Building An Earthship In Darfield, B.C.

We are a family of five living in Darfield, BC.
Our house is six hundred square feet in total and we are feeling cramped.

We have decided to build an earthship!

So starts the adventure ...

Tuesday, April 6, 2010

Get out of here and visit our new site!

Scram!  Go to our new redesigned wordpress site with a new address!  Come quickly, this blogger site will start to come crashing down around our ears soon from neglect!

See you there!

Monday, April 5, 2010

Starting the front wall of the house ... prepping roof rafters

Yesterday Stephen and I laid out the base round of tires for the front wall.

We finally decided to get the front wall built before we start the roof.  The Earthship books recommend putting the roof on the back of the building and then starting the front wall and greenhouse roof.  We do not want to leave the roof beams exposed and weathering while we work on the front wall so we've decided to build the front wall first.  We are currently figuring out door placement and pipe (sewer and gray water) placement, but hope to be filling tires in a couple of days.  This wall should go fairly quickly as it will only take about a hundred tires ...

Besides ... its going to take a bit of work to clean up the roof rafters.  We plan on using the round logs pictured at the left for the rafters and as you can see they are fairly weathered.

An up-close shot of some weathered logs.

We have started sand blasting the logs to clean them up.  The finished look is very attractive ... it looks sand blasted!  The softer wood gets chewed up by the sand, leaving the harder rings to stand out.

We discovered that sand blasting takes a fair bit of compressed air to  be effective.  Currently we have two air compressors hooked up to the sand blaster to make it all work.  We are borrowing Gary's (Sandra's dad) small sand blaster  and it works well.  The process is slow and the sand goes everywhere, just like on the beach!

We decided to sift our own sand and this is probably the most tedious part of the process.  We are getting fine sand from just up the highway.  The sand needs to be dried and then sifted otherwise it clogs the sand blasting equipment.  Fortunately, we have an enthusiastic crew on the job.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Pouring The Concrete Bond Beam

A few days ago was the day and man am I tired!  After months of waiting through winter, we picked yesterday to pour the concrete bond beam on top of the back wall.  We have been preparing for this pour since we started work on the house again in February; screening gravel and sand, building the bond beam form and hauling in the portland cement we needed for the job.

It was an ugly morning.  Rain the night before with heavy winds, and neither the rain nor the wind had completely died down.  We started setting up not really convinced that we would actually start pouring concrete.  Nobody wanted to be the one to cancel the pour, and after a couple of rounds back and forth discussing options the decision was left to me.  Not one to be hasty I deliberated and we got started right away ... Fortunately the rain cleared up and we had sunshine with really heavy winds for most of the day.

We decided to mix our own concrete for this job rather than have it delivered from a plant in Kamloops.  I estimated that the pour would require at most 4 cubic yards of concrete and the minimum delivery is approximately 5 yards (concrete is now sold by the cubic metre which is slightly larger than a cubic yard).  So, if we had ordered concrete I would have had to have planned ahead by having additional forms ready for concrete.  Also, due to delivery charges (we are about an hour away from the closest concrete plant), the delivered concrete is that much more expensive if you order a small volume.  Given our desire to save money and our limited ability to plan ahead it seemed a no-brainer to mix our own concrete.

We have mixed lots of concrete on this project and in the past, but never this much at one time.  Our little cement mixer can mix two cubic feet of concrete.  Given that there are 27 cubic feet in a yard, we would need to mix about 60 batches of concrete for this job.  Assuming we could mix a load every ten minutes we would be looking at about ten hours of non-stop work just mixing the concrete, not to mention pouring it onto the forms and leveling.  We quickly decided we needed more manpower on this job ...

 The first workers we lined up for the job were John (aka John Deere) and  Bob.  Bob actually insists on going by BobCat ... I find this really '70's, but he packed all of the concrete from the mixer to the forms so whatever name he wants to be called is fine by me!  The cement mixer on the back of the green John Deere tractor is driven by the PTO (power take off) of the tractor, and it can handle about a sixth of a yard per batch.  So, we only had to to do about 20 batches of concrete.  The tractor was parked by the sand/gravel pile all day, and the mixer ran for most of the day spinning the mixer.  When a batch of concrete was ready it was dumped into the bucket of the bobcat and taken to the building site.  Thank you Tom, Stephanie, Robin, Jody, Mike and Linda for the loan of all of this equipment!

The bobcat is small and mobile enough that it could be taken inside the building walls.  The operator then lifted the bucket to the height of the forms and dumped the concrete out.  Unfortunately, the bobcat had just enough lift to get the bucket over the edge of the form and the bucket could not be tipped far enough so that the concrete would simply slide out.  We had to shovel the concrete from the bucket into the forms.  Still, this was much easier than building scaffolding and carting the concrete around in wheelbarrows!

After the concrete was dumped in the forms it needed to be shoveled (or vibrated) so that it flowed everywhere and eliminated any air pockets.  Finally, the concrete was leveled and smoothed so that it was consistent throughout the entire form.  We were not very concerned about smoothness as this concrete will not be exposed when the building is finished.

The last step was to insert the anchor bolts.  These bolts are spaced 4' apart and will be used to attach a wooden sill to the top of the concrete bond beam.  The rafters of the roof will ultimately be attached to this sill plate.  You want to get the bolts in fairly soon after the concrete is poured and leveled, as otherwise it becomes unworkable.  We simply put the bolts in after we finished leveling another 10' or so of the concrete in the form.

We started this job at around 9:30 in the morning and finished right around 5:00 in the evening with about a half hour for lunch.  We worked all day and our neighbors, Robin and Jody (thanks guys!), were there for about half of the day.  It was hard work but all of the equipment made the day go that much easier and painlessly (We still hurt at the end of the day!).

Some notes about the concrete ...

The concrete for our beam is specified as 3000 PSI (pounds per square inch) with reinforcement.

The reinforcement consists of two horizontal runs of 10 mm rebar with vertical rebar every other tire driven into the top three tires and extending to within the top two inches of the form.  We also used engineering fibres in our concrete mix.

