Friday, February 22, 2008

Behold, the Party Pooper

Redbeard's feelings were hurt, but I had to tell him that I did not like the bucket toilet he so carefully made for me.  Among its shortcomings:
  • Wide and shallow, resulting in leaning tower of poo-za.
  • Capacity too small esp. for upcoming housewarming party.
  • Bulking material (coarse sawdust) not absorbent enough, resulting in suboptimal emptying experience. 
Pigpen and I are working on a plan to stop the insanity.  Meanwhile in the interim, I've gotten forgiveness (I think) to try a variation:
  • For increased capacity I will use a larger tall bin.  Note wheels and handle to facilitate emptying:

Redbeard bashed up a nice seat and step stool.  It would have been better to put it in the other corner of the room, that way you could pull the bin out without removing the steps, but that corner is reserved for the greywater surge tank.

I'm going to throw a sack of this wood pellet horse bedding in the bottom.  It costs like diamonds, like 15 cents a pound, but its supposed to be absorbent.  We'll see.

If the barrel is even half full it will be heavy to empty.  I asked for a ramp made of snow, up to the top of the compost bin.  Here's Jolson in the Cat finishing it off.  I got the notion from the mounds of snow that were already pushed up there from plowing the drive.  But it took more snow than I thought, as we had to make it wide enough for the Cat to drive up on it.  That took about an hour.  

Here is the final version, with privacy/sprayguard curtain, and sawdust bin propped up:

Warming Up

It's up to 75 F right now.  I just shut off the floor heat for the 1st time since the 6th or 7th.  (The circulation pump is on but the heater is off.) The greenhouse is warm in the sun and I plugged in the blower which sends the heat inside.

At 6:15 pm I turned on the valves that sent water to the deep loops.  It's 78 degrees inside.  I turned off the air blower and shut the greenhouse door about 4 pm.


Those weren't the deep loops, they were the greenhouse loops, which were empty.  I might've fried the pump.

Tuesday, February 19, 2008

Why we can't stop talking about poo.

Welcome to the sustainability movement.  You may encounter a surprising number of people pooping in buckets of sawdust.  To people with perfectly good indoor plumbing, this idea may seem ridiculous on its face.  However it is very easy to explain.  

Point number one is that poo contains plant nutrients.  This is obvious to anyone with a yard and a dog.  Also, sewage sludge can be processed into a fine commercial fertilizer, as you may know if you have ever bought Milorganite.

Point number two is that our current industrial agriculture depends on synthesizing plant nutrients out of oil and gas, to the point where it requires 5 to 50 calories of fossil fuel energy for every calorie of food energy produced, and that's not even counting tractor fuel.  (This correspondent has not seen hard data on this factoid but has seen it quoted in multiple places.)  This means that all the gains of the Green Revolution may be at risk, as fuel availability declines, which in turn makes all forms of dung-derived fertilizer start to look like valuable resources, including the human kind.

The very very tricky part, is to capture these nutrients without coming down with a lot of flies and disease.  Sanitation, that is, the rapid and efficient separation of poo from people, is one of the great advances from the 19th century and before, and is not to be taken lightly.  All of this flushing "away" however, throws out the baby with the bath-water.

As this correspondent observes, what sustainability mavens are trying to do, is to capture the plant nutrient value in human waste, while reducing the water-intensiveness and water pollution, and maintaining the health safety.  This is best achieved by some kind of relatively dry composting.  Because composting takes a while, there is kind of a large volume of stuff "in process" at any given time.  As most existing homes do not have provision for large bins under the toilets, the aforesaid sustainnibals (a word I just made up) end up collecting little batches of "pre-compost" in toilet-sized buckets, and dragging them off to the main bin one-by-one.  If this still sounds ridiculous, well, I am in total agreement.  Sawdust bucket toilets are the most primitive, manual method of humanure composting.  There are some better mousetraps out there, and we could use more options.

Draft Postscript:  There appear to be two reasons for the water intensity of current technology.  One is convenience of transporting the waste - its much more difficult to move around in solid form.  The other is historical, having to do with modern sewage treatment's origins in London, a place with rain, the river Thames, and the Atlantic Ocean to serve as an "away".

Monday, February 18, 2008

Floor surface failure

There has been a surface failure of the cob floor, in the area frequented by the wheels of my chair, and my muddy shoes.  I guess I will need a mat of some kind.

