To Find Our Place

“One of the most joyous things we can do is to find our place, the land where we belong. Having found our place, we snuggle into it, learn about it, adapt to it, and accept it fully. We love and honor it. We rejoice in it. We cherish it. We become native to the land of our living.”

Carol Deppe

Seaweed House

source

Ildi and Levente Embracing Spring 2014

Before I get to the body of this post I’d like to say this. The reason you get to see more images from Ildi & Levente then from other producers is because we are neighbor. We would be happy to post more images from other produers and that is where you may come into the picture. If you enjoy photography and maybe even a member of one of our boxes and want to get a closer look at where your food comes from and want to share those images with others then please do visit with one of our producers, snap some images and send them to us … we will happily publish them.

I think that this year’s centerpiece is Levente’s improvised heating system. Initially he welded together an old stove box and boiler to heat water which is circulated through pipes which heat everything from plants to young-chicks:

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Then due to frosty nights he added a hot air blower made up of all used parts: an old pump engine, a propeller from a broken down car and a radiator he found in a scrap metal shop in Cluj and a timer that switches it on and off (I think in half our intervals) so that the engine doesn’t overload.

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The heated greenhouse is already home to numerous generations of plants, some of which will be transplanted into other greenhouses where they will grow and mature still protected from potentially cold weather, significantly extending the growing season.

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One greenhouse is already filled with green – with plenty of spinach and soon radishes.

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In addition to the chicks pictured above there are two mother hens busy taking care of just hatched chicks:

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And continuing Levente’s metal-working season he has constructed an improvised power onion planter – which should transform a two week task into a two day task.

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This winter there was a substantial group of members who continued to enjoy deliveries from Ildi and Levente (and other producer-families) throughout the winter. Now with a growing season starting earlier, the “production year” has expanded amazingly … from about 5 months in the first year to 9 or 10 months. Wonderful evolution.

Kickstarter: The Art and Science of Natural Plaster

2012 was the year of Money & Life, 2013 was the year of Rocket Stoves (with followup review) and it seems that 2014 is going to be about natural finishes.

We’ve played around a bit with natural finishes and we expect to do so much more in the future. We do have a good book on the subject but when this kickstarter appeared I knew I wanted in on it. For me, without access to hands on workshops, something like this is the next best alternative:

It had a good burst of interest in its first days but has slowed down and I really want to see this, so please spread the word :)

Sepp Holzer Creates a Spring Beneath Terraces

Sepp Holzer’s ingenuity at work. In constructing terraces he comes across a hardpan layer of clay. He lays about 100 of slitted pipes that drain naturally with the contour of the hardpan and those pipes collect into a cistern which is used to create head pressure for a house downhill from it. The terraces are forested, quality, naturally mulched and fertilized soil is built, that soil retains lots of moisture, moisture stops draining at the hardpan, meets the slitted pipes and becomes a spring … now flowing at 5 liters per minute all year long (regardless of climate):

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via zach @ Permies

 

Village Video DVD: How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters with Ernie and Erica

When I started playing with rocket stoves the main resource available was the Rocket Stove book. Though I still consider it a must read for anyone heading into Rocket Stove territory, I do not consider it sufficient. It left me with many questions, it has some outdated information and some things that, knowing what I know now, are borderline wrong. Fortunately there is now an additional resource that complements it wonderfully.

Earlier this year we participated in two kickstarter documentation projects on Rocket Stoves. I’ll speak shortly about one and at more length about the other. The shortly: the Paul Wheaton 4 DVD pack is a nice to have thing. It was a huge success on kickstarter which made its production value all the more disappointing. It includes 4 DVD’s none of which felt complete and comprehensive (the Fire Science came close). It has low quality video and audio. It was nice to have a glimpse into a workshop with Erica and Ernie which I do not have access to … but it was an opportunistic production. With the funds it raised I felt there was an opportunity to create something much better … an opportunity that was missed. This kickstarter project felt incomplete and … well … icky.

Which brings me to the second production How to Build Rocket Mass Heaters with Ernie and Erica by Calen Kennett of Village Video. This was the first of the Kickstarter projects to launch and though it got fully funded it did not create the buzz that the second project got. It was delivered late (I just received mine a couple of days ago) but that was because loads of caring production work went into it.

