Retrospective #2

This is the second edition of our new series running in our paper: The Wanganui Chronicle.

Last week I wrote about ‘payback period’ and ‘low hanging fruit.’ To review, payback period is the amount of time it takes to recoup an investment in energy-efficiency with savings on your power bill. Low hanging fruit are simply those investments that have the shortest payback period, ie: the easiest to ‘reach’. While a high performance eco-thrifty home will utilize many cheap and easy strategies for energy savings, the overall design strategy must be holistic, and the application of the design must be thorough. The success of turning our decrepit villa (recalled by a visitor at one of our tours, “The coldest house in New Zealand”) into a warm, dry, low-energy home came through our dual approach of ‘big picture’ design and attention-to-detail. While the details may be of interest to many readers as winter approaches, I feel it is important to provide the context for those details. Without a context the details may just be fodder for Quiz Night. With a context the details become dollars and cents melting away from your power bill.
Regarding last week’s column, many readers may have been asking themselves a number of questions, one of which was probably, “Why did those crazy Americans buy the worst house in Wangnaui?” Fair enough. There are a number of answers to that. First, it was the cheapest listed house in Wanganui at the time. (But that was just a happy coincidence.) Second, it is 2 blocks from the beach, and I like to walk to the surf. (An equivalent house in Raglan, where we lived for 2 years before coming here, would have been 500% to 800% more expensive.) Third, it has good solar gain to the north. (We looked at 30 houses in 2 days and only 5 of them had any real potential for free heating from the sun.) Fourth – and this is part of what separated it from the other 4 that had good solar potential – is that the lean-to part of the villa (the north corner and northwestern side) had already been gutted. With a little vision, we could picture how this section could function as a solar furnace for the rest of the villa. What that would take is called passive solar design. 
Passive implies something just sitting there, like a parked car. But park that car in a sunny lot and you get passive solar. Design implies whether something is intentional or not. While there are often no alternatives to parking in the sun, there are many alternatives when deciding where to put windows in a building. Putting lots of windows on the sunny side (north for us ‘down under’), few or no windows on the shady side (south), and a couple on the east and west is good passive solar design. It allows free energy to enter directly into the building (like the car parked in the sun), but does not allow much energy to escape through windows that don’t get much direct sunlight. During our renovation, we added glazing (windows and French doors) to the northeast and northwest sides, and removed windows from the southeast and southwest sides. 
A window is simply a hole in the side of your home with a piece of glass (two if you’re lucky) in it. Windows can gain heat energy or lose it. Because winter is the time of year that we’re mostly concerned about this, I’ll put it as straightforward as possible. In winter, northerly facing windows are net energy gainers and southerly facing windows are net energy losers. Summer is a different story, and there is such a thing as too much incoming solar heating even in winter, just ask the hippies from the 1970’s who had good intensions but incomplete design ideas. I’ll address these issues next week. 

Disaster Capitalism

Disaster capitalism has come to Castlecliff – in a good (or at least opportunistic) way. While we have relied on heavy rainfall to flush firewood down the Whanganui River and deliver it to the beach in front of us (see Beach Logging), a big blow six weeks ago provide a fuel source even closer. I noticed that the storm had uprooted two hardwood trees just around the corner at the end of our block.

But hardwood usually means heavy wood, so I waited for them to dry out before retrieving them. After six dry, windy weeks I decided it was time, so Jiqiao and I headed out with hand saws and a wheel barrow. We cut the thicker parts into manageable lengths to get home…

… and dragged the branches down the street.

If you are looking for an example of the extent to which the Chinese are enthused about capitalism, check out the grin on Jiqiao’s face.

After two months of working with us, Jiqiao has finished his internship and heads back to China for the summer before returning to university in the USA. We will miss his enthusiasm, sense of humor and hard work.

Peace, Estwing

Retrospective #1: As published in the Wanganui Chronicle, 21-04-12

This series recalls the design principles and decision making process of an eco-thrifty renovation. We believe the key components of a sustainable home include low energy use, redundant energy and water systems, abundant food production and avoidance of debt to the greatest extent possible. For under NZ$100,000 (US$80,000) and a year of hard work, we have developed one of the most sustainable and resilient suburban properties on the planet. We use 90% less electricity than the average NZ home, we aim to meet all of our fruit and vegetable needs on 700 square meters, we have no mortgage, and we share all of this information with our community.

