Look Out Romania – Here Come’s Hemp

We aren’t the only ones trying to do this … as I write these words Andreea is making calls … this is so happening 🙂

… this is Teodor Pop of Lux Perennial
… which are associated with Hemp Technologies USA
… which are associated with Lime Technologies UK.

Learning to Read Plans

I’ve been spending the last few weeks immersed in reading about wood-framing. I’m really enjoying the experience of feeling that it really is possible to self-build a home. It’s logical, straightforward and building with hemp simplifies it even more.

I recently came across these sample PDF plans of an eco-house from Studs – a UK timber frame design company. I am happy to say that it isn’t all giberish to me anymore 🙂 I still can’t read it all – and some parts are a bit overwhelming – but I think it’s good practice to start looking at such plans. They provide house design ideas, they teach structural lessons and they prepare you to communicate with other professional which we expect to be doing.

What does Ecological mean in Romania?

We just got back from a meeting at the school of architecture in Cluj. It was a good meeting with some followups to look forward to. But we did meet with some skepticism – “ecological building is a fashionable thing” … I agree that there is a lot of fashion in ecological building – even intellectual/academic fashion. I couldn’t possible put it better then George Carlin did:
a

But, I also think it’s important to be able to discern between the bullshit and the real shit. Ecological building should have direct impact on quality of life – otherwise it really is a fashionable indulgence. So I thought to take this opportunity to share some of the things I consider to be ecological in the context of building a rural house in Romania.

Warmer

My general impression of homes in Romania (actually Israel too!) has been that they are cold in winter (public spaces are generally much warmer then homes I have visited). This is a combination of poorly insulated homes and fairly expensive fuel resources.

In cities gas is the primary source of heating energy – it is very expensive and building-blocks built of concrete are poor heat containers. We are struggling to keep our gas costs under control and can just manage to keep the apartment at 19-2o degrees celsius.

Village homes are usually poorly insulated (despite super thick mud-brick walls) and even though firewood is relatively cheap, it is expensive when you live on what you can grow … and you can’t grow money. So those that do have fire-wood used sparingly – again, just enough to keep out the cold.

Hemp is said to be one of the best insulating construction materials. This means that the same quantity of fire-wood that a village home uses ine year to just-barely keep the cold out can be sufficient for keeping the same house comfortably warm for 2 years (if not more!).

Better Air

I’ve mentioned before that almost every apartment or house I’ve visited in Romania suffers from humidity problems. Humidity is locked inside the house and it’s walls (you have to see it to believe it – water running down the windows and accumulating in pools on the window-sills). It turns into mildew which leads to respiratory problems.

Hemp is also said to be a healthy building material. It creates a permeable wall that absorbs excess moisture on the inside and releases it on the outside. It does this without any insulation or sheathing materials. It is a natural quality of a properly built and well ventilated hemp-masonry house.

Self Grown Homes

Romania used to be a major supplier of hemp-fiber – which means that the land here is good for it. As a rule of thumb one hectare of land yields enough crop to build a house. Oh and hemp requires no herbicides or pesticides, kills weeds and renews the land in which it grows. Oh and it is said to have huge potential in world markets for zillions of applications. Oh and its seeds can be used for food and oils which are magically healthy.

Almost every Romanian farm has vast farm lands – which means that most Romanian farmers can potentially grow the hemp they need to build/rebuild their homes.

Simple to Build

Hemp masonry is poured around a wooden frame – which a small group of people with basic coordination and tools can build in a week or two. Romania is gifted with vast amounts of excellent and afforable wood.

Hemp building requires the most rudimentary frame building skills – many framing complications involving insulation and sheathing are completely obsolete do to the nature of hemp construction.

Bringing the Toilet Home

Our new friends, Ina and Sabine, eloquently described the challenge of reviving the image of village homes in Romania “Bringing the toilet – a freezing outdoor shack with a hole in the ground – indoors”. The ecological implications of technologies (they are so simple – that calling them technologies, though true, can be misleading) such as dry-compost make this easy and afforable to do. Running water is used to evacuate waste from the home and then a simpleto-install and super-easy-to-maintain mechanical system separates water and waste and converts the waste into dry and usable compost. So much cheaper and easier then digging a hole in the groun and installing a sceptic tank that needs chemicals, can demand unpleasant maintenance to run and a periodic evacuation service.

So, All Fashion Aside …

We are still beginners when it comes to ecological building – but we are committed to this path. We have a very limited budget to create our home. A limited budget comes bearing gifts of simplicity – complicated, expensive indulgent technologies are just not an option. Ecological means simple solutions, many of which are do-it-yourself (or do-it-with-your-friends), based on and respectful of natural available resources.

That’s it, direct simple things that come together to make life good.

