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Investigation into Feasibility of Off-grid Small Dwelling in SLO County


The trend towards green, sustainable living has grown more and more in the housing industry each year since before the turn of the century; solar in the last decade alone has grown by 60%.

Living on a grid that runs on unclean sources of energy already has led us into an environmental disaster some call irreversible. This paper takes a detailed look into the feasibility of a small, off-grid, dwelling that utilizes modern technology in order to live more modestly.

In conjunction with great advancements in solar technology along with energy storage such as deep cycle lead-acid batteries, on-site well systems with filtration can bring us to a fully self-sustaining small home.


The objectives of the study are as follows:

  • To report what is feasible, by intended market audience ;
  • To highlight the financial, economic, and experience based challenges of construction;
  • To highlight the beneficial effects an off-grid home has on an individual;
  • To highlight the equipment options and the pros/cons of each;
  • To highlight if the project is feasible based on market-definition;
  • To report lessons learned from the project;

The prime methodology used for this paper is a case study. With the project idea being primarily qualitative, the knowledge was attained through surveys with the market audience, secondary research into the equipment requirements, and interviews with professionals about said equipment.


The survey was designed to receive the least biased answers possible, and give participants every opportunity to show disapproval or disinterest in the idea. It began with a simple question of interest in the dwelling, explaining the term off-grid in order to have a broader audience truly understand what is being  asked.

Gauging the interest in an idea considered fringe was key; in order to sell an idea the demand must be present. The next few questions were meant to find an average price buyers were willing to spend, what they wanted to build, and over what period of time.

Economic Feasibility:

The estimate for economic feasibility was done from the point of view of an average consumer utilizing the Tiny House and Do-It-Yourself communities for building knowledge and assistance. The estimate itself is in the Notes/Other portion of the binder. Information regarding pricing and equipment efficiency/lifetime was gathered from online distributors.

Environmental Feasibility:

In order to determine environmental feasibility, I needed to determine if the San Luis Obispo biome could support an off-grid small dwelling. San Luis Obispo gets close to 5 peak daylight  hours a year, which with nine 300 watt panels and 8 deep cycle lead acid batteries could easily produce and store the necessary amount of energy two individuals would use in a small home.

Legal Feasibility:

Dealing with local government is a major portion of any  project, and so it was presumed to be the most difficult to work around to achieve feasibility, if it was possible at all. The city zoning, permitting, restrictions and building guidelines can all be found on the San Luis Obispo county websites. San Luis Obispo does not have a minimum home footprint, but does however  enforce a minimum of one 120 square foot room per house, which  revents the Popomo house plan because its largest  room is only about 50 square feet.


The main take away from the investigation into the build idea is that an off-rid small home is attractive and feasible in almost every respect. It would help keep the environment clean while reducing monthly utility costs.

In addition to a local well system, California is home to several climate zones that produce enough rainwater for collection/storage, as well as enough light for solar collection/storage. Environmentally it would not be difficult to find a feasible building site. Rainwater, however, proved to be the least dependable source in California, so most state residents would likely opt for a local well and pump system.

Financially, most people would be able to undertake this project in 3-4 years, while the more prudent would be able to complete it more quickly. The project can also be made cheaper depending on the lifestyle cutbacks a person is willing to make such as composting toilet instead of septic system.

Generally people showed a great interest in living in a small, off-grid home. Popularity of small homes has been rising  in the last decade and the added benefits of going off-grid could be enough to bring about a major change in the way millennial Americans buy homes.

Nevertheless, the major problem with this project is that local governing bodies have little reason to support small homes. With property tax percentages being so low, and the off-grid build being estimated at just over $70,000, a home like the one outlined in this project would bring in less than 15% of the money a typical San Luis Obispo home does.

This could change over time, but it would take an entirely new property tax format, based upon something other than property value, like lot-size or using a flat-rate. Laws governing certain size – requirements and subsidies for green buildings have contradictory goals and results.

Going completely off-grid means even less money supporting utilities which means even less tax revenue. Having a small home ultimately means less space to fill, so less material goods to purchase and to tax. Until local government changes the building laws and how it views its citizens, this green home is unfeasible.

Source: California Polytechnic State University
Author: Sam Labberton

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