Friday, December 28, 2012

'Eco' is almost always Thrifty, but...

Contrary to what some people may argue, making ‘eco’ choices are almost always also thrifty choices. I have provided dozens of examples eco-thrifty decision making in this column over the last eight months. The most recent one last Saturday profiled our daughter Verti’s first Christmas present: a second-hand bicycle trailer spruced up by a local mechanic.

Keeping the holiday theme going for another week, I’ll focus on our two eco-thrifty Christmas trees: indoor and outdoor.

If you are a frequenter of the website Pinterest, you may recognize our Pinterest-inspired driftwood Christmas tree. We walked to the beach from our home just behind Seafront Road, and collected two armfuls of weathered branches. We carried them home, cut them to length, and tied them into a triangle with yarn. Finally, we hung the branches from another piece of driftwood with roots forming a self-supporting base.

Oh, and I almost forgot! Then we put on Neil Diamond’s Christmas album and decorated our eco-thrifty-beachy tree! I suspect it is easy for anyone to recognize the eco-thriftiness of this tree, although it is probably not to everyone’s aesthetic. That’s perfectly fine. To each their own.

But some readers may be surprised that our outdoor Christmas tree - the humble yet effective solar clothes dryer  - has been outlawed in many towns and suburbs across America. This is not a joke. But the States are not necessarily known for their eco-ness or thriftiness.

Using a washing line rather than an electric dryer is like riding a bicycle instead of driving a car: any way you slice it, the former is always both eco-er and thriftier than the latter.

These days, our washing line is decorated with colorful cloth nappies – another example of a choice that is both eco and thrifty. It may be easy to recognize the environmental benefits of cloth diapers, but there are also considerable cost savings over the long run. This brings back the concept of payback period that I’ve written about regarding everything from light bulbs to solar hot water.

The following information comes from (Sorry, this is in US dollars.)

For a period of two and a half years, the calculated cost of disposable nappies is $2,577 (3,123 NZD) averaging 36 cents (0.44 NZD) per change. By comparison, the following versions of reusable nappies offer the following savings. (Includes washing costs).

• Pre-folds and covers: $381 (462 NZD). Savings = $2,196 (2,664 NZD)
• Fitted nappies and covers: $1,263 (1,532 NZD). Savings = $1,314 (1,594 NZD)
• AIO nappies: $1,413 (1,714 NZD). Savings = $1,164 (1,412 NZD)
• Combo cloth nappies: $1,468 (1,780 NZD). Savings = $1,109 (1,345 NZD)
• Pocket nappies: $1,677 (2,034 NZD). Savings = $900 (1,091 NZD)

The website also points out the obvious regarding cloth nappies: they can be used for another child or sold once your bubs is potty trained. Both options increase the potential savings, which build and build over time.

Once again we see that the most ecological choice is also the most economical choice in the long term. This is also true for insulating and draft-proofing a home, energy efficient light bulbs, bicycle trailers, laundry lines, and solar hot water. However, all of these things share one or both of the following characteristics: 1) they require an initial investment of funds; 2) they require an ongoing investment of effort.

For various reasons, these conditions appear to be significant barriers to many people adopting sustainable behaviors. As a social science researcher, these barriers and potential strategies for overcoming them fascinate me. But that, my friends, is a discussion for another day.

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

Christmas in the Southern Hemisphere

One of the adjustments of living in New Zealand so far has been seeing Christmas decorations around town in the middle of the summer. It does seem that far fewer Kiwi households decorate like they do in the states, but there are some here who really embrace the holiday spirit. These pictures are from a house down the road from Dani and Nelson. There are some angels, reindeer and sled, a snowman (strange when it's 25 degrees out) and, my favorite, a surfing Santa Claus.

In our house, we've drawn holiday inspiration from the beach. Nelson had conveniently dragged a large, free standing piece of driftwood up from the ocean before we arrived. I'm not sure exactly what he had in mind for this furniture sized piece of wood, but it served our purposes beautifully. We went back to the beach and retrieved several more driftwood sticks then threaded them so that they would hang from Nelson's makeshift tree trunk. All that was left was to decorate our beachy Christmas tree!