Modece Architects

It’s been over a week that I’ve had the website for Modece Architects open in my browser. I really enjoyed the website – it feels like an authentically green site – one that actually walks the walk. Particularly I’ve browsed back and forth endlessly in the sustainable-construction gallery which has been quite an eye opener. For example …

This image hints at the potential of using quality timber framing together with hemp construction – which I was just wondering about…

or this image that demonstrates that loose hemp!!! can be used in floor insulation:

… or this image of a do-it-yourself solar panel:

… honestly, every picture in their gallery is like a magical doorway into knowledge.

But what really tickled my fancy was that as I was revisiting that must read book on hemp-lime construction I recommended a while back – I made the connection that the hand-drawn illustrations starting on page 31 were contributed by Ralph Carpenter of Modece Architects … and I am thinking “yeah, that’s the website I’ve got open in my browser” … so it seems that the world of hemp-lime construction is still a nice and intimate community 🙂 Great fun!!!

A Sustainability Confession

The more we dig our hands into the endless details of creating a sustainable home the more I realize that it isn’t really sustainable. How is that possible?

No matter how you do the math the most sustainable and cost-effective way to generate electricity is together, not every house for itself. Given our very low electricity bills and the high costs of the cheapest of available green-electric solutions (hydro and solar) – I doubt we will offset the costs in our lifetime. The same holds true for running water and I am guessing for most of the other infrastructures we take for granted in day-to-day life. There’s a reason we live on shared infrastructures – it’s the best way to do it.

At the heart of my preference for an independent sustainable home is an uncomforting thought about togetherness. I simply don’t trust the huge “we” mechanism to continue facilitating food, warmth and shelter. I don’t trust “we” to facilitate the growth and supply of healthy, nutritious and non-poisonous food. I don’t trust “we” to supply me with consistent and affordable eletricity or gas.

I don’t trust the “social we” because it is dominated by corrupt motivations (that come in many flavors – some raw and in your face, others subtle and devious). I don’t trust the “intellectual we” because it is ignorant towards so much freely available knowledge on how to do things better.

I belong to a miniscule percentile of people on the planet who can indulge in not trusting “we” to do a good job, and to do so from a warm apartment with food on my table. But I have also seen, over recent years, how those things are slipping away. I saw that unless I do something about it I am heading towards a point in time in which I will be to cold and hungry too indulge in criticizing “we”.

So I decided to do something about it. I have come to Romania where there are plenty of natural resources with which I believe I can do much better then “we” seems to be doing. It would be wonderful if we could meet with a few other like-hearted people with whom we might be able to create a better “we”. But when I say sustainable I am being selfish … I am building my own little Noah’s ark because I don’t want to feel like I am drowning anymore.

House Heating Requirements (revisited)

IMPORTANT: this note was added after the post was published but seemed important enough to be inserted at the beginning of the post. I am just now realizing that my perception of heating requirements are based on experience of poorly insulated homes. This is why I expect stoves to be lit numerous times a day. But, in a properly insulated home the need for heating should eb drastically reduced. If this is true – then all our elaborate plans to use stove-heating may be irrelevant – since the stoves may not be lit long enough to generate hot water. Having a super-energy-efficient home may lead to us to simpler, existing ready-made solutions. We don’t know, and we don’t know yet someone who knows … so for the time being it’s all up in the air.

Some weeks ago we described an imaginary-heating system and since then we’ve come across numerous resources and refined our understanding a bit.

I think there are two core ideas that shape and guide our understanding and wishes of a heating system:

  1. Most of the time we can shower when hot water is available – though it’s comfortable we don’t really need hot water to be available on demand.
  2. Enough direct heat is generated by our wood-stoves to indirectly supply most if not all of our heating needs.

So what we can say about our envisioned heating system?

  1. It will be an integrated water-based system – the same systems is used to generated running hot water and water for a radiant heat system.
  2. The system relies as little as possible on electricity – we would like to have a warm house and hot water even during a complete power-out (though it may run better when powered with electricity).
  3. The system will include an indoor cold-water container that will bring the water to room temperature.
  4. The system will include a central hot-water tank (not a boiler!) that supplies both the radiant heat water and flowing hot water to facuets and showers.
  5. The primary source of heat will be classic Romanian-village-style terracotta wood stoves. We expect to have one or two primary stoves in the living-space and kitchen. We both work from home a lot and cook a lot so these stoves will already be working.
  6. We would like to design and build the wood stoves to include an efficient coiled water pipe that is connected to the radiant heat water circuit and feeds back into the central hot-water tank.
  7. We would like to install a on-demand gas water heater on the running water hot-water circuit as a backup in case the water in the hot-water tank is not yet hot enough.

Following are someuseful web-resources: