Insulation: Not Romantic, but Essential

Over the last month I have tried to enliven the discussion of passive solar design with certain musical references: Aretha Franklin, The 5th Dimension, and the incomparable Neil Diamond.

But this week I got nothing.

As important and ubiquitous as insulation is, no one appears ever to have written a love song about it. For any aspiring singer/songwriters out there, this may be your niche.   Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.16 PM

Insulation, in a nutshell, is about slowing the rate of heat transfer. Sometimes this is called ‘thermal resistance’ and is measured by R-value. Anyone who has purchased insulation for their home will be familiar with R-value, but may not understand it completely. I often describe it this way:

Think of R-value as ‘Resistance to heat flow’ – anything that slows heat energy from flowing through it: a sleeping bag, an eider down, a Swandri, fiberglass batts, double-glazed windows, a wool blanket. Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.09 PM

Another way I describe insulation is ‘trapped air.’ This description suits those materials listed above as well as something I wrote last week:

Water and anything that sinks in water has good thermal mass, but anything that floats in water acts more as insulation. The faster something sinks in water the more thermal mass it has, and the higher something floats in water the more insulation it probably provides. Think polystyrene.

Picture, if you can, the inside of a sleeping bag or eider down: natural or artificial fibers that ‘fluff up’ and create lots of tiny air pockets.

Now picture a double-glazed window, or look at the picture I’ve included with this column. The advantage with this example is that you can easily see the trapped air because it is between two panes of glass. With double-glazing, it is not the extra piece of glass that provides significant insulation: it is the air trapped between the two panes. Screen shot 2014-05-30 at 5.39.34 PM

From this perspective, plastic DIY double-glazing is just as effective as professionally manufactured glass double-glazing. The picture I’ve included is actually an example of glass DIY double-glazing in our bathroom, which consists of a large, second-hand aluminium window, wooden battens serving as spacers, and safety glass as required by the building code. This is certainly an unusual approach to double-glazing, but it has performed well for us at a fraction of the cost of buying a new window of comparable size.

Another unusual but cost effective approach to ‘trapping air’ that we used in our renovation was hanging a TradeMe version of what would be called a “storm door” in North America. The picture I’ve included should be easy to interpret: one glass door open inward and one glass door opens outward. The space between doors (when closed) is the ‘trapped air’ that insulates our home while still letting free sunlight energy through. This is where “Yankee thrift” meets “Kiwi ingenuity.”

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Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training) Events.

DIY Double-Glazing

8th June, 4-5 pm. Registration Essential.

Seven easy steps to a low-energy healthy home.

10th June, 7-8 pm.




It is Heavy, It’s Thermal Mass

A decade and a half before Paul Simon’s innovative album Graceland (1986) exposed Western listeners to unique and original African sounds and rhythms, the incomparable Neil Diamond did the same with the lesser known album, Tap Root Manuscript (1970). Side two of the album is called “The African Trilogy (A Folk Ballet),” and includes two of my all-time favourite Neil Diamond songs: I Am the Lion, and Soolaimon.

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 Side one, however, is more likely to be memorable for most people due to a series of Top 40 (US) hits: Cracklin’ Rosie; Free Life; He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother. The last of these hits – He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother – was ‘recycled’ from The Hollies, whose version reached No. 1 in the UK Singles chart in 1969.

Like this well-known song, our Shacklock 501 is: a favourite feature of our home; it is ‘recycled’ from another dwelling; but critically, it is very heavy. And that is the point.

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Along with acting as a heating source for our home on cloudy, cold winter days, the 700-kilogram coal range/brick surround/concrete and tile hearth acts as a ‘heat sink’ on sunny winter days. In this respect, the combined heavy stuff that makes up the building code approved unit functions as ‘thermal mass.’

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From a purely physics perspective, everything that has mass can absorb heat. In the extreme, air has mass so it can absorb heat. But ‘light’ things like air gain heat quickly and lose it quickly. ‘Heavy’ things, on the other hand, absorb heat slowly and release it slowly.

Water is a good example of a substance that has significant thermal mass. One of the main reasons that Whanganui has such a wonderfully temperate climate is because the Tasman Sea is a giant heat sink. While Palmerston North experiences higher highs and lower lows than our fair city, we remain comfortably in between. That is one reason we all love living here.