It doesn't look like the linseed oil soaked very far in, maybe an eighth of an inch.  At Mytraya* in Oregon they had a floor like this and on the sample piece they showed us the oil was soaked in almost half an inch.  Mr. Universe tsk'd when I told him about that - evidently he had two books which disagreed on how to do it, or something like that.  Might've picked the wrong one.

Grit does no good to any flooring, and this kind seems to be relatively fragile versus grit and scratches.  It's kind of a tough deal because it doesn't show the dirt (being mostly made of it) so you don't tend to sweep as often.

*sounds-like.  I can't remember how to spell it well enough to find the web site.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Cottage livability update

First let me say thanks for the comments.  I changed the permissions so that you don't need a Google account to comment.  Also, check out the cottage photos post again - I added a whole lot of commentary.

Well the linseed oil fumes have dropped off somewhat, maybe by a third?  It's still quite noticeable when you walk in but after a while you can almost get used to it.  I tried using a room air filter and even wrapping it with carbon-impregnated cloth.  That didn't help a bit.  What did help was one of those gray paper masks for painting, 3M 8247?  The one labeled for paint odor removal.  The only downside there is that I can't sip my coffee while I'm wearing it (poor me.)

As I think I mentioned before, the cottage has in-floor radiant heat, which right now is only heated by the backup, an electric resistance heating element in the water loop.  It's about the size of your arm and is 5 kilowatts.  That is not so much in terms of heat, about 17,000 Btus per hour, which is about half of what the smallest little propane torpedo heater you could buy would put out.  Three hair-dryers or ten coffeepots worth lets say.  

That heater has been running flat out since about when I started this blog.  The valves to the deep loops are shut off, so the water is only circulating in the tubes closest to the surface.  Even so, there is quite some lag time, and some of the heat is going down into the ground.    Unfortunately there was a cold snap right after we turned the floor heat on:  lows -20's, highs of minus singles.  The inside temperature dropped into the 50's, not bad considering.  I turned on the extra space heater which the construction crew had been using.  It's probably another 5 kW?  It's a little hard to tell about the heat because I've been opening the windows to ventilate the oil fumes from time to time, and also opening the door to the greenhouse when there's passive solar to be had.  That should really be automated somehow.  This past couple of days it warmed up to almost freezing, and with both heaters on its just gotten to 70 F inside for the first time.  I'm shutting off the space heater now.

I've moved most of my stuff in except the futon, 'cause I still don't want to spend the night in this air, and the clothes, 'cause there's no place to put them.  

I struggled a bit with how to use this space.  I decided to use the living room downstairs as the business office and conference center.  The whole upstairs is the residence.  The kitchen and bath are sort of shared between the two.  

One of my particular sicknesses is that when I move into a new kitchen, I must perform a purification ritual in which I wipe down the inside of every drawer and cabinet.  I know my stuff's got just as many microbes on it as anyone else's, but I'm partial to my microbes.  In this case I discovered everywhere inside was covered with a thin layer of fine brown dust, possibly from the cob spraying?  

I mentioned before about the cottage being a long, south-facing building - like the White House is I think.  I've got the Presidential Commute now as well; walk from one wing to the other.  The White House might be a pretty good model for a home-based business:  residence in the east wing, front office in the center, operations on the west?  The place was designed in the pre-carbon, pre-industrial days.  Something to be learned there as we look to the post-carbon future, perhaps.  

Unfortunately I may need the Presidential Exercise Program too.  Last year I lived 9 miles off campus and bicycle-commuted from mid-April to Halloween.  This reduced my tubbiness by a small but noticeable percentage.  Now what am I going to do?  Having the kitchen four steps from the office could be a huge downfall.

It's starting to feel more like home.  "Butch" and "Morpheus" from the HUG shop got the hide-a-bed couch up the ladder (uffda).  I brought the guitar down, so last night for the first time in a year I could sit at home and rock out through the speakers instead of the headphones.  

Saturday, February 9, 2008

First full work day in the cottage

I worked all yesterday in the cottage.  The paint/varnish/linseed oil odor is still quite strong after 5 days.  You don't stop smelling it.  I probably stayed longer than I should have - my eyes started watering after about six hours.  The in-floor heat is on now which may help to drive off the volatiles.  

Strong winds from the northwest today.  At 9:30 am I cracked open one upstairs window on the southeast.  Maybe that will suck out some of the fumes.  

