Not So Grim

Halloween is far and away my favorite holiday.
It is even better in the southern hemisphere where it is light until 8 o’clock.
I’ve been doing far more sowing recently than reaping.
We are getting ready for the River City Garden Awards.
But there is also plenty of reaping too.
And even some lawn “mowing.”
If you are in the market for a scythe, always buy a hammered Austrian scythe. It is worth the price. Speaking of Europe, it appears that they have been reaping a large harvest of discontent, which they sowed very effectively over the last decade. It’s almost pitch fork season in Transylvania.
Peace, Estwing

The $2,000 Bathroom

When many people think of renovation they think of kitchens and bathrooms. It is not uncommon for Kiwis or Americans to spend over $20,000 on such projects. The perception is that such investments will increase the resale value of the home. Under an outdated paradigm this may have been true. But now, as many are aware, conditions have changed.
Instead of splashing out for a flash kitchen and a flash bathroom at $20,000 each, we have invested about 10% of that in each and spent the bulk of our money on insulation, solar hot water, a multi-fuel stove and a new roof. But what, you may ask, does a $2,000 bathroom look like? You’ll find a run-down below. But first, the “before” picture.
This “room” had been the kitchen with a painted timber floor and a hardboard ceiling, most of which had been removed, with some sheets still in the removal process aided by gravity. The corner of the room to my left now looks like this.

Linoleum: $50 on TradeMe (3 metres by 3 metres)

Sink: $20 at Hayward’s Auctions

Toilet: $99 at the Renovator’s Centre

Lights: $20 on TradeMe

Medicine Cabinet: Mirror ($15 at Hayward’s Auctions) and Drawer ($1 on TradeMe)

Bath: $55 on TradeMe

Bath Taps: $150 at Mitre 10 (New)

Curved Curtain Rod: $12 at Hospice Shop

Seratone Panels: $400 at Mitre 10 (New)

Towel Racks: $2 at Hayward’s Auctions

Laundry Tub: Traded other materials for store credit at Renovator’s Centre

Washing Machine: $700 at Mitre 10 (New) *Not included in total

Cabinet: $15 at Hayward’s Auctions

Other expenses:

Paint: $90 at Mitre 10 (New)

Plumbing Parts and Services: $1,000

Electrical Parts and Services: $100

Total: $2,029

I’m not including the price of the washing machine because that is not a usual bathroom expense. I’m also not including the cost of replacing the ceiling because most people who spend $20,000 would not to have to replace their ceiling either. This is not meant to be the definitive eco-thrifty bathroom, as the available second hand resources will always vary. This is about as good as we could do in our particular place at this particular time while following the NZ Building Code and keeping down costs and ecological footprints.

Tread lightly, Estwing

Keep it Comfortable

This post is part of The Little House That Could series, designed for upper primary school and lower intermediate school children. The academic curriculum that accompanies these posts was developed by the ECO School with partial funding from Wanganui District Council and administrative support from the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

One problem that happens sometimes with passive solar houses is that they can get too hot even in the middle of winter. For instance, once when we were house sitting in Raglan, the temperature inside the house could reach almost 30 degrees in the late afternoon just from sunlight. This happened because it had lots of windows facing north that let the sun inside, but most of the energy from the sun heated the air. But overnight the heat would escape and by the next morning it would be 12 degrees inside. A graph of the temperature would look like this.

This graph shows that it’s hot during the day and cold at night. You might as well live outdoors! The reason for this is because the house had lots of windows in the right places, but not enough “thermal mass” inside to absorb the heat during the day and let it out slowly at night. An example of thermal mass is our brick patio. Even an hour after sunset the bricks still feel warm. In a way, the bricks are like rechargeable batteries because they can store the sun’s energy like a battery stores electricity. But when the energy runs out they need to be recharged.

But of course the patio is outside. We want more thermal mass inside. To get an idea of what might be a good example of thermal mass, think of water and anything that sinks in water. We might call these things “heavy.” Anything that floats in water is not so good as thermal mass, but is better as insulation. That’s what the next post will be about.

So how do we get thermal mass inside our house that is up on piles? Here are a few ways.

