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Building & Living in an Off Grid Tiny Cabin Interview With Laura LaVoie

I got to interview Laura LaVoie of 120SquareFeet.com and feature her as one of our guests on here by transcribing the interview as well.

Laura lives with her husband Matt in an off-grid tiny cabin in the mountains of North Carolina. They use a composting toilet and a really unique showering system.

They built their home with no prior construction experience what so ever and left a big house in the suburbs of Atlanta to live this dream. Pictured below is their Tumbleweed house they built with the help of their encouraging friends.

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Laura LaVoie's Off Grid Tumbleweed Tiny Cabin

Images via Laura LaVoie of 120squarefeet.com

I encourage you to read the interview transcript or listen to the podcast on YouTube below:


Alex: I’m Alex Pino with TinyHouseTalk.com and I’m here with Laura LaVoie of 120SquareFeet.com and we’re going to start by asking her how did this all start. Go back in time and tell us how this whole tiny house adventure started for you and your husband.

Laura: Hehe. Well it is actually something that Matt had wanted to do pretty much his whole life he always wanted to build a house with his own hands that he can live in and it was sort of a complimentary dream for me. You know I wanted to live independently and self sufficiently so building a house seemed like a great way to do that.

So it started a long time ago researching a bunch of different things. We researched earthships and masonry. And then eventually stumbled upon the tiny house which is perfect for us.

Alex: Awesome and prior to this did you guys have any experience in building things?

Laura: No, nothing at all. Aside from random you know at home projects like painting and maybe refinishing a floor or something like that no we’ve never built anything before in our lives.

Alex: Oh wow that’s awesome. So what was it like building the cabin especially doing so without any of that construction experience?

Laura: Hehe well we made it even more difficult for ourselves because not only did we have no construction experience but we decided to build it on a mountain about halfway up the mountain without road access. So the biggest challenge for us was to bring all of our stuff up to the building site which we had to do either by hand or on an ATV. So it was pretty challenging. You know not only did we have to start from scratch and learn as we went along but we also had to go through the physical challenges of getting all of the stuff where it needed to be before we could even start building.

Alex: Wow. So I’m curious how did you guys build up the guts to commit to doing it?

Laura: You know we just did it. We spent so long researching it and deciding it was something that we wanted to do and eventually we just decided that all we could do was give it a go and start building. You know I don’t know if I’d still say we have guts but you know it just came down to finally getting started with it instead of waiting.

Alex: Right and how long would you say.. Between the time that it’s a dream, and you’re talking about it and researching, like you’re going online and looking at all these fantasy ideas and how long did it take for you guys to get started after that?

Laura: It took us about two years to get to the point from where we knew this was something we wanted to do until the very first day of doing the work. And that really started when we bought the land and we knew at that point we had to do something. So we bought the land and we spent the next two years deciding exactly what we wanted to do and how we wanted to do it and then we broke ground on our house and started building.

Alex: Would you say that when you bought the land is that what truly committed you guys to going through with it all the way?

Laura: Yeah absolutely that was the big part for us and you know it’s different for a lot of tiny house builders because a lot of tiny houses are built on trailers with the intention to take them around and you know to different places and be mobile with them but we wanted a very specific part of land in a very specific part of the country so that was the first step for us: finding land exactly where we wanted it so that was exactly what we wanted and once we had that we were ready to go.

Alex: Can you tell us what your life was like before all of this? Before the cabin?

Laura: It was pretty ordinary. We, for the last ten years, before we moved up here we lived in Atlanta. We both worked typical 9 to 5 jobs. I was working as a recruiter for the temporary staffing industry which I had been doing for years before that too before we moved to Atlanta.

We lived in a 2700 square foot house in the suburbs of Atlanta. And we enjoyed it we had parties and you know friends over all the time. It was a cool place to live but it just wasn’t fulfilling for us. There was something missing. It was perfectly comfortable and we were relatively content but it just was kind of ordinary.

Alex: Okay. Can you, speaking of friends and family, how did they react to this change that you guys made in your life?

Laura: (Laughing) A lot of them are still a little confused even though we’ve been doing it for a while. But most people are pretty encouraging and supportive of what we’ve done. A lot of them have come up to visit us. We have parties up here too because we have a lot of outdoor space so we can have camping get-togethers, play music, cook outside, and things like that. So a lot of people come up to visit us here. Which is really cool to have a lot of people involved. Actually we had a number of people help us build the house itself. We had a camping party and a bunch of people would come up and help us raise the walls or do the siding and things like that which was a lot of fun. But most people are pretty supportive.

Alex: That’s cool, is there a change in the beginning when you first introduced the idea to your friends and your family, you know what’s the difference now since you’re doing it compared to before when you were just announcing it and you know you had the idea of it?