Our formula for the concrete was 1 part portland cement, 2 parts sand and 3 parts gravel.  The dry ingredients were added to the mixer with sufficient water to hydrate the mixed materials (you do not want to add too much water as this will weaken the concrete).  We then added engineering fibres and allowed the batch of concrete to mix for another couple of minutes.

I figured out that one 40kg bag of dry portland cement has a volume of about 28.6 litres.  We dumped one bag of cement (very heavy!) into the mixer for each batch of concrete.  This in turn meant that we needed 143 litres of aggregate (2 parts sand; 3 parts gravel) for each batch.  We filled 7 twenty litre pails and added their contents to the mix.  Generally, I slightly under filled the aggregate buckets to ensure that I was getting a slightly higher proportion of cement in each batch.  I did this to make slightly stronger concrete.

We ended up using 22-40 kg bags of portland cement which works out to slightly less than 4 cubic yards of concrete.  So, my initial estimate was pretty close!  I am glad that day is over.

We have already started prepping the roof beams, but I suspect we will start work on the front wall first.  The front wall is required to finish the roof, and I am not keen to have the roof beams installed and weathering in the sun while we work on the front wall.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Got a solar appliance working!

We got our first solar appliance working this morning!

We managed to get this thing working last summer when we had lots of sun, but winter weather was pretty hard on it.

It was a family effort; Helen found and fastened clips, Stephen and I tensioned wire ...

Despite how busy it looks the cat did absolutely nothing (except try and climb on top of me).

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Too many seedlings!

It has officially been spring for a couple of days, but around here it has not felt like winter for weeks. It is warm, mostly sunny, and weeds are starting to appear in the garden beds.

A couple of weeks ago I decided to start some seedlings.  I had been meaning to get started for a couple of weeks but dragged my feet. Then somebody mentioned they already had seedlings in their greenhouse and that was enough to light a fire ...

That night I separated some worm compost and started a tray of 36 seedlings (12 peppers and 24 tomatoes) using exactly 32 seeds (yes, I was counting).  I placed one seed in the middle of each of the 36 seedling starter pots.  This sounds pretty anal but last year I did much the same thing, only I planted a few seeds in each tray in case some seeds did not germinate.  I figured I'd just trim back the plants I did not want and life would be good.

Unfortunately, I discovered that worms do NOT kill all of the seeds in the finished compost.  I had volunteer plants starting like crazy (much like this year) and consequently did not have a clue what was what in my seedling trays.  I ended up guessing which plants were the ones I had intended for the garden and culled the rest.  Last year I culled all of my pepper seedlings and wound up with tomato plants instead.  I am not sure why but the vast majority (possibly all?) of the seeds left in my worm compost are tomato seeds.  We do eat a lot of tomatoes, but I have seen other seeded vegetables appear on our chopping blocks occasionally.  Fortunately, I got tomatoes off of all of the tomato plants in my garden, but I wanted some peppers too!

This year will be different.  Yesterday I culled the volunteers from my first seedling tray.  I still made some guesses but in most cases it was pretty obvious (from their relative positions in the pot) which was a plant I had intentionally started, and which was a volunteer.  Again this year, the vast majority of the volunteers appear to be tomato plants.  I also think I have figured out how to distinguish pepper and tomato seedlings.  The pepper seedlings take longer to germinate and they develop a little knob below their first leaves where the tomato seedlings remain smooth.  Progress I guess!

I just started a tray of onion seedlings (last year I waited too long and our onions were uniformly small).  This time I bought sterilized compost from the store to start the seeds.  I am curious to see if it is indeed 'volunteer' seed free, and if my life will be easier.

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Diving back into the discussion...

I’ve had an incredible number of responses to my initial educational foray into dumpster diving! There have been a number of comments on this blog (thank you!) and a phenomenal number of responses on my Face Book page.

Interestingly, although perhaps coincidental, I seemed to have lost a Face Book friend about the same time as I posted about dumpster diving. (Oops!) I have just enough friends on Face Book that it is too difficult to figure out who dropped off!

I’ve tried not to wade in on the comments too much because I’ve been trying to figure out how people define this activity.

For what I thought would be viewed as an “unacceptable” activity, there certainly are a lot of people who have dumpster dived themselves, or know somebody who has. While there are some people whose initial reaction is immediately negative, it is often qualified with “acceptable” forms of diving.
Acceptability seems to be defined by what is in the receptacles, with either an outright aversion to diving for food, or at least a heavy resistance to recovering food. What I term as the “ick” factor seems to kick in here.

Acceptable diving also seems to be dependant on what people consider “dumpsters” and this ranges from the garbage can on your curb, the black garbage bag you personally deposit at your local dump, or the traditional “dumpster” we see behind retail stores in towns and cities.

Overwhelmingly people seem to be very uncomfortable with the notion of opening somebody’s black garbage bag at curbside or at the dump, and rummaging in it.

There is something intensely personal about what we deposit in our garbage bags and the sense of invasion of that privacy is paramount when we imagine somebody opening it.

Once, when I was at the McLure transfer station I noticed two young men breaking open garbage bags to look for pop and beer cans, I actually approached them to tell them that OUR bags did not contain any. After that, I even considered writing across my bags, in big black letters (my bags being white at the time) NO RETURNABLES IN THIS BAG!

I discovered that while almost everybody shies away from the idea of breaking open a curbside garbage bag, a good number of people are o.k. with picking up furniture and other assorted items left curbside. Those who profess they would never pick up garbage in this manner, seem to be more comfortable with the idea of a “sharing shed” or a “free store” where people deposit their unwanted items and take advantage of the unwanted items left by others. This confirms what I’ve known for a very long time; the power of words is mighty indeed.

There also seems to be a real difference in our view of diving in personal waste and in industrial (commercial) waste.

Industrial waste seems to be a topic unexplored by the general population and one that really accounts for the majority of the world’s waste. By this I mean the waste generated by stores and manufacturers of all kinds.