Our iron bath.

Our Multi-fuel Stove

Extra layer of GIB on some walls.

We put the bath, the stove and the extra GIB all along the northwest-facing interior wall as shown in the picture below.

The winter afternoon sun shines directly on them, and instead of our house overheating, it gets up to 22 or 23 degrees. Then as the house cools down at night, the heat stored in the bath, stove and GIB goes into the air space of the house. A graph of the temperature in a house that gets lots of sunlight but also has enough thermal mass and insulation would look like this.

This graph shows that it gets warm during the day but not too hot, and it cools down at night but doesn’t get cold. Goldilocks might say that this is “Just right!”

Any questions or comments?

Peace, Estwing

Brains Not Brawn in the Garden

At the ECO School, we believe in making the highest quality sustainability education affordable. Money should never be a barrier to getting top notch information to people of moderate means, and delivering that information expertly by making it logical, practical, relevant, easy to understand, and teaching to multiple intelligences.
We reach the world through the Web, and we reach out in our community (and those communities where we are invited) by working with teachers in schools, presenting to community groups, running workshops and offering consulting services. Most of our local initiatives are payable 100% in REBS, our local currency, meaning anyone can join that network and attend a workshop “on credit” and “pay” for it later by offering their own talents to the REBS network. And on top of that, all of our workshops and consulting services are designed to help people save money. In most cases, the cost of the education pays for itself in a matter of months, and after that it is all savings. Compare that to the average US or NZ university degree!
By far our most popular and most successful workshop has been “Organic Weed Control: Human Scale Design and Management” aka, “Low-Maintenance / High-Productivity Gardening.” We’ve trained over 300 people over the last four years in Australia, USA and New Zealand with excellent feedback. We will be offering this workshop on Sunday, November 13th from 1 to 5 pm here on Arawa Place. Some aspects of the programme include:
• Designing garden beds with the mantra, “Tools, Timing, Technique.”
• Improving germination rates in chunky soils.

• Tips for transplanting, spacing, staking, propagating and pruning tomatoes.
• The judicial use of mulch, and growing great garlic and onions.

• Super lazy, super productive pumpkin patches.
• Eco-thrifty compost making. For more details, click here.
And while you’re here, check out the rest of or eco-thrifty landscaping…
… including our almost finished brick patio. (John and Amy, Come back and help us complete it!)
And, most importantly, someone tell me the name of this plant. It has a thick, perennial woody root but the foliage dies back in winter. It grows everywhere in our sandy section.

Pre-registration required. Contact us through the ECO School. As always, discounted rate for our neighbors in Castlecliff.
Peace, Estwing

Sunrise, Sunset

This post is part of The Little House That Could series, designed for upper primary school and lower intermediate school children. The academic curriculum that accompanies these posts was developed by the ECO School with partial funding from Wanganui District Council and administrative support from the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

It was August, 2011, and the little blue house on Arawa Place in Wanganui had almost been renovated.

Before and After
And then it happened…

… the coldest week in recorded New Zealand history. Times were tense.
And the plumber had not come to install the wood burner. What to do? We could just turn on the electric heaters, but that would cost a lot of money. Luckily, we had a plan. We renovated our home to be heated by the sun in winter. This is how it works.
The sun rises and sets in different places at different times of year. In the winter, it rises in the northeast and sets in the northwest. During our renovation, we added windows on the northeast and northwest and removed windows on the southeast and southwest.
The winter morning sun comes into our lounge and our kitchen at a low angle.
The midday sun comes in our French doors on a low angle.
And the afternoon sun, well look at all that we do with it!
In the winter, the sun appears low in the sky, so the sunlight reaches deep into a home.

We put the lounge, kitchen, bathroom and dining room on the north side of the house because those are the places we like to be when we are awake. The bedrooms are on the south side. We use hot water bottles in bed.
Even though that was a cold week, with snow in Auckland and Wellington and even Wanganui, it was also a very sunny week. Cold and sunny are perfect conditions for Passive Solar Design. That is the name for what we’ve done. And how did it work?
Celsius – Top is indoors & bottom is outdoors – Farenheit
These are the indoor and outdoor temperatures when we closed our thermal curtains at 5:30 pm. Good one, eh?

