“For the past eight or nine years, we were living in different cities in Canada, whether for schooling or work, and it seemed like we were moving every couple years — it was a lot to start over again and again,” says Adam Hickey. “We saw online that people were living in vans and other alternative living circumstances, so we looked into it and decided that could work for us. So a few years ago, we bought a house and flipped it, used the profits to buy [a Sprinter] van and pay off all our debt, and then we embarked on this lifestyle.”
Hickey, his wife Vanessa, their son Cedar and their dog Caedan are part of a growing community of people who choose to live outside (literally in some cases) the realm of conventional houses and apartments, with many of them using YouTube and Instagram to share their unorthodox homes (and possibly make a quick buck in the process).
Their motivation is usually about gaining financial freedom and escaping the daily grind that comes with working in the modern world (conventional housing is, frankly, too damn expensive, which means most people are forced to work long hours or multiple jobs to front the bills). “From a financial standpoint, we obviously still have bills — gas, insurance and things — but it’s definitely way less than when we were living in a more traditional situation,” Hickey explains. (Check out this blog post, where some other van-livers break down their monthly costs, then compare them to living in an apartment in a major city.) “With that stress gone, we have more free time, more freedom to be creative, more freedom to be with each other and now we have a newborn son.”
“With our lifestyle before,” he continues, “I was working a lot, Vanessa was working a lot and we didn’t feel like we wanted to start a family, because we wouldn’t have been able to spend as much time with our son as we wanted to.”
That said, making sure their van was livable took some time. “We bought it from a small dealership at auction. It was, I believe, a plumber’s vehicle, so the only thing it had inside was old shelving with plumbing parts,” Hickey explains. “We had to totally gut all of that and just start with an empty shell.” The entire customization process, he says, took a few months.
Converted vans are only one kind of alternative living space, though — some being much more luxurious. You can, for instance, hire a company to build a floating tiny house equipped with a bed, fridge, stove, sink and even a full bathroom furnished with a working toilet and shower (its current cheapest model starts at $80,000).
Then, on the flip side of the alternative housing movement, DIY reigns supreme. In Québec, for example, one couple built a five-room dome using a combination of sand and cement. With the help of two others, it took them four painstaking months to construct. “It costs less than building a traditional home, but it’s very labor intensive and a lot more effort,” says one of the owners in a YouTube video about their homemade concrete-dome. “So for anyone wanting to build a SuperAdobe home, we recommend that you have lots of family and friends to help with all the labor needed to complete a project like this.”
Not surprisingly, sustainability is also part of the attraction toward alternative living spaces. “I just realized my life wasn’t what I thought it was,” says Rob Greenfield, who’s lived in and built several tiny houses (one of which we wrote about when it was still in the works). “I realized all of my daily actions — the food I was eating, the car I was driving, the gas I was pumping, the trash I was making, the cheap junk I was buying — was causing destruction to the world, and I didn’t want to do that anymore.”
Greenfield was living in a three-bedroom apartment in San Diego at the time of this revelation, and he quickly began to reduce his overall carbon footprint before deciding to move into a 50-square-foot tiny house. “It was smaller than a lot of people’s closets,” he tells me. “I set it up off the grid — I did a work exchange for someone who had an empty, unused backyard. That way, I was able to live bill-free and debt-free in San Diego.” Basically, Greenfield was allowed to live in his tiny house on their land under the agreement that he transform their backyard into a sustainable living area, which meant building rainwater collection contraptions, compost bins and raised-bed gardens.
Since then, Greenfield has built another tiny house in Florida, using less than $1,500-worth of mostly reusable materials. In this situation, he’s also doing a work exchange, helping the landowner build a more sustainable garden.
Many other alternative living enthusiasts are similarly passionate about constructing their dwellings from reusable and sustainable materials. Take, for instance, this 100-square-foot cabin, which was built with “old cedar fence rails found on the land, ceiling rafters from a local woodlot, recycled glass and mirrors in the walls, and the windows, door and wood stove are reclaimed as well.”
Obviously, though, alternative living isn’t all biodegradable bliss. “I’m growing my own food and harvesting my own rainwater,” Greenfield says. “I could go on and on about all the different things that take a lot of time, whereas when you live in a house or an apartment, you have seemingly infinite water, seemingly infinite electricity — all those things are kinda streamlined. The problem is, those things are causing environmental destruction, and for most people, it ties them to a job that they don’t really love to be able to pay those bills. In certain ways, my life is much easier, and in certain ways, simple living makes life harder.”
Still, both Greenfield and Hickey believe that alternative living is better than, well, the alternative. “It’s like a really small house, where you get to build it, have your input and put your creativity down on the table,” Hickey emphasizes, adding that he feels switching to some other living situation is always an option if his family wanted to. “It’s very viable for people nowadays to do. Even in the last couple years since we started, there’s literally thousands of people who are doing this now.”