We wander off the beaten path to meet the extraordinary people who call the Emerald Coast home.
BLUEPRINT FOR AN OFF-GRID LIFE
Claude Baudin is referring to both his Bayfront Santa Rosa Beach home and his life in general, which encompasses BMW,
Triumph, and six Moto Guzzi motorcycles. One of the motorcycles is electric and another runs on biodiesel. A biodiesel processing system, which he developed himself, is on-site.
As for his house: There isn’t another one like it anywhere. It sits atop pilings so that it catches the breeze coming off the Gulf of Mexico and the Bay. It’s also situated within the shade of the surrounding live oaks. Walking about, there’s the sense of living in the trees, the serenity of being high above it all. The windows can be open and closed by a series of lines running through blocks and secured by cleats—like the running rigging on a sailboat.
There is no air conditioning and never has been. The home is built of cypress harvested where they once stood along the shore of the Bay, and milled into rough planks four inches deep and 20 inches wide. Bungs conceal the heads of lag bolts that hold the structure together. The floors have been sanded and finished with tongue oil.
“I didn’t know what I wanted to do when I started out,” Claude says. “I just knew that I wanted to build my own house.”
And so he did. The project began in 1982 with the purchase of a 1-1/3-acre Bayfront parcel of land in Santa Rosa Beach for $50,000. There would be no blueprints. The first step was building a mock-up of the home using balsa dowels. Then, with a dimensional vision of the structure he had in mind, construction began. The roof went up first, followed by the floors.
“There was a lot of staring involved,” he says about the building process itself. “You just lay one board down, and then you see the next.”
The cypress planks were (and are) incredibly heavy, requiring the occasional help of friends to set in place. But it was mostly just Claude, hoisting the planks with a block and tackle system. “Youth,” he says, “overcomes anything.”
Two years later, the home was mostly complete, making him the first resident of the surrounding neighborhood. Once fully moved in, he started on the outbuildings to accommodate an expansive shop, an exquisite 1960 panel truck, and a growing collection of Italian and German motorcycles. An outdoor shower with a privacy screen of vines was also plumbed.
A NEW WAY OF LIFE
Claude had come to Santa Rosa Beach after having worked on offshore oil platforms in the Gulf of Mexico. With his home complete, he embarked on a new career as a commercial crabber. He built a dock and bought a boat and refrigeration equipment. He then developed a routine of setting crab pots throughout the Bay and selling his catch to local restaurants, including Nicks and Goatfeathers Seafood Restaurant in Blue Mountain Beach.
The first decision was to develop a small biodiesel processing operation compact enough to fit in a corner directly beneath his house, occupying just a few square feet. He installed a series of tanks, the first of which is used to filter out impurities in the cooking oil from local restaurants. The oil is then heated up to 150 Fahrenheit. Once heated, methanol and potassium hydroxide are added, causing the glycerin to settle out, thereby transforming the cooking oil into useable biodiesel. The fuel is then stored in the final tank and is used by his diesel truck and the Moto Guzzi diesel motorcycle.
He built the system in the pre-internet age, so there was no online instructional resource available. How did he figure it all out? “By asking people who knew,” Claude says. “In the beginning, I had to throw out the first couple of batches. But it now costs about $1 to process a gallon of biodiesel.”
AHEAD OF HIS TIME
In time the peninsula became populated. In the midst of this local growth, Claud’s property was certified as a wildlife habitat by the National Wildlife Federation. Today it and the surrounding wiregrass wetlands are home to indigenous fox, snapping turtles, possum, coyote and bear.
Claude’s shop is now filled with four conventional Moto Guzzi motorcycles, along with a conventional BMW, and the biodiesel Moto Guzzi. More recently, he added an electric version of the Moto Guzzi powered by 32 lithium-ion batteries charged by either a 110-volt or 220-volt plug-in, with a single charge taking him up to 70 miles. The electric version has no clutch, no transmission. It’s silent and fast—like a two-wheeled Tesla.
The most interesting presence on the property is Claude himself. At 75, he is fit. There’s a self-possessed air about him. Like all people who prefer silence to chatter, he chooses his words carefully. A bracing thoughtfulness reveals itself whenever he does speak. You want to lean in to hear what he says. You may garner some nugget of wisdom—the secret to making your way in the world without defiling it, or what it’s like to be one of the coolest 75-year-olds ever to have walked the earth.
Some may view Claude’s home as a monument to Old Florida. Others may see it as an experiment in sustainability, a way forward for a throw-away world. Above all, however, it’s an enthralling expression of an original mind.