Archive for June, 2008

Natural Building with Slipstraw

Slipstraw WorkshopI dropped by to visit my friends Nathan and Maggie (and Laurelynn) on Sunday and found their yard bustling with activity. They were hosting a work party to help build a workshop behind their house. Nathan is a passionate woodworker and tinkerer and wanted plenty of space for his hobbies (although I think he also wanted an excuse to build a building using cool natural building techniques).

The foundation, framing, and metal roof had all been installed previously and this work party was focused on filling in the walls. Slipstraw is pretty straightforward. Once the frame of the building is up, you come through and screw a piece of plywood about 2 feet tall to the inside and the outside. This makes a little box and the empty space is where you want the wall. The wall itself will be made of slipstraw and the plywood will eventually be removed. (In this main picture of the building, all you see are the finished slipstraw walls where the plywood has been removed.)
Mixing slipstraw

To make slipstraw, mix clay and straw until it is a slimy, sticky, mess and then shove it in between the pieces of plywood. The goal is to basically make bricks in place so the next step is to pound it as hard as possible and keep adding more slipstraw. Eventually it will be packed so tightly that you can remove the plywood and the slipstraw will harden into place. Oh, and you can also put in windows as you go, slipstrawing around them. They used some awesome retro-looking glass blocks.

Pounding slipstraw into place

Nathan said (if I remember correctly) that the seeds in the straw will sprout shortly after you’ve pounded your walls into place, while the clay is still wet. However, as the slipstraw dries out, the sprouts will die. So you wait until your walls turn green and then die and turn brown again and then you know it’s dry. Then you come through with a protective coating of earthen plaster on each side. They are planning to stick with a basic mud-color brown for the outside but use a bit of whitewash on the inside to give it more of a finished look and lighten up the interior. Their chicken coop has a protective coating of earthen plaster that has stayed rock hard in the four years since they built it so they’re feeling very confident that the building will hold up well.

Window in slipstraw wallSo why the fuss about natural building? Part of it is a desire to minimize use of nonrenewable resources and potentially toxic substances. Part is the joy of creating a building using materials you gathered yourself. (In this case, the clay came from the pond they are digging in the backyard and the straw was purchased from a farmer outside of town.) And part of it is certainly aesthetics; it’s much more original than vinyl siding, at least in this neck of the woods. There’s also an element of adventure and a degree of flexibility in most natural building styles. I don’t have the physical strength to lug bricks around but I can build a house one armful of muddy straw at a time without taxing myself. The slipstraw part also doesn’t take much skill, although it does take a lot of labor and it definitely helps to have someone in charge who can make sure that the slipstraw is not too wet, not too dry, and pounded just hard enough. For now, I’m content to be the grunt labor for an hour or two and then stand back and admire the building coming together.

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Beating the heat

Earth exploding from heatIt’s starting to feel a lot like summer. We had a couple days of hot weather about three weeks ago, but since then it’s been in the high 70s and low 80s. In the past several days, it’s been up to the high 80s and lower 90s and should stay that way for at least a week. Since it’s still June, I expect it’ll only get worse.

We’ve only turned the AC on once, briefly, when it was hot and stuffy before bed and I’d like to keep it that way as long as possible. Working from home makes it harder, since I can’t mooch off of business AC during the day when it’s hottest. Ceiling fans aren’t an option (yet), so here’s what I’ve been doing to beat the heat.

Keep the windows close and the blinds down during the day. This makes it darker, but also cooler, since our place retains some evening coolness for quite a while. Unfortunately, this also makes it kind of stuffy, which leads to…

Use a small fan. I have a little fan that I’ve used to good effect since college. It works best in the evening when I can prop it up against an open window, but it’s also useful for some targeted cooling. When I’m working on the computer, I set it up so that it’s blowing across my face which helps me avoid the sensation of stuffy air.

Stay up late, sleep late. This doesn’t work for Maggie because she has to be up on other people’s schedule, but since I work whenever I like, I tend to stay up later and only go to sleep once it cools down around 2am. I’ve thought about also taking a siesta in the hottest part of the afternoon, but I don’t want to get my sleep schedule too out of wack. I do sometimes have to be up relatively early.

Open the windows in the evening Around here, things start to get reasonably cool around 8pm. I open the front windows and the back door (it has a screen) and let the breeze come through. It’s probably not much of a temperature difference, but it sure feels good and it only gets better as it gets darker.