Not wanting to culturally exclude our Jewish residents, Molly and, perhaps, Billy T the cat, I also took the opportunity while at the beach to grab a piece that would work as a menorah. Drilling nine holes into the wood was an easy operation and, just like that, we were celebrating Chanukah! The only drawback of this tasteful menorah is that it does tend to catch on fire when the candles burn too low. Nelson was glad when Chanukah was over so he could go to bed without fear of his house burning down... Molly and I also made a giant batch of latkes and broad bean felafel for the holiday.

A very beachy Christmas and Chanukah to everyone!
Jessea and Molly

Friday, December 21, 2012

Eco-Thrifty Thinking

Although our daughter, Verti, came into this world a fortnight late, her first Christmas present arrived two weeks early. As parents, we do not intend to shower her with colourful plastic toys, especially a certain anatomically impossible doll that drives a pink Corvette. (At least she used to in the 80’s, the last time I checked.) So far, her favorite toy was homemade from driftwood – her eco-thrifty play gym – 

and we hope that her vehicle of choice is more of the green, two-wheeled type. All of this is a long way ‘round to her Xmas pressie: a bike trailer.

It is also a way to present another case study on eco-thrifty thinking. Everyone loves a good Christmas story, so here is:

Verti’s First Eco-Thrifty Kiwi Christmas.

Once upon a time in the magical kingdom of Whanganui, there lived a bald little girl called Verti Feliz. She was born on a cold winters’ night in an ancient hovel in the shire of Castlecliff. Ok, enough of that…

I’ll use this case study to remind regular readers and introduce new readers to the characteristics of eco-thrifty thinking (ETT). Eco-thrifty is not eco-chic (think Good Magazine), nor is it cheapo-thrifty (think Dollar Store). ETT seeks a middle ground between being kind to the Earth (Middle Earth?!?) and keepin’ it real regarding affordability. The central mandate of ETT is low-investment and high-performance. This mandate can be quantified using a concept known as ‘payback period.’

Back in April of this year, I introduced payback period in my first column. Put simply, payback period is the time it takes to recoup an investment in energy efficiency in actual savings. For example, the payback period for a compact fluorescent light bulb is 6 months to a year depending on usage. That means that within that time period (6 to 12 months) you’ll save the initial $5 investment, and during every subsequent interval of that time period you’ll have an extra $5 in your pocket.

Verti’s bike trailer represents an investment in energy efficiency in that it allows us to pedal her around town instead of driving her. The IRD mileage rate for self-employed people and reimbursing employees for 2012 is 77 cents per kilometre. What this is meant to represent is the total cost of driving: petrol, insurance, WOF, repairs, etc. For us, that means a round-trip to centre city sets us back about $11. So, people, get your calculators out.

If the purchase of a second-hand baby trailer is $125, and it costs an additional $60 for a local craftsman to rebuild the wheels, then how many round trips from Castlecliff to city centre – at a savings of $11 each – would it take to recoup the investment? (Send your answers to before 31-12-12. A randomly selected entry will receive a free home energy audit.)

Beyond the financial savings associated with pedaling bubs about town, Verti’s first Xmas pressie also satisfies other characteristics of ETT: reduce, reuse, and support local businesses. We bought the trailer on TradeMe from a Wanganui family that originally bought it from a local bike shop. They benefited from the sale by earning some cash from something they no longer use, and we benefited from a low-cost / high-quality investment. The trailer is a quality brand – Giant – and is built primarily from aluminium and rigid plastic, which suits our coastal position in terms of rust-avoidance. However, a number of the spokes were broken, so I dropped off the wheels at Green Bikes...

where Jonah the Whizzard of Whanganui turns trashed bicycles into two-wheeled treasures. In an especially amazing wheet of Whizzardry, Jonah had them finished and delivered before sunset on the same day. 

This meant the following day Verti could go for her first bike ride with me on the green bike that Jonah built for us over four years ago. Thanks Uncle Jonah! Chur. 

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Eco Design Advisors are Super Heroes!

I had the great good fortune recently to spend a lunch hour with Richard Morrison from Kapiti Coast District Council (KCDC). On the surface this may not appear exciting, but the meeting had two things going for it: the lunch was free (thanks to Judith Timpany at the Whanganui Community Foundation), and Richard is the Eco Design Advisor for KCDC. Sharon Duff, from the Primary Health Organisation, invited me to the meeting that was also attended by two representatives from Wanganui District Council, a pair of local builders, herself and Judith.