We have some friends we found in our alternative building adventures, who are ardent industrial waste divers, collecting wood, brackets, screws and the like for their own projects.

Chris and I had a bit of an education in this last year. In our search for cardboard, we cased out the back of many, many big box stores. The magnitude of waste is stunning.

What do stores throw away when they sell to us?: One-use wood pallets, cardboard, old shelving, broken products ranging from planting pots and gardening tools, broken pieces of rigid insulation, unsold and chipped bathtubs, bent pieces of PVC and scads of lumber either used in shipping, or that were obviously deemed unsaleable after being picked through. We saw pallets of building materials that had been tossed carelessly into piles with nothing seemingly wrong with any of it. And this is just what I can remember.

No discussion of dumpster diving can be complete without including industrial waste, from hardware stores, manufacturing facilities and food stores.

Surprisingly, nobody has suggested that dumpster diving may be an economic necessity for some. In a conversation with a friend whose daughter dives, he pointed out that our view of dumpster diving is often those of TV shows; the drunk rummaging around for food. When you think about it, usually the drug dependants are after money, not food. And, our social net is set up to give money (or food directly) to people in need.

My friend’s daughter says she and her boyfriend, like others who dive for items and food, are students and otherwise normal looking people of all ages who simply see the economic and environmental benefit to themselves and others.

She says she rarely sees people diving because of economic necessity. Baldly stated, her father asserts that people on welfare don’t dumpster dive because they don’t have to. (That’s a generalization on his part and not meant to fan heated discussions about the plight of the disadvantaged.)

We hear of people in tough times going to food banks and receiving financial assistance through government programs who would never consider dumpster diving, despite the fact that our social safety net doesn’t seem to be enough to meet their needs. This leads me to conclude that dumpster diving’s taboo reaches even to the desperate.

Chris and I have talked a lot about dumpster diving in the last few days. It became clear to me that dumpster diving represents the starting point for many discussions. For us, the environmental issue is huge.

Our economic system makes it more cost-effective for stores to simply throw things away than to realize their potential for sale or re-use.

Food waste is probably Chris’ biggest beef (no pun intended!) To put resources into growing a tomato in California (having potentially shipped oil from Canada to fuel the tractor), then to ship it on a one-time use pallet to Canada using more oil potentially from Canada, then to unpack it and put it on a shelf only to bundle it back up in a box, set it in a dumpster to be hauled by truck to a landfill without even the benefit of composting. The waste boggles the mind.

A discussion of dumpster diving leads to some interesting social questions, like liability, especially as it relates to food safety, but also the risk to a store of having strangers on its property unsupervised, sifting through a bin. Chris and I discussed this, but a number of others I’ve been talking to raised this issue as well.

We are a society besieged by rules, and subsequently by insurance. Rules are implemented to protect the lowest common denominator among us. If a person entered a store’s property without their permission (even if permission was tacit because the diving was not discouraged) and fell over and broke their arm, who is liable? Or ate discarded produce and became ill? Common sense tells us to take responsibility for our own actions. But modern day regulations tell us we have to protect others from their own actions, and ourselves from those actions.

In some cases liability concerns have curtailed dumpster diving with some stores keeping their bins under lock and key. This, so far, is probably the exception, not the rule, in my limited personal reconnaissance.

Where does dumpster diving fit into our economic system? No where as far as I’ve been able to see. It’s certainly taboo enough that rummaging through others’ trash for economic survival is discouraged by our western society, on both economic and social levels. Yet, we can all recall discussions by our grandparents of the lengths they went to, to support and feed families during the Depression.

Chris points out that recovering food that is unwanted has long been entrenched in the history of European farming. In some countries (even in modern times), it is acceptable, encouraged and legal to glean leftover produce at the end of harvest times straight from farmers’ fields.

Would viewing dumpster diving as modern day gleaning help make it acceptable?

In fact, how we view dumpster diving (or resource recovery, as I am now starting to think of it) is the key to how comfortable we are with the whole idea, whether we dive or not.

Perception it seems is everything.

Chris and I discovered that perception plays a big role in how we think about it. We entered this discussion knowing and embracing the notion of re-using others’ so-called waste. Our earthship home gave us the banner under which we trumpet our advocacy of re-use.

But what if we had never decided to build the earthship? What if we decided that to live simply we needed to be more resourceful and mindful of our waste and that dumpster diving was a way to do this?

Can we overcome the social expectations of our solid middle class upbringing? Our fathers are both professional engineers and all of our siblings are post secondary educated. We had monetarily successful careers in Toronto and San Francisco. We ran a highly successful business for a decade. We could afford new things and we would never have thought of buying used, let alone become industrious to get things for free. Dumpster dive? Not on your life!

And now that our perceptions of our consumer waste stream have changed? We truly do see much of the waste around us as useful, re-useable and beneficial.

I am excited about being a part of reducing waste and always look forward to ways to reduce waste and limit my impact on the earth.

But I still feel the weight of socially acceptable behaviour. How, for example, would I feel standing behind The Home Depot in Kamloops, at closing time, trying to figure out what would be useful for me? If there were others there, would I look them in the eye? Would I be afraid of seeing people I knew and being embarrassed for me and them? Would I say something to justify what I was doing? Would my environmental beliefs be enough to overcome any residual…shame?

Or what if I take up my friend’s daughter’s offer to dumpster dive with her and her boyfriend…for food? Could I do it? I’ve already sampled some delicious salsa she made from produce handed to her from the back door of a food store and only felt a twinge of apprehension about not knowing what I was eating. Why can’t I trust her as much as I trust the nameless people who grow, package and sell me food at the grocery store?

Could I stand behind a retail building and wait for the store’s waste for the day? Could I pick up a box of produce from a bin and clean off perhaps a little bit of dust and preserve or freeze it? Would I actually eat it if I preserved it? At what point would food in a bin become “ick” for me?

