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I had a nightmare about my miniature off-grid house with no space, no power, and a hive of bees on fire.
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I had a nightmare about my miniature off-grid house with no space, no power, and a hive of bees on fire.

It is currently November and the time is 3 in the morning. I am unable to fall asleep as I hear the sound of rats chewing on the electrical wires inside the walls of my home. If you have ever experienced the sound of mice or rats scurrying in the walls, you understand how bothersome it can be. Now, envision that noise with only a thin layer of MDF separating it from your head. The constant scratching and gnawing is preventing me from getting any rest.

Yesterday evening, my main goal was to reassure my kids that the noise was simply coming from a squirrel family who has created a home on our roof. As residents of an off-the-grid farm, we make an effort to show compassion towards all living beings. However, rats can still cause me to feel anxious due to the fact that according to my online findings, they have a tendency to gnaw on electrical wire insulation in order to keep their teeth sharp. Therefore, while the electricity may still work, there is a higher chance of a sudden fire occurring.

How did the rodents gain entrance? Let me first clarify what my dwelling truly is and how my residence came to be situated here. Over the past three years, I have been residing off the grid. Initially in a mobile home and now in a miniature abode measuring seven meters long, two and a half meters wide, and with sufficient height to accommodate two loft-style bedrooms beneath a roof adorned with solar panels. A small house essentially functions as a well-constructed caravan. It is a heavily insulated, A-rated structure with triple-glazed windows. While equipped with an air source heat pump, there is no connection to the power grid. Despite weighing six metric tonnes, the house is situated on a trailer with wheels, making it subject to less strict planning permission regulations. The water supply stems from a 1,000-liter tank propped on pallets at the back of the house. In the near future, it will be replenished by rainwater caught from the roof, but currently, it is sourced from a nearby field through a hosepipe. Wastewater is disposed of in a man-made marsh I dug out by hand and filled with gravel. Human waste is treated through composting methods.

Tiny homes are becoming increasingly popular in the United States, with an estimated 10,000 owners. However, my own tiny home is located in a quiet corner of a three-acre plot of farmland in rural Essex, England. This particular area has been home to rabbits, deer, and kestrels for the past 20 to 30 years. When I first arrived, the land was overgrown with nettles, brambles, and thistles. Moving here was a part of my effort to live sustainably and explore all the ways that an individual can contribute to saving the planet and humanity from the various crises of climate change, pollution, deforestation, and extractive capitalism.

Living off-grid is mad. You’d have to be a lunatic to choose to do it. And, it turns out, I am that lunatic.

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As the pandemic nears its end, I was given the chance to reflect on my life and make changes. This led to my separation and subsequent divorce. Many people continue on in dissatisfying situations simply because it is what they are accustomed to. However, at times, life requires us to reevaluate our decisions and break free from our routines. Throughout this experience…

For a decade, I was concerned about climate change and its impact on the environment. My awareness peaked while residing in a flat in southern London, but constantly traveling for my children’s comedy performances worldwide. I traveled across the Atlantic numerous times, made four trips to Australia and two to New Zealand. I was undoubtedly exceeding my fair portion of the Earth’s carbon emissions. Additionally, my eating habits were not ideal, relying on heavily processed meals, takeout, and alcohol. I recognized the issue that needed to be addressed.

I received a copy of Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s initial River Cottage Cookbook and eagerly consumed it. This led me to realize that my future would consist of living in the countryside and striving to be self-sufficient. However, my first obstacle was finding a way to grow food. This proved to be challenging since I only had a small garden covered in concrete. One night, after returning home from a comedy show, I stumbled upon a bathtub on the street. Determined, I brought it home and managed to squeeze it into my garden. The next day, I purchased compost, making multiple trips until there was enough to plant potatoes. To my surprise, they turned out to be the most delicious ones I had ever tasted.

Afterwards, each time I relocated, I gained a larger backyard. I left London for Essex. The bathtub was exchanged for vegetable plots and fruit trees. However, the homes and vehicles also increased in size, as did my carbon emissions. At one point, my family and I resided in a spacious five-bedroom house.

James Campbell and his son and daughter in their tiny off-grid home in Essex, England

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Returning to the topic of divorce, I found myself with the opportunity to consider my desired lifestyle. I have always found joy in smaller living spaces and have a passion for camping, where I have to carefully choose items that are truly necessary. In Scotland, I frequently go backpacking and only pack what is essential since I have to carry everything with me.

My resolution was to purchase a caravan and lead an off-grid lifestyle. It was a simple four-person mobile home, not a luxurious stationary one. It was from around three decades ago and cost me 2,000 pounds. I added a solar panel on the roof, connected an inverter to the electricity, and installed a wood-burning stove. I resided in it at a campsite owned by a friend in Suffolk. My children, who are now eight and 17, would come to stay every second weekend, and yes, it was a bit tight and crowded. I will never forget my daughter taking a bath in a metal tub in front of the fire, and how I would stumble over my son’s legs to get to the other end of the caravan.

