Archive for April, 2008

House & Home Edition

Perhaps my office shed could look like thisAccording to the New York Post, some analysts think we’ll be paying $10 a gallon within 2-3 years. The Freakonomics blog wonders if this’ll encourage people to ride the bus. I’m wondering what effect rising gas prices will have on housing. Will this increase the number of people working from home (and thus needing a home office)? Will people move from rural to urban areas so that they can take advantage of public transit? Will smaller urban areas (like Bloomington) start creating nice, smaller houses and apartments so that more people can live close to town?

Since Maggie and I are on the lookout for a house again, we find ourselves rehashing these questions again. Even if a larger place further out from town is good now, rising gas prices might make it much less attractive. Although equity isn’t our most important qualification when looking at houses, it sure seems like downtown property has much better potential to increase in value over the next few years.

The “country mouse” home (only about two miles away from downtown, so still within biking distance) has enough space around it that we could definitely have a large garden plot, chickens, and maybe even a goat. Even if we had to pay more for trips around town, we might make up for it in savings on food! The cost of fertilizer has tripled, so farmers aren’t growing more corn even though corn prices have doubled in the last year. Part of this is the weird weather we’ve had for the past year, but part of it is also the long-term rising cost of transportation and cultivation. I’m not as interested in raising chickens and goats as Maggie is, but it would be nice to be able to set up a little “office shed.” I could either buy or build a little shed and toss a 165W solar system on top (only $1100 after federal tax rebates) for an awesome work space that feels separate from living space.

On the other hand is the “city mouse” home. Actually a duplex, it’s more expensive and has less land (and less appealing land for farming, since it’s very shady). A duplex makes sense to me as both an investment and as a way of reducing impact since we’re fitting two families into the same space as we would otherwise be fitting one. Although I might be able to get away with an office shed, chickens are probably out of the question. It sure would be nice to be able to wander around downtown and see people whenever I get the urge, though.

The middle-of-the-road option is a smaller place near the duplex that also has a little land. I’m worried that the space will be hard to divide the way we’d like, but 37signals had a timely entry today pointing to a NYT article on making a tiny space work well. You owe it to yourself to at least skim the article even if you don’t watch the slideshow. The highlight is the raised floor they added to one end of the one-room apartment. Not only does it create a separate-seeming living room area, the bed can be pushed underneath the floor when not it use! When we visit the middle-option house again, I’ll have to look at it with an eye towards creating spaces that we can expand and shrink as we change what we’re doing during the day.

This has been a long post without much new info in it, but house stuff has taken over my mind recently, so I’ve been seeing appropriate links everywhere. If you got this far, I’d love to know what aspects of your current living situation you really like and really dislike. Maybe that’ll help make this choice a little easier!

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The Crunchy Chicken Extreme Eco-Challenge

Extrme Eco Challenge - Crunchy Chicken It’s almost May and it’s time to decide whether or not Will and I are going to accept Crunchy Chicken’s Extreme Eco Challenge. She is a blogger like us who leads a pretty normal life but is working to make life a little greener. One of her favorite methods for greening the world is creating challenges for her readers. This winter she offered the Freeze Yer Buns challenge asking folks to lower their thermostats and this month she’s running a Buy Nothing Challenge. Next on the agenda is a hardcore eco-throwdown.

There are seven options, increasing in difficulty. According to the rules, participants may have one day off a week (sorta like Lent, depending on which teachings you follow). Here they are along with some of my thoughts.

1. No plastic (don’t buy or consume anything in plastic). I initially had visions of starving to death. No tubs or shrink wrap or produce bags or bread bags, which means no frozen food, no cheese, no condiments… Will told me I was being melodramatic and with a little more thought I realized it was manageable. But definitely challenging.

2. No paper products. This seems easier to me except for three items: my calendar, my notebook, and toilet paper. I have been experimenting with a TP-free method but so far I’m not ready for a total switch. Hmmmm.