Laura: You know I think a lot of people don’t expect you to actually go through with some of the things you say so when we told people we were building a very very tiny house in the middle of the mountains I think a lot of people were like, “sure they will,” but as we continued doing it people just kind of got encouraged by it. A lot of our friends started doing, you know they weren’t building tiny houses but they started to do things that they had always dreamed of doing as well which was kind of neat to be that sort of inspiration for them.

Alex: That was my next question I was going to ask you if you guys inspired any of your family and friends to make any similar changes? Maybe not so drastic like you guys but did it motivate it them to do things, I guess it did..

Laura: Yeah I think it did. I think it motivated them to do a lot of different types of things. I never want to be the person that says, “oh everybody needs to downsize their lives and everybody needs to be moving into a really tiny cabin,” I think everybody has a passion for something different but we had friends.. For instance I have a friend who decided she wanted to get into roller derby and shortly after we started building this and we were being really encouraging to all of our friends to do things she started practicing and trying out for roller derby. So that’s what made her happy and I was happy I was able to encourage that.

Alex: That’s a really cool point I love that about how when you get passionate about something in life it’s almost like it’s contageous and you’re right it’s not like everybody has to do the same thing but it’s cool that like you guys just wanted to do this and you’re obviously super passionate about it and I love how it brought out that into some of the close people in your life that’s just so cool.

Laura: Yeah.

Alex: In what positive ways has the house and the lifestyle changed your life? Now compared to before when you were in a 2700 square foot house?

Laura: Sure. We feel a lot more engaged in our lives now. Not only with the way we live. We have a lot of things now that are chores because we live off the grid. And our lives in Atlanta was so easy where everything was taken for granted and now there are things that we have to do that certainly most people don’t have to worry about doing. Like all of our water comes from a spring on the land. So we have to collect that and bring it up to the house and put it through our water purifier and things like that.

So we have those kind of day to day chores but at the same time we feel a lot more engaged with everything else. We spend a lot of time in the closest city which is Asheville and we absolutely love Asheville, North Carolina. So we go out, we meet people, we enjoy the area, we enjoy the mountains, we enjoy the city. We spend a lot of time outdoors. Doing a lot of outdoor activities which you know is interesting because we have a very very tiny house so we expanded instead of building more space and more room we expand it by building outdoor places where we can just enjoy the mountains. So we feel a lot more engaged in life in general.

Alex: So what it is like in the mountains like how far away are you from Asheville, how long does it take to get your water, what is it like using the toilet that you guys have, you know things like that? Like your everyday things and eating, getting groceries, and things like that – can you tell us about that?

Laura: Sure. We are about 30 minutes north of Asheville. So a 30 minute drive is no big deal to get into town. When we lived in Atlanta just to get to one side of Atlanta to the other could take you an hour or more so even being 30 minutes from the biggest city in the area is really kind of nice.

Alex: And it must be more of a relaxing drive, right?

Laura: Oh much. My stress level is way down from living in the big city. Driving around here is much easier.

But living on the mountain like I said we collect our water from the spring it doesn’t take that long the biggest part is that we kind of built our house half way up the mountain without road access so that means we have to physically carry jugs of water up to the house so we have 4 gallon containers and Matt usually carries those because they’re heavy. So bring up to containers a day and we use maybe one container a day and we just keep rotating it in and out. So it really isn’t a hardship to bring it up.

We have things like the traditional composting toilet system so that’s a matter of going through that process and making sure that that gets taken care of as needed.

As far as cooking we built an outdoor kitchen that we use which is great because when the weather’s nice we can go outside and cook on the camp oven that we have which is really awesome. So we spend a lot of time outside cooking and eating.

Alex: So I’m a little more curious about and I’m sure readers might be too about the toilet – how often do you have to empty it out?

Laura: Usually we empty it out about once or twice a week.

Alex: That’s not too bad.

Laura: No not at all.

Alex: What about showering?

Laura: We have a very creative shower set up. Because we decided not to plumb our house with traditional plumbing (I don’t know why we just decided not to) we actually built a shower out of a garden sprayer. The kind that you use to spray poison ivy something like that. It’s got the pump and so you fill it up with hot water and you pump it up and it creates a pressurized shower. And so it’s really pretty nice and comfortable. I really like our shower it’s kind of the coolest thing we built.

Alex: That’s cool! So happiness level now with the tiny house in the mountains compared to before?

Laura: I don’t know that I could put a number on it it is so much less stressful. We’re very content, very happy living up here in the mountains. There was a lot of unknown going into it because not only were we completely changing our lifestyles but I was quitting my full-time job to become a freelance writer so I didn’t know how that was going to go and truly it could’ve been very stressful but I’ve been very very pleased with the decision to make that change and it’s made me immensely happier.

Alex: That’s great to hear. And for your husband?

