Sustainability and pursuing the eco dream is no easy feat when living in the heart of a major European city. High rents, cramped living, pollution, noise, expensive transport, capitalistic commerce. But there can be ways to flourish in a co-operative without money (or electricity). The Germans have a word for it – Lebensraum – meaning living space – the space to live, to expand, to breathe. I got a taste of how to live off grid in a comfortable mansion on a recent visit to Leipzig.
Just an hour south of Berlin, Leipzig is a city of over 500,000 people crawling out of the shadow of its big brother. As the young creatives and professionals of Western Europe are packing up and moving to Berlin in search of a sustainable artistic life, Leipzig is being bypassed by migrators. The city has been given several nicknames over the past few years, notably “Little Berlin” and “Hypezig” -for good reason. It is an artistic haven also known as the “City of Music”. It has history; Johann Sebastian Bach was choirmaster at St. Thomas’ Kirche for more than 25 years. Mendelssohn and Schumann also spent time in the city.
I travelled out to Leipzig for the second time last autumn and found myself living in a communal building in the artistic quarter of Lindenau. Upon arrival I discovered the exterior of the building to be formidable and mildly disconcerting. Graffiti clad and poster covered, the house also had kid’s toys mounted on either side of the front door. Where there could have been stone lions guarding the entrance, there were My Little Ponies in their place. This is an artist’s home.
The use of space is what made the building so efficient and multi-functionL. After the collapse of the wall hawk-eyed Western Germans bought up large areas of Leipzig and began the capitalist rejuvenation of the city in 1989. The landlord of our building However, was a mythical creature that had been heard of but never seen. The occupants of the space basically had free reign and had spent the last few decades making the building their own.
There were three other guys on my floor of the building, Max, Marcel and David. Max was an arborist and had been living in the building longest. Along with help from Marcel, they had built and installed a coal burning system that heated the whole floor. Each room had its own stove that was built from clay and raised on blocks above the wood flooring. Coal and wood were used as fuel and smoke was funnelled out through a pipework system. Left to heat up for half a day and then constantly re-fuelled, this provided more than enough heat. Wood burning ovens were also employed to cook both in the kitchen and in the rear garden. Coal was stored in the cellar where it could be kept dry and in mass.
As an arborist, Max had access to an abundance of wood, and also had a specific set of craftsman skills. The majority of the furniture throughout our floor had been hand built by Max, along with all of the garden furniture, bike sheds, outside lighting and ornamental installations.
Food was never wasted and to prevent excess usage of electricity and water, the whole building, which housed approximately 30 people, would eat together. One floor would prepare the meal for each night. Not only was this more economical but also more social, a community came together each evening. Max and other members of the building would also regularly go containering. This is the practice of salvaging ‘out of date’ but not ‘gone off’ food that has been thrown out by the supermarkets.
Marcel spent his days working as an engineer in the middle of town. In keeping with the commune’s efficient use of space, one of the apartments on the ground floor had been converted into a workshop. Marcel collected old bicycles and motorbike parts and spent his out of work hours tinkering and welding away in the workshop. He would then either sell or use for himself the various bikes he renovated and produced.
It is a way of thinking and appreciating communal living that makes that house in Leipzig so special. Having, as a city, had a recent history of being under the control of both ultra-facism and communism alike, Leipzig desires to exude an air of capitalism yet with serious social undercurrents. A togetherness that will hopefully see Leipzig prosper now it’s free from its extreme political shackles. I’m certain it is no coincidence that nearly everyone I met in a bar/club/cafe was studying or working in a form of social service. Be it homeless aid, housing, policing or job seekers projects for the 15% unemployed. People are working together towards making their city great!
It is a difficult task to be wholly self-sufficient whilst trying to maintain a large, turn of the century town house in the heart of a city. However, small steps can be made to bring people together in one space. This will bring about efficiency, economical advantages, harmony and communal living. With a collective attitude, the joys of a city, writhing with activity and commerce can be enjoyed but with an awareness of how change can be fuelled. Food collection, shared meals, bicycle usage and maintenance, effective use of tree-felling and non-utility heating. These are just some of the life modifications you can begin to put into practice.
Buy our book - OFF THE GRID - a tour of American off-grid places and people written by Nick Rosen, editor of the off-grid.net web site
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