A tale of sustainable living----we bought a "living" house. This is the story of living in that house and the tales of caring for the whole system and all the creatures that live in it.
Monday, December 21, 2009
Now each day there is light, but no sun rays are coming in to dance on the ripples in the pond. The fish are all hiding---I'm not sure where. I haven't seen them for about a week now since the temperature has dropped below 40 degrees in the solarium. The yellow begonias are still blooming though, as well as some other flowers, making fun of the piles of snow just outside the windows.
The grasses are all turning yellow, but the green vine that lines the creek is still sending out shoots and producing big, green leaves. I think it's taking advantage of the cold: all of the aphids have died. The strawberries have stopped flowering, but they are still green. They are lying in wait to send out their tentacles when the sun returns.
I love watching the changes in the seasons and like the plants, I'm waiting for the sun to return to bring new life again. That should be in about 6 short weeks. Just time enough to get the seeds started!
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Not more work--just different
It wasn't very long after living in the big city and enjoying not hauling wood through the living area to the wood stove, that we started heading to the cabin as often as we could. Guess what we did there? Yup. We walked through the woods looking for dead trees and planning to cut them in the spring so we could haul them with sleds over to the cabin. We found a nice rhythm to life, living in the city and then retreating to the woods for respite.
So when we moved to Eagle River, to a house that integrates nature into the house itself, it felt good. We have wood heat again and we have to spend time heating with wood. Many people are doing that now that the price of oil is going up. I feel relaxed and at home with wood heat. It reminds me of the cabin.
So how about the rest of it? The comment I get the most often on my new house is about the amount of work it takes to live there. That's been really hard to explain. People who have always lived outside of nature find it inconceivable to live in the middle of nature in this house. This is an attempt to compare living here with how someone else in a similar house in the city would live.
So what exactly does my life in this living house entail? I think it really isn't any different than people who have a dog and and a cat and a fish tank. Since I don't have a dog, I come home and check on my fish. I check my plants to see if they need water. I pull some weeds here and there. I think it's about the same amount of time it would take for a dog owner to take the dog outside, throw the ball a few times, and pet him some. I have added benefits in that I don't have to scoop poop, or go to the vet. While pet owners are doing those mundane things, I'm maybe testing the water or dipping extra duckweed out of the pond or clipping plants that get out of control. While dog owners are going for a long walk with their dog, I'm downstairs making sure the bacteria isn't clogging the air valves and dying. The bacteria that eats our soap and toenails and whatever else goes down the drain needs air to survive, so that's an important task. Sometimes when I've ignored it, there is a smell I can smell-----not much different than if a dog owner forgot to let the dog outside!
So instead of having a cat, I have worms. Yes, I have to save food scraps each day to feed the worms, but I only have to feed them once a week and I don't have to pet them or vacuum cat hairs or change the kitty litter every other day. Instead, I dig through the worms and collect the dirt about every 6-8 weeks. I think the time I spend on my worms equals out to the time people spend on cats--easily. True, I don't have a cat to snuggle with, but I'm allergic to cats, so it doesn't matter.
About once a month I have to mix moss with water. It's not a difficult task. I have a bale of moss in the basement and I simply mix it up with water so that it doesn't fly away into the vents. Then I take a container of moss to each bathroom. Instead of flushing, we throw a scoop of moss in the toilet. It's a task that takes about the same amount of time if would to clean a small fish tank. So instead of cleaning muck out of a tank, I'm mixing muck to put in the tank!
I do have a large garden. But that's not unusual. Other people have gardens. It's a hobby, like anything else. The only thing that I have that is above and beyond is 31 steps to the front door. We have to carry everything up the stairs. I chalk that up to exercise. Exercise is good for you, right?
There is one task that I have not covered, but only one. That is, every six months, my husband and I have to empty the poop barrel. That sounds pretty disgusting and indeed it can be. But it only takes 30 minutes or so. The thing is it's not poop anymore. It's very moist vermiculture--a nice word for worm poop. The bad part is the smell. The other bad part is the worm tea. After 18 months of eating waste, there is a huge amount of excess liquid accumulated in the bottom of the barrel and in the drainage bucket under the barrel. It should be the best fertilizer in the world. But just knowing that it came from the poop barrel makes me cringe. I throw it into the woods. My green friends tell me I'm throwing money right down the mountainside. Maybe one day I'll test it to make sure it's not contagious. Then I'll be able to sell it. :-)
So how much time does my house take? Not much.