While I was in there I heard an occasional thumping noise.  That turned out to be the shirttail of the rubber membrane under the metal roof, which hangs out on the north side.  Gusts were flipping it up against the roof.

Thursday, February 7, 2008

Photos of cottage inside & out

Took a dozen pix today.  Let me give you a tour, and some commentary in cheers-and-jeers format.

But first a little background:  This is the third and smallest building constructed on the Hunt Utilities Group Campus, and incorporates features from both of the previous ones.  The Hunts' main project (which I fully support) is the development of cold-climate buildings
  • which are self-heating and cooling,
  • allow you go grow your own food, and
  • produce no sewage effluent.
There is a bit more to it than that.  The project is called the Agricultural Resilient Communities project, and there is a notion of fostering local self-reliance, particularly in food production.  (Because that represents a lifestyle and cultural shift for most Americans, there is much discussion on campus as to what else can/should be done to sell/facilitate that attitude adjustment. More on that in later posts.) 

The initial design of the cottage was done before those precise goals came into focus, and the cottage project went through two changes of management during its design and construction, resulting in some ... oddities.  Even so, the cottage is now seen as being on the critical path to those goals.  It's a very serious attempt at self-heating.  As for growing food, the soil is no good, but that can be taken as a realistic challenge, and it does have an attached greenhouse.  The water recycling is a testing priority for this year.

Let's walk around the outside.  Here's the view from the southeast.  
  • The place is super-insulated, with two foot thick straw bale walls on three sides, and a foot thick styrofoam roof.
  • It faces south, and is longer in the east-west direction.  (On the inside it is about 17 x 42 feet overall.)  This is good from a heating-and-cooling point of view.  You know I think the White House is such a building?  And if it's good enough for the President it's good enough for me.  By contrast, houses which are long in the north-south direction tend to be cold in the winter, as the sun then comes mostly from the south and they have few windows facing south to catch the sun, and hot in the summer as the sun bakes the west side throughout the long afternoon, until it finally sets in the northwest.  I used to live in a northwest-corner apartment, and in the summer a heat pulse would come through the west wall about 11 pm to midnight - stifling.
  • It has an attached greenhouse about 7 x 45 feet, which could be used for growing food plants or processing greywater.
  • It has three-way heat:  passive solar from the greenhouse, active solar from the water-heat panels above the greenhouse, and resistance electric heat for backup.  
  • I would call this a geo-solar cottage.  It has in-floor radiant heat and extra loops at 4-8 inches depth and at about 3 feet, to store heat in the ground underneath the building.  The soil here is very sandy.  In this correspondent's present opinion, for a cold, cloudy climate, this the best concept going - a combination of super-insulation above grade and a massive underground heat sink, capable of storing months worth of heat.
  • An example of what John Ringel might call "slice of cheese" architecture, that is, a uniform cross section, unnecessarily typical of passive solar design.  
  • The solar water heat system is not yet operational, due to the mind-altering complexity of the plumbing.

Let's walk around to the left and look at from the west side.
  • Again, check out the thick insulation on the roof.  Note that the greenhouse roof does not have overhead glass, but is insulated and opaque on the ceiling and sides as well.  Probably that is the right choice in this climate, to retain heat in the winter.
  • There are also buried tubes under the greenhouse to exchange heat with the earth.  In addition to the in-floor water tubes like in the main house, there are also 4 inch air pipes to circulate greenhouse air into the ground. 
  • SUV (my bad).  
  • Again, Ugly.  It should be possible to make a perfectly quaint east- or west-facing Victorian design, for example, into a solar masterpiece by extending the back and glazing the south side.  In fact, this is what Bill Labine has done with his place in Avon, NY.
  • You can start to see what the single-pitch roof is doing to the shape of the space upstairs.  More on that below.

