An Untrapped Mind: D.I. von Briesen
He’s 6-foot-6, CPCC faculty, an inventor, veteran of the Army and a New Mexico commune, Caucasian Muslim, and a computer geek. He wants the world to rethink what it can use as a home by joining him in his box
“You want a tour on this?” says D.I. von Briesen, towering near the giant lozenge-shaped window he installed in the shipping container he’s converted into a house.
“Yeah,” I say, shooting iPhone video. “Show me.”
It’s a bright October afternoon at Central Piedmont Community College, but we’re behind the library and in its shadow, a dry well for the solar panels on the roof. The container has been here, next to a loading dock behind the library—in what D.I. refers to as the “armpit of the campus”—for a few years now. Beneath the container is dirt. At first glance, it looks like a temporary classroom trailer, a beige box.
But it has a porch, windows, doors, and an awning. The container is a prototype home, a laboratory, an educational tool, and the realization of an idea for 44-year-old D.I., a Web Technologies instructor at CPCC. Over the last five years, the container has consumed a huge chunk of his time and energy. One of D.I.’s many interests is finding alternate modes of housing, stemming from his childhood on a New Mexico commune and the aggravating lack of private space. He’s a tinkerer and inventor, too, and an environmentalist, and he harbors an oddly intense fascination with human waste disposal. Those interests converge and mesh in the shipping container. Few people outside CPCC know who D.I. is or what he’s done.
That might change within the next few months, because his invention expands the answer to a question people have asked since they possessed the capacity to ask it: Where can I make my home?
“This is EcoBox I,” D.I. begins, strolling to the back door. “It’s a 40-foot-high cube shipping container, which means it’s originally about eight-and-a-half feet wide on the interior. And what we’ve done is put non-load-bearing sides in the walls …”
I sneeze. He blesses me.
“… and we’ve established this solar setup and teaching system …” This absorbs sunlight through four rooftop panels wired to a wall-mounted solar charge controller, a shoebox of black plastic with a digital readout that glows soft blue. The system draws solar energy even in the shade. “Here you can see the power coming in,” D.I. says. “See, we’ve got 60 volts.”
He shows me the light controls, the insulation, the compact but efficient split-system heating and air unit, the filtration system that can draw impurities and microbes out of a million liters of rainwater. It’s all astoundingly well-conceived and practical, no fuzzy-edged dream; the EcoBox is designed to precise specifications and built to function in a tight space.
Behind it all is a basic idea—that even in poverty, isolation, or disaster, with no functional housing or public utilities, people deserve to do three things in privacy and safety: sleep, bathe, and use the bathroom. D.I. has designed the EcoBox to provide those things for cheap—CPCC bought the shipping container for $2,000—and in a way that doesn’t harm the environment or require a big piece of land.
EcoBox probably would catch on more readily in the developing world. But who knows? Home ownership in the United States isn’t as rosy a prospect as it was a few years ago. The homeless roam cities everywhere. Would a $100,000 public outlay for 10 EcoBoxes be worth it to get people off the streets?
D.I. can’t answer those questions. He’s just trying to prepare a version of the EcoBox for a conference in Charlotte this spring, which its organizers bill as the first of its kind for people who specialize in creating living quarters in small spaces. D.I. doesn’t know exactly where his project is going. But he understands fully how it started in his head.
“A lot of this is probably coming from a deep idealism about, ‘We should all have a place’ … It should be a place where you can lie down and stretch your arms out. What does that really take?” he explains, referring to Leonardo Da Vinci’s “Vitruvian Man,” the drawing of the guy in a circle with his arms and legs outstretched.
“That’s the space you need. Stand up, stretch, lie down, that’s your space. Everything you need is in that space.”
I met D.I. while on assignment to write about Hackerspace Charlotte, a club for tech-savvy tinkerers, enthusiasts, and inventors housed in a low-slung brown building on Hawthorne Lane, at the edge of Plaza Midwood. D.I. is a regular. He’s hard to miss. He is 6-foot-6 and weighs 235 pounds, with a shaved head that sets off tinted spectacles and a gray-streaked Van Dyke. His booming laugh fills a room.
On a sultry July evening, he showed me one of his side projects, a PVC rack hooked to a compressed air tank that launches paper rockets into an adjoining vacant lot. It’s mainly for fun, but he’s taken it to area schools to demonstrate physics principles. He said he could see its value as an educational tool for school districts.
Out of nowhere, D.I. apologized, explaining that he felt a little off.
“I’m fasting for Ramadan,” he said. “I haven’t eaten since before dawn.”
