Emergency off-grid living
I’ve had in the back of my mind, shutting off the electricity to our farm and going off grid. Since we moved here in 2003 to homestead full time, without a salary, shutting off the power, was on the list as a last resort if we ever ran out of money. As in, “Don’t worry, Sweetheart, if things get really rough we can always disconnect our power.” The concern in this is not how we will cook or how we will stay warm — that is covered by our wood stove and our wood cook-stove, plus 140 acres of forest. No chance of running out of heat unless we run out of strength. The concern is how will we connect with the world — internet and computers.
Of course, mankind has lived without computers, for 6 thousand years, so we would survive. But our quality of life would definitely go down without internet and the ability to connect with the world.
Then there is this blog. I need to write and hit the publish button as much as my readers depend on my posts. So I had this crazy idea that if we could invest in a small solar power system that would just power a few lights, the computer, and our satellite internet connection, I’d be happy. (Never-mind about the laundry…..clearly I wasn’t thinking this through completely.)
The need for a quiet retreat
As a homeschool mom, with the kids always around, every day, all day and well into the night, I sometimes dream about having a room of my own. Come on, I know I’m not the only one. Even a bathroom of my own would be nice. Who would have thought that after 30 years I still can’t have privacy in the bathroom? But I digress.
So a few years ago, Mr. Joybilee offered to build me a workshop/guest cabin where I could host workshops, do my art in quiet bliss, and we could also use it when guests came. We could add a small solar generator to power just lights and the computer and we’d have an oasis of off-grid JOY with internet connection. I didn’t argue.
Up for a challenge
He also informed me that he was tired of building rectangles and wanted to try something different. At the time he was working full time on the farm and we had more dreams than money to buy building materials. We decided that it would be his project to build as we could afford it, and there was no hurry or pressure and no debt. Definitely, it’s been a summer project rather than a year round endeavour. Make that a July to October project. Once the snow comes that pretty much shuts down the eagerness to work outside on non-essentials.
The caveats for our cottage design
Our caveat in designing the cottage was that it had to be movable, temporary, and less than 500 square feet. Over 500 square feet and you need to have a building permit, in our rural area. On the other hand, Mr. Joybilee didn’t want to build a rectangular building. Where’s the challenge in that? So the size of the roof span in a roundish building, had a bearing on his decision process. The final design, on paper, was an octagonal building with 6 foot wide sides — 12 feet in height at the centre and 8 feet high on the perimeter, less than 200 square feet. The size seemed manageable, in fact ideal, to fit the preferred location and to meet the needs that we had set out for a writer’s retreat, workshop space, and guest cottage. A sheet of plywood is 8 x 4, and this measurement was an important one in the design.
The site is buffered by trees, at the edge of our septic drainage field. The building hugs a hollow in the hillside. It is just a few yards from our house, so it is easy to get power to. From the inside, with the 8 sides, you get a panoramic view of the farm, including pasture, barn, and house. It is idyllic, sheltered, and quiet.
In April of 2011, we had a septic crisis — definitely 4 wwoofers, 3 extra adults, plus our family of 3 adults and a weekend of sheep shearing and attendant laundry and showers, was more than our still-frozen septic field could handle. In redoing the septic field, we scraped the ground and added drainage rock where the cottage was going to be built. In July, that year, we levelled the ground and put in footings to support the floor of the cottage. We opted not to lay down a vapour barrier because we didn’t want to trap moisture against the floor of the house. We could eventually regret this but this was our decision. Be warned, that modern wisdom mandates a vapour barrier and insulation between the floor joists and the foundation. But we wanted to avoid plastic as much as possible.
Our son came to help build the foundation and the workshop with floor, walls and ceiling was built in a month. We used it to host a workshop and a spinning circle at the Linen Festival in 2011. It was an amazing space — cosy, sheltered, and fun, almost yurt-like. That first winter we tarped the roof joists to keep out the moisture.
In 2012 Mr. Joybilee put the roof on and we put a table across the door-opening, to keep out the sheep and goats. Wild birds used it for shelter in the winter and we used it again at the Linen Festivals of 2012, and 2013, as a workshop space.
In October of 2012 Mr. Joybilee started working again full time off the farm. This was very helpful for his demeanour. He is an accountant and a university professor, with an MBA, a CGA-CPA, and formerly a CFP. Talking to sheep and goats all day, wasn’t as stimulating and challenging as he liked. But, with fewer on farm hours, the momentum for continuing the building plans waned. On the other hand, now we had a regular pay cheque and the money to continue working our plan.
This summer (2014) we ordered custom windows for the workshop. A friend had a spare door, door knob, and lock which he brought over and Mr. Joybilee took a week’s vacation to put it together. The workshop was transformed into a cottage in just a week.
Now that the cottage is sealed up from the elements, and the workshop is being transformed into a writer’s retreat, the dream is growing more focused. Here’s what it looks like from the inside.
I love the yurt-like feel of the cottage. It is cosy, and cheerful with lots of natural light. This is the spot where I want to put my writing table and chair. This view will be the perfect inspiration for writing. And with no telephone, I won’t be interrupted in the middle of the “zone.”
Eventually, the writer’s retreat will also be used as a guest cottage for the rare occasion that we have guests coming from the City. Robin built it so that a loft can be put in above the ceiling, to add storage and sleeping capacity. It will be a warm, nest for my grand babies when they visit.
The electrical supply
The wiring is normal house wiring so that the electrical circuit can be plugged into the house circuit with an extension cord, or into a solar power source/inverter system for AC current. The solar power station is still on the list of priorities for this season. I was inspired by a post by Homestead Honey on selecting a solar electric system. There’s still a lot more research to be done before we commit to an alternate energy option. With Fortis mandating smart meters for our area in August of 2015, the motivation to follow through on a full house alternate power system is stronger than ever.
While there is still lots to be done — put in the Regency Close Clearance woodstove, wire for lights and a plug in for power, insulation, flooring , siding, and inside panelling, for instance, now that the windows and door are in, the cottage feels ‘real.’ And the possibility of shutting off our connection to the electrical grid is a bit more tangible. In fact I’m already imagining the furniture for my writer’s retreat, and the books I’m going to write there. Awkwardly, Sarah is also imagining writing a few books there. I may need to share my writer’s table and view, temporarily.