3. No driving. Will says he would happily do this and let me chauffeur him but I told him I didn’t think that would count. Actually, he would have very little trouble giving up his car but I use mine almost daily to commute to work and to field trips that are not accessible via bus. I’m sure I could cut back my usage dramatically but I couldn’t go car-free. And we do have a driving vacation planned at the end of the month that involves his brother’s wedding…

4. Local food only. I’m thinking about trying this challenge in July but right now we’d be eating an awful lot of eggs and salad greens. I also think that eating 100% locally is too extreme and it makes more sense to shoot for a diet that’s about 80% local so you can still enjoy other cuisines and foods that simply don’t grow where you are. But maybe I’m just a wus. :)

5. No garbage output (compost and recyclables only). This is a noble goal but it seems pretty unattainable. No waste at all? There are pieces of trash like candy wrappers that literally just appear in our yard. And there are a few things I’m not sure will ever be recyclable or reusable. Used dental floss? Sticky labels from produce? I think we already do pretty well minimizing our trash. Still, I’m sure if we took up the challenge we could find a few more areas of waste to trim.

6. No excessive water usage (drink as much as you want but use a bare minimum for bathing, brushing teeth, washing clothes, washing dishes, etc).
This actually sounds easier than some of the others although I do enjoy long hot showers and using the automatic washing machine. And if I took Crunchy Chicken’s advice and really thought about what it would be like to haul in all the water I use from a stream, I’m sure I could cut back on my usage dramatically.

7. No electricity (you can leave your fridge on if you must). There are three big challenges for this one. One is heat, which we could probably do without in May. One is cooking, since we have an electric stove and oven, although I guess if necessary we could eat cold food most of the week. And the last is computers. Will really needs his for work and he works from home most of the time. So maybe we could do a modified version with an allowance for computer use for work only. Oh, and it would suck a lot to not have hot water. But maybe I would be motivated enough to procure a solar shower bag. And I’m sure we’d find a whole new set of ways to entertain ourselves in the evenings without electricity.

Which one should we try? Which one would YOU try? Or has this crossed over into the realm of crazy crunchy eco-extremists? Let us know quick – May 1st is just around the corner!

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Protect the Vote – Work the Polls!

Vote Early, Vote OftenIndiana is generally not considered a major player in the national election scene, which many Hoosiers would say is just fine.  We only have to suffer through a minimal amount of campaigning and get hardly any phone calls.  However, this year looks like it might provide a little excitement with the heated democratic presidential primary, so when my best friend’s mom asked if I’d like to help work the polls, I said sure.  Our primaries aren’t technically until May 6th but the state decided to allow early voting and absentee ballots for a few weeks prior.

“Are you an R or a D?” is the first question I was asked when I reported in for duty.  I was utterly confused for about twenty seconds until I realized she was asking about my political party.  I consider myself more of an Independent but for the purposes of the primary, all poll workers have to declare themselves as either Republicans or Democrats and an effort is made to keep the two well-balanced.  In my mind, it doesn’t make much of a difference since we all solemnly swear not to talk politics and we’re all really there because we feel it’s important for people to vote, but there is a big long list of rules to help the polls from being too partisan.

It has been a fascinating experience so far.  I’ll be back tomorrow morning to brave the crowds trickling in from the nearby farmers’ market.  My job is mostly just explaining to folks how machine voting works but I’m learning a lot of the details behind the scenes.  Every voter has to sign a piece of paper saying he/she voted, and that paper is signed by a Republican pollworker and a Democrat pollworker who witnessed the vote.  Everything is carefully tallied and counted two or three different ways as a cross-check.  All the machines are tallied daily on computer and on paper.  And heaven help the folks who are working to keep the voter registration up-to-date for every adult in Indiana.

Working the polls has also helped me better appreciate the community here in Bloomington.  I have seen an amazing diversity of folks come in to make their voices heard.  I have run into former teachers, old high school buddies, and people who are on the ballot running for election in town.  It’s great to see everyone being so excited about the process and committed to exercising their right to vote.  I’m sure we all have moments of feeling voiceless and powerless in this giant nation but I enjoy having the opportunity to play a part in the process and to know that I’m doing my best to keep it honest, accurate, and representative of the people.

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Tiny, tiny houses

Tiny, Tiny Houses by Lester WalkerIn the last episode of our house-buying saga, we learned that the house we were attempting to purchase had copious mold and foundation problems. Today, we signed the papers saying we weren’t going to buy it. The contractor who gave us an estimate said $11,000, which is already a lot, but also said it would be more, he just couldn’t tell how much more until they started digging out the foundation.

