Breaking Free and Living the Dream
A Dialogue with Thomas J. Elpel
August 26th, 2005
This letter is an expression of gratitude in part and also of inquiry. I stumbled into your portal two days ago after being caught in the job trap since I was 16. I am 50 now and had been looking for a way to articulate what I have been feeling for years. I downloaded your articles about building a mortgage-free home and escaping the job trap. The more I read the more excited I became. I shared the articles with my wife during our more than an hour commute home. I was pretty sure she would react in a similar manner like I had. The difference between my wife and I is that I tend to look forward and she tends to reflect on the past. Of course after reading the articles she expressed her regret for the fact we did not create a life plan some 20 years ago. I redirected her to the places I had highlighted within the articles to help her focus toward the future. After reading your articles I became convinced that being trapped was mostly in our minds.
I ran the numbers and we can cash out today with $250K on hand to begin the rest of our life in freedom. I believe that we can budget 80K for home construction and 20K for land purchase to achieve our dream of mortgage free living while having enough savings on hand to create a sustainable income through investments and such. We have a part time business and have estimated we could generate about 30K annual income with very little effort. It is amazing how much we had the blinders on in that we felt trapped and without resources. I am somewhat embarrassed that I had considered our "meager assets" as not being enough to have the life we want. I realize now that some people would rejoice having what we do to start over with. The money-will-solve-time way of thinking is absolutely one of the most diabolic forces in the universe in that it absolutely minimizes human potential. As your article stated, more money will not solve our dilemma. To the core of our being we desire having time to do the things worthy of a life. My wife and I are ready to start this wonderful journey of discovery. Here are my questions:
1.) Do you consider slipform construction the best way to go? Do you have any knowledge of anyone combining slip form construction with geo domes? Which of the books should we purchase to help us design our new smaller energy efficient home? In other words where do we start? After reading the articles I began to think differently. All around my home for as far as the eye can see and then some are river rocks of all sizes free for the taking. Our property is on a dry riverbed and in the area are some fine examples of stone construction. In fact, a few of the buildings are from the early 1800's. I could pick up enough rocks to build two or three houses within walking distance from my neighborhood. Considering we want to build our new life in a mountain village in New Mexico, should I begin collecting and storing resources now? I have a place to store two or three tractor trailer loads of river rock and I suppose I could transport them somehow to New Mexico when the time comes. Our time line is in ten months, (July, 06).
2.) Both my wife and I are resourceful, intelligent people. The Mrs. is absolutely without mechanical ability but is great with administration, checking the details, book-keeping and such which should help us stay on budget once we start. Both of us have made our living from our intellect rather than labor or skill. I have some basic construction tools and knowledge learned years ago working as a gopher and could do basic carpentry work, tile work and such. Plumbing is like Greek to me and I am terrified of electricity. I say all that to say this, when I think about building our own home and what I think I can and can not do my knees start shaking and my heart starts racing and my mind chatter starts talking trash. One thing though that I am excellent in is having the ability to read and research information and then put it to use. We are both survivors and have tenacious spirits but I don't want to be naive either. Again, is there a book or resource center we could turn to for these eventual needed skills?
We both thank you and your wife for having the wisdom and courage to lead the life you wanted. I must be honest though, of all your accomplishments I am most impressed by you and your wife having adopted children. What a wonderful resource you and your wife are to these children. I am grateful to also be able to glean a bit of hope from your actions.
Gary Stansberry, Los Angeles
August 28th, 2005
Thanks for your very kind letter. Before I answer your questions, I have one of my own:
Do you really want to build your own house, or are you merely thinking that you should because it is economical and would allow you to live the lifestyle you want? I ask this because building your own home is a lifestyle. Right now you are a "regional coordinator." If you build your own house, then you will be a "house builder." It will be what consumes you from the moment you wake up until the moment you go to bed, and probably in your dreams as well.
If you really want the experience of building your own home, then great. If you are not so sure, then you might consider looking for a low-cost existing home. There are many small mountain towns where people have to leave to find work, so you can purchase a nice house on a nice property for substantially less than you have budgeted to buy land and build. Once you buy such a house, you still have the option of improving it to your heart's content.
In answer to your questions, I think slipform stone masonry is the best way to go only because I really love stonework. Realistically, it is probably more expensive, more labor intensive, and in some ways, more challenging to make energy-efficient than other methods of house-building. We simply like stonework, so we don't settle for anything less.
