Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Beating the System

An important milestone happened recently. Christy and I have discussed at length, and agreed upon, what kind of people we are. Before you start suggesting alternative descriptions, let me explain a bit....

Our discussions have centered around the topic of building codes. Codes exist for a reason, and those who enforce them really do have our best interest at heart. I know this. Hell, government departments know more about building a house than I do, so it's hard to start criticizing their guidelines. The conflict, and there IS a conflict, starts with the concept behind our mission.

As a short refresher, our mission is to look at building a home in a new light, use unconventional, found and recycled materials and integrate new technologies in hopes of creating the most environmentally friendly home we can in a way which will prove to be sustainable for us and our surroundings.

Building codes and inspectors, as genuinely good-hearted as they may be, are generally on the duller side of the cutting edge and much more risk-averse than us. We can spend hours extolling the virtues of home-milled lumber, alternative insulations, biofuel heating or composting and greywater systems. Unfortunately, it's not you we have to convince, it's the skeptical professionals in charge of overseeing our work.

IF they oversee our work....

We own MFW outright. No bank has any vested interest in how it is developed. Only one house can see anything we build and it belongs to Dane, who sold us the land and has said very plainly "I'm not going to to tell anyone" if we take liberties with our building design. Here in lies the dilemma: Do we go about our business, hidden by the shade of trees, in pursuit of a goal not yet recognized by forces that be, or do we work in the open and take on the extensive task of convincing regulatory bureaucrats of the virtues of sustainable building?

The answer: Work in the open and force the system to accept us. Yeah, sounds great, huh?

There are a few reasons for our plans. Since this homestead is going take every last cent Christy and I have, we want to have at least the small safety net of home insurance. If anything happens to our house that we can't afford to fix and we didn't have any insurance, it would mean living the rest of our lives in a Yome. Even if we do decide sometime in the unforeseeable future to sell MFW, it would be damn near impossible with a house on it that's not built to code. Lastly, it would shroud our project in secrecy. A large part of this project for us is in sharing what we learn and encouraging others to follow in our footsteps. We wouldn't be able to do that, or even keep this blog if we were constantly worrying about someone knocking on our salvaged door and asking for our certificate of occupancy.

We now have that settled. We are officially on the up-and-up, the high road, swimming up stream, bending the laws to our own wills, making waves, challenging the status quo, acting as thorns in the socks of the county's governmental agencies whose job description involves the repression of new ideas, the discrimination against experimentation and advancement.... you get the idea.

The most immediate consequence of this decision is that we will now have to convince the county, before they approve our building plans, that it's possible to live without a septic system. It would cost us all of $15,000.00 to put in a septic system for our house, and what really hurts is the fact that we don't plan on using it. We will be composting all of our blackwater via our composting toilet and a yet-to-be-figured-out sink composting system, and routing our greywater to the garden.

The health department told me, in a cursory phone conversation, that it's possible, in theory, to create such a system. We would still need to keep a 100% reserve area on the land which could hold a septic system, and a county-approved expert would have to do yearly inspections of our composting systems to make sure they are working effectively and not creating a health hazard.

Awesome! Right?

Well, at the moment there is no such expert that the county knows of or recognizes to do any sort of inspection. That's a bit of a hang up, eh? The plan for now is to collect as much information as we can from other people who have built similar systems on an experimental basis, drop a boat load of research proving the safety of composting on the desk of the health deartment and work with them to find someone we can both agree on to check up on our decompositioning.

This is just the beginning....

In lighter news, we're pickling green tomatoes for the first time and will be sure to report on our results!

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Our Life with Trees

John here, a bit overdue for a new post. We've been spending more and more time in the Yome, and I'm happy to say that it is feeling more and more like home, and we are becoming more and more comfortable with the thought of living in 250 square feet for potentially a few years. Puget Sound is currently experiencing a much appreciated revival of summer amidst an unprecedentedly early fall, which we are taking full advantage of, but I'll try my damnedest not to let idle pleasure interrupt our bloggatory check ins.

So, trees.

