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The Dorie at Sunset

Building an Off Grid Home in the Tropics

By Tobias RobertsRise Writer
Aug 5, 2019

Moving to the Central American jungle to build an off-grid home, and raise pigs and chickens, isn't an aspiration for most people. It's seemingly even more unlikely that a big-city fashion model and a cameraperson would choose this sustainable lifestyle. 

Tyler Rumsey and Hannah Cee, however, exemplify a growing number of people interested in returning to the land and living a more sustainable lifestyle. Here's the story of how this couple went from city dwellers to full-on homesteaders. They are building a beautiful, minimalist off-grid home on an enchanted landscape they refer to as Isle Delfino in Reino Dehongos.

Starting with the Land

While working as a cameraperson for a TV show in Central America, Rumsey "fell in love with the area and immediately started looking into buying property here," he says. "About six months later, I brought Hannah down to show her the place, and she fell in love with it, too."

"We had been talking about someday buying land and starting a homestead and building our place," he continues. "When Hannah saw this location, we decided to start building as soon as possible. We got my brother, Austin, on board as well. He helped buy the land, and together the three of us have been equally involved in building the house and planting the garden."

The Dorie outside
Photo Credit: @thedoriestory on Instagram

The plot purchased is about one acre, but the couple has developed a little less than half of that—leaving a natural area per the permaculture theory of creating separate zones throughout a property. "We won't have any large animals that will need huge open space," he explains. "We do plan to have chickens and pigs in the future. The yard will have small and large fruit trees, and eventually raised beds for vegetables." 

The house they're building "is super minimal and small doesn't take up much land," Rumsey adds. "We are trying to use minimal power, so all of the solar panels we need should fit on our roof."

Building Off-Grid in the Tropics

The couple is building a two-story, 10-foot x 18-foot home totaling 360 square feet on the inside. Because of the tropical climate, they decided to add wraparound decks on both floors. A staircase at the back of the house connects both levels. 

Inside, each level is one open space; the bathroom will eventually go under the stairs on the deck. "It's no engineering or design marvel," Rumsey says, laughing. "We're building the home as basic as possible to make construction go easily and quickly. We don't feel the need to spend much time indoors as nature and landscape here is so amazing. Minimalism works out well for our style and our budget." 

the dorie frame
Photo Credit: @thedoriestory on Instagram

Building smaller also added several sustainability benefits. "Going smaller is more eco-friendly, uses less lumber and materials, and has a smaller footprint, too," Rumsey says. The house is being constructed of milled lumber: yellow pine. "The post and beam construction is built around six yellow-pine telephone poles that we cemented into the ground." 

Rumsey and Cee are interested in incorporating recycled and salvaged materials into their homes. For their energy needs, a friend is helping them source second-hand solar panels, which they plan to hook up using Tesla car batteries. While they're having their solar system installed, the couple is renting a small apartment in the nearby village to charge power tool batteries and camera equipment.

Watering Plants, Sustaining People 

For their water needs, Rumsey and Cee found an old abandoned well in the jungle by their land. They also have a water collection system from their roof. The house's gutters are hooked up to a 2500- liter tank under the house, which collects runoff also used to water the plants. "We want to install another water tank on the hill behind the house, and will have a gravity-fed shower and water for the bathroom—all from rainwater," Cee says.

the dorie inside
Photo Credit: @thedoriestory on Instagram

"We plan to reuse water as many times as possible, maximizing usage," she continues. "For example, water that comes out of the taps or the shower will be captured and reused to water the plants or to flush the toilets." For their toilet and black water, Rumsey says that "while composting toilets may seem greenest, we have discovered that a septic system, if done correctly, can be just as sustainable, if not more so." 

Rumsey and Cee's primary focus has been completing their off-grid home. Once they're done with construction, they hope to dedicate more time to establishing the garden. "Right now, we have our long-term trees and plants started, but other than those plants, our garden has been secondary," Cee says. 

"It'll be nice to dedicate our time to growing and maintaining our garden, and building a chicken coop and pig pen," she adds. "Eventually, when we have more time and settle in, we hope to start school for our local friends and teach them and their kids English. We feel that it can be a way to give back to our community and open up new opportunities to the people and families we've become friends with here."

The Challenges of Building Off-Grid

Downsizing, to live a simpler lifestyle, was one of the driving motivations for Rumsey and Cee. "Being on the grid means using dirty power that pollutes the atmosphere, whereas solar power is clean and free—once we've installed everything," Rumsey says.

the dorie story out the window
Photo Credit: @thedoriestory on Instagram

"It rains a lot where we live. We have an abundance of water falling from the sky, so to be hooked up to the local water system doesn't make sense to us," he continues. "Being off-grid just makes sense money-wise, but more importantly, it aligns with our beliefs and goals of living as low impact, self-sustainable, and eco-friendly as possible." 

Creating an off-grid homestead comes with challenges and difficulties. During their first building trip, Rumsey and Cee were mostly living in the middle of the jungle without shelter while they began building their off-grid home. Because of the rain, they lost about a month's worth of work time. "Being so far out in the wild, there were many days we got stuck at the property in the rain with no shelter and no way to get work done. We just stood around under a bit of tree cover getting wet," Rumsey recalls. 

The couple had to cut a path to get to the property. Because of the rain, every truck carrying in materials like wood, gravel, or cement got stuck or broke down on its way to the site. The couple often had to carry in wood and other materials by hand or load it in small batches on a four-wheeler to get it to the building site. Not having power was also challenging at times. They found a generator to run a jackhammer to break up rocks they encountered while digging their foundation holes. 

Despite these challenges, the entire process of building an off-grid home has been exciting. "It's fun for us as the off-grid homesteading lifestyle is the exact opposite of what we're used to," Cee says. "The cities are crazy, crowded, lack the nature we love, the schedule is non-stop, and the lifestyle is speedy and hectic. With this new lifestyle, we can finally slow down, enjoy the natural world around us, learn to live off of the land and be an integral part of our natural environment. We love the change of pace."

A Sense of Purpose 

Building their own off-grid home also offers the couple a feeling of accomplishment and purpose. "When we're back in the States at our jobs, we don't feel like we are doing anything meaningful, only working for a paycheck," Rumsey says. "Now, we are excited about working, enjoy getting our hands dirty, and love seeing the results and how they are directly benefiting our lives."

"I also love getting to work with my two best friends every day," Rumsey says. "My brother and I have reconnected through the process, and I love spending time with Hannah: building our own home together is special."

the dorie at sunset
Photo Credit: @thedoriestory on Instagram

For Rise homeowners interested in off-grid living or homesteading, Rumsey and Cee offer these simple words of advice. "With the internet and YouTube, anything you want to do is now possible," Rumsey says, of the vast number of tutorials available online. 

"We had no experience with off-grid living before undertaking this project, just the desire to do it," he adds. "Honestly, it hasn't been that difficult. The community of people doing what we're doing is growing. The idea of off-grid homesteading is becoming more popular and more accessible. It makes so much sense. Our advice would be: If you want to do it, there's no reason not to."

You can follow the progress on Tyler and Hannah's beautiful off-grid home and homestead on their YouTube channel or Instagram account.

Disclaimer: This article does not constitute a product endorsement however Rise does reserve the right to recommend relevant products based on the articles content to provide a more comprehensive experience for the reader.Last Modified: 2019-12-10T16:53:17+0000
Tobias Roberts

Article by:

Tobias Roberts

Tobias runs an agroecology farm and a natural building collective in the mountains of El Salvador. He specializes in earthen construction methods and uses permaculture design methods to integrate structures into the sustainability of the landscape.