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Campbell Co. Family Lives in Solar-Powered House They Built Themselves

When you think of homesteading or living off the grid, Northern California might come to mind. Northern Kentucky? Not so much. But that’s exactly what the McCaffertys are doing. Mark and Emily McCafferty, along with their son Anthony, live on 16 acres of land in a cordwood, solar-powered house they built themselves. They even collect their own water via cistern. 

The Dream

“The whole thing was Mark’s idea,” says Emily.

He always wanted to build his own house and says, “There was a chance I was going to be an engineer but I went into music instead.” In fact they each have degrees in music. Both graduated from Morehead State University and both grew up in Northern Kentucky where they returned after college. Mark says it was when rehabbing a foreclosed house they bought in Florence that he grew tired of “constantly fixing other people’s mistakes.”

Mark was ready to build a home from scratch. 

Emily, on the other hand, thought, “There’s no way we could build a house.” Mark began looking at details and figuring out what it would take. Emily started to see the practical side. She knew they either had the skills or knew people who did. What they couldn’t do themselves, they could hire out. Emily began to say, “Maybe one day.”

That did it for Mark.

Many people put off dreams by saying “Maybe one day” and he didn’t want their dream to be pushed off for lack of confidence or lack of trying. “I don’t want to be that person turning 60 who wishes we would have done it,” he says.

The Decision

They took the plunge. They sold their house in Florence, moved in with Emily’s parents, and made it happen.

Emily’s mom, Mary Lu Strange, says their decision didn’t surprise her. “I knew Mark read hundreds of books about building an off-grid house. This had been a dream of his for years.” As for Emily, mom knew she was “up for it.” “She ‘helped’ build a house with her late father and me when she was a toddler. I don't think there was a pinch of fear in either one of them,” she says.

They looked at property in Boone, Kenton, and Pendleton counties before deciding on 16 acres just barely inside Campbell County. It’s a 45-minute drive for Mark to get to work - he’s an instructor and chairperson for the Department of Music, serving as the Director of Bands and Percussion for Mount Saint Joseph University. 

Winter can be challenging. He has chains for his tires to get him from the house to the main road. Their long private drive can be treacherous in bad weather. Emily homeschools their son. Energy consumption is her winter concern. Shorter days means less sunlight for solar energy. They keep a daily log to track usage and make improvements both day-to-day and year-to-year. 

Mark and Emily have learned a lot along the way. So has the county. Dave Rodgers is building inspector 3 for Campbell County. He is 53 years old with lifelong experience in construction. “I’ve been on both sides of building projects, as a contractor and as a building inspector.” The McCaffertys are the only homesteaders he’s ever worked with. Rodgers says when the McCaffertys came to them with their project the department had some research to do. A cordwood house had to meet energy code and a solar home had to meet electric code. The building department is most familiar with traditional on-the-grid home building and people who want to add solar to an existing structure. “Code regulations are minimum requirements,” says Rodgers, “and the McCaffertys many times exceeded those. They had a true interest in getting it right and they were easy to work with.”

Mark and Emily recall their experience with inspectors as positive as well. They felt that both inspectors Dave Rodgers and Mark Brant were more than accommodating and always accessible to help them achieve the goals of their new home.  

Helping Others

The county was helpful but because homesteading is such a rarity in this area, the McCaffertys know that in retrospect there were a lot of things they could have approached differently to make the building a lot easier. Emily said she had looked up resources online but she came up empty a lot of the time. “So, I decided to create resources for others,” she says. 

Her blog was born from this endeavor. She also wrote the book The Owner-Builder Home Planner for people like them who want to take the leap but aren’t sure where to begin. 

Dave Rodgers also has a bit of advice for those embarking on any building project: call first.

“Don’t spend money or make plans until you talk to the inspectors,” he says. “The last thing you want to do is buy equipment and then learn it’s not what you need.”

There’s a stigma around building inspectors that makes people worry that involving inspectors will always cost you. Rodgers says that’s not the case. “Many people overbuild where they don’t need to while overlooking simple adjustments to their plans that are necessary.” The building inspector is your ally in creating a safe home for you and your family. 

The McCaffertys dreamed of a home off the grid driven by the desire to live more simply and efficiently. With family support, trust in their county inspectors, and careful planning, they are doing just that right here in Northern Kentucky. 

Written by Bonnie Jean Feldkamp, RCN contributor

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