World Famous in Whanganui

After nearly four years of determination, coordination, and cooperation, it appears I have become “World Famous in Whanganui.”

First of all, thanks to the thoughtful local resident who nominated me for the Pride of NZ Award. Does this make me a real Kiwi now? It is nice to be recognized for consistent and determined work to make our community healthier and more resilient to economic and environmental volatility. Screen shot 2014-07-25 at 6.59.51 AM

Second, thanks to all of the organizations, businesses and individuals with whom we have partnered over the years. Nearly every community project that my wife Dani and I have embarked upon in Whanganui has been a joint effort with others.

For example, our latest partnership was with the Whanganui Learning Centre and Castlecliff School. The project was an innovative whanau-focused learning initiative all about growing healthy veges in the challenging conditions of a seaside suburb (“with a holiday lifestyle” as the sign says). The project will be featured in a documentary film about school gardens in New Zealand.

Materials for the school gardens were kindly donated by Wanganui Garden Centre and Loaders Landscape Supplies. Both of these local businesses have also supported previous initiatives, such as the community garden on our front lawn. Thank you.

Probably our most successful partnership to date is Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training). Project HEAT was initiated in 2013, and is roughly modeled on the Eco Design Advisor programme offered by seven councils around the country. After failing to gain support from the Wanganui District Council, we turned to the community itself.

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Lots of time and effort went into building a base of nearly 20 local entities that shared our kaupapa: everyone deserves to live in a warm, dry, healthy home.

In a cooperative manner, each entity gave what it could give. In some cases that meant donating the use of a venue for a presentation and in others it meant photocopying information sheets or loaning a data projector. In a few cases it meant donating funds to cover the costs associated with running a community outreach education programme. Overall, Project HEAT operated on less than a shoestring. Well over half of the time that I spent on the programme was in volunteer hours.

Just as important as the material contributions made by our partners was the moral support they provided. In other words, one does not feel like a “voice in the wilderness” when surrounded by others who believe in and support you.

In the sustainability and resilience movements it is our obligation to support all those around us. Together is how we move our waka toward a common goal. After council chose not to support Project HEAT, it would have died a quiet death were it not for a casual conversation with a friend and his show of support.

This year Project HEAT has been back on a lesser scale due to a number of factors. However, our partners deserve recognition for their help and support now that we are easing into the backside of winter.

Yes, there are lots of awesome organizations and businesses in Whanganui contributing to sustainability, and they receive plenty of exposure through our excellent positive-news-based local print media. But today I get to thank our 2014 Project Heat partners because without them there would have been no free series of presentations, workshops, drop-in information sessions, and home energy audits.

Big thanks to Tree Life NZ, Sustainable Engineering, Black Pine Architects, Richard Collins, Progress Castlecliff, the Josephite Retreat Centre, and other anonymous donors.

Also to be recognized are the Chronicle, Midweek and River City Press for helping publicize the 2014 programme.

In the weeks and months to come, our family will be going through some changes that will affect our ability to engage with the Whanganui community as much as we have in the past. Hopefully I will be able to keep up with this column.


Peace Estwing

Complimentary Design

Here we are in the middle of winter and it’s music trivia time again. If you are under 30, you may want to skip the next paragraph.

Released in 1972, this song was the first and only number one on both the soul singles and Billboard Hot 100 charts for singer songwriter Bill Withers. In 1987, Club Nouveau covered the song and took it back to number one for two weeks on the Billboard charts. That version reached number one in New Zealand in 1987, and earned Withers a belated Grammy award, as a writer, for Best R&B Song. It is ranked number 205 on the Rolling Stone list of 500 Greatest Songs of All Time.

This music trivia question was brought to you by Wikipedia. Any guesses?

The song: Lean on Me.

The moral: We all have our good days and bad days.

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The same goes for passive solar homes, especially on cloudy winter days. But there is a silver lining when eco-design is involved. Here is what I mean.

Central to eco-design is working with nature instead of against it. Aside from those people and organizations who prefer wasting money and increasing pollution, we all understand this.

Part of working with nature is understanding the patterns in nature. With regards to a passive solar home, this means sun angles: morning, noon and night; summer, autumn, winter, spring.

It also includes an understanding of winter weather patterns. For example, most sunny winter days are followed by clear, cold nights. On the other hand, most cloudy winter days are followed by warmer nights because the cloud cover holds the warmer daytime air against the earth.

The passive solar design of our home takes into account both of these two conditions in order to keep our power bill as low as possible. On fine winter days the sun warms our home to a comfortable 24 degrees, it heats our water, and cooks our dinner on the solar cooker outside on the patio.

