Visiting Suncuius

Around 3 weeks ago we joined Ina and Sabin on to see Suncuius where they purchased land for their house. It was an exciting first – not only because of the prospect of becoming land-owners but also of creating a life with friends and neighbors like Ina & Sabin.

Lesson1: Romania is Beautiful

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to travel and spend time in the vastness of Romania. This was another glimpse into how simple, direct and beautiful it is. A set of landscape images from the area was published separately on my personal-blog.

Lesson2: 4 x 4

Ina and Sabin’s land is in the higher and more remote area of Suncuius. Getting to it from the lower area of the village is about 7 km out most of it on un unpaved road. We had a beautiful sunny day but the road was snowed over. On the way up we got stuck on our way up on an icy part of road we failed to negotiate. Ina and I got out and sat on the hood of the car (it was a two front wheel drive car) to give it more traction while Sabin attempted to get us past the hump in the road. These are my legs hanging over the car:

This is the wonderful view that opened up when we got past it.

… and this is where we moved back into the car

… and this is the breath-taking space we arrived at.

If you are going to be living in an elevated place in the mountains then you may want to consider getting a 4×4 vehicle – it makes getting around safer, more reliable and more pleasant.

Lesson3: Generosity

We arrived at the house of the family who’s land Ina and Sabin purchased. I was quickly reminded of the welcoming generosity that seems to be typical of Romanian villages. Though the homes are often old and run down – home-grown and cooked food and drink is always offered. An abundant life reaches my consciousness from village life here.

Lesson4: Plentiful Land & Water

The fertile lands and plentiful water in Romania is a big part of why we are here. Having land and the skills, tools and knowledge to work it is a unique, if not the most sustainable form of richness I can imagine. This is where we are heading.

Lesson5: Draw in Snow

While Sabin was off making some arrangement in town Ina took us to see their land. While we were there we made some markings in the snow to simulate what their thoughts for a house would feel like. This was a really useful exercise – seeing the house oriented on the land, experiencing distances, room sizes can be very eye opening – much more then many drawings. The snow makes it very easy to make markings, if you don’t have snow use sticks and rocks … but don’t miss out on doing this.

Lesson6: Classic Construction

We are building the first hemp-lime house in Romania. I took great pleasure in seeing this classically built Romanian house. I don’t know how old this structure is but it shows signs of durability.

Though we aim for something much better, more resilient and more ecological there are a few things I liked about it: simplicity, basic do-it-yourself construction, reliance on local materials, practical wood-joinery and stone foundations (instead of todays popular concrete).

Lesson7: Do Your Homework

A few months ago we had no idea what to look for in land and who to ask. Since then we’ve accumulated a list of things we’d like in our land to support us and make our life pleasant. We will probably have to compromise on some of the things – but with this list we know what it is we are compromising on and what we are getting.

Though the place was beautiful and we would love to be neighbors with Ina & Sabin we realized there were a few things missing:

  1. As we intend to extend our home into a place of learning, retreat and eventually birthing – this part of Suncuius is too remote and inaccessible. Suncuius is great if you want to retreat to a remote and intimate life – but we still have work to do engaging other people. To do this we need to remain accessible.
  2. We are planning to do diverse farming to provide for ourselves. Suncuius is in a high location making it too cold for growing grains. Suncuius also sits on top of many caves (there are sink holes all around) which effects the fertility and versatility of the land.
  3. To do the caves below water isn’t found in near-house wells. There is a spring in the area from which the village gets its water. Connecting to it may be a challenge.
  4. Accessibility may be an issue in winter months and also during construction when materials need to be brought in.

Had we not thought about these things in advance and known our needs and preferences we could have easily fallen in love with the place and overlooked them. Sabin is asking around for us about lands in the lower area of Suncuius (closer to the road, train station and on flat-lands).

Hydro Electric Barrel

In a country like Romania it is not unheard of to live on a property of land that has running water – so we’ve put that on our wishlist. In such cases hydro-electricity can be a very appealing source of electricity (though I have asked myself what would happen in case of freezing). With that in mind have a look at this interesting invention – the hydro-electric-barrel:

Chronological Images from Nauhaus

It seems that Clark & Tim, the guys who wrote Building Green, moved in the Passivhaus direction. They have a project called Nauhaus where they are attempting to bring together their past experiences with the Passivhaus standards.

I believe, as I have written before,  that the Passivhaus standard is not a practical nor sustainable form of construction – though there are some excellent and applicable ideas and inspiration to be drawn from it. The Nauhaus was built with hemp, which from the theoretical (at this point) knowledge I have gathered simplifies, ecologizes and reduces costs of many construction aspects. Yet because of Passivhaus standards Nauhaus also reintroduces many complications which I find … uninspiring. Just this morning I was reading their chapter on building a green roof, then I came across the massive, industrial insulated crane-lifted panels they used in the Nauhaus project. Though I can appreciate their efforts to move forward and improve … it feels to me like they took a wrong turn somewhere … I think Passivhaus had something to do with it.