It documents an entire build of one Rocket Mass Heater (the one you see on the cover) – an 8 inch system built over an existing wooden floor. It covers very many details which appeared as questions during my two builds and I have not seen addressed anywhere else, covering tools, materials, design, build and finishing. It has excellent quality video and audio. It is a composite of footage shot on site during the build together with a separetely shot and well thought out interview with Erica and Ernie (with excellent quality audio). Inside the DVD case there is a printed page with a list of tools and materials used in the build … superb attention to detail.

The kickstarter edition included Erica and Ernie’s recently published The Art of Fire (which I have yet to take in). In addition there was a surprise on the Kickstarter DVD – the detailed plans for the RMH in the DVD (which more than makes up for one thing that I believe is not emphasized enough in the DVD – an explanation of the basic structure of feed tube, burn channel and heat riser and their dimensions). It is a production infused with care and quality.

If you want to get started with Rocket Mass Heaters I would recomment the (above mentioned) book and this DVD.

Apologies to the Salad Gods

Some weeks ago I made a comment on how salad season is coming to an end … it was prompted by the sudden disappearance of peppers and tomatoes.

Well since then I’ve been eating amazing fall salads. Spinach, salad leaves (when I can get them), chopped cabbage (red and white), grated carrots, radishes (when I can get them), onions make a splendid salad. Actually a salad I prefer over the summer salads – during summer I prefer to eat vegetables fresh cut into bit sized chunks … not salads. I’ve been eating lots of it … like an unplanned and oh so welcome wave of vital nourishment before the real cold winter sets in.

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To further anchor the experience of abundance I find that no matter how hard I try I can never make a salad small enough for one person. So I usually end up with a “day salad” … that is a salad that I revisit twice or three times a day.

So, my apologies to the salad gods for an early dismissal and my thanks for these amazing fall salads.

How Burning Works

There’s an interesting group called All Power Labs who research biomass gasifiers: in lay terms they make machines that can convert hay, wood chips, nutshells (a large variety of biomass substances) into clean gas products which can be used to power other things – such as a diesel engine generator (which they do). You can see this system at work here:


They got my attention because if/when we go off-the-grid we will likely need a backup source of energy in winter months – the simplest being a diesel generator. But that requires diesel. So the potential of a generator that can run on biomass of which we have plenty is pretty exciting and fills another gap in the sustainability puzzel.

Their CEO Jim Mason appears in a series of 3 videos (~2.5 hours) which finally provided me with an explanation on how burning works. I admit that parts of it were a bit beyond me but for the most part I was able to follow it and learn what actually happens when I burn wood for heat  (namely 4 processes: drying, pyrolysis, gasification, combustion).







It refined my understanding and appreciation of what goes on inside Rocket Stoves. Most  stoves or fireplaces are only able to burn ~20% of the potential energy in wood, most of the rest is released as gasses which for the most part escapes out the chimney unburned. A lose-lose situation: losing potential energy and releasing pollutans into the atmosphere. A typical rocket stoves will burn most (if not all) of those gasses – already making it 4 to 5 times more efficient then most wood burning stoves. Then, after a clean and efficient burn the heat that is generated is retained in a thermal mass … which easily brings them to 10 times better.

via Matt

From Earthship to Earthbags

This is a long overdue post and several external movement have prompted me to finally write it.

A while back I wrote how we moved from hemp construction to Earthships. Well the movement continues and we have moved away from Earthships too. This happened gradually and for numerous reasons:

  1. Expansive Clay Soils – we are proud owners of lots of clay-rich soil which expand when wet and contracts when dry. As I was doing research into Earthships specifically and underground houses generally this seemed to be a problem. Expanding clay soil can place tons of pressure on the walls of a house which can cause it to collapse. So for some time I lived with the question is it possible to build an Earthship in expansive clay soils? My conclusion was that the problems was not the clay soil but moisture.
  2. P.A.H.S – As I did more research I started to come across evidence hinting that Earthships do not work well in our climate (moist and cold). Just recently I came across clear evidence of this. I continued my research and was blown away by an old book called Passive Annual Heat Storage. The book introduced a method by which an underground house is insulated with the soil around it, transforming the surrounding soil into a huge heat battery that charges itself during the warm months of the year and discharges during the cold months. The book confirmed my suspicion that the problem with clay soils is indeed moisture and not clay. The “insulation umbrella” concept described in the book (together with other moisture related strategies) provides a solution to keep the clay soils surrounding the house dry – providing a resounding (even if for now theoretical) answer: yes, underground houses can be built in expansive clay soils by keeping moisture away and in doing so neutralizing the “expansive” quality.
  3. Tires in Romania – we could not find a feasible way to get used tires in Romania.