It’s all pretty low-tech and common sense, but it works pretty well. I do wonder if I’m missing anything, though. I haven’t really had to deal with extreme heat since my freshman year when my dorm didn’t have AC.

What do you do to keep cool and reduce your AC usage?

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Geeks In the Woods

I just returned from Day One of an environmental education symposium in Indianapolis. There was a lot of good stuff but the highlight was probably a keynote presentation by Richard Louv, author of “Last Child in the Woods.” His book has become an essential resource for environmental educators and he was even more inspiring as a speaker, despite the (typical) webinar glitches we experienced at the conference. His basic tenant is that children (and adults) need quality time in a natural setting to be happy and healthy. The book argues his point persuasively and also provides ideas of how to overcome the obstacles that keep kids indoors. He acknowledges that it will require work from lots of different fronts – parents, teachers, administrators, governments, and even kids.

But the thing I found most inspiring about his talk was the simple message that what kids need most of all right now is to be given hope. They are constantly bombarded with messages about how the environment is being destroyed and it is easy for them (us?) to feel completely powerless and just let go. They need adults to tell them it’s not too late to connect with nature and to protect the environment.

I thought this was expressed best by a teenage video game aficionado who read “The Last Child in the Woods” and started up a website called GEEKS in the Woods.

The first thing we want to say is that we are young but we are people. We have opinions, concerns, doubts, fears, and questions about everything on this planet including wild places in the great outdoors, obesity and health issues that include the mental state of our parent’s generation because they all seem so stressed out!

Sometimes we feel like a “bug in a jar” under a magnifying glass. We appreciate that you study us and we are certain that your research is vital. But remember, you were all once young people, too. We are not a strange, unique, or newly discovered species. Whatever you really liked about nature and being outside will probably hit the mark with us in a big way as long as nature is still there!

What do we want to do outside? Absolutely nothing…unless you can show us the “YO” factor…unless you can explain how we are linked to the outdoors and the planet…unless you can make it relate directly to our life. If you make it personal and global, we will notice!

We are primarily indoor kids. Some people have indoor cats…we are indoor children. But that doesn’t mean that we can’t enjoy being outside. We don’t have to wear an air tight NATURE SUIT with a helmet and an oxygen tank to go out in the woods. However, some of us don’t know this unless you prove it to us…and prove it again and again!

We tend to be very wary of the unknown….everything from trying to watch tv without a remote control to asking our parents to take us on a hike. We probably won’t ask them, but hope they’ll keep asking us because we like to be pursued!

We love Bambi and other Disney movies but if most of us saw a real deer in the real woods we’d be terrified…unless someone shows us that not only is knowledge of nature important but that WE are part of nature. We might still be afraid (because, darn! Look at those antlers!!) but we probably won’t run away and we’ll eventually love it.

Parents, teachers, interpreters, directors, policy makers…who ever you are, please realize that we recognize sincerity. We know when you care about what you are doing and we know when you care that we care.

When you take us outside or present a program to us, please pay close attention to our reactions and our needs. Sometimes we are hesitant to tell you. We like attention. Lots of attention. (You love us, right? Right?)

We need you to experience whatever it is that we are experiencing with us…even if you’ve seen it, touched it, done it a million times before. That is the magic YOU possess to capture OUR attention!

Just make it fun!

We are a techno generation. But that doesn’t mean that we have to learn everything through technology. Oh, we like it, but don’t think you have to make it beep or light up to get our attention.

Those of us who have crossed the great barrier and realized that nature is way cool and that being outside is “sweeeeeet!!” can tell you that the sound of the wind in the trees, the oxygen in our lungs, the song of a bird, the feel of sun on our face, the warmth of a campfire or a starry sky overhead cannot be improved through technology. Oh, it can be enhanced, but please realize that you can get our attention with the real stuff.

That is what it is all about anyway….being REAL! (Radical, Environmental, All-healthy and Longterm)


GEEKs in the Woods

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A solar epiphany

Energy Smarts article coverLooks like we spoke too soon. Financing is taking longer than expected, so we probably won’t close for another two weeks.

In the meantime, I’m reading up on electrical work and solar panels. Electricity is so cheap in Indiana that it’s hard to justify the expense of solar panels, especially given the other things we could be spending money on (like an electric scooter or a metal roof). There also aren’t any local subsidies for photovoltaics, although the federal subsidy is nice.