I was surprised to see in some of the images the Tradical procucts and then to learn that the interview I posted with Ian Pritchett was actually from the Nauhaus project.

Amongst the information on their website is an educational set of posts with images showing the contruction chronology – from foundations to a completed building. At this point in my education, these documented processes are extremely useful and rewarding. The chronology starts at the end of this page – from where you can scroll up and forward in time to see the project progress.

My main take from these images is on some thoughtful tricks on how to efficiently prepare and install formwork for the hempcrete as you can see here and here:

And also this super-simple ingenious carpentry lesson from Tim – as he creates a simple tool for measuring and placement of formwork from here.

Self Grown Hemp for Construction

Wouldn’t it be ideal if you could grown your own hemp and then use it to build your home? 1 or 2 hectares of hemp stalk is potentially all you need to harvest enough building materials to build a house. Imagine that – growing your own house!  … but it isn’t a simple thing to do.

The hemp plant has four elements: seeds, leaves, fibers and a wooden core. The part you need for construction is the wooden core – also called the hurd or shiv. Separating it from the other elements of the plant requires effort. You need to grow the hemp, deffoliate it (remove the leaves) before harvesting, harvest or remove the seeds, harvest the stalk, let it ret (start decomposing so that the fibers can be separated from the hurd) and then decorticate it.

This finally step of decortication seems like the greatest obstacle – this is the process of separating the fiber and the wooden core. It can be done either through massive manual labor (of which I don’t yet have all the details – but it involves collecting the harvested stalks into small bales and then beating them to separate the fibers and wooden core) or in an industrial process. The indutrial process is usually designed to extract the fibers, the actual wooden shiv is simply a left over of that process.

It would be so much easier to grow your own construction hemp if decortication could be avoided – and this may be possible but my understanding is that it depends on the climate you live in. This research paper on Hemp-Concretes claims that it is possible to create hempcrete using both shives and fibers – BUT it is important to note that the research focuses on the structural aspects of the resulting hempcrete. It does not address the effect of fibers on insulation and breathability of the hempcrete.

Introduction of fiber to the hempcrete mix can cause humidity problems. When fibers are clumped together they tend to draw moisture and that is not something you want to happen in your wall. According to Steve Allin it is possible to add 5%-15% of fiber to the mix but not much more. This may be less of an issue in a hot and dry climate – but otherwise the risk seems unwarranted.

Maybe when the hemp industry matures it will be possible to cultivate stalks with very little fiber and a massive wooden core – which could then be used in whole? For now though it seems that self-grown hemp is not a feasibly reliable option for construction unless you have the means to decorticate it.

Building with Hemp

There is only one book (worthy of being called a book) I know of (in English) – Building with Hemp by Steve Allin. It isn’t the one and only book you will need to actually build with hemp – but it provides the best overview, explanations and images I’ve encountered so far on doing so. It touches on many hemp-effected aspects of construction. You will still have to do a lot more inquiring and apply your own common-sense but this book will be an excellent road-map for you on your journey.

Building Green

“… it’s not the materials but the builder that makes a building green”

Clark Snell,Building Green

I first saw a preview of Building Green (I think it was on Google Books) and wasn’t impressed by it. Then Ina & Sabin introduced us to it and loaned us their copy and I was really surprised by it. I have been immersed in the book and gained a lot from it. It doesn’t mention hemp-construction in any way. It does cover many other green building techniques and materials. But most importantly it is written with an appeal to common sense and with plenty of educational images which demonstrate that common sense really does work. Though I will probably not be using any of the building techniques mentioned in this book directly, I will be using a lot of my own judgement to make design & engineering choices and relate to solutions offered by professionals.

To me, the spirit of the book is best embodied in this quote which I have frequently brought up in conversations since it came to me:

“One the biggest sources of our environmental woes is the constant and polluting movement of humans about the planet. To create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes a longtimeto build healthy soil to grow food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of a house’s cooling strategy. These things simply won’t happen if you aren’t sufficiently seduced by your home to stay there for the many years it will take to turn it into a real place that nurtures both its inhabitants and the environment. A “green” house, then, needs to be beautiful, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child.”

As someone who has lived in rented apartments and houses all of my adult life and am now heading towards creating what may be our first and only house in this lifetime I can completely relate. I have been a tourist in most of the places I’ve lived – never quite made it to become a resident of the place.

Growing is Forever

This beautiful work comes to us as we prepare to manipulate trees and other natural resources to make a home for ourselves so that we too may grow.

3 Steps to Electricity Independence in Romania

Though living off-the-grid is tempting it probably isn’t as ecological as you may think it is. Electricity is an infrastructure that is best provided through collaborative systems instead of independent ones. It is unfortunate that so much of it is generated with an unnecessarily high ecological price – which is good enough reason to want to do it better on your own.

