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Off the grid 

How a couple's nature-friendly dream home ran up against the law

For most homeowners, freedom of expression means selecting from an array of kitchen cabinet knobs at the KB Home design center, or choosing a daring shade of semi-gloss paint for the hallway half-bath. But Durham residents Jesse Crossen and Hope Donny-Clark are anything but mainstream. In a culture that dictates homeowners aspire toward granite countertops and walk-in closets, they're downright heretic.

For their first home, the recently engaged couple decided not to aim for luxury, but to create an ecologically sound, creative and welcoming space with less than $5,000, plus a lot of sweat equity.

Over the course of six months, they plotted the shape--an arched structure that resembles a covered wagon, approximately 8 feet wide by 12 feet high. It would have a wooden floor, a loft bed, a composting toilet, a rain catchment and a bucket shower. And the whole thing would be bolted on top of a car-towed flatbed trailer. They took to calling their dream home the urban caravan because they hoped it would rove about, reclaiming unused urban spaces in Durham.

"We wanted a home that we built ourselves, to reflect not only our earthbound environmentalist-type values, but also drawing on our creativity. A mobile hideaway and living art object to spend the next couple of years in Durham, living rent-free(ish) by our own bootstraps," Donny-Clark explained to family and friends in her blog ( "In short, it's an adventure in creative housing."

While the basic design plans remained intact, the couple had to compromise on their urban infill idea after realizing that the city's zoning codes wouldn't allow them to park what is essentially a mobile home wherever they pleased. A neighbor offered them a parking space on her extra lot, and the caravan was modified to become more of an eco-friendly urban hut.

As the designs took shape in May in an alley behind their rental apartment in Durham's Trinity Park neighborhood, reactions by passers-by were mostly supportive. To some observers, it seemed a quaint project dreamed up by idealistic kids.

The first questions people ask reveal a subtext of doubt, says Donny-Clark. "People say, 'What are you going to do in the winter?' and what they're really saying is, 'You're going to freeze to death.'"

It is easy to dismiss their views as naïve. By appearance alone, the couple seem young enough to get carded for cigarettes. But once they start talking, it becomes clear they are both wise beyond their years. Crossen, 24, is a founding member of Durham-based industrial design firm Tackle Design. Donny-Clark, 21, is a teacher at Schoolhouse of Wonder, an environmental education program for elementary school-age children at West Point on the Eno park.

Crossen speaks of their tent-like living with the kind of nonchalance that could only come from someone who grew up living off the grid. His boyhood home in rural Chatham County didn't have electricity or indoor plumbing. "These are relatively minor changes," he says. "Most people in the world are living this kind of lifestyle."

Donny-Clark speaks with insight that comes from growing up fast--she skipped middle school, entered college at age 14, and was living on her own by age 15. After college, she spent a summer living out of a backpack as a member of the Rocky Mountain youth corps in Colorado.

But while living off the grid may be second-nature to them, living under the radar isn't quite as easy. Days before they were set to move the trailer that holds their new home out of the alley and onto the neighbor's lot, they got a call from the Durham County Planning department. Durham Planning Director Frank Duke informed the couple their dream home was illegal. According to zoning rules, they couldn't park in a residential area because their structure exceeded the maximum width by one and one half inches. In other words, someone had complained.

The penalty for violating zoning ordinances was steep--$500 a day. Conceding that the power of the status quo was too much for them to overcome, the couple had the caravan towed to a new site. "At this point, I don't have the energy to be an activist," Crossen says.

For now, the nest they designed and built by hand to begin their shared life together is parked on a friend's commercial lot. Standing inside the fence, it's apparent they've traded one hardship for another. Instead of dealing with whiny neighbors, they are greeted each day by hordes of jumbo-sized mosquitoes and a yard overgrown with poison ivy and weeds--a far cry from the Trinity Park lot they left behind.

But inside the urban caravan, the atmosphere is cozy and sweet. The caravan is covered by a breathable canvas tarp that filters light into a luminous glow at night. With salvaged hardwood floors, a custom-designed window with an intricate maple leaf design and round, hobbit-like entry doors that are painted forest green, it is a sanctuary from the outside world. It has many of the comforts of home: a couch, a throw rug and a handmade quilt. But it doesn't have the basic conveniences of electricity, plumbing or running water.

Despite the abrupt move, they are satisfied with their humble abode. "All we have is our personal choice," Donny-Clark says. "We can't change the law ... we can choose to live the way we want to ... or as close to it as we can.

"It's not a project," she says, "it's our life."


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