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

Saturday, October 20, 2012

Retrospective #24: Win a Solar Sausage Sizzle at Your School

The sun is amazing. It provides the energy for plants to grow. It provides a comfortable temperature for life on earth. It provides the energy to heat our home and to heat our water directly with its rays, and indirectly with the wood we burn in our Shacklock 501.

Rays from the sun and the energy from plants are referred to as ‘current sunlight’ energy. This term is used in contrast with ‘ancient sunlight’ energy, which refers to fossil fuels that formed from plants that lived (and got their energy from the sun) millions of years ago. Ancient sunlight energy includes oil, coal and natural gas.

Current sunlight includes our daily sunshine along with firewood, food, animal fodder, methane from anaerobic decomposition, etc. Current refers to a human time scale while ancient refers to a geological time scale. Current sunlight energy is generally considered renewable while ancient sunlight is non-renewable.

At our home in Castlecliff, on occasion, the sun also cooks our tea. I consider the solar cooker I bought in India six years ago (for about $NZ 120) one of my most valuable possessions. It traveled from India to the States with me, and from the States to here. (It was manufactured in Thailand.) By my calculations, it has nearly circumnavigated the globe.

Over the last half-decade, we have cooked nearly everything on our solar cooker: potatoes, kumara, pumpkin, rice, pasta, veges, cheese burgers, bacon, apple crumble, pizza, banana cake, sausages, and on one occasion, a leg of goat.

True story: One Sunday afternoon last October a goat leg was hung from our front door knob in a plastic shopping bag. We were out the back at the time, but we had no idea who left it. I asked our neighbours if they saw anyone drop by. One of them said, “A green van pulled up and a guy said, ‘Is this where Nelson lives?’.” That was the only clue we had until about six weeks later when a friend of a friend said to me at the Saturday market, “How’d you like the goat?”

Truth be told, it was good, even though we had never cooked goat before. Our only experience with goats before that was composting one that we found at the Castlecliff beach next to the swimming area. But that is another story. We asked around for advice on cooking goat and the best we got was “slowly.” As it turned out, four hours in a roasting pan on the solar cooker with olive oil, garlic, rosemary, spuds, onions and carrots was about perfect. Highly recommended.

Our solar cooker also serves as a valuable educational tool. While it is unrealistic to expect very many families in Wanganui to take up solar cooking, by dramatically demonstrating the power of the sun in this way, it opens up conversations about other uses of solar power like space heating, water heating, and electricity generation.

Children are especially interested in the solar cooker when it is full of sausages for them to eat. Last year I was able to visit some Wanganui schools for a Solar Sausage Sizzle with funding provided through the Sustainable Whanganui Trust’s Sustainable Schools Programme funded by the Wanganui District Council. 

This year I have a limited amount of funding to do the same, so I would like to offer a contest for two primary classrooms and one intermediate classroom. Children should draw a picture of a solar home and label the important bits. The three winning entries will receive a lunchtime sausage sizzle during term 4. Post entries to The ECO School, 10 Arawa Place, Castlecliff, 4501. Entries close 29th October.

Peace, Estwing

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

ETR Q&A: Part 3

This Q&A series originates from a list of questions I received by email from a Frenchman traveling and learning in New Zealand. Feel free to look back at previous Q&A posts if you are interested. Answers continue below.

-I haven't seen such a clever idea for a sun cooker! What is the material of the shell (mirrors? Aluminium sheets?)? Would it be possible to have a draft of the cooker?

This solar cooker is made from sheet aluminium on a galvanized steel framework. I bought it in Ladakh, India, in 2006, but I believe it was manufactured in Thailand or Vietnam. 

The internet is awash with solar cooker designs, instructions and opinions. Oh, and by the way, I do remember seeing one for sale in France called Le Grille Solair for 299 Euros. (This one cost me about 50 euros, or 100 NZD.) 

-Have you got a workshop in your house? Where did you supply all the tools you needed?

When renovating, it's best to take your tools with you. I have a number of tool boxes that I can carry to where I need them. 

The most important tool carrier is the one on my bum. I like to have a hammer, tape measure, chisel, pliers, screw drivers, nail punch, and a variety to nails and screws within reach at all times. 

