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Home · Articles · News · Features · The Simple Life?
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The Simple Life?

Couple tries scaled-back living in a one-room cabin off the grid

Patrick Sullivan - October 8th, 2012  

Great Lakes Bioneers Conference

Rolf and Mari von Walthausen will present “Build Your Shelter, Rebuild Your Life” Sunday morning at 10:15 a.m. at this year’s Great Lakes Bioneers Traverse City Conference.

The conference takes place Oct. 19 through 21 at Northwestern Michigan College and will feature a weekend packed full of presentations and workshops about environmental activism, sustainable economics and social justice.

The weekend will also include food and music and it has a festival-like atmosphere, said Sarna Salzman, an organizer.

“It’s a great place to network with people from all walks of life, whether you’re interested in social justice or environmental causes, it’s all connected here,” Salzman said. “It’s a fun atmosphere; it’s not like a boring conference.”

For a schedule and registration information, visit glbconference.org.


A 2,000-square-foot home in a subdivision outside of Traverse City and full-time jobs at nonprofit organizations didn’t add up to a satisfying life for Rolf and Mari von Walthausen.

The couple decided a few years ago they wanted to spend less time at work and more time together, outside.

They wanted simpler lives stripped of the expense (and the environmental consequences) of modern convenience.

And they wanted to live up to their ideals. “You can’t just tell people, ‘You have to drive less, you have to fly less, you have to live with less.’ You have to do it,” Mari said.

“You have to let your conscience be your guide, and I think for us, as time has gone on, it’s become more and more important to live by our conscience,” Rolf said.

And they certainly have scaled back their lives.

They now live on 30 acres north of Cedar in an out-of-the-way part of Leelanau County, partially living off of the land and staying in a 240-square foot cabin they built themselves. The cabin does not have electricity; it does not have plumbing.

STRIPPED-DOWN

It took a lot of time, work, and transformation to get to the stripped-down, pastoral life that, not so long ago, was just a vision.

“We made a list of people that we’ve learned from to get to this point -- it’s a long list,” Mari said.

The couple will share their story at this year’s Great Lakes Bioneers Traverse City Conference. The von Walthausens’ workshop is called “Build Your Shelter, Rebuild Your Life.”

It’s been a long process to go from suburban home to rustic homestead.

It began with a plan to get out of debt and divest from Wall Street. They wanted their money to stay local, and they wanted to be able to buy the land and build their homestead without debt.

They’ve also left their full-time jobs. She was a volunteer coordinator at United Way, he held the same job at the Grand Traverse Regional Land Conservancy. That’s how they met.

Now they each work around 20 hours a week. She teaches yoga; he tunes pianos.

BUILDING CODES

One challenge that anyone runs into if they want to live small and off-the-grid is that of local building codes.

The von Walthausens say it’s been an education to build their homestead while bumping into those codes, finding out just what kinds of things are okay, what’s not, and where the gray areas are.

“This is not a total outlaw thing to do; we’re just living,” Mari said.

The whole point of this project, after all, is about respecting the environment and being good neighbors. You wouldn’t think there would be roadblocks to that, but there are.

For example, in their township, the minimum size of a residential structure is around 800 square feet. The couple live in less than a third of that.

To get around that requirement, they’ve also constructed a guest cottage on their property, the same size and closer to the road, and they spend some time each year in each of the structures, making them technically nomadic.

“These are all legal structures, you’re just not allowed to live in them 365 days a year,” Rolf said.

It was important to them to build so small.

They don’t believe they could pull off what they wanted to do in an 800-square-foot home.

“Green building means small, it’s the only way you can really do it,” Mari said.

“We went into this to do the right thing, not to try to get around anything,” Rolf said. “The first thing we did was find out what’s legal.”

As the couple researched building methods, they grew frustrated with some of the requirements that come with a modern home, such as building codes that require structures to be virtually air-tight. That means electric fans are necessary for ventilation.

“You’re living in this airtight house, which is unhealthy,” Rolf said. “You need an electric fan just to live.”

They realized that if they built a smaller structure, they could construct it to be breathable, and because of the small size, it could easily be heated by woodstove.

Another advantage to going small is that it meant they could afford to use wool insulation, a natural material that would have been too expensive in a larger house.

HAULING WATER

If you think about it, it’s almost miraculous that in a modern house you can turn on a faucet and bring hot or cold water to your fingertips instantly.

To carry water from place to place takes so much work, and if you’re going to use a stove to warm it, that takes a lot of time and work, too.

The von Walthausens say carrying water to their rustic cottage has made them hyper-aware of the water they use. They’ve learned to use much less of it when they wash from a bucket or brush their teeth or wash dishes after a meal.

The cottage in the woods is about a quarter mile hike into the countryside, first along a paved driveway they share with a neighbor, then along a dirt two-track through a clearing, and then along a narrow footpath to the cabin built on high ground overlooking a meadow.