There is a phrase in our household we use to describe special people: “She/he is the real (sometimes additional word inserted here) deal.” Richard is all that and a bag of chips.

He is passionate, knowledgeable and generous with his time. Richard took an entire day out of his busy schedule to travel to Wanganui and share his perspectives on warm, healthy, low energy homes.

Our patch before

 Our patch after

As I’ve tried to emphasize in this column, Richard’s presentation highlighted the economic savings associated with eco-design. Rising power bills concern us both. While I have written that electricity rates are on track to double in the next 10 years, Richard shared information that they could double in as little as eight! In in the case of our household, a rise from $22/month to $44/month would not break the bank, but for families paying $300, a rise to $600 could be devastating. When this is added to the recent radical increases in homeowners’ insurance, the effects could be profoundly negative for local businesses due to less available ‘disposable income’ of the average Wanganui resident.

And beyond that, as electric rates rise, more people may choose not to heat their homes because they cannot afford to. This would exacerbate an already major challenge facing New Zealand: health problems associated with cool, damp homes. Here is some information from the Eco Design Advisor Network (Participating Councils: Auckland, Hamilton, Palmerston North, Kapiti Coast, Lower Hutt, and Nelson):

New Zealand homes are generally cold, damp, unhealthy and inefficient in energy and water use:
• NZ homes are on average 6 degrees Celsius below World Health Organization recommended minimum temperatures in winter.
• 80% of NZ homes are inadequately insulated.
• 45% of NZ homes are mouldy.
• NZ has the second highest rate of asthma in the world, and an excess winter mortality of 1600, a much higher rate than other OECD countries.
• Cold, damp homes pose serious health risks, particularly for the most vulnerable groups in the community who spend the most time at home.

Unhealthy homes clearly cost the health system, but also cost the economy through lost productivity due to worker illness.

Sustainability is often presented as a triangle including environmental quality, human needs, and economic viability. This is a model I have used as a teacher for 20 years. 

But the more I learn about the majority of housing stock in New Zealand, a different triangle comes to my mind – a sort of Bermuda Triangle where things such as money and health disappear. The three points of this sub-standard housing triangle are: Unhealthy, Inefficient, Wasteful.

The Eco Design Advisors are doing amazing work to combat the Bermuda Triangle of New Zealand homes, and rescuing families from the netherworld of cold and mould. Learn more at their website:

Thanks again to Richard for taking the time to share his insights with our community. Chur, bro!

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, December 6, 2012

Retrospective #31Paradox, Smartphones and Spontaneity

As an on-again, off-again, part-time student of Eastern philosophy, I have always been intrigued by the role of paradox. Wikipedia defines paradox as: “A paradox is a statement or group of statements that leads to a contradiction or a situation which (if true) defies logic or reason, similar to circular reasoning.” From my observations, Taoism and Buddhism are full of paradox.

“If you could not laugh at it, it would not be the Tao.”

“If you meet the Buddha on the road, kill him.”

Herein is the paradox that I see relating to the Chinese intern who worked with us during February, March and April of this year. Ji Qiao is a Chinese citizen who attends university in America. The private university he attends charges tuition around $50,000 (US$) per year. That university has an overseas programme in New Zealand. The programme used to be centred in Christchurch, but since the earthquakes it has been centred in Wanganui. Part of the programme engages students in two-days-per-week internships.

Put another way, this Chinese young man’s family pays $50,000 (US) per year to a university in the states for him to work for me in Wanganui for free.

Although this is an unfair characterization, it emphasizes the paradox of the situation.

The next paradox is that although Ji Qiao had never swung a hammer in his life, he was an AWESOME intern. Herein lies the tale of Ji Qiao, his Smartphone, and a pile of wood.

Throughout February and March, Ji Qiao and I worked on various little projects around the property, but he kept reminding me that the one he was looking forward to the most was “paving” – as he called it – the kitchen floor. Finally, following his “spring break” trip to the South Island, the time had come to pave the floor!