Most of the tools came second hand from the local auction and pawn shops. A very few power tools I bought new because they had a 2 year warranty and I knew I would be using them a lot. Some power tools are amazingly inexpensive. I hate to say it, but they can be seen as essentially 'disposable'.

-How much did it cost for your whole renovation? What is your living area (you can include the Deck outside if ou want)?

Good question. We have not tallied everything yet. However, it is probably in the range of $30,000 NZD. This includes a top of the line new roof ($5,000), solar hot water ($4,400), insulation ($3,000), all new plumbing ($3,000), wood-fired cook stove ($2,000), and all new wiring ($2,000). Aside from the exterior French doors ($1,300), all other items were under $1,000, but they quickly add up. 

Indoor living area is 110 square metres. The deck is just 2.2 square metres, but the brick patio is about 12 square metres. 

To be continued:

-What would be your 3 main advices to renovate a house without spending too much money?
-What would be your 3 main advices for a low maintenance-productive garden (fruits trees, chicken moaner, mulch)?
-What were your main mistakes/issues during the renovation?
-How long did it take to renovate the house? (2010 to 2012?)?

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, October 13, 2012

Retrospective #23: Drawing in the Light

Last week I wrote about the north corner of our home, and its transformation from a dark toilet to light-filled breakfast nook. A large part of that transformation was installing aluminium exterior French doors featured in last week’s column and the only ‘store bought’ double-glazed window that I wrote about four weeks ago. Together, these fill our kitchen and meals nook with free light all year long, and with free heat in the winter.

I was recently asked if solar energy was a realistic option, to which I replied, “There is no reason that a new home built in Wanganui need rely on any heat source other than the sun and internal ‘waste heat.’ By waste heat, I mean the heat generated by electrical appliances inside the home such as refrigerators, computers, washers, etc. This heat usually comes from motors or fans. I do believe that some builders in Wanganui are doing just that. But I digress.

A feature of north-facing windows that I have not highlighted yet is free day lighting. There are stacks of studies showing that natural lighting improves worker productivity in factories and offices, and that it improves student performance in school and may even reduce disciplinary issues. Ah, Vitamin D!

We have drawn natural daylight deeper into our home by cutting French doors into the wall between the kitchen and lounge. While I normally provide ‘before’, ‘during’ and ‘after’ pictures, in this case the before picture is of a wall – not too exciting for the Lifestyle section of the Chron. However, from the two shots provided, you can get an idea of the transformation that the wall experienced and the resultant brightening of the previous dreary lounge. This type of work required consent when we did it, and now requires a licensed builder.

View from external French doors through a doorway cut through the wall.  

You may recall the before-during-after photos of the lounge that accompanied the article featuring the birth of our daughter, Verti, in that very lounge (Chronicle, 01-09-2012). While the curtains were closed during her birth at 3:30 am on the 29th of August with an outdoor temperature of 3 degrees Celsius, the lounge windows get excellent winter morning sun when it decides to shine. But until we cut the French doors, that was the only sunlight the lounge received all day long from May through August. By afternoon, the lounge would be dark and growing colder by the minute.

The dark lounge with only a northeast-facing window.

Now, with the French doors, the lounge is light all day long, and even receives some direct rays of later afternoon winter sun that comes in over our kitchen bench, over the Shacklock coal range, through the open French doors and all the way to the southeast corner of the lounge: a distance of 10 metres.

View from external French doors through internal French doors.  

While the doors are usually open, there are times when closing them supports our eco-thrifty mandate of low-input / high-performance. For example, when I get up on particularly chilly mornings before sunrise to hunker down with a vat of coffee and my doctoral thesis, I stuff the firebox of the Shacklock with scraps of wood leftover from the renovation, shut the French doors to the lounge, and enjoy the dry heat radiating toward the breakfast nook. Closing doors and heating only certain rooms is common practice in New Zealand, but practically unheard of in the states where ‘central heating’ and ‘central air conditioning’ are the norm. While this practice is in no way unique to eco-thrifty renovation, it is one more piece in the puzzling challenge of how to live well, save money and help the planet.

From my recollection we paid about $350 for these second-hand rimu doors on an online auction. If you are the couple in Aramoho we bought them from, wacha reckon? Have they found a good home? I can’t imagine what the cost would be of having doors like this made these days. We feel it was money well spent. 