Douglas fir, Cedar, Cherry, Alder, Apple, Hemlock, Plum.... They feed us, we nap in their shade, build with them and burn their generous corpses for heat. We've been dealing with them in all forms and stages of life this last week.

The first story starts with my good friend and band mate, Richard Webb, who is a professional
arborist; he spends the better part of his week pruning, caring for and taking down trees. On a recent job he took down a particularly old cherry tree, 20 feet high and about 3 1/2 feet around. Cherry is a really dense, lovely and expensive wood used largely in furniture making. The owners of the tree didn't have any use for the wood, so Richard called me to see if we wanted it. Now, Christy and I have been talking for some time about buying a portable mill to harvest the usable lumber on our land. We also spend a lot of time looking at craigslist's "Free" section, as well as freecycle.org, so there's no way we were going to turn it down. It's currently curing under a tarp near the yome until it's ready to be turned into a book shelf and maybe some counter tops. Chime in if you have a recommendation on a reliable and affordable mill.

When Richard moves to NYC in a couple of months, I may be buying his chainsaw from him. One way or another we will need one to make use of the extensive wind-felled lumber in our woody haven, since our future house will be heated exclusively by our little wood stove. Since we don't have one yet, we picked up some pre-seasoned fire wood on craigslist to make it through the winter. About 1/2 of a chord of doug fir. Berry and Stacey Wenzel came along to help me stack it in the wood shed near the yome. Christy recently had her first go at wood chopping, an activity which will forever more have an important place in our lives!

Speaking of wood stoves, we christened our little Aspen last weekend! A new stove takes a few starter fires to temper, and to burn off the smell of new cement and paint, which is rather pungent. For our third fire, we got the thing rip-roaring hot and fed it for a few hours. I'm ecstatic to announce that our uninsulated canvas abode was a veritablle sauna during, and long after the event. We even cooked on it, very successfully. There are no longer any concerns about being cold, even during what is supposed to be a wet, potentially snowy winter. I only look forward to extending my repertoire of stews!

The last of my arboreal reports deals not with fire wood, lumber or future furniture. Instead, it deals with the continuation of the life cycle, with youth and promising futures.....

We planted trees!

We can now count on a steady supply of rainfall and non-threatening temperatures, making this the ideal time to introduce some little saplings to their new home. We've been excited about this process since we signed papers. Planting trees is a way of promising our commitment to the land. It will be years until they reach full grown tree status, and we'll still be here to see it. In fact, we can follow the growth of our burgeoning homestead with that of it's new residents!

We planted a fig tree, apple tree and a plum tree. The fig was a gift from me to Christy, the apple a gift from her to me and the plum tree is a shared investment. They seem to be taking well to the new surroundings and are protected by a make-shift fence from our hungry neighbors:

Stay tuned for the beginning floor plans of our house, Christy commanding an excavator, and the construction of an entirely salvaged green house!

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

A glance back and forward

I am feeling like it is time for a bit of a review, what with fall upon us and that back- to- school feeling floating in the air. We have spent a very busy summer working, both at jobs and the land, and haven't given much time to the general contemplation of the direction of our path. I re-read our little blog here a few days ago and felt like an over-arching view was necessary. I mean, we have the "mission" page that reads like a Bruckheimer film trailer and all of our posts detailing the actual labor, but we are using this blog as a tool for us as well, and a more comprehensive list feels in order. So here goes.
What we hope to accomplish by this winter:

1) Yome in place, with a functioning heat source

2) Composting toilet functioning in private building

3) Running water

4) A system in place for living. Meaning: a place to wash dishes, a place to wash ourselves, a way to cook, a way to store food. This one is a big one.  The need to have a functioning way of life while trying to develop a new way of life.

5) Woodshop outbuilding, measuring 25ft x 30ft

6) A garden plan with a fence in place

7) Greenhouse so we can have a place to start spring veggies.

8) A plan for a house.

Now.... in order of our list... how are we doing on these things?!?!