Continuing on around the left we see the north side.
Recognition and celebration:
  • Not a lot of heat lost from the north side, with just that one tiny window.  
  • They did avoid repeating one of the goofs from the first building on campus:  Old Main is also a straw bale building with a single-pitch roof, and they put the parking lot and main entrance on the north side.  Whenever there's a freeze-thaw, slush and water runs off the roof and freezes onto the sidewalk in front of the door.  Not a problem here.
  • This side has great prospects for some kind of summer patio living.
Development opportunities:
  • This is the side that faces the rest of the campus.  In its setting, the cottage suffers from being an element in an uncompleted design.  This correspondent has not seen documents, but is assured by reliable sources that there was a plan for some additional cottages arranged roughly in a circle towards the southeast, surrounding a central community building.  This one existing cottage is facing these imaginary friends and has its back turned to the other three real buildings, which are pretty far away anyhow - a mid-to-long par 3, say, off to the north.  It sits by itself on flat open ground.  The closest vegetation is a line of pine trees on the west side, and another on the south, about 30-40 yards away.  Thus it is isolated and exposed at the same time - isolated from other buildings and exposed to the elements.  To this correspondent, it no longer seems likely that the aforementioned development plan will be carried out.  From a permaculture standpoint, perhaps the best thing to do is to capitalize on the isolation and reduce the exposure.  If it was partially engulfed in a food forest, it would be even more private and cozy, and that would also do a lot to soften its jutting rooflines.
  • Relative to the picture above, to go anywhere upon leaving the house, you need to walk down and to the left (northeast).  The doors however are on the west and the south, so you must walk around the cottage.  Right now that's an obstacle course in most directions.  The walk around to the south could be made much more inviting.  

Let's go back to the south side and into the attached greenhouse.
  • Again, in my present opinion, an attached greenhouse is an essential feature for sustainability here in the north.  It's potential functions:
  1. Growing food plants/gardening season extender.  
  2. Passive solar gain for the house.
  3. A warm place for teaming with microbes (on water recycling and composting).
  4. A vestibule/mud room entry in winter.
  • Much depends on being able to keep it warm using passive techniques.  The glazing is double-walled polycarbonate, and the air tubes go down about 3 feet into the earth.  I think those big white water tanks are supposed to be part of the answer too.
  • Its connection to the house passes the permaculture "slipper test" - it is only four steps from the stove to the greenhouse door.

Let's go on in. Here we are in the living room looking back out towards the greenhouse.
Thumbs up:
  • Look at all the windows onto the greenhouse!

There's an east-facing window in the living room.  In the downstairs the walls are natural mud plaster on the east west and north.  I'm not sure how it was applied.

Here's the view from the living room looking toward the kitchen.
  • As you can see, the walls are dark and the floor is very dark.  Balancing this is the huge amount of blond knotty-pine paneling on the walls and ceiling, and the white spray foam on the ceiling upstairs.  The paneling is very attractive.
  • The designers managed to achieve spaciousness and coziness at the same time.  The loft spaces, wide-open floor plan, and windows onto the greenhouse give spaciousness, while the small windows, deep sills, and earth tones give coziness.  
  • Not that I'm an expert or anything, but I think the place probably has pretty good Feng Shui compliance, based on the heavy use of natural materials and the orientation to the sun.
Here we are at the sink, looking north out the little windows.
  • Several possible uses for this little nook.  It could be a good place to grow some herbs.  The kitchen composter might go there.  It might be possible to convert it into a cold-box using the outside cold.
  • It's difficult to open the window, as the wall is thicker than the countertop is wide.
  • This is a ridiculously shallow sink for a house without a dishwasher.

Here's the view looking back towards the living room.
Thumbs up:
  • The kitchen cabinets are nice.
  • Kudos to countertop dude/dudette, nice job!
Thumbs down:
  • The bathroom is just weird.  That's kind of the more experimental part I guess.  I didn't even take a picture of it yet.

From the top of the ladder looking down.
  • The stairs don't take up much space.  It's not a spiral thank God.
  • The ladder is really too steep to descend facing forward, unless you've got good knees, balance, and tiny feet.
  • The wicket at the top is less than 30 inches wide.  
  • Even if there were railings, they'd only get in the way of moving stuff up there.  Seriously, how are you supposed to get a bureau, or king-sized heart-shaped waterbed up there?

Here we are at the top of the ladder looking east.

Here's the view from the other side of the upstairs looking west.  The living room is underneath us.

