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.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Spreading the word

Principle 8: Integrate rather than segregate

Today I received a copy of Owner Builder magazine, which features Abdallah House in the centre spread, six pages in all. It's a good summary of what we have been up to here and is sure to help get the story out to a wider audience.

I've also entered a competition called Sustainabilty Drive. It gives up to 20 people in the street the opportunity to share in $1 million in sustainability features. I got interested in the idea after I realised that it was a great way to share a little of what we are doing with people around us. Perhaps we might even win too? Yer... right. Anyway, I've put together and entry and I'm in the process of putting together a letter that I am going to drop into my neighbours letterboxes to invite them to join in. Check out my submission and click the green button if you like it.

Coming up soon there are a couple of opportunities for people (like you?) to come and visit the property to see what it's like in the flesh.

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Renewable energy solutions

Principle 5: Use and value renewable resources and services

Wood stove / oven / heater / hot water booster, which hasn't been needed for the last four or five months
The solar hot water system has provided for 95% of our hot water needs during the hotter months
Since moving into the house nine months ago we have been using no electricity or gas to produce hot water (except for cooking), which is normally one of the heaviest consumers of non renewable energy in the typical 'first world' home. The system that we installed is a combination of a solar hot water system with a wood fired stove to back it up. It's made up of Australian made components that  includes a heat exchanger, situated below the hot water tank. I was usnsure whether we needed to include a gas booster to back it up further and so arranged for the plumbing to allow for one during construction just in case.
The system was designed with consultation with Richard Morton at Sun Real. I've found it extremely valuable to work through my ideas with a professional that has had many years experience and knows what works and what doesn't. I've come across sales people before that are pushy with particular products that may not be suitable to my needs or budget. This type of system is not something that you would want to modify later on, you've got to get it right the first time around.
While the system was not cheap, costing well in excess of A$10,000 to install (before rebates) we have found that it has provided for our hot water needs 95% of the time. The only time we run out of hot water (only having warm water) is during the warmer weather when it's too hot to light the fire and we have had several days of clouds. This could be resolved by installing the gas booster, but we have decided to 'rough it' instead.
The system runs itself, and uses no electricity, as the water thermosyphons around the pipes as it heats up. The only costs in running it are associated with wood supply, which can be very expensive if you need to buy it in. I have several years worth of supply left over from the felling of the huge Red Gum on site, along with off-cuts of timber recovered from the original house that I glean from my regular storage building projects.
Having installed this system has meant that it was cheaper to use bottled gas rather that get mains gas connected, which runs right past the property. A 45kg bottle costs A$95 delivered, and A$30 bottle rental per year after the first year - we are still on our first bottle. When I costed it last year I found that the connection fee for mains gas was aroung A$170p.a. with the the equivalent of a 45kg bottle of gas costing A$33.
We have cooked without the wood stove during the warmer months by using our small 1960's gas stove, but have missed the excellent baking oven. We've been using an electric one for baking bread instead, using around 330W to bake a loaf. Without an oven, Kunie has been using a steamer to bake cakes (Asian style) and we have been investigating making a solar oven for slow cooking and preserving, but havn't got around to it this season.
We are currently looking at installing a Solar PV system to generate electricty, more on that later...

