I was graciously invited to explore the home of The Cabin Dweller’s Textbook folks in the mountains of southern California. I was curious about the nuts and bolts of the mechanical systems at the cabin, particularly after a conversation I had in Detroit with civil engineer Chuck Marohn. It boiled down to a simple question. What’s really required to live a comfortable healthy respectable middle class life? I asserted that it’s much less than most people think. And it’s spectacularly less than either the engineering profession or mainstream expectations tend to dictate – often by law.
I’ll start by noting that this home is incredibly charming. I stepped inside and immediately had two emotional responses. I felt secure and sheltered since the space is intimate and warm. But it was simultaneously open and bright with high ceilings and multiple views out to the surrounding forest. The entire building is the size of a typical two car garage. In most jurisdictions today it would be illegal to construct a home this small. Municipal regulations and HOAs are keen to filter out “the wrong element” who might attempt to move in at an undesirably low price point. Fortunately this place was built long before such rules became ubiquitous.
The house provides all the required elements with a minimum of fuss. The kitchen is an efficient U-shaped affair. Sink. Stove. Fridge. There’s a bit of extra pull-out countertop if need be. That’s it. Somehow this couple manages to have a full, rewarding, and complete life without stainless steel appliances and granite countertops. The loft above is reached by a folding ladder.
The bedroom is a bed, some built-in drawers, and a closet. Full stop. It’s wonderfully cozy and private. One of the benefits of a smaller home is that it can be constructed of better quality materials with a bit more craftsmanship. It’s easy to build a 4,000 square foot home if it’s made of synthetic dust that’s shot out of a spray hose by minimum wage day laborers. This cabin is built to a higher standard.
A small wood stove provides what little heat is required during the cool winter months. This is southern California not Manitoba. I asked how many cords of wood they use each year and they made a face. Cords? It’s actually much less than a cord. Firewood is abundant right outside their door since fallen trees are everywhere. The wood stove also does double duty for heating water and cooking when the power goes out. This house is connected to the electrical grid, but it remains entirely livable even without electricity. Do they miss cold beer and ice during the occasional outage? Sure. Does life come to a complete halt? No.
Adding poo to perfectly clean drinkable water and then letting it fester in a tank in the back garden is a waste of precious water in an arid climate. Instead, this home has a dry composting biodynamic nutrient recovery facility – otherwise known as an outhouse. Covering each deposit with a scoop of wood shavings absorbs the moisture in the waste, balances the nitrogen with carbon, and neutralizes orders. The waste decomposes and compresses over time and it’s estimated that it will be a decade before this outhouse will be full.
I asked the obvious question. Is it “momworthy?” Something is generally socially acceptable if your mother decides it’s kosher. In this case, once the initial hesitation was overcome, it passed that test with no trouble. Non-flush toilets are a cultural problem, not a plumbing or health or environmental problem. The authorities in this particular location insist on dry toilets by law for a long list of practical reasons.
Water is supplied to this cabin from a communal system that feeds several homes in the area. There’s a natural spring on the side of the mountain where a modest amount of water seeps out of the rocks. That water is captured in a pipe and is used to fill a 5,000 gallon tank. The tank is higher than the homes so gravity delivers the water without mechanical assistance. The homeowners have always been responsible for installing and maintaining the entire system themselves. They test the water periodically to monitor bacteria and impurities. (This is some of the cleanest water in the state.) If the spring goes dry, which has happened on occasion, people need to use radically less water until the spring revives. When the creek goes bone dry that’s a sign that it’s time to economize.
When some aspect of the water system needs to be fixed the homeowners are obliged to get together in a room and decide how to handle the situation. Can they fix this themselves with talent on hand? What are the various options? There’s a certain institutional memory in this cluster of homes in the woods where the older people explain to the newcomers how things were handled thirty or forty years ago. The funds need to be pulled from accumulated association dues rather than a nebulous government agency with seemingly endless resources. There’s no, “I pay my taxes and I demand water from the city.” That tends to focus everyone’s attention.
There’s a similar process for managing the private roads. These gravel paths don’t comply with the AASHTO standard with two twelve foot wide lanes, curbs, retaining walls, guard rails, and storm water management infrastructure. There are about nineteen million people living ten minutes away who routinely demand such improvements from local government as if such things were their God-given right. And miraculously many governments provide these things in spite of the obscene expense. But when the people who demand things are also the same exact people who have to pay for those items out-of-pocket some very different decisions are made.
We’ve built a continent sized nation where everyone expects a certain gold plated standard of infrastructure. We want pure water to come out of the tap. We want our waste to instantly disappear without a trace. We want the lights to go on and off without fail. We want the roads to be smoothly paved at all times. The solutions put forth by professionals and administrators are ever more complex and expensive, while the willingness of the taxpayers to foot the bill is permanently in retreat. At a certain point something’s going to have to give whether we like it or not. It’s not unreasonable to think about simplification where and when it’s appropriate.
This may seem like an extreme case. Not everyone can subsist on a trickle of mountain spring water. Fair enough. But here are examples of the ways in which standard utilities distort our expectation and misdirect resources.