September 19, 2018
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Maine man builds off-the-grid tiny house from scratch

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
The small, off-grid home Steve Rodrigue of Windsor built with a help of a friend. Rodrigue, 31, has been interested in land and growing his own food since he was in high school and after saving money for years, he was able to buy land and build his home with very little debt.
By Abigail Curtis, BDN Staff
Updated:

When Steve Rodrigue was a kid, he was fascinated by tales of survival and adventure.

By high school, he was smitten by the idea of sustainability and growing food for himself, and started saving up money to purchase some land of his own one day.

Perhaps it’s no surprise, then, that at 31 he is making a long-held dream come true as he builds an off-the-grid homestead from scratch in Windsor.

When Rodrigue, who has his own new small business called “Maine Raised Gardens,” first saw the 30-acre parcel of land, it was during the Christmas Eve ice storm in 2013. Trees were crashing around him and the usually quiet winter woods were noisy and frightening.

“It was kind of dangerous,” he said, adding that the land tugged at him despite that. “It kept growing on me. I liked the trees, the land and the southern exposure.”

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Steve Rodrigue's tiny house has lots of windows letting in warm sunshine, happy plants, a curious cat and tables piled high with books that have titles such as “The Joy of Less,” “Root Cellaring” and “Gaia’s Garden.”

He went for it, putting his savings, his time and his talents into turning the landscape into something that would look more like a home. It’s taken several years, and while he’s not done yet, he has built something that he can be proud of. It doesn’t look like the kind of place most modern Americans live.

It’s a very small house, just 320 square feet, not including the sleeping loft. There is no television, the toilet is composting, and he pumps water from his well by hand. The string of lights are powered by a small solar generator he bought online for just $85. But there are lots of windows letting in warm sunshine, happy plants, a curious cat and tables piled high with books that have titles such as “The Joy of Less,” “Root Cellaring” and “Gaia’s Garden.” There’s also a cozy feeling that Rodrigue doesn’t take for granted.

“An outsider might think this is old-fashioned living,” he said. “But I think it’s pretty creative, really.”

Planting the seeds

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Steve Rodrigue has a very small house, just 320 square feet, not including the sleeping loft. There is no television, the toilet is composting, and he pumps water from his well by hand.

Rodrigue grew up in Augusta, where he cut firewood alongside his dad and grandfather and thought he wanted to study forestry in school before he went to the University of Maine and focused on landscape horticulture.

After graduation, he got a job running crop trials at Johnny’s Selected Seeds in Albion. He kept his living expenses low and was able to really buckle down on saving up for a future homestead. He took a course in permaculture through the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association and kept on finessing his dream.

“I became obsessed with finding land,” he said.

Rodrigue bought the property about four years ago and the next year began to turn the dream into reality. He cleared trees, cutting as few as he could get away with, established permaculture beds and planted fruit trees.

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
A hand-pump installed over a deep, drilled well provides water for Steve Rodrigue’s Windsor homestead, where he built a small off-grid home and put in gardens following permaculture practices.

Then he began building his house with the help of family and friends. They did the work themselves, cutting trees to clear a corner of land, pouring a concrete slab and then getting going on the house. It’s a passive-solar design with some clerestory features, meaning that lots of light comes in even during the winter.

“I wanted a lot of light in here,” he said, adding that his father told him not to “cheap out” on the windows. So he didn’t, scouring Hammond Lumber for sales on quality windows that he figured would make life in his small house more palatable. He also kept an eye on Craigslist, where he found the small Vermont Castings wood stove he uses to heat his house (he has a propane heater as a backup heat source, too).

Finding economical work-arounds has been a big part of getting the homestead off the ground. Rodrigue had some money saved, but not enough to install a powerful solar array or hire others to build his house for him. And he didn’t want to go into more debt than he had to.

“My whole goal is to get my bills as low as I can,” he said. “That, to me, is true freedom.”

Tending the dream

Gabor Degre | BDN
Gabor Degre | BDN
Herbs and an L.E.D. light bulb hang from the ceiling in Steve Rodrigue’s Windsor homestead, where he built a small off-grid home. He uses a low-voltage solar-chargable L.E.D. light system that runs off a small battery.

A couple of years ago, Rodrigue decided to leave his job at Johnny’s and concentrate on building his house and his small business. At Maine Raised Gardens, which he started in 2017, he creates traditional in-ground gardens or builds raised-bed gardens for his clients. He also offers regular garden maintenance, composting and more. His business is growing and he hopes that it will keep to that trajectory.

“I want to expand it more to help people create their own homesteads, focusing on food production, sustainability and edible landscapes,” he said. “I’ve got a lot of ideas. I’m going to stay as focused as I can while still keeping it fresh and exciting.”

And even though he calls his own homestead “even more than off-the-grid” and “pretty rustic,” he is inviting people to come tour it next week through the MOFGA “Gather and Grow” event series.

“You’ve purchased your unimproved land with dreams of a homestead or farm. Now what?” the description for the tour of Rodrigue’s land begins. He will show visitors sights such as the corn, beans and squash he has planted together, his patch of purple flowering hyssop and his small, shingled home. He’ll talk to them about the work he has done so far and the plans he has for the future.

There have been challenges to choosing this lifestyle — the long, dark winters, the time spent alone, the slowness of progress — but there have been many benefits, too.

“My favorite part is the freedom I have,” he said. “It really allows me to be creative.”

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