Brats, However …

Sam (an American living in Cluj) wrote an excellent post about Romanian people. Sam is a city dweller while we live in the village – so sometimes I feel that his take on all things Romania is a bit tainted by his perspective. This time I think Sam nailed it:

There are a few tough old bastards living in this country but by and large this is a nation of spoiled brats, who were given the gift of living in one of the most beautiful and abundant countries on the planet and yet they never appreciate it. Foreigners come here and immediately love it. Romanians are inevitably shocked by it when I tell them and ask me why. Open your eyes, dumb ass! It’s obvious why.

But when the little princes and princesses get their country handed to them, when they get all that territory and all that democratic freedom as a gift, when they get free tuition and free health care, when they get their cities beautified by free money, when they get their roads built by others, when they get their trendy clothes made by others, when they dance to music made by others, when they sip on drinks made by others, when they consider going to McDonald’s a cool thing to do on a date, when entire forests are logged to be sold abroad but all the toothpicks in the store are made in China, you get a nation of spoiled little brats.

When we moved out the village I was under the impression that I was going to live amongst “tough old bastards” … and though there are a few, for the most part, it seems that I am surrounded by spoiled lazy people. It can be hard to miss in the village because by western standards a lot of the people here live poor-lives and work all day in the field, so it can be hard to think of them as spoiled. However there is always excellent fresh food (plenty of land and water) on the table and their houses are warm in winter (fire-wood is pretty abundant here and mostly harvested greedily, illegally and unsustainably).

People are content doing boring and unchallenging work (sitting in the field watching cows graze and grass grow) and suckling on the tit of yearly EU funds (we recently learned that growing tobacco is highly rewarded by the EU!). They show no signs of motivation to improve their lives – unless it is handed to them on a silver platter.  There is a lot of superficial behavior of keeping appearances and very little appreciation of the natural abundance  inherent in the setting of their lives (I learned that I am better off going to the market in my work-clothes – while most of the people, ahum, villagers dress up in their “nice” clothes). As the winter sets in and most of the intensive work (harvesting and preparation for winter) is done, there is much more free time – a void largely filled with dumb staring at a TV, drinking and ensuing drunkenness (more amongst men though women too).

We don’t have TV or cable at home but on the 1st day of the new year we were with our neighbors and they do have a TV and while we were there, there was a rerun of one of the celebration programs that was broadcast live during the night. It was setup as some kind of game show with two teams of celebrities (I am assuming they are celebrities since neither Andreea nor I have any idea who they are or who are Romanian celebrities at large these days) with other pop-stars coming and going. It was a pathetic display of a culture of idiots – butch men and their bitch women … a very very sad expression of popular Romanian culture. It is a mish-mash of the most superficial and destructive expressions of fashion the western world has to offer. Very sad.

HOWEVER I am happy to say that this is NOT a complete image of Romania. Like all things good, the good stuff is shy, doing its thing quietly and peacefully and mostly content being away from the spotlights of the superficial mainstream public eye. Unlike Sam I only know a handful of Romanians each of which are human gems. This took me by surprise – not because I knew about or had an opinion about Romania and Romanians but because of my past experiences in life. I didn’t come to Romania thinking it’s a great country – it isn’t – but I think that the very idea of a country sucks – so Romania just happens to be another sucky country (I paved my own road, I don’t have any medical insurance and my children will not go anywhere near formal education systems).

I came here thinking I could simply fade into the background and live my life in peace – which IS possible and one of the great things about Romania. But instead I kept meeting beautiful people. People who have often traveled and lived outside of Romania, people who have questioned the core values of life they inherited, people who are spiritually endowed, people who have grown to appreciate, love and protect the natural wonders of this country. Some of these people are actively involved (via a large national volunteer-based youth operation) in inspiring new young generations of passionate, hard-working, open-minded and open-hearted Romanians who are and will continue to slowly but surely change the face of this place. But you won’t see it on ProTV … and that’s a good thing 🙂

How to Avoid Spacer Blocks in Earthship Tire Walls

I came across these two excellent illustrations of how spacer-blocks can be almost completely avoided in rammed-tire walls. It’s one of those cool smart and simple things. It comes complement of Earthship Belgium from an excellent post on how to efficiently organize and build rammed-tire walls.

