Sustainable Living: See for Yourself

Offered during Modernism Week – October, the Sustainable Homes Tour allows attendees to meet the homeowners who have made the choice to live off the grid in the High Desert.

September 18, 2022
Story by Jim Powers
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Learn the ins and outs of sustainable living in the High Desert during a Modernism Week – October tour on Oct. 16.
PHOTOGRAPHY COURTESY IDA ALVIN

While the pandemic may have felt like everything came to a complete stop, the concept of sustainable living made tremendous strides with mainstream America.

As Americans looked for opportunities to move or invest in areas of low population, the High Desert became a prime location thanks to plenty of open space and the opportunity to build a more ecological friendly home from scratch,

“People are looking into off grid a lot more, being educated, and seeing that it’s not as difficult or as daunting as you might think coming into it from a setting where electricity and water was available to you without you having to think about it,” says Ida Alwin, founder of Desert Developments LLC in Joshua Tree. “It’s not as scary. The technology is so much cheaper now and it’s so much readily available.”

The Sustainable Homes Tour

Three years ago, Alwin created The Sustainable Homes Tour, a self-driving experience where attendees are able to visit private architecturally unique homes that are completely self-powered and in many cases, an example of off-the-grid living where they generate their own electricity. The tour went virtual the last two years, but she has brought it back to in-person status this fall while partnering with Modernism Week – October, which runs Oct. 13-16.

The Sustainable Home Tour is set for Oct. 16 from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. The tour package also includes an on-demand video conversation with sustainable design architect Don Albert — available to view while on the tour or to digest later.

In her conversation with Palm Springs Life, Alwin says the timing of the tours comes on the heels of California Gov. Gavin Newsom announcing that the state will phase out gasoline-powered cars in the fight against climate change.

How does the state’s emphasis on converting vehicles to electric impact the idea of off-grid living?

More people are talking about it, the rhetoric is changing surrounding solar power. Those products are coming out because there are people in all economic brackets who are now looking to go sustainable.

Why is the High Desert an attractive spot for sustainable living?

It is pretty sparse out here. Joshua Tree is getting a little more crowded, but areas like Landers, Johnson Valley, and even Yucca Valley. People who maybe wouldn’t have considered Yucca Valley in the past, it is more attractive to them because of their full-time status. They are closer to shops and things like that. So that whole area just exploded during Covid. So much building is going on and yeah, I think it is that freedom of movement that has driven people to move into less populated spaces. Don Albert’s whole talk is exploring why people move to deserts and he’s got an interesting statistic which says that 20 percent of the world’s population lives in desert regions and the proportion is actually increasing.

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Is it easier to build a sustainable home in the High Desert than in the Coachella Valley?

I think it is because you don’t have the infrastructure that you do in an urban setting. It also is easier to build off grid when you’re not attached to the grid. Getting off the grid, once you are attached to the grid, it is actually a harder process than building off the grid from scratch. So people are building out here. That’s the main difference, I think. There aren’t enough homes for everybody who is coming out here. So a lot of people are building their own homes and it is actually easier to build off grid than it would be to try and get off grid from an established home.

How does sustainable living impact the design of a home?

People are building homes that allow the desert to come in and become a part of the interiors or even the exteriors. They use muted tones so that the home blends into the environment. And I think part of it is that there is a lot more freedom out here to do that because there is so much space and you don’t have the city bearing down on you with all sorts of code enforcement or neighbors complaining because of the way you’re building your house or that your house is the wrong color or whatever. And it’s heartening to see that people do tend toward the more environmentally friendly elements when they are building out here. There is a strong sense of nature out here. There is a strong sense of being part of the desert and it does attract a certain kind of person.

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What types of homes are on the tour?

I think the great thing about the tour is that we have such a variety of homes. We’ve got updated cabins, we’ve got new builds, and we’ve got homes. The homes are spread across the High Desert. Homes in Joshua Tree, Pioneertown, and there’s even a very special gem up in Burns Canyon if you’re willing to do the three mile dirt road. It is a very special home nestled in amongst the pinyon pines in Burns Canyon.

I understand as part of the tour, you are able to speak to the homeowners and ask questions?

And people do have s lot of questions because it’s a different way of existence and you’re a lot more aware of your consumption. But at the same time you’re also responsible for making things work. And so it can be daunting. It is your responsibility to make sure the power is on. The power company is not going to do it for you. And then with the water, if you are completely off grid and you are on a well, what you are putting into the ground is basically what you’re going to be getting out of the ground.

So you have to be hyper aware of how you are living and what you are consuming. And I think that can be daunting for some people. So talking to the homeowners who are so passionate about living sustainably is actually probably quite a relief to a lot of people to learn that it is actually a very rewarding way of living.

What are common questions they hear?

I think cost is probably up there. That’s one of the first things people are concerned about because traditionally, solar has been expensive. And then also logistics. Where do you buy the technology that you need to get your house going? And there are so many different places and so many companies and so many websites. People do need guidance because you can end up going completely down the wrong path. And then I think what is it living off grid like? What did you have to compromise?