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Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Shade Cloth: The Agony and the Ecstasy

Yup.  It’s pretty much ugly.  First its ugly in comparison to the surprisingly beautiful Humanure Hacienda.  And far uglier than our recently finished porches, now graced with limestone walls and cedar wrapped posts.
But its ugly even in its own right.  What chance did it have, there in front of our land-connecting bank of south-facing windows.  Today I feel like I’m looking out of a heavily lidded eye, as if I’m sleepy.  But the time---the time I’d imagined ever since I looked at my first passive solar home picture---had arrived:  shade cloth time.
Its shade cloth time when the sun is low enough to slip beneath the overhang and through our south bank of windows, yet high enough to overheat the house.  And that time is August.  From late May until mid-July the sun painted only the thinnest stripe beneath the inside of the windows.  Then it began creeping and now suddenly leaping as it madly brushes its hot rays upon our window seat.  By the weekend it will spill onto the concrete slab floor.   A passive solar heated house in August:  yikes!
I purchased the shade cloth online two weeks ago.  And yesterday it joined the ranks of our passive cooling package under Principle 1: keep outside heat out (via reflection).   Comparing today’s 11:45 picture with yesterday’s,  I was happy to see it working.  The window seat is still painted, but not nearly such a hot swath of yellow, more the dappled light under a lone oak. 
As is so often the case here at Home the Land Built, I had no idea how to actually hang the shade cloth.  Einstein is often credited with saying, “the best design is the simplest design that works”.  Even if he didn’t say it, I still like it.  I hate overdesign.  I prefer to start simple and add as needed. 
So I started out securing the (apparently strong) cloth to the gutter supports with wire.  Nothing else.  That seemed to work until the breeze picked up this morning, flinging the cloth up and onto the roof.  “Weights,” I thought.  It needs weight.  Addicted to resourcefulness as I am, I hung giant steel washers along the bottom of the cloth with fish line.  They actually looked kind of cool dangling there.  But then a sudden southerly flung the cloth, washers and all, up onto the roof.  Cool would have to wait.  “Work” comes first.
I stapled the fishing line to the outside window trim and so far so good.  I’m afraid to see what the big prairie breeze will do to it.  For now, its keeping outside heat outside.
But as I sit in the living room---looking out through my heavily lidded eye at the ocean of sky---I long for a little more beauty.  Perhaps some origami hummingbirds hovering just outside the windows.  I don’t know.  If you have any ideas, send them my way.  Or better yet, stop down, and together we’ll put some striking makeup on this naked eyelid.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Humanure Hacienda

And then there were three: structures, that is, at Home the Land Built.  
August 2010:  the shed.
March 2012:  the house.
July 2012: the hacienda.
I suppose, in the end, it’s just a compost bin.  But to me, today--- the day I finally finished the hacienda---it feels like so much more.  
Perhaps it’s the anticipation.  We’ve known we had to have one (I mean who doesn’t) long before we built the shed.  It is, after all, essential to our closed-loop composting toilet system; the vital, seemingly magic link between buckets of sawdust-covered pooh and buckets of garden strawberries. 
Perhaps it’s the sense of relief.   I might be able to dump two more buckets onto the current compost heap.   Then again, the rickety old bin just might fall over.   But I promised Linda I’d wait until she returned from Minneapolis before dumping the first ceremonial bucket into the hacienda.  So wish me well as I dump the last buckets into the old bin tomorrow.
Perhaps it’s the hacienda’s expected utility:  three bins, two for composting separated by the roofed cover material bin.   We’ll start the left compost bin this weekend, then switch to the right bin next summer.  Finally, in the summer of 2014, before switching back, we’ll open the left bin gate and discover what the miracle of composting has done, for us and for the Land.  As much I like hauling buckets, I’m quite content to let time do all the work, rather than turning that pile-of-me with a pitchfork.  Hmmm.
But actually, most of my thrill (if you would believe it) arises from the hacienda’s unexpected beauty.  I pretty much just followed the instructions in Joe Jenkins gospel.    Yet it seemed in the spirit of composting to construct the hacienda out of what I already had.  Who’d have thought you could combine barnboard verticals, old pallet rafters and red elm panel shingles---all reused!---into one design and have it look so…so elegant.   I deviated from Jenkin’s gable roof design, preferring to mirror our shed’s lean to (not to mention how bad a gable could look in my gorilla-like hands).  I also eliminated his rain barrel for bucket rinsing.  I’m already collecting rain water off the shed roof, just fifty feet away. 
I wouldn’t be surprised if the whole composting toilet system---the cherry toilet and sawdust bin, the elegant hacienda, the utter elimination of the dreaded plunger---became all the rage, not because they make so much sense, but because they’re so architecturally stunning. 

