Off-grid: Meet the pioneers who are living without mains power or water
Thursday 27 March 2008
You won't find the phrase in the Oxford English Dictionary, yet, but "living off-grid", outside or in between, the criss-crossing lines of power, water, gas and phone that delineate the civilised world, is a skill that everyone may soon need. Rising energy prices, a weariness with over-consumption, fear of terrorism and economic collapse, and of course, the big issues of climate change and environmental degradation are leading to a mounting interest in unplugging ourselves from the system.
I'd like to pretend that I adopted the off-grid philosophy through a mixture of ideological purity and trend-spotting brilliance. In fact, I stumbled upon it quite by accident back in the mid-Nineties.
I had split from my then girlfriend, the fashion designer Katharine Hamnett. She was rich and I was poor. For five years we lived together, jetting regularly to her holiday home near Deia, an international summer playground for writers, actors, models and artists overlooking the achingly beautiful coast of north-west Majorca. Environmentalism had always been more than a T-shirt slogan for both of us, but this was long before leisure flights were identified as eco-sinful, so we took our weekend breaks amid orange groves and olive trees with no cloud over our conscience.
My relationship with Katharine over, I missed the soft air tinged with the scent of orange blossom and the sweep of the mountains down to the Mediterranean. I wanted my own home there, but I couldn't afford it. Stubbornly, I refused to let lack of funds become an obstacle. I was 35 and I intended to establish my rustic existence while I was young enough to enjoy it to the full.
My search took me high into the mountains above Deia, and finally, at 700 metres above sea level, I found a shepherd's hut, together with a few acres of olive trees and pines, for just £7,000. I felt a twinge of guilt at moving in so close to my ex, but hey, hadn't Michael Douglas just done the same thing, leaving his Majorcan wife Deandra, and then buying a mansion down the road in Valdemossa where he spent time with Catherine Zeta Jones?
It was like living in heaven, overlooking the sea amid mountains that changed colour all day and all night. There was a steep track down to the hut, nestling among giant Pampas grasses. Water was gathered in a huge, ancient amphora that fed off the roof. Electricity was from the hire car, and heating from a smoky woodburner.
That was my first lesson in off-grid living. It's not just about being eco-friendly – it's also about living cheaper than a grid-connected existence. If it was easier to win off-grid planning permission in this country, it could help solve the housing shortage and let hundreds of thousands onto the property ladder for the first time.
A decade later, and I am adept at living this way – at least for a few weeks or months at a time. I have a fully-fitted outdoor kitchen, with calor gas fridge and cooker, as well as a built-in barbecue. I harvest rainwater, some of which is pumped back up to a tank on the roof, so I even have running water of sorts. I rigged up a hot water shower using a cheap combi boiler and more calor gas. Yes, that gas is a non-renewable resource, but I use it sparingly – because when it runs out, there is no one else to lug the bottle up to the car, down to the gas store and struggle back again with the fresh bottle. There are a couple of solar panels, as well as drawers full of torches, camping lights, candles and candlesticks of every type and size.
I discovered I was part of a wider phenomenon. By 2007 there were approximately 300,000 off-grid homes in the United States alone and another 40,000 in the UK. Locations ranged from rural houses and huts to tree-houses, container dwellings, tents and their ethnic variations, such as benders (traditional British shelters made by covering a framework of bent saplings with canvas) and Mongolian yurts (circular tents of felt or skin). The people living this way might be backpackers or right-wing survivalists, international business travellers with their own islands or groups of friends who decided to start a commune; they move around in buses and four-wheel-drives, yachts and houseboats, caravans and Winnebagos.
Reassuringly, I was part of a global movement, but meanwhile things had changed. There was a new awareness of the damage wreaked by tourism in general, and air travel in particular and it does seem a tad self-defeating to have an eco-home so far away that you damage the environment just getting there. Foreign breaks of a weekend or even a week were going out of style.
By this time I was a husband and father and that left my wife Fiona and me with the question of what to do when we wanted to spend a night away. We needed somewhere to go whenever we could grab the time, even if it was just a short trip. So the whole process of looking for a place started over again, this time in the UK. I knew from my experience in Majorca that we could survive very well in a shack or even a camper van; we did not need a £250,000 cottage with walls of honeyed stone.