Wait. I forgot cleaning the air vents and filters. Every two months, I have to clean the air filters. That entails holding them under water and rinsing them out, drying them and then putting them back on and making sure nothing is blocking the vent intakes. How much time is that? What would that be comparable to?
So I live in a house with alternative types of pets. I have fish instead of a dog. I have worms instead of a cat and I have bacteria instead of a tank full of guppies. I heat with wood. If you look at it that way, it's just a normal house with abnormal pets and the time all comes out even in the wash. And then the wash water feeds my bacteria. You get the picture.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
"Blog Action Day"
I grew up in Alaska and have lived here most of my life. It's so hard to watch what's happening here on the forefront of climate change. I have many stories, so I'll share a few here on this blog action day.
Last year we were on the north coast of Alaska in Kaktovik, near the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. There were polar bears everywhere. They knew it was time for whaling when they could get the scraps. My good friend and Inupiat Elder explained that they were looking too skinny. There was one with a cub and she felt so sorry for her, we went back to her house and got some old walrus meat. We took it outside of the village to the last place we saw her and put it in the grass for her to find. We didn't see her, but it was gone the next day. They also explained that it used to be common for the polar bears to have 2 cubs, now 2 cubs are rare. Since there were so many polar bears, I asked why they weren't hunting them. I was surprised at the answer: the scientists are studying them so much, they are filled with too many chemicals. Sad all the way around.
My husband's parents built a cabin on a remote lake long before land claims were settled in Alaska, so it's been there a while. Each year the lakewater inches a little closer to the cabin. A couple summers ago we boated over to the village to ask what they thought. They had 2 different suggestions for the flooding. The glaciers that feed the river are melting so fast, more and more glacial silt is blocking the exit to the lake. The other issue is that since the permafrost is melting, the lake is getting deeper and deeper. When 20 years ago there were islands in the lake, now they are gone. The trees stand as bare pole reminders of a long gone forest, now flooded.
As a teen I used to deliver newspapers in Fairbanks. One night it was very, very cold. I got dressed with layers and layers and just as I reached for the door knob, the radio announced that it was too cold for the papers to be delivered that night. I groaned. I was already dressed. So, I donned my paper bag and started out on my 3 mile route. About 1/2 way through, an elderly lady invited me in to warm up. She handed me a $10 tip when I handed her the newspaper. I couldn't believe it. When I started refusing the money, she protested. She said, "I just looked at my thermometer and it's 72 below zero. You shouldn't be out in weather like this." I told her I had already been dressed in all my coats and snow pants. She smiled and told me to be careful on the rest of my route. I don't remember it ever getting to -72 again, but it was often below -40 every winter for weeks at a time. The other thing I remember is that daylight didn't really make a difference in the temperature. It was a steady cold. As I grew older and had my own children, it was rare that it stayed below -40 for more than a week. And during the daylight, the temperature now warms significantly. Experts have said you can notice global warming by the difference in the range of temperatures these days, as well as the warmer weather. I'm noticing.
Each morning when I get up and look out the window, I see the remnants of a glacier, the Eagle Glacier. It's all but gone. We visited three other glaciers up close and personal this year, paying tribute to their deaths, feeling helpless and sad as we bare witness.
This is the time. There is a ground swell of interest of all of us taking notice. Leaders around the world MUST act now to cut CO2 emissions. Sometimes "we the people" can't act in a timely manner. We need leaders to make a change happen fast. I hope that will be in Copenhagen in December. The time is now.
Wednesday, September 23, 2009
Fall in the Chugach State Forest
The birch leaves are golden and are framing the snow-capped peak out of my window. The sun is setting at 7:44pm and the very top peak of the mountain is catching the last rays of sun as it dips down in the northwest for the night. The peaks color is orange matching the trees. It's truly spectacular.
I tried a photo, but cameras just don't do nature any favors. You'll just have to imagine it. Look, you can't even see the peak!
Saturday, September 19, 2009
Anaktuvuk Pass is a small village in the Brooks Range in Alaska. It was recently chosen to test a sustainable house for a village family. The Cold Climate Research Center in Fairbanks held community meetings so that the entire community helped develop the house. Read more about it here: http://www.housingzone.com/article/CA6673076.html
Recently the Presbyterian Church there celebrated its 50th anniversary and those who attended toured the new house. Yukon Presbyterians for Earth Care are trying to share the news.
To view the photos of the house as well as the 50th anniversary, please "friend" Presbytery Yukon on Facebook.
