Water – Cleaning & Testing

Cleaning

The first task was to get the water clean to the point that we could use it at all. The water was unclean because some years ago there was a one-time flooding – so we had to have the well cleaned. We didn’t know quite what that meant and were happy to find a local who knew what needed to be done and did the work for us:

  1. He pumped out the water from the well. The pump was able to pull water out faster then it could fill from the spring. We tried to save as much of it as we could though I think most of it evaporated (you can see in the image the hole I began to dig where eventually the pump would be installed … he lent a helping hand as he was waiting for the pump to finish emptying the well).
  2. He climbed into the well and roughly cleaned the well from weeds that had grown on the walls.
  3. He loaded buckets of mud that were at the bottom that his partner,  a gypsy from the village he hired for the job, pulled up and dumped next to the well. They hauled out a lot of buckets … there was a huge pile of mud when they finished. He did this until (supposedly, since I wasn’t down there with him) the bottom of the well was once again tightly packed dirt.

  4. When the work was finished we had …. murky well water … We had to wait a few days until the well settled and the water became clear.
  5. The guy who cleaned the well instructed us, after the water settled, to throw in 10 tablets of chlorine. We purchased the tablets, then lost them and though have since found them, we have not (months later) yet (I wouldn’t hold my breath) thrown them into the water.

Overall I think they did an OK job. Since then we’ve hired help a few times and my overall impression with Romanian workers is that they work hard but they don’t strive (and don’t achieve) quality. They do an OK job. If you want quality you need to either do it yourself or be very demanding and very specific with what you want done. It can be hard to do without already having experience AND being a foreigner with a 4×4 parked near bye … but I have learned that common sense (especially my own after studying up) should not be ignored.

This is what it looked like mid-day – the workers, our neighbors and Andreea taking a break in the shade.

Testing

Officially we were supposed to do a lab test to the water, we intended to but we didn’t. To do the test you need to pick up a sterilized bottle, fill it (and another soft-drink plastic bottle) with water (after cleaning the well and after the water in the well has settled) and then bring it to the lab in the city within hours of filling. It costs around 200+ Lei to do the level of analysis we would need and the result should be specific instructions on what kind of filtering we would need for the water to be drinkable.

Getting all this done requires specific timing and though at first we tried to do it, it didn’t work out. By the time we had the well cleaned we decided to not do the testing (it was one of those things where obstacles kept getting in our way – and we are learning to read such obstacles as signs that maybe we shouldn’t go that way).

We also didn’t start drinking from the water for quite some time because it had (still has!) too much stone content in it – it is hard water. We now have a rock-salt kind of filter on the main line – it needs to be cleaned every few weeks for optimal performance. We also have a separate drinking water filter and we run the water that comes from it through another passive filter for any sedimentation that may be left in the water. We drink and cook with this water.

 

Humaure Hacienda

The Humanure Hacienda is a term coined in The Humanure Handbook to describe the place where humanure and other organic waste is collected and left to compost. It is a 3 chamber structure. Two side chambers are for alternate composting – one is filled for a year and then left to sit for another year while the other is filled. The middle chamber is used to store hay which is used to cover the compost piles – it can be a roofed chamber to both keep the hay dry and to collect rainwater which is useful in washing the buckets that are emptied into the compost pile.

By the time we moved out I had the instructions for building a humanure hacienda memorized. When I sat out to actually build it I encountered a series of humbling and priceless lessons. When I finally got around to building it we had already accumulated some waste (in an old wooden box that we placed near where the hacienda would be built) from the compost toilet which we had already built so we really needed to get it done.

Size & Location

We have chambers that are approximately 1.5 meters square. It seemed like an overkill (I was rounding up the sizes in the book as I was converting them from feet to meters) but it isn’t. We have been using the chamber for just over half a year and it has filled very nice. The pile slowly sinks down as the lower levels are decomposed but is still a hefty pile. Since we eat lots of vegetables we add to the pile a lot of organic food waste.

Taking out buckets of waste is something I do once every week or week and a half. It is a task that takes about 20 minutes. I usually make two trips: (1) two buckets of humanure; (2) a bucket of organic waste and a bucket of water (we still don’t have a water collecting roof over our hacienda). The location we chose took into consideration both the existing house and the new house we plan to build. It is a bit far (and a bit uphill) from the existing house for my liking, but at an excellent location relative to where the new house may eventually be. I have yet to travel to the hacienda in the snow … so we’ll see how that goes.

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing location is where you will be using the compost. We still do not have a clear view of what and where we will be growing things so we could not incorporate this into the location. It now looks like we will be hauling compost in a wheel-barrow. But, I am happy with the location because I didn’t want the hacienda in my face … it’s set aside in a functional location.