When I teach eco-design, I make these general statements for people to wrap their heads around:

Water and anything that sinks in water has good thermal mass, but anything that floats in water acts more as insulation. The faster something sinks in water the more thermal mass it has, and the higher something floats in water the more insulation it probably provides. Think polystyrene. 

At its heart, a good song serves multiple functions: it moves people with its beat; it engages people with its lyrics; it rewards its writer with financial success.

Designing for multiple functions is at the heart of good eco-design. A clear example of this is the placement of the Shacklock 501 at the heart of our home.

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The 700 kilogram heating unit is situated approximately at the centre of our living spaces – lounge, kitchen, dining – so that the heat can radiate in all directions. While this may seem like common sense, a quick trip down Polson Street in Castlecliff may surprise you: at least four out of five chimneys are built on an exterior wall. Screen shot 2014-05-23 at 6.32.35 PM

As you can see from the photos, our Shacklock is built along an interior wall next to French doors that lead from our kitchen/dining to the lounge. Additionally, this location allows the sun to strike it three times during each winter day: morning, mid-day and afternoon.

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Like the Tasman Sea, the Shacklock’s thermal mass is a temperature moderator powered by sunlight energy. But, in the event of a day or two without sunshine, we can always load it with wood, which is really just sunlight one step removed.

Peace, Estwing

Passive Solar: Let the Sun Shine in

Although I was unaware of it at the time, my first birthday coincided with a significant number one hit by The 5th Dimension on the U.S. Billboard Pop Singles Chart. Here is a music trivia quiz:

• The song is a medley of two songs.

• It was the first medley to top the American charts.

• It remained at number one for six weeks in April and May, 1969.

• It reached number one in Canada and number three in Australia.

• It was replaced at number one in the U.S. by “Get Back” by The Beatles.

• It featured prominently in the musical, “Hair.”

Whanganui’s aging hippies will easily recognize this song as “Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In.”

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One of my earliest childhood memories was going to a high school production of Hair and absolutely loving it. Afterward, my brother and I dug out my parents’ LP and listened to it over and over again. What’s odd about that neither of us had musical talent or any inclination to be on stage.

To this day, we both remain avid music listeners while retaining complete lack of talent. I have given karaoke a go exactly twice: both in the last two years, and both accompanying my wife who has an amazing singing voice.

So what is my point in all of this? Two points: 1) you do not have to be proficient at something to appreciate it deeply; 2) let the sunshine in.

Whether or not this is the Age of Aquarius, I reckon it certainly is the age of designing homes to take advantage of free and abundant sunlight energy. One need not be proficient in eco-design to appreciate this. One need simply pay a power bill and wish it were lower.

The basics of passive solar home design date back hundreds or even thousands of years in some cultures, but the modern era of passive solar dates to around the time when The 5th Dimension was at the peak of their popularity.

As I described last week, passive solar design consists of solar gain, thermal mass and insulation. During our renovation we increased solar gain by adding glazing (windows and French doors) to the northern sides of our villa. At the same time we removed glazing from the southern sides.

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North corner before.

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North corner during.

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North corner after.

If we think of a home as a bank account for energy: in winter, the north facing windows make deposits during the day and withdrawals at night, while the south facing windows make withdrawals day and night (unless we happen to get an unseasonably warm day).

In the end, we had roughly the same amount of total glazing in our home but it was more appropriately placed to take advantage of solar gain and minimize heat loss.

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Southern window before.

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Southern window during.

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Southern corner after, awaiting paint.

Our renovated villa has performed admirably of late. Up until this week we have not had to use any heat source aside from the sun. Operating only on solar energy, our indoor temperature remained over 17 degrees right up until the early morning of Mother’s Day.

From the 28th of April through the 3rd of May when the outdoor high each day was 15 or 16 degrees, our indoor temperature never dropped below 18. Put another way, over these six days our indoor low temperature remained at least two degrees over the outdoor high. This is the power of free and abundant sunlight energy.

If you happen to be a lover of music or free energy but do not consider yourself proficient in the latter, please join me at one of the free upcoming events made possible by our partners and supporters: Tree Life NZ, Sustainable Engineering, Black Pine Architects, Richard Collins –, Sustainable Wanganui Trust, Progressive Castlecliff, and the Josephite Retreat Centre.

Sidebar: Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training)

Today, 11 am – 1 pm: Drop in eco-design advice. River Traders Market, Taupo Quay

Tomorrow, 3 – 4 pm: DIY Double-Glazing Examples.

