Off-Grid Living 101
“Escaping the rat race” is an ideal harboured by many and a phrase uttered repeatedly by myriad individuals. Perhaps you feel like a rat, stuck in a maze, racing around, hunting for sustenance and hungry for change? Life is too precious to waste feeling trapped, which drives us to consider ways of breaking free. For a growing number of citizens, off-grid living is proving a feasible solution.
The Appeal of Off-Grid Living
Living off-grid has seen a rapid resurgence in recent years, with consulting company Accenture forecasting that 12% of US households and 11% of European households will be off-grid by 2035.
The key motivations for an off-grid existence are ideological: either ecological, taking personal responsibility for reducing carbon and water – or alternatively a weariness with consumerism, a desire to spend less and consequently a need to earn less.
With the ever-rising costs of accommodation, not to mention utilities and food, a growing number of us as ditching the convenience and comforts of our former lives and are choosing instead to live off-the-grid. While some homes are totally off-grid, others – probably the majority – are digitally connected. The defining factor is that these households can all generate their own power and are unconnected to mains gas and water. Many more practice subsistence agriculture, growing enough food to support themselves and their families.
In the Facebook Group Off Grid UK, Homesteading and Self-Sufficiency, a recent poll invited members to vote for the main reasons which motivate them to embrace a new way of life. The desire to live sustainably and closer to nature topped the poll, with disillusionment towards mainstream society and its values coming a close second. Other popular reasons included freedom from corporate and government control, growing your own food, mastering survival skills, living independently and being your own boss, combating the escalating costs of traditional living, craving space away from urban life and shrinking your carbon footprint.
With real earnings falling and house prices rising, many young adults face the choice of either staying at home with their parents or shelling out astronomical rents, their chances of clambering on the property ladder slim to none. But it’s not just Generation Rent who feel their hands are tied – the reality of a massive 25 – 30 year mortgage is hardly conducive to a liberated life either.
But is off-grid living really a more affordable option? That entirely depends on what your goals are. Many folks can live without amenities, and “go primitive”. Other people will need more conveniences and even what some would consider luxuries. Some people have children, and children need stability. All of these things need to be considered.
Honingham Earth Sheltered Social Housing, UK.
Different Types of Off-Grid Homes
Here’s a look at some of the varying types of off-grid homes across the globe to suit all budgets. Perhaps you want somewhere you can move straight into, or you have your own design in mind? For those of you ambitious enough to consider building your own off-grid dwelling, there’s also some DIY options. Bear in mind that if you engage the services of construction professionals, you’ll be paying for manpower and the company’s overheads as well as your building materials.
1) Canal Boats
Credit: Steven Caws, Flickr
In recent years there has been a sharp rise in the number of people living off grid, especially in the US, where conditions favour this way of life. In the UK, growth is slower – land prices and the planning permission system inhibit process. Because of this, the fastest growing segment of the British off-grid community are living on canals and rivers.
Cruisers, narrowboats, static houseboats and converted barges populate the UK’s waterways, in both urban and rural areas. In London, where house prices and rents are soaring, canal boats are one of the few remaining options for affordable city-centre living.
While residential mooring fees are around £300 per month, many boat owners choose to be continuous cruisers, moving on every two weeks to eliminate this cost. Day-to-day running expenses such as gas bottles and diesel are minimal, with solar panels providing free electricity. Water is included in the annual boat license of £1,000, and by scavenging wood from towpaths in more rural areas, it is often possible to avoid the cost of coal. While brand-new, fitted out narrowboats can cost in excess of £100,000, buying a second hand boat can save significant sums, with some of the older models costing as little as £20,000. Perhaps the most cost-effective choice is to purchase a bare shell – otherwise known as a sailaway – and configuring the internal layout yourself.