How is dumpster diving different from freecycle, which I enthuse about endlessly, having received free composters, fabric, canning jars and craft supplies? Or perusing the free ads on craigslist or kijiji? I’ve sometimes taken up a person’s ad on kijiji to pick plums from their tree because otherwise they would be too ripe to be any good. In what way is this different from accepting a box of almost too-ripe food from a store?

How would our friends view us? Chris and I are head coaches of our cross country ski club and we each volunteer in school and 4-H activities. Dumpster diving is the kind of activity and topic that can cause eyes to avert and can literally change how people perceive us. Would judgments be made about us that would alter our relationships for good?

What about our families? Most of our two families have been witnessing what must seem like a wacky, zigzaggy path along a very strange road and have become used to us challenging some common beliefs and traditions. But what about those who haven’t? Do I care what they think?

Our kids? They’ve been listening to the chatter and a few days ago Katie asked me outright if I was going to dumpster dive. I felt very uncomfortable admitting to her that I was considering it…in fact, that I had made up my mind to try it and write about it.

Considering that I was trained as a journalist, that I’m writing about dumpster diving, partially as an educational tool for others, and that I’m always telling the kids to keep their minds open…my reaction to her question was very telling about how far I’ve yet to travel.

So, resource recovery aka dumpster diving. I still see lots of that strange road stretching out ahead of me. If you still want to come along, buckle up and keep checking back here!

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

From Curtain to Ballgown

Hi, I’m Chris & Sandra’s friend Jan in Toronto. I’m not nearly as “green” as Chris & Sandra, but I did recently undertake an unusual recycling project – turning an old curtain into a ballgown – and Sandra has asked me to ‘guest blog’ about it.

About 10 years ago, while I was browsing in a local antique shop, a flash of turquoise (my favourite colour) caught my eye. It was an old brocade curtain. I bought it, intending to remake it into café curtains for my home office. I think I paid about $20 for it. I put it in the closet and never actually got around to making the new curtains.

But recently, I’ve started sewing again. One of my hobbies is English Country Dancing – the type of dancing you see in Jane Austen movies – and in the past few months I’ve made a couple of Regency-style gowns for fancy dress balls. I started with a “practice” gown in a Liberty print cotton, to learn the pattern and get the sizing and fitting right (since I hadn’t sewn anything from a pattern since grade 8 Home Ec.). Then I made a midnight blue taffeta version, from a remnant I bought at half price, which I wore to a ball in February.
Having thoroughly learned how this pattern works by sewing it twice, I thought I might as well continue to get my money’s worth out of it by re-using it to make more gowns in other materials. (After all, there are five Regency balls scheduled this year alone in Toronto, so I’ll have plenty of opportunity to wear the dresses.) And then I remembered that old curtain in the bottom of the closet – that turquoise & gold brocade would make a great ballgown!

The curtain had heavy pleats and interfacing along the top of it, so my first task was to rip out all the original sewing. I quickly realized that the curtain had been homemade, and as I undid the stitches, I wondered about the person who had initially sewn the curtain and what s/he would have thought of my intention to turn it into a dress.

After ripping out the stitches, I wound up with two panels, each just over 2 metres long and 43” wide. I zig-zagged the raw edges, threw the material in the washing machine, then hung it up to dry over the banister on my staircase. When it was dry, I ironed the material, pressing a central fold into both panels while examining the fabric closely for wear. One panel had a significant patch of sun-fading, so I laid out my pattern pieces carefully to avoid that area.

The brocade was too heavy and limp to make a nice puffed sleeve, so I decided to look for some crisp, sheer material for the sleeves. A trip down Queen Street West netted me the additional fabric and notions that I needed for the project. I was thrilled to find the lining material in a bargain basement for $1 a yard. I only needed a yard, but there were just 2 yards left on the roll, so I took the whole thing. For the sleeves, I found an organza that matched the colour of the brocade extremely well. This was also a bargain at $4 per metre. (I've since seen it elsewhere for $12/m). The gold braid was $1.50/m and the gold buttons were $1.50 for a card of 6. Including thread, I estimate the entire gown cost me about $35. As I recently heard a frugalista say about an evening gown she bought at a garage sale, “I paid more for my bra than the gown!”

Oh, and I think this would be the appropriate time to claim some “green” brownie points by pointing out that I did not use a car to collect my raw materials. (In fact, I don’t drive at all.) I did all my shopping on foot and by subway.

I was a bit nervous about the organza, since I’d never actually worked with a sheer material before. But, the sleeves turned out fine on the first try. And they look a bit like fairy wings!

But since the sleeves are sheer, that meant I needed to bind the raw edges so they wouldn’t show. That’s where the extra yard of lining fabric from the bargain basement came in handy – I cut it into strips to create homemade bias tape, which I used both to bind the sleeve seams and to finish the raw edges of the skirt seams.

I hand-stitched the gold braid trim to the neckline, sleeve bands, and waistband. That took FOREVER! I did the sleeve trim while watching the Oscars. I started at the beginning of the red-carpet previews and I had only just finished at midnight when Tom Hanks announced The Hurt Locker as Best Picture.

In the end, I wound up with a ballgown that I’d be happy to wear to the Oscars (if I ever get the chance to go). After all, when asked by the press on the red carpet, “Who made your dress?”, it would be great fun to be able to answer, “I made it myself – out of an old curtain!”

My next recycling project? Well, I found this length of lace that the previous owner of our house left behind and probably intended to make into a curtain. And hey – I think there’s enough to make another Regency gown out of it!

And if anyone’s interested in trying this particular pattern, it can be orderd on-line from Sense & Sensibility Patterns, for $15.95 US, plus shipping.

Cheers, Jan

Sunday, March 14, 2010

Dumpster Diving...the last frontier of frugality? Invisible eco-warriors? Low class scavengers?

Stay tuned over the next few weeks as I explore this controversial topic. What's your first reaction?  Who exactly can you find diving in dumpsters?  What's o.k. and what's not?  Are there limits on acceptable finds? Is food o.k. to dive for? Who does the system benefit? What kind of economic supply system feeds dumpster diving?  Think environmentally, financially, socially and emotionally.  Keep an open mind!