You could haul rocks from Los Angeles to New Mexico, but your house would look more like it belonged in New Mexico if you used rocks from New Mexico. Trucking could be costly, and it would be a waste of fossil fuels. At least explore the feasibility of gathering rocks locally in New Mexico before you seriously consider hauling them there. I guess my concern is that hauling rocks to the Rocky Mountains sounds like L.A. thinking, and if you make all your decisions that way, then you might be under-budgeted. (I hope that doesn't come across as offensive.) The lifestyle change you dream about is mental as much as it is physical. You've woken up to the realization that you are free, but you probably still utilize the same thought processes that you did when you felt trapped. You need to question the way you process information, question the way you make decisions. Being academically inclined, I would especially recommend Allan Savory's Holistic Management. Although it was originally geared mostly for farms and ranches, Savory has tried to make the current edition applicable to donut shops or city planning. I think you will connect with and greatly benefit from the decision making process. It will also teach you about the ecology of New Mexico.
In regards to plumbing, I learned by pretty much plumbing our house twice. I don't necessarily recommend doing it that way! Plumbing is something we never really researched beforehand. Although the coverage of plumbing is somewhat brief in Living Homes, I've tried to steer the reader in the right direction to take simplist, least-skill-required approach--such as using a centralized manifold and PEX lines running to each faucet or appliance. Once you know which direction to go, then it is relatively easy to get the specific information on using the products.
In regards to electricity, a healthy fear is a good thing. The book Wiring a House will get you going in the right direction. Start with something easy, like re-wiring an old outlet or replacing a light fixture. (Make sure the power is turned off first.) It would be helpful to do intermediate project, such as wiring a garage, before doing a whole house.
Also, keep in mind that wiring and plumbing laws vary in different states. In some places you are not allowed to do your own plumbing and wiring at all. I don't know what the laws are like in New Mexico.
I hope this helps!
Thomas J. Elpel
August 30th, 2005
Thank you for a thoughtful response. I think one of the most important things you have shared is about being locked into a thought pattern by habit. Merely reacting by making the best decision at any given moment has led us to the point of where we are. So good reactive decision making skills are not necessarily a benefit to progressive thinking. The wife and I are having the most serious discussions about life during the 20+ years we have been married. We are talking about matters of the heart, our fears, our hopes, and we are beginning to dream again rather than merely react. I will be sharing your response with her on the commute home tonight and will stay in touch to share the metamorphous that takes place.
August 16th, 2006
(One year later.)
I was just cleaning out some old e-mails and re-read your letter. How are you doing on your quest? Hope you are well!
Thomas J. Elpel
August 16th, 2006
Our personal quest has not yet come to reality but it is definitely in progress. We have refined our initial plan and timeframe. As it stands now, we are reviewing the plans for building a dome home. My brother, who owns an energy management and use reduction company, is quite skilled in all things construction and has agreed to handle our electrical and plumbing needs. We are planning to use radiant heating and ceiling fans with an air exchanger, on demand water heaters, wood & pellet fired heating source located outside the home and incorporate solar and wind energy to minimize if not eliminate our dependency upon the grid. Toilets will be bio friendly and we will use an abundance of well placed skylights to eliminate an over dependence on artificial light. Our home plan is still being refined as we are learning more and more resources where we can obtain recycled construction supplies.
Our location has changed from New Mexico to North Carolina when we really learned what our heart's desire is and that is to be around family and friends in an abundant manner instead of once a year cross country travel. Our timeline to leave California has been adjusted to Jan. 2007. Once in North Carolina we will spend our first months there looking for the right property for us to build on. We have several friends that vacillate between thinking we have lost our minds if we walk away, to thinking we are on to something worth knowing more about.
More than anything else, your work has set in motion many a late hour conversation that have brought my wife and I closer as we truly design our lives together. I speak to anyone that will listen about the whole concept of more time versus more money and mortgage free living. When someone hears what I heard in reading your material it creates an immediate dilemma of "what are you going to do about it?" As such we have received a great deal of encouragement from those folks but witnessed little personal action on their parts. We do not stand in judgment as it takes what it takes before one is ready to accept that perhaps the life and routine that they blindly fell into is not rewarding life after all no matter how much "more" one obtains. After reading your material I became dogged by the truth of what you share and live; not a day has passed since my first correspondence where my wife and I do not try to answer at least some part of the question, "what are you going to do about it?" Sometimes it has been no more than adding a note to our folder to remind us of something we want to talk about and other times it is as substantial as cultivating support or suppliers once we get there. We were able to make contact with a family living in a dome home in NC. And are attempting to start a correspondence with them as they are pioneers so to speak over there.
My wife and I have been married 20+ years and throughout our lives when we have agreed on anything we have been able to accomplish it. I have faith and confidence we are going to make a new life for ourselves, I don't need to know all the details I just needed to know my partner and I were in agreement. It is going to happen!