Joe Trumpey: Life lessons, living off the grid

March 10, 2020
Written By:
Mike Wood


Joe Trumpey in front of his home.

Joe Trumpey in front of his home.

Joe Trumpey is a very unique professor who dedicates his life to finding ways to create a more sustainable future, not only in how he teaches but also in how he lives.


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Mike Wood: Welcome back to another episode of Michigan News: Beyond the Headline. I’m Mike Wood. I’m a video producer and I also run the Michigan News studio here on the campus of the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Our studio puts U of M faculty on the air, on major radio and TV networks around the world, but today we’re going beyond the headlines. Joe Trumepy is an associate professor in the Stamps School of Art and Design here at the University of Michigan. He’s also an associate professor of Natural Resources at the School for the Environment and Sustainability and Program in
the Environment. In addition, he’s the director of the Sustainable Living Experience and is affiliated with several other schools, departments, and committees here on campus. And he’s here with us now. Welcome, Joe.

Joe Trumpey: Thank you. Glad to be here.

Wood: So we first met a few years ago. I got a video assignment. They said some crazy professor was going to take a group of college students and he’s going to teach them how to build some kind of building out of straw, which we now know is a straw bale building. You’ve done a couple of projects. How did that idea come about and what did that entail?

Trumpey: Well, it was a long time coming for that particular project. I’m a maker. I like to explore the world through making. So the making, as part of my creative process, is responsive to outside pressures. So certainly thinking about climate change and energy and sustainability. I look around and see kind of what is available for me that I can make a difference and set kind of a benchmark, kind of see the world differently through an object. And in this case, they’re buildings.

Wood: So why straw bales? What’s that process involve and why? Why is that better than two-by-fours and typical?

Trumpey: Sure. So, you know, I spent a long time thinking about what kind of house I would like to live in. And it opened up a line of inquiry of like if we’re going to be energy-savvy, like what kinds of materials are good to do that work in. And certainly, there’s a lot of technical materials that are quite good, but they all have fossil fuel footprints. I mean, most everything around us has a fossil fuel footprint. So trying to minimize that footprint and be as simple, kind of air quotes simple.

Wood: So when I was shooting the video of you have a class that was going to build the straw bale building up at the University of Michigan Biological Station in Pellston, that was cool and everything. But what really got me is you live in a straw bale house. You built a straw bale house for your family and you’ve been living there for quite some time. How did that come about? I mean, how did you first tell your wife, hey, I think we’re to build a brand new fancy house out of straw bales.

Trumpey: Yeah, she’s a good woman.

Wood: Tell her.

Trumpey: Yes, exactly. She was in on everything except for composting toilets. So there are no composting toilets in the house. It was, again, kind of a quest of neither my wife nor I grew up on a farm and thinking about sustainability and where and how you find good food. Well, one of the easiest things you can do is make it yourself. So we set a goal to eventually be growing about half of our food and it’s taken us the better part of 20 some years to get to a benchmark where we grow all of our meat and eggs. We haven’t purchased any meat or eggs in more than 25 years now.

Wood: Wow

Trumpey: And, you know, it depends on the year, but maybe 50 to 60 percent of our total food is grown on the farm. You know, we make dinner by going to the pantry and seeing like, hey, what’s available in the pantry? And it was a good year for tomatoes. So we have lots of tomato sauce like, okay, so let’s have, you know, lots of tomato-based products. And when the tomatoes run out, you know, we’re done until next year. And that’s kind of a headspace for thinking about energy for us now because we live off the grid. So technically, we’re making all of our own power. So it’s possible for us to run out of power if I’m not carefully watching it. You know, we’ve not burned a gram of fossil fuel to heat our home or our water in almost 12 years now.

Wood: No way.