One year later, I was offered the opportunity to relocate my caravan to a field that was not being used. The area was full of thistles and old, tangled nettles that stung like ferrets. In one corner, there was an abandoned orchard, so I cleared a spot and placed my caravan under a plum tree. This became my new residence as I gradually removed the thistles and added new trees and vegetable gardens. After a year, my significant other and I made the decision to purchase a small house.

I had the option to purchase a frame and complete the remaining work with assistance from tradespeople. However, we ultimately chose to splurge on the high-end option. We discovered a British company that offered delivery of the entire house on a truck. According to them, all we had to do was turn it on. The cost was £65,000.

I wish I could say that the house was fantastic upon its arrival in October 2022. Unfortunately, it became apparent that the builders lacked knowledge about living off-grid, electricity, and being honest. Initially, I tried to give them the benefit of the doubt, thinking that perhaps our house was just an unfortunate case. However, I eventually came to the realization that they were likely incompetent and well-intentioned but not skilled enough for the task at hand. My final conclusion is that their business is a malicious way of profiting off of deceiving unsuspecting buyers with greenwashing tactics.

There were numerous issues with the house that was delivered. It did not match the one depicted in the brochure. We specifically requested a pitched roof in order to have solar panels facing the winter sun. However, the house that was delivered had a mostly flat roof.

The outside of James Campbell’s tiny off-grid home in Essex, EnglandView image in fullscreen

Initially, all of the electrical systems were not functioning. The cause was unknown. The house was left vacant for a month until technicians were brought in from Latvia to address the issue. Surprisingly, the construction company, who boasted of being British on their website, outsourced the building of the house to Latvia. This resulted in a larger carbon footprint due to transportation across Europe.

It was eventually discovered that the home was not intended to function without being connected to the main power grid. The converter and batteries were affixed to the exterior of the house, leaving them vulnerable to water damage during rainfall. Additionally, the company failed to properly ground the house, posing a potential safety hazard. They also did not consider the power capacity needed to run multiple electrical appliances on an off-grid system. Their installation of an electric stove and oven resulted in blowing a fuse whenever the oven was turned on.

For 365 days, there was a continuous stream of people traveling to and from Latvia. During this time, we received impossible instructions on how to fix the issues ourselves (such as scanning a QR code on the inverter, which identified it as a socket set). Despite our efforts, we were constantly blamed for the problems because we apparently didn’t have a good understanding of the house’s inner workings. Finally, we reached a breaking point and asked for a refund, but our request was denied. We considered taking legal action for false advertisement, but our lawyer informed us that the company was heavily in debt and winning the case would be pointless as they would most likely go bankrupt. Therefore, we decided not to pursue legal action.

We made an effort to forgive them and look for a solution to resolve the situation. They consented to hiring a company based in the UK to replace the faulty solar power system and also replaced the electric oven and hob with gas ones to reduce the strain on the electrical system.


One day, while in the midst of everything, I heard a loud snapping sound, similar to a whip or a bolt of lightning. Curious, I began to survey the area and stumbled upon a group of bees. But to my surprise, they were on fire. As I looked closer, I noticed a hole in the wall where the old inverter used to be. It appeared that the bees had made a nest around the exposed cable and when they made contact with the live circuit, they were electrocuted and caught on fire. If a human were to touch that 240V wire, it could have been fatal.

After resolving the electrical issues, we could finally enjoy the luxury of turning on the hot water. However, we soon noticed that water was dripping from the bottom of the house, indicating a leak.

Three plumbers were called to address the plumbing issue. One of them had to create openings under the house in order to reach the plumbing. It was discovered that the individuals who had constructed the house had failed to properly connect the washing machine and shower to the drain. As a result, the excess greywater was leaking into the insulation beneath the house.

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It took them approximately two months to deal with and, as expected, needed them to bring in another team from Latvia to substitute the bathroom. Meanwhile, no one considered sealing the access hatch that the plumber had created. This is how the rats gained entry.

Even in the most ideal circumstances, living in a tiny house is not a simple task. The transition from a traditional house to a tiny one came with numerous challenges. The first and most significant hurdle was downsizing my possessions by 90%. Anything that had not been used in a year was either donated to a charity shop or thrown away. In a tiny house, every belonging must have a designated spot, so one must consider, “Where would I store this?” If there is no suitable place for an item, it is not worth purchasing.