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Photo gallery of a cob home being built

Check out Gord and Ann Baird's Flickr slide show of the building of their cob home near Victoria, B.C. I was going to reference one of their insightful and thoughtful posts, but got sucked into the photos! Beautiful!

CLUCK, CLUCK...Backyard chickens in the city!

Our family has long (well for the last few years) been advocates of farm raised chickens.  The health benefits of free range eggs and chickens are matched only by the satisfaction of knowing you've contributed to feeding yourself.

I'm delighted to say that backyard chickens are legal in....Vancouver!  I see this morning that Calgary is trying to jump on wagon.  Check out this CBC story, and if you are an urban dweller currently raising chickens (or want to), please share with us!

Sunday, March 7, 2010

Humanure: An Exercise in Fecal Phobia or...Shit Happens

So why is it that we can see other animals' fecal matter as a useful and desireable product (for goodness' sake, some of us even pay $6.99 for somebody to put it in a plastic bag, plaster graphics on it-MooPoo of all things!) but the thought of packaging up our own waste and putting it to good use, turns on the "gross" factor?
Conditioning is what's done it and it's mostly societal.

A sustainable house ideally should support itself. This means the traditional flushing toilets presents some problems, primarily that our shit has to go SOMEWHERE. The first solution to this in an earthship design was a blackwater wetland and this system is still being used successfully with Earthship construction. Essentially it's a catchment area that dealt with all of the nasty stuff in a way that was kind to the environment and did not require invasive septic systems that needed to be pumped occassionally, necessitating further transport of our...crap.

Then came the popular view of composting toilets, which are now used in many many federal parks in the US. We've all heard of composting toilets...visions of chunky toilets with a large tray underneath and a little fan come to mind. And earthship builders started to install these systems...

We had originally planned to use composting toilets. It did kind of irk us, though, that our toilets had to be hooked up to the septic system with an overflow pipe. I had to think this one through for a minute and figure out who the building authority (and by extension our national building code) really thought they were protecting...Would anyone, I thought, be stupid enough to use a composting toilet to the point where it would overflow?  I mean, really, it's not like a person wouldn't have ample warning that it needed to be emptied!!!!

Regardless, this is just another of the weird rules in a world where common sense is a scarce commodity. And it's a weird world where we try to fit the natural order of things in a sustainable house into the constraints of an unsustainable building environment...I am constantly amazed, but as Dumbledore said to Harry, "We must not sink beneath our anguish, but soldier on!" Or something like that; I'm too lazy to look it up.

But I digress. Again.

So last summer the Canadian Family Robinson pulled in our yard with their 5th wheel. They had been giving themselves and their four children an amazing perspective on the world by travelling around North America for the better part of a year. If our friends and family think we are adventurous in our sustainable endeavors, Curt and Kim have embraced it without reservation. While Chris and I take time to really pick apart our decisions, Curt and Kim just seem to know when something is right.

They had retrofitted their 5th wheel with solar panels and a composting toilet...but not any kind of composting toilet; a humanure system. In a nutshell: a comfy toilet seat and lid on a wooden bench (closed in, of course) and a high tech waste receptacle below (5 gallon pail). Next to the toilet in a quite lovely wooden box, was a pile of fragrant pine shavings and a scoop. When I heard this (I never actually got a look at it last summer, but describe it here from our last visit with them), I must confess the "ick" factor kicked in when I was told how it all worked...

But I learned more. Monica and Nikki sent me some info on the Humanure Handbook (which you can read online for free here.) I used Robinson's humanure toilet when we visited them on their land near Duncan in November-they are still living in the 5th wheel while they are in the process of building a cob house. Later that same trip, we visited Ann and Gord Baird's cob home near Victoria and they have TWO of them. You know what? Nothing icky about it. Really. I got over myself.

And if you see pictures of the Baird's home, you will be stunned by how beautiful this sustainable house is. And it's all the more beautiful because of how it takes care of the waste in it.

It all makes sense. When the pail is comfortably full (but not too heavy), it gets emptied on to its own compost pile which runs at a whopping 120 degrees F. This kills anything iffy in the waste and allows it all to break down into what Chris terms "black gold". Then it can be used on gardens and in other growing areas. Hey, we're animals, it only makes sense to use our waste to our advantage. And the best part is that because a bucket does not have a pipe going in or out of it, it is not considered a plumbing fixture and does NOT have to be hooked up to the septic system. Cool. This has really given Chris and I something to think about.

So that's the poop on humanure. Check out the links and tell me what YOU think!

Sunday, February 28, 2010

Progress on the house

I have been busy this week investigating some possible work opportunities so Chris has been working a little on his own.  But this weekend saw us get a fair bit done on the house.  Most exciting, today (Sunday) we started plastering in our first pop cans (during the Canada/USA gold medal hockey game).  I drove the kids to Dad's to watch it on TV and they gave us cell phone updates as the game progressed.  Yay Canada!

But I digress.  Here we go!

The bond beam form has been is Chris bending re-bar for around the corners...

Here is what the inside of the forms looks like.  It is pretty standard...much like any foundation footing; however, this will support our roof.  We are using 2 runs of 10mm rebar.  We made our own hangers from used lumber strapping. 

As the forms were leveled gaps appeared between the wood and the tires (caused by the slight out of level of the top row of tires).  We checked the top row last weekend with the transit and there was no more than 2 inches difference from the highest to lowest tire!  Pretty good.  However, we need to fill in the gaps we have so that when we pour concrete, it doesn't simply escape out of the bottom.  When pouring a traditional footing this is pretty easy; just mash dirt up into the gap.  However, when you are 8 feet in the air and the bottom of the "form" is a round tire, this becomes more problematic. 

We debated about whether we would scab on old wood while we poured, but in the end we'd have to take it off and plaster in between the tires anyway.  So we made the decision to plaster in the gaps on the top row right now, simply to be able to pour concrete (and hopefully not have to redo the work later).