Trumpey: So, you know, and same sort of thing that I’ll burn the boiler once a day and we have a tank of hot water. And my family knows like we can run out of hot water. It’s not on this endless cycle of connected to a natural gas line or the grid itself where the power just keeps coming and coming and you can use as much as you want. Michigan is a tough place to do off-grid solar just because there’s so much cloud cover we have during the short days of winter. Right. You know, I won’t be running my workshop if it’s a week of no sun, but if I have a good week of sun, you know, I might schedule myself to go use my table saw and wood planer and all of my equipment when I have lots of sun make hay while the sun shines.

Wood: That’s wild. So in actually the construction of the house, I mean, it literally is made from straw bales and a link to the videos out of this podcast. But it blew my mind. I mean, it’s basically adobe mud kind of thing over these interlocked bales and it makes actual good building material. I mean, explain that a little bit.

Trumpey: So you’re using an agricultural waste product thinking about wheat and barley and how do you use those seed heads to nourish yourself? And then you have this other element that’s leftover that is a carbon-rich element. So one of the nice things is you can take that material, stabilize it in a big square form of a bale and use it like bricks and build a building out of it. You see sod homes in the plains where they didn’t have timber to use. They were using earth to make their buildings. And it’s not a stretch to be thinking about some farmer who was baling hay and, you know, had a big giant pile of it and like, oh, wow, that could be nice to like block the wind and figured out a way to make that into a house.

Wood: I went to your house and I drove up and I was expecting to see a very modest small like a log cabin, but maybe adobe looking made out these bales of hay and you pull up. It’s two stories and it’s beautiful. Looks like a farm mansion or something. How do you get that kind of structure out of straw bales?

Trumpey: Carefully, patiently. A long time planning and thinking about ideas. You know, I think that’s a really common feeling coming out to our place that people have a mental notion of like it must be very basic and crude. And it’s like the Trumpey’s are living in a mud hut. You know, hovered around a candle in the corner. You know, I have tax assessors come out for tours. I have building inspectors come out for tours. You know, I feel good when people leave and say, like, I find this appealing now.

Wood: When did you build it? How long have you guys been in there?

Trumpey: I spent about five or six years researching and designing the building. We’ve had official occupancy since 2008.

Wood: Any regrets?

Trumpey: Any regrets? No. I think, you know, some subtle things we would change. But, you know, it was a big enough project that we didn’t have everything figured out kind of on purpose. And we were all in I mean, it was really my wife and my two kids and myself that really did the bulk of the construction. And we worked every day for two years. So we’d come home from school or teaching or day on campus and, you know, put in four or five, six hours. You know, I can remember our first Christmas in the house, like having a Christmas tree and like doing presents and then be like, okay, let’s go, like, do some tile work.

Wood: Merry Christmas now get to work.

Trumpey: Exactly.

Wood: That’s awesome. So when you were teaching the students here to build a straw bale structure that you’ve done, too, now that I know. Yeah. Does it help when you can say, I’ve done this, I’ve done this on a large scale. I live in a straw bale house. And then what lessons are you trying to teach students? It’s not just about construction. I would assume.

Trumpey: Sure. Yeah. I think the social modeling part there and the demonstration part of this is critical. Certainly, I don’t think university officials would have if I would’ve just said out of the blue, like, hey, I want to build this building that’s not part of standard code without any track record or experience, you know, it would have been shut down very quickly. And certainly, students understand the appeal of something out of the norm. So the goal here isn’t to get people to graduate and work as a construction worker, but to understand that relationship between the built environment and the natural world, getting them to get a good lens for what makes a good building versus, you know, a bad building. And certainly, there are plenty of bad buildings that we could look at. There’s good electricity and bad electricity. But it’s also a highly empowering thing for students to be able to make something right. I think it’s a generation of students and certainly working with majority art and design students, but also program and the environment students for them to learn the power of working in a team, to learn the power of the creative process and to come together and actually make something that has a statement, has a key place in a conversation about sustainability, is so empowering for them that I’ve seen, you know, students just it kind of knocks the wind out of them. And, you know, they kind of stand back and just are like, wow, look at what we just did.

