Thursday, December 30, 2010

Building a Small House - Part I

The plan had been for us to work and save money for another year before moving to our new home.,  We were very excited and started planning.  Since we always intended to live off-grid, we started researching solar energy and passive solar building.  Our house designs changed almost daily, with all our new ideas being incorporated.

By spring, we'd reached a decision.  We just couldn't stand to wait another year; we were making our move now.  Suddenly, our house designs changed again.  They became more and more simple as the reality of building and of cost started to sink in.  Finally, we had worked out the plan that we actually used to build our house, one that excluded all the skylights, sloped walls, and other fancy ideas we'd comje up with.

Our house is a cube, 20'x20' and 2 stories tall.  It has a full basement (dirt-floored), a one-room main floor, and a half-story with two tiny bedrooms above.  We made double 2"x4" walls, 10" thick, to allow the R40 insulation.  The south wall has five full-length double-paned windows (made using patio-dorr glass), so it's basically a wall of glass, and there is one small window in each of the other walls.  It's intended to be easy to heat, since the floor area is small and the heat can rise.

If we had a chance to do it over again, I would only change a few things.  It's just a bit too small, and we should have a separate, private washing area inside.  Given the amount of money we had available, we couldn't have done a lot more than we did, but it probably would have been possible for us to increase the square footage on the main floor just slightly, say, to 20'x24'.

However, we are living proof that a couple can live comfortably and happily in a really small space.  Over the years, we've filled that house with the paraphenalia of all sorts of crafts, hobbies, and activities.  We've hosted dinner parties and wine-tastings, had overnight guests, danced, raised orphan animals--an amazing number of things have gone on in this little house.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010

A Winter's Day

Winter, unless the cold is extreme, gives me lots of quiet time.  For me, a typical winter's day in 2020 goes as follows:

 6:00  Open the dampers on the stove; go back to bed for a cuddle while the water heats.

 6:30  Feed the cats, wash, make coffee.

 7:00  Sit drinking coffee and knitting by candlelight beside the woodstove.

 8:30 Milk the goats, feed the chickens, goats, sheep, horses.  By now, the sun is hitting the barn.

 9:00  Strain the milk and make cheese.

 9:30  Breakfast

10:00  Housework

11:00 Leisure.  Time for talking, visiting, going for a walk, drawing, working on a project, etc., then lunch.

 1:00  Afternoon outside chores, like hauling water, chopping wood.

 2:00  Leisure again.

 4:30  Milk and feed again.

 5:00  Dinner

 6:00  More leisure.  Talking, games, reading, visiting, stargazing, moonlight walks, etc., till bedtime.

Of course, we don't really time everything by the clock!

Sunday, December 26, 2010

Buying Land - Part II


The smart thing to do is to rent a place in the area where you plan to buy land, and live there while you look.  We were 'way too impatient for that. In October, 1990, we drove up to the Cariboo and started looking for our future home.  A fairly helpful real estate agent steered us away from the worst gardening areas--the high, cold spots--and sent us out with directions to several places.  One was on a north slope.  One was near a noisy top-soil business.  Another was a 45-minute drive from the nearest settlement, but we could still hear traffic.

On our third day looking, we drove out a logging road to see a few properties.  There were no houses along most of it and it seemed cold and desolate.  Then we turned onto a smaller road and the whole atmosphere changed to warm and friendly.  There were small ranches with horses and cattle grazing, a little creek running through the valley, and old log barns beside the road.  When we stopped to look at a lot, a man came out to talk to us from a nearby house.  He invited us in, gave us coffee, and told us about the neighbourhood.  We didn't like that property, but the next one on our list was in the same subdivision.

We nearly drove right by our future home.  It was a mess.  The current owner had done a "log-and-flog", where you buy a property, take all the timber off it, and put it back on the market.  This guy had done a particularly poor job of the logging and left it looking terrible.  However, I decided that it was worth a closer look.  It was flat, with good exposure and lush grrowth.

The neighbours were obviously friendly.  We ended up having dinner with the couple owning the lot next to "ours", then camping on their land for the night.  From them, we found out about the water wells on nearby lots, and took a sample from theirs.  We also took soil samples from "our" property,  In the morning, we drove into town and put in an offer.  We bargained hard, using as bargaining chips the state of the place and the fact that the owner had already made his money back from the timber he'd taken off it.  (Public records at the Forestry office)  We were lucky: the real estate market was at its lowest point in a long time.  We paid $9,000 for 10 acres.

Marion's Rules for Buying Land
  1. Make sure it has good water.
  2. Know how to read a survey plan and do so.
  3. Talk to the neighbours.
  4. Check the exposure; will it get enough sun?
  5. Make sure it has good water.
  6. Don't let trivialities distract you from a proper evaluation.
  7. Don't buy if you have to go across someone else's land to get to yours.
  8. Make sure it has good water.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Floyd, the Mouse, and the Raven

Charles, standing by the window this morning, is commenting on the scene outside.  Too bad he didn't have his camera running.

