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:

Timber Framing

Introduction

A few weeks ago when I began exploring the world of framing it (and I) was dominated by a fairly straightforward technique of wood-framing – using standard 2×4 lumber with nails and metal connectors to construct a home frame. But then I came across a blog where someone spoke of another building method – one that relies on creating elegant joints between wood joints that are fastened together with wooden pins (kind of like huge nails) – an all wood structure.

I encountered all kind of terms I didn’t know like dovetails and tenon joints. So I did some more searching and came across this abundant resource that had way more information then I could possible want about techniques for joining together pieces of wood. I discovered an entire art of wood-joints … which actually blew the wind out of my sails. I thought that was just too much to attempt to muster on a project with limited time and resources. So I set it aside.

Timber Framing

I am now entering a second round of inquiry into wood framing – the straightforward “nail and connecing plates” kind this time going into more detail. Then, a  few days ago I came across Northern Lights Timber Framing and a single image on their home page blew my mind. This is what timber-framing looks like:

Most of the structure (except for some of the supports) is made from massive timber beams that are crafted into a carefully planned puzzle. There is an entire carving process that takes place away from the building site during which all the pieces are meticulously crafted and tested. Then they are brought to the building site site and with the help of cranes, assembled into a monolithic structure. It is an artful process shimmering with quality and inspiration. It is very different then wood-framing. Here’s another images from Northern Lights – this time an indoors view of a timber-framed house:

The Northern Lights site listed a link to the Post n Beams blog, written by a student that trained with the folks of Northern Lights. It is a great and informational blog to read with excellent, detailed and informative images. This images from the blog further demonstrates the elaborate art of Timber Framing:

This is very different from wood-framing:

We Will Probably Build with Wood Framing

From where I stand now I am somewhat sad to say that we will be building our house with wood-framing and not with timber framing. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The overall framing process, as I understand it, seems to be more complicated and longer then wood-framing.
  2. It seems like a more expensive building method (tools, materials).
  3. It requires refined skills and workmashinp – making it less relevant as a do-it-yourself project.
  4. Most of our wall-framing will remain hidden from sight as it will be emdedded inside the hemp-lime walls.
  5. Hemp-lime masonry needs studs to support it.
  6. Except for a living-kitchen space, energy concerns are leading us to smaller more heat-efficient spaces – so the benefit of an open-floor structure are marginal.
  7. Most of the roof will also be highly insulated with hemp and other materials.

Yet …

I would love to incorporate into our building process some of the qualities of timber-framing. There is more to it then meets the eye. I wonder if, for example, similar joint techniques can be employed when framing with 2×4 lumber?

I am no expert but my instincts tell me that timber-framing delivers a superior structure (to that of wood-framing) and the fact that it is all-wood (no chemical interactions with metallic parts) give it a better shot at longevity (though in our case this may be mitigated by the hemp-lime encasing).

A part of me hopes that we come across a magical local timber-frame builder that will change my mind 🙂 I would love to live in a structure that was built with such masterful craftsmanship.

What About Growing Hemp?

Following is a transcription of this article from November 1942 by A.H. Wright, published by the University of Wisconsin, Madison – College of Agriculture, which to date is the most informative, accessible, freely available online guide about growing hemp that I’ve encountered (I found it stashed away here). I liked it and thought to make is easier to access by transcribing it.

Wisconsin farmers are the leading hemp fiber producers in America. They are using methods based on thirty years of experience and experiment in growing and handling the crop. The American navy and army need hemp – vast amounts of it for rope, cordage and threads.

Four hemp mills are running in Wisconsin – at Markesan, Brandon, Beaver Dam and Juneau. Although other parts of Wisconsin have soil adapted to the crop, all the hemp in the state has larely been grown around these mills.

Hemp yields well under favorable conditions. On suitable soils in the state, hemp has rarely failed to produce a good crop. Yields have usually ranged from 700 to 1000 pounds of fibre for the acre. The average yield of dry stalks after dew retting as the farmer delivers them to the mill is from two and half to three tons an acre.

