After a lifetime’s worth of employment, deciding on just what your retirement will look like is a big decision.
It was for Tony and Susan Doig.
Do you move to Vancouver Island or the Okanagan? Closer or farther away from family? Will you choose to live in a rural area, or stick near a city?
These are all important decisions, and the Doigs made their choices like anyone else. But they asked themselves a few more questions and ended up with a retirement plan few can match. They’re not only building their own home, they’re building an earthship — an off-grid home that harnesses passive and active solar energy and is constructed out of used materials in a project that invites volunteers from all over the world to take part in constructing the Doighouse. They believe it will be the first earthship home on Vancouver Island.
The NEWS visited the Doigs on their slightly less than 10-acre piece of land in Qualicum Bay, where they and a handful of volunteers have been working all summer to build a garden and the tire walls of what will be the Doigs’ home, as well as a learning space and community garden. What brought the couple to go ahead with this ambitious project?
For Susan, the seed was planted in her late teens when her dad showed her an article of actor Dennis Weaver’s earthship home. Though much of her career was in unrelated areas, she spent the last 11 years working in sustainability at Capilano University.
Tony, who worked as a supply chain manager, knew he wanted to do something outside the norm, but wasn’t sure what.
“After a career and raising family and playing between the lines and really working within the bounds of societal norms, you get stale. And there’s way more to life than the norm,” he said.
But generally, the decision to adjust their lives to try and create as little waste as possible came from “a dissatisfaction with the way that the world is unfolding, and I don’t think we’re unique in that,” he said. “This was a way that we could put our actions where our thoughts were.”
Though Susan was up for the earthship idea from an earlier point, it took a trip down to Taos, New Mexico for teaching at the Earthship Biotecture to convince Tony.
There, he learned the basic design principles of earthships: building with natural and repurposed materials, thermal/solar heating and cooling, solar and wind electricity, water harvesting, contained sewage treatment, and food production.
In the construction, tires are used as a rammed-earth brick, carefully pounded, layered and measured to build a wall. On the north side of the wall is an earth berm that rises to the height of the roof. Critically, large windows facing south allow for sun to heat up the interior, including the walls which, as the air in the house cools, releases heat, eliminating the need for electric or gas heating.
Solar panels or wind turbines can be used to generate what electricity is needed for lighting and other needs, while collected rainwater is used multiple times: first for bathing, dishes and laundry, then to water plants placed inside the southern-facing windows. That water is then used for toilet flushing, then finally out to a septic tank.
Tony spent six weeks learning about earthship construction and how it’s done.
“When I first showed him the earthships, they were really early and very round and hippy-dippy looking, and I don’t think Tony was that fussed by them,” said Susan, but within a couple of days that changed.
“Day two he phoned me, or day three ‘Oh my God, we’re doing this.’”
All of the conservation aspects just made a lot of sense, said Tony.
“Once you immerse yourself in it and all the various aspects, things like solar, collecting solar and collecting rain… all the little pieces that come together, anybody can do it, and then it’s a leap of faith is, ‘Is this what I want?’ Well it didn’t take long.”
The Doigs bought their piece of land on Christmas Eve, 2013. They built a road to the property in 2014, dealing with seven different governing bodies.
They’ve since cut down the trees on a little more than half their property, and are milling them themselves to use in their construction, and to trade. They traded three cords of wood for their old pickup, said Susan.
They’ve levelled the land where the house will be built, using the dirt for the berm, to fill tires and for a large garden where they’re experimenting with various methods of growing. Part of the garden will be available to the community to plant food.
This summer they began building the actual house, inviting volunteers from around the world to take part and learn about this type of construction.
They’ve had about eight to 10 people a day at the site to take part, ranging in age from seven to 66.
The opportunity to invite people interested in earthships to take part, learn and build was another thing that attracted the Doigs to this plan. They said that, while being off-the-grid can be associated with being outside of society, they’re aiming at quite the opposite.
“People’s retirement, they seem to go in one of two ways: either their world gets smaller and smaller and smaller, or they get bigger,” said Susan. “And so in order for it to get bigger, it is a conscious choice to increase your contact with people and ideas. And it is a decision to expand your own personal horizons to include new ideas.”
The project has been a way to meet people, both locally and from far away, learn about their ideas and experiences, and for the Doigs to share their own.
“You’re essentially inviting the world in,” said Tony.
Part of that includes working with the Regional District of Nanaimo to make sure they could get a permit.
Though the process was involved, Susan and Tony said that the RDN has been great to work with, and that there has been great interest in their build.
“We could create our environment for ourselves and include the community, and they’re not mutually exclusive at all,” said Tony. “And by doing so, we get to learn a ton. I mean you wouldn’t believe how much we’ve learned in four years about ourselves, about people, about nature, about this sort of independent living.”
And there’s more learning yet to do. The Doigs estimate it will be two or three more years before they move into their Doighouse.
But there’s no rush, they said. They’re enjoying the process, and re-tirement.
For more info on the Doighouse, or to learn how to volunteer, go to thedoighouse.com.