We’re now leaning most toward a place a little further out from town, although still within biking distance, that has some acreage around it. The best part (or at least the most fun part) is the little shed that the owners have converted into a tiny one-room office.

As Maggie alluded in that last post, I recently got a book called Tiny, Tiny Houses. The author is a huge fan of small spaces, from single-purpose ice fishing sheds to a full-featured inside out house with the kitchen and living areas in the woods surrounding the bedroom. I’m not sure we could live entirely within the 300 square feet that those provide, but both Maggie and I have become intrigued by the concept.

I’m bothered by the space we have that we don’t use or under-use. This isn’t a totally new idea. Southern mansions used to have an indoor winter kitchen and a separate summer kitchen. Extra kitchens require electrical and plumbing abilities, so they’d probably be pretty difficult and costly. Building a separate office room (or reading room or sun room or whatever you can imagine) would be much easier and cheaper. With a little ingenuity, I think we could do all of the work ourselves and could find most of the materials we’d need for free. For example, the billboard chicken coop could be turned into a billboard working space pretty easily.

I don’t know if we’ll actually be able to build any of these little spaces, but I highly recommend the book. It’s amazing how compact you can make things when you have them serve multiple purposes and work them into the surroundings. Many of the small houses were considered complete in their day, which blows me away. A 210 square foot apartment would barely be considered an efficiency, but Thomas Jefferson and his wife lived in a house that size for years while building Monticello. There are also several houses that were designed to be expanded as time and money permitted. Much more sensible than McMansions that require a family to overextend themselves to afford.

Even if you’re not environmentally conscious at all, you can’t help but be impressed by the ingenuity and comfort embodied in some of these tiny, tiny houses. Give it a look and let me know which is your favorite! Today, mine is George Bernard Shaw’s rotating writing cottage, but there are so many good ones that it might be different tomorrow!

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Using chickens for tractors, fertilizer, food, income, and more…

chicks hatchingI went down to Brambleberry Farm today to help out my friends with their fruits, vegetables, chickens, ducks, pigs, goats, sheep, and… well, I think that’s everything. It’s a very small farm run by a husband and wife who are very into homesteading and small-scale farming. I am learning a ton and wanted to share some of the information. I think it’s essential for everyone to understand where our food comes from, even if we are not in the position to grow it ourselves.

The big news on the farm today is that a batch of chicks hatched. They are quite cute and fluffy and peep in a cute way not quite as deafening as the spring peepers (frogs), although I’m sure they’ll get there. Espri gathered the fertilized eggs a few weeks ago and has been keeping them in a little incubator, which looks rather like an alien spacecraft, probably due to the large amount of aluminum foil and the heat lamp that blinks on and off every 3-5 seconds. The chicks started peeping inside their shells a couple days ago and began breaking out this morning so Espri was transferring them a batch at a time to their new temporary home in the greenhouse. They have to be taught how to drink water, by dipping their beaks in the water trough, and are also introduced to their feed trough. In a few weeks they will be big enough to join their parents in the chicken tractor outside.

A chicken tractor is basically a portable shelter for chickens with no floor. This allows the chickens to scratch and dig for worms, grubs, insects, grass, clover, and whatever else tickles their taste buds. After awhile, the tractor is moved to a new plot of ground, leaving the old plot tilled and fertilized (with chickenchicken tractor manure). Espri & Darren’s chicken tractor is a little more elaborate, with a large fenced area adjacent to the shelter providing even more ground for scratching. The design is pretty clever; it’s a simple wooden A-frame made of mostly scrap lumber with an old billboard for a roof. The billboard is lightweight, waterproof, light-colored to let in some light but dark enough to provide shade, and is a free waste resource. I helped install the roosts, which are long boards strung from the ceiling so the birds can perch above ground at night. There is also a wall of nestboxes where the hens can lay their eggs in peace.

Chickens offer a lot of benefits. They lay eggs, which can be either eaten or sold. Their droppings make great fertilizer. Their scratching provides both tilling action and some pest control. They can also be used for meat or feathers. With a little more work, they can be bred and the chicks can be sold, or even just fertilized eggs. (On a side note, did you know baby chicks are often shipped by mail? It’s the craziest thing but they don’t seem to mind although they do peep a little.)

chicken roostThere are a few downsides to chickens, like the way they constantly fight with each other to establish dominance, or the fact that hens really only lay well for a couple of years and then you have to decide whether you want a pet or perhaps a meal. They can also be extremely loud although I think they’re a lot of fun to listen to. I’d like to have a flock of my own some day but for now I’m happy to be a part-time assistant farmer. Wait until I tell you about the pigs!!

