20/20 Hindsight

The last three weeks have been busy for us and our short-term intern, Tom. Along with building wind screens, priming, painting, transplanting, fencing, and sistering up bearers and joists, we had some time to swing a bat. It turns out that Tom is a lifelong baseball player, and our local club has been short on the men’s fast pitch side. Not only did they recruit Tom, but they got me on the diamond too. We played our last game on Saturday afternoon (we won by scoring in the bottom of the last inning) and put Tom on a bus at 11 pm for an overnight ride to Auckland.

Team ECO School!

Tom joined us during a significant time of our project and our lives. After a year we are nearly finished with the renovation, but other opportunities and projects have arisen to take its place.

And as the days grow longer, our gardens – patches of earth covered with weeds and rubbish 13 months ago – are flourishing.

We have 32 fruit trees in the ground, 6 chooks, 3 muscovies, but no pear trees and no partridges. We do, however, have an awesome outdoor pizza oven shown below.

The most significant successes we’ve had have involved the passive solar redesign of the villa.

The term “left for dead” has never been more appropriate when applied to a house.

But we had vision and after a year, that vision has turned into hindsight.

I wrote this for the local paper on a last minute plea from a friend who is coordinating a weekly column on conservation issues. It is an unedited first draft, but I think it makes the point.

Twenty-Twenty Hindsight: A Year of Living Lightly on the Planet

We are now over the 12-month mark of renovating an abandoned villa in Castlecliff into a warm, dry energy-efficient home. When we set out on this low budget / high performance retrofit we had no specific numbers in mind for energy savings and waste reduction. We simply wanted to push the envelope and do the best we could. As it turns out, our power bill has averaged $20 per month (this includes the daily line charge) and we have spent a total of $20 in rubbish fees for the entire year. I’ve come to call this our “20-20 hindsight” but there is no reason it could not also be a 20-20 vision for others to work toward by the year 2020. Of course electric rates will increase by then, but that is all the more reason to invest in efficiency now. (At current rates of annual change, electric rates will double in under ten years.)

The first Conservation Comment I wrote in July explained the design principles we employed for our passive solar renovation that have helped us achieve low energy bills. There is nothing new or unusual about those principles: solar gain, thermal mass, insulation and draft proofing. Similarly, there is nothing new or unusual about the design principles for our approach to resource conservation: reduce, reuse and recycle. The 3 R’s have helped us reduce the cost and impact of the renovation project as well as the cost and impact of our day-to-day lives. Here are a few examples.

While we have followed the New Zealand Building Code and used treated pine, Braceline Gib, building paper, and heaps of insulation, there are also areas where we were able to reduce costs and impacts by reusing materials. Prime examples include the bathtub, vanity, washtub and toilet in the bathroom, and the bench, sink, mixer, drawers, and shelves in the kitchen. Perhaps the most visible example is the vintage Shacklock 501 multi-fuel range that I bought my wife two years ago as a wedding present and we worked with Building Control to find a way to install safely. But my personal favorites are the pelmets that I made from old weatherboards that we removed while re-cladding sections of the exterior. And, like any builder would, we saved off-cuts to use as dwangs or for other small jobs.

Regarding our household waste stream, we compost all of the food scraps and even our fish and chips papers. We save paper to burn in our Shacklock or our outdoor pizza oven (made from an old wood burner) or to mulch our gardens and fruit trees. We reuse plastic bread bags and other small non-recyclable plastic containers. Again, there is nothing special about any of this, other than the fact that we take it seriously and put out one bag of rubbish for every two months. Perhaps the most unusual thing we do at all is emphasize the costs savings rather than simply the environmental benefits. At the end of the day, eco-thrifty living makes dollars and sense.

Peace, Estwing