I began a new odyssey, travelling around the UK in an old Renault Master, a hospital care bus converted into a luxurious home and office, searching for the perfect off-grid retreat, but learning the nitty-gritty of power and water, heating and eating arrangements.
I visited millionaires and hippies, students and pensioners, hermits and families and communes. They had in common that they were writing their own rules.
My second lesson was that off-grid was about freedom – the ability, nay the right to catch your dream. An early stop on my tour was Land Matters near Totnes in Devon. A dozen former roads protesters had bought their dream – 40 acres of prime countryside, a mix of meadow, pasture and woodland. They horrified wealthy locals by building a bender village literally overnight in the windiest part of their smallholding, and the council tried to evict them. "We're showing others it's possible to live this way," said Robin Mulder, who was named Prince of Wales Organic Gardener of the year in 2002. "We're bringing life and employment back to the countryside."
At the height of the planning battle (which the off-gridders won), I spoke to the most vocal opponent, Tom Jaine, a celebrated restaurateur and food critic. "In five years, if they all have 2.4 children there will be 25 people up there. How will ambulances or the fire brigade get up and down these narrow lanes? What happens when they get E. coli?" But as Jaine proudly admitted, this is Nimbyism. And I don't doubt the sincerity of the Land Matters attempt to live off-grid. They have chosen a way of life and simply want to be allowed to live it.
At the other end of the scale was multi-millionaire Simon Marr-Johnson, a Belgravia property consultant who acquired his off-grid cottage while he was young and penniless. Having made his fortune, he has lavished considerable time and money to install state-of-the-art energy and water management systems. From the dark oak floors to the architect-designed skylights to the art covering the walls, the place cried out to be immortalised in House and Garden. But Simon still had plans. His next project was the "loobrary", a combined composting toilet and library. "It's fun and it saves the earth a little," he replied when I asked him why he did it.
Although I have yet to find my own off-grid haven in the UK, I now have a wide choice of private places to park my camper van, from bluebell woods in Devon to Northumberland grouse moors and Scottish lochs.
My third conclusion was that it's not easy to be off-grid legally in Britain – the biggest obstacles are the neighbours and the planning authorities. If you are lucky enough to buy a field, or some orphaned urban land where you can build a shed or park a camper van, you must still negotiate around the planners, and worse still, other property owners who paid the market price for their homes and are damned if anyone else is going to get into their post code on the cheap. My off-grid web site offers advice on how to win these battles.
My final lesson is that if you can duck and dive around the planners, its remarkable how little power and water you need – you can't run your washing machine and your TV simultaneously, but you can have both, and just about anything else. It's all about husbanding your resources, a habit few of us have today but I forecast we will all be forced to learn.
How to live off-grid by Nick Rosen, is published on 31 March by Bantam, £7.99. To order this book for the special price of £7.59 (inc P&P) call independent books direct on 0870 079 8897 or go to www.independentbooksdirect.co.uk. www.off-grid.net.
Off-grid living: the basics
* Take a room off-grid by installing a solar panel on an exterior wall. This can be used to power a light, a laptop and a phone charger.
* You can store and reuse rain water if you have an attic or a roof where you can place a storage tank, to reduce your consumption from the mains water supply.
* It is possible to have your own borehole water supply, even in a small back yard, which can cost up to 50 times less than public water. But installation can be costly and you'll need to obtain a geological survey first.
* If you're away from the grid, you can buy an inverter for £30, from shops such as Halfords. This plugs into the cigarette lighter in your car and can power your electrical devices.
* Grow your own vegetables and herbs in pots or a garden. You can eat these yourself or exchange them for items such as beds and bicycles, via the Freecycle website ( www.uk.freecycle.org)
* Planning laws allow you to install a small marine wind turbine to generate small amounts of power. A turbine should be fitted to a free-standing pole in your yard or garden. Buy online from marine stores such as www.ampair.com.
* Accommodate guests in a tent. However, your guests might prefer it if you take the tent and let them use the beds!
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