For decades, now, there are those who have made a commitment to live off the grid, not hooked up to the local utility. The decision to live off the grid has been more than just a separation from the local utility, but an attitude, a way of reframing one's relationship to the environment and the world. Off-gridders, postmodern pioneers of a sort, look at the cars we drive, the homes we live in, the things we choose to consume from a completely different perspective.




Take the concept of shelter: it will be transformed. McMansions, full-size and midsize, which have been built at such a furious pace over the last 30 some years, will become the SUVs of the future. House design is on the cusp of a green revolution.




As energy costs rise, people's assumptions about what is personally sustainable will shift.




One who has made the sustainability journey is Risa Buck. She and her partner, photographer Pam Lott, live in the center of Ashland on a half-acre parcel that she refers to as a "sustainable urban homestead." Her home &

deeply set back on the lot, well behind the original house &

is 800 square feet. At first glance, it appears contemporary in design, the pitched roofs facing north and south. It's surrounded by gardens, flower beds, trees, and bracketed by summer vines covering shade trellises. In back, near a longitudinal berm, sits a 3,000-gallon ferro-cement tank intended for rainwater harvesting and catchment for irrigation. Nearby is a pond covered with water lilies, sporting small fish.




To the left of the house proper is a straw bale studio, 289 square feet, with an open floor plan, toilet and small sink. It's cool in the summer and retains heat well in the winter.




"The insulating qualities of the studio far surpass any other kind of building I've been in," Buck said. "And it has a unique aliveness and character with its undulating walls."




Prior to construction of the main house, Buck reassessed all aspects of how she lived her life and its relationship to the planet




"What I consume, where it comes from, how it was created and what the costs are: human, environmental, economic, political and spiritual," she said.




Buck considered what her home look like if she could create a space that would leave a minimal carbon footprint. What was her relationship to the weather, to the sun, to electricity, to transportation? She decided that "we can all do more with less." So she made the decision to build the house off the grid.




Building any house requires countless decisions, large and small. For Buck, this process was compounded because at the time she began the design-building phase, a certificate of occupancy had never been granted to a residence built within the city limits that was off the grid. In fact, Oregon Building Statutes dictated that she hook up to the grid.




"I believe (the city) feared a mini-revolution of wannabe, off-gridders following in my footsteps," Buck said. "But this fear was unfounded. The energy needs for an average household are considerably greater, and an off-grid system to meet those needs would be more costly than the very modest system that sustained us."




Buck's plan was to build a passive solar home and live within the parameters of the energy she could derive from installing a 370-watt solar-electric photovoltaic system on her roof (seven panels), supplemented by a wind generator which aids in charging the system's batteries.




Given the limitations of the system, great care would be taken regarding energy usage, thus avoiding ever draining the six Trojan deep-cycle batteries. Appliances, television, sound system and computer would not exceed 12 volts. In winter she planned to burn about one cord of hardwood in the masonry stove, which, once warmed, would radiate heat continually. A rooftop solar collector would heat household water.




After much discussion with the city, pouring over plans, asking endless questions, debates over and interpretations of various building codes, Buck got the green light and, eventually, her certificate of occupancy. She was the only home approved by the city for habitation that was completely off the electrical grid. For Buck it was a huge victory and testimony to the vitality of her dream and her tenacity.




Though Buck will be the first to point out that her homestead has been constantly evolving, tweaked and refined, she recently made a significant decision to become interdependent with the city regarding energy use. Something that was not an option 14 years ago when she was setting up her off-grid home.




Tomorrow: How she did it, and how you can, too.