Thursday, August 30, 2012

From Homeless Shelter to Home Birth

Our little villa was in rough shape when we bought it two years ago. The roofing iron had 1,000 tiny rust holes. The hot water cylinder and electrical wiring had been stolen for the copper. And every room was full of rubbish.

As bad as all that may sound, the lounge was even worse. The windows had been smashed. The studs in the exterior wall were rotten. Someone had broken a large hole in the floor. And that same someone was sleeping in the corner.

Lounge before renovation. 

This week, at 3:30 am on Wednesday morning, my wife Dani gave birth in that very lounge.

Home birth is a test of will power, stamina and determination. Dani did an amazing job with the help of our midwives Cyd and Jemma. This particular home birth was also a test of our insulation, hot water and old-time Shacklock 501.

Lounge during renovation.  

You may or may not recall that Tuesday was sunny but cold, with a southwesterly blowing just enough to make my afternoon surf choppier than I was hoping for. Nonetheless, when I got home at 3 o’clock it was over 20 degrees inside our kitchen, and we had 240 litres of solar heated water on our roof at 85 degrees. We also had a large cheesy cauliflower and potato casserole on the solar cooker. In other words, everything was normal at the Lebo household…for the moment.

We ate our evening meal, watched a DVD and I went to bed. At 10:30 pm, Dani came in the bedroom and told me, “My water just broke.”

I said, “What do we do?”

She said, “Call the midwife.”

The midwife said, “Get the house warm.”

Although the outdoor temperature had plummeted to 6 degrees at 11 pm, it was still 18.5 inside the lounge at 19 in the kitchen. Nonetheless, stoked the Shacklock with wood and lit a match. Because of its small firebox and brick surround, it usually takes a while for the old coal range to throw enough heat to notice.

Lounge prepared for home birth.  

I kept feeding the fire as Cyd coached Dani through the early contractions. At around 2 am, Cyd called Jemma in as a back-up. When she arrived it was about 3 degrees outside, 20.5 in the kitchen and 19.1 in the lounge.

Cyd said, “This is ok for us, but when baby comes I want it 20 in here.”

No matter how I tried, I could not get the lounge – with its 4 metre ceilings – up to 20 in time. Cyd called for reinforcements in terms of an electric heater that provided the little extra warmth to welcome Verti Lebo into our lounge and into the world.

Verti Feliz Lebo.  

As much as we’ve put our blood, sweat and tears into renovating this old villa, nothing could compare to the special feeling that came over us early Wednesday morning in our little house that could. We know that generations of families have found joy and love in this villa over the last century, but for us, this house became a home.

What, what! Bubs in da house! 

Arohanui to all our friends who have supported us, and offered their well wishes. We will be celebrating the equinox in later September with a garden tour of our eco-thrifty landscape. Stay tuned for details. 

Peace, Papa Estwing

Friday, August 24, 2012

Retrospective #18: Re-Fence

Breaking News: The ECO School now has a Facebook page. Please like and friend it.

ETR for the Wanganui Chronicle, 25-08-12

As I have written in the last three columns, ecological design is holistic. It considers the relationships between elements of a system as important as the elements themselves. Ecological design is all about making connections in our minds based on the interrelationships we observe in the world around us.

In writing, one form of connection is the segue – a literary link. I’ll use the one concept included in the last three columns – multiple functions – to segue onto the last of the design principles we followed during this project: the ‘Three R’s’ reduce, reuse, and recycle.

Where ‘reduce’ is more of an umbrella concept including the reduction of material and energy waste, ‘reuse’ and ‘recycle’ are strategies we can put in place to achieve the reduction of waste and the conservation of resources. In other words, by reusing and recycling, we reduce what goes to landfill, and we reduce the amount of new materials that need to be extracted and manufactured. These are good for both the planet (eco) and the wallet (thrifty).

During the renovation we diverted over 95% of all materials from landfill, and spent a total of less than $50 on rubbish fees. On the other hand, we made over $300 recycling scrap metal, and have a big pile of untreated, unpainted ‘scrap wood’ ready for the wood burner. (See Urban Chainsaw post.)

