Calgary

Living off the grid: Family spends 7 years building eco-friendly dream home

This family formerly from Alberta built their new home in B.C. out of glass and car tires after being inspired by a picture of an Earthship — a trademark design dating back to the 1970s.

Earthship-inspired house made of car tires, glass bottles, clay and adversity

After seven years in a yurt, this family has finally moved into the Earthship-inspired home they built themselves near Golden, B.C. But it's not just any house. Take a tour and find out how they made it despite the struggles. 7:51

Jair Stolz has an instinct to think outside the box, and it's led his family to experience sustainable — and sometimes unconventional — living spaces.

First, they lived in a trailer, and later, a yurt.

"I definitely have grown up just wanting to live life on my terms, and do things that resonate with me," Jair said.

"Even when we were living in our traditional homes, we were always trying to make neat little tweaks to the house to make it more of our own."

Originally from Alberta, Jair and his wife, Melanie Stolz, have been married for 16 years.

They have long enjoyed pursuing and sharing alternative lifestyles with their two children, Asher, 10, and Nova, 11.

But a picture of an Earthship — a trademark design dating back to the 1970s that was first conceptualized by architect Michael E. Reynolds — inspired the family to embark on an adventurous undertaking.

They decided to build their own eco-friendly dream home outside of Golden, B.C.

  • WATCH | Take a tour of the home in the video above
The house built by Jair and Melanie Stolz is partially underground, surrounded by a berm, and includes a greenhouse. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC News)

"I saw [the] picture … and that was it. I was like, 'This is what we're building,'" Jair said. "This is kind of where I always felt like I was headed — something a bit more unusual."

Melanie said she was eager for the experiences the project would bring their family.

"I was kind of getting a little bit itchy for something unique, itchy for something special," Melanie said. 

"At that point, our kids were both home and I was like, 'This is a really great story for them.'"

The home on the waves

What an Earthship represents, Jair said, is a house floating on the sea, rising and falling with the waves. 

The concept is to create a sustainable home that works with nature — for example, naturally cool in the summer and warm in the winter.

"[The home] should be very sustainable, and produce for you, and … built out of materials you can find around, for the most part," Jair said.

"The people who really take the time to do them — when they're finished, they look amazing. There is nothing that is flat and square. Everything is round and bumpy, and little pockets of light showing, and so much interesting creativity."

The house the Stolzes built

Seven years since they began the project, their home is about 3,200 square feet.

It is built almost entirely out of recycled materials that include glass bottles, car tires and cob, which is a mixture of clay, sand, water and straw.

Some walls are buried beneath a berm that helps regulate the temperature inside.

A special wood-burning heater runs a draft of hot air behind the walls and through a bench, for warm seating in the winter.

Rainwater is collected in a 3,200-square-foot roof tin and provides a water supply for the home.

The family also has pigs, and they hope to get chickens.

Jair stands in front of the bench that is warmed by a special wood-burning heater in the winter. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC News)

The front of the house faces south so that the sun hits the angled windows and heats the floor.

And sunshine also finds its way through the windows of the developing greenhouse, where the Stolzes grow their own food.

All of it, Melanie said, has been a lesson in making intentional decisions about the way she is living her life.

"For me, it's been an eyeopener," Melanie said. 

"Now, I understand that … you just don't necessarily jump through the hoops that you're supposed to jump through. That you have choices, and you're allowed to make those choices."

Offsetting the cost

The lessons and stories the home will give their kids, Melanie said, is largely what excited her about the project.

"They get to say, 'When we were four, my parents lived off-grid, and we lived in this trailer, then we lived in the yurt, and my mom and dad built an Earthship, and that's where we lived,'" Melanie said.

"For me, a huge impetus was for [the kids], and also Jair's passion."

For the Stolzes, the goal of their Earthship-inspired home is not to create a means of living completely off their own land.

Instead, it is to offset the cost of living in Canada.

The greenhouse is still being built, but Jair says they are already growing tomatoes and peppers inside. Aside from producing food, it will also provide a water filtration system. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC News)

"Canada is a great place to live, and I love it here, and we are blessed to live here," Melanie said. 

"But it is expensive. Produce is expensive, food is expensive, and so we definitely want to … grow as much as we can."

The couple does not have a proper running tally of the costs associated with building their home, but estimate that when completed, it will have cost them between $80,000 and $90,000.

Their only bills are the mortgage, a phone, internet, propane and a credit card — and so the life they have built, Jair said, is very inexpensive.

But that doesn't mean it's without a price.

Abandoning ship

Their way of life, Jair said, requires constant monitoring. 

Growing their own food, for instance, isn't as easy as burying the seeds and watering them; it all requires weeding, care, enduring attention. Even singing to the plants.

"One of the things we've learned living out here is that everything comes with a lot of hard work," Jair said.

He admitted he can get consumed by the project. Melanie said there were times when the build wore on their relationship. 

"In truth, there's been probably three early distinct times — in my memory anyway — that I would have been completely happy to bomb this place and move back to town," Jair said. 

"And [the thought] was kind of, 'no, we're staying here. We started this path, we love it here. [Melanie] especially loves it here. And we're gonna figure this out.'"

The third and final time Jair considered abandoning the ship, an overpriced head of lettuce saved the project, he said. 

The iceberg

"I was pretty much ready to call it quits and I was at the grocery store, buying produce, and there was iceberg lettuce for $4 a head. And it just snapped me," Jair said.

"I was like, 'I am this close to having an Earthship with a greenhouse in it that will probably grow greens year round.'… And that was kind of one of those moments of, like, 'No, this is what we're trying to accomplish out here: to remove ourselves from the volatility of the world.'"

As the project continued, Melanie said the hard work has paid off, and it's all become easier.

"It's a big project. So Jair's been thinking it through, and pondering, and building and problem-solving," Melanie said. 

"That was a big sacrifice for him and for us. But I think it's been good now that we're in the house and he's starting to see progress, which is really good."

The not-so-simple life

When asked what she misses about more conventional living, Melanie's response was immediate, and through laughter: "Hot water. We haven't had hot water coming out of a tap in seven years."

For Jair, it's small luxuries that he said are easy to overlook in the city — like having snowy streets cleared during the winter.

Melanie and Jair Stolz have been married for 16 years and have supported each other through the project. (Jocelyn Boissonneault/CBC News)

"Part of the terminology you hear when you talk about moving off-grid … is to live the simple life. And that's a joke," Jair said.

"Because it's simply not more simple up here. It's definitely a lot more hard work, and a lot more involved. I think the simplicity of it comes from the fact that, on a day-to-day basis, you're focused just on surviving."

But all of it, Melanie said — the hardships, the problem-solving, the hard work — has added up to something greater than the sum of the car tires and glass bottles.

"The best life that I can think of living," Melanie said.

Even without hot water, for now.

With files from Jocelyn Boissonneault and Terri Trembath

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