The Cabin Dwellers

14 thoughts on “The Cabin Dwellers”

  1. I am not sure if you see, or have time for, comments on old posts like this, but in case you do …

    When you state in one of your replies, above:

    “Can this standard be applied to a skyscraper in Manhattan? No. Could it work perfectly well in many quarter acre suburban subdivisions? I think it could without the Black Death ravaging the nation.”

    I think you miss a practical issue which is that it’s not very sustainable for every single household to tool up with the supplies and equipment necessary to maintain these systems.

    Let me explain …

    My family and I live in a nearly identical situation, here in Marin County, to what is described in this blog post. Our house is much larger and we have indoor toilets via a septic system, but other than that, your post perfectly describes our life (our own, spring-fed water system, our own gravel roads that we maintain, frequent power outages, etc.).

    One of the big differences I have noticed in our current lifestyle, as compared to, say, our typical suburban childhoods or our young adulthoods spent in the inner city, etc., is how much tooling and provisioning and supplying is necessary on a per-household basis to live this way.

    A good example is the chainsaw: I am not exaggerating when I say that our life, on our private road, that we maintain, requires three chainsaws. Yes, on any given day I might be able to borrow one, or someone might get to the downed tree first, but I owe it to my neighbors and my family to be able to deal with (chainsaw and tree stuff) independently and therefore I do, in fact, own three chainsaws.

    I also own a backup water pump (in addition to the three that are built into our water system). And a winch. And a plumbing snake. And a huge inverter for the truck. And the truck itself. And hundreds of feet of spare PVC pipe, fittings and valves. And 50 other capital items that are absolutely necessary to have on-hand in order to safely and responsibly raise a family in this environment.

    That is not sustainable.

    It’s fine it only people like me are doing it because we are such a tiny, tiny portion of the population. However, if every single household on a quarter acre, etc., had to buy three chainsaws (or whatever) that would represent an enormous amount of production, consumption, shipping, materials, carbon emissions … it would be american consumption and consumerism on steroids.

    In conclusion, I think that city/county maintained roads and water and gas and sewage have a tremendous amount of embedded efficiency that you may be missing … not just efficiency in pooling resources to create that infrastructure, but efficiency in centralizing the tooling and supplies to maintain them.

    1. Yes and no. I’ve written about places like Hong Kong and Dubai regarding their infrastructure. Hong Kong has two sets of water pipes – one for expensive fresh drinking water, the other for sea water for flushing toilets. Hong Kong is also a predominantly nuclear powered city-state drawing electricity from two atomic plants on the mainland. Dubai has oil and natural gas that it uses to desalinate sea water and then has clever ways of recycling the water after it’s used. Phoenix is also a nuclear powered city and recycles its water – not least in order to send that cleaned water to cool the reactor at Palo Verde fifty miles away across the desert.

      These places have solved one set of problems by using a great deal of complexity. It works. But it’s all seriously delicate and vulnerable to disruption.

      I think the sweet spot is a large-ish town or small-ish city. It’s possible to achieve economies of scale and efficiency while also having multiple redundancies with lower levels of complexity the locals can handle at room temperature.

      For example, plain old suburban subdivisions could have rainwater catchment tanks on each home, productive veggie gardens, fruit trees, a few laying hens, and a bit of off grid solar of just enough juice to keep a few lights on. In that scenario one chainsaw per cul-de-sac might suffice.

      I’m not suggesting that people will embrace gravel roads on their cul-de-sacs voluntarily. But we may arrive there by default as the larger systems we depend on go broke and wobble. I don’t see that as an end-of-the-world situation. But people need to have the right attitude. Embracing a more rural lifestyle in the suburbs might be pleasant – or people could go kicking and screaming against their will. Detroit. Flint. Ferguson… Everything has a beginning, a middle, and an end.

  2. Great post – nice to see an alternative approach to living. My boring, practical side is curious about other basic needs. Are bathing and laundry handled with a trip to town? Or do cabin dwellers choose a some simple outdoor approach to these tasks?

    1. The cabin is actually a normal house in every respect. They have a propane stove and electricity from the grid. They have a regular water heater. I didn’t include photos of the indoor bath, but they have a shower and sinks that function in the usual way. Gray water (non toilet waste) is disposed of via a perforated tank in the yard where the earth easily absorbs the modest amount of lukewarm slightly soapy water. The couple have typical jobs in the city which is actually only a ten minute drive down the hill – contrary to the impression that the location is in God’s country.

      This post isn’t about people living off the land or outside the bounds of civilization. It merely demonstrates that there’s a continuum of living arrangements that work at least as well as the cookie cutter standard.

      1. I don’t think a place with an outhouse is a “normal house”. It is uncomfortable and, more importantly, hazardous if you have too many in close proximity. Modern plumbing, together with modern insulation and reliable electricity, is one of the greatest advances in housing comfort of last 150 years.

        I fully agree about the uselessness of 4000sqft, but indoor bathroom is a basic modern facility. It doesn’t require wasting fresh water on it, if you have a grey-water system in place. I just don’t think this is an example of “middle class living standards without the trapping of car-centric single-detached suburban dwelling”.

        1. Do you think this couple is living a life of poverty and deprivation? Does it seem unhealthy to you?

          Can this standard be applied to a skyscraper in Manhattan? No. Could it work perfectly well in many quarter acre suburban subdivisions? I think it could without the Black Death ravaging the nation.

          In the end these issues will be resolved by economics.

  3. I think this is mostly relevant to, say, holiday homes, cabins, or those who choose to live in the countryside. This type of living is fantastically better for the environment than building a city-style home in the middle of nowhere.

    But there are too many of us in the world to make this doable for everyone. We can’t all compete for trickles of water, and build our own water infrastructure. There are economies of scale to be had. But I completely agree with your points about people expecting ‘gold-standard infrastructure’ while simultaneously crying for lower taxes. We have to educate people about the connection between their chosen lifestyle, transportation, and costs.

    1. I’m working on a couple of compare/contrast style posts about infrastructure and public expectations. 19 million people in southern California can’t all support themselves on trickles of mountain spring water as you say. But the current set of arrangements really are fantastically vulnerable and dysfunctional in so many ways. Stay tuned.

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