Gas booster location for the hot water system, plumbed in but is not yet needed

We use an electric breadmaker during summer with freshly milled flour

Monday, March 14, 2011

Finishing off the cellar

Principle 1: Observe and interact

The time had come to focus on the cellar and try to address the final issues surrounding water infiltration. There have been a number of issues that I had encounted earlier:
  • Water was running under the house during minor flood events and finding its way into the cool cupboard pipe, which runs into the cellar. This was addressed by building up earthern banks around the low points around the edges of the building.
  • Water was running into the cellar during minor flood events via the hole that was left for the outlet for the sump pump and rainwater pressure pump, which is located inside. Earth was built up around the edge of the cellar to reduce this.
  • Water was falling into the stairwell when it rained, which flowed into the cellar. A cover was built that addressed this.
  • Water was weeping through gaps in the mortar when the surrounding earth become sodden. Channels were dug around the cellar to redirect runoff, which reduced this, but did not solve the problem.
Filling in the gaps in the mortar was a job that I finally got around to doing. It was a fairly big one, so was put off for a long time - while I waited for the ground to dry out. I figured that if I filled any obvious gaps then water infiltration would slow down.
This was done by mixing up a 9:3:2 mortar mix (sand : lime : cement) which was pushed into gaps with a putty knife. A wet sponge was used to wipe away excess and ensure that the gaps were filled.
I had thought about painting the brickwork to further prevent seepage with either a lime wash, polyurethane paint (left over from polishing the slab floor), or using a product called Silasec made by Bondall. I decided not to attempt any of this in the end as I felt that, while one of these approaches may work for a period of time, eventually the cellar would leak again as water pressure would push against the treatment. These treatments would be more effective if painted on before the earth was filled in around the exterior of the brickwork. I have succumbed to the fact that 'nature abhors a void' and as a result will pump water out when necessary.
Since the work was done there have been some heavy rains and water still gets into the cellar, but it is no where near the problem it once was. 

Filling gaps in the stairs with mortar
Mortar gaps in the walls of the stairwell before being filled in
The finished cellar stairwell
Filling gaps inside the cellar
The finished cellar wall
The cellar is made using reclaimed brick with mortar and concrete, with an internal circumference of 2.2m and 2.1m of headroom. It sits 1.5m below ground level, with a 160mm thick concrete roof, forming the base for a 8,000lt water tank. The tank is our back up water supply that sits 800mm above ground level, allowing for gravity feed. There is a 400mm diameter pipe that leads from the cellar up to the kitchen cool cupboard. Air will be drawn through the cellar, reducing the effects of ethylene off-gassing which can spoil food.

Principle 7: Design from patterns to details

Once the cellar structure was complete I focused on the storage system. It was difficult getting my head around building a system within a small circular space. I was keen to use what material that I had available, which included timbers left over from the house construction and crates that once contained flowers that my mate Brian picked up for $1.50 each. I figured that these could make great drawers.
I laid out the crates in the cellar to get an idea of how they might fit into the space. Then I built a unit that could hold six crates, which was the maximum height I could fit. Moving the unit into the cellar I confirmed that two would fit nicely against the end wall, deciding that shorter ones with benches on either side would make the space more usable.
Once all of the frames were set in place I joined them together, fitting triangular shelves between them which braced the entire unit. I added some smaller shelves above the benches and painted the lot with linseed oil to protect the timber against moisture.

The frame of the six drawer unit under construction in my tiny shed
The six drawer frames against the back wall with shorter bench frames either side. Cement sheet off-cuts were used to choc-up the legs on the sloping floor.
Gaps between frames filled in with triangular shelving, these ones can only be accessed when the crate drawers are removed
Drawers in place. 16 can fit in all, although only 14 used. The benches are handy to put crates onto when sorting through produce. Some crates currently used for storing cleaned preserving jars and bottles.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Binimum: The first two months

Principle 6: Produce no waste

While the principle of producing no waste is great in theory, it's very difficult in practice. We are giving it a pretty good go with the Binimum exercise, trying to only fill one rubbish bin and one recycle bin for the whole year. So lets see how our family of four have fared over the first two months...

Our first load of household recycling and rubbish for the bin. Tins in the foreground to be reused in the shed for storage containers.
I think that it's a pretty good effort so far, surprising in fact -when we began this exercise I was very sceptical, no I'm not so sure : )
The rubbish that we have created in the house is contained within the plastic shopping bag. It contains mainly plastic bags from food packaging, along with some broken toys, a halogen light bulb and other odds and ends. The recycling contains about five wine bottles, a few jars with missing lids, a lot of milk cartons (neatly folded up) and a few plastic fruit / meat containers (brought by guests). I'm planning to reuse the tins for storage containers in the shed, but there is only so many you can use before the excess ends up in recycling.
What you can't see is the few disposable nappies, a broken mixing bowl, and broken glass that was put into the bin / recycling straight away. I've also got a bit of stuff in the shed that needs to get thrown out, including a 20lt plastic drum that broke and offcuts from building projects - I'm not sure whether this should be included in our exercise or not. Perhaps I'll keep these separate for now and see whether there is room for them at the end of the year.