What made Ji Qiao such an amazing intern was his genuine enthusiasm and willingness to learn. He used his Smartphone to take notes on new words he learned – plies, bearers, joists – and on one sunny April day, to add up the linear metres of Tasmanian oak I bought on TradeMe (see last week’s Chronicle), and calculate the square metres of coverage we could get out of the random lengths of timber stacked under roofing iron in the yard.

Together, we stacked the oak in groups of lengths within 200 mm of each other. I measured the size of the kitchen while Ji Qiao listed the quantity of boards in each grouping. Then he used his mad maths skills to spin his arith-magic. According to his calculations, we could get 15.2 square metres of coverage from a total of 15.5 square metres of random-length stock. This may not sound impressive on the surface, but what it means is that the total off-cuts would be 300 mm, or 0.02%. That’s low.

The way we were able to achieve such a small amount of ‘waste’ was by matching short and long lengths, and medium and medium lengths, to the near-exact total lengths required for different parts of the floor. The easiest place to visualize this is to look at the photos in last week’s Chronicle. Barring that, I’ll do my best to explain.

The largest section of floor to cover measured 2.9 x 3.4 metres. We laid the boards in pairs that measured nearest to 2.9 metres, and alternated between short-long, medium-medium, and long-short for the best visual effect. This part of the job went quickly once we had a system in place. But after that, we had to change our strategy as the dimensions of the flooring needed changed around the Shacklock 501, the kitchen bench, and a short entryway. Despite the slowdown, we nearly finished the job in one day, much to the surprise of my wife Dani who returned home from work at 5:30 pm not knowing the floor was on the schedule for the day. And she says I’m never spontaneous! 

Peace, Estwing

Friday, November 30, 2012

Retrospective #30: Change is Good.

1st, December, 2012. Welcome to the first month of the rest of your life. I do not know much about the Mayan Prophesy, but I do know that 2012 was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. From what I understand, some people say the world will end this month. Others claim it will be more of a transformation that takes place: the death of old ideas and ways of thinking, not the death of all life on Earth.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer the latter of these scenarios. I prefer it for a number of reasons: 1) I have a bubs who is three months old; 2) I’ve got a little more living to do myself; 3) I reckon there are a good number of old ideas and ways of thinking we’d be better off without.

Yesterday (30th November, 2012) was the official due date of my doctoral thesis, which represents four years of research, careful thought, and a massive amount of writing and rewriting. The gist of my thesis is that school science can be taught in such a way – relevant, experiential, local, solution-oriented – as to improve students’ scientific literacy, ecological literacy, and some students’ attitudes toward studying science. If you were one of those students who did not like science and dropped out as soon as you could, this approach to science teaching and learning is (was?) for you!

Transformation as nature does it

But this week’s column is not about boring you with the finer details of science education research, it is about transformations and seeing things differently. The reason I included the reference to my thesis above is to emphasize that transformation from old ways of thinking to new ways of thinking is not necessarily something to fear or avoid, but to welcome. For example, those students who reported a more positive attitude toward studying science when it was more experiential, local, relevant and solution-oriented experienced a change in their perception of school science. Would anyone argue this was a bad thing?

Transformation as nature does it

If December, 2012 brings about a change in our collective thinking that results in a more kind, just, fair and sustainable world, who would argue against it? (Actually, I think I may be able to name a few.) The point is that change – while sometimes scary and unpredictable – is often for the best. And that’s how a pile of wood sitting in a warehouse in Aramoho became a kitchen floor in Castlecliff.


The off-cuts and B-grade Tasmanian oak was not of use to the door manufacturer, so he put them up on TradeMe with a Buy Now price of something like $88. I did not know what I might use the timber for at the time, but I knew it was a bargain. I clicked it up and then I picked it up. And then it sat in our yard under roofing iron for over a year.



I don’t know when or why the motivation struck (probably when I was good and tired of writing my thesis), but one day while my wife, Dani, was at work, our Chinese intern Ji Qiao (don’t ask, it’s a long story) and I transformed the kitchen floor from trashed to treasured. The look on Dani’s face when she returned home said it all: “Change is good.”


Tune in next week for the tale of the Chinese intern, his smart phone, and how to get a 15.2 m2 floor out of 15.4 m2 of timber. 

