Running cars with old frying oil, cooking with gas produced from human waste, using dishwater to grow food; To most people, it all might sound a little crazy, but to Leo Lauchere and Eric “Ero” Gorski, these are just a few ways they plan to achieve their goal of living and running their business completely off-grid.
For the last two years, the young entrepreneurs have been living in tiny homes on a small piece of land just outside of San Jose, where they hope to create an educational hub for sustainable living and ecological restoration.
Lauchere jokes he was experimenting with alternative living before he even knew what it meant. At 12 years old, he converted a lawnmower engine so it could run on biofuel for a science fair project.
“I loved building,” said Lauchere. “I would take apart remote control cars and put them back together in different combinations. ... I was making explosives in the garage and all kinds of stuff.”
As a teenager, Lauchere began selling scrap wood out of his parent’s property, before moving into an Airstream trailer he bought on Craigslist. What began as a side hustle eventually turned into Good News Wood Salvation, a lucrative wood repurposing business.
Around that time he met Gorski, now CFO and owner of the company, who was building his own tiny house on a 32-foot semi-truck bed using reclaimed materials. The pair became quick friends, and came up with an ambitious plan: create an off-grid and self-sufficient community through the use of technology and permaculture – a form of sustainable landscape design which can be used to restore land depleted by overfarming and climate change.
Converting a sod farm to an eco hub
Eventually, they settled on a 1-acre plot of land: a former sod farm where perfectly manicured candy-green lawns had been cultivated, leaving the land barren and depleted.
“We very much wanted to practice permaculture, so we started covering the soil immediately with wood chips and free mushroom compost,” said Lauchere.
Two years later, the property still resembles a dusty worksite, with stacks of wood piled high, forklifts and various storage facilities peppering the lot – but a closer look reveals layers of hard work. Fruit has finally started to appear on the trees, bright purple flowers reach for a windowsill and greenery peeks through an impressive collection of vintage vehicles.
Self-proclaimed Craigslist fans, Lauchere and Gorski reuse and recycle whenever possible; even down to their 12 solar panels, many of which they obtained at a discount because they were dented or cracked. They also source free materials from local farms and businesses whenever possible. “Almost every Home Depot has a dumpster full of plants,” said Gorski, who used to work for the hardware store.
“All of these tomato plants, pepper plants, squash plants, zucchini plants ... were from the dumpster,” said Lauchere, pointing to their enclosed vegetable garden. “That lavender over there – dumpster,” he said happily as he gestured to a corner of the garden fence, which is also made from salvaged wood.
To water their small crop, they channel graywater straight into the garden via a 4-inch PVC pipe that connects to the sinks, the washing machine and eventually the shower. They use biodegradable soap to make sure the water is still usable for the plants.
In a stroke of good luck, the landlord of their property has also granted them permission to use his gigantic greenhouse just down the road.
“The landlord really doesn’t believe there is any money in growing things. He basically said, ’I trust you, don’t make a mess, and if you start making money, then we’ll talk about rent,” Lauchere said.
Old vehicles find new purpose
The business owners have also committed to making Good News Wood Salvation 100 percent free of fossil fuels by 2020. Despite having access to on-grid electricity, so far they have relied almost entirely on solar power and biofuels, which is considered to be a source of renewable energy because it is derived from easily replenishable plant or animal waste.
“It’s been really tempting just to run a cord over there. We could have plugged in pretty much at any time, I mean, we didn’t have to do any of this,” said Lauchere, who has successfully converted his work truck, an old Mercedes, and a generator to run entirely on waste frying oil that he collects for free from local restaurants and businesses.
“I get that companies are coming out with new electric trucks, but making new trucks is not really necessary. Converting needs to be a huge thing,” he said.
On the far side of the property, a fully electric 1981 Volkswagen Rabbit is waiting to be refitted with a repurposed Tesla battery, which they hope will eventually be charged by solar panels.
Lauchere has also devised a system for turning used vegetable oil into biodiesel, a process which includes filtering the substance so that it can power regular diesel engines, although to meet the demands of the business he routinely purchases ready-made biodiesel from a producer outside of Reno.
For basic hygiene, Gorski and Lauchere use a butane-powered shower, an on-site port-a-potty and a composting toilet. They hope to replace both toilets with their recently purchased “biodigester toilet” – a no-power system that turns human and organic waste into a natural gas that can be used for open-flame cooking.
While they currently source their water from an underground well connected to the grid, in the future, they hope to collect rainwater to at least become somewhat self-sufficient.
Inspired by Ecosystem Restoration Camps – a global movement focused on creating temporary camps to restore land depleted by excessive farming and climate change – Gorski and Lauchere decided to call their experiment “Eco Camp Coyote” for its location in Coyote Valley outside of San Jose. They hosted their first weekend workshop in early November, during which about 30 people volunteered to lend a hand in the greenhouse, tour the property and exchange ideas.
Dreaming big in a legal gray area
Remarkably, Lauchere and Gorski’s “dream big” mentality has allowed them to reach milestones with very limited resources, although uncertainty is a daily reality.
In most parts of America, living off-grid is a legal gray area, as many cities and counties have put in place restrictions on what they would technically consider “camping.” Composting toilets and repurposing gray water for the garden, while legal in California, both face restrictions due to strict code and zoning laws. Being located on agricultural land presents its own set of legal constraints.
“It’s a strange situation with the county here … it’s possible that we may have to move next month, or at anytime, ” said Lauchere, who hopes to get the support of the local government by proving that the land is better off in their hands
“It’s tempting to say, ‘Why bother?’,” said Lauchere. “But we’re hoping that if we make a cool thing and talk to the right people, maybe permission could be granted for such an experiment,” he said.
Faced with daily challenges, and the devastating prospects of climate change, Lauchere and Gorski have adopted the approach that every little bit counts.
“The world is set up in a ‘temporary fix’ kind of way, and a lot of the systems are pretty much doomed to fail,” said Lauchere. “So what we’re doing is working on solutions that could be implemented in a wide variety of contexts on a local basis, so that folks can use their agency and don’t have to wait for government to step in – or some other kind of savior that may or may not come.”
“Honestly it just feels good,” said Gorski. “Reclaiming one’s power is one of the most liberating things – and it’s been a pretty disempowered life in a way up until (now). The important thing is to scale back and to see that the solutions are really not going to happen in our lifetime. It’s simply that every action that we take can be more aligned.”
For more information, visit the Eco Camp Coyote website.