There are many reasons why people choose their home. One might look for the standard “location, location, location,” while others continue to search for the special place that just “feels” like home. But as economic strain and ecological shift become key factors in how we choose our lives, more of us are beginning to take the alternate route. This path is not new, but one that simply guides us back to our roots; to a place where alternative energy, green home design and sweat equity thrive.
That is what two families, who are local to our region, decided to do. One family spent over two years constructing their straw bale home; where the other focused energies on giving back: dedicating 160 acres to Mother Earth. Both families are living off the grid, in country settings that are “close enough” to town. Their stories are different, but share the same voice overall: change.
Teresa Howell, single mother of two, lives with her youngest daughter in Winnemucca, Nevada. She and her family built the first straw bale home in Humboldt County. With a goal of going completely off grid, this English teacher at Great Basin College is doing just that.
After selling her “city” home in Winnemucca, Teresa set out to make a life on the five acre parcel that is four miles from town and six miles from her work. With diligent research, she decided that a straw bale house would fit her budget and the lifestyle she was seeking.
Together, the Howell family spent evenings, weekends and entire school breaks building their home. They worked on numerous projects including installing insulation and the interior plaster walls. With a combination of family initiative, friends and contractors, the home was complete in two and a half years.
To insure the stability of her investment, Teresa had the home engineered and followed the Nevada permit and inspection process. She also paid a little more for upgrades in her home including a metal roof, knotty pine, good windows and slate flooring. In the end, she found that the idea of a straw bale home being “incredibly cheap to build” was a myth. The total cost was close to one hundred thirty thousand dollars.
“Before I started the process, I talked to several banks. I was told that although they wouldn’t give me a construction loan, they’d finance me once I was finished,” Teresa commented. She believes that the housing market collapse created a problem, as she was still not able to get a loan in the end.
As Teresa explained the financial discrepancies, the positive outcome of her undertaking was still present. She described working with her daughters and how you could tell who did what, as they used their own hands to work and move the plaster on the wall. It is apparent that the effort these women put into their home ties them to it, almost on a spiritual level. “I bet I bled into every single piece of this house,” Teresa said.
Now, there is a 25 ft by 30 ft straw bale home—with a 20 ft by 26 ft interior, plus loft—sitting on that five acre parcel that is just four miles from town and six miles from work. Teresa has large gardens, where she plants a variety of fruits and vegetables. Her electricity is completely off grid, coming from what she calls her “juice box.” She does not own a vehicle, but rather hoofs or bikes into work on her commuter bicycle. Her next plan: chickens, a goat or two and to not buy groceries for one year; relying solely on her gardens.
Howell “Post and Beam” Straw Bale Home Stats:
Exterior: 25 ft by 30 ft
Interior: 20 ft by 26 ft, plus loft (20 foot ceiling)
Foundation: Concrete, 3” blue foam insulation (natural heating)
Square Footage: approx 900 sq ft
Roof: gable, 7/12 pitch – solar panels mounted on top
Energy: Solar, back-up generator (propane), propane hot water, dryer and cook stove
Heat/Cooling: JOTUL Wood Stove for heating the entire home (firebox is 16” L X 12” W), strategic placement of windows, sun Roofs
Water: Well (110 volt AC pump)
More than twenty years ago, Janaia Donaldson and Robin Mallgren, of Yuba Gals Independent Media, chose to move away from mainstream and create a self-sustainable life for their family. During a time when “going green” was not a current fad or trend, these women placed value in connecting with nature.
It was during the early eighties when Janaia and Robin met at Xerox, where they both worked. Janaia was working as a graphic designer and Robin as a software programmer. After a few years, and reading a powerful book on the binding role that finance plays in one’s life, they felt a “higher calling,” they recalled. Janaia created a goal to become debt free. She envisioned complete financial independence. Robin tied her calling to nature; she grew up in Olympia National Forest and truly felt complete in a natural setting. Given the fact that they lived in the San Francisco Bay Area at the time, both of these goals seemed more idealistic than realistic. But after a few years of planning, living frugally and finding the perfect spot, the couple bought a 40 acre parcel of land in the mountains near Nevada City, CA, known as Lone Bobcat Woods.
Starting with 40 acres and a web-work of trees and nature, they began the work that was needed to build a home, a life. While doing so, they were able to keep their jobs with Xerox and work remotely. This provided the financial means to purchase land, a home and all of the materials for their projects.
Ultimately, they wanted two things: 1) to use renewable and self-sustaining resources and 2) to keep the land that surrounded their home undeveloped. This would also tie into financial freedom, as living off-grid is much less expensive in the long run.
Instead of building a home, they chose a manufactured home; with a few added eco-friendly designs of their choosing. This gave them more time to focus on implementing the first part of the plan. Robin and Janaia put their own sweat and tears into this project, as they dug trenches, laid telephone and electric wiring, hauled rocks, helped with the water and natural gas (propane) lines, etc. Over time, they added two porches, a deck and a three-car garage, and did so with many salvaged materials.
Within one year of purchasing their first parcel of land, Janaia and Robin purchased another parcel that was connected to theirs; and within five more years, the couple purchased two more parcels, making a combined total of 160 acres of land.
Far beyond the fact that these women purchased land and built a life on it, based on self-sufficiency, is the achievement they made with nature. After purchasing and paying off the land, within less than ten years, they were able to create conservation easements, working with a land trust to do so. While Janaia and Robin hold the title, or possess the main ownership of the land, the land trust they are working with holds the conservation easements that prevent development and old growth clearing. This means that no matter what happens to Janaia, Robin or the land trust, the easement is permanently attached to the deed of the land. It is now and forever, protected land.
In the early 2000’s, Janaia and Robin stopped working for Xerox. Since then, they have been living debt-free and find financial support with their current online television series, “peakmoment.tv.” The series focuses on use of peak oil, industrialization collapse, environmental concerns, living simply, financial freedom, etc.
After making the shift to an independent lifestyle years ago, and watching what was happening in the world, they wanted to provide others with the knowledge they acquired. Equipped with a mobile studio in their RV, they travel the US, conducting interviews with authors, researchers, scientists and so on. Their current plans: to continue traveling for most of the year and rent what they call their “big house” in Lone Bobcat Woods, beginning this summer. It will not only insure that their home is taken care of during their travels, it will also serve as a learning tool for others. Helping yet another family connect to their roots.
Janaia and Robin’s Lone Bobcat Woods “Big House” Stats:
Exterior: 24 ft by 44 ft
Interior: 2 bed, great room and 1 bath
Square Footage: approx 1156 sq ft
Energy: 24 Solar Panels, AC Inverter, DC (fridge and water pump) propane range and water heater, back-up generator
*An average American household uses 35kwh/day, where Janaia and Robin use about 3kwh/day.
Heat/Cooling: Wood stove (they use to cook on as well), homemade insulation coverings for each window, sky light in every room
Water: 235 ft Well (DC pump)
Energy Savers: Turn off the battery inverter at night. Hang clothes to dry outside in the spring and inside during the winter. Small, non-essential electric appliances are not needed (microwave, waffle iron, etc).
As we stare into the face of a changing world, we prepare for the worst; while making the best of what we have. Change, however, is inevitable and it is beginning…we are changing the way we spend money, but more importantly, the way we live our lives. Most people were forced into this situation, having to give up their lifestyle due to financial setbacks. But more and more of us are making this decision on our own; choosing to take our lives into our own hands, while breaking through social norms, “tradition” and the cookie-cutter phenomenon.