Wood: Right. And then like less than 30 days, was it?

Trumpey: Yeah, 28 days.

Wood: 28 days. They went from a flat piece of ground to this really nice building with the metal roof. And I mean, just amazing. But it was really what they learned from they were the things that they kept telling me were just, I can’t believe this. This is everything that should be this way. Why isn’t it, you know?

Trumpey: Yeah, well, I think it’s it’s students don’t like group projects. Group projects are usually a drag, and you know I understand why. Because, you know, they’re inherently unfair. You know, ultimately someone in a group is always gonna be doing more than others. And there’s always gonna be a slacker either on purpose or by accident that is lagging behind. So I have developed kind of a good skill of understanding how to manage a group and, you know, be able to talk about the unfairness of this kind of project and how people are coming in with different kinds of skills and how you all help each other out. Ultimately, being able to communicate and understand kind of the short term goals for the long term, you know, I don’t really understand what’s happening two weeks from now, but I see what we’ve got to do right now. So those bite-size pieces and that becomes a really good metaphor for. Right. Climate change. Exactly. And, you know, how do we fix this bloody big complex problem? It’s a wicked problem and it’s overwhelming. And, you know, if I would’ve just rolled out the blueprints and said, like, look, this is what we’re doing, like everybody would have been like, what?

Wood: Yeah, I can’t do that.

Trumpey: I can’t do that. I don’t know how to do any of that stuff. And it’s scary. And like what? I might be on a ladder. I don’t know what power tools? Right. Exactly. One of the unforeseen outcomes of that group. I mean, I’ve always seen lots of groups come together, but I think out of that straw bale build-up at the bio station, I think eight or nine of the students came back and they all got these little straw tattoo’s. And none of them were you know, they weren’t all tatted up. So some of these were like first time tattoo’s. I was even surprised by that, that they were ready to kind of memorialize that month of working together in a semester of leading up to that and reflect on it every day, if they’re, you know, looking at that tattoo.

Wood: I never want to forget this experience.

Trumpey: Yeah, absolutely.

Wood: That’s really cool.

Trumpey: So the power groups and the power of kind of creativity is like untold here.

Wood: You do a lot of projects that seem a little ridiculous. I mean, just, you know, your thing is dream big. Yeah, sure. You know you take students to Africa and you help, you know, with clean water and so many initiatives that go on for hours. How does it make you feel, personally? Like, you know, whether it’s that tattoo thing or some student just contact you and saying you made a difference. How does that make you feel?

Trumpey: Well, it’s great. I mean, that’s why, you know, it’s what’s kept me here and engaged at U of M for 26 years now.

Wood: So how did you grow up? Did you grow up in a log cabin in the middle of the woods somewhere? And I mean, how did you first get exposed to the natural world in this way?

Trumpey: Yeah, I grew up inside the city limits of Indianapolis and in the seventies and it was really the Boy Scouts that opened up my appreciation of nature. So every month we would leave the city and head down to the Hoosier National Forest, where my troop had some lands and began kind of a multi-year understanding of how to live and explore and pay attention to the woods. And it was a dirty time. You know, it was on the heels of the first Earth Day and a lot of, you know, we were Boy Scouts, so we were doing Boy Scout stuff, which was service. So in a lot of the service at that point was cleaning up a lot of garbage, cleaning up trails, cleaning up, you know, parks and streets and planting trees.

Wood: What was your life like in Indianapolis? I mean, what? Sixteen-year-old Joe, Trumpey, what did you think you want to do with your life? What did your folks do, did you have siblings, kind of paint the picture?

Trumpey: Yeah, sure. I’m a first-gen kid.

Wood: First-generation college student?

