Nestled against a hill in Taylorsville sits a small house so unassuming, it would be easy to walk past and hardly notice it was there. Its blue front door is hidden beneath a trellis of grape vines, just as the rest of the house is hidden by the small hill it’s built into.
This is the home of Mike and Kara Stiff – a home they built themselves. Mike, an assistant professor of biology at Lenoir-Rhyne University, loves sharing the story of their home with his students.
“My goal when I’m talking to students is to empower them to know that they don’t have to get a house on a cul-de-sac. They don’t have to be hundreds of thousands of dollars in debt,” he continued. “They don’t have to be chained to the bank.”
For Mike and his wife, building their own home was a way to support their family of four with little debt. In addition to being financially sustainable, the house needed to be physically and economically durable, and have a minimal impact on the environment.
Kara’s passion for the environment was cultivated as a youth growing up in Alaska. She was reminded of the need for change seeing the glaciers melt before her eyes. By the time she and Mike met, she had been attending workshops and considered living alternatively for a number of years.
“I just couldn’t let go of the idea,” she said. “‘If I made a house, it would be different this way!’”
Mike had a desire to see change, and change at home was a good place to start.
“I could make a change in my own life and refocus my goals for helping and making change by focusing on my family and more immediate community,” he explained. “Rather than saving the world, I want to help improve the lives of the people who are closest to me."
No refrigerator? No problem.
The physical footprint of the house totals 725 square feet and includes three bedrooms, a water closet, shower room and combination front room and kitchen. Professionals were brought in for the excavation, retaining wall, and plumbing – but the rest of the work, including the design, was handled by Mike and Kara.
Every decision of the construction process was made with the environment in mind. Building materials were sourced locally, if not from the land itself. For example, the Stiffs made their own light straw clay for the walls using soil from the land, straw from local farms, and sand from a neighbor’s old beach volleyball court. Reclaimed wood from decrepit property buildings was used for the ceilings and countertops, and the majority of the doors and windows in the home were purchased second-hand from Craigslist and the Habitat for Humanity Re-Store.
But the Stiffs passion for the environment and sustainable living goes beyond building materials. Whereas most homes have central heating and air, the Stiffs have a wood stove and a single AC unit, which they mostly use for dehumidifying. In place of a refrigerator, a solar-powered freezer chills bottles of water – which are then moved to the insulated cooler drawer. These are all substantial differences from the average home, but the home’s unique plumbing fixtures surprise most visitors to the home.
“The compost toilet is the thing that people are the most uncomfortable about, because it is different,” Mike shared.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the average American home consumes 893 kilowatt hours of electricity per month. The Stiff house consumes approximately 150 kilowatt hours in the same amount of time.
No central heating and air? No refrigerator? With so many differences, it’s easy to imagine the home as hot and uncomfortable. Not so, says Kara.
“The thing I’m most proud of is that it’s very pleasant to live in from day to day,” she said. “It’s more pleasant than anywhere else I’ve ever lived in.”
Built with love
Although neither of the Stiffs can recall exactly when they decided to officially build their home, they do remember when they first broke ground – on their daughter’s first birthday. Thinking back, Kara acknowledges it was probably not the ideal phase of life for building a house. At the time, their oldest was just two.
“But we managed it really well,” she said. “We brought the kids to the site every day so that we could work together.”
Today, their children are seven and nine, and spend much of their time enjoying the outdoor playground of land surrounding the house. The Stiffs home sits on 17 acres and has a natural spring, a pond stocked with fish, and a stream, plus a large herb and vegetable garden. Chickens, goats, and pigs are partners in the Stiffs sustainable living – providing eggs, milk, and meat when they need them.
Initially budgeting $39,000 for their build, the Stiffs completed their home after 18 months of building and at a total of $43,000 – which included all materials and labor. Mike describes the entire process as a labor of love.
“This isn’t a house that I bought,” he explains. “This is a house that I built with my family and the help of some friends. I feel deeply connected to my home.”