Hemp is seeded in solid in the spring; is harvested and spread out on the stubble in the early fall; the straw (stalks) is allowed to ret (partially rot) while still spread out; is picked up, bound and shocked after retting, then hauled to the processing mill where it is stacked.

What the Hemp Crop needs

  • Fertile soils
  • Plenty of moisture
  • Rotation with other crops
  • Complete fertilizers
  • Good seed bed
  • Early seeding
  • Early harvesting
  • Proper retting

Fertile Soils

Dark prairie silt loam soils – uniform and fertile – are best for hemps. Reasonably level clay loams are good. A plentiful supply of organic matter is very important and thorough drainage is necessary. Not suitable are peat and other marsh lands, or sandy, gravelly and rocky soils, heavy clay soils and bottom lands.

Plenty of Moisture

Hemp will not withstand drought and so does best on soils that do not dry out quickly. Dry areas are decidedly unsatisfactory. The stunting of hemp by dry weather results in low yields and low quality fiber. Hemp needs much the same moisture as a good crop of corn.

Because hemp grows rank and luxuriant, it is often incorrectly thought that it is hard on the land, but experience shows that it has about the same effect as a good crop of corn. Hemp leaves the soil in excellent condition crop crops that follow.

Rotation with Other Crops

Hemp should not be grown continuously on the same field for the same reason that corn or grain should not be repeated on land. It does best after corn, alfalfa, clover or bluegrass pasture. It does not follow timothy satisfactorily, and often does not do well after small grains. The usually practice is to plant the hemp after corn, followed with a small grain seeded down to clover, then the clover is followed with corn. On very fertile soils, hemp may be grown two years in succession.

Complete Fertilizers

Barnyard manure is ordinarily the best fertilizer for hemp but commercial fertilizer can well be used to supplement six to eight loads of manure to the acre. On most soils a complete fertilizer – containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – is most likely to give the best results. Such standard commercial fertilizers as a 3-9-13, or 3-12-12 have been used to advantage. The usual amount is around 200 pounds an acre; the use of 300 to 400 pounds an acre of 20% super-phosphate alone has given good results on typical dark prairie soils in Wisconsin. Commercial fertilizer alone will not make up for lack of manure or lack of natural fertility. Lime, at three to four tons an acre, may well be applied on acid soils.

Seeding the Hemp Crop

Hemp Needs a Good Seed Bed

The seed bed must be well prepared. Although spring plowing will give fair results, fall plowing is best. The soil should be worked up thoroughly before planting but should also be firm. A corrugated roller used just before and just after will do much to put the seed bed in proper shape. on soils that are inclined to crust, broadcasting usually gives better results than drilling.

While hemp is one of the best smother crops know yet weed infested soils must be prepared so that the hemp will outgrow the weeds. Canada thistles and quack grass will choke out the hemp unless they are subdued before the hemp is planted. Any method which will put the soil in good shape and check the weeds is satisfactory. Hemp will not smother out weeds on unfertile or poorly drained soil.

On average hemp soils in the north central states, from four to six pecks of good seed to the acre seem to give best results. On very fertile soils, five to six pecks are advisable. On soils less fertile then average, four pecks are enough but less than four pecks is rarely advisable. Hemp seed weighs 44 pounds the bushel.

It is very important and necessary to leave an unplanted strip (turn way) all around the field. This turnway, 16 to 20 feet wide, should be left on both sides and both ends of the field. The hemp harvesting machine requires such space at the edges of the fields in order to make the first round. After the field is sown the turnways should be filled in by planting them to small grains, soybeans for hay, canning peas or a similar crop. Corn for silage, early potatoes or other early rowed crops may also be used, but thickly seeded crops, such as small grains are best because they usually prevent a rank growth of hemp around the edges of the field.

a good field of hemp nearly ready to harvest - desirable height and thickness

a good field of hemp nearly ready to harvest - desirable height and thickness

Kentucky Hemp Seed Best

All hemp seed recommended for the United States is grown in Kentucky. Hemp seed from foreign countries cannot be relied upon. Most of the hemp grown in this country is from seed from adapted selections and has proved decidedly superior to that from other countries.

cutting and spreading hemp with modern harvester - hemp is both cut and spread for retting with this machine

cutting and spreading hemp with modern harvester - hemp is both cut and spread for retting with this machine

retted hemp straw is picked up and bound with a special machine - the hemp picker

retted hemp straw is picked up and bound with a special machine - the hemp picker

Early Seeding is Best

Results vary in different seasons but in most years early seeding is best. While some plant hemp almost as early as oats, yet the usual practice is to sow just after oats are sown and before corn planting starts. Under emergency conditions hemp may be sown as late as the first week in June.