I’ve pretty much come to the conclusion that it’ll be best for us to start small and work our way up. Maybe put some solar panels on the garage to run the lights and stuff there. Of course, even that’ll need a pricey connection to the grid or an equally pricey battery system. If we do eventually get an electric scooter, it might be worth it to set up a solar system to charge that, since we’ll already have the batteries.

Even so, I still like to read about whole-house solar conversions. That particular article, about a couple in Vancouver who set up a whole-house system, was interesting and even inspirational! It lays out the steps they took and the cost of all of the components (in Canadian and US dollars). Their overall cost was about $10,000 (US), which seemed low compared to the systems I’ve priced before.

After getting curious and reading the article, rather than skimming the tables and pictures, I realized that it’s because getting solar panels wasn’t their first step. The first thing they did was to reduce their electrical usage to 3kW/day. That’s a little less than 1100kW a YEAR. At our electric prices, that would be about $80 a year. We spend more than that per month!

Okay, that’s not quite a fair comparison since our current place is heated by an electric furnace. Even in the summer, we spend about $60, which amounts to about 12kW/day. In addition to the energy saving techniques that we use (CFLs, air drying clothes, etc.), this couple replaced their old appliances. replacing those appliances reduced their electrical needs by 78%! If we could manage that kind of reduction, we’d be using less than 3kW a day as well.

While we’re still in the apartment, we can’t change appliances. It’s hard to know what to expect when we move into the house. Many of the appliances seem pretty old, so we might be able to cut our usage down to 3kW or less. On the other hand, it’s a lot more space to heat and cool and I’m not sure the ceilings are high enough to install ceiling fans.

In any case, I’ve decided to shift my focus from solar panels to efficient appliances. Reducing our consumption is a lot easier than trying to power it all with solar!

And I fully expect frequent commenter Andy to chip in with an I-told-you-so. He’s been saying the same thing for a while and it just hadn’t clicked for me. I may be slow, but I do get there in the end, Andy! 🙂

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Dreaming of Solar and other Green Home Additions

Yes, This is The House We WantRemember how we have been trying to buy a house? Well, it looks like we’ll be closing on our new (to us) home this Friday. It seems like every day our mortgage broker calls us with one last question.  For awhile, I couldn’t think about the house without getting stressed out but now I’m excited again. We have started whispering to each other at night about how glorious life will be as homeowners.

“We can have a real compost pile!”

“And a real garden. With perennials! Maybe even fruit trees!”

“We should totally get an Energy Star on-demand water heater.”

“Oh, and we should build a solar shower in the backyard!”

It’s a lot of fun although we’ve already had a few discouraging reality checks. The sellers had originally offered us $1000 so we could fix the roof on the garage (which is leaking) and so we started thinking about putting up a metal roof and collecting all the rainwater runoff. But then it turned out that the sellers felt like they might be short-changing us so they went ahead and replaced the roof… with more asphalt shingles. We can still collect the rooftop water and use it for irrigation; it just won’t be quite as pure and clean. Ah, well.

Our latest topic of discussion has been solar panels. Financially, it still doesn’t make much sense in this land of cheap electricity, but we love the idea of renewable energy. There is also a new group in town called the Southern Indiana Renewable Energy Network (SIREN) that is creating a cooperative dedicated to alternative energy. They are just getting started so the details are murky but the idea of having a group of people right here in Bloomington all working to create solar and wind and micro-hydro systems is totally awesome.

But first we have to get the house. Keep your fingers crossed on Friday at 9:00AM (ET).

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George Carlin’s still funny

As you may have read, George Carlin recently died of a heart attack. On my birthday this year, I posted about Carlin’s take on “stuff” (embedded below).

Carlin was always cynical and increasingly acerbic, but sometimes that’s the only way to get your ideas across. I didn’t always like his routines, but he usually said things worth hearing, which is a rarity among comedians.

As one obituary mentions, Carlin built bigger comedic bridges than almost anyone.

Of course, his best stuff is timeless, like his alternative story of stuff that’s just as useful (and funny!) today as it was when it was performed in 1986!

So let’s take a moment to remember the words of wisdom hidden in the comedy… and then get rid of some stuff.

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Great sites

LaptopI’ve been away from my normal list of blogs for several weeks now.  First, I was away on vacation and just took my work computer (in what turned out to be a highly optimistic move).  Then, more recently, my personal laptop started giving me blink codes.  For those of you who aren’t computer nerds, a blink code is what happens when your computer is broken so badly that it can’t use the screen and has to communicate by blinking the power light.