Monday, July 20, 2009
Had my 5 year old niece been there, she could have told them what it was. While she was visiting, it was her job to clean that "thick, dark and gooey" stuff out of the fish pond. She put her little hand into the water and started pulling---kind of like mozarella cheese after a bite of pizza. It pulls and pulls until it finally lets go and you have a fist full of algae, which we put on the other garden plants for a little organic fertilizer.
So the questions that everyone is asking are: why was there 15 miles of it and why had no one seen it before? I can only tell you my experience. When my pond is getting too much sun, it grows like crazy. It would fill up the whole pond if I would let it. In fact, I think it kept my fish warm during the winter last year, because they snuggled right down into it. So what do I do about too much algae? Duckweed. I cover my pond with a weed that floats on top of the water and blocks the sun from getting to the algae.
So my solution for the Arctic Ocean warming and the increase of this filamentous algae is duckweed. Duckweed is the solution, since there isn't any ice to cover the surface of the ocean any more. One problem though. Duckweed doubles in size every 48 hours or so. At my house, we dip out the duckweed and feed it to the worms---who love it. Recently my husband decided that there has to be another solution. He found a recipe on-line for duckweed soup*. You mix it with broccoli so that you can't tell which is duckweed and which is broccoli, I suppose. Anyway, the health benefits of duckweed soup is that it prevents farting!
Now there's a green alternative. Put duckweed in the Arctic Ocean and then harvest it and ship it to the cows. The cows will eat it and will, in turn, stop farting their methane gasses into the atmosphere. See? I have it all solved! :-)
*If anyone out there has actually tried duckweed soup, please let me know! :-)
I had weeds at the bottom of my garden. What to do? I knew if I mowed it, it would just turn to grass. I don't want grass to take care of. So last summer I tried vinegar. That just slowed those tough ol' weeds down, but didn't really phase 'em. Everywhere I turned for help, they just told me to use poison to kill them. Poison? That was not what I wanted on my property and leaking into the ground water. So I had just the thing: Pee. I knew from experience in our last house that when my dog peed on the grass, the grass died in perfect round circles creating a psychodelic grass pattern in the yard. If it worked for dog pee, why not try ours? It just so happens that I have a 5 gallon bucket in the basement that collects our pee and then runs into the forest. Why not take that free pesticide and pour it on the weeds at the bottom of the garden?
It was a nasty smell as I brought the 5 gallon bucket outside into the air. My sister and nieces were there to bear witness, but soon disappeared inside the house holding their noses and screaming! Since I wanted the 5 gallons to reach the most possible weeds, I thought it necessary to dip the pee out of the bucket and put it into the water can. Now that was almost more than even my nostrils could bear. But I continued on my mission! Water can after water can, I spread that pee out. Now my witnesses were on the upper deck trying to tell me---with their noses plugged---that I've stunk up the whole neighborhood and that we were surely going to have bears coming to smell the curious new oder. I just assured them that this was my way of marking our territory and now they would know not to come around.
When I was finally done, I stood back to admire my work and to watch the weeds die---especially where I dumped the dregs. Did you know that if you let pee sit long enough it turns into a white globby geletin? It was gross.
Well, it's been two weeks. Nothing. Not even a dead leaf. The clovers have taken over. The grass is growing better than ever. There are even flowers growing there now. So what went wrong? I went to my book
Thursday, June 18, 2009
My sister is here to visit
I started heading to the produced section, but I looked back and they were in the candy aisle. I rolled my eyes and went back to get them. I saw some cookies and yogurt covered raisins fall into the cart and then some crackers. “Okay, enough,” I urged. Then came the cereal aisle. OMG! Just like all the marketers plan, both kids gravitated to the sweetest, unhealthiest, teeth-rotting crap on the bottom. I said, “You can only get cereals from the top shelf.” They grudgingly chose one and moved on. Kylee cried to go back, but luckily they didn’t stop.
Sandee stopped in the instant food aisle. I snatched the instant potatoes out of the cart. I looked at the ingredients. The first ingredient was potatoes, but the second was partially hydrogenated soybean oil. “You’re going to die of a heart attack,” I said. She rolled her eyes at me and went to the very top shelf where the Good Earth Instant Potatoes were. I checked the ingredients and I could pronounce every one of them. I approved her instant potatoes and we were off again.
On to the health food aisle. I said, “This is where you can shop because you don’t have to read all the labels.” Sandee picked up Peanut Butter Poppers cereal. I looked at the label, and sure enough, there was no high fructose corn syrup or partially hydrogenated soybean oil in it. I agreed that Layni could have it. But Layni looked at it and said, “I don’t want that, I’ve never heard of it before. I’ve never seen an advertisement for it, so I’m not getting it.” And there it sat. Back on the shelf.
I threw in some coffee. Sandee said, “What’s that?” I said it was fairly traded coffee beans and she rolled her eyes. On to the produce aisle. They got some grapes. I got lettuce, cabbage, and other good stuff.
We strolled up to the counter to pay and Sandee shooed me away as she unloaded the cart. I looked at her, “You snuck stuff, didn’t you!” She just told me to get out of her way. At lunch there was a snack pack lunchable for Kylee (how much packaging that wasted!) There were individually wrapped fortune cookies. There was even Applesauce in individual plastic cups instead of a big glass jar. I guess the next time we go, I’ll have to teach them about packaging. High fructose corn syrup and partially hydrogenated soybean oil was a big enough lesson for today.
Layni says, “Let’s go to McDonald’s for lunch.” I reply, “We only eat at locally owned restaurants.” She says, “What’s that?”
So many lessons, so little time! ☺
PS For my sister's version of the trip to the store, see: itsashambles.blogspot.com
Saturday, May 16, 2009
I'm dragging the groceries up the stairs planning on getting in my jammies, checking my email, and relaxing. I open the door and hear this awful sound coming from the kitchen. It wasn't a broken dishwasher. I realize the sound is coming from downstairs. I drop the groceries and head to the basement. The sound is deafening and I look around to see how to stop it. I find a light switch and turn it off. The water pump stops. The noise stops.
I look around and see water all over the basement floor: all under the worm farm, soaking into the bag of sphagum moss, flowing under the toilet barrels. I'm starting to unravel the problem. The hose that is supposed to be running into the cistern is out on the floor, not pumping into the cistern. That stupid hose never stays where it is supposed to stay.
I run upstairs and check the garden hose in the solarium. It's off, but the cement is wet under it. And then I realize what must have happened. I glance down to the lower pond and, sure enough, the lower pond is over its banks. I remembered.
We had left the water running into the lower pond the night before. It had been a little low. Arrggg! So all night, all day----24 hours the water had been running from the hose and into the water, ever so quietly. If only the green hose had stayed in the cistern, we would have recovered the water. But no.
Curt walks in and I tell him what must have happened. He turns on the kitchen faucet and there is no water. We had drained our cistern dry. It is 9pm. I am so tired and sweaty, I don't want to do what I knew needed to be done, get water.
I gather the electric cords, Curt uncoils the garden hose and we go outside and down to the lower cistern. We haven't opened it all winter and when Curt pulls the door open, the door falls off its hinge. I roll my eyes. Curt opens the hatch in the floor to the cistern. There is 8 inches of ice on the top of the water. I start thinking I may have to dip water out of the fish pond for a shower! We start the pump, but nothing comes out, the hose is frozen into the ice. Time for some McGiver moves.
I pick up an old garden hose with an end cut off. Curt thinks he can use it. He takes the other frozen hose off and forces the piece of garden hose on. With skill he finds just enough of a break in the ice, he squeezes the hose through. Success. He turns the pump on again and I see water pumping out into the driveway. Yippee!
I run to catch it and attach it to the curly hose going into the house's cistern. That is cold water! Curt comes up behind me and we both try to connect the two hoses. Water starts flying everywhere. We are soaked. I wonder what the neighbors think of all our screaming and panting! We realize we have to shut off the water. We can't connect the hoses mid stream. Curt runs back down the hill and shuts off the pump. I screw the hoses together and then I shout for him to try it. (We didn't think we could make the water flow up the mountain that far. We thought we were going to have to take all the hose back down the mountain and get it running first.) It's working! The water starts filling the house's cistern.
We come in and check our email and wait. About 10:30 Curt goes to check to see how deep the water is. He guesses about 8 inches. He flips on the house's water pump switch. The pump starts pumping that same ugly sound. Curt let it pump. He comes upstairs. He turns on the faucet. Drum roll please. . . . . . . .
There is water! Ahhhh. A shower! I'm in bed by 11:00pm!
We figure we lost about 30 days worth of water in one day. Luckily it was spring and we had more water. But we have to make sure we don't make THAT mistake again. All faucets off before you go to bed.
Thursday, May 7, 2009
Cleaning the pond
There was so much sludge and moss they could just dive into it and hide. So I got out the handy dandy wet vac. :-) I McGeivered a system to run the water through the stream bed and then outside to the shop vac, so I could sit and wait for it to fill and then tip the thing over and watch the water pour down the side of the mountian, snailes and all.
I waited for a fish to come through, but luckily it didn't happen. When the water was lower, I was able to catch them pretty easily, if you call laying on my stomach on the cement floor easy. Luckily there is a lower pond and I just released them in there.
I sucked and sucked and sucked that pond down to the very deepest end and then slowly, carefully, lowered myself in. And it was slick---let me tell you. That rubber pond liner with moss on it was impossible to stand on.
I thought better of it, crawled out again and got out the sprayer on the hose. I sprayed the sides of the pond and sent the hairy green moss sailing down into the deep end with the sucker hose.
I carefully climed back down in and started scrubbing the edges. What I really needed was a toilet brush or something. I wasn't sure how good to clean it, ya know? I knew I had to have some moss and algae in there for the fish to nibble on. So I finally declared it clean enough.
I turned on the hose to fill the pond again and went outside to clean up the shop vac. What I found was a little disturbing. There, down the hill, throughout the garden was a blanket of fishy smelly sludge----a nice smell for every starving bear coming out of hybernation. There was nothing I could do about it.
I closed the patio door but it wouldn't latch. I turned the knob again and again. Nothing. I looked up and saw the remnants of a smudge mark from last summer's bear visit. Yes, the door pushed open from the outside. If I didn't fix it, I could wake up with a bear in my house. I set out trying to fix it, but I was just getting frustrated. I finally decided that if a bear really wanted to come in, he would anyway, a small little latch wouldn't matter.
A couple of days later I found out that a bear HAD come into the neighborhood that night. He smelled paint balls from the neighbor's paint ball guns. He chewed on those and left me alone.
Good news: the latch is now fixed!
Friday, May 1, 2009
The first poop barrel!
We moved in a year ago and turned the turntable on our composting toilet. Instead of a flushing toilet, we have an indoor outhouse. It has three 50 gallon barrels on a turntable in the basement, so that about every 6 months, we have filled a barrel and are ready for a new one. This is the story of emptying the first barrel.
It's not just all filled with human waste and toilet paper. No! We also throw all of our kitchen scraps down there. Each time we make a deposit of any kind, we add a scoop of sphagnum moss. The moss makes the worms feel more at home, I think. I add a pitcher of water now and then to make sure they have enough moisture as well. (We don't send our pee down there, it's too acidic for the worms. We have a pee separator, so the pee goes down a drain and outside.)
Yes, where would we be without worms? As soon as we start a new barrel, I add about 200 red wigglers to the bottom of the barrel. They make themselves at home and start doing their cosmic task: eating our waste and making dirt. When we turn the turntable, I add another 200 worms to the top of the barrel. Maybe I'm adding too many worms---but I'd rather have too many than not enough!
So we had come to the end of our three barrels! We had filled them all up. Now it was time to take out last year's barrel and see if it really was dirt or not. What if the worms had died? What if they didn't finish their job? What if I didn't add enough water and they died of thirst? I was filled with 'what ifs.'
We had purchased a dolly for this task. Curt got on one end and I got on the other and together we clunked the barrel down the stairs into the driveway. I donned my rubber gloves! :-) We tipped the barrel, but nothing would come out. Curt wanted me to start pulling it out with my hands. That was more than I could bare! So together we tipped it upside down and it came out with a thud.
There it was. A mound of poo! Or was it? This was the moment I had waited for and I dug in! (with my yellow rubber gloves, of course) Low and behold, it didn't smell. If I had to pick a smell, it would have been an earth smell. The worms had done their job! But it was very much like a clay. There were no worms left at all. I think that means they ran out of food and died. Sad.
So what did I find? I found the missing sink stopper. Somehow we dumped it down in there with the vegetable scraps, I guess. Should I re-use it? Hmmmm. I also found avocado peelings still 100% in tack --I found some stickers from apples, I found many, many beetle-type, silverfish-type bugs and I even found some tea bag paper. It was very interesting---kind of like an archeology hunt.
I did take a sample of the dirt and put it in the freezer so the university can tell me if it's safe to put on my flower garden. One thing I don't want is all the bears in the neighborhood to come over to smell my new dirt. Bears can smell better than we can, you know. So for now, I have my new dirt in a garbage can awaiting the time I will actually use the dirt.