Some framing timber and lots of sarking was too filled with borer to reuse in any other form than feeding the Shacklock. Other native hardwoods that came out of the renovation were ideal for reuse where the building code did not require that certain timber be used. One example is the former deck (aka trampoline) that became an attractive fence that serves multiple functions.

Those functions include: privacy screen; dog-excluder; wind barrier, trellis, and teaching tool. Yes, much can be learned from pulling and straightening nails as our interns John and Amy discovered. 

The most important lesson is the most abstract: mindfulness. Mindfulness 3 R style can be described as materialism, but not the Madonna kind. A materialist recognizes the value and potential of objects. This should not be confused with being materialistic, or addicted to consumerism.

I would suggest that materialists do well at the 3 Rs, and are more likely to frequent op shops, building salvage centres, and auctions. In the case of the latter two, quality products always fetch fair prices, while junky products are nearly always worthless. In other words, in appears that high quality goods are more expensive to purchase new but hold their value longer, but low quality products do not hold what little value they had to begin with.

This brings me back to the former-deck-turned-fence. Although the timber had been exposed to coastal elements for 30 years, most of the individual boards were still sound. Although we could possibly have reused them to build another deck, we preferred to build a brick patio that would serve as a heat sink for subtropical plantings such as banana, Tahitian lime and tamarillo. With the brick patio in place, the deck-turned-fence became a windbreak for the banana and Tahitian lime, both of which came through June frosts fairly well.

Before the brick patio and fence

After: Brick patio and fence on a frosty morning.

In the end, John and Amy learned some things about creative reuse, about construction and about permaculture design. We now have some attractive fences that keep dogs away from our chooks and ducks, block the wind, and allow us to run around naked in our back section. Wait a minute, did I just say that? 

Friday, August 17, 2012

Retrospective #17: Theory and Practice

The last two columns engaged in a slightly higher discussion of a number of fundamental ecological design strategies. Those strategies – called multiple functions and redundancy by permaculturists – are important to eco-thrifty design and to emergency preparedness.

These are by no means new ideas. Who was it that first said, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”?

Diversity creates robust ecosystems. It makes strong communities. And it is essential for resilient households in times of emergency and in times of energy and food inflation. Over the last decade, electricity rates have doubled, and there is little reason to suspect that they will not double again in another 10 years.

The feedback that we get consistently about the educational component of our project is that we offer practical examples of all our design principles. For instance, one mum who came along with the Wanganui Home Educators Group on one of their six site visits in June had sent this email:

“A few weeks ago, my family and I visited your house with the WHEG and learnt a lot of helpful energy-saving tips from you. Even though the visit was informal, the presentation was thorough and children of all ages (and adults) could go home with a lot of information to think about and put into practice. It was simple, yet practical and inspiring. Our own home is fairly new and so we already had many of the energy-saving things in place, but through your talk we were made aware of certain things again - our one south facing room does not get its curtains opened for very long at the moment!”

We also got this feedback from some of the children:

“When we went to the Eco House I learnt how to keep our house warm by the sun.  It was a fun visit!  Mum and I are going to buy some woolen blankets for our windows and it is really fun to cook pasta in a box!”
Bethany, aged 8

“I really enjoyed our visit to the Eco House.  I learnt that bricks keep in a lot of heat.”
Nathanael, aged 9

I got similar comments about the slide presentation on 5th of August at the Quaker Meeting House. It is nice to receive such feedback because one of the multiple functions of our eco-thrifty renovation is as an educational project. We have also worked with a number of local and regional schools on a cross-curricular unit called, The Little House That Could. (Funding was provided by Wanganui District Council, and an administrative role was played by the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.)

In the space that remains this week I’ll give one more example of the design principles mentioned above, only with a biological twist. Last week I was helping Mark Christensen transplant raspberries, and he sent me home with two dozen plants of various types: summer-bearing, autumn-bearing, and thorn-less.  