I took the laptop apart and cleaned it out some and that seemed to help, but in the process of updating my backups I managed to clear out my list of blogs.

Over the last several days, I’ve been adding blogs back as I think about them. That worked for Student Doctor Green, Arduous, Get Rich Slowly, and Amalah, which is a pretty diverse group. Now, though, I’ve hit a wall. I remember Unclutterer, Treehugger, and Planet Green, but not fondly enough to put them back on my list.

Here’s where you can help me procrastinate. What must-read blogs do you recommend? They can cover any topic. As you can see from the ones I’ve remembered, I have pretty eclectic tastes.

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My laziness gets me in trouble

Fire in a fireplaceIn my last post, I pointed to Wired’s article on heating vs cooling as a singular good article in the lackluster series. I did admit that they didn’t give much in the way of detail, but figured that was just a result of the space limitations.

Well, I should have been less lazy and taken a closer look. The online version of the article includes links to their sources and it turns out that Wired is comparing a one-room AC unit in Phoenix versus a whole-house furnace in New England. No wonder the New Englander fares so poorly!

I can see why they did that, though. It’s a lot harder to compare actual numbers than to fil out a state in an online calculator (that doesn’t explain how it arrives at its numbers). Apart from the difference in size, it also seems odd to me that they chose fuel oil, since most homes (that aren’t heated by electricity) are heated by natural gas.

With those criticisms in mind, I ran my own numbers, often using the same sources as the Wired article. Here’s what I turned up.

The Wired article says that the New Englander produces 13,000 lbs of CO2 in a season. Based on their source for pollution figures, that comes out to 80.55 million BTUs for the season. If they used natural gas instead of fuel oil, it’s only 115 lbs of CO2 (rather than 161 lbs) per million BTU, meaning that a home using natural gas instead produces only 9290 lbs of CO2 a season.

However, I found a NYT article that states the average New England home uses 65,000 cubic feet of gas per season. Using Wired’s source for pollution levels, natural gas produces 120.593 lbs of CO2 per thousand cubic feet.

Instead of 13,000 lbs of CO2, the average New Englander probably produces more like 7,840 lbs of CO2!

Now for the other side of the equation, which was quite a bit harder. I tried to estimate the size of the AC unit needed to cool a house but couldn’t find any numbers that matched. Eventually, I hit upon the idea of using the government’s energy efficiency rating (SEER) to figure it out.

In 1997, the average AC SEER was 10.66. Since it’s now illegal to sell AC systems of less than 13, I’ll assume that the average has moved up to 12 by now. As a side note, window units aren’t required to meet this standard, so they tend to be less efficient.

The average American home is 2349 square feet(!) according to the National Association of Home Builders (in 2004, so it should match well with the heating data I had from that year). A 12 SEER air conditioner uses 100 kWh per MBTU (by definition). Dividing the house size by 1000 gets us 2.349 MBTUs required to cool the house. According to a Kansas State University study, houses in the south west use 12 times the base rate per season, so the total MBTU needed is 28.188. Times 100 kWh gives us 2819 kWh for the season.

Arizona’s power is relatively clean compared to other states, since it mixes coal (bad) with nuclear (good). In terms of lbs of CO2 per kWh, Arizona is maybe a little high at 1.56, much higher than Idaho, which is far and away the best at 0.03, but significantly better than the worst, North Dakota at 2.24.

Given the energy usage for the season, the typical Arizona home will produce 4400 lbs of CO2 (2819*1.56).

Wired’s final numbers were 900 lbs for cooling and 13,000 lbs for heating, an incredible win for cooling. My numbers show that it’s much closer, with 4,400 lbs of CO2 produced while cooling and 7,840 lbs for heating. It’s sad that Wired couldn’t run the real numbers, since they support its point, although not by such a ridiculous amount.

Of course, the real numbers are much more nuanced. If you use passive solar in New England, you’ll cut your emissions considerably. By the same token, a geothermal heat pump in Arizona would significantly decrease your AC usage. And, in either place, a smaller home reduces your emissions. A better point than encouraging cooling over heating would have been to encourage people to get smaller houses.

Too bad that conclusion wasn’t sensational enough for Wired.