Being off the grid isn’t necessarily a smart financial choice either (at the present) because a completely independent system is still so expensive that it may never really repay itself (taking into consideration your level of consumption and price of grid electricity). Living off-the-grid is morally better but necessarily financially better.

Step 1: On The Grid

There are enough challenges and expenses when building a new house. Getting off-the-grid doesn’t need to be a top priority. If you are building a home and can connect to the grid then consider starting connected to the grid. You can design your home so that eventually it may be completely off-the-grid but you don’t need to implement it right away. You can designate places for photovoltaic panels, for wires, for batteries, converters, etc. but you don’t have to install them right from the start.

If, like us, you are building your own home then you will need a reliable source of electricity during construction. If you don’t have a grid-connection then you may need to bring a generator on site instead.

Step2: Self Generated

The next step, when you are ready for it is to start generating your own electricity. You should start with the natural resource that is most available to you. In the area of Cluj the leading sources are probably sun and water (if you’ve got running water on your property with enough altitude difference to generate the needed flow). If you are living in the mountains you may also have wind power available to you, yet it seems that commercial wind-powered generators are prohibitively expensive. In addition to the generating source (such as solar panels) you will need converters to convert and regulate your source current into 120v so it is compatible with all of your existing appliances.

It’s comfortable to do this while still connected to the grid because your self-generated electricity is backed- by the grid electricity (though you will need a grid-tie system to connect to the grid). If, for example, you rely on solar power then on cloudy days you still have all the power you need from the grid. If you generate more electricity then you consume then there is a good chance that your electric company will buy it from you. So in the end you may still be benefiting from grid-electricity but your bill will be zero or the electric company may pay you.

An efficient electric generating system and a low consumption home can generate a monthly revenue for you – so you may want to consider staying in this configuration and not going off the grid.

Step3: Off The Grid

To go completely off the grid you need to add to your electrical system a battery array. Batteries store energy when it is generated and make it available when it isn’t. If, for example, you rely on solar power then you will need batteries to supply you with electricity during the night when your solar panels are not providing you with electricity. Good batteries (that will work for 20 years) are initially very expensive to install. You may need additional converters to integrate them into your system and you need to be careful and monitor their use when your sources are not generating electricity  (more on that in a separate post).

When you go off the grid you are completely on your own so regardless of any expenses (and potential losses) involved in doing so, make sure you are ready to be on your own (for example, in our house we are planning heating and hot-water systems that can operate at least basically when there is a power-out).

2 NGO’s and a Peasant Meeting

Last week we met with two inspiring organizations with whom we hope to collaborate in the process of creating our home here in Romania.

Habitat for Humanity Cluj

The first meeting with with Habitat for Humanity Cluj (English website, Romanian website) who’s mission is to provide decent housing where currently housing conditions are very poor. Here in Romanian they have a few house templates that they can build in a few weeks. They organize volunteers from around the world to come and partake in a quick and efficient building process. They also provide home owners with a  zero-interest loan at very small monthly payments (over as long as 20 years) to fund the costs of construction materials.

Our hopes are to both gain from their building experience here in Romania and to offer a shared learning opportunity on the benefits of building with hemp. We believe that hemp-lime construction can be a wonderful alternative with the benefits of simpler construction, better housing (insulation, air quality, durability) and ecological. A win for the organization, for residents of their houses and for the planet.

Eco Ruralis

Our second meeting was with EcoRuralis (English website, Romanian Website) who’s mission is to support traditional Romanian peasants (who represent ~50% of Romanian population) in the face of external forces of industrialization and commercialization (mostly originating from the EU) that threaten their survival and prosperity.

I realize that mission statement may sound petty and remote to non-Romanians so let me give you an example. It is now absurdly illegal for Romanian peasants to sell their traditionally developed and evolved seeds (over hundreds of years). Legal and commercial standards are pushing to replace traditional seeds with genetically modified industrial seeds. Such measures, together with beaurocratic hurdles required to selling their crops in local markets threaten not only their existence but an entire tradition of agrictultural knowledge.

A Peasant Meeting

EcoRuralis were extremely pleasant and generous with us. We immediately signed up as members and over the weekend they invited us to a member-meeting which took place in Calimenste (a 6 hour bus ride south of Cluj-Napoca). Not only were we welcomed in no-questions-asked, they also covered all the expenses in getting to and partaking in the meeting. We had a wonderful time and met inspiring people.

It is so exciting  and comforting to know that we have access to everything we need (from knowledge to seeds) to create up our own farm. Though we are currently focused on the construction aspect of our home we are also on our way to becoming peasants and taking up healthy traditional farming.

Another interesting shared interest is hemp-construction. Hemp was once a popular crop here in Romania and we hope it will be again. Everyone was very curious to hear more about hemp construction. We can’t wait to invite them all to see when the house is actually built and then to be our guests and experience what a wonderful quality-of-life it can afford.

Everyone was so kind and so generous. With some translation help I said to them that after almost 40 years of life I am for the first time beginning to feel I am at home.