The plaster mix is essentially a cob mixture made up of clay-soil (dirt), concrete-sand and fibre (usually chopped straw).  We found and borrowed, from the library, three plaster books we'd previously read.  The Earthship volumes are not heavy on detail about the plaster so we consulted mainly with The Natural Plaster Book: earth, lime and gypsum plasters for the natural home.  It is excellent.

One of the most important things to do before using native materials in a plaster is to determine the levels of clay in it.  Clay is essential in natural plasters as it works as a binding agent.

So we followed directions on how to determine the clay content.  We filled a quart jar 1/3 full of the dirt we hoped to use as the clay-dirt.  We then filled the jar to 2/3 full by adding water.  Then we shook it.  After 3 seconds the "gravel" settled out.

Chris marked this line and set the timer for 10 minutes.  In the next 10 minutes the finer sand and silt settles.  If the water is still quite cloudy, then you have clay in your soil.  Wait even longer and you can determine how much clay.

This was taken after about 20 minutes.  After the clay settled, we figured we had just under 25 percent.  This is quite high so when we mix our plaster we will keep this in mind (especially for the finish coats where we will be avoiding cracks).

Most plasters call for chopped straw for the fibre content.  The book we read mentioned sheep's wool as a good alternative!  We still had two bags of wool left over from last year's 4-H shearing day. I read up on how to wash wool to get out all the lanolin. 

Here are a few pictures of the wool during washing last night.

The house smelled a bit like the barn for a while!

Here we are pulling apart wool into strands so that it will evenly distribute through the plaster. Some of us are happier than others...

Today while the kids were watching the hockey game, Chris and I pulled a wheelbarrow each of clay-dirt and sand to the house next to the cement mixer.  We added equal shovelfuls of both.

After we added enough water to make the mixture "soupy", we added about half a grocery bag of wool.  This was a bit of an experiment as the directions gave amounts for straw, but not for wool. 

After the wool is mixed in, the mixture was quite thick. Here's the first handful thrown into the space between tires and underneath the bond beam form.

And after the first can is mashed in...hey!  it looks just like it does in the Garbage Warrior!!!!

Here's a few in a row...

This is only the first step.  We need to let this layer dry, then wet the outside and do another layer with two more mashed pop cans.  We will do these two steps for the top round of tires so we can pour cement, but eventually all of the tires have to be done.  There are 762 tires in the building so far so that's a lot of plastering.  Thankfully, it does go very quickly....

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Being a radical environmentalist may be the most boring job in the world!

Chris, who is much more well-read than I, mentioned this morning during an interview with North of 50 Magazine, that being an environmentalist, may well be the most boring job in the world.  Apparently, the new movement, is to do nothing at all.  By this I mean that some people have opted not to participate in a money society. 

It reminded me of a story I JUST read in Permaculture Magazine out of the U.K. about Mark Boyle, who did just that.  Here's a link to his story...

Chris and I have been quiet on the blog front recently. Last weekend we attended the Olympics and the kids hope to blog about our trip.  In the meantime Chris and I have been talking a lot about the house schedule, future income generation and how we want to "spend" our "free" time.  Lots to chew over, but not ready to share yet!   :)

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Eating out of the freezer/pantry...continued.

After a month of eating out of the pantry/freezer we have finally started to see a noticeable difference in our stores…
Our chest freezer was full a month ago and is now about half empty. I went through it fairly methodically a few days ago to see what I had left:

1) 7 of our home grown chickens, various sizes (we started with 22 last May.

2) 15 packages of whole wheat English muffins (I buy these for $1 a pack at the Superstore, which puts them on sale every month or so). They are delicious in the morning with a poached fresh egg from our chickens. Very filling and packed with protein.

3) 3-4 pounds of carmelized tomatoes. I bought $40 in local Roma tomatoes last fall after a friend (D’Arcy Feller) showed me and a few other 4-H moms this really great recipe one evening when a 4-H meeting was held at his house. I don’t think I ever posted about it…I will have to do that. These tomatoes are scrumptious on fresh bread, sandwiches, etc. However, I still have a lot left!

4) 2 lbs of sundried tomatoes from our garden.

5) 6-10 package of beef stew meat.

6) 4 pork shoulder roasts

7) 2-3 packages of beef ribs

8) 2-3 pounds of frozen beans

9) 10 pounds of frozen pumpkin (Chris has faithfully frozen all pumpkins we’ve been given, but we never seem to use it; I need to find a pumpkin soup recipe)

10) 2 cans of orange juice

11) 3 chuck roasts

12) A family size serving of prepared stew.

13) 8-10 single servings of various leftovers, including macaroni beef, 18 bean soup (overflow from the inside freezer).

14) 7-8 pounds of frozen corn, bought locally from our friends, the Kempters, last fall.  Yum.  We will definitely use this up before next harvest!

I have been going through and using up pantry items as well, including flours, pastas and beans and various spices.  In or canning shelves we are still making good use of homemade jam, applesauce, sweet pickles, salsa and apple juice.

I’m estimating that in the last month we’ve spent about $200 in groceries, mostly on fresh vegetables
and fruit.

I’m now looking for inspiration to effectively use up those items that remain in the freezer or pantry. We are not a roast family so I’ve been looking for ingenious ways to use up the meat. I’ve been cutting up the roast pork and making several meals worth of souvlaki (then making pork stock from bones; wonton soup is in my future!) We’ve been using the chuck roasts for stir fries but it’s a bit tough and Chris suggested we turn it into hamburger, which is a good idea. We eat approximately two chickens per month and each chicken gives us at least two main meals, plus several days of chicken soup.

I’m looking for a way to use the stew meat (not traditional stew, I’m getting sick of it). I’d also love a great way to use up the pumpkin, either in soup or in bread or muffins.