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Retrospective #29: Kitchen Vision

This is the 29th in a series of articles appearing in our city's newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle

Last week I wrote about transforming a tired, old kitchen cabinet into a fresh, new kitchen cabinet. The key elements in that process were: 1) vision; 2) patience; 3) resourcefulness. In many ways, these are the same elements required when taking on a major home renovation. If you’ve ever seen the British television programme, Grand Designs, you will know that those couples who lack a clear vision and/or are impatient usually exhibit the most stress. While this makes brilliant entertainment, it does not make for a good renovation process.

All renovations require vision and patience, but not all renovations require resourcefulness. Let me explain.

Under one scenario, you could hire an architect who helps you with the vision and a builder who asks you to be patient. The builder asks you to be patient because renovations almost invariably take longer and cost more than anticipated (see Grand Designs). This approach to renovation does not necessarily require resourcefulness because most (but not all) architects and builders will assume that they are working with all new, off the shelf products, materials, and accessories. In most cases, if you want to do something out of the ordinary, it will end up costing more in labour due to the extra time required. There is nothing wrong with this scenario, and it can result in beautiful, functional living spaces.

By contrast, an eco-thrifty renovation (ETR) involves vision and patience, but also requires resourcefulness. (You may recall that three of our seven design principles are reduce, reuse and recycle.) In many cases, the resourcefulness involved in ETR actually increases the level of vision and patience required (ask my wife). An example of this would be our $2,500 kitchen that took over a year and a half to complete. Aside from some structural elements required by the building code, nearly everything else is second-hand. Despite that (maybe because of it) we now have one of the coziest, most comfortable kitchens I’ve ever been in.


Alongside the hanging cabinets I wrote about last week, other reused components include: the kitchen bench; the cabinet under the bench; the electric oven; butcher block; Welsh cupboard; Schacklock 501 and the bricks in the surround; light fixtures; pelmets; and, it may be argued, the Tasmanian oak floor. The floor, while not technically made from reused or second-hand (ie, previously used for another purpose) materials, is made from off-cuts and B-grade timber that I bought on Trade-Me from a door manufacturer in Wanganui. The floor – which will be the topic of next week’s column – is another great example of resourcefulness, vision, patience…blood, sweat, and tears. So make sure to tune in next week.


Because we reused second-hand components in the kitchen, and I did most of the work myself, the bulk of the $2,500 went to plumbers. Besides that, I hired one friend to do the Gib-stopping and another to do the brick-laying. Money well spent in my opinion! Other expenses include the Shacklock 501 ($250 on TradeMe) and the refrigerator ($300), which we purchased new for two reasons: 1) we had recently been through a bad experience with a second-hand washer; and, 2) most second-hand refrigerators have low Energy Star ratings. After an electric hot water heater, a refrigerator is likely to be the largest energy user in the average home. Part of our strategy for low power bills is to use an under-the-bench fridge with a high Energy Star rating. It uses about ¼ of the power of a standard full-size fridge. Plus, all of the squatting down to get a cold beer has given me buns-of-steel. Look for my workout video on YouTube! 

Peace, Estwing

Friday, November 16, 2012

Retrospective #28: Beauty from Vision

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about many of the aspects and levels of ‘resilience’ addressed by eco-thrifty design thinking. One of those articles focused on the peace of mind provided by a low-energy and low-resource home, and the other talked about the growing global movement towards resilience to storms: both literally in terms of damaging storm surges such as Hurricane Sandy in New York, and figuratively like the damage caused by financial ‘storms’ such as the global financial crisis which appears focused in Europe.

While examples of resilience can be gleaned from around the globe and connections can be made to our local context in Wanganui, I do not mean to overshadow another important component of eco-thrifty design thinking.

There is no reason things cannot be made as beautiful as they are resilient.

This also gives me the opportunity to thank Terry Lobb for her kind words three weeks ago when we swapped columns. Terry wrote about the aesthetics of our $2,500 eco-thrifty kitchen by focusing on a number of key elements including the cabinets over our hob with their leadlight doors that reminded her of fantails.

