Solar Energy International

Little House on the Internet

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Courtesy of Courtesy of Solar Energy International

When we moved from the island of Manhattan to the small Caribbean island of Bonaire (pop. 15,000), we thought we were going about as far as possible from the hectic life we knew in New York City. But after a couple of years in a pleasant residential neighborhood overlooking the sea, we realized that we had just traded urban America for suburban Caribbean, and that was not quite enough. Thus began our project to combine our love for our new island and its people with our desire to get further away from it all and “back to nature.”

But could two former city dwellers really make the necessary changes for living off the grid? We were realistic enough to know that we were not willing to give up the luxuries that we had worked so hard to achieve. Could we do it without creating too much work for ourselves during our retirement years? Our electrical and plumbing experience before this project amounted to flipping switches and turning on faucets.

Finding Our Own Sunspot
The first step was to find the perfect location for a remote home—good wind, views, and privacy. Wind would be very important because it is the ideal air conditioner for this environment. While the temperature is a fairly constant 85°F (29°C) with high humidity, the strong trade winds keep it comfortable most of the time.

Our land search turned into a two year adventure. In the end, several old and new friends formed an association to purchase 305 hectares (750 acres) of remote, rolling land on the windy and uninhabited east side of the island. The group agreed that the prime goal of the development was to preserve forever the natural beauty of the land.

We spent a long time drafting the 40-some restrictions that ultimately became a permanent part of the deeds. The two dozen lots are large, about 12 hectares or 30 acres each, but each owner can actually use only 1/3 of the land. No major trees or cactus can be destroyed, and no clear-cutting is allowed. Lots can never be subdivided, and only two houses can be built on each 30 acre lot. About 50 acres is held in common as parklands and roads.

In addition to struggling with Dutch law (Bonaire is part of the Netherlands Antilles), we had to learn about dirt-road building, aerial and land surveying, and land development. In the process, we discovered how to protect and preserve the land, and how to prevent run-off and erosion. We also learned about siting a home to capitalize on the natural advantages of the location without destroying it.

So Far, So Good
Once we had the site, we had to determine how anyone could possibly live there, since it is several miles from the local utilities. Water was the primary consideration. Bonaire is a desert island with far more evaporation than the 22 inch (56 cm) average annual rainfall. It has little potable ground water, and no running streams. Could two people with four large dogs, a cat, and frequent visitors survive on six cubic meters (1,600 gallons) of water trucked in every two weeks, or was there a way to capture enough of the limited rainfall?

Tying in to the power grid would be impractical and, frankly, not even desirable. The island system is a hodgepodge of more-or-less 250/127-volt, 50 cycle electricity that will regularly fry sensitive electronic equipment. Other issues included the harsh elements: salt air, high winds off the sea, and intense UV exposure, since Bonaire is only 12.5 degrees off the equator. We needed to find materials and equipment that would withstand the elements with minimal effort from us.

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