Peace, Estwing

Organizing a Working Bee

A working bee, “permablitz,” or PET day (People Energy Transfer) can be useful for working on a big project, for building community and for providing informal education. However, poor planning can make them stressful and counterproductive. Failing to plan is planning to fail. Before 2 to 22 people show up on your property, it pays to be organized and prepared. Here are a few words of advice for running a smooth and productive bee.
First, make sure that you have a project that is labor intensive but requires low skills. In this case, I wanted to “renovate” this garden bed.
But I also had other chores ready, like turning the compost pile and building a new compost pile.
A half an hour before anyone arrives, make sure you have all of your tools and materials ready to go. Most people don’t like standing around waiting for you to get organized if you leave it until after they arrive. Also, you’re not taking advantage of all of the “person hours” if you’re not prepared in advance.
Some tools can be paired and ready to go. For example, this couple is ready for someone to collect grass mulch from the other side of the house.
And finally, I like to have an example of what we’ll be doing already completed for people to see. As part of “renovating”this garden bed, I’ve put newspapers along the outside edges to help slow down invasive grasses such as couch and kikuyu.

It pays to be organized in order to get the most possible work done, but also to make sure it is done to your liking. Nothing is worse than having to undo something that someone has done poorly because lack of clear directions.

And don’t forget to make it fun, and share a cuppa afterward.
Peace, Estwing

Coming Attractions

We are pleased to announce an upcoming innovative cross-curricular programme that we have designed for schools in the Wanganui District. Feel free to follow along in the weeks to come. Here is a preview.

The Little House That Could

Curriculum Overview

Introduction: The Little House That Could programme is designed for learners at Levels two and three, and includes four learning areas of The New Zealand Curriculum: science, maths, the arts and English. The scientific foundations of passive solar design are presented first in a science unit. This is followed by a combined maths, English and arts unit on eco-design and communication. All of the units are presented as clearly and concisely as possible for ease of implementation.

The Story: The Little House That Could is introduced in a narrative style intended to “hook” students with a recent significant event that made headlines across New Zealand: The coldest week in recorded national history. An illustrated blog post tells the story of an incomplete passive solar renovation project and how it performed during this historic week of frigid, but sunny weather. The wood burner had not been fully installed when the cold southerly blew in…

…but the little house that could…

To be continued at:…

A series of interactive posts follow that allow students to post questions.

The Science Unit: Based on the age and ability of pupils, a number of science activities are suggested and described to varying degrees in the attached science unit. They address the basic elements of passive solar design: sunlight energy, thermal mass and insulation.

The Combined Maths, English and Arts Unit: This integrated unit is presented as a cross-curricular approach to meeting learning objectives of the New Zealand Curriculum. It is presented in its entirety, and individual teachers can adapt it to their students’ needs.

The Little House That Could programme was developed by The ECO School with financial support from the Wanganui District Council and administrative support from the Sustainable Whanganui Trust.

Peace, Estwing

From Tar Sands to Tauranga…(and Taranaki)

Alliteration is about connecting and emphasizing words and sounds. Permaculture is about recognizing and maximizing beneficial relationships while minimizing or eliminating harmful ones. From my perspective, oil is doing a lot of harm to our planet, many of it’s living inhabitants and especially certain regional human communities. Of particular concern to me are the tar sand developments in Alberta, Canada. Talk about a carbon footprint and water pollution! My heart goes out to the native communities effected by these disastrous projects. In case you missed it, a 1,700 mile pipeline is proposed from Alberta to Texas and the final public hearing is in Washington D.C. today.
Meanwhile, we have our own oil catastrophe off the coast of Tauranga…