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, October 9, 2012


Kia ora koutou,

Here is a comment that I received via email from someone who met two of my old friends and mentors in New Hampshire. 

I’ve enjoyed reading your posts at The Automatic Earth, and was surprised a few months ago when you described your former home on Ragged Mountain, as my family and I moved to New London 18 months ago.  I poked around on the internet, looking for Trollbakken, reading an article about you in the Concord Monitor, and so forth.  I mentioned you to my “peak oil” friend here, Larry Rupp, who said, “I know Nelson!”  Then yesterday I caught up on your blog and saw last month’s post about replacing the sill beam at Trollbakken and, looking at the pictures, thought “hey, that’s Rick Estes!” whom I’ve enjoyed talking with when he’s been at my house cleaning chimneys and installing a wood stove.  Not to mention my several Proctor acquaintances.  And that I attended one of Nicole Foss’ early talks when she first hit the road, at Rhinebeck, New York, back in April 2010, I think.  Just thought I’d share, to be filed in the “small world” category.
Congratulations on your baby and best of luck with your many projects.

Thanks for the kind words. We enjoy looking at Google Analytics and seeing where in the world people are reading the blog. I also recently received via email a list of questions from a fellow Frenchman. I answered some of those questions last week, and I'll continue to answer some of them today.

All photos taken this morning. Please note the picture formatting on Blogger is acting wonky today. Sorry. 

- Is your garden supply all your vegetables& fruits? 

Not at this point, because our fruit trees have have been in the ground less than 2 years, and in some cases less than one. However, we have had apples (4 last year), guavas, figs, lemons and feijoas. This year looks promising in terms of fruit set. 

We have peaches and plums forming, heaps more figs, hundreds of apple blossoms...

... as well as pear, nectarine, grapefruit, tamarillo, blueberry, and orange blossoms at the moment. 

We have already had our first strawberries, and expect continual production from now through Feburary. 

We also have raspberries fruiting, and should have grapes forming soon. 

This year we should get most of our fruit from our 700 m2 section, and next year we should get all of it. 

Regarding vegetables, I'd say we get most of them from our gardens. Although we have had trouble growing potatoes due to cylid aphid. Bear in mind that we started from pure sand, so growing large quantities of vegetables has meant building garden beds with topsoil and compost. We have been continually expanding our garden beds since we arrived less than 2 years ago, including a community garden in our front yard. 

- What is the area of your garden? 

Good question. I have not measured it, and have not intended to. My best answer is 'big enough.' 

- How do you keep the water in your garden (use mulch, thickness?)?

We use a combination of top soil (about 70 mm), compost, carbon (newspaper and cardboard), and a little hay/straw. When we sheet mulch, we use ample newspaper (free and abundant) but only enough hay to cover the headlines. This system has worked extremely well for us. Last summer we only had to water the garden once or twice. This would be unthinkable on sand. 

Peace, Estwing

More questions to be answered next week: 

-I haven't seen such a clever idea for a sun cooker! What is the material of the shell (mirrors? Aluminium sheets?)? Would it be possible to have a draft of the cooker?
-Have you got a workshop in your house? Where did you supply all the tools you needed?
-How much did it cost for your whole renovation? What is your living area (you can include the Deck outside if ou want)?
-What would be your 3 main advices to renovate a house without spending too much money?
-What would be your 3 main advices for a low maintenance-productive garden (fruits trees, chicken moaner, mulch)?
-What were your main mistakes/issues during the renovation?
-How long did it take to renovate the house? (2010 to 2012?)?

Friday, October 5, 2012

Retrospective #22: Let the Sun Shine In

A large part of eco-design is harnessing free, natural energy flows. Energy comes in many forms, but the most abundant and obvious free energy source to tap into is the sun. With the passing of the spring equinox and the return of longer days than nights, I’ll write one last time about passive solar design before putting it on hold until late next autumn. In the weeks to come I’ll write about some interior eco-thrifty renovations like our $2,500 kitchen and $2,000 bathroom.

This old villa was moved to its current location sometime in the 1980s, and was set down with the toilet in the northernmost corner. While this was not a particular selling point for us, we saw the potential for shuffling the toilet, laundry and kitchen around, and adding north-facing glazing.