Excavating

The location for the hacienda is on a slight slope so some excavation was required to create a flat space. I began doing this by hand and that’s when the first lessons hit me in the face:

  1. I haven’t decided what is harder to dig out – impenetrable hard clay or wet, muddy and heavy clay. Both are very tough work.
  2. Digging is hard enough work, it is that much harder without good tools. At the time I didn’t know what good digging tools were and the ones I had were definitely not good. If you’ve never done this kind of work before you cannot begin to imagine what a difference good tools make. Also, at least here in Romania, good tools are hard to find … so that in itself is an undertaking.
  3. A tractor with a backhoe is a superior digging tool. It can do in an hour what would take two strong men (me does not feel into this category) a day to do.

Fortunately we had a tractor on site digging a trench for our water supply so we asked him to help out and indeed, in about 45 minutes, I had a level surface AND holes for the posts. These holes were another hugely humbling lesson. Reading the instructions was very easy … one of the steps was to dig 8 holes in the ground. In the spirit of reading (and maybe watching movies where other people dig) I was thinking “OK, no problem”. Then you take your lousy digging tools and poke them into the ground and the ground says “no thank you” … and you realize that one step “dig 8 holes” is about to become an unexpected project of unknown scope.

A large part of me – the part that spent a couple of hours of futile digging – felt like an idiot when the tractor came and leveled the ground  in no time. But fortunately there is still a part of me, no matter how small, that is grateful for the lesson learned.

Cement

To this day I have avoided working with cement. We’ve had to use cement but hired help has done that work, not me. I am turned off by it and though will eventually get around to working with it I am happy to have stayed away from it so far.

In the hacienda this will probably turn out to be a mistake – how big a mistake only time will tell. The instructions call for a cement mix to set the posts. I didn’t to this – the posts are simply buried in the ground. The instructions also call for a rot-resistant wood – we didn’t have any on hand so we had to use pine (which is abundantly available and used for almost everything here) General wisdom is that these posts will rot in a few years. I guess I am OK with that because (a) I think that the structure itself may continue to hold up because it isn’t a load-bearing structure; (b) I am pretty sure this can, with some effort, be fixed; (c) I am OK with eventually having to (re) build a new hacienda. I have learned that I do pretty much everything better the 2nd time around so … 🙂

Walls

We used almost all used wood that was either lying around or from demolition work we did around the place. We had only a little available at first so I put up just enough to give the structure support and to make it possible for us to start collecting waste.

I then added more as more wood became available.

Another precious lesson hit me when I got around to using some old beech (a hard and rot resistant wood) planks. I failed miserably at hammering nails into these planks. My first assumption (from above mentioned humbling lessons) was that I was doing something wrong … and I lived with that guilt for some time (because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong) until a neighbor mentioned in passing that it is almost impossible go hammer nails into dry beech. Hah!

Roof

I was really looking forward to building the roof over the middle chamber. It is a small roof and therefore a good learning project. I only got as far as putting up two girders to support the roof. Another lesson here – such things are better cut to actual size then planned size. I tried to be efficient and cut them in advance (according to plans) but I cut them to short.

I didn’t get much further because we didn’t have more wood on hand and then I didn’t have time to get around to it. So the structure is now pretty much closed (sorry I don’t have a recent image) off and roofless. We have nice pile of rich compost building up … we started it in June, we will switch over to the second chamber this spring and we will harvest our first compost in Spring 2013 🙂

Together with our composting toilet it is a superbly simple,cheap, sustainable and hugely rewarding method of handling with organic waste and converting it into a precious resource.

Shit

I think that on the previous time-line post I made an error. The first wood-working project was not the temporary poultry cage – it was our composting toilet.

It’s nothing glamorous but it was a huge relief to have a more decent and comfortable place to shit then the dirty wooden-shack-over-a-hole-in-the-ground behind the house (a common Romanian outhouse). It was dirt-cheap to build and to the best of our knowledge we are almost the only people in the village (a rather large village that does not have a sewage system, though I am guessing there are a few houses that may have septic tanks installed) who do not need to go outside into the freezing cold when we have to pee or poop.

This can be a long post, but I am going to try and keep it short … mostly because the sun is coming out today and I want to take advantage of it to make progress on our cabinet. The bottom line is this:

  1. We shit in a bucket set in a simple wooden box. There is no smell, no flies and most importantly no sound of fresh water being flushed at the end.
  2. A bucket fills in about 4 days.
  3. We have numerous buckets so they can be emptied once every week or two.
  4. The buckets are dumped into a composting … structure.
  5. I do try to pee outside as much as possible … good for the plants and less weight to carry away (pee is surprisingly much heavier then poop).
  6. We dump all of our organic waste there too.
  7. The structure has two containers. One container is filled for a year and then left to rest for another year during which the second container is filled.
  8. In two years (actually 18 months as we’ve been active for 6 months) we will begin to harvest excellent fertilizer.

