On the long drive home from a Florida spring vacation, I began to visualize what it would be like to have a place to escape that was closer to home–a place where I could escape not just for the weather or the beach or the mountains–but for a change of lifestyle that would challenge me spiritually, mentally, physically and emotionally. I currently am blessed to live in a place that closely fits this criteria. What I had in mind was a cabin cottage where I could foster my interest in self-sufficiency and practice off-the-grid living perhaps for a weekend at a time. I can read all about living without electricity, but until I practice it, it is not a skill.
Also, I do not want to live “tiny” but smaller. Why invest in an alternative location if you cannot live in it comfortably? In actuality, a self-sufficient lifestyle requires space to do all that doing-it-yourself requires. In our present home of 3 floors, I have my own office and workshop as does my husband. I also have a large kitchen with not one but 3 sinks and a full basement. We have 3 bedrooms and 3 full baths. Even with only the two of us, we use every bit of our home all the time because I craft, can, cook, write, garden, forage, teach and entertain. My husband runs our business and does the maintenance for our property and much of the repairs and building himself, which requires equipment and storage.
Although the cottage would be much smaller than an average home of today, I think a great room with kitchen in one corner, seating in another, and sleeping space separated by a divider in another would be sufficient in a pinch. The other corner would contain a bathroom, the only separate room on the first floor. Also in this corner would be the stairs to access a half-loft and a basement. A cathedral ceiling greatly enhances the open concept over a seating area and the loft provides extra sleeping and storage space.
Perhaps location should have been mentioned first because, as they say, it is all about location. I envision the cottage cabin on a hillock of land close to a clean running brook or lake. An alternative water source is essential to location. The cabin would be built into the hill with a basement in order to provide a storm shelter and a root cellar. Because it would be a walk-out, it would be easily accessible for storage. I cannot imagine living in the Midwest without a storm cellar or living off-grid without a root cellar.
I also envision a wide, screened-in front porch that would extend the living area of the cottage in fine weather. Because of the walk-out basement, the porch would also be raised providing wonderful views. The porch would also be an ideal place to store perishables in a container out of the way of wildlife in winter and to stack fire wood for the stove.
The wood-burning cook stove and rocket stove heater would be sufficient for heating and in-door cooking in the winter. In summer I would use a sun oven and Dutch oven over an open fire pit and/or brick rocket stove. The more alternatives the better. There are several designs for brick or concrete block rocket stoves on-line. These stoves are inexpensive, use very little fuel, give off very little smoke, and cook very efficiently. Fire pits are a simple DIY. Everything would depend on wood for fuel as firewood is a sustainable and renewable resource in our area. Propane and gas eventually run out.
Keeping food fresh is always a concern. In winter, using a cabinet on the porch could work in cold weather. I would like to see if going back to the ice box is an option for summer. An ice box was basically a wooden cabinet with insulated metal lining. The top contained space for a block of ice in a tray and the melted water was channeled into a drip tray underneath the box. The center had shelves to hold perishables. Where do you find ice when the grid goes down? Our grandparents cut it from the local pond in winter and stored it. Another reason for the basement is to store blocks of ice during the summer under layers of saw dust. Another method for refrigeration is the Zeer Pot which operates using evaporation to cool. It requires two large terra cotta pots, one which fits inside the other. The inside pot is where perishables are placed. Plug drainage holes and place sand around the inside pot, between the inside pot and outside pot. Wet the sand. Place items needing to be kept cool inside the inner pot and place a cover over the pot. As the water in the sand evaporates through the clay pots, it cools. Think of how cool we feel after coming out of a swimming pool, even on a hot day. We cool from the evaporation of the water on our skin. You can see why a sturdy screened-in porch is handy for off-grid living. I would have the Zeer Pot and winter ice box on the porch where they are handy and protected.
Of course there would be a sufficient kitchen and herb garden in the front and large patches for corn and wheat in the back. Also in the rear would be a small barn-like shed. Half would be used for storage of garden tools and an ATV vehicle. I know. If worse comes to worse, an ATV will run out of gas. I would also have my bicycle in the shed. But in such a scenario, the idea is not to HAVE to go anywhere. This is called sheltering in place.
The other half of the shed would be the chicken house with a chicken run attached. I would also consider a couple of pygmy goats for milk and to keep the pasture mowed, but that is optional to my fantasy. At least 3 laying hens, however, are a must. A rooster is necessary to keep the flock going if you plan on harvesting your hens for meat.
