More Space, Less Government and True Independence -- Wouldn't You Go Off the Grid for That?


Editor's Note: What kinds of people choose to live outside the bounds of the conventional modern world? As Nick Rosen discovered when he traveled across America, they're all kinds of people. "The people living this way -- off the gridders -- might be middle-class environmentalists or right-wing survivalists, victims of foreclosure or long-term pot growers, international business travelers with their own islands or groups of friends who decide to start a community," Rosen writes in his new book, Off the Grid: Inside the Movement for More Space, Less Government and True Independence in Modern America. And they may choose to live in all kinds of ways: "From urban houseboats to suburban lots and gardens, from rural houses and communes to cabins, tree houses, converted shipping containers, and even tents and their ethnic variations, such as tepees and yurts," he explains.

As Rosen explores his own desires for an off-the-grid home, he meets a cast of characters who have become off-the-gridders -- whether they intended to or not. Rosen's book investigates why people end up living this way, why it is important, and how local and national governments can make it easier. In this excerpt, Rosen visits the 18-sided home of Jim Juczak, a high-school teacher in upstate New York, who is known as the Sultan of Scrounge because he's an avid user of building scraps and other discarded materials. Juczak and his family live in a reclaimed gravel quarry they call Woodhenge.

Problem sites, such as mined-out quarries, are a good target if you are trying to get off the grid on the cheap. "Crack houses are another good target," Jim said, if you are looking for an urban setting. They are treated as toxic until they're cleaned up, and have usually had their wiring and plumbing ripped out, reducing their value sharply.

"Half of this was moonscape when we bought," Jim said as we walked over to the guesthouse, a former motel that he had snapped up for $2,500. He had then transported it on a semi to its current location and had it re-erected for another $2,500, including the cost of the police escort. Pliny Fisk would be impressed. "Design open buildings that can be reused in part or in whole so that the structure can be easily maintained" is one of his core dictums. ...

Back at the Juczak main house, built from all sorts of scavenged parts, he proudly showed me the 17 double glazed windows that line the huge circular building on both the ground and second floors. They were all mis-filled orders, bought at an 80 percent discount.

The house's central column is seven feet wide and made of 23 discarded steel-reinforced concrete manholes. The 23-foot-tall hollow tower supports the roof rafters and second-story floor joists. The tower is also a radiator, albeit a rather unsuccessful one. Jim had built a two-ton wood-burning stove at the bottom of the cylinder and then filled the central column with 16 feet of sand, making a 35-ton heat store. But it isn't as efficient as he had hoped -- in order for it to store enough warmth to pump out real heat, Jim has to burn a fire "continuously for five days and nights."

The manholes are also secondhand, costing $550 including delivery and stacking. The rafters are from a defunct bowling alley. "I saw them demolishing it and walked up there with my hard hat and a clipboard, bought 10 100-foot trusses. Ten thousand dollars, for $50,000-$60,000 of wood." Thanks to these bargains, Jim has ended up with a larger home than he had intended, and this goes against one of his key beliefs, that new American homes are unnecessarily large.

Jim's outside walls are made of concrete embedded with old wine bottles, ends facing inside. These let in multicolored light without the thermal loss of windows or the expense of high quality double glazing. Instead of mortar, the house is held together with "papercrete," a concrete made from his own recipe using recycled paper sludge from a local paper mill, which is only too pleased to allow Jim or anyone else to take it away for free -- 40 cubic yards a day is thrown away. ...

"I am not ecological," said Jim, "just logical." ...

He appears to have things in perspective. "Yes, we are both natural cheapskates," he openly confessed, speaking of himself and his wife, Krista. He does not buy bargains for the sake of it. He hoards building materials, food and food jars, the kind with a screw top much favored for canning fruit and meat in the summer months. Jim simply finds it fun to live on as little as possible. It's like an intellectual challenge. He also has a genuine anger at the system -- the tax system, the corporate system, and big government and big business in general. And he is passionate about peak oil and America's new role as a debtor nation.

Jim originally went off-grid ready as a result of a 12-week power outage in his Watertown home, caused by the ice storm of 1994; he had no water, heat, or power. Afterward, he and Krista bought a secondhand wood burner and added a hand pump to the well. They stocked up on dry foods in storage. ...

Back then he was still a registered Republican, and ran for town justice. These days, just about the only group he belongs to is the local Freemasons. Jim voted for Ron Paul in 2008, because he felt that nobody else was being honest about what would be needed in the long term. He foresees a slow "spiraling down" toward a calamitous collapse. "The longer we forestall it, the deeper the recession and the bigger the energy crisis will be." There may need to be a natural disaster or an epidemic to bring it on, but he is fairly sure a crisis will emerge. "The American work ethic seems to have shifted to the American take-it-easy ethic, and not worry about the future."

Jim has a year's worth of food stashed for the desperate times ahead, and expects to give much of it away to whoever turns up. ...

In "hyper-suburban" areas around New York City, Jim expects the residents to be completely incapable of fending for themselves. Even fleeing the city will be too much for them, said the Brooklyn-born 50-year-old. He had headed for exurbia in search of less stringent building regulations and to escape from neighbors who had freaked out about the effects his activities in Watertown might have on their property values.

His biggest immediate fear is not global warming, peak oil, or economic collapse, but that the state might interfere with his way of life and tell him he is not allowed to make electricity, convert his car to fuel he can grow on his property, manage his land the way he wants, or build the buildings he wants. ...

Jim, despite his many flaws and inconsistencies, is the harbinger of a new consciousness. His is the way forward, whatever the future holds. Either the economy takes a turn for the better, in which case we all need to be reminded that it is ecologically absurd to go on consuming at our present rate, or it fails to recover (or even slips further back), in which case many more of us will be forced to scavenge for a living.

Reprinted by arrangement with Penguin Books, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., from Off The Grid by Nick Rosen. Copyright (c) 2010 by Nick Rosen

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