Both of these solutions rely on the use of one-tire size throughout the project. The idea is to make the corner out of a tire who’s center is aligned with the faces of the two tire walls. Though the image display a 90 degree corner I believe that the same idea would work for any angle.

The same principle can be  used for T or Y junctions of two U modules. In this case two tires are used to create one level of the Y and a larger diameter tire is used to overlap the three tires below.

This takes care of everything except end-blocks (which you will inevitable get if you use tire walls for the inside walls as well). Earthship Belgium provide another article  about spacer-blocks – at the end of which you will find an explanation on how to create half-tires. I have encountered half-tires in my online searches before and though it is an appealing solution (no cement on site until later in the project) – it seems to me that cutting tired can be difficult unless you have the right tools for it.

I came across a lot of online hints that spacer blocks could be avoided (less concrete and much less hassle) but I couldn’t find a clear explanation of how this is achieved. Now I know … and now you do too. Thank you so much Willy and friends at Earthship Belgium.

 

 

Rocket Stove Water Heater

I’ve been looking at lots of applications for Rocket Stoves. It is a beautiful and simple DIY technology I want to use as much as possible in our new house. This includes heating water. We currently have a simple (purchased) wood-based boiler that does an OK job and I suspect even has an inherent “rocket” effect … and mostly prooves that it can be done. So I’ve been looking around for hot water solutions based on Rocket Stoves.

Before I go into the details of the one I found I would like to point out one piece of advice about Rocket Stoves that I came across, stuck with me and is exemplified by it. Rockets work best when they are designed with one primary purpose in mind. This means that a rocket designated for hot water will probably be more feasible and work better then a rocket that is used to heat a space AND heat water. I can testify that it can be very tempting to build a supreme-do-it-all rocket … but it just doesn’ work.

With that in mind I came across the following Rocket-based hot water system. The project is documented with a set of images and a blog post.

Rocket Stove Hot Water Schematic

It is a rocket-stove dedicated to heating water and does nothing else. Because it is a single task rocket it is actually simpler then the basic rocket-stove since there is no heat exchange barrel and the water tank itself is the thermal mass. The key element is a heat-exchanger that sits on top of the heat-riser. It is a metal box within a box – where the heat from the rocket is transferred into the water. Depending on the position of the water tank flow is either achieved either passively via thermo-siphoning or with a pump.

The heart of this solution is the heat exchanger and at the heart of the heat-exchanger are small plates of metal welded into it, which increase the contact surface between the hot exhaust and the metal itself. With these plates a 1 meter tall heat exchanger can be designed to have 6+ meters of contact surface (as if the exchanger itself was 6 meters tall!). The trick is to size the internals in such a way that the surface area of air-flow will not become smaller then that of the heat-riser so that the exhaust can flow smoothly out. If designed optimally then, as with most good Rocket Stoves, there should be very little exhaust heat left in the chimney pipe.

We don’t have (yet) the skills to make this kind of heat exchanger but I am confident we can find a metal-worker who can create one for us. My thoughts are to connect a 6 inch rocket to a 300 liter tank of water and that should provide a simple and efficient and backup for days where the sun does not provide enough heat for the solar hot water panels to kick in.

Bhudeva Tour 2011

So we’ve planning for some time to summarize what we’ve done since we’ve moved out to the village 7 months ago so that we could share it all with friends and family – we’ve too busy working so we skimped on sharing. We kept putting it off till more stuff gets done but we’ve really slowed down and are proud to be doing less and resting more and these are the last hours of 2011 – so now seemed like a good time to do so. The list is really long and would probably tiresome for most people. Some of the things we’ve already written about extensively (to which we’ve added links in the text) and some we will write about in the coming weeks and months as we’ll spending much more times indoors. This post will be a visual tour of the house and around it so it will probably touch on most of the big things. A lot of the stuff will be revisited with more detail – so if there’s anything that interests you please do stick around 🙂

The images start yesterday morning when we awoke to the first real snow – the kind that stuck out an entire day and then some. The first thing we saw when we opened the door were of course (left to right) Indy, Loui and Harry excited to express their love and for breakfast:

Then, we looked up and a our winter-wonderland came into view.

