Do it Different

March 20, 2013 § 9 Comments


Last week the Hewitt family had a big night out, which means we stoked the fire, tromped out to the car and motored a mile-and-a-half down to the Cabot Library for a presentation.

The big show that night was by a fellow named Richard Czaplinski, a fellow of some renown in these parts for his commitment to low-input living. Richard is 72 but could pass for 55, and like most people who’ve figured out how they want to live their life and then actually lived it that way, he has a wonderfully grounded, low-key manner. I’d met him a couple times before and always liked the fella.

Anyway, Richard came equipped with a slide show (on an actual slide projector, no less; none of this fancy-shmancy Powerpoint baloney for him) and something like a half-century of experience and stories. It was, for Penny and me at least, a somewhat eye-opening experience.

By contemporary American standards, we lead a pretty simple, low-input life. We power our home on somewhere between three and four kilowatt hours per day, which is good bit less than the average family of four (29 kw/day, last time I checked). We heat only with wood, burning somewhere in the neighborhood of 6 cords per year. We cook primarily on wood, and  heat our water via solar hot water collectors and the cookstove. All-in-all, ours is a fairly “green” existence, if you’re into that sort of thing.

And yet. Here’s Richard in his 800 square-foot home, burning a cord-and-a-half per winter, existing quite contentedly on the power provided by a single 75-watt solar panel (for comparison’s sake, we have 1800-watts of solar, and still use a gasoline generator in the winter months). There are a couple of factors in Richard’s favor: First, he’s not raising children in his little house, with his piddly solar panel. Second, he has fairly recently gotten married and now lives part time with his wife, in her relatively commodious home. But that doesn’t take away from the decades he spent in his place, listening music through a car radio (so chosen because it operates on the same 12-volt power supplied by his panel), crapping into a bucket toilet, and preserving his garden harvest in the stone walled confines of his root cellar.

We’re not really interested in downscaling our lives because we feel compelled to reduce our carbon footprint, prepare for the end of cheap energy, or gird ourselves against financial collapse. Those may very well be legitimate reasons, but to me, it feels as if they are rooted in fear and negativity and I suspect if they are the only motivating factors, the path they lead to is not going to be a very fulfilling one. Instead, what we have observed is that the more we downsize our lives and expectations, the less dependent we are on the dominant money economy. And the less dependent we are on the dominant money economy, the richer our lives become and the more our sense what is possible expands. It is as if by exchanging the faux affluence of money and stuff and even some of the presumed necessities of 21st century American life, we open ourselves to an entirely different form of wealth and connection. It was probably there all along, but I’ve found that all that other crap has a nifty way of obscuring it, to the point that it’s hardly recognizable.

One of the prevailing themes and topics of discussion in our life these days is finding the correct balance between these disparate forms of affluence. I can’t pretend that money is not a motivating factor, or that we don’t sometimes wish we had more of it, rather than less. I can’t pretend to know what the correct balance is, although I feel as if we are getting closer to it every day.

There are definitely times – and this past week has been one of them – when we look around our 2200-square foot house, with all the upkeep it demands and all the shit we’ve managed to fill it with and say “what the hell were we thinking?” The truth is, of course, that at the time, we weren’t thinking. We just did.

Don’t get me wrong, we love our place. It’s a good house, and we know it intimately, having built the vast majority of it with our own four hands. It is where both Fin and Rye were born, and I can point to the very spot on our living room floor where both of them came into this world. It keeps us warm and dry and, for lack of a better term, it just feels like home. These things are worth a lot. A whole lot.

But if we could do it over again, would we do it different? I’d be lying if I said we wouldn’t.







§ 9 Responses to Do it Different

  • Jennifer Fisk says:

    So what would you do differently and why? I’m just curious and wonder if it would be something really significant.

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Smaller, maybe 1000-1200 sq ft. Some sort of large mass wood heater. More salvaged materials. Systems to repurpose grey water/human waste. A dirt floored root cellar. Much less generous PV system a heck of a lot more than 75 watts, but maybe only half what we have now. Think of it as enforced conservation.

      I’m sure there’s more, but that’s a good start.

  • Ann says:

    I enjoyed this piece as it really resonates where my husband and I are currently. We are trying to figure out how to do more with less, even thinking of going extremely tiny for our living space. We’re a ways from that, but I find that every time I give more stuff away I feel better and better.

  • Anne says:

    I don’t know your set-up but you might consider this thought. We rely solely on wood heat through an outdoor boiler in what I consider ‘little house on the arctic prairie’. Folks usually laugh when I tell them we don’t even have an option for electric/gas/oil heat. The heat enters the house in the basement through a pipe. In the winter when the stove is going, we divert the heat to our hot water tank before it runs upstairs. My dream is to run it through some pex or radiant flooring in a greenhouse on the way to the house to *really* multipurpose the heat. Something like this might cut down on the electricity you use to heat water if you have the capacity to do it- just a thought and a few extra copper pipes!

  • Anne says:

    Aw, shoot. I should have read down…. I should add that our stove is not one of the fancy new ones, we re-purposed an old sauna to ‘house’ the 100-gallon barrel old monstrosity to heat the ol’ farmhouse, which also had to be converted (anything is possible!)

  • Wendy H says:

    Great read, Ben, but GEEZ – that size is practically a MANSION (by my ‘tiny house’ standards) – but with kids, I’m sure it will be needed when they reach the teen years. Then, the house may not be big enough! LOL

    Downsizing can be painful – it’s a LOT of work trying to get rid of stuff you no longer have an attachment to (or affinity for) and trying to keep most of it from the landfill. As you know, I’m going through that process now in prep for my tiny build out. Ugh! Still, it’s very cleansing to the soul!

    Maybe downsizing, in your case, could be looked at long-range, like when the kids are grown. Many often consider splitting part of the house off to build out as an apartment for them, or other family/guests who visit (thus, the term ‘mother-in-law apartment’). Even some use it as an income generator.

    One of my friends did this with her place last year, and it’s showing to be VERY handy. She now has a separate space when her kids come to visit – AND – she rents it on Air B&B occasionally in between visits for added income!

    Plus, with a farm, you have other options. Many folks would love to pay to learn about what you’ve done and how you’ve done it. helps farmers and vacationers find each other. (Maybe not now, but someday, this might be a good way to go if you really enjoy that part and/or get burned out on writing!)

    Agritourism is on the rise, especially here in VT, so a great article to read and share with your farmer friends is at

    • Ben Hewitt says:

      Yeah, it’s sorta embarrassing, like admitting you drive a SUV or something.

      We’ve talked about ways to split the house up. But jeez, I might have to get rid of my entertainment room. And what about the indoor lap pool? It’s really very complicated.

      • Wendy says:

        Yeah, some of those necessities are hard to give up! I’m actually looking at a different setup – tiny buildings instead of one big house. Also considering an intentional community/co-housing situation – for writers and artists. We’ll see what plays out long-term. The dreaming of it is the fun part! Now, I gotta almost get to work … well, once the snow melts and mud is gone for sure!

  • […] is our place. Or most of it, anyway. Despite what I wrote a couple of weeks back, I actually kind of like it. It is simple and somewhat rustic, and at times […]

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