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A local man gets out of traditional housing while still living in Oklahoma County

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Ron Ferrell got out.

Out of debt. Out of the housing market. Out of the city and almost off the power grid.

Getting out
Sustainable life
Urban gardener
Sustainable community

Ferrell lives in the outskirts of the metro area, but is making it in life quite literally on his own, living in a 725-square-foot home he built by hand, using recycled materials.

People who have seen the house have dubbed it an "eco-hut," but for Ferrell, a welder by trade, this "alternative" house and "alternative" lifestyle are just right.

"It doesn't seem alternative to me," he said with a smile.  

Getting outFerrell had known since 1980 that he wanted to build an out-of-the-ordinary house. He said he was inspired by a "rammed-earth" house he watched a friend build, but it wasn't until about 2004 that his dream started to become a necessity.

The political and economic indicators of that year and the next made it clear to him that he was going to have to change his life. He started having panic attacks worrying about the state of the country, which he felt was on the verge of economic collapse.

"I had to get out of the overinflated housing market," he said. "I had to sell out to get out of a dysfunctional economic system."

There were six reasons " which he lists very specifically, very deliberately " why he knew the country was on the wrong path: runaway personal debt, runaway national debt, trade imbalance, war in Iraq, devaluation of the U.S. dollar and overinflation of the housing market.

Ferrell sold all of his real estate and cashed out. He wanted to be completely debt-free and pay cash for the house he knew he was going to build.

"I sold out," he said. "A lot of the friends I told thought I had lost my mind."

Ferrell bought five acres of land in eastern Oklahoma County and put his welding skills to good use: building his own home. He started building in June 2006 and, with the aid of just one hired helper, finished by August.

During the hottest months of the year, he spent nearly every day outside, welding together the pieces of structural steel that would become the walls and roof of his all-steel home.

"I'm a metal artist, and I live in a metal house," he said. "I used my skills to build a really big box, and that's what I live in. I had no blueprints, no planning."

One helper suggested it was like building a playhouse.

Ferrell, who calls himself a recycled junk artist, said his home is made of about 40 percent recycled materials, while everything inside is recycled or reused. He made furniture and shelving out of a recycled redwood deck. Antiques, family heirlooms and items found at garage sales fill the space. (About the only things he does buy new are toilet paper and some food items.)

There are no interior walls. Instead, the living space is divided by pieces of furniture fixtures and art. There is no carpet on the concrete floors. He essentially lives in a garden shed, and dirt on the floor is part of everyday life.

"Pee-wee's Playhouse," he said, was a big influence on the house, and he adopted the "no wrong answer" approach to decoration and design.

"I took an artist's approach," he said. "Artists have an idea, and they do it. It may be good, and it may not."

Sustainable lifeWhile the actual materials of Ferrell's home were important, he wanted to do more than just build a sustainable house. He wanted to live a sustainable life.

"Green" construction requires the use of pumps, motors, fans and thermostats to make a house function, and if the power fails, that "green" house ceases to function. In a very short period of time, the structure becomes uninhabitable.

Not wanting to rely solely on the power companies to provide the energy for his home, Ferrell uses solar power to offset his electrical energy usage and passive solar and wood heat to warm his house in the winter. He also uses a high-efficiency unit for summer cooling.

By winter, he plans to add a large, greenhouse-style room on the south side of his home. Its glass walls will allow sunlight to easily pass through and be trapped inside, much like the inside of a car with its windows rolled up.

Inside the green space, he will be able to grow tropical plants and some food, turning it into a winter oasis.

On a 20-degree day, the room will be 70 degrees, just from passive solar energy from the sun. If his house gets too cold for solar energy, Ferrell builds a wood fire.

His main rule for the house?

"If all the power goes out in the dead of winter," he said, "can I still live here?"

Urban gardenerNaturally, if having his recycled house run on solar energy is important to Ferrell, so, too, is growing his own food.

On his five acres, Ferrell " who is not afraid to go into public with garden dust on his jeans " has built an enormous organic garden.

An avid composter with chickens to help produce garden soil and compost, he also uses as compost the green waste from several local restaurants, which the businesses would otherwise have to pay to send to landfills.

With this compost-based soil, Ferrell " who grew up on a cattle, beef and hay farm in Leedey " grows a variety of food, including onions, beans, tomatoes, broccoli and cabbage.

"The ability to grow your own food properly is very important and getting more so every day. During the Depression of the 1920s, everyone's successful survival depended on their ability to grow and preserve food grown in their garden," he said. "When you go to Walmart, and you buy a bag of garlic with a China label on it "¦ if that doesn't scare you, you're not paying attention."

To water his garden, Ferrell is building a water catchment system that will collect rainwater and store it for use. Just one inch of rain on a 1,000-square-foot roof yields 650 gallons of water, he said.

"Home water catchment should be a top priority in this state," he said. "The big fight's coming, and it won't be over oil or gas. It'll be over water."

Sustainable communityAfter he realized how well his lifestyle worked for himself, Ferrell began encouraging and assisting his neighbors in building gardens. His neighbors now have big gardens, and they all trade labor, ideas and encouragement.

He has cultivated a network of urban gardeners " he calls them "crop mobs" " around the metro area who share his enthusiasm for natural living within the city, and he hosts workshops on how to create and maintain gardens and make compost. He also has created a Facebook page, called Oklahoma GardenShare, to grow this network.

"I like Ron's style," said Tricia Dameron, a member of GardenShare and the author of the food blog Oklavore. "He eagerly shares his gardening knowledge and life experiences while acknowledging that there are other ways of doing things. He might be considered extreme by some, but he engages people with his frankness and passion."

Benjamin Coffin, a resident and restaurateur in Guthrie and executive chef at Oklahoma State University, has attended Ferrell's garden parties and plant swaps, where people bring plants or seeds to exchange over a potluck lunch. Coffin respects the work Ferrell does and has been discussing with him the building of a community garden in Guthrie.

"Ron's philosophy and way of life is great," Coffin said. "I think it is a way of life and commitment that takes a lot of time and sweat and tears, and in today's society, people don't want to give a lot of that up, or they want instant gratification."

Ferrell said he used to be very preachy to people about how they should live their lives, but, after realizing that wasn't the way to reach people, he stopped.

"Now, I try to lead by example," he said. "I try to be the life I want to see in other people. If they're inspired (by) that, it's all the better." "Hailey Branson

See a video tour of Ron Ferrell's house.

phototop Ron Ferrell sits by the fireplace in his extraordinary house in Oklahoma County.
photo bottom The outside of Ferrell's house.

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