Regarding multiple functions, the photograph shows the raspberries planted in front of wind netting. For its part, the wind netting serves its primary function – breaking wind! – but is also a chook fence and partial view screen for our semi-cluttered side yard. The posts that hold up the netting also support the galvanized wire that will trellis the raspberries. And finally, the raspberries will serve their primary function – in my belly – but also screen the side yard and shade the wind netting from the sun, which will prolong its lifespan.

In terms of redundancy, I’ve planted the different varieties of raspberries in different locations around the section. After all, I don’t know the best place to plant them. Only they can tell me that.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Retrospective #16: More Multiple Functions

Last week raised the bar on the discussion of eco-thrifty renovation: ETR 2.0, if you will. That discussion included the permaculture design principles of multiple functions and redundancy. In other words, each element of a system should serve multiple functions, and each function should be fulfilled by multiple elements. Last week’s column focused on windows, and how their direction and the time of year can affect their function regarding heat loss or gain.

This week I’ll use the same design principles to talk about space heating and cooking, and how a holistic, complimentary design helped us achieve a $20 power bill during the bloody cold month of June.

If you have been following this column, you will be familiar with our antique Shacklock 501 multi-fuel stove in the classic Kiwi-green enamel. Aside from being the centerpiece of our eco-thrifty kitchen, this 300 kg piece of iron, with an additional 400 kg of brick and concrete around, it serves multiple functions in our home. The two most obvious functions are heating and cooking. By stacking these functions on cold, cloudy days we get “double” use (multiple functions) out of the wood we burn, and save electricity because we don’t need to use the electric hob or oven. The Shacklock came in especially helpful during the power failure in March when we stoked it up for the first time and cooked soup and baked bread.

But the Shacklock has another function I described briefly during one of my first columns: thermal mass. Because of the passive solar re-design of our villa – including shifting windows from south-facing to north-facing as described last week – we receive ample heat from sunlight alone on clear winter days. (This is an example of redundancy as our home can be heated by the sun or by wood.) But a critical element of passive solar design that is often overlooked is having enough thermal mass inside of the building envelope to avoid overheating.

We added thermal mass in a number of ways, but the most massive mass, the Master of Mass, is the Shacklock. The low-angle winter sun strikes the cook stove, brick surround and concrete/tile hearth at three times of day through three different windows. Some of this heat energy is ‘stored’ in the mass until the indoor temperature drops overnight, at which point it is released into the room. This is another function that the Shacklock serves when there is no fire burning within it.

As you can see, stacking functions can save resources and power, but what of redundancy? On a warm day we could cook on the electric hob, but if it is also sunny, we could use our solar cooker, even in the middle of winter. This example of redundancy exhibits an even higher level of eco-thrifty thinking (ETR 3.0?!?): complimentary systems.

In other words, whether it is sunny and cold or cloudy and cold, we can heat our home and cook our tea without electricity. If it were sunny and warm, we would probably have a BBQ or stoke up the outdoor pizza oven. If it were cloudy and warm, I would go for a surf and heat up beans and toast on the hob. They all sound like good options to me.

Aside from saving power and money, designing for multiple functions, redundancy and complimentary systems is excellent practice for emergency preparedness. We do not know when the next earthquake or big blow could knock out our services, but we can be ready for when that happens while saving power and money. See, even our multiple functions can serve multiple functions. 

Peace, Estwing

Friday, August 3, 2012

Retrospective #15: The Multiple Functions of Windows

Many of the things I’ve written about over the last three months can be described as the low-hanging fruit of saving energy at home. In other words, they represent low investment and rapid payback. Taken in isolation, each of these works, but taken together there results a synergy where the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

A home is a system of interacting elements. The greater our understanding of how the elements work together, the higher levels of energy performance our homes can achieve. For us, the consistent $20 - $30 (including line charge) power bills are the result of a holistic approach to renovation. While science and maths play a large role in eco-thrifty renovation, we did not apply any scientific or mathematical formulas when setting goals for the project. We simply wanted to take the worst house possible – a drafty old villa with 12 foot ceilings and no insulation – and see what we could achieve.