And this is what it looked like outside

Half of the barn was converted into a residential palace for the poultry (ducks and chickens). The dogs are always passionate about helping with the flock because they are dying to get at their food (they love it even though they can’t digest it  … their poop is simply filled with yellow corn … which the flock take apart and eat … so in the end it doesn’t really matter).

The flock is kept indoors either because of weather (rain or fog … pour visibility gives hunters an advantage … and we’ve already lost a few chickens) or in this case because a new chicken has been introduced to the flock and we want her to get used to the place.

The other half of the barn is an improvised workshop.

In the barn attic we have wood stored for future projects. We decided to purchase a lot (6 cubic meters) so that it would season (dry) over time and be better suited for furniture use (yes, almost all of our existing furniture was built with green wood, we couldn’t get our hands on dry wood – this here in the Transylvania region of Romania knows for its abundant woods). Please excuse image quality – it’s pretty dark up there … and it was a hell of a job hauling all that wood up there (much easier to send back down).

The garage is still an ad-hoc storage space with everything from cardboard boxes, dried corn cobs (which we use for lighting the stoves), dog food, chicken feed, sacks of whole wheat (hung from the ceiling so the mice can’t get at them), one new barrel we managed to get our hands on for future rocket stoves, insulation materials and on and on.

We’ve summer kitchen (small one-room structure) into a winter pantry. We insulated the windows and placed in it a small radiator on the lowest setting to keep it from freezing. It’s got sacks of root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, parsley, celery, beetroot, onions, one last pumpkin) along with walnuts, white beans, a 120 liter plastic barrel with cabbages preserved in brine on top of which are a few pots (mice can’t climb the smooth metal surfaces) containing smoked meats.

Then there are the shelves containing … well loads of stuff … we made loads of preserved cooked vegetable-dishes (called Zakuska), pickles of various kinds … we’ll write about everything we made including recipes.

Then there is the freezer which contains lots of frozen vegetables, meat and backup bread (in case we are too lazy to bake any or don’t get to the village to buy some).

And finally a refrigerator lying on its side used as a mouse-proof storage box for everything that … well needs to be mouse-proofed (vegetables, dried fruits, cereals, wheat, corn-flour … and assorted things).

To complete the tour outside the house there is the humanure hacienda (which still isn’t dog-proofed) and the hay piles we are sinking because the dogs like to climb up and oversee their territories from up high.

The wood pile which includes scrap wood from demolition work, some uncut logs and some cut logs awaiting chopping.

Loui (the little puppy is growing and taking up a dominant position in the pack) popped into the frame as he heard something in the hill behind the house … he ran off and shortly after Indy and Harry joined him … they are odd bunch but they are definitely a pack … it’s sometimes amazing to see their instincts throw them into organized pack behavior.

We keep chopped wood in varying degrees of dryness stored in piles along the perimeter porch of the house.

Which concludes our outside tour and brings us to the house. You walk into a small hall (approximately 3×2 meters) which we’ve converted into a kitchen. In front of you is the door to our bathroom (used to be a pantry)

to the right our living room

and to the left our bedroom.

In our living room the large couch (left of the image) is a new one we built and Andreea temporarily furnished with a temporary mattress, some pillows and fabrics we purchased to make the final furnishings (we also got a sewing machine … so Andreea has her hands full on these winter days). The other “couch” is an old traditional Romanian bench again with Andreea’s superbly improvised furnishings. It too will be replaced by another home made couch. We still don’t have a table – so for now we have a tree stump.