Empowered by the P.A.H.S knowledge I continued my exploration and started looking into earthbags (it’s a terribly designed and uninviting website but has valuable information). I loved the simplicity and ease-of-construction when compared to ramming tires with earth. I would not have considered it a feasible method of underground construction had it not been for the P.A.H.S. method. I do now.

… and so this is the house that we plan to build.

Of Earth Inside the Earth

The house will be completely buried in the ground except for the south-facing aspect. It’s intended location is on gentle south-facing slope. We will excavate for it into the slope.

Most of its walls will be load-bearing earthbag walls. Hopefully our clay-rich soil (that will be excavated to make space for the house) will provide most of the material needed for the earth-mix that will go into the bags. There is no material more local than earth.

The floor will be an earthen floor and the walls will be covered with earthen finishes.

The roof is an as yet unresolved challenge. It too will be covered with earth and will therefore need to carry a very heavy load (current estimation 1.2 tons per square meter). This weight will probably be supported by round timbers though this is not yet final.

Spacious

We are planning a house that will be ~200sqm. It is designed to spaciously accommodate a small family. It will have a main part and a smaller, attached living space for additional privacy.

P.A.H.S. – 21 Degrees Celsius All Year Long

Thanks to the P.A.H.S. insulation umbrella the house will (after 2 or 3 years of acclimatization) eventually settle on a steady all year-long temperature of 21c. During the warm/hot months excess heat will be stored in the huge earthen thermal battery. During the cold months heat will be drawn from the thermal batter.

This means that we will not need any additional energy input to keep the house warm. Even the water supply that runs under the insulation umbrella arrives at the house at 21c which means that less energy is needed to heat water.

The temperature of the house is a function of how much heat gets into the house (which depends on how much windows it has) and how much it can store (depends on numerous design factors). It is nearly impossible to change the temperature of the house after has been established. Any attempt to heat it will be futile because the energy will be drawn into the thermal battery surrounding it and you would need to invest a huge amount of energy to change that.

Imagine not having to cut down a single tree for heating!?

Rocket Stoves

We do expect to have at least one rocket stove for comfort … to boost the temperature to 23 -24 degrees when we want to … and to heat water during the months when solar-heated hot water is not available.

 Ventillation

ventilation is, we’ve come to believe, an important and often missed aspect. The air in the house should be regularly exchanged. Fortunately the P.A.H.S. strategy includes a passive ventilation system (no fans and no electricity to run it) that brings fresh air into the house all year-long at, you guessed it, 21c. The ventilation system also plays a key role in storing excess heat when it is generated (summer) and retrieving it when it is needed (winter).

The trick (and the one challenge that still worries me) is to build the house air-tight. You should not need to open/close windows in this house ever. During the summer months the passive ventilation system will draw hot air out and store the heat in the thermal battery (instead of letting it escape out windows). During the winter months the passive ventilation system will draw air in from the outside, running it through the thermal battery and bring it up to room temperature.

Imagine fresh air during winter at room temperature (and stale air removed) without losing heat to the cold outside!?

Passive Refrigeration

Michael Reynolds in his classic Earthship books points how ridiculous refrigeration can be: we build boxes to keep the cold out, spend energy to get those boxes warm then build smaller boxes inside and spend more energy to keep those boxes cool.

With a slight change in configuration, the same passive ventilation method that is used to regulate the temperature of the house can be used to create a cool space (let cold air in and warm air out). In the Romanian winter that cool is cold enough not just to refrigerate but also to freeze.

Our intention is to build an insulated (from the warmth of the house) space within the house that will harvest winter coolth. That coolth will be stored in water bottles that will freeze. The space will be divided in two. One part will hold a freezer that will be exposed to the natural freezing temperatures. A second part will hold a refrigerator. Both will be unplugged during the winter months. When spring sets on and the ice melts and there isn’t enough coolth they will be plugged back in and run on electricity (which is once again available as the days get longer and the sun shines through).