1) Check! The Yome is up, functioning heat source in place ( haven't sparked it yet, but that is only out of lack of need) with a solid, insulated deck. It is furnished and we have enough oil lamps to keep us functioning beyond daylight hours. Yeah!

2) Half-check. The toilet is in its own private home and the path to it is blackberry free, but due to the lack of power we cannot run the fan to operate it yet. Hopefully soon. I don't want to rant about Puget Sound Energy, but suffice it to say, I have had enough of them to warrant a trip down there with a " I am not leaving until you answer my questions" attitude. That is tomorrow's task.

3) Check!  We have running water!  That was a very fun and simple process with great rewards. We recently read a book on Homesteading that quoted a survey asking people from 1957- present day what they thought their necessities were in ranking order. Somewhere in the Mid-nineties, people starting saying things such as their dishwashing machine, cable TV, and Internet. Curiously, electricity, heat and water disappeared from the lists about the same time. The miracle of water on demand cannot be taken lightly, and I certainly felt the awe of seeing water pour onto our land. We will be getting most of water from rain catchment, but given that we don't have a building to catch it on, and wells are restricted in our area, municipal water was our answer for now.

4) Check!  We have a cute little covered cleaning area with a sink and a drying rack for our dishes. We have a solar shower ( about to be rendered useless) and a washtub for wintertime bathing by the wood stove.  We dug a hole in the ground and lined it with a cooler, which is serving as cool storage for perishables.  Most of all, we have spent enough time there to have a feel of home.

5) This is one is hard. We know what we want, and we have cleared the area of bramble and blackberries, but we have yet to find a plan that we can get approved by the power company. Frankly, they seem unable to tell us what they need.   In order to get plans approved, we have to dig a trench 430 ft long x 3 ft deep. Said trench has to cross a road.  We are simply unclear about how to bridge this bureaucratic ravine.   The shop we need is only about 100 square feet less than the house we are planning; it is a decent size building. We are hoping and working towards having a foundation in place with stud walls and a roof up by the time the weather turns us toward the "reading" season.

6) 1/4 check. The garden has been planned on paper, the area staked out, and half of the trench dug around it. The garden will be huge at nearly 2, 200 square feet. In prospective, the house we are planning is 800 square feet.  More on this later....

7) We are collecting windows for the greenhouse, as we would like for it to be all found windows. I like the look of a random-window greenhouse, and we both like the free price tag.

8) We have some preliminary drawings from the architects and are excited about having people who know how to negotiate the codes ( see note 5) and are getting back to the whimsy of how we want it to look and function.  Pulling inspiration from cob buildings, tree-houses, earth-ships and all sorts of DIY'ers, we are having fun with how to integrate our own lumber from the land and how to use unexpected materials.

I started this post out of a need to see our progress in list form and get a handle on our time-frame. It is a danger to leave every weekend feeling like "ahh... we didn't get enough done!" and then work all week and then repeat the next weekend. This perpetual motion leads to burn out. WAY too soon to be feeling burned out... I am taking a nice look at our work and feeling pretty good about the progress. At the the end of the weekend, we are on our own schedule and no time-frame but the one self-imposed. It is important to do things in the right order, so that we do them once. Those of you keeping up with this process will remember the Yome deck  having to be moved when we didn't read about our easements.

Lesson learned.

The notion of building a Homestead, as opposed to a house, has been a phrase that I have shied away from until very recently. It felt too Back to the Lander, but as we build on and learn in short experiments, I am more enamored of the "Homestead".   Hurry up spring, so we can get some chickens!

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Pipe Dreams

Fall is upon us in the great Northwest. The air is brisk, the clouds are returning and the deciduous trees are beginning their annual striptease. According to our resident atmospheric scientist Joseph Sheedy's mentor, Cliff Mass, us here in the Puget Sound Convergence Zone are in for a wet and potentially snowy season...... a perfect time to be installing a wood stove!

We bought our wood stove, Vermont Casting's attractive little Aspen, new from a retailer in Seattle. The price of a wood stove in good condition and up to current EPA guidelines on craigslist has proven to be only slightly cheaper than buying a new one, so we decided to suck it up and get one that comes with a warranty. The Aspen can potentially heat up to 1000 square feet, so it will eventually be the main source of heat in our house when it's built. Cute, ain't it?

