Tuesday, August 31, 2010

What? I'm no Scare-DCAT

Met with David Eisenberg from the Development Center for Appropriate Technology (DCAT) in Tucson on Monday. DCAT does many things, though its focus in the past several years has been in "greening the codes." Instead of speaking of DCAT specifically, I want to post quickly on a few things David said that has gotten me thinking...

1. The way in which we as a society, but also we as builders talk about sustainability in our lives and in the built environment. Ineffectively, really. Many designers/builders that are pushing the envelope that I have talked with have spoken of the permitting office and building codes in a negative fashion. "They won't change, they are so hard to work with, they just don't get it, etc. etc." Instead of reframing how we look at green building and the current codes, we immediately blame a municipality and inspectors for not understanding. Well, building codes are here to stay, and the for the most part there is a reason behind why they were made...so we must rethink the way in which we talk about integrating green building into the codes. David gave a good example: most building codes require a plumbing system to tie into the sewer system, so greywater systems are often illegal. Instead of a knee-jerk reaction of "that's so dumb!" let's analyze this. Why was the code regarding sewage made? Probably because people were getting sick from blackwater. Well...taking relatively benign greywater, of which there is no documented cases of people getting sick from, according to the CDC, and putting it into a blackwater/sewer system...what does it mean? It means you are increasing the amount of blackwater, of which there are TONS of cases of people getting sick from, by requiring that the greywater is added to the blackwater. Instead of reducing a hazardous situation, you are increasing it 20fold. Now think of approaching building code officials with this argument, instead of the response of "that's dumb," and you have a more convincing reason for re-evaluating the code...

We can try thinking of other situations where this is the case, and we'll soon find a new way of thinking about building codes and how to approach thinking about a code...not simply naysaying, but having reasons why and ways to change it to make it more appropriate for modern technology and building methods!

2. Think laterally, not vertically. It seems in talking briefly with David that he has mastered thinking laterally...something I can appreciate, since we are trained in society to be vertical thinkers. What do I mean by this? In typical problem-solving, we tend to think vertically, or step by step to find the solution. ...Like a math problem where you cannot jump around, but must logically solve it step by step. Instead, we should try to think laterally...it is an exercise in increasing the number of potential solutions, trying them all and finding the right one eventually...even if it means you try several wrong solutions first. It is brainstorming different approaches, different ways of thinking about the codes, etc. I am reading a book by Edward de Bono called Lateral Thinking: Creativity Step by Step...a good, very basic read that has exercises in getting your mind away from traditional problem solving...

We of course talked about the progression of "alternatives" in the building codes, and there is some really exciting stuff being looked at nowadays...earthen structures, strawbale, etc. that are being reviewed and possibly added to the Intl Green Construction Codes, though many codes will need to be revised before they enter. I like the way David puts it...

...consider wood. As a material it is susceptible to rot, insects, and structural problems; if we were to introduce it today, there would be a million questions on type of wood, number of knots, age of wood, etc. that would prevent it from being accepted as a "safe" building material. And yet...it is the most widely used building material on the market today! It is only natural that strawbale, rammed earth, etc will take time to become accepted, but we should not rule them out! Considering the amount of research that has gone into wood as a material, we need to consider doing the same with "alternatives..."

Sunday, August 29, 2010

Earthshipping, FedEx Style

Just finished up my last week in Taos, working on Earthships, and am "shipping out"...
Here's the final review:

Structure: The tire pounding is both fun and exhausting, and it really results in a shared experience/hardcore bonding since no one else knows what it means to pack hundreds of tires full of dirt and repeatedly pound it with a sledgehammer. The tires are great because pretty much NOTHING could destroy those walls, and it is a reuse for the millions of tires that are lying around on our earth. That said, it is extremely labor intensive and in the end, the tires give you a wavy wall, so in order to smooth out the walls the builder must use extra materials (like cement and cans). Unfortunately, I see no way around that except for leaving walls wavy, which most people would not desire. The bottle walls--both glass and cans--I think are a little outdated. Not the idea of needing a filler in the cement, but the fact that they use recyclable materials. Sure, they were used once and often recycling them means shipping them overseas and having them melted down and reprocessed, but if we are talking in terms of embedded energy...aluminum is a material with one of the highest levels of embedded energy (also, portland cement...yikes)!

Water infiltration: I think one of the largest problems that the earthship crew needs to overcome. Vertical glass has been done forever, and it is relatively easy to waterproof around it. Slanted glass? Not so much. There seems to be always leaks, and the first thing to go in an earthship is the wood sills below the slanted glass. The newer earthships are building with that plastic decking material, which solves a lot of the problem, but I still see problems in the future with water infiltration. There are so many ways in which water can infiltrate (condensation in the greenhouse, roof flashing, gutter systems into the cistern, using silicone to fill in large gaps, etc.), and if the focus is on longevity of the house, then this is something that needs to be tackled.