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Day in My Life at Home the Land Built

“What do you do all day?”  my friend Doug asked.
I stumbled a bit.  “Um….chores…eat good food….”.    What the heck do I do, I wondered.  So on Monday Jul 16, I actually documented my doings. 
Arise.  Check  house air temp 74F.  Close porch windows.  Turn off fan in yoga loft window.
Breakfast:   Granola and blueberries while re-reading Guns, Germs & Steel.
Clean cat litter.  Check solar battery capacity:  79%.   Not bad since we’re running 3 fans, 2 freezers and 2 fridges all night.
Do dishes
Tea on west porch.  Identify birds:  Robin, Cedar Waxwing, Bluebird, Orchard Oriole, Song Sparrow, Red-Winged Blackbird, Tree Swallow, Downy Woodpecker, House Sparrow, Chipping Sparrow, Goldfinch, Crow, Vulture, Goldfinch, Wren, Catbird, Barn Swallow
Call Dustin to deliver water.  (5400 gallon cistern dangerously low.  Rain harvest still not working!!!)
Put 1 gallon jug on east porch for sun tea
Sweep beetles off floor  (every day we get a few dozen more of these little brown jobs)
Dustin fills cistern from his milk truck with water from Plainview fire hydrant.
Empty two composting toilet buckets into compost heap.  Clean.  Dry and sterilize in sun.
2nd Breakfast:   bread and honey over Guns, Germs & Steel.
Fix string in yoga loft gong, a present from friends Doug and Monica.
Sun tea brown and warm.  Put tea bags into another jug to make more of sun tea.
Call RainHarvest company to try and solve rain harvest problem.  The Clean Rain Advance is supposed to divert the first 50 gallons away from the cistern (the dirtiest water).  Problem is all the water coming down the gutter is diverted away from the cistern. 
Research Shade Cloth.  Right now the 2’ overhang keeps the sun from beaming through the south bank of windows.  In a month it will coming burning through.   Considering hanging shade cloth off the gutter.
Luncheon:  Fried egg, toast, tomato, garlic-aioli from Trout Caviar
Do dishes.  Check solar battery:  100%.   Wow!  Now the solar array is just loafing out there in the sun.
Ordered Shade Cloth.  70% sun block.  Enough to hang down 2’.
Scoop 3” of sawdust into composting toilet buckets.  Return to garage.  Check solar hot water tank.  150F.  Solar collector 283F.  House Air  80F.    Outside 95F.
Begin assignments for week two of Self Publishing Class through Loft Literary Center.  Wow!  Anybody can publish a book online or Print On Demand.  Discovered that volunteers, Linda and my friend Heather, are not my Proofreaders.  They are my Copyeditors.  Who knew?
Afternoon tea:  Bread.  Almond butter.  Honey.
Downloaded Gregg Reference Manual as “gift” for my Copyeditor.  Linda actually seemed excited.
Replaced full composting toilet bucket with empty bucket.
Began formatting my novel for Print On Demand using Amazon's CreateSpace.  Feeling like this thing might actually get done after 8 years.
Happy hour with Linda.  Mojito and chips on east porch.
Supper:  Linda made fennel slaw while I grilled corn on the cob and hot Italian sausage.
Kick back in recliner with good book:  Attracting Native Pollinators.
Open windows.  Start fan in yoga loft window.  Off to bed.