It’s a long way to carry water. It was important to the couple to build the place without electricity or plumbing, though.

“We didn’t want to listen to the green box humming; we didn’t want to put anything damaging to the land back there,” Mari said. “We didn’t even want to put in a well. We wanted to have as light an impact as possible.”

That means, in addition to having to carry water in, their facilities is an outhouse which houses a clean composting toilet.

Even in the middle of a snowy, February night, Mari said she likes to get outside and be under the stars.

“It’s actually not bad at all, I was thinking, ‘Oh, it’s going to be quite cold,’ but it’s a wooden toilet seat, it’s not porcelain,” Mari said.

DO-IT-YOURSELF CABIN

They built the rustic cottage by hand. They took a course in cabin-building at the North House Folk School in Grand Marais, Minn. called “Build Thoreau’s Cabin.”

The corner posts holding up the roof were hewn by hand. Much of the wood was recycled, obtained from Odom Reusable Building Materials.

They built it in the summer and fall of 2010 and they didn’t use any power tools and they brought in all of the material by hand. Their dog, Hasek, even helped, standing on beams to hold them steady as Rolf and Mari sawed them to size.

They wanted the land to remain as natural as possible.

There also used to be an apple orchard on the property. The trees haven’t been tended in decades and the orchard has been taken back by nature, but the first year they were in the cabin they harvested more apples of many varieties than they knew what to do with.

They tend a small garden.

They also use the land to forage for wild berries and any other edibles they can find.

LESSONS LEARNED

The couple have fond memories of that old plugged-in home in a subdivision in Long Lake Township, around nine times the size of their current home, if only because it taught them so many lessons.

“It was where we learned how to use less,” Mari said. “We thought, ‘Now wait a minute, what if we just lived in a smaller space and used less?’” And if they need a refrigerator, or want to listen to a CD or check their email, they’ve got the guest cottage/office, where they have electricity and spend some of their time.

That building was constructed to their specifications by a builder in Buckley earlier this year and bought to their lot on skids.

The construction materials include non-treated, locally harvested lumber, recycled wood, nontoxic wool insulation, and reused windows.

This cottage has an indoor toilet, though this one is also a sawdust-composting toilet.

“Because it’s not in the code book, they consider it plumbing,” Mari said.

Rolf said they researched composting toilets and believe what they have is safer and better for the environment than the alternative.

“If it’s done in a responsible way, it actually protects groundwater and surface water better than a septic system,” Rolf said.

“That was one of our starting points, when we started on this path, you know, What can you do with your waste?” Mari said.

Rolf said his dad, Arno von Walthausen, is the inspiration for much of what the couple has embarked on.

The man was an environmentalist before people were called environmentalists, Rolf said -- he’d pull broken lawn mowers and old bikes out of the trash and repair them and then give them away.

“I kind of grew up more aware of the fact that we weren’t living right and we needed to go a different way,” he said.

GOING NATURAL

Some of the 30 acres used to be home to a potato farm, long ago, and there is still evidence of the environmental ravages the land endured over the years, like buried vehicles and filled-in wetlands.

It’s coming back from that now. Twenty of the 30 acres is in conservancy and despite the harsh agricultural use of the land, it is undergoing a long, gradual process of returning to its natural state.

Creeks that run through the property toward Lake Leelanau that were once wrested away from their beds to irrigate a farm have r

eturned to their natural flow.

The couple have spotted or seen evidence of little brown bats, squirrels and chipmunks, short tailed shrew, voles, moles, bobcat, red fox, porcupine, coyote, black bear, striped skunk, raccoon and white tailed deer. The kinds of birds they’ve seen on the property is too long to list, but on a recent afternoon, it was hard to hear over the sound of songbirds around a feeder in front of their cottage.

“It’s a magnet for any kind of life because we all need water, there’s just an array of wildlife,” Rolf said.

The house forces the couple to spend their time in different ways than they used to.

“We spend way more time outside, which is the purpose of building so small,” Mari said. “Living with the earth is the goal.”

“There is so much to do in order to maintain a homestead,” Rolf said.

They forage wild edibles, tend a garden, cut firewood, haul in water, and they tend to the land.

They typically make themselves one-pot meals, cooked on top of a wood stove. More work goes into those meals, they said, but they taste better and are more nutritious than what they used to eat.

“You can’t do fast food stuff, you can’t throw a frozen pizza in the oven,” Mari said.

They are not living as survivalists and they don’t strive to be entirely self-sufficient. They explore bartering, which has caused them to meet a lot of people they wouldn’t have otherwise.

“We’ve met people we didn’t know who are doing some amazing things,” Mari said. “Could we survive if everything shut down? Well, with our friends and neighbors we could.”

 
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