The most difficult thing for me to part with was my collection of books. I have always had a significant number of books, as many people do. We often view our books as a means of showcasing our identity to others. However, I made a conscious effort to recognize that by holding onto books that I have already read, I was preventing someone else from experiencing them. As a result, I donated 90% of my collection to a charity shop. Currently, I only have a small shelf with approximately 50 books remaining. These mostly consist of irreplaceable reference books on permaculture and sustainable food growth.

Because there are no solid walls between the sleeping lofts and the rest of the house, I definitely know if someone is snoring. Practically speaking, we are all in the same room, but I think this brings us together emotionally. The concept of a child having their own room is quite a new one. Some people might say making a child separate from their parents at night isn’t healthy. I suppose it depends on your philosophies of parenting. I’m very keen on closeness and cuddling, and it helps me to hear my children breathing as they sleep.

Spending winter in a tiny house can be challenging. The limited outdoor space, which is usually a treasure for children, loses its appeal. As a result, most activities have to be done indoors, which can feel a bit suffocating. To break up the monotony, our family often visits the cinema, the library, and the swimming pool during the colder months. However, there is nothing wrong with embracing the natural tilt of the Earth and slowing down in the darker days. Since we do not have a TV, the kids watch whatever is available on iPlayer on my laptop while we cuddle up together.

I was raised in a single-parent household on a council estate, where our small house had thin walls that allowed us to hear our neighbors. We had moved there to leave a bad situation behind. Despite the challenges, I was content with our simple life. Our tiny council house lacked central heating, but we had an open fire in the lounge that also heated our water. I have fond memories of playing hide-and-seek with my mother and sibling when the man from the Co-op came to collect the £1 for life assurance, as we couldn’t afford it at the time. Just to clarify, this is not a project for wealthy individuals or a game for privileged hippies.

James Campbell in the field in front of his tiny off-grid home in Essex, England

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During that time period, I learned the value of living within my financial capabilities, although it wasn’t until I reached middle age that I truly understood its importance. Society has led us to believe that items once considered luxuries are now essential to our daily lives. As a result, we often find ourselves in a constant cycle of spending beyond our means to acquire unnecessary items in order to impress people we may not even care for.

However, this past winter, there was a shortage of electricity to supply all the necessary energy. Due to shorter days and lower sun levels, the solar panels did not produce much energy. While there is an available petrol generator, the house cannot be connected to it and, surprisingly, the manufacturers do not have a solution for this issue.

Having inadequate electricity availability for three months annually forces us to prioritize our usage. Lower-wattage items are manageable and do not significantly impact our power supply, such as the internet, lighting, and charging equipment. However, high-wattage appliances that generate heat or movement, such as the immersion heater, shower pump, toaster, and fridge-freezer, require careful consideration.

During the wintertime, there were several days where I had sufficient sunlight to heat up the water for a shower, yet not enough to pump it to the shower. As an author for children’s books, I typically go to two or three elementary schools every week and it’s crucial to appear somewhat clean. In some cases, taking a cold shower is the only choice.

I turned off the refrigerator in November after realizing that I would not have access to a working generator and would need to conserve electricity. Fortunately, as the days grew shorter and the battery level decreased, the outside temperature dropped and I was able to use a plastic container on my front porch to keep my food cold. Being on a plant-based diet also helped since not all of my food required refrigeration. It wasn’t until mid-February, when there was sufficient sunlight, that I was able to turn the fridge back on. Now, I can eat hummus without having to check its smell first – until next November, when I will switch off the fridge again.


Currently, the rats have left, the power is functioning, and there are no more leaks. Our next plan is to purchase additional solar panels for the front of the house. With luck, next winter I will have access to hot showers and a functional refrigerator. I can feel the arrival of spring in the atmosphere. The fruit trees are preparing to bloom and the wrens are serenading.

We hosted a tree-planting event in January with over 40 attendees. Luckily, the weather was pleasant, but we had mentioned in the invitation that there would be no indoor space available. The night before, I overlooked checking the outlets and accidentally left my son’s iPad charging, causing its battery to drain completely. As a result, there was no hot water until some guests had already arrived. However, my Uncle Stephen saved the day by building and tending a fire pit outside, which became the focal point for everyone to gather around and stay warm. We shared stories and had a good time. I also successfully served pumpkin soup made from pumpkins grown in the field. And of course, we managed to plant 200 trees.

Do I have any regrets about getting involved in the tiny-house ordeal? Definitely not. While I do wish we had used a different company or built our own from the ground up, I absolutely love living off the grid. The greatest benefit is that I have become more mindful of my lifestyle and resource consumption. This awareness has brought about transformation. What matters to me is taking action and sharing my experience with others. Despite the challenges, such as rodents and aggressive bees, I have never been happier.

Source: theguardian.com