  • As you can see, the designers really went for architectural drama, with the loft spaces and wide-open floor plan both upstairs and down.  This is visually appealing.  It may also tend to counteract cabin fever.
  • There are ostensibly two bedrooms upstairs, except that they lack walls, doors, and closets.  In fact, there are no closets at all in this place.  I thought there was one, but Redbeard tells me it's for one of the water tanks.  This cottage is suitable for a single person, or a couple and maybe a little baby, but not for a family.  
  • The cottage has 60% more floor area than the 2-bedroom townhouse I was living before, but I think it has less usable space.  The townhouse had four closets, a pantry, and an outside storage locker.  None of that here.  The middle third of the upstairs is basically completely wasted, that is, it's devoted to this extravagant loft bridge.  
  • A much better extravagance of that size, for a Minnesota gardener's house, would have been a large vestibule/mud room at the side door, with a lowered floor, an entry settee, a walk-in closet, and an inside door.  Instead the west door enters into a hallway with the psych-not-a-closet on the right, and the bathroom on the left.  I seem to remember Frank Lloyd Wright famously wearied of talking to wives about closets, but I'm like, shut up Frank you are lacking in customer focus.  I tend to think that Agriculturally Resilient self-sufficionados are going to need at least as much equipment as regular suburbanites, and equipment needs storage space.
  • Due to the single-pitch roof, only about half the upstairs has a ceiling height greater than 6 feet.  Thus there is a lot of space upstairs which is awkward to use even for storage.  About the best you could do would be to put in some kind of bureau with drawers on very long slides.  I consider this wedge-shaped upstairs to be a mistake repeated from the Old Main building, one which should not be repeated prior to the heat death of the universe.  The basic concept of this building is similar to Old Main only in miniature - long east-west, two-story with single-pitch roof and wedged upstairs, three sections inside.  I think because of the reduced scale, certain things didn't work out as well, like no room for stairs.
  • "Long Building" is one of Christopher Alexander's Patterns, as I recall the advantage being privacy.  In this cottage that advantage is negated by all the openness.  In fact, the openness and the awkward ladder make the rooms connected to each other by sound and at the same time difficult to get between.
  • One final little Con:  the opening to the ceiling, on the side of the bridge where the ceiling is tall,  that opening is kind of narrow.  When you walk under it there is a little bit sense of walking under the open end of a pipe, just a little tension that draws your glance up to see if something is going to fall on you.  Maybe its because of the ceiling fan going around up there.
A final comment on the design:

The design aesthetic is an odd mixture I call "Meet the Jetstones" or maybe "Flintstones in Space".  It has a cob floor and ... vinyl casement windows.  It has straw bale walls and ... a styrofoam roof.  It has mud plaster and ... wireless internet.  It has rustic timber framing and ... an all-electric kitchen.  It has a sawdust toilet and ... a data acquisition system.  This is probably a reflection of its fractured project management history, and I think also is an indication of how sustainability is meaning different things to different people. 

Cottage modification wish list 2/7/2008

I need two grates up on blocks outside the doors, to keep the dirt from tracking into the house.

A whole-house electric power monitor such as The Energy Detective.

A true indoor composting toilet. I saw one at Aprovecho which composts inside and has a chute leading to an outside hatch. I'm trying to get more info about it. This bucket toilet with outside composting is a nuisance - it's extra work and awkward because no provision was made in the bathroom for storing the bulking material. This is far from the kind of decadent sustainability we are trying to achieve. Yeah you can get used to anything, but why would you want to? It makes no sense to me to do outside composting in a climate which is frozen six months of the year.

There should be some way of using the outside cold for refrigeration. In Oregon where the winter outside temp is pretty stable just above freezing, they can make a cold box right in the wall. Here the winter outside temp could vary from -40 to +40, so that particular method might not be the best. An alternative would be some way of conducting the outside cold to the radiator coils on the fridge.

Withdrawn, but I recommend for future buildings: There should be an area just inside the door where the floor is lower and shoes can be removed. This is very helpful for keeping dirt from getting tracked around.

A platform along the south wall upstairs for bookshelves. It doesn't have to be permanently attached. The railings and ceiling fan will need to be removed.

Tuesday, February 5, 2008

2008 - a year to live sustainably

Today your Correspondent began moving into his new home for 2008 - a solar-heated straw-bale cottage located in central Minnesota and owned by the Happy Dancing Turtle Foundation, whose mission is to Promote Sustainable Living.  The cottage is to be the scene of certain Experiments by the closely-related Hunt Utilities Group LLC.  I am, basically, the Lab Rat.  By contractual arrangement I am to report on How is Everything Working in There and So What is it Like to Try and Live Sustainably?  Said reporting will be done, in this blog, so everyone can follow along.

As the cottage is new, the inside still reeks of paint, varnish, and the linseed oil used to seal the cob floor.  I am reluctant to spend the night just yet.  So far I have moved only two things:  an heirloom plywood table, and my beloved 5-wheel desk chair.  Oh, also spent a little time today chipping frozen sawdust out of the pile outside, you know, for the composting toilet.