    "What is Floyd doing sitting in the middle of the field?"

    "Oh, I think he's got something."

    "Oh, no, it's a mouse.  Bad, hunting dog!"

    "He's not even eating it!  What a bad killer dog!"

    "Ha, ha, the raven's going for it!"

    "Man, those ravens don't miss much."


    "Look out, Floyd!  That bird's got your mouse!"

    "Whoa!  You almost got him, Floyd."


    "Man, those ravens don't miss much."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Winter Solstice


An interesting thing happens when you live in a very small house off-grid, without indoor plumbing.  It becomes impossible to ignore the outside world.  There's not enough room inside to do much, so you go outside to do things.  When the sun goes down, the room gets dark.  Every time you walk to the outhouse, you feel the weather, see the stars.  The full moon shining in the window wakes you up at night.  And it begins to feel as if you have MORE room, as if the whole world is your house.

When I go to visit someone in a big house now, I feel claustrophobic.  Instead of spending their time running around a great big space the way I do, they seem to live in a small world inside their four walls (though I'm sure they don't see it that way).

I love being in tune with the climate and the seasons: in my clothes, in what I eat, in my sleeping habits.  People think that I live without luxuries but, to me, having the whole world as my house is the greatest luxury there is.

Today is the winter solstice.  It's our New Year's Eve.  We'll do a small ceremony this evening.  We'll extinguish all the lights, and go outside with a glass of wine and a candle each.  We'll propose a toast to the coming year, then light our candles and bring the light back into the house.


Sunday, December 19, 2010

Buying Land - Part I

In 1989, Charles and I were living on Vancouver Island, working full-time and longing to escape the rat-race.  We moved into a studio apartment over a garage in someone's back yard and lived as cheaply as possible, banking one salary.  In a year, we had $20,000.  We started looking for a place to live.

A provincial real estate catalogue showed us which regions had properties we could afford.  We spent many hours in the library doing research.  The history and travel sections had helpful books of photos, but the gov't publications were most useful.  We pored over climate statistics and economic forecasts.  The Cariboo, where we eventually bought land, had a harsh climate, but not so harsh that we couldn't live there and grow our own food.  The main industry was logging and sawmilling, which doesn't produce particularly toxic pollution.  The economic forecast was very poor, so we wouldn't be forced to leave in a few years because of high taxes, or find ourselves living beside a shopping center or golf course.  Land was very cheap.  We'd found our destination.

Twenty years later, I still think we made the right choice. Sure, there are things we're not crazy about.  It would be nice to have fruit trees and be able to grow tomatoes outside the greenhouse, for example.  Still, the benefits outweigh the drawbacks and we've been happy here.

        1.  Think both short- and long-term.
        2.  Research the climate.
        3.  Visit at the worst time of year before deciding.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Living Off the Grid

The only sound I hear when I wake this morning is the "creak....whoosh....thump" of a thick blanket of snow sliding off the steep tin roof over my head.  There must have been a heavy snowfall last night, by the sound of it.  The room is still pitch black, giving me no hint of the time.  I lie quietly and listen.  A rooster crows in the barn--it's after 4:00, then, and my eyes feel rested: it must be late enough to get up.

As I slip out of bed, I feel the temperature of the air, warm on my bare skin.  Since the wood stove gets damped down at night, the outside temperature must be near zero.  Still in the dark, I put my hands on my clothes and I dress, then make my way down the ladder into the living room below.  As always, I've left the matches and candles where I can find them by touch, and soon the room is lit by the warm glow of firelight.  I open up the stove and put water on for coffee.  Another day off-grid has begun.

I've been living like this, in the Cariboo Mountains of BC, for nearly twenty years.  My house (most people would call it a cabin) is 25 minutes on a gravel road from the nearest village, but that's not the reason I live without power.  It's a lifestyle choice.  I've chosen to have time rather than money.  Time to garden.  Time to wander in the forest every day.  Time to enjoy inter-species friendships and human community.  Together with my husband, Charles, I've set up my farm as simply as possible, so that I can grow my own veggies, milk my goats and make cheese, make my own wine, work part-time for some cash, and still have the time I crave for solitude, socializing, and philosophical musings.

Over the years, I've been advised many times to write a book.  Well, a book is too big a project for me, but maybe people will be interested in reading a few notes on how we live a high-quality "simple" life.  Since I don't have a computer, I won't be able to post every day, but I'll post as often as I can.

In the meantime, there's six inches of snow waiting to be shovelled.  Who needs a gym?