Check out Save the Earth’s four-part feature, chartering Emma Davies and Saxon Bullock’s quest to escape the rental trap and live a greener, more liberated existence on the UK’s canals. From mastering the skill of steering a narrowboat to downsizing their possessions, their journey to live off-grid has been far from straightforward, especially when it came to mastering the necessary skills to fit out their sailaway. Nevertheless, the couple wouldn’t choose any other way of life, and have documented their project on their YouTube Channel, Adventures in Zero Gravity.
2) Tiny Houses
The tiny house movement is snowballing in popularity and the current obsession both offline and across social media looks like it’s here to stay. Ever-increasing numbers of people are opting to buy or build tiny houses at a fraction of the price of traditional homes. In the US, prices can range from less than $19,000 to around $50,000 depending on its size and the kind of finishes you want.
In 2009, the average US home was 2,343 square feet, well more than double the average in 1950. A tiny home is defined as a residence that comprises under 1,000 square feet and there are a great deal of advantages to living in one – less cleaning, for starters! It is possible to be extremely energy efficient in a tiny house, harnessing solar or wind resources to provide power, using a rainwater catch and filtration system, and installing a composting toilet.
The book Small Eco Houses is a wonderful survey of beautiful small homes that are packed with sustainable features, from use of local and recycled materials to landscaping and natural lighting. Many are inspiring examples of what’s possible if we think outside the old mantra that bigger is always better.
Tiny house living can also be great for your psychological well being. Downsizing forces you to declutter and pare back your life. From what to wear to where to sit and what appliances to cook dinner with, everything is simplified.
Check out this article in Business Insider UK, in which tiny house occupiers offer tips and tricks for living small.
You may also like to join the Tiny House Community UK Facebook Group run by Rachel Butler, in which you’ll find some great information on tiny homes as well as meeting like-minded people who are knowledgeable and share a keen interest in the subject. Rachel is an authority on tiny homes and is currently working on a tiny home community in Bristol, UK.
When you think of campervans, you might associate them with festivals or holidays, but many people live in them full time, off-grid. The term campervan usually refers to a 2 to 3 berth vehicle, with basic facilities for cooking, washing or sleeping.
Companies such as Off Grid Campers, based in Cambridgeshire, UK, specialise in camper van conversions, customising each fit out to meet individual needs. It is also possible to convert your own van to make it suitable for off-grid living. In this article, New Zealand-based John McElhiney describes how he modified his Mitsubishi Delica Starwagon van, transforming it into a “post-apocalyptic camper,” complete with a 40-litre refrigeration unit, compact toilet, water tank, double insulated curtains, solar panels and a 200-watt power system.
One of the great things about living in a camper van is the flexibility they offer to travel far and wide, taking your home with you. “I was sat in darkness on the roof of the van looking out to the flickering city lights in the distance when I had quite an overwhelming feeling – I am off-grid, I’m doing it!” says Mike Hudson from Hull, UK, who quit his job in 2013 to convert his old van into a home. “I felt like I had just learned to ride a bike without stabilisers all over again – a huge sense of accomplishment and a crazy feeling of freedom.” Mike now travels around Europe in his van and his written two books about his experiences.
It’s a common misconception that a caravan and a campervan are the same – in fact, there are some notable differences. A caravan is generally an unpowered vehicle, towed by a powered vehicle. Otherwise known as a mobile home or trailer, a caravan is designed to be occupied as a house would be, and depending on its size contains sleeping quarters, ablution facilities and cooking facilities.
Whonwagon is an Austrian company that has taken trailer homes as their inspiration to design and create luxury living on wheels. Each caravan’s exterior of is made from larch wood and the interior’s insulation is composed of clay, wood fiber, and sheep wool. To further the goal to be eco-friendly, the roof has four solar panels that stores energy in a battery system underneath the floor. Each mobile home retails between €40,000 and €11o,000.
If you’re on a tight budget there are always plenty of second hand caravans available for sale, starting from as little as £2,000 in the UK.