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Wild Parsnip: Scene II

[they fight until Arthur cuts off Black Knight's left arm]
King Arthur: Now, stand aside, worthy adversary!
Black Knight: 'Tis but a scratch!
King Arthur: A scratch? Your arm's off!
Black Knight: No, it isn't!
King Arthur: Well, what's that then?
Black Knight: I've had worse.
King Arthur: You liar!
Black Knight: Come on, you pansy!
[they fight again. Arthur cuts off the Black Knight's right arm]
If I’m Monte Python’s frustrated King Arthur then Wild Parsnip is my Black Knight.  My right hand swings its machete.  A left branch falls.  Now the left hand machete.  A right branch falls.  Whack!  Whack!  Whack!  I hack the stem into pieces.  Only a glistening stub remains.  Yet I know he’ll be back.  At least one seed---out of the hundreds now lying at my feet---will ripen, germinate and sprout.  And after loitering as a mere basal rosette for a year, he’ll rise and flower again in the second.  Then, oh worthy adversary, we’ll have at it again.   
If you’re wondering why I bother to march up and down our 40 acre prairie swinging two machetes in 90 degree heat, check out last July’s blog.  If nothing else you’ll learn what phytophotodermatitis is and why you should care!
Last July, after finally defeating the gnats, I conceded the vast southerly swath of prairie to Wild Parsnip.  I feared a fierce onslaught:  revenge of the Wild Parsnip.  Not so!
We are winning!   Our birth control strategy---cut it down after it flowers and before setting seed---is slowly but surely pushing Wild Parsnip into the prairie background.    On the prairie, Linda didn’t even need to bring out her big guns:  the John Deere 2510 wielding a 6 foot MX6 rotary mower.  I did it all my machetes.  But there’s a secret to our success!
Now that we’re living here I get out more often.  This morning---hacking back and forth through a formerly dense 1 acre patch---I completed my seventh outing.  I’ve come to observe that short-lived, heavy seeding plants, like Wild Parsnip, do NOT ripen all at once.  They assaulted us in two ripening waves this year, one in mid-June, the other in early July.   Had I waited until now to begin, the June assault would have succeeded, unleashing thousands upon thousands of seeds. 
All this is to say that one of our experiments actually seems to be working.  When so much of Home the Land Built rests upon very little that is tried and true---sawdust toilet, masonry heater, off-grid electric, rainwater harvest, solar hot water, passive cooling----it’s a relief to put a mark in the win column.    But I’m afraid it’s just that:  a single score in a long, long game.
“Come on you pansy!”

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Home the Land Built: Week 16

Dabbing my sweaty brow with my Bedouin scarf gnat shield---careful not to spill my precious, freshly picked raspberries---I pause as I reach the ridgetop.  Nope!  Not a breeze, not even here on the usually windswept spine of the prairie.  In this heat, I wish I could feel as happy and energetic as this big bluestem, how he thrusts his stem skyward!  If only I too were a warm season C4 plant---like the corn beyond the hedgerow and so many grasses here on the prairie---all day yelling “bring it on” to the sun, then all night laughing and partying as I do my grow dance.  No, I’m a good Minnesotan:  a cool season C3.  No problem with winter.  I wither and shrink in the heat.    
So as I gaze down at Home the Land Built I wonder how hot it is already in there.  Throughout our two year Home the Land Built design, we kept saying to Locus Architect Paul, “We got solar alright.  And we got winter covered; throw another log on the fire.  But how will we ever keep cool?”  That may have been our biggest fear and was certainly mine now as I entered the west porch and opened the door.
Ah-ah-ah-ah-ah.   That feels so good.   Not yet trusting my own body, I stroll down the corridor to the wall thermostat.  80F!  How could 80F feel so good?  Partly it’s my bare feet upon the floor, our 5” thick concrete slab, which according the thermostat, is 77F.   But mostly I’ve come to realize that there’s nothing magic about 72F.  In fact, what is magic is feeling some variation.  Unlike the unreal sameness of 72F, the variation in temperature connects me to the Land.    Not too much mind you.  I’m not looking for miserable.  But anywhere from 60F to 80F is just fine.  Wool socks and a sweater at 60F, a low-speed fan and iced tea at 80F. 
Always needing more data, I click on and shout, “Its’ 96F!  Thank you Architect Paul.”  I imagined being back at 4140, dreading going to bed and sweating atop the sheets.  So how did we do it?  How does Home the Land Built stay so cool when it nears 100 during the day and barely drops below 80 at night?  Off-grid.  No air conditioning.  Not a single shade tree (it’s actually 115F, yikes!).  I’m no HVAC expert, but I’ve broken our success down into my 3 Principles of Passive Cooling and tell you how we do it.
3 Principles of Passive Cooling
1.       Keep outside heat outside.
Insulation.  Ceiling:  R60 blown insulation.  Walls:  R40.  Two stud walls (most homes claim higher than actual wall R-value because 10% of wall is actually un-insulated studs).  Sandwiched between the two walls are polystyrene blocks (a million McDonald’s cups worth) sprayed with foam sealer.  Windows:  R5 fiberglass from Serious. 
Reflection.  Steel roof.  Low solar gain windows on east and west.  2’ roof overhang shades the big bank of south-facing windows in summer. 