Trumpey: Exactly. Yeah. I grew up thinking I wanted to go to vet school. So sixteen year old me was focused on vet school. I started working, you know, soon as I got my license, I got a job working at a vet clinic, also worked at the Indianapolis Zoo. So kind of my interest in nature kind of took me to wildlife. I was fascinated with wildlife and still am. My dad was a Campbell soup salesman. My mom was a secretary for local doctors. And I have a younger sister six years younger than me. But I can remember my folks. There was a door to door salesmen for World Book encyclopedias and they didn’t have the cash at all. But, you know, they wanted to get the books for me and my sis. And, you know, kind of intuitively, I went through the books. And what caught my attention was always the animals. So I literally went through that encyclopedia, A to Z and I went aardvarks to zebras, you know. So it got me obsessed with animals. And, you know, I’m still obsessed with animals. And we live on a farm and we do rare breeds. In my professional training, I have a degree in biology and art and a graduate degree in illustration, science illustration. So a lot of my professional training was that of a science illustrator. So creating visuals to tell science stories, a lot of that was focused at the School of Veterinary Medicine at North Carolina State, where I was a chief medical illustrator for a while. And then I also illustrated a huge set of animal encyclopedias.

Wood: Wow. That’s amazing.

Trumpey: Kind of all stitches together. You know, again, hindsight is a powerful thing, right?

Wood: Yeah, well, it’s wild looking at those encyclopedias and we had two sets we had like Junior set, we had seven kids. So they all were recycled for, you know, little school papers and stuff. But the illustrations that were they didn’t really allow them to have a lot of photos necessarily. But there would be some illustration of a bird. You ended up doing amazing animal illustrations.

Trumpey: Right. And then back then, those really fancy translucent pages that had like the frog anatomy that you could turn and see. Take away the skin and then you took away the organs and muscles.

Wood: I think your dad bought the deluxe set.

Wood: So what projects do you have? What do you what are you doing right now? What are some of the things you are working on or want to work on in the future?

Trumpey: Right now, a lot of my time has taken up working on the president’s commission for carbon neutrality here at U of M, so I’m in co-chair of one of the internal analysis teams on campus climate and communication. Really digging in hard there, trying to get us out to the front edge of where we need to be. Because right now, honestly, we’re towards the bottom of the big ten and there’s good opportunities and space for us to get out ahead on that. And then one of the projects I’m working on designing right now, well, a couple of things to kind of augment the straw bale building that we built at the campus farm, an outdoor kitchen that U of M dining would use to be able to host farm to table events.

Wood: You build a second straw bale building right at the Botanical Gardens and the campus farm. A couple of years ago. So that’s right here in Ann Arbor. So can you expand on that?

Trumpey: Yeah, sure. So that the campus farm straw bale building is a little bit bigger and more complex than the one up at the bio station.

Wood: I mean, it is cool because, before the campus farming, my only knowledge of it is I drive down Dick’s Burrow or whatever and I’d see some fields where it looked like somebody or hoop house or something or somebody is doing something right. But now that building, it does give it some identity. It’s like, oh, what’s that? And what are they doing there?

Trumpey: Absolutely. And, you know, the fact that it’s a building out of nature that is literally made with Earth and Straw, which connects us back to that food story, it just really resonates well. So it’s a good, good place, good energy.

Wood: The crazy thing is we keep talking about these buildings made of straw. You would never know it when you see it. I mean, it’s like an adobe, modern stucco looking thing or whatever. It’s just the brown looks like a cool building with overhanging overhang, metal roof, and a porch and. Right. I mean, the straw is hidden deep, buried in there on purpose.

Trumpey: And the straw gives it great insulation, too. So it’s you know, it’s appropriate to have well-insulated buildings in Michigan. Right. And the straw bale will give upwards of three to four times the insulation value of like a standard two-by-four home. Wow. So back to kind of what I’m working on now, designing an outdoor kitchen that would have a wood-fired pizza bread oven, also kind of a barbecue space so that M dining can go out there and really host student events and, you know, other events that face outwards to the community and to the state where people can kind of see and understand the beauty of the place.