For those of you with a yearning to live off the land and embrace “the good life”, a smallholding might be a great option. By definition, a smallholding – also known as a homestead – comprises a piece of land, its adjacent living quarters for the smallholder and stabling for farm animals. So how much land constitutes a smallholding? There are no hard and fast guidelines, but a smallholding is usually smaller than a farm, but larger than an allotment. It’s surprising how much can be done on less than an acre, let alone 20 acres.
Living on a smallholding is extremely hard work and you will need considerable skills to achieve self-sufficiency. It is possible to supplement your income by selling surplus produce at a farmer’s market or a permanent shop on the smallholding, but it is vital to find a consistent market which pays a premium. Setting out as a complete novice is daunting, and the learning curve can be very steep, which is why it is important to start small and not try to do everything at once. A more realistic way for most people is for at least one family member to keep a day job and the reality for many smallholders is for more than one person to work outside the smallholding at least part time. In Country Smallholding magazine, Alicia Miller describes not only the rewards and fulfillment of smallholding life and but also its more challenging aspects.
“But don’t you have to be well-off to live the lifestyle?” It’s a question that crops up again and again, with many differing answers. The main cost of buying a smallholding is of course the land, which we’ll explore in more detail later. Set-up costs then start to mount (buying livestock, tools, seeds, putting up fencing, creating housing for poultry and animals, etc) which can deter some folks from pursuing their dream.
For others, persistence has paid off. “When we bought our holding (a very run down holding I should add!!) nearly everything needed sorting out before we could buy animals, grow veg etc,” says Lisa Tanner from Worcestershire, UK. “We’ve had to ‘make do and mend’ mainly. Nowadays I run a small business making goats milk soap but we are still far from rich! We have found that the rewards of smallholding have been to make us well off in terms of health, happiness and satisfaction at what we can achieve with our hands and grow.”
It can be possible to live on a smallholding with minimal investment, especially if you rent the land, like Alastair Gabi and Lockwood from Hampshire, UK. In this article, they describe their experience of getting to grips with self-sufficiency.
6) Earth Houses
Lättenstrasse Underground Houses, Switzerland
You might think that underground homes are the domains of Hobbits and Teletubbies, but people can live in them too! The off-grid dwellings on the Lättenstrasse estate, Switzerland, are a prime example – its earth houses are so-called because they’re designed to reside within their environment, blending into the natural contours of the land rather than merely setting down on top of it. They are also covered with clumps of earth, which helps to regulate temperature. What’s more, you have the ultimate in privacy – being underground. This means you’re less likely to have passers-by bothering you because the homes are difficult to see.
Although at present they are relatively rare, there are many of advantages to having an earth-sheltered home. Not only do they have great structural strength, rendering them mostly safe from hurricanes and damaging hail, but they enhance the ability to use passive solar power, even in colder climates.
The downside is that the initial cost of construction can be up to 20% higher than a house built from traditional materials. Also, a lot of careful planning goes into building one of these homes to make sure it’s properly waterproofed. This article outlines the pros and the cons of living in an earth house.
7) Eco Capsules
An eco capsule is a smart house powered purely by solar and wind energy. Designed to be self-sufficient, they are suitable for both rural and urban areas. In fact, in some high-rent areas such as New York City and Silicon Valley are seeing an influx of eco capsules on the roofs of high-rise buildings. Resembling something out of a sci-fi film, the 3306 lb egg-shaped pods can be transported on your travels in a sea-container or towed on a trailer, meaning that if urban life doesn’t appeal, you can travel wherever to your wanderlust takes you.
For off-grid living, the 14 ft. by 7 ft. by 7 ft. pods feature membrane water filters that remove bacteria from rainwater and store it in a tank beneath the floor. Plus they have fully functioning bathrooms and thermally insulated walls to help you stay warm while reducing energy usage.
