Saturday, February 9, 2008


An engineering acquaintance of mine, living in SE Minnesota, set about designing and building his home a few years ago. As the project developed, it became known as Licht-N-Stein (he's from Germany, and the name translates to "light and stone", but is also a play on the tiny principality in Europe). He created a home that was off-the-grid, off-the-well, and off-the-furnace. In short, he set about completely freeing himself from fossil fuel usage at home.

What he created is, from my perspective, and engineer's dream project. Off-the-grid is a fairly common term these days, and indicates that he gets his electricity from renewable sources; primarily a 1-kW wind turbine, though that will be supplemented with photovoltaics. The windmill and PV dump power into a lead-acid battery bank, which powers a 110 V inverter to power the rest of the house. Off-the-well is an uncommon thing these days, but was once quite common in this area and others - he doesn't have a well for his water service, but rather collects rainwater into a several-thousand gallon cistern in his basement. His roof is sheathed for easy collection, and 1-inch of rain about half fills his tanks. The water gets treated before use, but it doesn't take much. Off-the-furnace means that, rather than heat his home with natural gas, as many in this area do, he heats it with a combination of passive solar and gorgeous wood-burning fireplace (a so-called Russian Stove). His hot water comes from a combination of solar-thermal and the fireplace. The wood is deadfall from the several acres the house sits on. The floor of the main level is a 6" concrete slab that provides a substantial thermal mass that prevents the wild temperature swings common in 1970s passive solar homes. He has a large hot water tank in the basement, with heat-exchanging coils that allow bring heat in from the solar-thermal on the roof and from the fireplace, and takes heat out for the hot water service and radiant in-floor heating. At the moment, because he doesn't have the photovoltaics installed, he supplements the wind turbine with a propane generator. He can also boost the hot water with an on-demand water heater. When all is said and done, however, the only fossil fuel usage he anticipates using in the house is a trickle of propane for cooking.

Now, to be clear, he is not a granola hippy content with showering once a week and living in the dark. His home has all the accommodations that you would expect a new home to have: comfortable living space (about 2000 sq ft), lots of light, a really sweet kitchen, an impressive home theater, wired and wireless networking, a dishwasher, laundry, two-car garage, etc. He likes his comforts, as do we all, but he went about it in a way that drastically reduces his carbon footprint.

He had a number of motivations to do it this way. There was an economic motivation: an electric grid connection to his lot would have been $10,000+, and required an easement from a cantankerous neighbor; his off-grid electrical system cost him about that much. Living atop a bluff, he would have needed to drill a well several hundred feet down to be able to access very hard water laden with nitrates from the local agriculture. His rainwater collecting gives him ample water, already soft and 99% clean, and cost less to install than sinking the well would have done. He does want to live a green lifestyle, and wanted to show that it doesn't involve as much sacrifice as people think. He is showing that it is possible to live a comfortable Western lifestyle using a fraction of the electricity, water, and heating that a typical new home does. He wanted a closer connection to his environment: he is far more aware of the weather and changing of the seasons. He also used local materials and green products as much as he could, and got to know a lot of really interesting regional businesses as a result. Everything from certified lumber to Minnesota limestone to recycled-plastic deck lumber to milk/chalk paints to pressed-sunflower-husk cabinet panels. He put in a lot of sweat-equity into the home, partly because he wanted a close connection to his home, partly because it was cheaper to do so, partly because there wasn't local expertise in these systems do it for him, and partly because he's an engineer and likes to tinker. Being able to build a home like this requires a fair bit of detailed planning, but provided him ample time to design the overall flow and feel of the house - to be acquainted with it before he even broke ground (the not-so-big-house philosophy).

He has been pretty successful in his endeavors, too. He's lived in the house for over a year now. His lights stay on, he has a hot shower every day, and the house remains a balmy 65-75 F even at the winter solstice. The house cost a bit more per square foot than typical new construction, but that has less to do with the "off-the-" systems and more to the amenities he added (for instance, the fireplace has a few tons of limestone in it, and probably cost $20k in itself, but could be done more plainly for a third of that).

In short, he has done precisely what Hilary and I desperately want to do in our lives. Perhaps not on a bluff in Minnesota, but rather someplace in VT or NH. Maybe a different mix of wind and solar. Maybe the addition of geothermal. Perhaps the rainwater collection won't be necessary (although would be useful for a grey-water system, and for watering the horses). Granite instead of limestone. Still, as a piece of systems engineering, it is a marvel that I hope to emulate. As a way to live, it is an inspiration to the both of us.

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