North Corner: Day One

The other potential we saw was the sunny north end of the section, which is also the back of the section. While we are not advocates of roofing iron fences that are common in our neighborhood, we did want a little privacy. We also wanted easy access from the new kitchen to vegetable gardens and the outdoor pizza oven that we would place out-the-back. With some wind protection, we’ve been able to plant dozens of fruit trees, berry bushes and grape vines alongside our annual gardens. But I digress. Back to the poorly placed toilet.

Potty Training 

With little fanfare, but ample photo-documentation and much laughter (from my wife, Dani), I removed the toilet from the sunniest spot in our home. The next morning I commenced ripping a large hole in the wall. We had consent and followed the Building Code during this process, but be aware that the code has recently changed. Such work now requires a licensed builder.

 Let the Sun Shine In

We had French doors made by a local manufacturer, and installed them on the western side of the north corner. This gives us ample winter sun from 11 am onwards, and also provides views and access to our Eden-out-the-back.

While the low angle winter sun penetrates deep into the kitchen, the high angle summer sun bare enters. However, because the glass doors are northwest facing, we get a little too much late afternoon sun in the ‘shoulder seasons’ like right now and in March. This problem is easily remedied by drawing our curtains during the later hours of sunny days. While this excludes the sun from our kitchen, we remain content in the knowledge that it is still doing its job heating the water on our roof, and powering the plants and trees in our gardens.


Spring is an exciting time of year, and I love the indoor / outdoor flow provided by the French doors. If I had it to do over again I would have them made even bigger!

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, October 2, 2012


I was contacted in July by a Frenchman spending time in New Zealand about our project. He wanted to know if he could come visit and learn more about what we've done. However, a home birth prevented his visit, but I promised if he had questions that I would answer them. About two weeks ago he sent me the list of questions below.

I enjoyed a lot your blog, you have a lot of good tips for efficient renovations.
I have some questions about your house :
-Have you got any appliances (lights, washing machine, dishwasher, etc)? If yes, are you connected with the electricity city network (probably yes as I saw a bill)? 

Yes, we have all of the 'mod cons' you would find in any home except for a television and dishwasher. Our electrical appliances:
• Refrigerator *
• Freezer *
• Oven (Range)
• Wireless Modem *
• Security System *
• Washing Machine
• Lights (CFLs)
• Food Processor
• Slow Cookers (2)
• Wizzy Stick
• Ipod Dock
• Radio
• Battery Recharger
• Toaster
• Electric Kettle
• Power Tools (The usual suspects). 

Of these, the ones marked with a * run continually. Together these use under 2 kWh/day. The rest may use about 1 kWh per day depending on their usage. 

Electric range, kettle, toaster and refrigerator.

Do you produce your energy?

By 'energy' I assume you mean electricity. No, we do not. The energy we harness from the sun is in the form of heat. The sun heats our home and our water, but in the process saving us electricity. 

-Do you collect rainwater?

Yes, 1,000 litres from our roof. 

-Are you connected to the water city network? If not, what is your method to treat your grey & black water?

Yes, we have 'mains' water and sewerage, but we are not charged by the unit for them. In Wanganui, rates pay for them, and therefore there is little motivation for anyone to conserve water. We do not use much water in our home, but do water our gardens and trees when needed. 

-Have you got an idea of your annual power consumption?

Around 700 kWh. The average household power consumption in New Zealand is 7,630. In other words, we save over 90% when compared to the average home. 

Some more questions to be answered another day. 

-Is your garden supply all your vegetables& fruits? What is the area of your garden? How do you keep the water in your garden (use mulch, thickness?) ?
-I haven't seen such a clever idea for a sun cooker! What is the material of the shell (mirrors? Aluminium sheets?)? Would it be possible to have a draft of the cooker?
-Have you got a workshop in your house? Where did you supply all the tools you needed?
-How much did it cost for your whole renovation? What is your living area (you can include the Deck outside if ou want)?
-What would be your 3 main advices to renovate a house without spending too much money?
-What would be your 3 main advices for a low maintenance-productive garden (fruits trees, chicken moaner, mulch)?
-What were your main mistakes/issues during the renovation?
-How long did it take to renovate the house? (2010 to 2012?)?

Peace, Estwing