The brainchild of Bratislava-based architects, the capsules are a new innovation and they have only been available to purchase across US and Europe since 2016. At £65,000 the aren’t cheap, although if you’ve decided to live completely off-grid, it’s far less expensive than the average home.
While living off-grid in a cabin is somewhat similar to having a tiny house, it evokes a more rustic environment. Many people already live off-grid in cabins for a summer experience, but the hardcore cabin-lovers will do it year-round. Hailing back to the pioneer days of the 1800s and early 1900s, cabins can be constructed from hyper-local materials, especially if they are located in woodland.
Woodland cabins can blend almost seamlessly into the landscape. Large windows reduce lighting needs and showcase the surrounding forest – there’s something transcendent about a magnificent view of pine trees from inside a wood stove-heated wilderness hideout. Add total self-sustainability to that equation, and you see why so many are seeking to reconnect to nature through choosing to live in cabins.
30 years ago, photographer Robert Bignell purchased 40 acres of land in New South Wales, Australia, with a view to creating his own private piece of paradise. Inspired by the surrounding birds, animals and an amazing diversity of shrubs and trees, Robert built two cabins beside a billabong, encircled by gum trees. One of them is featured in the article 8 Cabins Will Make You Will Make You Want to Live Off the Grid.
If you intend to build your own cabin, it’s important to factor in all expenditure, from the foundations and groundwork to windows and doors to insulation and roofing. This helpful article breaks down the costs.
9) Cob Houses
Credit: John Lawrence
Cob houses have an whimsical, magical quality to them, because when a cob house is being built you can shape and sculpt them as your imagination desires. They are generally fire proof and must be manually waterproofed with linseed oil. If built properly, cob houses can stand up to earthquakes, which makes them very sturdy and safe to live in. The construction method is an ancient one, and they can be built anywhere in the world. Cob houses are made with clay, soil, straw, water and other organic materials, and because they are built with the earth, they make use of thermal mass, which allows you to stay cool in summer and warm in winter. Unlike conventional homes made from cement and painted with lead-based paint, cob houses omit no harmful toxins.
Cob houses are very cheap and easy to construct – in fact, you can learn how to build your own little cob house in about ten days, give or take. Here’s an example of a cob house in Oxfordshire, UK, that was built for just £150!
If you’re interested in building your own cob house, Edwards & Eve Cob Building in Lyme Regis, UK, offer award-winning workshops which teach you the required skills to self-build.
10) Shipping Containers
Two great things about a shipping container house are that it is made from recycled materials and it provides instant space while you construct your home. As soon as your container arrives and you have positioned it on its intended site, it provides an immediate safe and lockable space where you can store your tools. It’s even possible to camp out in the container while you shape it into a home.
Container homes are best suited to moderate climates. If you live in a less temperate area be mindful that your container will need significant insulation to make it liveable.
Shipping containers can be designed to look extremely stylish and modern, both inside and out. If you have the imagination and he know-how, it’s possible to create a home that not only looks amazing, but is also very well designed in terms of functionality.
Building your own shipping container home costs upwards of £25,000 – a fraction of the cost of a standard house. The fact it is made from recyclable materials means it’s kinder to the planet too. This article explores how to build a shipping container house on a small budget.
Here, existing owners share their insights into what they wish they’d known before building their own shipping container homes.
11) Bamboo Houses
Bamboo is an exceptionally strong material, with a strength comparable to steel. If you want build a bamboo house that will stand the test of time, it is essential to treat the bamboo with borax. This will protect the bamboo from the insects and bacteria that help organic matter decompose. Bamboo is a type of grass and can grow extremely fast, making it a very sustainable building material.
A bamboo house provides open and free flowing space with little to no insulation against cold and moderate climates. For this reason, a bamboo house is best suited to hot, tropical and humid locations. Bear in mind that the USA and Europe do not have approved building codes for permanent bamboo homes … yet!
This article gives an overview of the reality of building with bamboo, from the costs to the construction process.
