Frequently asked questions
What kind of off-grid home are you building?
Why aren't you grid-tied?
The closest power line is one mile from our build site and the line extension service charges by the foot. The total cost, over $50K, only gets power to the home; we'd still have to pay per kilowatt hour. The off-grid solar system we have had designed will be just over half the extension cost not including the current 28% federal tax breaks (as of 2020). The power would be free from that point forward, with the goal of eventually paying for the initial investment.
Why build this?
We're green living/building advocates. We have always wanted to build a sustainable, super-efficient, off-grid home and to help demonstrate the technology to others.
Wood heat can't be green. Doesn't burning wood release carbon dioxide and pollution into the air?
Yes. Traditional fireplaces and wood heaters are inefficient. The inefficiency comes in the form of lost heat, smoke, and pollution. In efficient woodstoves and fireplaces, however, the inefficiency is minimal. Increased efficiency reduces fireplace loading and thus the total amount needed to heat a home. Even though high efficiency units still produce CO2, which is a greenhouse gas, the amount of CO2 released is the same amount absorbed during recent growth, as opposed to fossil fuels whose CO2 was absorbed millions of years ago.
Where are you building it?
One hour southwest of Huntsville, AL on the western end of the Cumberland Plateau, only a few minutes from Bankhead National Forest.
Why don't you just let a general contractor do the work?
It is very expensive to build a custom home, especially when you are looking outside of traditional stick frame construction. Even more so when your build is in such a difficult location to reach. Since we aren't doing a traditional mortgage and are funding most of the build in cash, we can save a lot by being our own general contractor and doing the work ourselves. We will hire contactors to do things better left to professionals, e.g., brick work, slab pours, ICFs.
Why cut firewood from the very trees you are trying to protect as stewards of your property?
Our property has been logged at least, but likely more, than two times that we know of. The trees were clear cut and allowed to regenerate naturally (not replanted). When this happens, the trees tend to crowd each other and form a dense brush. The crowding creates many scrawny trees competing for nutrients and water instead of well-spaced healthy trees typical of old-growth forests. By selectively removing weak, diseased, damaged, and crowded trees, we slowly begin to return the forest to old-growth.
Why build your home so far from work?
It was the closest to work we could find a non-developed, large acreage lot with diverse terrain that we could afford. Not only are large plots of land near major metro areas extremely expensive, they are also vulnerable to “urban sprawl,” and many aspects of off-grid living are not currently supported by municipal codes.
How long will it take to build?
Since we both work full-time and are doing most of the work ourselves on weekends, current projections put us at two years. We have also experienced many weather-related delays, given that we’ve had two record-breaking wet winters in a row.
Why aren't you going to have a lawn?
In this area of the country, lawns only do well with full sunlight, weed killer, fertilizer, constant mowing, and leaves raked and removed. We want to maintain the "in-the-woods" feeling so we need to keep as many trees as possible, which means abundant shade and leaf cover. Additionally, since we're building on the edge of a bluff, any chemicals applied to said lawn would wash down into our nearby creeks. With our rare and fragile ecosystem below, we do not want to risk damage. We also despise yard work; cutting grass, raking, and bagging leaves; we’d rather be hiking than mowing. For this reason and maintaining the woodsy feeling, we will maintain a natural, low-maintenance leaf mulch around the house with native succulents and sedge on the green roof. To complement the vintage industrial style, we will build a brick patio with grates around the adjacent trees.
Doesn't acreage require a lot of maintenance?
It certainly can. Pastures require mowing, fields require tilling, barns and sheds require repair. Our property is mostly wooded and the forest takes pretty good care of itself. We will have to manage invasive species and trails, and occasionally implement control burns and sustainable harvesting, but this is orders of magnitude less maintenance than open-field, open-pasture farms.
Aren't you at risk of fire living in the middle of a forest?
Yes. I've met with several of the forest management services provided by the state. They tell me that while we do get bad fires from time to time in this region of the country, it's nothing like the ones in the Midwest and Pacific regions. Our walls are thick concrete with a brick veneer. Half of the wall area will be underground and the concrete roof will also have 4" of soil on it. Beyond the non-flammable building materials and underground protection, we will also have external pop-up fire sprinklers to further mitigate possible damage.
Doesn't off grid living mean pooping in a bucket, carrying drinking water in a bucket (hopefully not the same bucket), and having no central heating and air?
No. While some remote off-grid homesteads may do one or all of these, it isn't the definition. Our design will have every modern convenience and more including multiple redundant systems.
Why doesn't your main glazing face south for passive solar gain?
Two reasons. First, there aren't many places on or property we can get to that face south. The ones that do require extensive cost and labor to create access. The second reason is climate. It is hot enough to require air conditioning more than half of the year in my region. In the winter time, it rarely stays below freezing temperatures in the daytime. In fact, this winter had record warmth and we’ve even had to run the air conditioner a few times in our current living space. With a high efficiency woodstove and an abundance of sustainably harvested timber, heating is not a problem or significant cost like it is in other regions. For us in Alabama, maintaining a comfortable temperature is more often about removing heat. Therefore, we will focus on passive cooling rather than heating. One such method is facing the main glazing north to minimize solar gain.