While good stands of hemp have followed the use of a broadcast seeder, yet a grain drill is decidedly better on soils not apt to crust. The seed should be sown not more than one inch deep.

Harvesting the Hemp Crop

Early Harvesting is Best

Hemp should be harvested when the pollen bearing (male) plants are in full or late bloom. At this stage, the lower leaves have mostly fallen and the upper leaves are yellowing. Generally, hemp harvested early has the best season for retting, consequently it is better to harvest a little on the early side rather than to wait until it is too mature. So far as the quality and yield of fiber are concerned, the crop may be harvested any time in the four weeks between blossoming and early seed forming. Over ripe hemp does not produce good quality fiber.

Hemp must be harvested with special machines. In very small fields, the self-rake reaper is used to advantage. Fields of five acres or more are cut with a special hemp harvester which is now standard equipment and is usually furnished on a rental basis by the processing mill. It harvests the hemp and spreads it in one operation. The hemp harvester operated by a tractor will harvest from 5 to 10 acres a day.

Proper Retting Important

Retting is the most important item in handling hemp for the kind of retting determines the quality and value of the fiber. The green stalks, after they are spread on the stubble by the harvesting machine, remain there until they rot enough so the fiber can be readily separated from the woody part of the stems.

The time varies with the weather. If the weather is warm and moist just after the crop is spread, retting may be complete in seven to ten days. If it is dry, retting may be delayed until late in the fall. Usually the early fall is moist and warm, so early harvesting is best. In unfavorable retting seasons, there is a tendency to life the hemp before it is retted. This should not be done. The hemp should be left spread out in the field until the outer layer of fiber can be taken off easily. Unless very quick retting occurs, the straw should be turned over in the field during the retting period so that an even ret is obtained.

Retted Straw is Bound and Shocked

As soon is straw is properly retted, it must be lifted and bound in bundles. This is done with a special hemp binder (picker) which is supplied on a rental basis by the hemp mill.

The bound bundles are placed in shocks a little larger then those used for corn. When the bundles are well cured they are hauled to the hemp mill and stacked. Great care should be taken in building stacks as too much invested in the retted straw to stack it carelessly. Each layer of bundles should have a pronounced pitch; and the center should always be kept high. In lapping, very little of the butts of each layer should be exposed to the weather, as such parts will decompose if left long in the stack. Hemp straw, properly stacked, will keep for many months with very little loss.

the retted and bundled hemp straw is stacked and the hemp mill - either round stacks or ricks are used

the retted and bundled hemp straw is stacked and the hemp mill - either round stacks or ricks are used

Hemp

  • gives good yield on suitable soil
  • usually not damaged by insects or disease
  • is not “hard” on the land
  • helps to control weeds

Hail Causes most Damage

Hemp in the north central states is nearly free from insect damage and fungus disease but cut worms and white grubs have caused some damage. Grasshoppers will destroy hemp leaves around the edges of fields near freshly harvested small grains. Stem borers, including the European corn borer, have been known to attack hemp plants.

But hail is the most serious enemy of growing hemp. While the total loss has been very little, yet there have been serious local losses. Wherever a hail stone strikes a growing hemp plant, a weak spot occurs, thus damaging the fiber. Hail insurance is commonly used.

Hemp Straw Must be Milled

At the hemp mill the retted straw is dried, crushed and the broken material is cleaned by brushing and combing with a hemp scutcher. The fiber comes from this machine in two forms. The long straight fiber is line and that is by far the most valuable. The short, tangled, snarled fiber is known as tow. This fiber has much less value. Hemp grown on good hemp land will generally produce around 55% line fiber and 45% tow. Hemp grown on poor hemp soil may produce nearly all tow and very little line. This is one reason why the selection of proper soils for hemp culture is extremely important.