Laura: Oh yes. He is much much happier up here. He still works for a major company but everybody in the company is allowed to work remotely so he’s able to work from up here and we work together in the tiny house. (Laughing). Which is kind of funny but we do it. So yeah he’s a lot happier up here and he’s a lot more engaged with his life in general.

Alex: So how do you guys, I didn’t realize that you both of you worked out of the tiny house, what is that like?

Laura: (laughing) You know it’s not so bad at all. Obviously we work a few feet from one another. I sit at the kitchen table that we have in there with my laptop and I’m a writer so I don’t take phone calls or do things like that typically so I just sit and type away and he does a lot of things where he’ll be on conference calls and he’ll do a lot of work but he gets to work out of his tablet which is a really cool set up so he can sit on the couch and work all day. And he’ll take the tablet outside and use the table we have out there and work from outside as well.

Alex: Oh cool that’s nice. So to start wrapping things up here I want to know do you feel like you guys have a rich life now?

Laura: Oh very much so. We have a very rich life now. What we don’t have in a lot of extra money because obviously I quit a very well paying job to do something where I get paid occasionally. What I make up with that is a lot of time where I feel a lot more in control of my time and what I do. I think it’s really paid off making this kind of move and simplifying my life and all that sort of stuff.

Alex: That’s awesome and really great to hear and I’m sure he feels the same way. What do you most excited for because of these changes for your future?

Laura: Living simply and living deliberately is kind of the best lesson we could’ve had because like no matter what happens in the future like even if we can’t keep living in a tiny house for some crazy reason we know that we’re able to live very simply and we’re able to engage with our own lives in ways that we didn’t realize we were missing before. So I’m really looking forward to seeing what the future holds and I don’t really know what that is besides a lot of projects because I can’t sit still so you know I’m really excited about where this can go and where this can take us.

Alex: I saw on your blog that your starting a book.

Laura: Yes I am I intend to have it out sometime in the Spring of next year. It’s called 120 Tips for Tiny Living. So I’ve been putting that together and I’m excited to get that out.

Alex: That’s awesome! I’m excited for it as well and I’m sure anybody listening might be really excited about it too. So just to wrap things up just let our listeners know where they can find you, follow along with what you’re doing, your book progress, as well as anything else you might be up to in the future.

Laura: Sure, absolutely! My website is 120squarefeet.com and I keep it pretty up to date with what’s going on here at the tiny house and you can check the progress and things like that on that website as well.

Alex: Awesome Laura thank you so much for taking the time to hang out with us for a little while.

Laura: Sure thank you Alex I appreciate it.


To learn more about Laura and Matt head on over to her blog at 120 Square Feet.

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Alex is a contributor and editor for TinyHouseTalk.com and the always free Tiny House Newsletter. He has a passion for exploring and sharing tiny homes (from yurts and RVs to tiny cabins and cottages) and inspiring simple living stories. We invite you to send in your story and tiny home photos too so we can re-share and inspire others towards a simple life too. Thank you!
{ 5 comments… add one }
  • November 20, 2012, 11:45 am

    This was great! Thanks so much for the transcript as I need to watch my bandwidth being on Satellite. Can’t wait to read her book!

    • November 23, 2012, 7:04 pm

      You’re welcome Deborah thanks for reading! Glad you liked it!

  • November 20, 2012, 6:44 pm

    Thanks for the encouragement, Deborah! Expect the book (which is actually called 120 *Ideas* for Tiny Living – I had a brain freeze on the call with Alex) in the Spring of 2013.

  • LaMar
    November 24, 2012, 10:42 am

    Hi Laura its LaMar,

    Nice cabin and I also live off-grid. I was wondering what power system you are using if any for lights, communication etc. ?

    I use a small 580 watt solar and 400 watt wind system which is more than enough to have some of the niceties like a DC water pump, tv, fridge, stereo, laptop, and power my gadgets.

    Do you use propane at all ?

    A small Eccotemp OD water heater and a DC Shurflo water pump would give you a nice hot shower and water for doing dishes and uses just pennies of propane a day.

    Do you live in the cabin full tme or is this a vacation cabin or for temporary living ?

    Look forward to your responses.


    • November 28, 2012, 9:03 am

      Here is a link to our solar power system http://www.120squarefeet.com/2012/07/sunny-days-solar-intallation.html

      It is a 490 watt system that handles everything we need including lights and powering our computers since we both work from the tiny house. Communication is exclusively cell phone.

      We only use propane for our outdoor camp oven and our ventless heater. We also use butane for our burners.

      I like our shower design with the hand pump. It kind of makes me feel connected to my daily chores. It is a nice hot shower.

      We have chosen to travel for the winter so as of right now we aren’t staying in the house but it is somewhere we can live in the winter if we wanted to.

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