in depth and fascinating interview with Abe Connally of Vela Creations as he answers questions on behalf of himself and his wife Josie.TH:Without any previous building experience, what gave you the confidence to know that you could build a house from scratch with your own hands? What sort of research and preparation was involved?
Abe: Well, when we started out, we actually had very little confidence in our abilities. So, our plan was to build a small shed for the power system, then a guest house, and then move on to the main house. This approach would allow us to test our abilities with each step, gradually moving up in complexity and size. We also figured we could live in the guest house while building the main house. At the time, we were living in an old bus that we converted into a living area. It leaked when it rained, and it was as hot a hell (literally 120 degrees F) in the summer. So, you could say that we had a good incentive to work, and learn as we go.

As for research, we were initially impressed by the work of Michael Reynolds, of the Earthships fame. His books gave us an idea of what to expect in each area of building and designing a home. We also did intensive research in building with cob, adobe, wood, rock, and everything else we could get our hands on through the internet and book stores.

Our biggest sort of preparation for the house was building the power shed. That gave us first hand experience in actually building something from scratch, and it helped us develop our innovative interlocking adobe techniques. Because we didn't have a ton of experience building houses, we were able to examine and innovate at every step of construction.

TH:OK, so inventing the Chispito wind turbine is no small feat. How did you do it? What was your inspiration? How many of these turbines, have been built using your online instructions, in your estimation?
Abe: Like a lot of inventions, Chispito came from necessity. We had a small, commercial wind generator at the time, and the blades got shattered in a hail storm. Well, when we asked the manufacturer about new blades, we found out they were very expensive, almost half the price of a new turbine. We didn't have that kind of money at the time, so we decided to start looking at alternatives. The internet was a great resource for this, as there are literally dozens of home-made wind generator designs out there. 
We finally decided to try an old tape-drive motor for the prototype, which was actually just a permanent magnet motor, the essential element of a DIY turbine. The blade design came from trial and error with several different prototypes. The blades came from an accidental discovery while working with PVC for the house. We started to realize that a twisted, tapered airfoil could be cut and sanded from the inexpensive and readily available resource. The rest of the development consisted of fine-tuning the design, and finding a readily available supply of the generator (permanent magnet motor).

In my estimate, there are at least 400 Chispitos out there. We know first hand of around 200, and I figure at least another 200 have been built, based on responses from the website. In reality, there are probably many more. Each Chispito is capable of 100 watts of electricity, so at any given time, there is about 40,000 watts (40 Kw) of Chispito power being generated. It's a nice thought!

TH: Is the Chispito turbine allowed in city limits? Or is it relegated to areas without codes?

Abe: I don't know whether it is allowed in city limits or not. I would imagine it would depend on the city and the height of your tower. I do know of folks that have Chispitos in small towns and suburbs.

TH: I assume the fact that you have no waste management service or washing machine had something to do with your decision to potty train your newborn without disposable, or even cloth, diapers. Sounds messy. Yes? No?
Abe: Well, before Leo was born we started thinking about the diaper issue. After a bit of research, we realized that babies can go through 3,000 diapers a year! As you know, we don't like to burden the landfill, and paying money for something you are just going to throw away seemed a bit crazy. But what options were there?

At first, we figured we would go with washable cloth diapers, but soon realized that the amount of water they require is really too much for a rain catchment system, and they are not that sanitary, either. We had to ask ourselves, what did people use before the invention of the disposable diapers? What did the mother in the outreaches of Africa use? And then it dawned on us... they don't use anything at all. And that started us onto the road of the solution, Diaper Free Baby, or Elimination Communication, as the folks in the know call it.

As for being messy, its actually less messy than diapers. It's as messy as going to the bathroom yourself. And Leo took to it quite easily. He uses a small compost toilet, basically a miniature version of what we use. We started to notice when he needed the bathroom, and we would just sit him on the toilet and make a sound for number 1 (psssss) or 2 (unnngaaa). After a bit of time, he associated those sounds with toilet, and it was very easy after that. We put him in biodegradable diapers at night, to help keep the bed dry. No one likes to sit in their own excrement, and that includes babies. But the best things about it are no diaper rash, no landfill contribution, and a much stronger bond with our baby.

TH: What are you working on now? What project are you most excited about?

Abe: We are currently constructing our new house, which is partially buried into a hillside and includes a passive solar design, radiant floor heating, brick floors, ferro-cement sculptures, compressed earth block walls, and latex concrete roofs. It has a bit of everything we used on our experiment at Estrella Vista, but is developed a bit more and planned out a whole lot more. So, we've taken what we learned at Estrella Vista and expanded it to a new environment and situation.

We have so many projects, it is hard to have a favorite, but I think I would have to say working with compressed earth blocks is starting to become the new craze in our life (besides Leo, of course!). We have searched for a long time for the best all around building material, not just for the walls of a house, but for everything, floor, walls, and roof. Most people look at housing materials from a wall standpoint, but the fact is, walls make up about 15-20% of the cost and labor of a house. Not much at all. The biggest issue, by far, is the roof. It is usually expensive, labor intensive, and doesn't last for very long (less than 100 years).

Metal is fairly easy, but expensive, and won't last more than a century. Ferro Cement is long lasting, moderately expensive, but is difficult, especially to make it completely waterproof. Latex Concrete is currently the best option, as it is cheap ($3-4 per sf of living area), fast, and super easy to do. But, it uses non-renewable resources, and it would be nice to have something a bit better and locally available. So, we are experimenting with Nubian vaults, similar to the work of the late Hassan Fathy, but using compressed earth blocks. So far it is cheap, simple, and relatively fast. We'll definitely know more as time goes on. Folks can keep up to date on the quest for the perfect building material at our website and blog, VelaCreations.com.

TH: What do you think is holding back off grid living from a critical mass acceptance?
Abe: Well, I am sure there are several reasons for this, but the cost of land, the lack of self-confidence, and the need for peer approval seem to be the most apparent obstacles. I know that off-grid living isn't for everyone. But I think there are a lot of people who haven't ever even considered it. They think they couldn't possibly live like that, so primitive, so reclusive. The fact is that this life is not primitive, and if anything, it is technologically advanced compared to a city apartment life. I use technologies on a daily basis that most people have never heard of. 
They're not making any more land these days, so the price of awesome chunk of land with a view is getting pretty steep. We have been lucky in that we have never paid more than $1,000 for a piece of land, and we have never had less than 10 acres. But, we like remote areas with no house, and great views, which are hard to find, but usually very inexpensive.

I also think that most people assume that living off-grid is a fringe lifestyle, like being a hippie. That may be true for some people, but not for everyone. And I think some folks have a problem with being different, standing out, and doing want they want, not because everyone else accepts it, but because they want to do it for their own reasons. It is a strange concept to me, as I have always been drawn to the fringe, towards being different, but I think it is a very big obstacle to a lot of people.

So, people imagine our lives as something detached, like out of a movie or a book, not real and not doable by their standards. But what they don't realize is that it is actually VERY doable, and very real, but only if they make it so. They have to take the step forward, just like we did, and make something happen for themselves. And one day, they might just be able to sit back in the shade of the porch they built, sipping a drink from the fruit of their gardens, enjoying a breathtaking view, and wondering, just why would anyone want to live a primitive life in the city?

Tags: Architecture | Diapers | Do It Yourself | Green Building | Wind Power