When you make the decision to build a home off the grid, you’re putting yourself in a tight spot. You’re not going to have the same luxuries other home builders have due to the fact you’ll likely be in a remote area far away from the nearest power grid, let alone any of the supplies you’ll need. Poor planning could result in your whole construction project getting derailed. Here are nine things you should know before building off the grid…
Bear in mind, many of these tips assume you will not have another home nearby you can quickly go back to when you need something.
Make Sure You Answer These 9 Questions Before Building Off-Grid
#1. Is your site buildable?
When we first moved off the grid, most of our land was unbuildable. In other words, the terrain was not suitable for constructing, or even setting, a building on. Making it buildable involves clearing brush, removing large boulders, and grading/leveling the land. These are really big jobs that require a lot of time and manpower; but they are only a few of the common issues that could hinder your ability to build on your land…
You may find out your land is in a flood zone, or the soil is too soft to build on, or the grade is too steep, etc… If you’re uncertain about any of these things, you should consult a professional and have them assess the feasibility of building on your land. You should also make sure you don’t have any zoning regulations restricting you from building your off-grid house the way you intend to. If you’re building within city limits, they might not be too keen on your composting toilet or lack of running water.
#2. Is your site accessible?
The only thing as bad as having a piece of land that is unbuildable is if it’s inaccessible. Rural properties – the kind that are ideal for off-grid living – are often situated in places that are hard to get to in a normal vehicle. When we first arrived at our lot, it was virtually inaccessible and we had to make some improvements to the road in order to get our house up it. You really don’t want to end up in a situation where a delivery driver arrives with all your building supplies and materials only to say, “Sorry, I can’t get my truck over there.”
#3. Do you need any permits?
It’s not uncommon for some people to eschew building permits when they move to a rural area. They assume because they’re “in the middle of nowhere” they can do whatever they want, permits be damned. Don’t make this mistake. Read your zoning regulations thoroughly and find out if you do in fact need a permit for what you intend on building. If you get caught building without a permit when you should’ve gotten one, expect to pay some hefty fines, or even worse, have your whole project shutdown.
#4. What tools are you going to use and how are you going to power them?
If you don’t like working with hand tools, you may want to reconsider building off the grid. We brought a solar generator with us so we could use some common cordless power tools – drill, saw, sander – but we still had to rely on the basics a lot – hammer, screwdriver, wrench…
Power tools, be them corded or cordless, use a lot of power and they go through it quickly. The first thing you should ask yourself when designing your building is: What tools am I going to need to build this? If the answer is: Lots and lots of power tools, consider changing your design and building something simpler.
#5. Do you need to protect yourself from the elements and how?
No matter the time of year or the location, don’t count on the weather. You’re going to need some way of escaping the elements from time to time while you’re at your construction site. We seriously underestimated how awful it was going to be working in direct sunlight all day without any shade. Even though we brought a tent with us, it wasn’t enough; the Sun penetrated through it like glass. It was so bad, we ended up building an impromptu shade structure. Lesson learned.
#6. What are you going to eat and how will you store it?
We’re going to assume you’ll be building your off-grid home far away from any restaurants or grocery stores. If that’s the case, you should come up with a good plan for what you’re going to eat and drink, and how you’re going to keep it from going bad.
We chose to eat mostly nonperishable foods, like peanut butter, nuts, seeds, oatmeal, dried fruit, canned beans, etc… That enabled us to stock up on a lot of food ahead of time. We also took trips to the nearest city a few times per week to pick up building materials, which is when we would replenish our bottled water supply and stop at the local Taco Bell for the occasional convenience meal.
We stored all of our food and water in a couple of large coolers we brought with us, and that worked out pretty well. We also didn’t leave any leftovers. If we cooked something, we finished it right then.
If you’re working with a large team of people, make sure you pack enough food for everyone. You don’t want your workers baling on you midday because they’re famished and they’re gonna have to take a two-hour roundtrip to find pizza.
#7. What are you going to do with your waste? (All kinds)
You’re going to produce a lot of waste on your construction site. Not just candy wrappers and soda cans… but also the kind that comes out of you. You’re not gonna have a septic system, and it’s not likely there’s going to be trash pickup or dump right around the corner. You’re gonna have to come up with some sort of plan for when someone needs to go #2, and what you’re going to do with all the trash and garbage that accumulates over time.
We brought a big metal trash can with a lid, a lot of garbage bags, and a DIY composting toilet – a toilet seat on top of a 5-gallon bucket full of wood chips. Whenever the trash can filled up, we’d toss the bag in the back of our pickup and take it to the public dump the next time we went to town.
#8. If an emergency happens, how long will it take first responders to arrive?
Construction sites are dangerous places and accidents happen. We brought a large first aid kit with us, which we ended up using often since we frequently injured ourselves. But what happens if you have a really bad accident? A real emergency that requires professional medical attention?
Are you so far away from civilization it would take up to an hour or more for first responders to reach you? How far away is the nearest hospital or medical center? It’s easy to take these things for granted, especially if you’re young and feeling invincible, but if you accidentally impale yourself or fall off the roof of your building, you’re going to need swift medical attention. Sometimes there really is such a thing as being too far away from society.
#9. Do you get cell reception at your site?
Even more important than weather or not you could get emergency help in a reasonable amount of time, could you even call someone in the first place? Many people who move off the grid are perfectly fine with being “unplugged,” but you’re gonna have to make phone calls at some point while you’re building; even if it’s just to ask someone for a simple favor.
We’ve actually met some people who essentially live without any cellular reception. Sometimes it takes them a few days just to receive a text message, and making phone calls is out of the question unless they leave their property. So we know there are folks out there willing to take that plunge. However, before you shrug off your phone as a modern convenience you could live without, really ask yourself if you think it’s wise not having any way to reach the outside world in the event of an emergency.
Also keep in mind that without any cell reception, you’ll have no way of connecting to the Internet. This means no “Googling” questions, no how-to videos, and no asking your friends on social media for help when you don’t know how to do something. Giving up your ability to access information and ask for help when you need it can really increase the difficulty of building off the grid.
One Final Tip
If it looks like it’s going to be too difficult for you to build a home on your off-grid property, simply do what we did: start with a basic prefabbed structure, have it delivered to your land, then customize it however you like.