Michael J. Daley and Jessie Haas, writers for G.E.T., live in a 450 square foot off-grid home that they built starting in 1984 in Westminster West, VT. “We were inspired by Thoreau and the Nearings,” Jessie says. “We wanted to write and knew we’d need a wide margin of time for that, so living cheaply was very important. We were also worried about nuclear power, global warming, and the environemtal ugliness of mainstream consumerist society. We wanted to do our part to stop it.”
The house started out at 12 by 16 feet and was made from local roughsawn hemlock and salvaged windows. Additions over the years included insulation (our first winter water froze in the jugs on the floor!), writing spaces, an 8-by-14 sun room made with salvaged windows, and a 5-by-12 split-level bedroom placed over a small wine cellar.
Michael, for many years an alternative energy educator, made the first solar panel using surplus cells, part of the fallout from the Reagan era devestation of the solar industry. Currently, the off-grid system consists of a single 100-watt panel and one lithium-iron battery, which replaced a lead-acid deep-cycle. Before getting the lithium-iron battery, the couple made fairly frequent use of a 1000 watt gasoline generator, the smallest Honda makes. Now it runs for one hour a month for maintainance.
“We use roughly 100 times less electricity than the average Vermont household,” Michael says. “Efficiency technology and a conscious dedication to creating a small enviromental footprint makes that possible. For example, we were early adopters of laptop computers for our writing work because they consume so much less power than a desktop model. Same story for compact flourescents, then LED lighting. Revolutions, all of them. Technology really has its place in saving the world because the old stuff was built with a waste-blind design consciousness.”
Refrigeration and cooking are propane-powered; heat is wood. Plumbing is all outdoors; indoor running water would have triggered a requirement to build a mound septic system which would have cost four times more than the house. Human waste is handled by a composting privy, saving countless thousands of gallons of pure water from being contaminated.
The house is 600 yards into the woods, with no driveway, so all building materials needed to be carried in, and all the construction was done with hand tools. “We were young!” Jessie says. These days an electric golf cart helps with the heavy lifting for about eight months of the year. “The key to succeeding at this lifestyle is keeping the house very small and being comfortable with doing things half-assed. It has let us live here for 38 years burning only two cords of wood a year, having no mortgage, working part-time early on, and getting 48 books published between us.”
Another very important factor was living next door to Jessie’s parents’ farm, which allowed tool sharing and occasional access to the comforts of civilization, including internet.
“In the first few years it was also our only access to telephone,” Michael says. “Jessie had to get calls from her publisher at the farm. It was always amusing to explain this to city people.” Eventually, the couple strung their own phone line through the half mile woods separating them from the farm and tapped in to the telephone link there. “Squirrels really loved to chew the cable and lightning found it a few times, so it was a constant maintainance chore,” Michael adds. “We really love the cell phone revolution!”
Transportation is an issue right now, as the couple is enduring supply-chain problems preventing the repair of their beloved Ford C-Max plug-in hybrid, which was running at high speed when the power steering failed in January.
“Right now we are very engaged with regenarative approaches to solving global warming,” Jessie says.”It’s amazing to know that our small cottage garden, seen by practically no-one but ourselves, is a vital part of feeding pollinators and supporting biodiversity. It’s so important that we all do everything we can, where we are, to enhance the living systems that we arose from and depend on.”