The Green Machine
Think going off the grid means a big cash outlay for secluded land and solar panels? Think again. Vancouver eco-activists have figured out a way to go easy on the earth, and the pocketbook.
July-August, 2002, by Rebecca Atkinson
EXPENSIVE AND EXCLUSIVE, GREEN HOUSING IS TOO OFTEN RESERVED for those in the middle-age, high-income bracket. Fortunately for the rest of us, there is Andy Thomson, an architecture graduate hell-bent on making off-the-grid housing accessible to the masses. Yes, insists Andy, it is possible to save your pennies and the planet.
For almost two years, Andy, his wife Reagan, and their two-year-old daughter Arkela have lived full-time, in and around Vancouver, in a 108 sq ft step van named “VanZilla.” After nearly a decade conducting eco-housing experiments (including a year in a tent in downtown Toronto, winter included), Andy’s latest project is sunshine-guzzling proof that urban off-the-grid living is not only ecologically viable, but financially affordable, even for a young family.
Financed entirely with Andy’s student loan, VanZilla has enabled Andy and Reagan to reduce their monthly housing expenses from $800 to less than $300. “The money you save on rent you can invest in a property fund, complete with eco-dream-home, or whatever you like,” explains Andy in a way that makes you wonder why anybody would flush rent money down the toilet or shackle themselves to a mortgage. “In this way, the young individual or family, beginning with next-to-nothing, can build their dream, without becoming a bank-slave.”
“Going off-grid and helping others do the same is my goal in life,” reveals Andy, whose tidy appearance bears no indication of cramped, iron-free living. “It is an interesting cosmic challenge to reduce the entropy that human culture seems bent on increasing on this planet.”
The irony of the urban RV as the perfect environmentalist’s starter home is not lost on Andy, who tore up his driver’s license at 18 pledging never to drive again. “It might seem oxymoronic to live `green’ in a truck,” he observes, “but if you do the math, there is far less [energy] consumption than in a typical rental apartment.” Equipped with a range of planet-saving devices, including low-energy LED lights, a solar electric system and an engine that makes and stores heat and electricity while it drives, VanZilla has enabled Andy’s family to reduce its energy and resource consumption to approximately one-tenth of a comparable on-the-grid family.
Unfortunately, the social and political systems of humans don’t often match the intelligence and efficiency of the natural world. Having spent roughly a third of his 31 years designing eco-housing, all the while battling bureaucratic laws and building codes, Andy concludes that the urban RV is “the last legal loophole available for truly affordable, experimental, eco-living.” Although none of the restrictive building rules apply to mobile architecture, municipal bylaws do prohibit residing or sleeping overnight in a vehicle and “No Parking 11 p.m.-6 a.m.” signs abound. “This bylaw is supposedly addressing `health’ issues,” writes Andy on his Urban RV website, “but anyone with a shred of common sense can understand that this is a social issue, and has much to do with `property values’.” Despite the regulations, however, Andy says police and bylaw officers generally express interest rather than animosity.
To achieve their goal of urban off-the-grid living, Andy and other members of the eco-RV community are willing to risk a parking ticket or two. With incentives like autonomy, mobility, ecological viability, and affordability, vehicle dwelling is an enticing option for would-be green homeowners. A modest revolutionary, Andy concludes: “We’re just trying to do what we can and set an example.”