Last week I took a trip to see my old friend Alex. Alex and his wife and three children have been pursuing their goal of a life off-grid for just over seven years now. They bought a little under three acres of land in the middle of nowhere (caveat – the land was rather more than £15K) and put a couple of mobile homes on the site. Four years ago when I went to visit them life seemed tough. They had only the water they collected themselves, electricity from a generator and a compost toilet.
In many ways it was a lot like living on a boat, something I did for twelve or thirteen years after I left university. At times that path was a very difficult one – not least getting back from a trip away at midnight and having to light the stove, hoping that it would catch and burn all night and that I wouldn’t wake at three a.m. to find that it was five below. What’s more I didn’t have children.
So when I last visited Alex’s kids were four and two respectively. Now they’re eight and six and two. I confess I held my breath when number three arrived – but seeing them this time, with the eldest devouring books and number two drawing lovely pictures, changed my mind. Home schooling and a life without too much stuff but with love and freedom seems to have done them no harm at all. A happier childhood would be hard to imagine.
The other thing that Alex has in his venture is the support of a partner. The two of them are very much in it together. That makes an enormous difference. Now, after seven summers living in the mobiles (recent winters have been spent in a flat in a nearby town) their new house is taking shape.
Most of their money went on the land so their aim was to build a house for as close to nothing as possible. The frame was built around old telegraph poles and the joists acquired from people who had surplus in the wake of the building crash.
Two years after laying the foundations the walls are almost finished. Why did they take so long? Well they’re built from cob; a traditional mix of clay, topsoil, sand, straw and water; I don’t doubt our distant ancestors used dung as well. But, dung aside, as a building material it is cheap, it offers great insulation and it works.
I spent three days digging out barrow-loads of clay and topsoil and making ginormous mud pies with Alex. The ratio he used was 2 barrows each of topsoil, clay and sand, a good armful or straw and five to six buckets of water. These were piled up on the ground and mixed using a rotorvator – a smart idea because every other thing is done by hand.
For the most part I was down below throwing large balls of cob to Alex atop a ladder and eight to twelve feet up. During three days we shifted about two dozen barrow loads. The walls, which are 18” thick, went up about six inches, more in some places, less in others. After three days I ached. I really ached. You’d have thought that Alex would be buff as anything after two years of this. Well he ain’t chubby but equally he’s not Men’s Health cover material neither. The payoff is a home, not a six pack.
We also had the help of the local lady cobbers – about half a dozen friends and family joined in on the Thursday morning. Alex’s wife threw together a feast and the women hurled mud with a will. This is how houses used to be built – collectively and communally.
Weather permitting I reckon the walls will be up by the end of the month. The race will be on to get in the upstairs windows and insulate the ceiling so that the five of them have a chance to camp there over the winter rather than bail out into a flat again.
Next year the walls will be lime-rendered and hopefully the final fit done.
But here’s the thing; so far Alex reckons he’s spent around £7,500-£8,000. Some things like concrete for the foundations and sand for the cob walls have to be bought. Likewise the huge bags of sheep’s wool that he’ll be using for insulation. Doors and windows cost too, but all have been bought second hand, often for very modest sums.
Building the home of one’s dreams is a costly business. I remember a woman on the TV show ‘Grand Designs’ who had to have the right kitchen sink tap and to get just the right one she paid £1000 – more than an eighth of Alex’s total budget to date.
I relate to that in so far as I like the things I use every day to be a pleasure to use. I treasure my mugs (bought 20 years ago for the then ridiculous sum of a-fiver-a-piece). I asked my father for a nice shaving brush one Christmas for the same reason. These days when I buy shoes I’d rather have one good pair than five mediocre ones. But a kitchen sink tap? For pity’s sake!
So Alex’s floorboards will be reclaimed scaffold planks (which sand down very nicely it must be said). His windows will be a bit random. The downstairs floor plan with the back door straight into the bathroom doesn’t quite work for me. And he’s building an outdoor compost toilet. Please, Alex, please make it so I don’t pee down the back of my trousers or lose my chance to have more children to frostbite from the winter wind whistling off the marsh.
However not only will he get a home for a pittance in today’s terms but it’ll also bear its maker’s mark. There will be straightish lines but few straight ones. It’ll have the human dimension that modern housebuilders almost never achieve but which was part and parcel of the way our ancestors built and a major reason why we love to live in the houses they bequeathed us.
I may try to go back next year. I may leave it a couple. I’d like to take Luca. I’d like him to understand what making a home is all about. Hopefully he’ll get it because he’ll have his own house in the treetops by then, one that he’s seen evolve step by step. Now if I can find another tree or five nearby…