This threw me. D.I. is white, of mainly Anglo-Saxon descent. I know ethnicity doesn’t determine religion, but I had to ask:
OK, I thought. This guy’s different. I usually don’t meet people like D.I. in conventional, stick-to-the-rules Charlotte. But the more I talked to him, I realized: I usually don’t meet people like D.I., period.
He’s the son of academics, who in the late 1960s ditched their jobs in Upstate New York and went west to a spiritual community, founded by relatives, that exists to this day: the Lama Foundation. The education and retreat center occupies 100 acres outside Taos, New Mexico, at the southern tip of the Rockies and about 30 miles south of the Colorado line.
D.I. casually refers to Lama as a “commune” as shorthand, but the foundation rejects the term. Too many associations with hippie bacchanals and free love. Lama’s three fundamental rules: no drugs, daily meditation, and strict marital fidelity.
When they moved to Lama, Hans and Noura von Briesen had two children, and Noura was pregnant with D.I. “We became very disenchanted both with the academic world, which we had been trained to be part of, and the social world of modern America,” Noura, now remarried and living in Charlottesville, Virginia, tells me over the phone. “It was shallow, not getting at the meaning of things. Lama was such a pure environment, a beautiful place.” The family had settled in by the time Daniel Inayat—the middle name is an Arabic word that means “kindness”—was born in 1969.
He was not delivered into a life of ease. Lama was rough, especially in winter, when conditions were brutal and resources scarce. There was no electricity or plumbing. Residents used old Army surplus gas stoves for heat and to cook. They built their own houses and outhouses and hauled their own water from a reservoir that collected water from a nearby spring. D.I. looks back at his childhood with fondness and gratitude—he learned skills, self-confidence, and resourcefulness rare in anyone, much less a child. He still embraces the community’s commitment to minimal disturbance of land and water. But at the time, he thought how nice it would be to live in a normal American home with indoor plumbing and such.
That thought stayed with him growing up, as the family moved out of Lama and his parents divorced; as he joined his mother, who had converted to Islam, in Mecca for a year; into adulthood, through a stint in the U.S. Army Reserve, his college years at Georgetown University and the University of Virginia, and tech management jobs that led him to Charlotte in 1997. He joined the CPCC faculty in 2001, and a college fellowship allowed him to reconcile his ideas in the EcoBox, which he completed in 2008.
D.I. wanted it to function as off-the-grid living quarters on campus, but city Code Enforcement officers wouldn’t let him. So he put EcoBox I on wheels and moved it to the armpit, where it remains as a laboratory for students to work on water filtration and solar electric systems—admirable pursuits, even if EcoBox I isn’t what D.I. had envisioned. That’s OK.
He’s almost finished with EcoBox II.
“He was raised to adapt to whatever Allah puts in his path,” his mother says. “He tries things, and if they don’t work, he tries something else; he has an untrapped mind.”
“Are you familiar with Gartner’s Adoption Curve?” D.I. asks me. “The Trough of Disillusionment and so on?”
I confess that I am not.
“Often, when new technologies are adopted, there’s this big hype curve, and then it plummets,” he explains. “It’s in every article, every journal, everybody’s talking about it—‘Oh, what about this?’—and then it crashes. Sometimes it just doesn’t live up to its promise, and then it hits the Trough of Disillusionment, then slowly makes its way up to where it becomes mainstream. So even though the dot-com bust blew a lot of fortunes, for example, the Internet wasn’t going away.”
We’re at Hackerspace Charlotte on a weekday afternoon in early November. D.I.’s one of four people here; most Hackerspacers come out at night. D.I. carries on about the Curve and the Trough. Specifics aside, it’s a lesson for those who would dare to invent: It can be a long slog over changing perceptions, circumstances, and available parts. The better mousetrap isn’t always accepted or even recognized as a mousetrap. Sometimes people end up using it as a coaster, and you try again.
Just outside the Hackerspace building sits D.I.’s concession to that reality. It’s the royal blue-and-yellow EcoBox II, which D.I. keeps here because there’s no room for it at CPCC. It’s more along the lines of the living quarters he had in mind for EcoBox I, even if it is only 20 feet long instead of 40. He’s begun to install the shower in the left rear corner. There’s room for storage along both walls, with containers that can double as tables. When bedtime comes, D.I. uses heavy-duty carabiners to attach the ends of a double hammock to opposite corners and earn all the sleeping space he needs.
“It’s amazingly comfortable,” he says, stretching out all 6-foot-6. “So one of my thoughts is that if this were a refugee environment, you could probably sleep five or six guys very comfortably in here, arranging them in, like, weird diagonals.”
