The Daily Green caught up with Grant Miller, green developer of the Village on Sewanee Creek, which is nestled in the scenic mountains of southeast Tennessee near Tracy City (pictures here). Miller recently retired from a 30-year career as an international food service chain executive, having worked for Dunkin' Donuts, Baskin-Robbins and Papa John's, as well as Blockbuster Video, 7-Eleven, IHOP and others. He worked in 50 countries, overseeing over 3,700 restaurants. But since moving to rural Tennessee to build a self-sufficient community, Miller lost 25 pounds and says he feels 30 years younger.
We asked Grant Miller about the benefits and challenges of running a green, sustainable land development. We hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.
1. Tell us a bit about your vision as a green, eco-friendly developer.
Grant Miller: I try to be very pragmatic about being green. Fads come and go. Right now, being green is definitely a fad. But I think living intelligently and economically while preserving the natural beauty that surrounds us will be a lasting trend.
2. What are the challenges of building a green development?
Green means very different things to different people and it's a relatively new phenomenon in America. So, there is a large educational component to a green development. Going green isn't just about having solar panels on the roof and putting in bamboo floors. In fact, there are some strong reasons to consider other alternatives for these and many other "green" elements that many people take for granted. Especially in today's economy, learning how to live economically has become an important consideration in the move to sustainability. Based on my own experience learning how to live a self-sufficient, off-grid lifestyle, I'm able to give very pragmatic advice on how to live comfortably, economically and in harmony with nature and neighbors. To me, living green and building a green development is largely about showing people how to enjoy a more simple life.
3. Everybody has a different concept of what constitutes green living. How do you make sure that your property buyers stay "green" even though each of them might have a different concept?
Actually, I think allowing people to explore new ideas of green is essential. When we start locking down the definition and trying to control how people live, independence, creativity and commitment are lost. Nature is complex with many fluid, subtly interdependent systems. Our understanding of nature is continuously evolving. Rather than dictate how people respond to the challenge of green living, I believe in simply attracting people whose values drive them to continuously seek higher levels of green consciousness, people who are open to continuous learning. A wise man, when asked a similar question, once said, "I teach them true principles and let them govern themselves." I like that approach.
4. I know you have some green projects either completed or in process. Tell us a bit about them.
In my experience, learning to live in harmony with nature ironically doesn't come naturally to most of us. It takes time to learn and implement. We wanted to become self-sufficient but we didn't want to cut ourselves off from basic utilities we have depended on all our lives, like electricity or water. So we prioritized and began working on each system a little at a time while enjoying the convenience of everything we are accustomed to.
We started with water, hired a consultant and, with his help, built our own rainwater collection system. Now we have a choice to live entirely from the clean, chemical-free, soft water we collect or we can switch back to city water at will. Having the option of redundant systems makes for peace of mind and flexible, economical choices. Next, we focused on food. We plunged into organic gardening and, in our first season managed to raise about 80% of everything we ate. Then we added a huge greenhouse to extend the growing season and planted a large orchard. Next we plan to put a small-scale fish farm integrated with hydroponics in the greenhouse. Each step makes us more self-sufficient and gives us more options.
The next big priority is energy. We researched all the mainstream green technologies and found that most were either exorbitantly expensive, even with government subsidies, dependent on variable weather conditions or both. We discovered a little-known old technology that has been updated with current technology to make electricity from abundant, local, renewable waste wood. The economics are competitive with our local low-cost electricity provider and we can actually make money generating electricity to go back into the grid. By integrating these systems into our lives, we are always prepared for whatever comes our way. Doing it one step at a time assures that we understand each system well, implement it economically and enjoy the benefits without sacrificing short-term comfort.
As we share our learning with neighbors who have similar values we develop a resilient community of self-sufficient people who live without fear.
5. You've mentioned that you are a fan of self-reliance and local community (with a local economy). Is this part of your concept of sustainability? Could you elaborate?
Absolutely! I think most Americans recognize that local economies have been weakened by globalization. We have outsourced most of our manufacturing capacity to the lowest-cost foreign producers. While it is true that we have enjoyed the benefits of low-cost consumer goods, there are also risks. Food and other necessities must be transported from long distances, subject to disruptions of all kinds. Many self-sufficiency skills that were common among our ancestors have been lost as we have become increasingly specialized in professions that don't produce anything of tangible, life-sustaining value. Extreme dependence on increasingly complex and brittle systems brings with it fear and paranoia, especially during economic downturns. People long for a more stable time when we felt in control of our lives and local communities. Locally strong, independent, self-sustaining communities are the antidote to modern angst.
6. As a green developer (and one who lives in his own development) I'm sure you face the dilemma of having to choose between doing a business deal and doing what's best for your neighbors. Does this prove to be a difficult decision?
Occasionally I have to discourage people who I can tell wouldn't be happy here. But that's a rare occurrence. We don't do big, splashy, broadly targeted advertising campaigns. People usually find us on the Web by searching for a self-sufficient community. By making our objectives clear, like-minded people find us. We find that the profile of the typical villager is a highly educated, intelligent and accomplished person. They generally seek to avoid ostentatious displays of wealth or status and are open to learning from all kinds of people. They enjoy being with and helping other people. And they believe in pulling their own weight. They are the kind of folks I want as my neighbors. The ones that I don't think I would enjoy living next door, I'm not shy about suggesting they might find another community more to their liking.
7. What are you most excited about for the future of your development?
I think I look forward most to having good neighbors in each homestead and being able to focus all of my attention on coming up with new and innovative ways to live self-sufficiently close to nature.
8. What would you say to those who have been thinking about jumping out of the rat race in order to live more intentionally but have been unable to do so?
I would say, "jump in." There will never be a better time to live a happy life than right now. The fulfillment that comes from living creatively in harmony with people and nature is simply wonderful. You have nothing to lose but fear and stress.
Photos: Courtesy of Village on Sewanee Creek
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