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On overcast winter days we can light a fire in the cookstove if needed, which then heats our home and cooks our meals. Wood, after all, is just sunshine one step removed.

In both cases, the result is a warm home and a hot meal without the need to use any electrical power. This can be considered a complimentary design strategy: when one element of the system is lacking another element in the system steps in to help out.

Lean on me when you’re not strong

I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on

For it won’t be long

‘Till I’m gonna need somebody to lean on

It will not come as a surprise that most great teams like the All Blacks design their game plans to take into account the complimentary skills of each player, and to adjust the game plan to take advantage of those players who are performing at their best during any particular contest while others may turn in sub-par performances.

But then again, every Achilles has his heel. In our present home there are days – one or two each month during May, June and July, that we run our of solar hot water and have to turn on the electric element for 20 or 30 minutes in order to take showers. This boosts our monthly power bill from its usual $22 all the way up to $25.

This minor expense of about $10 per year does not justify the cost of connecting a wetback to our wood burner, which would run into the thousands of dollars. In other words, the payback period for a wetback would be many decades while the payback for our solar hot water will be somewhere around 6 years.

However, when we shift homes next week we will be facing a different set of circumstances where the installation of a wetback may be justified. Time, and eco-design, will tell.

Peace, Estwing


p.s. How many TV satellite dishes do you see in the title image and how many solar water heaters?

Seven Months of Fresh Tomatoes: Mid-WInter Update

At first I was pleased with five months of garden-ripened tomatoes… and then I was thrilled with six months of garden-fresh tomatoes. But as of today, we actually have seven months of ripe home-grown tomatoes without a glass house. I’m speachless.

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It may not look like much, but they are still producing… and they still taste good.

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And the plants are still flowering.

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Apart from that, we have the usual winter veges growing.

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Especially lots of broccoli.

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Additionally, the rhubarb seems to be pumping.

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And we are getting our first real orange crop.

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Many of our native trees are putting on new growth.

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And others are flowering.

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I really love these purple hebes.


Peace, Estwing

The Best Innovations Are Free

Innovation, someone once wrote, is in the eye of the beholder. Oh wait, that was me last week. How innovative!

See what I mean?

Someone else – I’m serious this time – once told me that perspective prejudices perception. In other words, the angle at which we look at something heavily influences the way in which we internalize it. This person was Eliot Coleman, a famous American market gardener and author.

I met Coleman about ten years ago, and found him very much of the eco-thrifty persuasion. We got on famously.

It will come as no surprise that the eco-thrifty perspective on innovation is very different from the infinite-growth-without-consequences perspective. The latter, what Australian author Clive Hamilton calls “Growth Fetish,” appears to be the dominant perspective of Wanganui District Council, made evident by the stacks of cash it throws at chasing this outdated paradigm.

Innovative councils across the country and around the world see beyond a reductionist vision of growth, and have reaped huge rewards. Name any vibrant, dynamic city on the planet with high quality of life for residents and you’ll find innovative planning, programmes, and services provided by local government. Last week I briefly described the Eco Design Advisor service offered by seven councils in New Zealand.

The service helps local residents make their homes warmer, dryer and healthier while saving on their power bills and supporting local businesses and trades persons. It is a win-win-win proposition that is about doing more with less, while simultaneously protecting the community from future price rises in energy and health care.

Doing more with less is a philosophy that we have engaged for the last three and a half years while converting a draughty villa into a cosy, healthy, low-energy home. This process involved lots of innovation…depending on your point of view.

One successful way we do more with less is by using window blankets in our home. These consist of bits of scrap wood and old wool blankets, but can perform as well as double-glazing. I’ve written about window blankets before, and there is a free DIY workshop coming up tomorrow (see side bar). If you plan to attend the workshop, please measure the width of one window in your home (inside the window frame), bring a piece of wood of corresponding length, and a wool blanket or polar fleece fabric. Wood dimensions should be in the range of 12 mm by 70 mm or 45 mm by 45 mm.

Another innovation that has helped us do more with less involves turning an open top curtain rail into a closed top curtain rail. The reason for doing this is that in most cases an open top curtain rail allows warm air to drop behind the curtain and cool off once it finds itself against a cold window. This air cools and sinks, pulling more warm air from the ceiling and the cycle continues all night long.

Put simply, you could have the best, most expensive, custom-made curtains in the world but if they are not installed properly they are not effective at holding in heat. I would estimate that 70% to 80% of all the curtains I see in NZ homes are not hung to maximize warmth retention. What an unnecessary waste!

