Going Off-Grid to Be Better Off: One woman who inspired a community into action
Updated: Mar 10, 2019
Living in extremely efficient housing could stabilize people in the most need for help.
I'd like to share with you the inspiring passion that one of our founding board members had for green technology in housing construction. We sadly lost her to cancer last year. Before she died, she taught us a perspective about housing that has proven valuable in our aims to bring people closer to nature in more ways than just the obvious ones. Her family chose to go 'off-grid,' pursuing the freedom it would allow. They wanted to find a better system of managing time and money, a different way to approach the concrete and abstract costs that are associated with being alive in modern society.
In the summer of 2013, during a 3-year hiatus from life in Kansas City to learn about the differences between urban and rural poverty in the Ozarks, I met Allen and Mary Severin.
The quiet, unassuming couple had come to a community meeting to tell people about their need for used 16.9-oz water bottles. When the meeting chair gave them the floor, Mary told the group how she and Allen had moved their life down from the Milwaukee area with their 18-year-old son to build an off-grid home on some remote acreage in Pomona, Missouri. Being seasoned DIY homebuilders, they were experimenting with some pretty unconventional construction materials, including items that most people would think of as trash.
Because their project had recently made the front page of the largest regional paper, the Severins were basking in the limelight of rural celebrity. The buzz was all about their success convincing a local Firestone dealer to donate hundreds of uniformly sized tires for the home build. They'd also convinced the Missouri Department of Natural Resources that having hundreds of uncovered tires in the middle of a forest was OK—and that was no small feat!
Mary explained that the tires were to be crammed full of dirt and used as huge bricks for a retaining wall. The wall would hold back the dirt of an earth berm built up on three sides of the house. Then she held up a water bottle that looked like it was filled with sand.
"This is a bottle brick. It's filled with compacted clay. So the way this works is..." She banged the bottle onto the table for effect. "This bottle contains a lot of what's called thermal mass. When the sun shines in the front windows of the house, it hits the wall made of these and warms it up. Then at night it gradually releases that heat back into the living space."
In her gentle treble voice colored with a noticeable Wisconsin drawl, she detailed for the roundtable of community leaders the matter-of-fact utility of their project. It would collect rainwater off of the roof and use filters to bring the water to a drinkable quality. It would self-regulate internal temperature. It would use gray-water to grow tropical and sub-tropical food plants indoors. It would generate its own electricity using wind and solar power.
Another regular meeting attendee vouched for what was sounding to the rest of us like a pretty amazing story. "I've brought these aerial photos of the Severins' construction project." He passed the overhead pictures of the u-shaped retaining wall around the roundtable for all of us to see. "I even came out and tried to pound a tire full of dirt once. It gave me quite the workout! Those tires are pretty sturdy after they get full."
In no time at all, people from all over the area were contributing colored glass bottles, water bottles and other discardable household items to help build the Severin's house. A factory contributed glass from the facings of broken vending machines for the Severins to use as windows. The helpers would either deliver the acceptable materials directly to the construction site or bring them to pre-arranged rendezvous spots.
The locals were used to out-of-towners doing strange stuff that warranted skepticism or suspicion, but this was different. This was a project intended to earn one hardworking family the highest prize known to any Ozarkian—true independence.
Mary had drawn up all of their plans, which impressed me for a woman achieving the knowledge to do that by working alongside Allen to build their previous home in Wisconsin. Her tire house held my curiosity. I started coming to the build site to pound a tire, compact a water bottle, or pack mud on a wall. Then I'd go home and e-stalk the places where she got her ideas.
Every visit to the Severin home taught me something new about the way homes can function to save the occupants utility costs. I learned firsthand how powerful an ally the sun can be, and how dangerous and even destructive it can be if its energy is harnessed incorrectly. I learned that gray water isn't as gross as I first assumed it was, and that it can be really useful for plant growth. I learned about frost lines and how they dictate basic geothermal heating and cooling system design.
You know how when sometimes you learn about something new, the subject starts popping up everywhere you look? Well, rural off-grid living was like that for us. Luke and I were meeting people left and right who had either retrofitted the giraffe-stone bungalow that generations had called home, or built a completely new experimental structure to gain flexibility of capital. Building experimental homes was easier in the middle of nowhere, Missouri, because codes were rarely enforced, and there were no zoning laws.
The majority of the off-grid home dwellers shared a common unexpected byproduct of lower utility bills—more time for family and self-care. Spending significantly less money on electricity meant that they didn't have to work as many of the odd-jobs that are commonly used to make ends meet out there where jobs are scarce. That cut down on not only work time, but transportation time, leaving room to breathe with their families.
The reason Mary and Allen were going all out to build a 2,200 square-foot home that functioned fully disconnected from any utilities was that they had hope that it would inspire others. Mary and Allen saw families who were living in poverty back in Wisconsin struggle to find and retain quality housing. Now that they were in the Ozarks, they were seeing a similar struggle. The Severins suspected that making off-grid housing solutions available to people with very low incomes would provide just enough financial leeway to provide a foothold out of the poverty experience. After seeing the rationale behind the Severins' solution, Luke and I are inclined to agree.
Unfortunately, the Severins needed every second of their house-provided downtime after they discovered in early 2015 that Mary's body had been fighting cancer. She had suspected something after a couple months of having less energy to work every day. After her diagnosis, Mary helped her husband and son with construction as much as she could while balancing her treatments and much-needed recovery time. She never gave up on her dream of seeing her designs serve her family's needs and eventually the needs of the outside world.
When we returned from our three-year Ozarks practicum in 2016, we started using what we learned at the Severin home to try our hand at improving the low-income housing scene in Kansas City, and she was right there, by phone, helping us work out the details. This summer we're building a small off-grid structure with the guidance of professionals, and with the help of youth volunteers, largely because of Mary's passion for truly affordable housing. After her passing in November, we decided it would be fitting to make the project her namesake.
Mary left us with her valuable philosophy: In these advanced modern times, humanity should be able to figure out how to make our housing work for us rather than against us. Thanks to Mary, we're a step closer to making that goal a reality.