2.       Eliminate inside heat.
Electrical efficiency.  This is huge.  What I used to refer to as “inefficient”  I should actually have called “heat I don’t want but pay for anyway”.   Our old 4140 fridge got caught in a vicious cycle.  The more the kitchen heated up, the more the fridge ran, heating the kitchen all the more until the fridge became a space heater.    Literally.  According to my calculation our old fridge was like running a 1000 watt space for 2 hours a day.  By comparison, our new kitchen’s Sunfrost R10 fridge is that same heater for 5 minutes a day.   And that’s just the fridge.  On average, 4140 consumed 1000 watts per hour, much of it converted to heat due to inefficiency.  Now we’re at 150 watts with very little converted to heat. The only way to afford off-grid is super high-efficiency everything.  LED lights.  Freezer and backup fridge in much cooler cellar.  “Don’t put a heater in our kitchen!” we told Paul.  So now I love the sound of our Sunfrost fridge whirring atop the kitchen counter.  The sound of coolness.

Less gas heat.  On hot sunny days, we get all our hot water from the sun.  Want a hot bath?  Come on over!  So our LP backup water heater never runs.  We try to use the LP stove less.  Its hard because Linda loves to cook and I love to eat (especially her cooking).  We grill more, of course.  Just made the best beets ever:  apple-smoked.   Featured in a recipe from Trout Caviar----Roasted Beet Salad with Aioli and Walnuts---they stole the show at a picnic.  Sun tea is always refreshing.  And, speaking of solar cooking, today I fired up the solar oven, a Solar Oven Society gift from my dear friend Randy.   I’m doing my usual uninspired trick: put all remaining CSA veggies in one pot and cook ‘em. 

3.        Invite cold in.
Ventilation.   Okay, this is where, in many homes, AC shines.  Not off-grid.  At night, if it ever finally cools down outside, we open the windows.  Standing in the stairway, I love to feel the warm air rising past me on its way out the yoga loft window.  With windows closed during most of these hot days, we rely on our simple ventilation system for fresh air.  Every day of the year, 20 minutes out of every hour, our Whisper bathroom fan quietly and efficiently exhausts air out of the bathroom (never a bad idea with a composting toilet).  Outside air is sucked in through a ceiling vent above the kitchen stove.  Just yesterday I made that air a little cooler.  Instead of coming straight in from outside, I vented the air first down into the root cellar, where it stays below 70F, then up.  We’ll see how much that helps.  Another great experiment for Home the Land  Built.

Conduction.  The south and west sides of our home are partly beneath the earth.  Most of the home is slab on grade.  Thus, we pull coolness out of the earth and into our home.  It is the coolness of the earth my feet feel upon the slab.  How wonderfully connecting to the Land!
So how are we doing right now as I write the blog.  At 12:43PM its 89F outside according to  Up here in the yoga loft, the warmest room in the house, I feel comfortable though my back is getting a little sticky.  Time to go downstairs, where according to the thermostat, the air is 77F while the slab underfoot is 76F.   I’ll adjust the angle of the solar oven, pour a glass of iced tea, and kick back with a book in front of a sluggish fan.  Here at Home the Land Built, midday in midsummer is like a winter’s eve, except I need a new name for these relaxing inward hours.  I don’t even want to mention a “cocoon”.