Payback Period: Key to Eco-Thrifty Renovation
When my wife and I set out to renovate an old villa in November 2010, we made the conscious decisions to focus on energy efficiency and waste reduction above all else. We also chose a structure that many would have written off as beyond redemption due to its poor condition, and we wanted to do our best to demonstrate that a warm, dry, energy-efficient home can be within reach for people of moderate means. I have heard stories of people spending $20,000 on a new bathroom or new kitchen, but still have no insulation! Although we did install a new kitchen and new bathroom (at $2,000 each), the bulk of our budget went to insulation, solar hot water, and north-facing glazing (windows and doors). These are the investments we made that are paying us back with energy savings at a higher rate than the best term deposits of any bank. This is what we call eco-thrifty. It is a philosophy that focuses on low-input / high-performance systems.
Central to this approach is the concept of ‘payback period’: the amount of time it takes to recoup an investment in energy-efficiency with savings on your power bill. For example, a compact fluorescent light bulb costs $5, but will normally save you more than $5 per year (depending on use) in electricity. Therefore, the ‘payback period’ is one year or less. A ‘payback period’ of one year is roughly 100% return on investment. What term deposit offers that?
Another example of ‘payback period’ is solar hot water. Our system cost $4,000, and offers a ‘payback period’ of 7 to 10 years (depending on use). This represents a return on investment of 7% to 10%. What term deposit pays that? Another example would be insulation, but I won’t bore you. The long and short of it is that our money is paying us back more on our roof, in our walls and in our light sockets than in a bank. Add to this the environmental benefits and the hedge against inflation (electricity has been rising at 7% – 8% per year over the last decade, a ‘doubling time’ of 10 years), and eco-thrifty appears to be a conservative, logical approach to building (and…life, I might suggest). But there is a catch.
If you borrow to make home improvements with a ‘payback period’ over a few years, then the bulk of your savings goes to the bank, not to you. Therefore, we recommend a process we call focusing on the ‘low hanging fruit.’ These are the cheap and easy investments that anyone (owner or renter) can make immediately and start reaping savings. Then, with much fiscal discipline and gnashing of teeth, these savings are set aside to invest in ‘medium hanging fruit.’ And then…you get the picture. This new column published on Saturdays will address many of the fruits of eco-thrifty renovation and their benefits. Although this is a unique approach to renovation, many of the oldies reading these words are probably saying to themselves (or out loud), “it’s just common sense.”
On a final note, we have worked closely with Building Control throughout the process and found them very helpful. From my perspective, the New Zealand Building Code concerns itself primarily with ensuring structures: do not fall down in an earthquake or a gale; do not allow moisture to contact untreated or H1 timber; hold heat in (insulation); do not burn down from electrical wiring or internal heat sources. This list is the definition of a sustainable building. Who could argue?

Double Century

The ETR blog reaches its 200th post today with a celebration of other local permaculture projects. As you are aware, we had the pleasure to host Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer at our home last week.

Nicole gave a well-attended talk in Whanganui last week prior to the Australasian Permaculture Convergence in Turangi the 11th-15th of April. We went up to the convergence late on Friday the 13th and came home Sunday morning the 15th to prepare for a tour that we were hosting of local permaculture properties. On our way out of Turangi we stopped by a developing permaculture property called Awhi Farm where I built a frame three years ago for a cordwood structure.

The frame was the first permanent structure on the property which was an abandoned transportation department yard. We used trees from the site to make traditional timber frame mortise and tenon joints for the post and beam structure.

It is amazing what they have done on the property in three years, as is always the case with permaculture properties such as those on our Whanganui tour, including the Mount Saint Joseph Retreat Centre.

This was followed by a twilight visit to the Quaker Settlement, where there was particular interest in a top bar bee hive.

And a yum dinner of pizza, chili, ham soup, salad and real bread.

The following morning we were off to Kai Iwi and an excellent example of a permaculture market garden.

And then to Mark Christensen’s amazing heritage apple orchard, home of the world’s healthiest apple: the Monty’s Surprise!

We trundled down to Castlecliff to look at the eco-thrifty renovation and then back into town for another twilight tour of the vertical gardens.