Trumpey: And the importance of the story of sustainability should also add to Mike that both of those buildings are the first couple of buildings that have been student-built in history and the recent history. Like 110 years of history. Yeah. Yeah. And they’re also kind of the first off-grid, completely solar-powered buildings on campus given their tiny little buildings. But it’s a start. And it’s cool for students to be able to be out there and plug in their computers or, you know, I’ll give talks out there and be able to say, like, hey, we’re the only place on campus today that has this computer and this projector running off of 100 percent solar power.

Wood: So cool. So what’s the next step? You can do more there. Yeah.

Trumpey: And so so right that the kitchen is next and then building a composting toilet out there to give some more facilities out there because right now they literally rely on porta-potties. And there’s some other research at the university that is using urine separating technology to create fertilizer out of the urine, which ditches well into the needs of research at the farm. So those are two short term projects that I should have on the agenda in the next couple of years and then long term.

Trumpey: I’ve got a little grant trying to do some visuals. We are doing some visualizations of a bigger complex of buildings that is loosely termed right now, the sustainable living complex with students in the vision.

Wood: Which students live there? Yeah. We’re thinking I’m thinking maybe 60 students in a co-op styled housing school. Cool.

Wood: So like a kind like a living experiment and a demonstration. Exactly. And I’m sure these students are getting an amazing education. I mean, the students must be specials, you know, like people that are already committed to the environment or that kind of living or. But would they go on to the traditional central campus for classes? They would have to. For sure.

Wood: So you’d get a U of M degree, but you’d be living instead of in a dorm or off-campus. You’re living in this community.

Trumpey: It would be a different kind of U of M housing opportunity. And I would think there’s even ways that their activity out there helps pay for school.

Wood: When we all look at climate change and, you know, some of these scary things that are just so huge and we feel like I can’t do anything right. Is your whole philosophy in all these projects kind of showing students that, you know, sometimes it’s just doing little things? You know, you don’t all have to, you know, live off the grid and everything. But just. Do small steps that maybe do make a difference.

Trumpey: Right. Right. Finding that little space where you can actually do something makes a difference.

Wood: So as someone who started out really as a medical illustrator from Indianapolis and you, you know, weren’t sure exactly what your career was going to do or whatever. Do you have any advice to like a kid starting out who’s looking at all the choices? You know, maybe I want to be a vet. Maybe I want to do this. Maybe I don’t know what I want to do. What advice would you give a young person?

Trumpey: Yeah, I think learning to trust your gut is one thing. I think a lot of what I’ve learned I mean, I could never predict that you know, we’d be talking about straw bale buildings or off-grid or, you know, sustainable complexes.

Wood: I hear you say it literally has changed my life a little bit east. When you say dream big. And that’s easy. Say I dream big. Yeah, but it’s something beyond dream big. Dream big. And then find a way to do that first step.

Trumpey: Yeah. So it’s one bite at a time sort of a thing. It’s if you know the problem with climate change and you know these big wicked problems. If I sat down and like really thought about how big and scary the problem is, you know, why would I get out of bed in the morning? Right. Forget it. I can’t get that right. So, you know, you got to keep the short term goals tangible that you can tackle this one day at a time, one bite at a time. And, you know, trust yourself that through your creativity and responsiveness, that you can pull those pieces together and it keeps you, you know, in line with a bigger goal.

Wood: Well, thank you very much for really for all the work you do here and all the students you’ve touched and letting me dip in and shoot my videos of your different straw bale projects

Trumpey: Any time.

Wood: And thanks for sharing your story today.

Trumpey: Thanks, Mike. My pleasure.

Wood: I’d also like to thank the whole team here at Michigan News for their support of this podcast, including audio engineer Kirk Lawrence, who was at the mixing board for this episode. Nicole Smith and Hans Anderson help with digital strategy and marketing. And we couldn’t do it without the support from news director Laura Lessnau and associate news director, Bernie DeGroat. I’m Mike Wood. I’ll see you Beyond the Headlines.