- Heather Graesser lives in a cob house in rural North Carolina.
- She shares the space with her husband and kids, who are 11 and 13.
- The family is off the grid, relying on solar power and rainwater collection.
This as-told-to essay is based on a conversation with Heather Graesser. It has been edited for length and clarity.
Ten years ago I was living a typical suburban life on the outskirts of Denver. My husband, Casey, and I were both teachers. We lived in a four-bedroom house with a small yard where our two kids liked to play.
Today our life looks radically different. We live entirely off the grid in a 300-square-foot home that we built from straw bales and cob, a natural building material made from soil, water, and other organic matter. We rely on solar power for electricity and rain collection for water, and we use a drop toilet to create "humanure" — compost made from human waste.
We've left the conventional world behind. But along the way we've created a much more luxurious and free lifestyle than the one we were living in suburbia.
I started trying to live more consciously when the kids were young
Our journey started in an unlikely place: Netflix documentaries. My kids are now 11 and 13, but when they were younger I started learning from documentaries about the impact of chemicals and plastics. I started by making small changes within our traditional life — removing plastics, then cleaning with homemade solutions like vinegar and water.
After a while, I realized that there was only so far I could take that while living in a traditional setting. Casey and I felt the only way to really live by our values was to build a house. That didn't feel insurmountable, so we started researching.
We traveled the country and settled in North Carolina
We're fairly liberal. During the 2016 election, lots of people vowed to change their lives if Trump was elected. We actually followed through.
We decided to move to Costa Rica to learn to live off the grid. But when we arrived there, we quickly realized that many of the expats who were living that lifestyle had imperialist attitudes. I wanted to be physically healthier by living off the grid, but not at the expense of our morals.
We returned to the US and spent four months traveling through 38 states, looking for a space that felt like home. We wanted somewhere warm enough to farm, with plentiful water, permissive building codes, and lots of space. We ended up with 16 acres in North Carolina, about an hour outside Winston-Salem.
We're off the grid but use our neighbors and community
After purchasing our land, we started to build. Our home consists of two 12-foot-by-12-foot structures. One is the kitchen, and one is the bedroom, where Casey and I sleep on the floor level and the kids bunk above us. The two structures are connected by our greenhouse.
I teach adult education part time, while Casey picks up occasional substituting jobs. We don't have many of the bills conventional families do. We use solar panels to power our fridge and charge our computers, phones, and e-readers. We collect our water from the roof and pump it using an old-fashioned hand crank.
Eventually we hope to grow all our own food, but we're nowhere near that yet. We buy from the local farmers market and order a few things, like coconut milk and cassava flour, on Amazon — though we're trying to cut that out. When possible, we barter for what we need.
Our days have an easy pace but lots of work
Our days are slow. Everything we do is driven by either a want or a need. We don't do anything just because we "should."
Typically, we sleep in, and everyone reads for an hour in bed. We homeschool or unschool the kids, meaning sometimes they're learning for 20 minutes, sometimes two hours. Preparing meals takes a long time, and there's always some family-building project ongoing. We use our phones for WiFi and download shows from Disney+ and Netflix when we visit the library.
We're close with our neighbors, including one who lets us store some food in her freezer; in exchange, we do yard work for her. The kids do music lessons, and my daughter rides horses. The days when we have lessons or need to go into town for groceries feel rushed, and the kids often say they don't know how typical families do it.
I'm an anxious person, so I often think about the impact on the kids. Yet they assure me they have all the socialization they need or want. We tell them they can go to school at any point. If they want to try an activity, we make it happen.
I'll live this way forever. The labor involved feels like a luxury and a privilege. We're finalizing plans for an 800-square-foot house, which will feel massive to us. We can't wait to have visitors and show them the unique life we've created.