The choice to use composting toilets kept us on edge for many months while we were planning our house. Though it made sense and seemed like the simplest and most sustainable solution we were very disturbed by it. Ultimately the universe solved the dilemma for us by placing us in a situation where we had no alternative other then building and using a composting toilet.

It wasn’t as easy to build as it should be because, like almost everything else here in Romania, we had a hard time finding materials we needed to build it. We do not have access to affordable plywood. We could not find properly sized, proportioned and lidded buckets. We could not find a toilet seat that would fit and seal. Anything we do here that is outside the far-from-sustainable main-stream requires much effort, time and patience. We eventually found plastic buckets that fit (though they need to be carried carefully  because the lids cannot be fastened down). We built the toilet from sanded OSB. We just barely found a simple and cheap toilet seat that didn’t have raised notches that would prevent a seal between the seat. and bucket.

We have done (and continue to do) much research and have pretty much come to know most of the available alternate solutions. If money is not an issue then there are alternatives that remove the need to carry buckets of waste to the compost pile. But for us money is an issue and more importantly simplicity and self-build are core values. So honestly, even if money was not an issue, we would mostly likely still be using simple bucket-based composting systems.

If you want to know all you need to know (actually much more then you need to know) then all you need is the “Humanure Handbook“. Other then maybe curiosity you won’t need anything else besides this book (probably only a third of it will do).

I will write a separate post about our Humanure Hacienda – that “structure” where  we dump all of our waste. It too is taken from the Humanure Handbook.

As I make the final edits to this post I am smiling to myself  … it has been a process of maturity and expansion that brought me to the point where I can freely write about “pee and poop”. Somewhere in the history of society (at least those societies I have lived in) we took a wrong turn and moved away from practical honesty for the sake of some superficial social appearances. We all pee and poop and we all do so on the same planet that we all must continue to be able to inhabit for a long time. I know what happens with my shit … do you know what happens with yours?

 

What is different about “Global Model” Earthships?

The modern incarnation of Earthships seems to be going under the banner of something Earthship Biotecture calls the “Global Model”. There is very little documentation of the “Global Model” (I’ll get to that point a bit later on in this post), so here’s what I’ve been able to piece together. I am sure there are many more details, but what follows are strategic issues that matter to me. If you know more about the “Global Model” you’re welcome to add more insights in the comments to this post.

 Evolution

The most important lesson I’ve learned in tracing the Global Model is that Earthships, as designed and built by Michael Reynolds and Earthship Biotecture, are a work-in-progress. They keep changing, removing past mistakes, improving on old ideas, introducing new ideas, etc. This implies that there is no “ultimate” Earthship design – it changes (and must change) with context (cultural, economical, ecological, etc.). It is ultimately up to me to make the choices that best fit within my life context and best serve my needs. Don’t go looking for a manual on how to build an Earthship – there is no such thing. Even the original Earthship books by Michael Reynolds (though packed with valuable information) have obsolete information in them. You are better off understanding the underlying principles, studying as many Earthships as you can find and then taking responsibility for filtering and applying that information to your build. My interest in the Global Model is not as a(nother) template but rather as a reflection of changes and refinements Earthships have undergone. I am curious to see how the underlying principles have been challenged and how those challenges have been met.

 One Big U

I think that the most prominent change has been in the core structure of the Earthship. Originally an Earthship was built using connected U’s built from rammed tires.

Global Modal Earthships seem to have done away with that and instead are built with one large encompassing U built of rammed tires creating one large internal space. Then, that one large space is further divided into smaller spaces using internal walls (usually from concrete-can walls).

I can think of numerous reasons for this:

  1. Architectural Design Freedom – rammed tire walls are not a flexible design element – they are massive and structural – they are an overkills for internal non-structural walls. Removing them from the inside makes it easier to divide the internal space.
  2. Less Work – rammed tires are hard work much more difficult then concrete-can walls. They take longer to build (given the same manpower).
  3. Faster Closed Building Shell – there are two main phases of construction – before there is a closed shell (roof + glazing + skylights + doors) and after there is a closed shell. Less tires means you can get to a closed shell faster – much faster. Since Earthship Biotecture also build Earthship shells in blitz-projects – it makes sense for them to strive for a quick-closed-shell.
  4. More Floor Space – Though it isn’t a drastic difference – replacing thick tire walls with thinner concrete-can walls leaves more open floor space.

