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Nancy Bernstein: Building an efficient lifestyle

July 16, 2008
By CAPERTON TISSOT, Special to the Enterprise

To live well in the backwoods takes a wallop of independence, a heap of hard work and a parcel of self-sufficiency.

Nancy Bernstein lives well. She and 5-year-old Reuben dwell in a small, south-facing, energy-efficient home, which Nancy built herself over a two-year period, starting in 1994.

With the assistance of friends and a bit of bartering, she constructed a delightful house at minimal cost. Through earlier jobs, she had acquired knowledge about construction and the use of alternative energy.

Article Photos

Nancy Bernstein

Her work experience helped her successfully design a small home that taps into those renewable energy sources, leaving her independent of conventional power. New to architectural drawing, she wisely brought her sketches to an experienced builder who was learning to use C.A.D. software to draft blueprints. He helped her with practical suggestions, such as widening a staircase or repositioning a doorway, and by providing detailed building plans (at 880 square feet, architect certification is not required).

This home, off the electric grid, is warmed by a woodstove, powered by 520 watts from solar panels, provided with emergency backup power from a generator (which runs no more than 10 hours a winter) and uses propane only for refrigeration and cooking. A large woodpile replaces oil and a flourishing, raised-bed organic garden replaces many trips to the supermarket.

Not only does this petite woman (who, at a stretch, is just 5-feet-3- inches tall) manage to live self-sufficiently, but for the last 12 years has worked as a timberframer, holding her own alongside the guys. Like many Adirondackers, she has taken on a string of unusual jobs to sustain her through the years.

How she came to this point in her life is a curious tale. Nancy lived in Boston until age 8. Then, in 1972, her family moved to Hillsdale, N.J. where she remained until leaving to attend Cornell University in Ithaca. Her early interests had leaned toward art, but at college she became enthused about science, ultimately majoring in biology and graduating in 1985. One of the high points in those years was interning for a semester at the Sea Education Association in Woods Hole, Mass., where she spent six weeks on shore and six weeks at sea, carrying out science and nautical studies.

Learning more about the critical impact of civilization on the natural world, Nancy became increasingly aware that lifestyle changes were needed in order to preserve a healthy environment. She focused on education as a means of spreading this message. In 1981, following college, she took a job working with Pete Seeger's Hudson River Sloop, which was dedicated (and still is) to cleaning up the Hudson River while teaching environmental education to children and adults alike. By 1987, she had become the on-board educator for the traditionally built wooden sailing vessel, Clearwater, which regularly took children out on the Hudson for hands-on-biology study experience.

Sailing on a wooden boat requires a good deal of repair and maintenance work. Through that experience, Nancy developed a keen interest in boat building. Consequently, during the winters, when not sailing on the Clearwater, she hired on to help build, repair or sail on a variety of boats such as: the "Ernestina" of New Bedford, Mass.; the schooner "Adventuress" of the West coast's Puget Sound; the schooner "Pride of Baltimore II" a 140' sailing vessel of Baltimore, MD; and smaller wooden boats built by the Rondout Woodworking Company in Saugerties.

"I really enjoyed the woodworking," Nancy said. "I have always liked doing hands-on, creative work."

This last company took on the task of building a timber-frame replica of a cotton mill for Disney World. It was her first exposure to this type of construction.

Shortly afterwards, a friend invited her to visit the Saranac Lake area. Nancy liked it here so much that in 1993, together with friends, she bought several acres of heavily wooded land ("back when it was affordable," she says). They divided it up and each built a home.

"I was a lot of time by myself," she said about the buliding process. "I would build a wall and then call some people to help me stand it up."

In between building sessions, she would look for seasonal jobs to provide an income. Jobs have included: working for Green Peace; crewing on a variety of sailing vessels, gardening at the Hhott House and as field technician for the black fly control program.

In 2003, her life was enriched by the birth of her son, Reuben. From that time on, wherever Nancy has gone, she has taken Reuben with her, including him in her activities as much as possible. Since his birth, "how I spend my time has changed," she explains, "I make sure I leave enough hours in the day to have fun with him." For 12 years now, she has been working with Amstutz Woodworking, a timber framing company. In the beginning, she was full time, but with Reuben to care for, she now puts in just three days a week. The rest of the time, she works from home where her art skills have come in handy. She draws the maps for the Adirondack Explorer, makes work sketches from blue prints for Amstutz Woodworking and does a little freelancing.

Music has remained a big part of Nancy's life. She first learned the banjo while with Seeger's organization (where music plays a large role in teaching about the environment). Today she particularly enjoys the evenings when she can get together to jam with friends. She plays the banjo while Reuben strums away at his child-sized guitar and drum set. Wishing to have a piano, but lacking the space, Nancy is presently constructing a 370' addition to her home which will serve as a gathering room for other musicians.

Nancy enjoys helping others learn how their own actions can make a difference in the world. She believes that "If people can learn that living simply or using alternative energy is not synonymous with roughing it, then perhaps they'll feel empowered to consider making changes in their own lives." She is happy to help them do this by serving as a contact person for others trying to make similar changes in their own lives; she offers encouragement, answers questions and provides sources for further information. She and her neighbors offer an annual tour of their solar and wind-powered homes. Additionally, Nancy is serving for a ninth year on the board of the Residents Committee to Protect the Adirondacks, and is on the Advisory Committee to draft subdivision regulations for the Town of Franklin.

Though her early years seem to have been a jumble of jobs and interests, they were in fact, all connected by common threads.

"Everything I've done eventually ties back in together," commented Nancy. Her art, music, and construction skills contribute toward making possible the independent lifestyle she has chosen.

After years of not seeing him, Nancy recently had the chance to meet up again with Seeger. Though basically optimistic, she sometimes feels pretty discouraged about the political and environmental state of the planet. However, she was encouraged by Pete, who said he believed the world was becoming increasingly hopeful as more and more people make small changes toward bringing back a healthier environment. Nancy continues to do her best to live modestly, help others to find alternate energy sources, contribute to the arts and teach young Reuben the importance of protecting the natural world. She hopes in this way to do her own small part toward making the world a better place to live.

For comments or questions, Caperton Tissot can be reached at



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