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Earthquake bad, avalanche worse

Loveland Pass - a dangerous place for avalanchesEarthquakes are bad enough, but Juneau, Alaska’s recent experience makes me glad I don’t have to worry about avalanches. With their hydro power out of commission for three months, Juneau’s electrical rates jumped from $0.11/kWh to $0.50/kWh. That’s almost 5 times as much! Imagine having to spend 5 times your electrical bill in May as you did at the beginning of April. For me and Maggie, that means we’d be spending something like $500, almost as much as our rent!

Luckily, it’s spring, so people can start turning the heat down and cooking outside. Even so, it’s hard not to hear a little bit of panic when people ask for help cutting electrical usage. Could you reduce your electrical use to 20% of what it was last month in two weeks? I know I couldn’t. That doesn’t even being to consider the plight of businesses in the area. They might not be able to considerably reduce their use of electricity and still produce anything.

Diversity is important. When Hurricane Fran hit Raleigh when I was younger, we didn’t have electricity for weeks. However, we did have a gas range, which meant that we could heat water for quick showers, cook, and heat the kitchen pretty easily. If we’d depended entirely on electricity, it would have been much harder for us. We were also lucky in that the local univerisity (NCSU) has their own nuclear generator, so they didn’t lose power and were willing to share their hot water with us.

This is one of the reasons I really like alternative sources of power. Sure, you might not be able to get 100% of your electricity from a wind turbine or a small set of solar panels, but even a little bit of energy production would allow you to better weather these sorts of emergencies. A small turbine producing 20% of your max use of electricity would let you cut back to just the necessities if grid-based power becomes too expensive. Small, local energy production would also get you through brown-outs just fine.

Another interesting aspect to the story is that $0.50/kWh is what rural Alaskans already pay. Somehow, they’re able to make it work. Obviously, the sudden shocking change makes it difficult for residents of Juneau, but it seems like they could make the adjustment if necessary.

Perhaps the rest of us should pretend that electricity is slowly getting more expensive. That’ll reduce the sticker shock that’s affecting folks in Juneau right now. We can also put the difference between the actual price and the Juneau price into a savings account and use it to reduce our consumption with better appliances or other sources of electricity. If something terrible happens, like an avalanche or earthquake or peak oil, you’ll be okay. If nothing terrible happens, you’ll still have reduced your reliance on conventional electricity, saving you money and maybe, just a little, the planet.

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Drying Laundry the Green Way

Wooden Drying RackWe had some more beautiful weather this past weekend and I felt inspired to hang my laundry outside to dry. (I also learned that April 19th was National “Hanging Out” Day and wanted to jump on the bandwagon.)

I did one load of laundry and hung it out on our back deck with a few things on the railing and a few things hanging from clothes hangers off our little porch swing. It was a little less than ideal, due partly to aesthetics and partly to one practical detail. Our deck looks out onto a greenspace shared by about eight rental units, six of which are breeders and constantly producing litters of adorable puppies. I love puppies but puppies and clean laundry are usually not a good combination.

Anyway, at first I was ready to get either a crazy antenna clothes drying rack or one of those fancy retractable clotheslines. But Will and I did a little research at the local hardware store and decided to stick with a simple wooden drying rack, which was an excellent choice since it began raining as soon as we got it home. Now we can dry clothes inside or out and I can still hang things off the porch swing when the weather is nice. We’re still looking at houses so perhaps in our more permanent home we’ll get the fanciest clothesline ever but for now at least I have some motivation to avoid our electric dryer.

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Earthquake!

Lights dancing in an earthquakeBy now, you’ve probably already heard about the 5.2 earthquake that hit the Midwest early this morning.  Even though we’re 100 miles away from the epicenter, rattling windows woke both me and Maggie.  Since I grew up in hurricane and tornado country, wind was my first thought.  It was calm outside, though, and the birds were singing, so we just went back to sleep.