5 Months of Home-Grown Tomatoes

We have just reached a milestone of five continuous months of fresh, organic, home-grown tomatoes without a glasshouse. Our first ripe tomato appeared on 13th December.

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As of now, we have a small bowl of tomatoes on our counter and a few more outside on some very tired looking but still living plants.

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We use a combination of sun traps, timing, compost, mulching and successive planting to maximize our production while minimizing inputs. I’ll include more details in another post.

Happy Mothers Day

We are celebrating Mothers Day with a beautiful, lazy, sunny morning and plans for an afternoon adventure. While I’ve got the chance I thought I’d share some recent images of mama and bubba.

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As new parents we have discovered that Verti loves to mimic and she loves to help. As such, we design experiences where she can do both. For example, one of the first things we noticed was Verti’s fascination with clothes pegs. So naturally we engaged her to help hang the nappies.

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Next we observed she wanted to help cooking. Carrot cake, yum!

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More recently she has been totally into shelling dry beans.

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She was a great helper collecting money for SAFE.

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And she likes browsing at Hayward’s auctions.

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Just this week she has joined us at the table for the first time sitting in a booster chair instead of a high chair.

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However, a bit on the annoying side, whenever we tried to play a board game she just wanted to push the pieces all over the place…until we gave her a playing board of her own.

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All that said, we still believe in the importance of play, although a lot of play is just imitation. Like mother like daughter like dolly like dolly’s baby.

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Everyone likes outdoor play, although some need more sun protection than others.

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That’s all folks. Happy Mothers Day.

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R-E-S-P-E-C-T for Materials and Energy

In 1982, when I was 14 years old, Aretha Franklin moved into my neighbourhood. She had come back to Detroit to assist with the care of her ailing father who ultimately died two years later.

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Like all things great and glorious, Franklin experienced a resurgence in popularity during the 1980’s following an amazing cameo appearance in The Blues Brothers (1980). She was inducted as the first female performer into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987.

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What does any of this have to do with eco-design?

R-E-S-P-E-C-T, find out what it means to me.

From my perspective, good eco-design is about maintaining a high level of respect for energy and materials. The reason that good eco-design is so rare in New Zealand housing, I suspect, is that most homes were built at a time when energy, wood, steel, concrete and glass were inexpensive.

When things have a low monetary value placed on them, human beings tend to respect them less than when things hold high monetary value. This can partially explain the abundance of poorly designed dwellings across the country and throughout Whanganui.

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Maintaining respect for energy and materials when they are universally cheap is difficult. We can think of some idealistic hippies and back-to-the-landers in the 1970s, but few of them were able to carry on through the cultural and consumer shifts during the 1980s and 1990s. They can be forgiven.

More recently, the costs of energy and building materials have been increasing faster than wage rises for over a decade, with a particular jump in petrol prices since 2008. By now it should be common knowledge that power has doubled in price over the last 10 years, and mathematicians may suggest it is likely to double again in another decade.

From a purely fiscal perspective, we might see more eco-design creeping into the home building and renovation industry in two ways: smaller homes that require fewer materials to build and less energy to operate; well-designed ‘passive’ homes where the building materials are arranged in such a way as to result in very low energy use dwellings.

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Our renovation may be considered a passive solar retrofit because we took a big old cold villa and transformed it into a warm, dry home heated almost entirely by the sun. The term passive implies that our home simply sits there taking in solar energy like a parked car or sunbather.

Converting a bog standard villa to passive solar requires three basic elements: more glazing that faces the equator than the nearer pole; thermal mass (ie, heavy stuff) inside of the building envelope that absorbs warmth during the day and emits it at night; and, insulation that reduces the rate at which heat escapes the building envelope. Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 8.29.13 AM

We add draught-proofing to these three design elements, but the bottom line is that plugging draughts is just plane common sense and one of the cheapest things anyone can do to keep the warmth in and the cold out. Screen shot 2014-05-09 at 8.29.24 AM

Over the next four weeks I’ll write in detail about these passive solar design strategies and how we applied them during our renovation. ‘Cause that’s what R-E-S-P-E-C-T means to me.

Peace, Estwing

International Permaculture Day

Kia ora koutou. This may be the first blog post on the planet celebrating International Permaculture Day. (Please note it is Sunday the 4th in New Zealand.) There are good waves this morning, so I’ll make it short and sweet.

