Using permaculture ethics & design principles to transform an old energy guzzling bungalow into a showcase of sustainable design. It's about energy cycling, building community, self-reliance,creatively using & reusing materials... all without spending heaps of money.

Sunday, December 27, 2009

Northern light

Principle 3: Obtain a yield
Principle 2: Catch and store energy

When I went to check out the second-hand water tank that I was looking to buy I came across a large window on the site.  It was made from Western Red Cedar, a soft timber that is naturally resistant to decay. The panes and doors were in good condion, but the supporting frame was not, as it had been stacked straight on the ground and left out in the weather for years. The glass was single glazed (probably laminated) and it had a double sliding doors. I thought that it might be useful as the northern window and asked a friend what I should offer for it. I offered A$300 and paid A$400. I thought it was a good deal - and it came with two sliding fly screen doors (Principle 3). It would cost about A$5000 or more new.

 Second-hand windows I purchased for A$400

It took four guys to lift the thing and load it onto the tri-axle trailer. When we got it to the site we decided to separate the panels and make up a new frame. It was also much easier to handle and store in smaller sections. We stacked the panes on the concrete slab for several months before using them, helping to take out any twisting that may have occured.
One of the big worries I had about the windows was that they would not comply with the current building regulations. It either needs to be laminated or safety glass. If the glass doesn't comply then I can't get the Certificate of Occupancy that I need for the First Home Owners Grant. My mate Dylan (who is a glazier) had a look for me and noticed that the laminate was starting to come apart in a small section. The only other way to tell whether is was laminated or not is by removing the glass and looking for the join, which would be very difficult as the glass was siliconed in place. Be very careful when buying second-hand windows. Make sure they comply to standards before purchase, don't rely on luck like I did.
I sanded the frames and painted them with Sikkens Cetol HLS. This product was recommended to me by the window maufacturer who made the cedar kitchen window. What I liked about this product was that it has great UV resistence, repels water and can be recoated. On the down side, the chemical data sheet reveals that the product is quite hazardous. A more environmentally friendly solution would be BIO paints which are non toxic. Lesson: research before purchase pays off.

North window pane being sanded

Window panes during staining

One of the hold-ups on getting the framing inspection approval was that the building inspector wanted engineering approval for the framing of the northern window. The large opening on the north required a structural frame that could support the roof, hold the windows / doors in place and look good too. We decided to use locally sourced 190x45mm Mountain Ash timber for the job. The timber was sanded before we contructed the frame, which is much easier to do then when it is assembled.
The engineering drawings specified that we use hoop iron to tie down the roof beam to the window frame. We decided to make up some bolts to do the same job that could be hidden, rather than exposed. The bolts were made up from all-thread which was flattened at one end with holes drilled through it. Holes were drilled through the frame and a recess made for the bolts. The bolts were fixed at the top with nuts / washers and screwed into the frame below. The frame was fixed to the concrete slab using masonry anchors. This passed the framing inspection.
Once the frame was in place it was stained with one coat before the windows were cut to size and installed. The sliding doors were fixed into place temporarily so that the house can be locked up. The sliding mechanism and flyscreen doors will be fitted later.

North window frame under construction using 190x45mm Mountain Ash

Bolts made up from all-thread and flattened at one end

The modified bolts are fixed to the beam above with nuts and washers and screwed into the frame. The frame is fixed to the slab floor using masonry anchors.

Windows cut to size and installed, covering the bolts

With the northern windows now roughed-in the passive solar design becomes much more effective. You can see in the picture above (taken at summer solstice) that the sun does not enter the building during the hottest time of the year. The insulated concrete slab captures and stores (principle 2) the cool temperature of the earth during the summer, and does the opposite in the cooler times of year as the sun heats the slab. One of the reasons that the windows are only single-glazed (not double glazed) is that I have decided to install heavy curtains with pelmets to reduce convection currents from altering the temperature inside. The curtains will have a reflective backing that reflect radiant heat out, and be thick enough to allow the control of light levels inside. This is something that double glazing cannot do.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Plumbed in

Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services

The plumbing rough-in happens before the floor goes down (preferably), which is easier and cheaper to do. It starts with the 'waste water' pipes. During the process I got to thinking about how to make best reuse of water before it went down the sewer.

There are three types of reused water that I will have on site. Greywater (laundry and bathroom), dark greywater (kitchen) and blackwater (toilet).
  • Greywater is ideal to use in subsurface irrigation systems, but there is a lot to consider when designing these types of systems. By ensuring that we don't put any nasties into the water in the first place we know that anything that we reuse wont be damaging to the environment, or us. 
  • Kitchen water (dark greywater) is not ideal for sub-surface irrigation as it contains food particles, fats and soaps that can block pipes and clog the soil. This water can be filtered through a wormfarm to produce a rich liquid fertiliser.
  • Blackwater goes directly to the sewer. A composting toilet is a great solution to the 'poo problem', turning 'waste' into a rich fertiliser. I'm interested in exploring this option further. I've often said that "Humanity's greatest contribution to the planet is our shit, we just need to learn how to deal with it." Joseph Jenkins has written a lot about humanure. I got the book recently for my birthday, and am looking forward to finding the time to read it.
I am planning on installing a seven metre high header tank (water tower) into which rainwater collected on site will be pumped, giving me water pressure to gravity feed to the house. This avoids the need for a pressure pump, often used in households. Pressure pumps require electricity to work and often come on every time you turn on the tap. A header tank only needs to to topped up when it is near empty, and can be filled by a varity of methods including; an electric transfer pump, a windmill, bicycle power and direct solar piston pump. All of the water pipes in the house are 19mm (3/4 inch) instead of the standard 12mm (1/2 inch) which will allow for higher water flow.