What Happened to Hemp in Romania?

Hemp is currently our preferred method of construction so naturally we are looking around to see where we can find it. Eventually we also hope to grow it for personal uses for food, oil, fibers and to provide building materials for other Romanians who may wish to build with Hemp.

Here is what we know:

  1. There used to be a promising Hemp industry in Romania – very little remains of it.
  2. The soil and moisture conditions in Romania are excellent for growing hemp.
  3. We tried contacting Advantages (hemp naufacturer from Timisioara) and were told they no longer exist.
  4. There is an impressive international! Romanian company in Solanta called Canah that manufacture wonderful hemp-based food-products.
  5. Though they would like to rely on local (Romanian) supply Canah imports most of its raw materials.
  6. It is (theoretically) possible to grow hemp in Romania – for which you need an approval in advance and additional monitoring while you grow and harvest the crop.
  7. Every year, just before Christmas, hemp seeds appear in Romanian markets – they are used to bake a traditional holiday-cake – it is unclear where these hemp-seeds come from (one speculative theory is that it comes from Moldova).

One of the (numerous) ecological aspects of hemp is that it can be grown (and processed) close to where it is actually needed. This reduces the need to transport it across great distances. Transporting it leads to carbon emissions which defeat it’s ecological benefits. We are making an effort to find a Romanian farmer from whom we can purchase the hemp we need to build our home.

Though we will do our best to leave as little ecological damage in getting our hemp it would be an ironic-shame if we had to take our money elsewhere (Hungary, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Holland, UK, etc.).

So my question to anyone who happens to read this and know something about it is what happened to Hemp in Romania? Why was it illegalized? Why was a promising industry shut down? Who could possible havy gained from this? What can be done to fix what looks like a tragic mistake for the Romanian economy?

Rural Studio

In a way this post continues my previous post on Passivhaus. I’ve had these resources open in my browser for some time and didn’t quite not in what context I should place them here on Bhudeva. Passivhaus gave me to the context that was looking for me.

Rural Homes is a project run out of Auburn University in Alabama, USA. We learned about it through Itsik Hirsch – a talented architect and teacher at the Israel Institute of Technology who also happens to be a dear person to us and my uncle. Itsik teaches what is called “studio” – which, as I understand it, is an experimental learning space which usually makes up a major part of architecture studies. It is where students do actual architectural work and gain precious practical experience. But in most cases that experience remains theoretical because their projects are not actually built.

The Rural Homes project took the “studio” in an inspiring direction. In it students are challenged to create feasible and affordable solutions for people who live in extremely poor living conditions. The challenge is not just to create a design on paper, the students actually go out and build the house themselves. It is a tremendously inspiring project that touches many people’s lives. It is a wonderful (and in my experience rare) example of academic study and research directly connecting to and benefiting the society in which it exists.

Following is an interview with the man behind this beautiful project – Samuel Mockbee:

For more information:

So what does Passivhaus have to do with all this? Very little and that is the essence of my critic of it. Rural Studio should be a reality check for Passivhaus. The greatest place for impacting both the lives of both people, the environment and this entire planet we inhabit (which are really so intertwined to the point that they are one and the same) is where most of the people are, not where a small percentage of rich people can indulge in ideology.

Our reality is somewhere in between Passivhaus and Rural Studio. I am inspired by Rural Studio and deterred by Passivhaus. I feel that Rural Studio touches my life and that Passivhaus overlooks it. Maybe I am bit too harsh towards Passivhaus and though I can speculate on why that is I will keep that to myself – it is a question I believe Passivhaus can benefit from asking.

The Rural Studio from BluePrint Productions on Vimeo.

Passivhaus

Introduction

Passivhaus is one of the terms out there in eco-green-sustaintable building land. It may look like its spelled wrong but that’s because its originally from Germany. It represents a very strict and high standard of energy efficiency in a building. It isn’t (yet) an official requirement or standard but it is gathering momentum as an unspoken standard.