Why are we doing this? Well, firstly it’s incredibly satisfying to apply our frugal and environmentally aware principals to our dining table. I read a study once that showed that 20 percent of most household grocery purchases were wasted (veggies going rotten in the fridge, out of date food, etc.). I suspect it's a rare person indeed who never throws food out, regardless of whether they have a stocked pantry or freezer...
Our second reason is financial…we are trying to live frugally and mindfully and it feels very responsible to spend time making the most of what we have.

Doing this takes time and effort, something that most people feel they don’t have. I know when we were running the business full tilt there was NO way I would have been able to think about our food and how we make the most of it…

Even if you are busy, I would encourage you to look through your food storage areas and pick two items that have been there a while. Maybe a cut of meat or a type of pasta, or even frozen vegetables or fruit, that with a small amount of effort, could save you money and help make the best use of your food resources. You’d be surprised at how satisfying it is.

In the meantime, please pass along any suggestions for meals!

Friday, February 12, 2010

DIY (or with a friend) hair colour

On Wednesday I headed over to Jody Schilling' house, a fellow frugalista who didn’t look too frightened when I asked her to paint my hair!

I arrived at 12:30 and our goal was to finish in two hours.

Here’s all the stuff I bought to bring back my aged locks to their former beauty.

1) Three plastic bowls and brushes (for the three colours I chose)
2) Developer #20
3) Three tubes of colour; Ion crème #7N,. 9N and 12N
4) A measuring cup
5) A bit of oil to prep the hair and colour
6) Foil squares (which we cut in half; they were pretty big)
7) My hair clips and hair cutting comb.
8) Rubber gloves

The directions on the colour indicated a time for each to be left on, with the lightest colour taking the longest. A logistical nightmare, actually. Anything I had heard or read about indicated that the developer that is added to the colour eventually “times” out, without having to worry about over colouring (or bleaching, since one of the colours I chose was a very light blond, for streaks). I decided not to worry too much about it. It would all come out in the wash…literally.

Jody and I have been going to the same hair salon for years now (Jody also colours her hair) so the method we were used to, was familiar to both of us.

Or so we thought. We divided my hair into three sections (two sides and the back) and Jody started by picking up about ¼” strip of my hair and weaving the comb through it, essentially leaving half behind. Once she had half in her hand we were a little perplexed as we realized we never paid attention to what Crysti did with the leftover. We knew some never made it into the foils.

Jody painted the hank of hair she had with the first colour (dark blonde) after setting the folded foil square snugly under the hank of hair and as close to the roots as possible. Jody isn’t the cursing kind, but very quickly she started to get frustrated as the foil kept slipping down as she painted. As this was an experiment and I didn’t want my new hair colorist to get frustrated, I assured her that she should just do the best she could.

After getting the foil back in place and flipping it upward out of the way, we decided that the hair that had been left behind when she weaved, should be flipped up out of the way, too. Then a clip attached so she could move on.

After an hour about a third of my head was done. Obviously practice is the key to speed! I wasn’t worried at all, still delighted that I had talked somebody into doing this for me!

Believe it or not trying to find a woman who would willingly risk another’s tresses is very difficult! There’s something sacrosanct about women’s hair…and yet, our hair stylists are just us with a lot of practice and education. The education part I wasn’t worried about…I figured I’d done my research. But the only way to get practice is to do it for the first time, once. After that, it’s all practice!

And, my hair has become awfully long and I figured if my research failed me then I’d go back to short hair again, separating myself emotionally from three years of growing it out…

Jody and I talked about the kids' school, her school (she’s finishing up an add-on year of her teaching degree to improve her salary over the long term). We yakked about family, neighbours (yakked, not gossiped!), the weird, warm winter we’re having. In the middle of my hair session Karen, Jody’s mother-in-law dropped by, as did Florence Beharrel, one of our neighbours who was out campaigning for the Heart and Stroke Foundation. Florence is in her early 80s and until last March was our little community’s post mistress. Her husband, Howard, died a few months ago at the grand old age of 91.

So after three hours, we were done! I decided to let the last application have its 25 minutes to develop and sat and entertained Jody’s oldest two sons who did double takes when they arrived inside from getting off the bus. I guess the boys don’t often go with Jody to the hair salon…

When we started pulling off foils to shampoo out the gunk, the stench was unbelievable! It started to make my eyes water. It was weird because the whole time Jody was applying the colour, there was no smell at all!  I had been hoping the chemical impact of this experiment was going to be minimal...

I combed out my hair and it looked great, even wet. I think Jody is a bit of a perfectionist, because she immediately noticed a small (and I mean, small) patch of grey right at my part line that she’d missed. She said I should probably fix it at some point, but I think I’m going to keep it. Sort of like when a historical building is renovated, the city sometimes puts a fancy chain around some of the old crumbling bits so that people can be reminded of what it used to look like…

I dried my hair at home to let Jody get on with her dinner and when I dried it… looked FABULOUS! It was amazing. I can’t express how pleased I am with it. Jody is the bomb.

The light on this picture is a bit actually doesn't look patchy...

Chris and I met her later that same night for a meeting and we admired the job she did. I confess I was so pleased I tried to convince her to try cutting my hair, too.

But she wasn’t having any of THAT. Yet.

So after months of pondering the question of whether a person can produce salon results in their own home I am pleased to say without reservation that it can be done!

Total cost of materials and colour: $60. The tubes of colour were about $7 and I still have two tubes that are half filled (the highlight colours). Each colouring job should cost me about $14 now that I have the equipment. It used to cost about $85 each time.
Now I need suggestions for my next DIY challenge…

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Bond Beam Continued

We are making excellent progress on the bond beam.  Despite the constant rain today Chris and I placed all the log for a entire U. We are now into the fourth of five total.  With the cancellaton of ski lessons tomorrow (wow, the rain sure does a number on the trails!) we hope to have another U completed.  The weather has stayed above zero degrees Celsius for the last 4 or 5 days and will continue to do so until Tuesday when the overnight temperatures drop below. For us, it means we have until then to finish excavating the tires without potential freeze ups again.  We thought about digging all of them at once, but until the forms are placed, it's kind of like shooting in the dark.