The Yome has a piece of fiberglass flashing in one wall specifically for a wood stove pipe. Once the pipe exits the Yome, it takes a 90 degree turn and rises 9ft to put it above the steeply pitched roof for reasons having to do with air pressure and suction that I only kind of understand. According to the Yome's instructions, the best way to support this external length of pipe (which would usually be attached to the side of a building) is, essentially, to "devise a system."


Luckily, devising systems happens to be a specialty of ours...

Knowing the eventual height of the contraption we would be building, I went to Earthwise and used a technique taught to me by Christy for just such a task: Clear your mind of any preconceptions and walk around with glazed eyes until something jumps out and suggests to you that it might be useful. It's amazing how well that works in a salvage yard! I ended up leaving with three 21ft lengths of steel pipe and a fuzzy mental picture of a tripod.

We spent labor day weekend with our good friends Chris and Arianne, their dog Lamont and the aforementioned Mr. Sheedy: a real dream team of getting-stuff-done! After a few trips to the hardware store and a lot sketching and debating, a system was devised
using the steel pipe, some bolts, flat stock pounded with a hammer to an imprecise angle and a hose clamp. 2ft holes were dug for the feet of the tripod and we "measured" (guessed) the needed length of each pipe with Joseph and Chris precariously holding the stove pipe in place on a ladder. We made our cuts and built the thing on the ground.

With the sun on it's way past the horizon, we nervously vaulted the three poles, stove pipe dangling between them, off the ground and crab-walked the new contrivance into place. There was a shout of amazement from all involved when the legs sunk into the holes and left the stove pipe RIGHT WHERE WE FREAKING WANTED IT! First plan, first try, no problems! Unprecedented. We filled the holes half way with concrete and the damn thing stayed in place all night!

Of course it wasn't all going to be that easy. I ended up buying a length of uninsulated stove pipe where insulated pipe was called for, so there was no comforting fire that night. I've since swapped out the pieces and will be back in the next couple of days to attach the outside pipe to the stove.

I have dreams of a toasty Yome in winter, with a stew cooking on top of the Aspen and 2 cats huddled next to it....

Thanks to Chris, Arianne and Joseph for helping that miracle take place, as well as digging our earthen refrigerator, putting a roof over the sink and getting an amazing start on trenching around the garden for our rodent-deterring fence!

Oh yeah, and the french toast!

Stay tuned for our 1/2 acre garden Master Plan and our attempt at getting a wood shop design approved!

Friday, September 3, 2010

H2O, Wood Stove and Work Party!

Well, after a bit of digging and pipe-cementing and a surprisingly minimal amount of bureaucratic negotiation and paper signing, we have running water! I know what you're thinking, and yes, municipal water certainly does make us less self sufficient. Unfortunately well digging is not an option for our land, and the four season stream the runs through it is not sufficient enough to warrant pumping it uphill. With the rain we will be catching (there's quite a bit of it up here, after all), low flow faucets, the composting toilet, an absence of large water-draining appliances (dish washer, clothes washer, etc), and the increasingly complex grey water system we're designing, we should be able to keep our use to a minimum. For now the water is running to a yard hydrant in the garden area for convenient refilling of our DIY sink and shower.

This weekend we'll be setting up the wood stove we got for the yome (which I'm sure will comprise a hilarious post in the near future), building a more permanent temporary shower and begin enacting our master plan for the garden (also the subject of an upcoming post)! Let me know if you would like to come along, as someone needs to eat all these tomatoes we've grown.

I'd also like to give a brief shout out and some inter-blog love to the fine people at Homegrown Evolution, whose book The Urban Homesteader has been a huge influence and inspiration to us on our various undertakings. And they're doing it all in Los Angeles, for Christ's sake! That takes some serious guts. Their blog is always a good read and seemingly infinite source of projects that get added to our already overflowing list.

Christy has already started cooking for you, you beautiful little volunteer laborers you!