Our Australian, Malaysian, Chinese, German and Kiwi guests were amazed at what we have going on in our community. We have a lot to be proud of our local permaculturists. Good on them.
A note on some upcoming blog posts: The editor of our paper, the Wanganui Chronicle, has asked me to write a weekly column revisiting the steps we took during our eco-thrifty renovation. The column starts this Saturday and will run at least into August. I will post each column here as they come out. If you know of anyone who may be interested in the retelling of our story please pass along this information.
Peace, Estwing


Huge props to Jiqiao for writing and posting on Tuesday all on his own with no editing from me. Where was I? I had to run to the bus station to pick up a couple of GFC (global financial crisis) analysis superstars, Stoneleigh and Ilargi from TAE (The Automatic Earth).

Their real names are Nicole Foss and Raul Ilargi Meijer, and they were kind enough to stop over in Whanganui on their tour of New Zealand. Nicole’s talk (Raul plays the role of stage manager, roadie, and background cynic) was well-received by an over-capacity crowd of nearly 70 at the Community Room of the Gonville Cafe/Library on Tuesday the 10th of April. (Luckily we had friends who brought in extra chairs and a PA system on less than an hour’s notice.) Those in attendance remained attentive through 2 hours plus, which included a lively Q&A session. We got home well after 10 and stayed up to nearly midnight chatting and playing with our cat, Billy T. James.

Were Stoneleigh and Ilargi star-struck by Billy T.? Who wouldn’t be?
We were all up at 7 the next morning drinking coffee, musing on the 200+ decline of the Dow Jones and… playing with Billy T. Fun was had by all and we consider ourselves lucky to have had TAE visit our ETR (Eco-Thrifty Renovation).

Peace and preparedness, Estwing

Having as much fun paving the floor as much I have learnt

Hey this is Jiqiao back to work! I have looked forward paving the floor for several weeks before I left to South Island. And it just comes true! Nelson and I have spent three solid days working on it from sorting materials, calculating, cleaning, paving and screwing. The work, however, is still not done yet-we need polish and apply a layer of oil to protect the wooden floor.
Here is what the floor look like before. The cat is playing on it with these holes. She jumped up and down, making herself dirty and having so much fun! But we do not unfortunately. The holes leave cold air coming through under the house. During the winter, this poor insulation means we need more energy to heat up the house. Therefore, paving the floor is necessary considering sustainability.

Guided by sustainable renovation principle, we bought all of our wood on auction from a door factory off-cuts with only $80 for 91 blocks of wood in long and short. Their length range varies from ~60cm to ~180cm. We sorted all of them in the yard by different length. This is important preparation to make sure that we know our resource well to make decisions and also help the following work goes smoothly. And indeed, it turns out that, thank to the sorting, our work on the first day was highly productive.

After sorting all boards well, we recored average length of each pile and number of boards of it. Then calculation helped us make decision and maximize material use. We were thinking pave the floor in the dining room, including areas under refrigerater and oven, and a part of the hallway. But we were unsure if there is enough wood. There comes necessary calculation. Knowing the width and total length of all blocks by adding average length of each pile up, I calculated that the maximum area we can cover is 14.7 square meters, which was just a little extra over the desired areas. This means we need to be conservative, as we always be, on cutting boards.

The way we figured out to maximize the limited materials was to try to match up a pair so that the least off-cut is needed. While Nelson was cutting the wood and pave indoor, I was measuring the length of each piece to match them up in pairs. This working pattern was very efficient. We started from one side of the wall to the center.

As I said the insulation is very important to save energy, this is a good example of conservative life and insulation. We put used rags in the gap between the floor and stove to stop cold air coming up. This idea first comes from those frugal monks. They use cloth to clean face. After it gets too dirty and old, monks use it to mop the floor. Then when it turns to real rag, monks use them for insulation like what we are doing now! They perfectly showed how reusing thing are sustainable and helpful. As we always believe, one’s rubbish can be the other’s cherish.

We were surprisingly lucy that all boards fits in well with work to reshape the wood. Then I started to screw the floor into the joist so that it is stable and quiet when people walk on it.