The photos I’ve included show the before and after, but the process is quite simple. 1) take down the curtain rail and brackets;

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2) pre-drill holes in the rail and bin the brackets; 3) reuse the screws from the brackets to screw the rail directly to the window frame or wall;

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4) turn the curtain hooks around and re-hang the curtain;

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5) be warmer and enjoy lower power bills; 6) praise eco-thrifty design thinking.

If you have questions, come along to one of the events listed in the sidebar.

Peace, Estwing


Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training)

Free Events

13th – Window Blanket DIY Workshop. 2:00 – 4:00, Duncan Pavilion. For materials info, see above.

16th – Drop-In Healthy Advice. 4:30-5:30, Central Library.

Innovation Comes in All Sizes

In Wednesday’s Chronicle, we saw some local examples of innovation. But innovation, like many things, is in the eye of the beholder.

When we think of the term innovation, we might think of things that are “new and improved,” or represent “a breakthrough” in technology or thinking. It all sounds like a bad advertisement on talk radio: “New and improved! A breakthrough in technology! Call in the next 30 seconds and we’ll add a second for half price!”

In many cases the breakthrough turns out to be a minor tweak of an existing product, and the innovation is actually in the OTT marketing of it. (OTT is, in and of itself, an innovation in communication technology!) From this perspective, innovation appears to be more about getting people to buy things they may or may not need than improving lives or advancing humanity toward a more positive future.

Fortunately, there are other perspectives on innovation, one of which is about doing something better. For example, coming up with a medical diagnosis technique that is less invasive for patients by using medical imaging rather than exploratory surgery. While the imaging technology would have a high up front cost, a hospital would save money over time by scheduling fewer and fewer costly surgeries. Win-Win.

Ironically, many innovations that improve some people’s lives result in a net loss of jobs by replacing other human beings with machines. While the example of replacing surgeons with MRIs and CT scans is a poor one, I recall another innovation from my childhood on the outskirts of Detroit when robotic arms began replacing auto workers and causing high unemployment in the Motor City. The next innovation by General Motors was to close plants in Detroit, Pontiac and Flint, Michigan and open plants in Mexico.

This type of innovation often enriches the innovators but impoverishes many others, and adds to the large and widening wealth gap by increasing income inequality. False narratives from self-proclaimed “Job Creators” have been proven wrong by objective analysis, but the narratives remain among the hard right just as Trickle Down Economics is still embraced despite no robust research ever confirming this weak economic theory actually works.

This all begs the question: What type of innovation actually creates jobs and keeps dollars circulating in the local economy?

I’m sure that Chronicle readers may come up with a few, but of those, which would actually lead to net job creation rather than simply employing six people in a new way only to un-employ eight people in an old way? Don’t get me wrong, I am all for creating jobs in Whanganui even if it means jobs lost in other centres. It’s just that we need to look at innovation from a holistic perspective if we want to be honest about it.

From a holistic perspective, I cannot think of a better innovation than the Eco Design Advisor Service offered by the councils of Auckland, Hamilton, Kapiti Coast, the Hutt Valley, Nelson, Invercargill and Palmerston North.

The service helps owners and renters make their homes warmer, dryer and more energy efficient. The service offers independent, expert one-on-one advice free of charge to all residents. It was created by the Building Research Association of New Zealand (BRANZ) to inform and empower anyone who lives inside of a dwelling to make the best decisions regarding energy performance, comfort, water conservation and materials. It is not hard to see how this service would help create jobs in these communities and keep dollars circulating locally.

Innovative, eh? Seems others agree. The Eco Design Advisor Service was recognised in April with the Carter Holt Harvey Innovator of the Year Award from the Building Officials Institute of New Zealand (BOINZ). Two more councils are looking at adding the programme as it goes from strength to strength.

New! Improved! A breakthrough! Act now!

Peace, Estwing

Planting Garlic Between a House and Farm Place

Due to changes in our work lives and a desire to steward a larger piece of land, we will be shifting at the end of this month. However, garlic is meant to be planted around the end of last month. What to do?

Garlic is the only crop that we sell regularly, and when you grow the World’s Best Garlic, it is worth the time and effort. Over the weekend we hurriedly got somewhere over 400 garlic in the ground at the new property. This is how we did it.

We had to transport some of our 3 cubic metres of compost

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We selected a bit of flat land for our market garden.

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We did not have time to convert the paddock into a garden, so we brought in cardboard to kill the grass and topsoil to quickly build a raised bed.

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We have had great success growing garlic on top of sand by using 80 mm of topsoil.

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One key to growing great garlic is to use plenty of great compost. I pull a deep furrow with a hoe and then fill it with compost.

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Nek minit.

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We plant the garlic at 100 mm centres.

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Everyone gets involved.

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After two afternoons of work.

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Peace, Estwing