… and ongoing concern about deep water (sound familiar) oil drilling off the coast of Taranaki, and fracking around Mount Taranaki itself. I know lots of people who are gutted by all of these developments. Last March/April heaps of people drove to the East Cape to protest the Orient Explorer (under contract with Petrobras) doing a seismic survey of the Raukumara Basin. A friend of mine who is a professional geologist and amateur renovator and gardener pointed out how ironic it was that people drove all the way to the East Cape to protest the potential extraction of oil from the earth.
It is hard to disagree with him, but from my experience there is nothing a Greenie hates more than to have their own hypocrisy pointed out to them. Best to stay away from it. That is one reason that I push the economics of sustainable living over the environmental arguments. It is clear that world leaders are not willing to take serious action regarding climate change so why expect average citizens to do so? Many, many people have no problem arguing with science, but they may find it harder to argue with maths. For example, electric rates in NZ have increased just over 7% for the last 8 years. This translates into a doubling time of just under 10 years (using the “Bankers Rule of 7”). There is no reason to think that this rate will go down in the foreseeable future. Meanwhile, rates are set to increase in the USA as well.
And, in another meanwhile, both countries face inflation that outpaces wage increases. This means every year the gap between income and outgo narrows. Most Kiwis and Yankees have to live on less and less as time passes. These are mathematical truths. Can’t much argue with them, although undoubtedly some will try.
For reasons known only to people who want to influence “consumer” sentiment, food and energy are not included in US inflationary data. None the less, food and energy prices continue to rise with a high degree of correlation.
Back to permaculture and minimizing or eliminating harmful relationships. For most people living in OECD nations, oil, electricity and food come from “away” and are subject to volatile yet increasing prices controlled by people outside of their communities. The relationships between people and energy, food, lifestyle, comfort, security and quality of life are complex and variable. But the current mathematical reality indicates that the more that lifestyle and comfort rely on energy and food “from away,” the greater the risks to lifestyle, comfort and quality of life. From this perspective, the relationship between volatile and increasing energy and food prices and quality of life will be an increasingly harmful one as long as individuals, families and communities rely heavily on energy and food from outside sources.
The Eco-Thrifty Renovation seeks to demonstrate that humanity’s harmful relationship with energy (and particularly oil) can be greatly minimized not just for environmental reasons (ie, climate change, oil spills, etc.), and social reasons (ie, Alberta indigenous communities, low-lying Pacific Island nations, Louisiana fishermen, etc.), but also for economic reasons. Here is a thought experiment:
How would your life change if tomorrow the cost of your electricity, food and petrol doubled?
Think about it for a minute.
For us, the honest answer is not much at all. Check the maths:
Current electric use: 50 kWh/month at 25 cents per kWh, plus 38 cents per day line charge = ($12.50 in power) + ($11.40 in line charges) = $23.90
Doubled electric rate: 50 kWh/month at 50 cents per kWh, plus 38 cents per day line charge = ($25.00 in power) + ($11.40 in line charges) = $36.40
Current petrol use: less than 1 tank per month at about $100 to fill the tank = $90
Doubled petrol price: less than 1 tank per month at about $200 to fill the tank = $180
Current annual energy bill: around $1,366.80
Annual energy bill if rates doubled: around $2596.80
In our home, one person works about 40 hours per week for $15/hour. Working 48 weeks per year means our household income is about $28,800, minus 20% for taxes equals $23,040. As you can see, even with a doubling of energy costs they would make up only around 11% of our household budget. Not too bad.
The food bill is much harder to calculate because we don’t track it. But we have planted over 30 fruit trees and built 50 square meters of annual garden beds, and three poultry paddocks with the goal of ultimately growing half of our food on this 700 square meter section. Plus we have walkable access to fishing. The point is, even with a doubling of food prices we’ll still do fine. If that were to happen I imagine there would be so much social unrest that number crunching would become a low priority.
So how would you do with a doubling of energy and food prices? Good, bad, ugly? Let us know. Post a comment.
Peace, Estwing