I love fantails, I love those leadlight doors, and I love where we got them: Hayward’s Auctions. Not only is the weekly auction great entertainment, but bargains can be had of an eco-thrifty nature: low cost and high performance. We paid a fair price for the leadlights – about $50 for the pair – but ended up with a design element in our kitchen that punches above its weight. In other words, the value we receive from these beautiful doors far outweighs the price we paid for them.

This is not to ignore, however, the fact that we had to sand back the wooden frames, and then carefully apply two coats of primer and two coats of paint. The other thing I had to do was build cabinets to suit them. It took me nine months from purchasing the doors to realize the cabinets had been here all along. I just had to remove part of the forest to see the trees.

During the process of turning the old kitchen into the new bathroom, we had to take down the old cabinets with their classic 1950’s Kiwi-mint-green doors. While that color is bound to make a comeback one day, it is not today. 

We removed the unit and put in a back room to serve as miscellaneous shelving. And there it sat until one day, for no particular reason, I had a vision.

The vision was that by cutting away at the cabinet and reshuffling some of the bits, this old rimu unit could see new life in a new kitchen in the same old home. The process was almost exactly like pruning a tree, a process that also starts with a vision. The series of photos show how the process unfolded.

First, I removed the Kiwi-mint-green doors and took the cabinet outside. I carefully measured and marked where I wanted to remove parts of the old cabinet that was too big for our new kitchen. 

Next, I pruned away some off the length. 

Then some off the height. 

Then – and this was the hardest part – I had to reshuffle some of the bits so that the new, smaller doors would be centered on the pruned (smaller) version of the cabinet. 

Like any form of renovation, the work may proceed slower than building something new because we are forced to work around pre-existing elements. However, when care and time are taken, the results can be worth the effort. 

Peace, Estwing

Monday, November 12, 2012

Permaculture Garden Tour

Scratch to Patch Permaculture Garden Tour: From garbage dump to thriving edible landscape with over 100 perennial fruit trees and bushes in under 2 years.

Saturday, 17th November, 2:30 - 3:30 pm: (This tour is scheduled to match Saturday Castlecliff bus service). 10 Arawa Place, Wanganui. Koha

Sunday, 18th November, 2:30 - 3:30 pm: 10 Arawa Place, Wanganui. Koha

Front lawn before 

Front lawn during

Front lawn after

Back yard before and after

Side yard before and after

Lazy gardening

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, November 8, 2012

'Storms' & Resilience

I’ve written lately about some of the big ideas behind eco-thrifty renovation including the amazing power of design (Chronicle 27-10-12) and ways in which a low-energy home can empower the occupants by allowing them to worry less about raising power bills (Chronicle 3-11-12). What these two big ideas of eco-thrifty design have in common is the notion of resilience.

Resilience is the ability to weather a storm, to persist in the face of adversity, to ‘roll with the punches.’ Resilience is a cornerstone of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The first human settlers to come here – both Maori and European Pakeha – left familiar, comfortable surroundings to venture to a new (for them) land. Each group – in their own way and in their own time – had to remain resilient to all that the Land of the Long White Cloud could dish out.

For both, that often meant storms, or as the media like to call them, ‘weather bombs.’ Early Maori structures and the current Building Code both consider high winds and driving rains. In both cases, this is called appropriate design. You will recall, however, a time in New Zealand history when such appropriate design and construction was not practiced. That time is remembered as the era of ‘Leaky Buildings.’

But, as Bob Dylan, warns, “The times they are a-changing.” As someone who has followed discussions on global climate change for over two decades, I’ve been interested recently (the last three years) that the dialogue has turned from one of ‘prevention’ to one of ‘adaptation.’ Adaptation, in this sense, means planned resilience. From what I can tell, world leaders have resigned themselves that humanity lacks the collective will to keep carbon dioxide levels below what is considered ‘safe’ by the vast majority of climate scientists. The result, as documented in a flurry of recent pear-reviewed papers, is an increasing incidence of extreme weather events.

This was the prediction, and now data has born it out. What’s left for us to do is ‘batten down the hatches.’ Aotearoa / New Zealand has always be buffeted by storms, it’s just that now those storms are likely to become more frequent and stronger. A corollary to this – for those shocked by the increase of home insurance premiums due to the Christchurch quakes – is that we will all pay more to clean up after those storms.