12) Earthship Houses
An earthship is a low impact building that makes use of recycled materials in its construction including car tyres, aluminium cans and glass bottles. It has passive solar heating and cooling and uses only renewable technologies. All the water used is harvested from rainwater and recycled with waste water management on site. Earthships make use of solar power and wind turbines for generating electricity and feature built in greenhouses which can grow food all year round.
Another great thing about earthships is that they can potentially be built anywhere on the planet and for any climate. They are so tough and resilient that they can be designed to withstand earthquakes, hurricanes and typhoons.
Take a look at Earthship Brighton, a community centre funded by the Low Carbon Trust and the first of its kind in England.
If you are wanting to build your own earthship it doesn’t come cheap – design is the first step in a custom earthship and this phase can cost £7,000 or more. Construction drawings are next and depending on the size and degree of customisation, these drawings can cost from £10,000 to £40,000. Construction itself starts at around £200 per square foot and increases from there. On the plus side you won’t have to worry about bills for water, electricity or sewage ever again as the earthship takes care of these on site.
What About the Cost of the Land?
Off-grid seclusion doesn’t have to come with a hefty price tag, but if you intend to own the land on which you will build or park your home, living off-grid is not so easy to achieve without capital, especially in the UK, where there is a vast disparity between the price of agricultural land (£4,000-10,000 an acre) and so-called “development” land i.e. land with, or the potential for acquiring, planning permission to build a dwelling (£50,000-150,000 for less than a quarter of an acre).
Grounds For Hope – How to Live Legally and Cheaply on UK Land by Chrissie Sugden is an invaluable read to get a solid overview of the different ways in which off-gridders manage to overcome these constraints. This article on how to get planning permission for a rural off-grid self-build home is also well worth a read.
You might have heard of people in the UK who have succeeded in creating their dream home by buying land, moving onto it illegally, then setting up home. They may have spent years battling with the planning officials at their local council and finally have won some kind of retrospective planning permission. These rules, which apply across the entire UK, state that if you manage to live in a caravan for 10 years unnoticed by the powers that be, or in a “substantially completed building” for four years, the dwelling becomes lawful and you can apply for a “certificate of lawfulness.” You have to be able to prove that this has been your main residence for the requisite time and that you have lived there continuously (and there is a lot of debate about what constitutes a caravan or a building). Whether or not you believe this to be ethical, people up and down the UK are pursuing this strategy, lying low, hidden away in bits of woodland. The majority of them single people or couples – it would be a lot harder to conceal a community for years.
This fascinating article in the New Statesman takes a look off-gridders Jamie and Rose, two young people who have made homes for themselves in a self-built tiny house and a disused windmill respectively. While this has given James the freedom to pursue life as a musician and Rose to complete her Masters Degree, the downside is the illegality of their dwellings. “I have an outdoor compost toilet, no running water, a ladder rather than stairs, a wood-burning stove – I think the council would have a heart attack if they found out,” Rose admits.
For people outside the UK and those of you with a thirst to travel and / or relocate, the good news is that there are some significantly more affordable corners of the globe with conditions more favourable for off-grid living. This article takes into account soil type, population density, risk of natural disasters, costs of immigration and the relative “freedom” the population has in living autonomously, concluding that Paraguay, Uruguay, Bolivia, New Zealand and New Guinea are the top five countries for off-grid living.
If you’re searching for cheap land for sale, the open market is not always the best place to look, as this post explains. It requires more legwork and a lot of luck, but if you can secure a private sale and the vendor is keen to sell the land quickly, they might be willing to take a little less for their plot, especially when this will save them agent’s fees.
How Can I Earn a Living Off-Grid?
Every day feels like groundhog day – a tiring commute, a job that doesn’t nourish your soul, an ever-demanding boss and the majority of your income allocated to paying bills. Does this sound familiar? The allure of living closer to nature in an environment where you can nurture your well-being, cultivate your true interests and work flexibly is calling out to you – but how can you make this your reality? What kind of work is compatible with an off-grid lifestyle?
