Summer 2013—Going Green-published by The Recorder of Greenfield, MA
The Valley guide to an eco-friendly lifestyle
Off the grid……. ………………. 19
Hilltown house makes its own amenities
A FirstDay Cottage design, Marla “BB” Brodsky’s off-the-grid home has full southern exposure and an open interior to allow maximum air circulation.
Cozy cabin off the grid
Hilltown house makes its own amenities
By ANDREA BUGBEE Special to Going Green
Winter temperatures in West Chesterfield often loom 10 degrees colder than in the valley below, but Marla “BB” Brodsky’s hilltown cabin is so warm she often sleeps with a window open.
And her house isn’t serviced for electric or oil.
“My cabin is off the grid,” explained this Philly-born blues singer who turned to Massachusetts sled dog mushing eight years ago when her daughter, Ruby Rothenberg, was born. She had wanted a career with less travel.
“[The house] is solar powered for electricity; wood burning for heat. It’s quite unique, showing how we can live more simply in a closed loop with our resources, yet in a modern, still comfortable way.”
Unobtrusively poised on 18 acres of former logging land in rural Hampshire County, Brodsky’s ecological home began as little more than a fire pit and a dog yard overlooking Smyth Pyramid, which is a peaceful, distant hill Brodsky describes as a positive vortex. Originally, her idea was to run her dog sledding business, Hilltown Wilderness Adventures, from the land. Clients would drive in for a day of dryland mushing, dog sledding, or skijoring (crosscountry skiing with a sled dog harnessed to the skier). However, as her business grew to include summer and winter adventure camps, overnight expeditions, hiking, kayaking, fishing and environmental education, Brodsky knew she needed a simple warming hut at the site.
Then her marriage ended.
“And where was I going to go with 11 sled dogs?” Brodsky asked. “So my warming hut became this beautiful eco home that, of course, busted the budget. But it’s a safe haven. It’s off the grid. There are like-minded people in the area. I feel like it was meant to be.”
The house itself is simple. It’s a post and beam design from the Walpole, N.H., company, FirstDay Cottages. Characteristic of all FirstDay designs, it is built to be aesthetically pleasing, puritanically practical and, constructed like the 16th and 17th century cottages still standing in England today, intended to withstand centuries of neglect and abuse.
West Chesterfield carpenter and neighbor Gus Perkins worked on Brodsky’s Eco cabin with builder Sarah Stull. He explained that proper insulation and the building’s open Continued on next page
Marla “BB” Brodsky of West Chesterfield poses with Topaz, one of her Alaskan sled dogs. Brodsky uses only solar power, propane and wood to power her home, which is also the site of her sled dog business, Hilltown Wilderness Adventures.
■ Off the grid: ‘There was a learning curve’
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design make it more efficient than many of the mansion-esque new homes, or the rambling old homes, people live in (and freeze in) today. Because the design is basically one tall, open space, said Perkins, “Any heat that comes into the house gets circulated more efficiently.”
In essence, Brodsky’s cabin mimics a half-gallon milk carton partitioned into three levels. The bottom level is a walk-out basement surrounded by insulating earth on three sides. The main level is one room that serves as kitchen, dining, and sitting area combined. Half of the ceiling at this level is open, which allows heat to dissipate to the top level, a comfy bedroom loft. A tiny storage space hugs the triangle peak of the roof above.
Throughout the winter, Brodsky doesn’t worry about being cold. She has a gas heater in her basement and a ferociously efficient Morso 2B classic woodstove that, at only 13 inches wide and 43 inches high, exhales like an infant dragon. When blustery blizzards begin to blow, Brodsky said, “I respond more to cloud cover.”
Brodsky’s electricity comes from eight solar panels that crown her roof in two tidy banks. These charge 12 batteries housed in a wooden box in the basement, and Brodsky has learned to monitor their charge levels. With too many overcast days, she heads to a shed outside and runs her generator until the batteries recharge.
The cabin does have a well, but no septic system. And, with two people, myriad visitors and 17 Alaskan sled dogs (6 puppies were born in 2012), the potty problem demanded stateof- the-art greenology. For the dogs, Brodsky uses a large, three-section canine waste composter fashioned after the South American Humanure Hacienda used for human waste. The
first section is for fresh additions, the second for aging, the third for collecting compost materials, such as leaves.
Next, Hilltown Wilderness Adventure guests are spared the dreaded “blue box” in lieu of a handicap accessible, composting outhouse instead. A five-gallon Belmont Springs water bottle with the front cut out makes a handy urinal, and “sitting” guests use a special insert that diverts, um, number one from number two. A nearby bucket collects used “pee paper,” and another is filled with sawdust, used as composting material for guests to sprinkle into the pit on their way out. Inside, the accommodations are just as ecological, though less rustic. There, Brodsky and daughter Ruby have a Phoenix composting toilet. A wide waste chute connects the toilet in the bathroom to a composting unit about the size of a refrigerator in the basement. Two to three times per month, Brodsky turns a crank to aerate the material, then pumps the microbial rich leachate (liquid) to the top of the pile, inoculating all with composting organisms. When full, the composted material from the Phoenix is buried on site for an additional decomposing period. The nutrient-rich material can then be used on site for fertilizer.
As the finishing touch, Brodsky has a gray water greenhouse in her backyard rather than a septic tank. Here, the house’s grey water literally goes to ground, nourishing an assortment of plants sheltered in a bright, windowed building so inviting it could double as a winter office. How many people can say that about their septic system?
“I do environmental education,” Brodsky remarked. “I want people to see the options, and it’s really relatively simple.”
But Brodsky does admit, “There Continued on next page
“ I want people to see the options.”
■ Off the grid: Monitoring energy stores
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was a learning curve that first year.” She tore her ACL and spent her first weeks in the cabin recovering from knee surgery. Without help, she would not have been able to manage the dog care, or even to get wood into the house for her wood stove.
She also had to learn little tricks, such as doing high-consumption chores like laundry during the day when solar power is plentiful. She has most modern conveniences (Internet, washer, and propane refrigerator and stove), though she has had to learn to monitor her energy stores and to adjust accordingly.
Brodsky, unlike most Americans, is out of the habit of taking energy for granted.
Standing in the sunny, south-facing cottage, Gus Perkins reflected, “It would be great to set up off-the-grid houses for people who are living below the poverty line, but they just can’t afford to build them.”
Brodsky anticipates recouping her up-front costs within about five years of energy savings. Then, her dream is for a solar-powered hot water tank, which she expects will cost between $3,000 and $5,000.
In the meantime, she said, “I feel I’m somebody who has a vision and makes it happen. The vision here is to connect people with nature, animal nature and human nature. That’s part of what I’ve built here. It’s not spoken, it’s just happening.”