How to Cook a Goat: Building Community One Koha at a Time

What does it mean when a mysterious stranger leaves a package hanging from your front door?
Containing the leg of a recently live goat?
Two questions come to mind: Who left this gift? How do you cook a goat? Our only previous experience with goat is the one we found dead on the beach and composted. That one now serves as fertilizer and a lawn ornament.
We do have some experience with Koha, a Maori custom of giving a contribution, often Kai, food. Our neighbor in Raglan gave us a bag of frozen white bait (Google it) over a year ago and we finally ate it last weekend as white bait fritters.
We have friends that we bartered garden design for smoked fish, preserved fruits and native plants, but they said the goat was not their doing. And so yesterday, when the young girls who climb our back fence to feed our ducks and chooks and get fed by us came by I asked them if they knew anything about the goat. One of them told me her uncle may have had something to do with it. I asked her how to cook it, and she said, “Everybody knows how to cook a goat.”
Shortly thereafter, she found our first duck egg. She was so proud of her find that she left a note for Dani.
So then, how do you cook a goat? On a sunny day, the answer is obvious.
With you own garlic from last season.
And some carrots and onions.
She was going great, but I also wanted to cook an apple crumble, so I fired up the pizza oven.
And finished the goat in there while the crumble took in the last rays of sunlight.
If anything, it was slightly overcooked in the end…
… but no one seemed to mind.
What goes around comes around. We have been working hard in our first 11 months here to build community while building a sustainable home and property from scratch. The latter is much easier than the former. If you have ever been new to a community you know how hard it can be to make friends. But we do believe that the good will we put out will come back to us as it did this week. The New York Times just ran an article on how the Greeks have taken up bartering with a passion lately. I believe the Argentineans did the same after they default a decade ago. It is clear that austerity measures are coming our way too, and the best way to prepare for them is cut your expenses and build your relationships. We have done both here on Arawa Place, and they are both paying us back.
Thanks to our 29th follower. Please help spread our message that being green is not expensive. We are proof.
Peace, Estwing


It is difficult to judge which piece of news was more devastating to New Zealanders this week: the unexpected credit rating downgrades from both Fitch and Standard & Poor’s, or the equally unexpected World Cup tournament ending injury to All Black stand out, Dan Carter. In the short term, neither development had much effect over the weekend: opposition Labour party leadership blew some hot air at the National government, and the All Blacks beat Canada 79 – 15. But the long term outlook for both offers significant challenges.

I’m neither a financial nor rugby analyst, but I reckon the Wallabies (if they beat the Springboks) could be as tough on the depleted ABs as the Aussie banks will be on indebted Kiwis. Another headline last week about the NZ Rugby Union claiming they may not be able to afford the send the ABs to World Cup 2015 brings up an equally interesting question: will England be able to host it? Current austerity measures in the UK are accompanied by civil unrest, and the 2012 Olympics are likely to run at a massive economic loss. How jolly will Ol’ England be after that?

Interestingly, there only seems to be one growth industry creating jobs. This headline from the USA.

Debt is dangerous. Personal debt is dangerous. Household debt is dangerous. Municipal debt is dangerous. National debt is dangerous. I don’t know how else to put it. This next headline is an example of what debt can lead to. I need not go into inflated housing prices, sketchy mortgage agreements, and people with eyes bigger than their wallets. But debt never forgets, and even people who walked away from their mortgages are being tracked down by debt collectors (see above) and the courts.

While I have no overt love of suburbs, I sold my 38 acre farm – among the most sustainable properties in North America – and now live in a suburb with plenty of poverty. We made this choice to demonstrate that living green and living on the smell of an oily rag are highly compatible. Our power bill is pennies per day, our transportation tab is similar, and our grocery bill is falling monthly as we convert a weed-infested lawn into vegetable gardens, food forests and poultry pastures. We have been fortunate that decades of fiscal conservatism has allowed us to do this without going into debt. But we also realize that this is extremely rare for individuals living in OECD nations. Considering that, the best, most sustainable, most genuine effort any government could make to help the PEOPLE live more sustainably ecologically and economically is to offer zero interest loans for energy efficiency measures in the home.

Insulation, solar hot water, Energy Star appliances, etc. pay a far better return on investment than any term deposit or certificate of deposit in any bank. Congratulations to the state of Massachusetts, USA for offering zero interest energy loans. It is time governments around the world followed suit and served the PEOPLE and instead of the BANKS.

Until then, live within your means, save your pennies, avoid debt and pay cash.

Peace, Estwing