Wednesday, March 11, 2009
I put the fruit fly infested dirt outside to freeze. But when reflecting on fruit flies and their unwillingness to die, I decided maybe freezing them wasn't enough. So, yesterday I carefully brought in the containers of dirt with snow on top. I thawed them and then I started scooping the dirt into a nice Easter colored casserole dish. I popped the dish into the microwave like I was preparing some elegant mud pie and zapped it for 5 minutes. It came out steaming and hot, but it didn't really smell all that great.
I was sure that would do it and no new bugs could have lived, but I wasn't ready for what I found when the mud pie cooled. I started scooping that mud pie into the big, fresh dirt container. Yes, the smell. It was bad, but I assumed that's just the smell of freshly cooked dirt, or worm poop, depending on your perspective. Wanna know what I found at the bottom? Nice, big, fat red wigglers cooked to perfection. They were kinda transparent around the edges and really, really soggy worms. Somehow they had snuck through and ended up in the dirt pile instead of the worm pile.
I instantly flashed to my childhood and mom reading the book How to Eat Fried Worms. If I would have had a child near by to gross out, I might have picked it up and held it to my lips, but luckily, I was alone. I turned my head and scraped them into the fresh dirt pile. But. . .sterilizing dirt from now on, I know, will take nose plugs!
Monday, February 23, 2009
Living with pests
Who knew bananas would cause such a problem in our house. We were leaving town and there were two old bananas. What we do with all of our kitchen scraps is to dump them down the composter, which happens to be our toilet as well. When we came home, our house was filled with fruit flies.
Fruit flies are difficult to impossible to get rid of in a regular house, but in this house, it may just be something we living with. We've purchased fruit fly traps, sprays, left glasses of wine out, so they can drown. Almost everything.
Just when I thought things were under control, I went down to the basement to the worm farm (not the same as the toilet) to get some dirt to do some early planting. Fresh worm dirt is so nutritious for plants. Anyway, I had to sort the worms out of the dirt. A tickley, squiggly job, but kind of fun when you start finding all the stuff that worms won't eat---like the top of a pumpkin stem.
Then turning over the next section of composted dirt, I discovered hundreds of little white eggs. Yes, they were fly eggs. I'm at a loss of what to do. I don't want to throw out the dirt, but I don't want to bring dirt in the house with more fruit flies.
Right now it's outside freezing. How hardy are those little critters? I also have the idea of microwaving them. That ought to work, right?
Oh the trials and tribulations. . . . .or as son Keith would say, "The harder it is, the better the story is that you can tell!"
Just Do It! Take the Plunge!
By Cindee Karns, Eagle River, Alaska
PUBLISHED IN "Loaves and Fishes"
Presbytery of the Northwest Newsletter
Sustainable living! We knew that we wanted to make a move toward sustainable living. When my husband, Curt, took the job as Executive Presbyter of the Yukon Presbytery, we decided that our move south to Anchorage from Fairbanks needed to be real change.
Our first thought was to buy a house downtown so that we could give up our cars, start walking and using public transportation. It didn't take long to realize that we would have to pay $400,000 for a house built in 1952 to even live in that area. We broadened our search criteria.
I googled "green sustainable housing" and found www.greenhomesforsale.com. Amazingly there was a green, sustainable house for sale outside of Anchorage in Eagle River. Sadly, it was way out of our price range at $500,000. I emailed anyway and said how much we would love the house if we only had a money tree. That random email opened a dialog that led to the purchase of the house.
Amazingly, it turned out that no one wanted to buy this house. It is a living house and it requires that the inhabitants live in harmony with it. "Don't buy it," everyone said, "it will be a full time job doing all the maintenance." We thought about it all fall. Still, no one bought the house. By December we decided we would tour it and make a very low offer.
In order to live in harmony, in order to be sustainable, shouldn't you have to do some work? Should you only live sustainably if you don't have to change your lifestyle? Only if it's convenient for you?
The house has no septic system and no well. It is built on the side of a mountain, so those traditional systems would cost an arm and a leg to install. Instead, the rain and melt water is collected and used over and over again in a closed water system that the previous owner/builder designed. That means that all of the water used in the house (not toilets) is cleaned and filtered and then is pumped into the house's own indoor wetlands complete with a fishpond. Both toilets in the house are composting toilets so that human waste is turned into soil.
Of course I fell in love with the house, not only the sustainability parts, but the view, the garden, and the idea of walking lightly upon the earth. The owners/builders, who had already moved, finally took our third offer because the house was going into foreclosure. I was thrilled! We had taken a huge leap of faith that we could really live here and manage it all. I am not an engineer. I'm not even a science teacher, but I thought I could learn this one-of-a-kind system. The house was calling to me. Could I use this house to teach others that you can live sustainably? …that it isn't so hard to walk lightly on the earth? ….that if I can do it, anyone can do it?