One recent ‘storm’ that most Europeans are paying dearly for is the so-called ‘Global Financial Crisis.’ Like predictions on climate change, the GFC was also forecast but the warnings were ignored. Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Brits, Portuguese, etc are paying for the storm through the appropriately named ‘austerity measures’: cutbacks in education, health services, libraries, swimming pools, etc.

Funny that many of the same things are happening in the states but no one dare use the word ‘austerity.’ Instead, the high and mighty politicians who racked up 16 trillion dollars in debt suddenly talk about the need for ‘fiscal responsibility.’

Be it York or New York, Las Cruces or Las Vegas, Athens or Atlanta, communities of people are getting together and creating local resilience to global finance in the form of local currencies, time banks and barter and exchange systems. These have become particularly popular in Greece as it is on the leading edge of financial and economic turmoil.

Not that turmoil has anything to do with it, but Wanganui appears to be way ahead of even the Greeks regarding local financial resilience. The River Exchange and Barter System (REBS) has been in operation for over 20 years. You may have seen the stall at the Saturday market and wondered, “What’s that about?”

Well, here is the opportunity for you and your mates to learn more and to have some fun at the first ever REBS Quiz Night and Info Session. It’s only $20 per team of 3 to 5, but pre-registration is required.

Wednesday, 14th November. 6:30 – 8:30 pm
YMCA St. George’s campus
$20 per team of 3 to 5.
REBS members and non-members welcome!
To register your team, ring Donna on 345-7282

Friday, November 2, 2012

Resilience on Many Levels

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak recently to members of Balance Whanganui – a peer support group for mental health and addiction. They were an excellent, engaged group during the nearly two-hour presentation on eco-thrifty renovation. It was particularly enjoyable for me because they laughed at all of my jokes.

It was also enjoyable because I had the opportunity to draw parallels between healing a home and healing a mind. At its core, we have transformed a fragile and vulnerable structure into a robust and resilient one. This is, from my understanding, an aim of mental health treatment. “Life,” some say, “is less about what happens and more about how you respond to it.”

Homes and people are both subjected to external forces beyond their control. A home is subjected to wind, rain, earthquake, rates rises, electrical rate rises, and burglary. A person is subject to the pressures of social situations, financial stress, mood swings, rugby results, unexpected repair bills, family pressures, and the weather. In both cases, steps can be taken to build resiliency.

With the help of Building Control, we have made our home more resilient to wind, rain, and earthquake by following the New Zealand Building Code. We have made it resilient to rising electrical rates by investing in energy efficiency and solar energy. We have made it resilient to burglary by installing a home security system, but there is not much we can do about rates rises, which, along with electricity rates, outpace wage rises.

In the process of making our home more resilient, I have also improved my mental health. Like some other people, the sources of stress in my life are worries about: increasing energy and food prices, environmental degradation, financial uncertainty, Richie McCaw’s ankle, and social inequity. Through the process of renovating and living in our old villa and planting gardens, I have been able to address my concerns about rising energy and food prices, and in the process, financial uncertainty – to a certain extent. I also feel that I am doing my part to help the environment and to help low-income families and pensioners learn about easy, low-cost / high performance energy saving strategies.

A resilient home helps cultivate a resilient mind. In other words, I am more at ease because my home can better resist rising food and energy prices, and increasing severe weather events. (The conversation in the States right now is about how ‘resilient’ New York City was, is, and will be to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy.) But I’m afraid Richie’s ankle will continue to linger on my mind.

I believe one of the great strengths of McCaw and the All Blacks is mental toughness. In sport, mental toughness is an expression of mental resilience: overcoming adversity be it injury, penalties, earlier mental mistakes, or the pressure to maintain a winning side.

Sport is often used as a metaphor for life, and now I’m putting forward the idea that making a home is also a metaphor for life. Energy wasting homes put the occupiers at the mercy of power companies while energy efficient homes help the occupiers take control.