And here we go! Beautiful new floor even without sanding and polish. You get natural luxury, aesthetic appreciation, and good insulation for only $80! Such good deal can never be found if you are not a sustainable builder. By the way, all the off-cuts from saw were put in composed pile to fertilize the garden. I was impressed by the huge pumpkin from Nelson’s organic garden~
Soon we will polish the floor and apply a layer of oil on it so that the wood will last long. Recently the materials used in kitchen such as PVC are popular and fashionable, but never last longer than wood nor being healthy. Reduction of using such non-recycle material will also reduce carbon footprint. The wood floor, after many years, will get to old and by the time we can burn it, making it true that dust to dust, ash to ash.

With a Little Luck

We’re due for our third weather bomb in five weeks (a fortnightly foreboding forecast). In preparation for this latest blow I was finishing up some scribers to insure that wind-driven rain would not get in beside our windows. In the picture below, the scriber is the lapped piece of wood that serves as Yin to the weatherboards’ Yang. Making scribers is very labour intensive as each one has to be individually measured and cut.

While I was putting the last coat of paint on the last four scribers, a song came on the radio that I’ve probably heard a hundred times before: Paul McCartney and Wings, “With a Little Luck.” Yeah, whatever, we could all use a little luck…but then I heard a line in the song I had never really noticed before. It leapt out of the melody and grabbed my attention.
The willow turns his back on inclement weather;
And if he can do it, we can do it, just me and you
And I thought of the willow in the western corner of our section.
Unfortunately, due to the sun angle in this photo you can’t get the full truth and imagery of McCartney’s words. This tree grows on about a 45 degree angle, but still it is the tallest tree on our property. It’s survival strategy is to turn its back on inclement (love that word, especially in a rock ‘n roll song) weather. Perhaps the reason that line resonated with me more than ever before is that this has become my strategy for survival as well. This strategy takes a number of forms, from the literal to the figurative.
First and foremost, our home has be redesigned with its face to the sun and its back to the cold southerlies. (We added glazing to the north and removed glazing from the south.) Ironically, the smiling “face” of our home is our backyard and the “back” is the front door.
That’s OK, because much of our world is upside down now, it only makes sense to design for 180 degrees away from the status quo. That is another way of turning one’s back to inclement weather. In other words, it means saying “No thank you” to consumerism, debt, globalization, etc. Someone like Nicole Foss warns of a financial storm that will be a weather bomb of a different kind. Taking a lesson from the willow, one strategy is to turn one’s back to it. I don’t take this from a survivalist perspective, but more from a ‘Transition Culture‘ perspective.
I mention Nicole not just because of her message on The Automatic Earth, (she writes under the pen name, Stoneleigh) but also because she and her partner Raul (Ilargi) are coming to Whanganui next week to speak to our community.
I also mention Nicole and Raul because the name of their website, The Automatic Earth, comes from a Paul Simon song with the lyrics: “The boy in the bubble and the automatic earth.” I think that is cool, because they write about economic bubbles, debt deflation, etc.
As for us, we write about sustainable living, debt avoidance, low budget/high performance building/renovation and food production. We write about practical ways to turn one’s back on inclement weather of all kinds, be they weather bombs, financial tsunamis, volatile energy and food prices, etc. Perhaps I should change the name of this blog to, With a Little Luck.
Indeed, along with the best possible preparation for the challenges ahead, it will also take a little luck, and – as the lyrics below make clear – people working together. We are all about building community and I know Nicole and Raul put a big emphasis on that as well.
With a little luck, we can help it out.
We can make this whole damn thing work out.
With a little love, we can lay it down.
Can’t you feel the town exploding?
There is no end to what we can do together.
There is no end, there is no end.
The willow turns his back on inclement weather;
And if he can do it, we can do it, just me and you,

And a little luck, we can clear it up.
We can bring it in for a landing,
With a little luck, we can turn it on.
There can be no misunderstanding.

There is no end to what we can do together.
There is no end, there is no end.
The willow turns his back on inclement weather;
We can do it, just me and you.

Below you’ll find a series of images that show some of the recent ways we’ve been turning our back on “inclement weather.”
Peace, Estwing
Curing pumpkins for winter storage.
Biggest red onion I’ve ever seen. Go compost!
Salad greens awaiting Nicole and Raul.

1,000 litres of water storage.

Inaugural lighting of Shacklock 501 coincided with a 6 hour power outage.

We baked 3 loaves of bread and made a huge vege soup to celebrate the power outage.