Little did I know about the political & financial blockades that were in front of us. Since the house was non-conventional, we couldn't get a conventional loan. In order to get a conventional loan, we would have to install a septic system and a well. What nonsense! We wanted to buy a house that was WAY cleaner and so much less damaging to the environment. It didn't make sense. Finally, with nowhere else to turn, I started writing letters to my state legislators.
After lots of negotiation, we reached an agreement with the lenders that if the former Lieutenant Governor, who is also an environmental engineer, would come and inspect the house, we could get a loan. We are so grateful to him. Without his approval, we wouldn't have gotten the house.
We are now learning how to live here. We are careful about chemicals that go into the system (It is a shame that the US government doesn't require cleaning agents to list their contents on the containers.), and we are also trying to figure out the best ways to use this house to educate others about sustainable living.
One thing is for sure, in buying this house, we took the plunge! And by the way, visitors are always welcome.
Stay tuned for part two: The Living House, the details.
The Living House: the details
“Ultimately, deep ecological awareness is spiritual or religious awareness. When the concept of the human spirit is understood as the mode of consciousness in which the individual feels a sense of belonging, of connectedness, to the cosmos as a whole, it becomes clear that ecological awareness is spiritual in its deepest essence.” (p. 7)
~ Fritjof Capra
The engineer who built this house calls it a bioshelter, "an integrated house/ greenhouse/ aquaculture system designed to emulate natural living systems in which the subsystems interact with each other to collectively create a self-regulating whole. The goal is to simulate the thermodynamic efficiencies of a complex ecological food chain." (Crosby, p. 1) What an idea: to live in a house that is supposed to be like a live system, like nature! I wondered what that meant exactly. Capra explains the properties of a living system as “properties of the whole, which none of the parts have. They arise from the interactions and relationships among the parts.” (Capra, p. 29)
How biblical, you might say. Did it remind you of 1 Corinthians 12:12? It did me. Even though that verse is talking about Christian community, the idea of the body as a natural system became a metaphor for the house in my mind. “You can easily enough see how this kind of thing works by looking no further than your own body. Your body has many parts—limbs, organs, cells—but no matter how many parts you can name, you're still one body.” That's exactly what our house is: a whole body with many different parts. We live as parts of the whole within the house. Just like in a healthy body and in a healthy system, each part thrives and in our house we are thriving along side the gold fish, the plants, the gravel, the worms, the CO2, the micro-organisms and the thermal mass (earth).
The house was built on the side of a mountain facing the southwest and overlooking the beautiful Eagle River Valley, in order to collect as much passive solar heat and light through the front wall of windows as possible. Inside, the first ¼ of the house is an enclosed water garden complete with a goldfish pond and a small waterfall. Even though there are hardly any other windows, the rest of the house is supplied with natural light through the front windows and a skylight for natural lighting in the back of the house.
The garden space helps heat the house, acting as a buffer between us and the out of doors. It recycles our water and it brings smiles to our faces--especially in winter. We take good care of our garden space. Basically it's an insulated swimming pool filled with sand, gravel and topsoil that, in the deep end, collects water in a 5,000 gallon cistern. Sand, gravel and cement all collect heat: thermal mass. You know this from being in a basement in the summer. It’s cool because the ground surrounding it is cool. In the winter it’s warm, because you are heating the bricks and the ground stays warmer than outside. Our garden and the thermal mass beneath it helps heat our house in the winter and cool it in the summer.
Storing our heat this way has helped change our carbon footprint from 30 tons a year when we lived in Fairbanks and heated with oil, to 10 tons a year now. It is so significant that if we suddenly lost heat in this house at 70 degrees and the outside temperature was 10 above zero, the house would take a week to freeze. Check your carbon footprint at:
We wouldn’t freeze though. We have a Finnish fireplace, a wood-fired masonry heater, that stands in the middle of the house. The fire heats the bricks and they provide radiant heat for the entire house. These kind of heaters burn so hot, there is little carbon expelled into the atmosphere. Our back up heat is a small natural gas boiler.
This house breathes; it has a heat recovery ventilator. It mixes fresh air with inside air so that our house completely exchanges the air in the house every 3 hours. The fresh, dry air is ducted into the garden at the floor level and dehumidifies the garden ---it seems like it’s exhaling. At the top of the garden space, the air is inhaled into the rest of the house and the moisture picked up in the garden space humidifies the inside air.