All of the hot water pipe are insulated, which means less heat loss and less water sent down the sink while you wait for it to heat up. The water will be heated using 3 methods. Solar, wood fired and gas boosted. More about that later...

Laundry greywater pipe (in background) with kitchen dark greywater in foreground running on a separate line. The kitchen pipe runs outside the building so that water can be diverted to a possible future wormfarm, or straight to the sewer.

 Laundry and bathroom greywater run on higher line (middle of photo) than kitchen and (possible future) toilet line (diagonal), keeping greywater separate from dark greywater and blackwater

Greywater diverter (left) that diverts bath and laundry water to either the sewer or a sub-surface irrigation system (not yet installed). All internal water lines run at 19mm (3/4 inch) to allow for better flow rates using a gravity fed system. All hot water pipes are insulated (see left of photo).

19mm (3/4 inch) insulated pipework for woodfired stove wetback. Minimum lift to solar is 1 in 10, so that air pockets don't form in line. Air pockets can cause pressure to build up and vibrations in the line, reducing effectiveness of system.

Saturday, December 12, 2009

Wetland works

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

The concept of catching and storing water in the front yard wetland worked well from the start, but it needed some fine tuning. When the rains came back to fill up the depression I could see where high and low points were, so I leveled them out. Having a level area gives the water a greater surface area to soak into the ground. Ideally the water would soak in within 12 hours.

 Wetland tinkering, leveling out and building up / defining edges

Wetland during downpour

Water run-off from laneway entering wetland and overflowing

The water took longer than anticipated to soak into the ground, about a week. I think that it was taking a long time because the soil was in poor condition and compacted. As the life comes back to the soil I would expect quicker water infiltration.

One of the problems when water takes so long to soak in is that mosquitos get a chance to breed. Adult mossies take 5-14 days to emerge (depending on the species & temperature). We had heavy rains, followed by more heavy rains a few days later, which meant that the water didn't get a chance to soak in and the breeding time for mossies increased.

Mossies larvae in stagnant water after nine days, just begining to emerge as adults

Wetland drying out, just in time

Fortunately the water soaked in before the adults emerged. I bought two and a half cubic metres of locally sourced mulch and spread it out over the surface. This gave about a 50-75mm cover, which is enough to prevent water stagnating, and mossies breeding. Logs were added to provide a visual barrier, some shelter for plants and habitat for critters.

I blocked the inlet channel from the laneway with some minor earthworks to give the wetland a chance to dry out a bit. This is easily reversed if I want to bring more water in (and it rains). Extra soil was added to define the edge of the channel and stones used within it to reduce the boggyness.

Wetland mulched to cover / soak up excess water with addition of logs for a barrier, plant shelter and habitat

Inlet channel defined by raising sides and covering base with stone

Saturday, December 5, 2009


Principle 4: Apply self-regulation and accept feedback

I believe that I have had a pretty good run when it comes to vandalism. The house was empty for about six months before I really started working on the site. During that time the house was broken into once and the place was smashed up a bit. A glass pane broken, some walls and cupboards damaged, a door broken... I reported it to the police and spoke to my neighbours. I also left a note for any unwelcomed guests, suggesting that they find something else to do, and that the property was being watched.

Kitchen cupboard kicked in and wall damaged by vandals in November 2008

I have made an effort to greet people as they walk past, and speak to people who show an interest in what were are doing here. There has been some fantasitc feedback - 99% of it positive. Since I have been on site regularly, and engaging with the locals, nothing has been damaged and nothing stolen.
After the cladding went up I noticed a couple of plums thrown against the wall, but didn't think much of it. Then today I got a call from Chris (from Chris's Timber), whom I bought building materials from, telling me about some vandalism. Anxiously I visited the site to find graffiti plastered across the front of the house. It seems that not everyone likes to see something different.
Fortunately nothing seems to have gone missing, except for a can of spray paint (silly of me to leave it there). Again I reported it to the police, gave them the spray paint lid with fingerprints on it (which may help identify who did it) and spoke to some neighbours. We are not far away from getting the house to lock-up. That's a priority for me now.
In resolving the current problem (graffiti) I found a suggestion on WikiAnswers that I use regular oven cleaner to remove it. Other suggestions include lacquer remover, kerosene and WD40. Interestingly, colorbond is coated with a layer of 'grease/oil' to protect it during transportation - and the surface it is said to be almost impossible to get paint to stick to. Maybe it's not as bad as what I first thought... I'll test it out and see what happens.

Vandalism on south wall, facing street 

Vandalism on west entry wall

8th December 2009 - I managed to clean the whole lot off! Using lacquer remover initially (which was a bit harsh) and later methylated spirits. It took about 2 hours. Looks almost as good as new.
10th December 2009 - The incident made it into the local newspaper.

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