The price:

  1. Concrete Buttresses – concrete pillars attached to the rear wall have now been introduced (instead of the massive rammed tire walls) to provide structural support for the long rear wall – this is a whole new skill set (suddenly there are stories of forms breaking and concrete flowing around the building site).
  2. More Concrete – much more concrete is now used in the project – both in the buttresses and in the internal walls.
  3. Thermal Mass – though I don’t think it is a high price I do believe this results in less thermal mass in the house (though I may be wrong here – because concrete may be more dense and therefore have the same thermal mass as a thicker earth wall!).

This change seems to be coupled with additional and interesting structural changes.

Greenhouse Separation

In the original Earthships the greenhouse was bordering on the living spaces.

Though it is mentioned only in passing in the original Earthship books it seems that in the Global Model the Greenhouse corridor is almost always separated from the living spaces by an additional (mostly glass) wall.

This one was a hard nut to figure out. My understanding is that this configuration provides better climate control in the living spaces. What follows may be totally wrong … but this is the best I have to offer so far. The greenhouse, besides it’s inherent function as source of food, is also a heating device – especially in the winter when it gets direct sunshine (when it can it heat up more then it does in the summer). When the Greenhouse and living spaces were one – whatever happened in the greenhouse directly effected the attached living space. Separating them introduced a better level of climate control. My gut tells me that the greenhouse also had at least two unwanted effects. One is increased humidity due to the abundant plants. The other is obnoxious smells due to the grey water presence (I am guessing that smell problems come not so much from the grey water processing but rather from the attempt to store it for reuse – flushing toilets). So by separating the greenhouse from the living spaces all three problems were mitigated:

  1. Heat – the heat in the greenhouse can now be controlled by (a) letting cool air in from the low-placed operables ad (b) by letting warm air out through skylights. Heat in the rooms can be controlled by (a) windows in the separating wall that let warm air in from the greenhouse and (b) skylights which let warm air out and (c) ventilation tubes that let fresh air in from the outside (more on later on).
  2. Humidity – increased humidity in the greenhouse can be vented out through its skylights without automatically effecting the living space.
  3. Smells – can also be mitigated through ventilation before they take over the living space (though personally I would not contain grey water … more on that in a future post).

The Price:

  1. More construction – a new wall requiring footings and framing has been introduced.
  2. More Glazing – assuming you will want to let as much light in to the actual living space be prepared to pay for a lot more glazing (I still haven’t decided if simple one-pane glazing is enough or more thermal-double-pane glass should be used).

 Roof

There are two changes I have noticed in the roof. One seems to be more consistent the other less so.

The first is the direction of roof rafters. In the original books rafters ran in an east-west direction.

In the Global Model it seems that rafters are now being installed in north-south direction.

This change seems to be related to the One Big U approach – which have a limited depth but unlimited length. So now rafters can be laid to enclose a space of almost any length – the longer the space the more rafters are installed.  The price is that- north-south rafters need a front (south) frame onto which they can be laid – that frame comes in the form of the wall that separates the greenhouse from the living space.

The other change that seems to be prevailing is that the roof now has single slope – it seems that new models no longer have the raised greenhouse lip that was originally described and implemented almost as a trademark of Earthships.

I am not sure this is a change in design strategy but with the north-south oriented rafters it makes sense (to me) that the roof is one single slope. Also, I have to admit, I never really understood the importance of the original design – other then create a larger opening – which, to my understanding, can be achieved with roof that slopes down to the north – so that the south end is raised.

 

Experimentation

To summarize and re-iterate the process of evolution of Earthships I feel it is important to highlight that Earthship Biotecture seems to be a group constantly exploring new directions seeking new solutions that further complement their core direction. Some of these experiments may never find widespread adoption, some may only lead to further inquiry. I haven’t seen things such as indoor cisterns and jungles (Earthships Volume III) in many Earthships. I personally feel that their solar toilets are way too complicated and expensive compared to the dirt-cheap (and renewing) composting toilets we are already using.

The point  is that everything about Earthships needs to be filtered and contextualized. There are no “global” solutions, there can be no “global” Earthship model, there shouldn’t be. There should be constant striving for creating better and more sustainable solutions and open sharing of build attempts (both failed and successful ones).

This post is a first in our effort to understand and process the latest and greatest that Earthship Biotecture have to offer. We continue to explore other self builds and their experiences. Ultimately this will lead to an adaptation of an Earthship that will be best suited to us.

If you have any further insights into “Global Model” or other core Earthship workings, please do take the time to leave a comment. We would appreciate it greatly 🙂