Kids Off the Grid: Students Mad for Alternahouses

And you thought the punk house that your friends lived in during the '90s was unique. The New York Times reported Sunday on three students whose housing arrangements smash all previous standards of dorm-room customization.

Brett Butler, age 24, of Appalachian State University in Boone, N.C., lives in a teepee (left) that he constructed about 20 minutes from campus. Jake Weller, 19, at Juniata College in central Pennsylvania, makes his home in a modest geodesic dome that he built with the blessing of his dean of students. And Ann Holley, 29, lives with her husband in a 127-square-foot tiny house that she started as a school project on the campus of Alfred University in upstate New York.

But students have long been known for crafting interesting living habitats for themselves, prompted by the twin urges of social idealism and financial limitation. It seems possible that the current economic downturn, coupled with resurgent environmentalism, has created an atmosphere that's especially ripe for experimental living.
And maybe Gen Y is apt to take advantage of that atmosphere: Millennials are famously civic-minded, interested in freedom and flexibility in their lifestyles, invested in a sense of their own uniqueness as individuals, and optimistic about the promise of technology.

Certainly, the Times didn't dig up the only three young people who've gone to great lengths to live in spaces that reflect their social and environmental values (and don't sap their pocketbooks).

Elizabeth Turnbull, an architecture master's student at Yale, spent the summer of 2008 building a tiny house of her own design (below). The Turnbull Tiny House rests on an 8 x 18-foot trailer. Turnbull constructed the house in Byfield, Massachusetts, and towed it to New Haven, where she found hosts willing to let her park and live while she works on her studies. The structure is fitted with solar panels for electricity, a composting toilet, a kitchen, and a sleeping loft.

Libby Kahler, a junior at Berea College in Berea, Kentucky, commutes to school from her home in an off-campus yurt (left). She bought the dwelling from Laurel Nest Yurts in North Carolina, for $2,500.

She cooks on a four-burner propane stove and tells an interviewer for the campus website, "[The yurt] is also 15 feet across, so it's pretty small. But I love it. Actually, my social life is kind of hurting right now because I just run right home after classes are done because it's so peaceful [here]. It's stuck out in the middle of the woods. My neighbors are few and far between. And it's wonderful."

And David Lettero, a graduate student of adult education at Penn State, lived in a 13-foot yurt during his studies, as the director of the Penn State Center for Sustainability. There, he raised 80% of his own food as a four-season gardener, gleaned electricity from the wind and the sun, and whittled his possessions down to a super-manageable level.

Whether the motives in a given case are economic, environmental, individualistic -- or a combination of all three -- it seems remarkable how much positive attention schools are pouring into their students' living experiments. Libby Kahler, at Berea, says that constructing a yurt has raised her stature on campus. "In some ways," she says, "[living in the yurt has] made more of my professors likely to believe that I can accomplish something. So I'm looking into doing some design and building projects around campus next year and I think that's kind of helped to improve what people think I'm capable of."

David Lettero's homestead was actually part of an official Penn State program (left). Ann Holley's tiny house began as a school project, and Jake Weller was surprised to receive the dean's permission and a special exemption from student fees to build his dome.

Moral of the story? It could be that if you're a young person with a hankering to go off the grid, it may be a great time to pitch your project to an institution of higher learning near you.

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