Eco-thrifty design is just one type of ecological design. Ecological design – by definition – is holistic. It treats the relationships between elements of a system as important as the elements themselves. Ecological design aims to be as robust as the natural ecosystems it mimics. When we look at native bush in New Zealand we can see that no plant or animal fills only one niche, and that no niche is filled by a single species.

In an ecological design system called permaculture, these dynamics are summarized by the principles of multiple functions and redundancy. In other words, each element of a system (plant or animal) should serve multiple functions (niches), and each function (niche) should be fulfilled by multiple elements (plants or animals).

Graphics for Holmgren's permaculture principles.

In eco-design we take the lessons we learn from nature and apply them to human environments. The term ecology comes from the Greek word oikos, meaning home. My home (and gardens) is my ecosystem. (With a major renovation, a huge landscaping job, and a PhD thesis I bloody never leave it!)

In our home, as well as yours, windows serve multiple functions: they allow the passage of light and heat; they provide views in and out; and, some can be opened for ventilation. In our home, and I hope yours, there is more than one window to allow these functions.

Here is where the science and maths come in: at this time of year the path the sun travels across the sky (science) means some windows are net energy gainers and some are net energy losers (maths). In other words, northerly windows gain more heat than they lose and southerly windows lose more heat than they gain.

Recognizing this, we “manage” our southerly windows differently than we “manage” our northerly windows. By manage I simply mean when we open and close curtains (if at all) and when we put up and take down window blankets (if at all).

Additionally, the recognition of relationships between seasonal sun angles, windows and heat flow helped us make design decisions about where to add glazing and where to remove it. One of the major aspects of our renovation – requiring consent and now requiring a qualified builder – was adding and subtracting windows and doors. Here is an example of applied eco-design thinking.

Where the kitchen was located when we bought the villa, the window over the sink faced to the southwest. At this latitude, that window was as a heat loser in winter and a heat gainer in summer. Oh boy, the worst of both worlds! Could you imagine working at the kitchen bench in January with the late afternoon sun streaming in? That kitchen would have been unbearable for cooking tea during summer.

Before: Southwest side with old kitchen window (yellow part) bringing in too much summer afternoon sun, and losing heat in winter. 

At the same time, the toilet was located in the northernmost corner with just one tiny frosted window for ventilation. And we can’t even blame this solar-illiteracy on the builders 100 years ago because the villa was moved to this location in the 1980s!

After: Southwest side with old kitchen window removed. Result: cool in summer and warm in winter. 

The eco-design solution (some might say common sense solution) was to swap the location of the kitchen and bath, and to relocate the southwest window to a northeast position. A northeast window is a heat gainer in winter and neutral in summer. In the end there was the same amount of glazing, but in a location supported by sound science and maths. 

New northeast window brings winter morning sun into the relocated kitchen. 

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Late Winter Garden Tour

The first buds on the plum trees are bursting. The garlic is up. Tagasaste is in flower. We are on our way toward springtime.

Although not long ago we had a heavy frost. Luckily, our banana and Tahitian lime are in a sun trap/ heat sink.

Our winter annuals are doing well: broccoli and broad beans.

As well as the world's smallest lemon tree. 

I recently bought 7 half-price olive trees to make an edible hedge that will screen the red iron fence. Olives do well in coastal conditions like ours. 

I also planted a pair (male and female) of kei apples, given to us by our friend Rob, who says these will also do well here.

And speaking of gifts, I was happy to see the calendula given to us by our friend Ron come into bloom. 

And the tamarillo given to us by Andy is weathering the winter in its sun trap / heat sink as well.

 This loquat - a gift from our friends Clare and Tim - is also planted in an exposed position on the property.

Here are garlic chives (thanks Rob) and society garlic from Annie.

And the borage from Lyn is just going for it!

Thanks to all our friends (including Hadi for the banana, Lindy and Murray for the tagasaste and apple trees, Phil and Bern for the garlic, and Mark for the broad beans and plum trees), and thanks to the sun for returning from its vacation up north. Welcome back!

Peace, Estwing