The metaphor can be extended to the community level, as our city collectively faces many of the same worries as individuals. If each home in Wanganui saved just $10 per month on their power bill – quite easily accomplished – an additional $2 million dollars would be retained in our community each year rather than being sent to power companies in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. Additionally, warm, dry, low-energy homes have health benefits that would improve certain respiratory illnesses. And, as indicated by the positive feedback I received from the members of Balance Whanganui, I believe many residents would feel empowered by gaining a certain level of control over their power bill.

With all of this in mind, it only increases my sense of bewilderment as to why the Wanganui District Council would turn down an application to Community Contracts to bring home energy saving education to every suburb in the city. The application had the support of six community groups, but was turned down as the idea of providing easy to understand, practical advice and education to residents was not well aligned with the 10-year plan. With power bills tracking toward doubling in the next ten years, I wonder why it’s not.

Peace, Estwing

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Design is Da Bomb!

Design is one of the most powerful forces in the universe. But like any powerful force, it can be used for good or for evil. It can even be ignored, but, I would argue, at our own peril. Put another way, to fail to design is to design to fail.

Mind you, I didn’t used to think this way. I didn’t think about design or its power at all. Designers, in my mind, were stereotypes of effeminate fashionistas or flamboyant interior decorators I’d seen in movies. 

The Bird Cage. Awesome film!

All that changed the day I heard William McDonough speak at Dartmouth College (USA) about 15 years ago.

“Design is the first signal of human intention. As designers, we promote a positive vision of the future, based upon the belief that many of the environmental problems we face are, at root, design challenges.” – William McDonough

Not only was McDonough one of the best speakers I’ve ever had the pleasure to hear, but, in my opinion he is also one of the best thinkers alive today. (And he wears a bowtie!) 

If you are familiar with TED Talks, you can look up McDonough’s TED Talk on the internet and get an idea of what I mean.

Already a McDonough groupie, I was thrilled with the publication of his book, with German chemist Michael Braungart, in 2002, Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things. Cradle to Cradle emphasizes McDonough’s mantra “waste equals food,” but also makes an important distinction that serves as a quantum leap for the sustainability movement: the difference between eco-efficient and eco-effective.

Eco-efficiency, for McDonough, means doing things that are still damaging the planet’s life support system and consuming non-renewable resources, but doing so more slowly than before. He puts it rather bluntly:

“Being less bad is not being good.”

One of the reasons I admire McDonough is that he is pushing the envelope on design thinking but basing it all on the best available science and modeling his designs on how natural ecosystems function. When looking for models of eco-effectiveness we need only turn to a forest, a wetland or a coral reef. Time Magazine described his way of thinking this way:

“His utopianism is grounded in a unified philosophy that – in demonstrable and practical ways – is changing the design of the world.”

If you have been following the Eco-Thrifty Renovation column alongside this one each Saturday, you know I am a huge fan of ‘practical’ and ‘demonstrable’. In other words, I favor what works over what might theoretically work. The proof, as they say, is in the pudding, although I have absolutely no idea where the phrase came from. However, I do likes me some good pudding!

As an environmental science teacher, I used to pose the question to my students: Who has a better track record for making sustainable systems: humanity or nature? Oddly enough, I always got the same answer.

But eco-design thinking is not limited to the fields of architecture or manufacturing. Forty years ago, a pair of Australians, Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, developed an eco-design system called permaculture to address sustainable food production. Since then, permaculture design has been expanded to cover economics, finance, transportation, energy, technology, and even health and spiritual wellbeing. Personally, I’ve just completed a four-year doctoral study applying permaculture design and practice to junior secondary science as a way to engage students in authentic, relevant science learning experiences. Eco-design thinking permeates the 400-page thesis from the theoretical framework through the methodology and curriculum design and even the data analysis, interpretation, results and conclusions.

Although it is likely that only four people on Earth will ever read the thesis –  my two supervisors and two examiners – the real value of writing is the thinking that goes into it. Over the last four years I have been amazed at the extent to which eco-design thinking can be pushed in education and in research. I realize that many readers may have little interest in either, but I use this example to show the breadth and depth of the potential application of eco-design thinking.

Think about your life or your job. Are there ways that design – “the first signal of human intention” – can be applied? What are your intentions anyway? Are you fulfilling them? How can thoughtful design help you do so? The possibilities are as endless as the interrelationships of a thriving native bush ecosystem…possums not included.

Peace, Estwing