We built two large shelves with large counter-tops to hold all of our books. The LCD screen is for the time being in the bedroom because we spend more time there (it’s very difficult = much work and much wood to heat both rooms … so during these cold days we spend most of our time in the bedroom!!) but it’s place is on the left-hand shelf unit … and it’s Christmas 🙂

Though the walls were painted fresh white, this room suffered from a very smoky stove … so the walls are … well an elegant smokey grayish color 🙂 This is culprit stove which Andreea sealed very well with heat-resistant silicon:

The bathroom is a very small space (1×2.5 meters) – we are very proud of the optimal use we’ve made of it. Front and center is a washing machine:

On the right is our hot-water boiler (wood-based with electric as backup) and our composting toilet.

And on the left is our shower stall – also home made with wood protected by yacht lacquer and a home-made drain built on a wood frame with a pond liner surface (much more on this project in a future post).

Our bed was one of the earlier woodworking projects as sleeping well (and healthy – on the floor there are humidity problems) was high on our list of our priorities. We want to add two dressers and a headboard – though that will wait to next spring.

The cabinet was a huge relief when it was finally completed (doors will be added eventually) since we finally had an accessible, orderly and safe place to store our things. Together with the living room shelves this is where almost all our (non-kitchen) stuff is stored. The stove (on the left) was our first experiment at rocket stoves and it has worked out great. It consumes much less wood (due to very efficient – high temperature burning) then regular stoves and because it is built from firebricks it has lots of thermal mass (unlike metal) – which means it acts as a battery and stores heat which is radiated into the room over an extended period of time. We’ve had subzero temperatures for many weeks and we light it twice a day for a few hours (it needs to be fed regularly) and we have a very warm room all day and all night long.

… and there is the LCD screen sitting on another traditional (and very elaborate) Romanian bench which will also be replaced in the future (it stinks of old and dying … and we are not so passionate about antiques – so it will probably not have a place in the house).

To put all of this in perspective it helps to revisit what all this looked like when we got to work in June – this is what the wall (behind the screen) looked like then:

I particularly like the views across the house – from the living room to the  bedroom

… and from the bedroom to the living room.

They give me a sense of wholeness that … feels good 🙂

Some other things you can’t see in the images:

  • We have running water … we started writing an ongoing series of posts about that process.
  • We use almost exclusively home-made ecological soaps (the rest are ecological, not yet home made).
  • We consume almost exclusively local produce … most from neighboring farmers (we don’t even visit the local market much) … even an excellent home made wine.
  • We’ve planned a beautiful hemp house that we couldn’t afford to build – but are now looking at an Earthship as a more feasible approach to construction for us. You can see what an Earthship construction process is like in this beautiful animation.
  • We’ve collected many seeds for our first food growing efforts in the coming spring – we are planning to try methods that are very different from local traditional practices. Everyone here has tilled the land and we haven’t … so we are pretty committed to our experimentation 🙂
  • We’ve arranged 200 meters of access road to our property with 40 cubic meters of stones.
  • We’ve collected huge piles of hay from a field and transported them home with a horse and carriage.
  • We’ve witnessed the slaughtering of pigs and have had to slaughter one of our chickens that showed signs of illness.
  • Andreea’s website Feminitate is nearing three years of online presence and will soon cross 1 million page views.
  • Andreea has attended and supported two home-births (both without a midwife present) … one of which I attended as a photographer.
  • Andreea has produced in collaboration with a close friend and fellow-doula a weekend Doula course which has been taught once in Cluj with excellent feedback … and a second (and maybe 3rd) course is booked in Bucharest this coming February with women in other cities taking an interest.
  • I can follow a conversation in Romanian but I don’t get enough practice to speak fluently … though I manage a bit here and there.

The last 6 months have been some of what of a race as something had to get done before winter set. We made it, with the grace of mother nature, in time. There is still endless work to do … but we can now find a pace that is pleasant and healthy. We have a home to live in and hopefully will have a much better home in a few years. We have grown stronger in mind, body, emotionally and spiritually.

In less then 3 hours this year will come to an end. It isn’t a significant event to us. Many times we don’t know what day it is and we have arrived in a life where for the most part it doesn’t matter. Whenever we get tired and need to rest we make it a weekend – regardless of the day of the week. We haven’t been to the city in weeks and look forward to not going there for many more weeks. We go there to take what we need and rush back to our little corner of the world and work to make it better and better.

