On an off-grid ranch on the western edge of San Luis Valley, a colorful cordwood casita know as the Mermaid Cottage inspires sustainable, low-maintenance living. The curious couple who built this dwelling did so for only $5,000.

July 11, 2019

Many of the rentals we select are not just a place to lay our heads for the night. They’re a test. They’re a genuine evaluation into exactly what sort of non-traditional apartment or similar dwelling we could reasonably afford, which of them would best help us build our financial future, and that we could (maintaining our sanity) actually live in for an extended period of time.

We’re new to this particular sort of daydream. Vincent and I have never resided for any length apart from WIFI, except maybe when we were in our 20s before it was anywhere and everywhere. And as we steer our lives towards perhaps living outside of a city, perhaps detaching from the constraints of a traditional mortgage, or, in our case, an ever-rising rent payment, we’re starting to factor what we can live with and what we can or can’t live with out. 

The latter gets shorter, by the way, as we experiment. It’s easy to get used to things once you realize, for instance, that the world won’t end if you don’t have certain amenities like a wireless printer. And after staying at Mike and KimAnna’s Mermaid Cottage in Del Norte, Colorado, we’ve found an entirely new off-grid muse. 

The Mermaid Cottage has been visited and reviewed by hundreds of guests, photographed, written about, and featured in several publications. Built for a mere $5,000 by the couple in 2009 and kicked-off amid a cordwood building seminar by Rob and Jaki Roy, rural New York-based cordwood masons who educate others about the practice, the project took Mike and KimAnna about 10 months to complete. Sharing similarities with traditional Earthship construction, cordwood structures incorporate recycled materials. Light filters through tinted glass bottles, vases, jars, garden spheres, warming the structure with glowing, color-rich orbs. 

Nestled into the base of Summer Coon Volcano on the western edge of the San Luis Valley, this isn’t the only curious project underway for the two creators. A vintage trailer accommodates guests and visiting friends. Shipping containers are used for storage. Two grow domes house organic produce and a koi pond. An old boat is being reconfigured into a potential future rental space. There’s a “man cave” built into the hillside that serves as a solar and cistern nerve center. There’s an octagonal building that is KimAnna’s art studio. The main house is a straw-bale addition built around the core of an old cabin. The remnants of another cabin sits, waiting to be repurposed. 

“You have to be willing to ask stupid questions like, ‘Can I have that?’” Mike says of the off-kilter log structure he hauled here on a trailer. 

We’re pretty willing to ask questions, regardless of how they’re perceived, and Mike respectfully obliged every one of them during a recent tour of the entire property. He also notes that of the steady influx of visitors who come to stay at the Mermaid Cottage about 50% of them seem genuinely interested in not just staying; they want to build something of their own.

And when you look around at all that they’re doing, (did I mention they have miniature horses and other animals to attend to, plus three other properties, one in Iowa), it’s a bit dizzying to imagine how they manage it all. Thankfully, KimAnna is quick to point out that its current state is the result of an evolution that’s spanned 20 years. 

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How should we start our own off-grid evolution?

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