How we've done it so far:
  • All suitable food scraps are kept for our new chickens (too young to lay), and if not eaten during the day, fed to the worms or composted. All other scraps, paper and cardboard is either composted or burnt. We've stopped buying the Saturday newspaper, being too difficult to deal with and unnecessary - haven't missed it at all.
  • We are growing a considerable amount of our own food now, with a bumper harvest of wild cherry plums and pears along with a few apples from the original fruit trees on site. We have harvested silver beet (chard), a few pumpkins and beetroots, beans, lettuce, chillies, herbs, chives, potatoes, tomatoes, peas, leeks, zucchini, cucumbers, basil and broad beans. I have began to grow vegies from seed after being given a large variety of seed from friends that are now ex-box vegie scheme growers (too hard work).
  • We have been given and traded produce with local friends, including eggs, honey, fruit, vegies, raw goat and cows milk along with some meat (chicken). I minded a neighbours property which included the tasks of milking goats (new to me), and looking after their dogs, cat, chickens, guinea fowl and sheep in exchange for milk and produce from the garden - along with a great thank-you meal for the family. Then there was the kangaroo...
  • We have bought most of grains, nuts and oil in bulk quantities - reducing plastic and giving us useful containers and bags. Unfortunately we don't have access to a local bulk food supplier, so we do need to venture into the stupermarket for some bulk supplies - so we can't refill containers. We recently visited the Nut Man, hidden away in Shepparton (75km north), who sold us a 25kg bag of local wheat (we mill our own flour and make bread) along with other bulk nuts and grains. Most of the products are from Australian sources and there was some organic food available. Unfortunately most of the stock is pre-packed, so you can't re-use your own containers. Theres a store in the main street of Euroa (55km north) that might be more suited to our needs called Fare Enough.
  • We are keen to get a regular supply of fresh raw milk from a local source - it's so much better tasting, and better for you (must be consumed soon after milking). Cardboard milk cartons (definitely not plastic) are one of our main contributors to the recycle bin. I have heard that the waxed cartons make excellent fire starters, and I have also been using some for protecting seedlings. They do seem to break down with time in the garden, so could probably be composted without any issues.
  • We don't buy much in the way of processed foods. The main things that we buy from the stupermarket is chocolate, coffee, tea, sugar (mainly for preserving), oats, pasta, oil, milk, cheese, tinned and 'fresh' seafood (currently the only source in town).
  • We have also bought fresh produce from a small company from Shepparton called fruit2yourdoor, ordering online free delivery. Some of the produce is grown at the farm where the business is located, but it's hard to tell where most of it is from (food miles). It's also all conventionally grown, so you've got to take that into account, but is reasonably priced. What I did like about the service was that they didn't pack the produce into bags (after asking them) and also took the boxes back to reuse them.
  • We got a sodastream for Christmas, so we make our own soda water to which we have been adding home made cordial (we wouldn't use their syrups). We have been drinking home brewed beer and alcoholic ginger beer, and even bought a bottle of wine (once). Friends occasionally bringing wine or fine beer to enjoy (perhaps they feel sorry for us?). The stubbies are used for preserving (tomatoes along with wild cherry plum cordial and puree) while I have yet to find a good use for the wine bottles. Some friends even take their bottles home with them, after considering our experiment (we didn't ask them too!) - it's interesting to see how people respond to our initiative.
  • We wash our nappies, although we do use disposables on city missions (enviro ones when available - from Israel - how ridiculous!).
Some items that I am concerned about what to do with:
  • worn-out clothing made from non-natural materials (wool and cotton clothing is being composted)
  • cheap nasty plastic toys (tools, gadgets, electronics etc) that break
  • computer equipment (and other electronic stuff) that is no longer being used
  • light globes and batteries
  • polestryrene
  • plastic, plastic and more plastic...
It's becoming increasingly obvious that we need to stop buying this stuff, not accept it as gifts, or give the stuff we can away before it breaks (handing the problem over to someone else!). Plastic is best avoided where possible.

All in all I'm feeling confident that we can achieve our goal for household waste and recycling for the year, but I'm not so sure about workshop waste (I love to tinker). I sure that we can reduce our waste and recycling further as we get into the swing of things - living a more healthy and rewarding life to boot.

Two months worth of recycling

Two months worth of household rubbish

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