D.I. plans to get EcoBox II ready for that first-of-its-kind conference in the spring—the Tiny House Conference, scheduled for April at McDowell Nature Preserve on Lake Wylie.
In the past five years or so, the idea of “tiny homes”—literally miniature houses, taking up as little as 175 square feet, roughly the size of a storage shed—has caught on among a group of inventors and entrepreneurs who share a fascination with living in as little space as they can. It’s not quite a phenomenon, but it’s getting there, and one of its main champions happens to live in Charlotte.
“The movement is people consciously choosing to live in reduced space because of the many benefits they enjoy,” says Ryan Mitchell, 29, one of the Tiny House Conference’s organizers and founder of The Tiny Life, a support organization and blog. “We have people from all walks of life—bankers, white-collar workers—who could easily live in normal-sized homes but are attracted to this lifestyle.”
When we speak in November, Mitchell is finishing work on his own 200-square-foot home. He planned to move in by year’s end and, when spring came, plop it onto a trailer and drive down to Lake Wylie for the conference. Most tiny homes “conferences” are actually just workshops, he explains: one speaker, one prototype. This will be a true conference, with 13 planned speakers and at least six models. The EcoBox will be the only tiny home on display that’s designed to function without utilities.
D.I. doesn’t expect that to be an issue. He’ll have EcoBox II outfitted with the solar panels and a water filtration system. He’s installing a toilet.
And there accumulates the last problem D.I. has to solve before he can reveal his new kind of home to the world. It’s something most people don’t want to think about for long. D.I. has jumped in—metaphorically, thank heavens—with both size 13 feet.
The age-old question, “Where can I make my home?” has a companion: “What do I do with my poop?” People either laugh or shoo the question away. They shouldn’t. It’s an important issue. People have to keep their spaces clean and free of disease, and that requires sanitary disposal of poop.
The EcoBox is committed to freedom from utilities, which means no plumbing. D.I. could still rig up a flush toilet that uses rainwater, but where would the poop water go? Risk contaminating groundwater or nearby waterways? Forget it. Chemicals are out, too. The problem leads inevitably to another—how to introduce the subject to crowds, which may include potential investors. “It gives everyone the heebie-jeebies,” D.I. says.
There’s a way out of this mess: a dry, inexpensive substance that can absorb moisture (and therefore odor) and that can store without going bad; sawdust, say. The basic setup calls for a wooden box with a toilet seat and room enough underneath it for a five-gallon plastic bucket, the kind on sale at Home Depot or Lowe’s for less than $3. The user dumps some sawdust in the bucket. Business is conducted. Then the user can compost the resulting mélange for fuel or fertilizer and place fresh sawdust in the bucket. The cycle begins afresh. People actually do this. (There’s even a book about it titled, no kidding, The Humanure Handbook.)
We head back toward the Hackerspace building. A man bursts out the front door with a suggestion for D.I. “I’ve got your solution for the toilet,” says Quincy Acklen, Hackerspace’s president, a fast-talking, quick-grinning, retired Marine from California. “You know who you need to talk to?”
“Noooo,” D.I. says in a you’re-kidding-me tone.
“They have an alignment camera!” Acklen exclaims. He’s referring to a zero-gravity toilet with a mechanism that allows the user to, well, aim.
“No, dude, no,” D.I. replies. “It’s like a centrifuge effect. The poop splatters on the side.”
That won’t do. D.I. assures me he’ll find something workable by April.
Then he can get rolling. He’s given only general thought to the business possibilities, devoting himself to getting the thing to work. His ultimate dream would be a company that sells outfitted-to-order EcoBoxes to whomever wants them—individuals, schools, companies, NGOs.
As an educator, he loves the idea of an EcoBox as a teaching tool at a community college, as with EcoBox I. Or the business could sponsor a high school competition to test and develop students’ STEM skills: Each competing school could get a shipping container and $5,000 to come up with a winner in two weeks. The ideas overflow.
“I’m a believer that if you follow your passions, good things happen—and even if they don’t, if you’re passionate about it, no harm done, ’cause you enjoyed it,” he tells me at the door to EcoBox II. “But my experience in life is that if you do cool things, other things happen. … I believe that if I can make a good show of this at the conference, opportunities will materialize. It may be somebody calling and saying, ‘Hey, I want one of those.’”
It’s wide open, he says. There’s no need to be too focused about it. That’s how people miss all the other possibilities. Then this most unconventional man with his most unconventional creation says something, referring to his EcoBox options, that easily could serve as his personal credo:
“I’d say yes to all those things.”
Greg Lacour is a contributing editor for this magazine. Read his political commentary on his blog, Poking the Hornet’s Nest, at charlottemagazine.com.