Taos, New Mexico is a amazing place. Somehow the flat-topped mesa mountains outside Taos have become a mecca for off-the-grid lifestyles with hundreds of people living off-the-grid in Taos Mesa. These people are not just hippies, there are all kinds of people from veterans to people preparing for the end of the world and others who are trying to escape society. But among these are also people who see off-the-grid living as a way to live more in tune with the environment and to achieve independence and self-sufficiency. Taos Mesa people want to provide their own housing, food, water and electricity, making it possible to live without an income and to spend your time doing what you love.
We in the off-grid community have all heard about natural building materials like straw bale, reeds, woodchips, sawdust, sticks, and anything earthy: earth bags, cob, rammed earth, adobe, rocks, sand and stones. But have we heard of papercrete, paper adobe and hemp-crete? These are gaining attention and recognition in the green-building community, and yes, are reported to be just as workable and dependable — yet more versatile — than other building materials are. Bamboo, coconut, cork, sisal and other fast-growing plants are easily renewable and sustainably harvested, and therefore meet the green qualification, too.
As you make tentative plans for your building project, check to see what is already available and naturally occurring in the area you are building. What kind of earth is there? Clay? Sand? Lime? Rocks? Even compost or vermiculite will be useful if you’re going to go with cob. All these are renewable and non-toxic. They also require little or no embodied energy – or the energy that goes into producing, transporting, de-constructing and decomposition of materials used in construction. Best of all, they’re dirt-cheap (pun intended), or absolutely free.
Most of us are also familiar with the use of re-purposed materials: old tires, soda cans and PET bottles packed with cement to make sturdy, hard-as-brick walls known as earth-ships. Pallet houses are on the rise as well.
But what is most interesting is the use of salvaged debris from demolition projects. If you’re renovating or restoring an old structure, you can save and reuse some of the existing materials instead of throwing them away. Old doors, windows, bathtubs, roof tiles and kitchen counter tops might still be utilized. This is reclaiming – taking materials from one project and reusing them as they are, or modifying them slightly. It’s different from recycling, which completely reconfigures items through meltdown and re-processing, which would require even more energy, time and costs.
The concept of a sustainable off-the-grid community must take into consideration the basic needs of all who live in the community. To become truly self-sufficient, the community would need to provide all of its own electrical power, food, shelter and water. Using renewable energy, an on-site water source, sustainable agriculture and vertical farming techniques is paramount in taking a community off the grid. A recent concept design shows a multi-family community, which combines all of these technologies into one self-sufficient neighborhood. To grow the Taos Mesa community you simply add neighborhoods using the same model as the first. A self-sustained community reduces its impact on the environment by controlling its waste and carbon footprint.