Even though our water system is a closed system, we replenish our water supply by collecting water from a seasonal spring and from rain water. The fresh water is piped into the garden space where it trickles through the gravel and roots of the plants getting cleaned naturally before it is sterilized through a UV sterilizer and pumped into the cistern. While the average American house uses 70 gallons per person per day just on indoor water use, (Main, p. 68) we only lose about two or three gallons a day per person by drinking it and watering outside plants. The rest of the water is recycled. Check your home water use at: http://www.tampagov.net/dept_water/information_resources/Saving_water/Water_use_calculator.asp
When we use any water in the house, (not toilet) the water is cleaned, sterilized and reused. At each stage of the cleaning process, mirco-organisms help purify the water. First, it’s drained and filtered through three different 50 gallon biofilter drums in the basement, where more than 95% of the pollutants are removed. (To see the builder talk about it, go to: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=F9XC7UoHQiE&NR=1 ) Then the treated water is pumped up to the garden space and into the goldfish pond, which is filled with aquatic plants that clean the water even more. If we have used any product that is not good for us to drink, we know. When the fish start gasping for air, we did something wrong: too much laundry soap, a new shampoo, etc. (No fish have ever died by using them as “canaries in the mine” --so far.)
Next, the pond water over flows into the gravel and topsoil, seeping down into the same collection pipe the rainwater ends up in and is sterilized and pumped into the cistern for reuse. We filter our drinking water one more time before drinking it, but the rest we use as is. Because it's recycled, we have an almost limitless supply of clean water here, something a lot of people in the world wish for on a daily basis. (To see the builder talk about it, go to: http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=wDN76_UDzdI )
So what about the toilets, you ask? We have two. One is a biolet, which anyone can purchase at biolet.com. It is electric, and turns waste into dirt every six months or so. The other is a home-made composting toilet which takes human waste and our vegetable scraps. After eighteen months and the addition of 250 earthworms, we have the best organic dirt you can get to use on our flowers and trees. (To see the builder talk about it, go to http://uk.youtube.com/watch?v=FYXtSRgw2ZU )
So, we are learning how to live with our house and its systems, We would be glad to encourage you to come visit or build something similar, but what if that’s out of the question? What else can you do? Our next plunge will be solar power we hope. But until we have that figured out, I’m working on how to clean without all of the chemicals that pollute our lungs as well as the common water supplies, which are sold to us in our stores . I’ve figured out that I have brand loyalties (that are difficult to break) to Comet and Lysol, among other cleaning supplies used in my childhood. I'm trying to follow advice from Christopher Uhl in his book Developing Ecological Consciousness, Path to a Sustainable World, who points out that “to eliminate the concept of waste, all materials and products should be conceived of as nutrition…Humans must design things that, after their useful life, return safely to soil and rebuild it.” (Uhl, 266) Using cleaning supplies that can return safely to the soil is something I can do right now.
If you want to follow my lead, this year for Christmas everyone on my list will get microfiber cleaning cloths (not the antibacterial ones), a gallon of vinegar and a box of baking soda with a note that says, "Skip the cleaning aisle at the grocery store for the rest of your life!" I also know that our strongest voice for change is in our dollars. I give my dollars to the brand “Seventh Generation” found in most health food sections of Safeway. It’s good, if you don’t have a favorite green brand yet. Those are things that don’t take time, they take the ability to change. Look for something new each week that you can change to improve life for those “downstream” from each of us. What new steps will you take? You can do it. Take the plunge.
“There are as many ways to build a new world of living systems as there are creative people who want to do it! . . . Each person, as an imaginable disc, can contribute to the process of today’s metamorphosis in some unique way. What matters is that we all understand the Earthdance and the healthy features of living systems at their best. From there we need only the will and the love to create a better future for all living beings.” (p. 365)
Capra, F. (1997). The web of life: A new scientific understanding of living systems. Anchor Books.
Crosby. R. (2001). “What is a bioshelter?” Biorealis Systems, Inc. Avail. online at: http://biorealis.com/bioshelter/BioshelterNarr.html
Main, E. (2008). “H2O: One glass at a time.” Green Guide. National Geographic. P. 68-73.
Sahtouris, E. (1999). Earthdance: Living systems in evolution. Avail. online at: http://www.ratical.org/LifeWeb/Erthdnce/
Uhl, C. (2004). Developing ecological consciousness: Path to a sustainable world. Roman and Littlefield.