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In my practice of permaculture, the principles take a back seat. In other words, I never consciously think about the permaculture principles (Mollison’s or Holmgren’s) when designing and building systems. Instead, I engage what I call permaculture habits of mind, which can also be described as systems thinking.

All that said, one of Mollison’s principles is almost always on my mind: multiple functions. In brief, elements of a system should serve as many functions as possible. Mollison uses chickens as his example. I’ll use ducks, and specifically our duck tractor.

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For six months – from autumn equinox to spring equinox – we tractor our ducks in our ‘back yard. They mow and fertilize the lawn for us.

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I move them everyday. It takes 22 days to bring them back to square one. This is a small-scale of what may be called “rotational grazing” or “holistic land management.” Running the ducks on the lawn has improved the mix of grasses and decreased the unpalatable ‘weeds’.  In other words, the ducks have improved the health of the lawn, and in return the lawn is producing healthier grasses for the ducks to eat.

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During the six months from spring to autumn equinox, I scythe the grass and use it to mulch the garden. In this way, the ducks are indirectly feeding the garden. Over time, vegetable scraps from the garden feed the ducks.

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Additionally, one day when I was in a hurry to hang the nappies, I found that the duck tractor came in very handy as an airing rack.

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Our first intern, John, built this tractor over three years ago from scrap wood. That’s when our ducks we still fuzzy.

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Keeping ‘multiple functions’ on your mind as much as possible is a great way to practice systems thinking and to develop good permaculture habits of mind. Give it a go.

Peace, Estwing

Layering up for Warmth

Two weeks ago this column was used to announce the second year of Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training). Part of that column included data from evaluation forms filled out by Whanganui residents following free home energy audits. Of the feedback provided, the following statement stood out for me.

It made me think about how to keep the heat in versus keep heating a cold home.”

One might call this a light bulb moment (compact fluorescent or LED, of course), because it appears that this client suddenly shifted their thinking about the thermal performance of their home. But this ‘new’ way of thinking may not be so unfamiliar to all of us. Let me give an example.

Like many local residents, Dani and I enjoy spending a winter Saturday afternoon at Cook’s Garden watching the Butcher’s Boys play. Like most Wanganui rugby supporters, as the temperature drops, the first thing we think of is adding a layer of clothing rather than getting something to eat.

I’m sorry if this is not a very exciting example, but here is my point. If we think about the human body as a home, we can consider clothing to be insulation, draught-proofing, and water resistance. In reference to the quote above, we naturally act to “keep the heat in” by adding layers rather than only adding more ‘fuel’, ie food.

But for some reason many of people think differently about their homes. Decades of cheap energy may have allowed most of us to grow complacent about simply pressing a button or turning a knob to warm up our homes instead of thinking about energy efficiency. Fair enough, but times have changed.

Power prices are up. Gas prices are up. Petrol prices are up. Even fire wood prices are up.

As our glorious Whanganui autumn tips toward winter, it may be a good time to think about ‘adding a layer’ to our homes. While ceiling insulation is a clear choice, it requires capitol investment that some may find difficult. On the other hand, Project HEAT offers many low-cost/high performance ideas for renters and owners alike. Many of these ideas focus on windows and doors, which can account for as much or more heat loss than ceilings.

Which brings me to feedback from a different client “Excellent explanations re: heat loss and cheap, effective solutions. How to fit a window blanket.”     Screen shot 2014-05-01 at 5.39.34 PM

Picking words from this quote, window blankets are a cheap and effective solution to heat loss.

The recipe for a window blanket is simple:

two battens cut to width of window;

old wool blanket or equivalent;

three or four screws.

Mix ingredients, add to single-paned windows, and keep on low heat until spring.

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Like a homemade birthday cake, window blankets can also be decorated. Last winter I had the pleasure of working with amazing local artist Sue Cooke and art educator extraodinaire Andrea Gardner on a children’s holiday programme in coordination with The Paradise Project and funded by Horizons Regional Council.

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As you can see from the photos, the children expressed their creativity using a window blanket for their bedroom as a ‘blank canvas.’ Ka pai!

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Sidebar: DIY Window Blanket Workshop

Sunday, 4th May, 3-5 pm.

Duncan Pavilion, Castlecliff Beach.

Please bring: straight wooden battens in the range of 2cm x 6cm or 4.5cm x 4.5 cm; wool blanket or non-cotton fabric.

Tools and screws provided free.

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