Photovoltaic Electricity

We would like to be able to live off-the-electric-grid. The first step towards doing that is by drastically reducing consumption:

  1. The house is naturally heated so that no electricity is needed for heating.
  2. Hot water is pre-heated due to the thermal battery, then heated with an efficient rocket stove during winter and with a solar-hot-water panel in spring/summer. Very little electricity needed for pre-heating small quantities of water.
  3. Refrigeration is designed to work on the naturally available coolth of winter when there is very little sunshine to produce electricity.
  4. Large south-facing windows and a one-room-depth house design provides plenty of natural light all year-long.

This leaves us with some lighting and other smaller electronic devices (computers and such). This should enable a photo-voltaic system that will provide all our needs in summer months and most of our needs in winter months.

Attached Greenhouse

The front of the house will be a large greenhouse that will serve multiple functions:

  1. Harvesting heat during winter months.
  2. Extend the growing season.
  3. Growing plants that can not tolerate the harsh winter (lemons? avocados? even bananas?)
  4. Having a pleasant green space to spend time in during the cold winter months.
  5. Consuming grey-water created in the house (this is much easier for us since we use composting toilets and do not have to deal with black-water).
  6. A transition space between the outside and inside (keeping the inside cleaner).

Rainwater Harvesting

For a long time we were faced with a dilemma:

  1. A standard roof that will harvest rainwater for the house but somewhat compromise insulation (all heat inside the house rises) and durability (all mechanical roofs are prone to deterioration and require maintenance).
  2. A living roof that will provide superior insulation and durability but is practically useless for harvesting rainwater (10-15% of a similarly sized regular roof).

After long deliberation we came up with a solution that will provide us the best of both worlds. The house will be built with a living roof (a relatively massive one) that will complete the insulation umbrella.

We will be building a “mirror” structure of the house slightly uphill. This will be a simpler and cheaper structure. It will include a workshop, storage spaces and an open yet sheltered work space for a summer kitchen and other outdoor activities (some of these functions are now unmet or just temporarily resolved). This second structure will have a metal roof for harvesting rainwater that will be stored in an underground cistern that will supply the main house.

Summary

None of these technologies are new. All have been implemented in one way or another. We do not yet know of a house that has been built using all these technologies combined in a climate like ours. It has taken almost 3 years of research by trial and error to reach this formula which has the potential to be an affordable, ecological, sustainable and scalable method of construction.

Scalable is an important quality worth explaining. From what we’ve seen most eco-houses fall into one of two groups. One are small hobbit-hole-like homes which are often the result of do-it-yourself builds with natural materials (these do not scale up very well). The other are large and expensive homes that rely on expensive and complicated technologies to achieve an illusion of sustainability (that often ignores their embodied energy and their technological dependence). We are trying to create something that is in between these two worlds. The P.A.H.S. method can be applied to any size home and it is a core component in the overall efficiency of such a house.

This will hopefully be a very-long-term house.

Weather Report Fall 2013

This is what it looks like outside at 07:30am here at Bhudeva:

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Ironically this marks, according to the forecasts, a period of 2 relatively sunny weeks. I have by now learned that at this time of year sunny means cold and cloudy means less cold (warm is pretty much gone).

Though this isn’t the first frost. There was a lighter frost a couple of weeks ago. The day before yesterday I drained water from the solar hot water heater and I’m glad I did – I think it may have been damaged by this frost (blown pipes). Though I am considering re-opening it tomorrow or the day after to work is a pre-heater for another week or two. After that I will probably drain the solar hot water system completely (tank and collector). It’s probably also a good time to re-insulate the tops of the two concrete man-holes of the water supply from the well to the house.

The cold came earlier this year. Most of september was surprisingly cold – a cold I that I remember arriving only in October in previous years.  It was also very cloudy … I didn’t get as much mileage as I wanted to from the solar dehydrators. The prunes took for over and I would have wanted them to dry a bit more – I hope they will keep well as they are. There is a batch of elderberrys that I haven’t checked on during the last week. If they got dry enough then they will be fine with this frost, if not they may have spoiled.

This is another confirmation that the more noticeable aspect of global warming is instability. Weather patterns are getting more erratic, less predictable and less reliable. They demand that much more resiliency be built into … everything.

This fall was also very rainy … the rainiest since I’ve been here (this is my 3rd fall).