Some might consider that to truly live the off-grid experience, it is necessary to banish all mod-cons, including Wi-Fi. In reality, this isn’t feasible or desirable for the majority of us, especially because the Internet plays such a central role these days in helping so many of us earn a living.
For nomadic narrowboaters Emma and Saxon, a reliable Wi-Fi connection is crucial to their income. “Initially, we thought we’d have to budget for costly satellite Internet, but 4G is so good now,” says Emma, a freelance web designer and writer. “With a wireless hotspot device, you can get a good signal in most areas,” adds Saxon, a freelance proofreader.
It is also possible to use the fruits of your off-grid endeavours to generate income. For example, selling your own vegetables or holding educational workshops on subjects such as permaculture, aquaponics, organic growing and survival skills.
An off-grid environment is like a magnet for those with an artistic flair. Furniture is always in demand, so if you’re handy at woodworking, this is a potential way to make a viable living. Likewise, many turn their hand to arts and crafts, making home decorations, clothing and accessories from materials grown on the land as well as organic soaps and cleaning products. Not only can you sell these at craft shows and art exhibits, the Internet, yet again, is your friend – many off-gridders conduct a significant portion (if not all) of their business online by selling goods and services on their websites. The World Wide Web is an extremely powerful marketing method and opens up many avenues and income opportunities.
Some people live off-grid at close to zero cost, surviving entirely from what they can hunt or grow on the land. This is not a particularly popular choice because it is a harder life than most aspire to. In spite of this, some do prefer a minimalist lifestyle with few possessions, and this back-to-basics approach best suits them.
Other people combine part time jobs which give them a monetary income – such as working in local shops or cafes – with labour undertaken in a straight exchange for produce, therefore keeping their grocery bills to a minimum.
There are also a considerable portion of off-gridders who are retired, many of whom have sold their traditional homes and are able to live comfortably on the proceeds, enjoying a simpler way of life.
Test Driving the Off-Grid Way of Life
If you’re not in a position to make the move right now, or you want a taste of off-grid life before you take the plunge, there are many options you can consider.
An off-grid holiday is a great place to start – from treehouses to yurts and eco lodges to farmstays, sites like as Green Traveller feature a broad range of off-grid retreats for a variety of budgets. For a more hands-on break, places such as the Coastal Survival School offer courses in bushcraft, fishing and foraging.
If you can’t get away but you’re still keen to learn off-grid skills, it’s possible to practice many of them even if you’re living in a confined urban area without a garden. This article covers some of the skills you can accomplish, such as how to preserve food and purify water.
The charity WWOOF offer some great volunteer opportunities to get hands-on experience on organic farms, gardens and smallholdings – all offering food, accommodation and learning in exchange for practical help on the land.
If you love the idea of eating self sufficiently, then why not get your name down for an allotment? Not only can allotments provide a consistent source of food all year round, but growing your own fruit and vegetables will give you a great knowledge of what goes into the soil and on your crops.
Save the Earth also has its own Facebook Group, Ecovillages and Sustainable Communities – why not become a member?
Off-grid living is certainly not a quick-fix solution to your rat race woes. Like most things worth having, it takes time, effort and financial investment.
The lifestyle isn’t for the faint-hearted – it requires you to be a Jack or Jill of all trades, have grit, determination and sense of humour. If you’re planning on being self-sufficient or building your own home, it goes without saying that you will also need to be in physically good shape. Additionally, it demands plenty of patience – making the transition to live off-grid doesn’t happen overnight and in many cases this is a step by step process that can span years, as you gradually adopt more and more aspects of the off-grid way of life.
No matter whether you merely entertain the idea of off-grid living as a bit of escapism or you are focused on transforming this ideal into your reality, the appeal of off-grid living is undeniably strong.
http://naturely.org/hobbit-home (Feature image)