There are three complementary core ideas behind the idea of a Passivhaus:

  1. Complete and thorough thermal insulation of the house which prevents conductivity of heat from the inside-out or the outside-in.
  2. Complete air-tightness which prevents exchange of heat through air leaks (windows, doors, pipes, chimneys … every opening needs to be sealed!).
  3. An efficient ventilation system that both exchanges air (from the outside and the otherwise airtight house) and does so without losing heat.

This is one of those images that is better then a thousand words. The apartment building on the left is standard/traditional building while the apartment building on the right is built according to the Passivhaus standard. That’s the bottom line of Passivhaus – keeping the heat from escaping means you need to expend less energy to heat the inside.

Extreme!?

I have come across Passivhaus numerous times in recent weeks and my recurring personal impression is that it is too extreme:

  • It seems like more of an academic indulgence then a practical construction practice.
  • It’s objective and success is measured in a single number – the amount of energy needed to heat a square-meter of space.
  • It demands rigorous builing disciplines which require uncompromised excellence in construction.
  • It demands the use of specialized insulation materials which can be expensive (especially if you consider the ecological foot-print involved in manufacturing them).
  • It creates a house that demands constant attention, maintenance and proper use by its residents (every window opened and every hole drilled in the wall is a potential energy hazard).

All of which results in a delicately balanced system: if it isn’t absolutely sealed, perfectly ventilated by a carefully installed system and properly used it just won’t work. There is no room for error. This maybe OK in a scientific experiment but not so for life, nature and people.

In any case it doesn’t feel right for us: we have a limited budget, average construction capabilities, standard building materials, etc. We are going to do the best that we can with what we have. It’s an 80/20 kind of thing – where 20% of the effort takes you 80% of the way you need to go and it would take another 80% of effort to go the rest of the way. We’re aiming for a good middleground – pushing the limits of what we have – but that, by definition, is not enough to go for 100%. Passivhaus is uncompromising, but we live in a reality which demands compromise.

“A passivehouse is cost-effective when the combined capitalized costs (construction, including design and installed equipment, plus operating costs for 30 years) do not exceed those of an average new home.”

Source: PassiveHouse.com

I am hesitant to relate to this statement as that may give it unwarranted legitimacy –  cost is just too narrow a perspective to view ecological housing. But if I do meet it head on, as is, I would say that it sets its sights much too low. I hope to build a house where the combined capitalized costs are much lower then those of a new average home (whatever that is). I also hope to build a house who’s qualitative effects (both for us and others) far outway it’s economic effects.

Maybe Passivhaus is, for the time being, a high-end building experiment? Maybe in time it will spawn accessible, affordable and feasible techniques, solutions, technologies, practices … that can become a defacto standard that simply makes sense to follow? For now, it is out of touch with us and our needs.

Humidity

Having said all that exploring Passivhaus has brought to my attention a factor I had not taken into consideration in all of my energy research: Indoor Air Quality. I have been following a very basic intuition: “generate heat” in trying to solve a problem we’ve been having for many winters: “being cold”. Most of my attention has been on how to preserve and generate heat (space and water) effectively.

I had not given any thought to one of the central themes of Passivhaus: quality of air. Quality of air (assuming there is good ventilation) is strongly effected by humidity … and humidity effects the overal experience of temperature … cold is much colder when humidity is too low and heat is much hotter when humidity is too high. I have experienced the effects of humidity in warm and cold temperatures in Israel and I have seen it (as accumulated moisture and mildew) in almost all Romanian homes I have visited.

I don’t know yet enough about ventillation and humidity.

Hemp

One of the much praised qualities of hemp masonry is it’s breathability. It seems to have a natural tendency to absorb and expel unneeded moisture. I don’t yet have enough information on the overall effects of hemp on moisture, ventilation or quality of air indoors – but I do have a good feeling about the effects of hemp!

Resources

Following are some of the resources I came across and consumed in trying to understand Passivhaus:

Interview with Ian Pritchett of Lime Technology

So pleasing to see a pleasant person who loves and believes in what he does. An interview with Ian Pritchett, Managing Director of Lime Technology: