Friday, April 24, 2015


(A series of blog posts on the 5 basic human needs and how we can transition away from our current model of exploitation, extraction, and fossil fuel based systems.)

This is normal! Where are the trees and greenspaces?

Shelter is our second most critical need. We need protection from the elements, being scorching desert sun, instant frost-bite inducing Saskatchewan winters, Cascadian deluges of rain, or even the desiccating winds of Hawaii. These weather patterns in different climates dictate that we need to take refuge under or inside some form of structure to thrive in the natural world. I think back to some of the survival manuals of my youth, and shelter was always near the top in content of the book. I was most interested in trap building and hunting. Food gathering is sexy, but shelter building will keep you alive. A simple lean-to, with a thick layer of forest floor detrius, can give us the basic protection from many weather events. Shelter has become anything but basic in our ever devolving world of complication and regulation.
Old, hand built and still standing
Once upon a time a man would build a home on a piece of land. The materials used would generally be from the surrounding area, as transportation from afar was impossible. Regional specific materials gave way to resilient housing and easily repairable structures that lasted generations. Local materials and techniques that best suited the bio-region. Log homes in Canada, Adobe shacks in desert regions, thatch huts in the tropics, and stone walled castles in Europe are a few examples of these appropriate construction technologies. With the advent of fossil fuels and the centralization of our needs, along with clever marketing, our homes are ever more complicated, fragile and full of non-renewable, off-gassing poisonous products that are shipped from across the globe. At great cost to our pocketbooks and the eco-system.
Hand made, salvaged wood, resilient beauty. My Grandparents home.
I grow increasingly frustrated at the regulations that are involved in home construction. There is little thought put into the whole system of the dwelling. The only thoughts the builder has are "is it to code", and "how much money will I make". This way of thinking has removed the craftsman component of our building, creating cookie cutter homes put together like lego blocks. There is very little uniqueness to our builds. Conformity breeds monotony. We have mono-cultured our homes. We wrap them in plastic, then wrap that in plastic, or concrete board. The roofs are covered with oiled based sheets of grit that rapidly wash off and have absolutely no second life. Studs and joists are made of the softest, most widely available lumber. Landscaping is rolled out and fruit-less trees are planted, with no support, aside from the posts and straps to keep them from falling over in the wind. Under-performing cedar fences separate neighbors, until the post rot or the panel fails, causing a "who pays" stressful situation. Neighborhoods with very little meaningful green space. Homes are not built to utilize the sites energies well to capture or repel. Solar exposure for gain or shading and taking external un-desirable elements like noise from a street or industry into consideration.
Passive solar. Great design for temperate climates
As a whole we end up a slave to the wage economy, the banks and the government because it has become very difficult for the average person to construct their own simple home anymore. Wading through the bureaucracy of building code and zoning, sub-division requirements for minimum size homes and exterior by-laws. A home created by one own hands, with pride, to shelter his family is something that mankind is losing uber-fast. There are better ways to do this, to create a resilient, low footprint home that can become part of a productive system, rather than the energy intensive, consuming model that currently exists.
Large tracts of land being developed for homes is going extinct. Societies overall wealth has eroded to a point where people are less and less able to afford new single family homes. Townhouses and condos are hot markets in large cities, and increasingly so in smaller towns as well. Young people are more inclined to live with less stuff, in a smaller space, to save money for things that are important to them. Older folks are downsizing, wishing to lower their burdens on their offspring when they pass, by de-cluttering and simplifying. Most age groups tend to wish to be closer to where they work, play, and shop. The days of hour long commutes are waning. The suburbs will eventually become undesirable and this is where cities like Detroit get into trouble. Servicing these lots, far out of the city centers, becomes very energy intensive and expensive. Cities liked boundary expansion in a growing economy, but in a shrinking one, we shall see homes becoming vacated and foreclosed on. Good news for the initiated. Moving into these areas, buying several plots of land with less that ideal buildings for a bargain, and create one beautiful home from the materials. Suburban homesteads, I believe, will become a big thing of the future in a de-centralized world. Urban farming is already catching on like wildfire, and that will just grow exponentially. If government doesn't get in the way.
Bio-Regional appropriate materials salvaged red cedar
If a family is able to acquire land and wish to build a homestead of their own, or even a lot in an urban setting, Care of Earth is most important. Large swaths of trees shall not be removed just because it is easier that way. Flora will be removed selectively to the greatest advantage to the site. Opening up the southern exposure for solar gain and gardening is an example. Septic fields will become obsolete with resilient, simple, and inexpensive composting toilets becoming the norm. The timber felled on the land will be milled on site and used in the construction. Log building techniques including cord wood, timber frame, and log homes are skills that a ambitious person can learn and complete. If the home site has no trees of usable size, or quality, the earth shall be used. Cob structures have been created around the planet in all but the most inhospitable zones, simply from the soil, straw and sand. Materials readily available and easily harvested by hand. A beautiful, lasting home that will go back to the earth when its time is up. I can't say that about modern vinyl clad home!
Beautiful, functional and appropriate
Energy usage in current building is outrageous. Because they are so poorly designed, they require vast amounts of fossil fuels to heat and cool. Lighting is something that not many think about as a heat gain, but most new homes have far too many lights, creating a situation where the air conditioning might run in the winter! That is silly. Too high of ceilings, and low windows create a dark feeling in the room, so the place is over lit. Appropriate solar exposure, window and skylight placements and element integration can aid in the amount of light gain. Day lighting a room when it is dark is silly. Getting back our circadian rhythm of light/dark cycles at different seasons is important. Our current model of going full steam ahead isn't conducive to this reality. For heating and cooling there are many appropriate technologies that we can utilize, many of which can't break down, because they use gravity and mass, have no moving parts or electrical inputs. Earth contact structures are really cool(pun intended). The earth maintains a constant year round temperature of 14 degrees C below the frost line. This creates a cool environment in the summer and warmer in the winter. Earth is a perfect insulator and stores heat incredibly well. Paul Wheaton's WOFATI design, using stored heat from the summer sun to heat in the winter is fantastic. Solar chimneys use the natural stack action of air to pull cool lower air into a home, while exhausting the higher, over heated air outside. Easy, inexpensive and no energy inputs at all. For heating in temperate or cold zones, nothing beats wood. It is normally in abundance and with smart technologies we can make better wood burning appliances that cost a fraction of conventional, heat better while using much less fuel. The Rocket Mass Heater is a fantastic, home-built appliance. Using a rocket stove to burn wood, the super insulated burn chamber pyrolizes the wood at extreme temperatures, creating near perfect combustion, resulting in ultra low to no particulates in the flue gas. The flue gas is then piped through a heated bench, storing the energy to be slowly released into the space to keep it warm for hours or days after the fire is extinguished. A beautiful appliance that can be made of earth and recycled local waste. Appropriate technology. These are design factors that must be considered before building, and will create a much more habitable dwelling.
Urban Homestead.
The last point I wish to touch on is the concept of "renovation proof" homes. Years ago, home renovations only happened if there was a major catastrophe or more space was needed, so an addition was built. Floors were made of wood, fixtures were white, and roofs were wood. Homes would go fifty years with out any renovations or major repairs, because the home worked as a system and the simple fixtures didn't follow trends. In the fifties and sixties it all changed. The affluence of the middle class after World War 2 created a sense of entitlement and modernization. Planned obsolescence was "invented" by manufactures and cheap over-seas labour was discovered. Suddenly, marketers saw the importance of creating trends, to sell more products by altering fashion year after year. Soon a home would look "dated" and the owners would have to "update" to keep up with the Joneses. This had never stopped and homeowners following trends like sheep. I have had to throw incredible amounts of waste in the landfill because of the previous owners desire to do a cheap update to this house and the original builders lack of fore sight. Carpet and asphalt shingles are made of plastic and toxic oil sludge, never to break down in the land fill.
Natural, beautiful, fuel, and local.
Simple, lasting elements in your Zone zero will go a long way into making a resilient shelter that will create happiness and a feeling of home. A well designed dwelling will keep you their, instead of moving every couple years. Your house is more than an "investment", it is a place to have pride and stay grounded. Build community around your site and stay put. If you have any questions or comments I would love to hear them!

(I borrowed most of the images from the internet for this blog. I hope no one gets mad:)