Near the beginning of this millennium, I enjoyed the privilege of meeting Dr. Merle Kindred, a woman of the world who has dedicated her long, beautiful life to building a cozy future for all the people and other living beings that inhabit our planet.
Although Merle no longer owns a house in the Keweenaw, she has left a legacy of wonderful human habitats for others there and in many other locations around the globe. She continues to educate and inspire developers and home builders with the warm care, wisdom, and complex technical knowledge she has gathered over many decades of thoughtful work, building not just structures but relationships and sustainable ways of life.
Below is the post I wrote when I was a young, traveling activist in the 2000s. Merle offered me and my supervisor hospitality on a journey to organize rural Michigan for health care reform, and she also gifted us with a tour of her showpiece Northern Michigan home as well as a photographic tour of her house in Kerala, India. Several years later, she gave a Tedx presentation about the construction and life of these two homes.
The Harmonious Homes of Dr. Merle Kindred
My first featured homeowner is Dr. Merle Kindred of Michigan's Upper Peninsula. She owns two houses: one in Northern Michigan and another in Kerala, India. Both houses were custom designed and built to suit their respective environments. Dr. Kindred and her late architect husband created their beautiful, low-cost, comfortable, healthy, serene, and environmentally clean homes on the Keweenaw Peninsula and in Kerala as examples of how voluntary simplicity can be a beautiful and pleasant way of living. The homes are not only wonderful for their human inhabitants, but they honor and coexist peacefully with their local ecosystems.
For example, a well-intentioned lawn care man keeps asking Merle if she would like him to cut her grass. He doesn't understand that she chooses to keep her land in a state of seamless harmony with the picturesque Northern woods that surround her lot. This is called "nature-scaping," and it requires little maintenance.
A gravel path around the house is lined with native greenery, imported bleeding hearts, potted veggies, and various indigenous forest flowers. Deer, foxes, and other wild animals can be seen through the wall-sized windows strolling along the path and grazing.
This was what I saw from my bed when I woke up in Merle's lower guest room when she hosted me this spring. There are thermal window shades on all of the windows (which are inexpensive and can be found at Lowe's and other hardware stores) enhancing the efficiency of this passive solar, super-insulated house with argon-filled windows.
The handcrafted Swedish fireplace serves as a backup method of heating. But even in the Keweenaw's brutally cold winters, the home is sufficiently heated by the sunlight through the passive solar windows and a high-efficiency gas-powered hot water radiant heating system (like the one in my house, a main reason I chose it!).
Merle's kitchen is a tiny, galley-style room with highly functional features such as pull-out cutting boards. Cooking and cleaning in the small space is simple and easy.
The house was built of simple, local materials that most "upwardly mobile" Americans would not think of using. The downstairs floor is stained, insulated concrete. The wood trim and stairs are made of golden pine from a nearby forest. Merle uses her home as a showpiece to demonstrate that inexpensive materials such as soft woods can be durable and beautiful.
To further lower costs, Merle has taken in roommates to share her cozy and lovely home. Sharing living expenses frees up money for other parts of life... such as traveling back and forth between Michigan and India. I have a wonderful memory of sitting in Merle's tree house-like upper living room, sipping masala tea, listening to a classic raga on the stereo, and looking through gorgeous photos of her new house in Kerala.
Keweenaw Now, an independent news source in the northern UP, wrote about Merle's Indian home:
"Designed by the Centre of Science and Technology for Rural Development (COSTFORD), the house is constructed of locally made burnt bricks and mud walls with provisions for solar hot water, biogas, an Indian-designed smokeless chula (wood-burning cooker especially suited for cooking rice), rainwater harvesting, micro-hydro and containment of spring water."
Bamboo, brick, and mud perform better in Kerala's climate than Westerners' traditional rebar, concrete, and wood. More expensive materials and modern Western technology are not always better; progress does not always mean globalization and modernization in the ways we are trained to assume.
The gorgeous Indian house is characterized by rough, natural textures and curved shapes. Merle decided to preserve and cultivate the native coconut, banana, pineapple, jackfruit, pepper, and teak growing naturally on the property.
In Kerala, too, Merle shares her home with friends. After all, what is a home without family?
This lady is a true Energy Star and knows how to live well! She is a great role model for folks like myself and others around the world who may be cash-poor but rich in local resources, if only we know how to harness their value.
Wherever you live, pay close attention to your location's climate and resources, and be creative about taking every advantage of your surroundings to create a self-sufficient, low-cost, low-maintenance, low-stress, enjoyable home. Happy living!