The thermometer next to the window indicates 12-13c in the room (though its coldest next to the window). This is after charging the rocket last night … though not to full capacity. It’s probably time to start running it a bit longer. I also need to make a repair on the rocket. A lot of humidity is draining out of the vertical part of the chimney – this is more of problem with rocket stoves because the chimney is much cooler then regular stoves (most of the heat is retained in the mass of the rocket) – so what would would be vapor in a regular stove turns to condensation in a rocket’s chimney. This moisture is eating up the bottom of the chimney (cheap parts) and I think it is compromised and leaves an unpleasant smell (and can potentially let poisonous gasses into the room). It’s a recurring weakpoint I should probably fix. My plan is to replace the metal part with a small firebrick chamber which will not decay and will breathe any moisture back into the room.

I expect to see much more leaf-fall today and in the coming days. The frost does this. It is a spectacular and sudden change to find some trees all of a sudden bare and the ground around them covered with fallen leaves.

Also, it’s becoming increasingly difficult to lie down on the floor for Yoga practice. My winter-shopping list includes a combo of a small carpet with some underfloor insulation to place beneath it. I’ve finally settled into a regular practice these past months and already it is being challenged … savasana is very uninviting.

… and the tea is cooling much faster :)

Attending FanFest 2013

I decided to go to Rosia Montana by car. It isn’t too far from Cluj (~130km) and I had passengers with me to pass the time in conversation.

Arriving at Rosia Montana is mostly uneventful. We were suddenly there – another Romanian village. The main and most noticeable change are the brainwashing banners hung by the gold mining company describing the benefits to the locals.

The event is organized and operated by volunteers. This was my first time attending such an event and I was really impressed. There is a headquarters area where there is a large campground and kitchen that feeds over 300 people (volunteers and guests) 3 times a day (though food is not cooked on rocket stoves but on very wasteful fires).

From what I understood the event was originally entertainment-based (mostly music concerts) that was intended to draw youth to the place. It seems to be maturing to something more purposeful with plenty of sessions on many social subjects (mostly flavored with activism). Activities take place in many locations.

I felt welcome but not belonging. The food was really good and offered me plenty of support given how outside-my-element I was.

The rocket stove session drew quite an audience and I can only hope that many more small cooking rocket stoves are now built and working.

The first Yoga session drew a small group ~10 people. The second was much larger ~30 people. Both were held in an unsupportive space: outdoors, on a rugged hilltop, in the sun, with plenty of sound from all over the place. The second session, out of respect for those who attended the first, was faster – enabling the newcomers to sort-of catch up and then to move on. It was, for me, a magical session. People were attentive and put in good effort. When it was over I felt that the practice had isolated the hilltop from the surrounding busy-ness and transformed it into an island of peace.

I can say much more about the event, the place, the people … but I don’t feel like doing it and don’t feel it is valuable. But I do want to make a note of something about the overall karma.

I have great respect for the people who make this event possible. It takes huge commitment and tons of work to make it happen. Yet I have my doubts about the long-term effects of confrontational attitude that dominates the event.

The most poignant example in my mind is the smoking. People there smoke a lot and its young people – they are aware and know what smoking does – and yet they smoke … a lot. They smoke openly in the faces of non-smokers and they do so everywhere. And I wondered why do they think that it is OK for them to destroy their (and others’)lungs and that it is NOT OK for the mining company to want to destroy a mountain (interestingly: the lung destruction is already happening while the mountain is still unharmed). In my mind there a difference mostly  in scale. Both represent an attitude of destruction towards nature.

It is easier and satisfying to turn against an outside enemy then to look inside. But I believe that actions motivated by such perceptions have limited effect and are likely to have undesired consequences.

I wondered quite a bit about taking action with the gold-mining company rather than against it. I realize it sounds like a futile effort but I believe that in the long term it may be a valuable one. I believe that the “us and them” mentality is wrong (incomplete, misinformed, immature, etc.). I believe that for both individual and social growth there needs to be continued movement toward a “we” mentality. I am cofident that moving in that direction will take a very different kind of effort (then the kind required to produce the event) and cause an expansion of awareness. Maybe pursuing a connection with the gold mining company will cause many of the young people involved to quit smoking? who knows.

Since my visit to Rosia Montana there have been large and peaceful protests in Romania. It seems that the movement (which has many fronts) has been successful (at least temporarily) in stalling the daft destructive (on so many levels) act of gold-mining (despite a threatened undergound hunger strike by a whopping 33 miners who, of course, support mining).


An interesting and rare historical perspective on Rosia Montana.