I also experienced the aftershock around 11:15.  By the time it got here, it wasn’t strong enough to even rattle the windows, so it mostly manifested itself as a vague sense of unease.  I probably would have totally ignored it except that Nathan next door felt it as well.  It makes me wonder what else we’re aware of subconsciously that percolates up into our consciousness as vague feelings.

In an odd coincidence, Maggie and I were just discussing earthquake insurance last night.  Until that point, I hadn’t even known that we were along a fault line.  Luckily, the big one is still quiescent, although that might mean there’s bigger earthquakes to come…

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The cost of abundance

King Corn movie posterTonight, Maggie and I were finally able to watch King Corn. We’ve been hearing good things about it for a while, so when we noticed that it was playing on PBS, we headed over to Maggie’s parents’ place last night to check it out. Unfortunately, the times listed were wrong, so we watched a really interesting Frontline on universal health care instead. Tivo rescued the situation and recorded it for us to watch tonight.

The documentary follows two Bostonians as they head to the small town in Iowa where (coincidentally) their grandfathers made a living based on corn. The one grandfather grew it and the other made tractors to plant it. The creators, Ian Cheney and Curt Ellis, borrow an acre of land from a local farmer and plant (what else?) corn. As they say on their website, “a story about one acre of Iowa corn quickly becomes a story about everything: soil, water, energy, history, genetic modification and, of course, food.” Focusing primarily on food, the two friends go from farm subsidy to planting to spraying to growing to harvesting to industry (and end with another little subsidy). Once industry gets a hold of corn, it uses it everywhere, from a rather unhealth feed for cattle to rather unhealthy food for people. There’s a great scene whereh Cheney and Ellis brew up some homemade high fructose corn syrup. Neither of them like it at all.

The great thing about the movie is that there are no villains. Even the much maligned Earl Butz, the Secretary of Agriculture who told farmers to “get big or get out,” is given a fair viewing.

Overall, the story of US corn since the 1970s is one that’s familiar to any reader of The Monkey’s Paw. Butz’s goal was to make food cheap and he was incredibly successful. We now pay half as much on food (as a percentage of income) as did our parents or grandparents. Imagine paying twice as much for food as you are now! And that includes eating out.

The monkey’s paw comes in with the fulfillment of the ideal of a land of plenty. We pay a lot less for food because our food is almost entirely based on getting higher yields in return for increases in fat, pesticide use, antibiotic use, and reduction in nutrients. Corn nowadays has almost no nutritional value and yet it’s a cheap filler for everything.

Cheap corn affects all of our food supply. One of the scientists quoted said that a grass-fed T-bone steak has 1.3 grams of fat. A T-bone steak from corn-fed steer has almost 7 times as much at 9 grams!

So yeah, we’ve got cheap food which allows us to spend more on other things. Unfortunately, one of those things is our increasingly high health care now that our food isn’t as healthy.

Abundance is great, but not at the cost of our lives. This may be the first generation that doesn’t live longer than its parents.

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A Green (Moldy?) House

moldWill and I have been steadily advancing with our plan to purchase a house in town that would let us try out the car-free (or at least car-lite) lifestyle.   We found a cute little house less than a mile from downtown with a halfway respectable yard.  Alas, our excitement was a bit dampened today when we conducted the official home inspection and discovered several red flags, including (wait for it) a wet, moldy crawlspace.

“You’ve got green mold, black mold, white mold – the whole spectrum!” announced our home inspector from the bowels of the house.  Yum.

For those of you not familiar with the home-buying process, the next step is for us to write our “Buyer’s Response to the Home Inspection Report” in which we ask for concessions from the seller and they respond with their “Seller’s Response to Buyer’s Response to the Home Inspection Report.”  Oh, the joy.

We’re still clinging to some hope that we can get the house fixed up and move in with full confidence that we are not endangering ourselves with mold spores or lead-based paint or leaky gas lines but we’ve also returned to our dreams of building our own house.  Neither of us is particularly handy so it would be an enormous challenge and yet we’re both drawn to the idea of building a place of our very own.  Lately we’ve been reading books on eco-remodeling and tiny tiny houses and somehow starting from scratch seems easier than taking an existing house and adapting it to our own idiosyncrasies.  On the other hand, what really sounds nice is to have a house and be done with the process of looking and inspecting and negotiating.  I suspect I will have similar feeling should I ever become pregnant, but that’s a whole other ball of wax.

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