In addition to the garden, I envision a small orchard of miniature fruit trees and berry thickets. My self-sufficient life would include a hot water canner to can preserves, fruit, pickles and tomatoes on the cook stove. Without a freezer, I would rely on vegetables that could be stored over winter in the root cellar like potatoes, onions, garlic, dried beans, and squash.
The bath room is always an issue in off-grid living. I have researched composting toilets and believe a simple set-up with bucket and seat lid that can be acquired at a camping store or farm store would suffice for my weekend get-away. What is needed for this toilet set-up is sufficient sphagnum moss or saw dust to add to the bucket after each use. I would keep a small galvanized bucket with a scoop next to the loo. When the bucket is filled, seal it and set it outside along the side of a double compost bin for a few weeks. Even TP will begin to break down quickly.
The question is–won’t it smell? According to those who use this system, it does not–not when fresh or composted. If there is a smell, use more sphagnum. Have several buckets on hand to switch out as they fill. Add the contents to your compost bin after a few weeks and add a layer of hay or grass or leaves on top. Of course you would also be adding egg shells and kitchen scraps to the compost as well as the chicken house litter. Torn paper can also be composted or burned to keep litter to a minimum. After about a year, begin using the other side of the compost bin and incorporate the composted debris from the first bin around your trees and in the garden as new soil.
WHAT ABOUT HYGIENE?
You know that simple bath room I mentioned? Besides the composting toilet, it would include a water reservoir above a simple galvanized tub sink. All gray water from bathing and washing would be carried out to a rock and sand trough run that would be easily accessible from the front porch. Although if biodegradable soap is used, some believe gray water can be used directly on the garden but others disagree and say disposing of it in a simple filter run is best. On the hillock, the run would eventually carry this gray water through the filter, then through soil and into the pond. By the time it reaches the pond, it is clean.
In summer, the pond itself is handy for bathing. But a galvanized tub in the bathroom can be used for winter bathing. I am wondering about a simple sand filter run for the tub as well but do not have the expertise to know if this is a doable plumbing task or not–to run a pipe from a drain in the tub outside into a sand run. Again, this is not sewage but gray water. The tub could also be used to do laundry in winter. Attaching a wringer to the side of the tub would make wringing out wet laundry much easier. My cottage cabin would have an iconic outside clothesline.
The same set up would be used for disposing of water in the kitchen. Although having a drain would be ideal, I think most dish washing water would be carried out to the outside run. Yes–I see the tasks mounting up. No one ever said off-grid life was easy.
Of course, laundry could more easily be done outside in warm months. In the past, our grandparents had to heat water over a coal or wood stove or open fire, which required a lot of heavy lifting. We no longer wash clothes in very hot water; mostly in cold. But an easy way to heat water to a warmer temperature is to fill a galvanized tub with water and cover it with a black plastic sheet. The sun will quickly warm the water. The same galvanized tub of warmed water could be used for bathing. Ideas to simplify off-the-grid laundry are available on-line. It requires more galvanized tubs, a scrub board, hard work, and a clothes line. Done and done.
WATER, WATER, WATER
About that alternative water source–it still has to be filtered and purified. There is not enough time or space to go into water purification here except to say you can create your own filter system or just buy a Birkey Walter Filter. With a good commercial filter, that pond water can be purified for drinking and cooking and hygiene. For laundry and bathing, I would build a simple sand, rock, activated charcoal bucket filter that could be filled right from the pond, and with a faucet to fill tubs on the dock.
We live on a small pond at present and I often carry buckets of water from the pond to the garden when my rain barrel is empty. [Gathering rain water is another method of obtaining water but it must also be purified for drinking.] At present we do not have a functioning outside pump on our property and do not want to invest in a new system. It is hard work bending over to pull those buckets out of the pond, even from our small dock. I am thinking of having my hubby build a simple arm on a swivel that I can use to fill my buckets. It is like the Colonial well sweeps they used to draw water from the wells. The lever and fulcrum method would cut the weight in half for me.
These are my thoughts concerning a self-sufficient fantasy cottage–on a hill [or in a hill], by a pond, on a piece of property large enough for a good-sized garden, small orchard, and small pasture. Developing the skill of living without electricity would be energizing emotionally and physically–but the mental and spiritual part comes in part II. Tune in next time.