Andreea had plans for us to go to the village to see the local firework display but those plans have changed. We have both showered. We had a wonderfully simple meal of rice and lentils, home made pickles and beetroot. We are in bed in a warm room in a clean house. We will soon hold a cup of dark red home made wine and, like many other days, watch something – a movie or a few episodes of Weeds … and then go to sleep … until tomorrow morning … when the calendars will show a new year but we will continue living our peaceful, abundant and constantly improving life 🙂

We feel blessed (and tired – which are not mutually exclusive) and wish you all find your own passionate paths of inspiration 🙂

 

Earthships and Indoor Solar Systems

Solar systems such as hot-water heaters and solar-electric panels are an almost obvious component of any Earthship. These are systems we would love to embrace but simply cannot afford to buy given their market prices. However, we can and intend to go about building our own. We have been researching do-it-yourself systems for quite some time and we have viable options.

My point in this post is not to go into detail about do-it-yourself solar projects. If you are interested in these things then I strongly recommend you bookmark and spend time at BuildItSolar which overflows with DIT solar projects. My objective is to suggest, in regard to solar hot water and electric photo-voltaic panels, an interesting potential feature for do-it-yourself-ers in an Earthship – bringing the systems indoors. This is something that would be more difficult to achieve with off-the-shelf systems which come in standard sizes, but self-builders can create panels in practically any size.

In an Earthship these systems are typically installed either on the roof or on, in “Global Model” Earthships what appears to be a dedicated and sloped (optimized for solar gain?) surface on the front face of the house.

Photo-Voltaic Panels

One of the greatest challenges when it comes to building your own panels is weather-proofing. The frame itself, glazing, insulation materials … all have to be weatherproof. In addition the electronics need to be properly insulated from moisture.

Bringing the panels indoors makes all these problems go away. I am thinking that if the glazing is extended all the way up with continuous wood-framing it should be pretty convenient to install panels inside.

The DIY panels can be sized to practically any size. We are planning an Earthship with a front face of over 20 meters long, so a 50cm high strip of panels allows for almost 10sqm of safe and protected solar panels.

Solar Hot Water Panels

A solar hot water system is slightly more complicated since it involves other elements depending on the overall system configuration (boilers, storage tanks, heat exchangers, etc.). Though I will focus on the solar panels themselves I believe that bringing these panels indoors may potentially simplify the overall system.

In Earthships Vol.III Michael Reynolds introduces Mechanical U’s (“U” shaped spaces are the basic building block of an Earthship). These are U spaces which are used for functions that do not necessarily need direct solar gain (such a laundry, storage spaces, etc.). I am thinking of incorporating a Mechanical U with sloped glazing (continuous with the rest of the front face of the house) and to use that glazing as a space for installing the solar panels.

 

This of course solves the basic weather proofing issues shared with the electric panels. But I believe there may be a huge extra benefit – I wonder if having the hot water panels inside the greenhouse/corridor space solves the problem of water freezing in the pipes. I don’t know if this will actually work, but if it will, it can tremendously simplify the system. If freezing is no longer a problem then the hot-water panels can be connected directly to the hot water storage tank without any need for antifreeze (a liquid that prevents the water in the pipes from freezing) & heat exchange mechanism or drain-back solutions (that empty the water pipes in the solar panels to keep them from freezing).

In both cases placement of the systems indoors reduces the need to penetrate the outer fabric of the house for pipes and cables and also makes the panels theft-proof  (I’ve come incidentally across two reports of stolen solar panels from Earthship roofs!). In both cases it is not possible to optimize the direction of the panels as the seasons change, however a winter-optimized angle of the glazing inherently comes with an added benefit of some degree of protection from over-heating (by not facing the sun directly).

It seems to me that DIY indoors solar panels are in alignment with Earthships which are designed to be owner built. It seems that doing so comes with both huge financial savings and added-functional-value and simplicity. Too good to be true?