Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Toilet Toil (part one)

John here.

To live in an ecologically minded, sustainable way, as much thought has to go into your consumables after they've been consumed, as went into their preparation. Let's be clear here: I'm talking about excrement. The fact that the topic is shied away from in polite culture is part of the problem with how we deal with it, or rather, don't deal with it. We simply flush it down toilets with perfectly good drinking water and send it to a central location to be treated, along with everyone else's leftovers, by an array of organisms and chemicals, out of sight and out of mind. There are plenty of problems with our waste management practices, which don't need to be delved into right here. Let it be enough to say that we have decided, for various reasons, to seek an alternate, and more direct method to manage our byproducts.

Introducing: the composting toilet.

This is usually the part where someone, enviously listening to our plans and dreams, starts to furrow their brow and mentally take a step or two back. Granted, crapping into a bucket sounds like a great place to draw the line between environmentally-minded home builders and back-woods-creating-a-bunker-for-the-up-coming-apocalypse nutsos. The truth is, modern composting toilets (and even some well designed buckets) are truly eloquent, ingenious solutions to a wide-spread problem. Ours arrived a couple days ago.

It's a Sun Mar Excel AC/DC. It has a high enough capacity to handle the two of us and guests full time, and will eventually be the permanent (and only) toilet in our house. The finished compost has no smell, looks like really nice soil and can be used to fertilize flowers and trees. The unit pulls a small amount of electricity to run a fan and heating unit, and can run on direct current in a privy until the house is built.

We built the privy earlier out of someone's deconstructed deck, three different houses' siding scraps, some corrugated tin and, for a touch of true class, someone else's left over bamboo flooring. Earthwise again. It's situated between the Yome and the future site of our shop, shaded by some green alders, and lit at night with a battery-powered LED. We were pretty excited to bring the toilet out and hook it up.

As it turns out, we were unprepared. Really unprepared. A 12 volt fan, I've since learned, will not run off of a 12 volt battery. To run the fan enough for aerobic composting (the kind that doesn't smell), we actually need a deep cycle battery and a 10 volt solar panel, neither of which we brought with us or had a source for in Kingston. We decided to set up everything else in the meantime, and quickly found that we had left our battery powered drill in Seattle and had no way of installing the vent. We sat under the maple, had a glass of whiskey and left.

to be continued......

Thursday, July 22, 2010

Yome Raising

Yep. It lives. The Yome is up and functional. The installation was pretty flawless, so those reading for a train wreck will have to wait. The Yome went up in a mere 5 hours, one of which was lunch. Granted, we were ready, chompin at the bit to get it up, and had a perfect volunteer for
the day. Wiley is the Prop Mananger at Intiman, is 6'8, for those of you who don't know him, and having his mass on site proved invaluable.

The kit arrived from Red Sky Yomes last friday and we took it out to the land saturday morning. Wiley met us at the ferry dock ( it is so easy and we are a mere 2.5 miles from the dock.
We will pick you up, too.... just sayin) we got to work by 11.

I write this sitting in my backyard in Georgetown, watering the plants and thinking about all the things that need to happen to make this dream actual. The roadblocks feel staggering at times. The possibilties are endless. I keep coming back to "one step at a time" and this Yome raising was an exercise in seeing steps come to life. All of the work for the platform, the searching for land, was waiting for this moment. Seeing the Yome raised, raised my belief that the whole dream can come to life, but it has to happen in tiny steps. Each task takes longer than expected and looking at the whole can be, frankly, frightening. For instance, as I water my garden in Seattle I am thinking about how we can take care of 5 acres with native plants, how and when a greenhouse can go up, and where should we get the water company to run a spigot (provided they ever get back to us).

But I digress... TheYome went up with only a few hitches. One hitch turned out to be with ladders. We had a 12 ft ladder, we needed a 6 ft ladder, and this proved to be important. The
roof of the Yome has a built in skylight/ventalation hole that the entire structure is built from. We ended up having Wiley put the wooden ring around his neck and stand there while John and I ran around building the roof structure onto it. His patience mirrors that of Job.

The rest came together pretty easily, one step at a time. The cool thing about the Yome is that the sticks are all designed as turnbuckles. So you put it all together, skin it with the canvas, and then the structure pieces turn, causing the frame to expand and stretch the canvas to drum like tightness. Pretty great design.

Over the last two days we brought out a bed, table, chair and kitchen hutch and got to work turning the yome into a genuine place to live. Even furnished, we were surprised by how spacious it feels, thanks to the high, outward-sloping walls, the copious natural light and 12ft roof. It's comfortable. And at night, the oil lamps make the whole thing glow against the dark backdrop. Tried, but failed, to capture that in pictures. Kind of didn't want to leave. I think that's a good sign.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

Yome wasn't built in a day...

So.. the importance of reading your property boundaries has become apparent. In true John and Christy style, enthusiasm took over and adequate research took a backseat. Let me back up just a moment: We got the wedges framed in a day. We skinned them in the cedar planks in two. Sanding took some time and we insulated them with recycled cellulose in a few dirty hours. We backed them. The pieces were labeled to fit together and bolt holes were pre-drilled. We felt like we thought of everything. And we almost had.

Thanks in large part to Intiman, the theater where I work, we were able to get the wedges built very thoroughly. All we had to do was get them out to MFW and assemble. (a shout-out to Intiman for letting us use their truck. They are very heavy!)

Last weekend we went out to the land with Anne Blackburn and Maridee Slater (who rock). Nestled in an alder grove and situated near the edge of the property, we found the perfect site for our Yome. The ground was far from level, so the plan went like this:

1) hold up a wedge 2) mark the spots for the deck piers 3) level the ground for the piers (done with a crow bar. To quote Anne: "the tools you start with....." 4) lift the wedge again and measure down to pier 5) cut 4X4s and bolt to wedge 7) lift pier AGAIN and screw into place 8) repeat x 7. Lift, plumb, level, lift, measure, cut, lift, screw.....

That weekend we got 4 out of 7 wedges done. It wasn't until the ferry ride home that we got a call from our neighbor informing us that we had built the platform in the easement. "The what?" "The easement. The 30 ft easement that allows the strip between our properties to be considered a green belt, and the old growth cedars to remain protected." "Oh."

Back we go several days later to take down the platform and move it 8 ft. EIGHT FEET. This time we were fortunate enough to have the help of our great friends Joseph Sheedy and Nora Bennet. It was 4th of July weekend and they biked out to meet us on the land. We got the platforms taken down, moved, AND put back together in just a few hours. Oh, the beauty of having already figured out a system and having able bodies to enact it!

After it was all bolted together and tight, we sealed over all of our bolt holes to protect the insulation and gave the whole shebang two coats of tung oil. Tung oil is the sap from the tung tree and it gives the cedar a finish to protect it from wear and tear. Now if only the rest of us could be protected so nicely... I , for one, am slightly bruised and sore.

Coming soon.... the trials of the composting toilet.