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Girl Scouts and Green Living

I’ve been helping out with Girl Scout day camp this week, teaching girls the basic outdoor skills of firebuilding and knot-tying.  I developed quite a reputation as “the lady who let us use matches.”  Pretty awesome when you’re eight years old, regardless of your gender.  I enjoyed volunteering and feeling like I did something useful in shaping the next generation.  I also enjoyed being reminded what girls are like – inquisitive, naive, stubborn, silly, intelligent, clueless, and frustrating – often all at the same time.

Day camp is filled with a variety of activities from swimming to craft-making to service project but there was one that caught my eye.  A couple of women came down from the Girl Scout office to survey the girls about what cookie sale prizes should be next year.  For those of you unfamiliar with Girl Scouts, cookie sales are a major revenue generator.  A portion of the sale of each box goes to the troop, another chunk goes to the Council (the local office) and a third chunk goes to the national organization.  There is an incentive system set up to encourage girls to sell as many boxes as possible so they can earn different prizes.  Every year there’s a theme of some sort.  Many of them involve animals – the last one I remember in detail was centered around cats.  If you sold X boxes you got a little patch with a cat, more boxes earned you a t-shirt with a cat, and even more boxes would get you a cat plush toy.

Well, this year apparently they are going with an ecological theme.  I didn’t get a close look at the prizes but it seems like they had things like stainless steel water bottles and maybe some sort of tiny solar panel.  To be honest, my first impression was “aack!  greenwashing!” but I think that was probably a harsh evaluation.  I’ve just been a little frustrated lately about all the green products being hawked and how it has become so trendy but on the other hand, it’s totally something in line with the girl scout mission and I’m excited to see the girls get educated about living more environmentally sound.

I’m just not sure we really need any fluorescent light bulb plush toys running around.

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Greenwashing, Wired style

WiredThe June issue of Wired has an article titled Inconvenient Truths: Get Ready to Rethink What It Means to Be Green. In it, a variety of authors give 10 counterintuitive “green” messages:

  1. A/C is okay
  2. Organics are not the answer
  3. Farm the forests
  4. China is the solution
  5. Accept genetic engineering
  6. Carbon trading doesn’t work
  7. Embrace nuclear power
  8. Used cars–not hybrids
  9. Prepare for the worst
  10. Curious (and maybe a little annoyed) yet? Immediately following is a one-page counterpoint that blasts them for focusing too much on just carbon. There’s something to Wired’s view that global warming is going to happen so quickly that we have to focus on it exclusively if that’s what it takes. On the other hand, if we just focus on reducing carbon emissions at all costs, my guess is that we’ll end up with another mess once we fix global warming. I’d rather focus on a holistic approach now rather than jump from crisis to crisis.

    That said, some of these little articles have real problems even assuming that all you care about is carbon emissions. Some of them even contradict each other! First, they suggest we live in cities (since they have great energy density). Then, they say that organic is less important than local. I agree, but how local can your food get if you’re living in a dense city?

    Another issue, which is probably related to their length, is that they gloss over a lot of alternatives. Sure, pure carbon trading may have some issues, but a cap-and-trade system is supported by just as many economists as the carbon tax plan they support (not to mention its success with acid rain). There’s also a lot of leeway between leaving old-growth forest entirely alone (which may produce carbon) and cutting it all down (where that carbon is sequestered in, say, newly-built wooden couches).

    There’s also a lot of ragging on “environmentalists,” although their picture of an environmentalist is pretty extreme. I know a lot of environmentalists who support nuclear power (at least in the medium term), are okay with genetically modified foods, and don’t think China is unequivocably bad (imagine that!). The worst case of that is the piece on keeping your SUV (rather than buying a new hybrid). I agree that it’d be wasteful to get rid of your current car and get a new one, no matter what its gas milage, but most people getting a hybrid are doing it in lieu of a different new car, in which case that’s entirely appropriate.

    The one shining ray of light in this piece is the description of A/C, despite the strawman characterization that environmentalists don’t want people to live in hot areas. The basic point is that it costs a lot more (in terms of carbon emissions) to heat rather than to cool, at least in part because you have to modify the temperature more. Even in sunny Arizona, you’ll never have to cool more than 40 degrees (less with a nice ceiling fan); in the cold north, you might have to heat up to a difference of 60 degrees or more! The numbers they come up with a pretty incredible, although I’m not sure how much the difference in emissions is based on the assumptions they made about what fuels people are using.

    Overall, I’m sure it’s achieved what Wired wants: lots of pageviews and lots of discussion. I just hope that it’s not at the expense of encouraging people to knee-jerk against saner environmental solutions.

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