Things we've learned:  The handy protractor tool that we own is actually idiot-proof.  As long as the idiots learn to use it.  It's set up so you don't have to think; unfortunately Chris and I think too much.  We were using the tool and dredging up our grade 11 math while looking at the degrees we'd already cut and subtracting from 90 and 45 and trying to remember what the angles of geometric shapes add up to. I was well in Pythagorean theorem before we realized that the tool does the thinking (and no, we are not tools!).   Chris finally wrested the protractor from me and decided how we should really be using it and since then our angles have been error-free.

Here is what the bond beam form looks like to date...just a few more pieces and we will be ready to tinker with rebar and spacers...if the weather stays warm, we should pour the cement before March!

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Fellow Earthshippers

Check out this link about a couple in Ontario who are also building an earthship.  They obtained their building permit in September 2009.  Their photos are under "Breaking Ground".

Coming Soon: New Blog and Webstore!

Chris and I have been working together with a friend to redesign the look of our blog and add a webstore!  The new site will have a brand new address and a bright, fresh look.  We'll keep this address so that when we go to the new one in a few weeks (?) we can redirect from here.

The webstore will initially feature stainless steel tifiin carriers and composting worms.  With a bit of organization I may be selling homemade tiffin carrier bags and other useful fabric products in the short-term. In the long-term we will add other products that support an environmentally aware lifestyle.

Saturday, January 30, 2010

DIY Hair Colouring

Last Tuesday when I was in Kamloops I stopped by Sally Beauty and picked up everything I need to colour my own hair. I've been talking about doing this for some time, especially since my DIY eye brow waxing has been so successful.
I stopped at Chatters first (it was closer to one of my other errands) but they don't sell hair colouring products, presumeably because there is a salon attached to the store...
The lady at Sally Beauty spent quite a bit of time with me explaining what I needed and how the process worked. I chose the two colours that were closest to what my hair colour is now, which actually mimics the colour of my hair BEFORE the grey set in. We were getting confused about the highlight colour (a blonde) because the saleslady kept talking about it being a two part process and I don't think Crystie (the lady who, before now, has been doing my hair) has ever messed around with the blonde colour any differently. I'm goning to read the packages I've got and perhaps get the blonde colour next time I'm in.
I've enlisted a friend to help me (it's that or get Chris to do it!) and although I think she is worried about wrecking my hair, I'm pretty optimistic it will go well. And, in the end, it's just hair!

To get all the equipment, foils, and the two colours, cost me $51 taxes in. I figure there's 4-5 applications in the tubes, so as long as I don't have to creep back to Crystie for repair work, it should be a great savings.

Friday, January 29, 2010

Re: Udated Expenses

Whoops!  I wasn't thinking.  The next expense is the concrete for the bond beam.  We will either pour it ourselves (4-5 cubic yards) or have a truck come. 

If we pour it ourselves, then we have the cost of the portland cement (about $13 per bag).  Presumeably if we pour ourselves then we feel we have enough clean gravel/sand on site to do so (and enough friends with cement mixers!)  Each yard of cement takes about 6 bags of portland cement.  So we would need roughly 30 bags at $13 for $390.  The question is whether we have good soil on site in sufficient quantity to undertake the pour.

If we decide to bring a truck in we have figured out that it would cost us in the neighbourhood of $800+. AND if we brought a truck in, could we unload cement on the far side of the building (the slope of the back wall is such that a truck would  have to park way below the level of the bond beam). We would have to factor in gravity, or lack of it, in this case).  Another factor in a decision to bring in a truck is to build the forms for the post pads in the house. Any extra concrete we've paid for needs a home...

Our next step in making this decision is to grab a pail of gravel from the best part of the pit and give it a wash to see what kind of organic material is in it.

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Updated Expenses

I've had a few requests to update our expenses.  No update, because we haven't paid out any money since the Fall.  Granted, we haven't really worked on the house until just recently, but I'm not anticipating any expenses until we get to the roof tin/rollon/living roof, etc. 

We hope to take the very worst of our low grade lumber (which is a VERY hard sell) and try to recover 2x6 from it for the decking. If we can't then that will be our next expense, as we will have to buy the rough material.  We are using old and recycled materials for the time being, and leftover materials from projects at our previous property...

Isn't that great?

Bond Beam started! Grade 11 math required!

Over the last several days, Chris and I have been working on the bond beam. The bond beam needs to be continuous (without joins) along the top of the tire walls. All the weight of the roof will be resting on the bond beam.

Traditionally, earthship bond beams are constructed by making an 8” high wall of mortar and pop cans on each side of the tires (with 8” of space in between for the concrete bond beam). The inside of every second tire will be scooped out (about a gallon’s worth) and the bond beam will fill these holes, securing the tires to the bond beam. The bond beam also serves to fix all the interior walls in place in readiness for the roof beams.

That’s the theory.

We have enough pop cans to do the bond beam in this manner but it would leave us without many to continue on with building planter walls and interior walls ( which use the same method as the side forms of the bond beam).

We have wood. In fact, we have a lot of off-grade machined house logs that we have decided to use. The logs are mostly off grade because of skip on the round face, some wane (missing wood) and too many pin holes to have made the premium house grade of logs we used to sell.

Here’s a photo of the first few pieces in place on the ousdie wall of the kids’ room.

Once we needed to turn the corner, we had to measure the angle.  We have this handy protractor tool for the job!

After measuring, we took the log up to the truss saw (cuts angles).  Here's Chris setting the angle...

We took the log back to the building site only to discover our grade 11 math had failed us! We figured it out right away and redid the piece.

First we check the angle on a test piece before cutting our log.

Here's Chris putting the angle cut on our bond beam "form".

Screwing it to the adjoining piece...

Here's what it looks like so far.  Now we have to excavate every second tire...which is difficult now that it is cold again.  We tried.  I think we will install the outside log and pin them together and wait for some above zero weather to excavate the tires.  Worse case scenario if it stays too cold?  Start working on the 12" round log beams.  They will look beautiful throughout the house!