Systems: Earthships are the furthest developed in the green building realm on integrating systems within their structure. I did not work much with the electrical side of the systems but spent a few days working on plumbing systems, and I am very excited by what I saw. There is a fully integrated rainwater catchment/cistern system which is filtered and used as drinking water with "waste" running into the greywater system that feeds the toilet, which then exits into a traditional blackwater system (septic/leech field). In my opinion, the composting toilet is a better solution, but I understand their reasoning for the blackwater (less maintenance, the balance of woodshavings to excrement can be thrown off if there are large parties thrown at the house, unintentional misuse of the composting toilet, etc). The earthships also include a glycol solar thermal panel system which both heats water for showers/sinks, and melts the snow off the roof in the winter. Combining all these systems is complicated, but it is incredible how well they work! The other AMAZING part of the systems....is that there is NO heating system. That is the most amazing and inspiring part for me, especially thinking of the $400+ heating bills people are paying in uninsulated homes in Buffalo...

Plastering: I hate stucco. Can't there be a more natural alternative? Yes, but if you are championing longevity of a product, the stucco may last longer than a more natural plaster/limewash finish...don't know how to choose on this one...

Cost/complexity: Originally, the earthship was designed to be able to be built by the common man. That is no longer the case...the systems are too complicated. Also, the cost ($200/sqft) is very prohibitive, though that is with hiring the crew to build the structure, so I can imagine it would be much cheaper building on your own. Though, if it takes 5 years to build your own...sheesh. These two factors are major inhibitors to increasing the number of earthships in the world...

Despite some things that need to change I think the earthships are headed in the right direction, and I give the crew and Mike Reynolds a whole lot of credit for designing these amazing structures. I will most definitely be taking all 6 elements of an earthship (thermal/solar heating and cooling, on-site energy generation, contained sewage treatment, reusing materials, water harvesting, and food production) and incorporating them in all future building/rebuilding that I do.

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Rocky Mountain Youth Corps

During my last week in Taos, I finally got the chance to meet up with Rosie from the Training Dept. of Rocky Mountain Youth Corps (RMYC). I was primarily interested in this corps because it is different from a job corps or a conservation corps in that they look at the whole development of a person rather than focusing on training for a specific job. Sure, they have trainings for the field crew in cutting down trees (fondly labeled the "saw crew") and conservation techniques, but they also have time on Fridays where they spend part of the day with Rosie and her cohort Jamie in team bonding exercises, personal development activities, etc. I think this becomes probably the most important part of this youth corps, and something to incorporate in all kinds of training corps, youth programs, etc.

There is always a burning question at the back of my mind while interviewing organizations like this one that are training youth...who is the target audience, and why? For RMYC it seems that there is a mixture of both educated college graduates applying because they are enthusiastic about hands-on programs and helping the environment, and locals who would be labeled as more or less "at-risk" that are in need of a job. I asked whether she felt as though hiring completely competent college grads for low-skills job decreased the number of people that RMYC was helping in terms of their hireability (in other words, should they only focus on hiring high need folks rather than letting in folks with a low need for this program). Rosie answered both yes and no...on one hand, the college grads have no hands-on experience exiting school and they can help raise the bar for the other people in the program, but at the same time hiring them decreases the number of spots available for an "at risk" population. It seems when forming a corps, you either have to be comfortable in reaching all types of people or reaching just a target population...but if you accept all types, would that mean eventually that the "at risk" might be crowded out of the program because of the number of qualified college grads applying? Or would it enhance the program, raising the expectation level? It seems like it would largely depend on the individual group, no? And how would you know that before, during the selection process, whether it would be one way or the other?

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Last week in Taos

Haven't updated in a while...spent the weekend being pampered by my wonderful Aunt Barb and Uncle Tom--they fed me nice dinners, took me to Red Rocks, and I even took a couple hot showers (what are they??) I was sad to leave, but I had to finish my LAST WEEK in Taos! Time flies, doesn't it?

On the way to Denver, I stopped in Great Sands National Park, and it is was incredible. There is something wondrous about them; butted up against the Rockies, river flowing past (during spring snow melt and summer monsoon), there are wetlands a mile away fed by an underground river, not to mention there are HUGE sand dunes no where near a beach! In addition, there is a phenomenon that happens few places in the world, where the river looks like it has a pulsating rhythm like waves, only it is not an ocean or lake!

After Great Sands, I drove straight to Denver and went out to dinner. The next incredible thing I saw was Red Rocks...an natural amphitheater made out of geological rock formations that are bright red in an otherwise brown desert-like plain. Seats and a stage were added with work done by the Civilian Conservation Corps, but what an amazing concert venue! Too bad we didn't have tickets to that night's Beatles tribute...
Got back into Taos Sunday night, to the most beautiful sunset. I sure will miss those next week when I leave this place.

Other things I've done this week? Learned about earthships systems so that I can start thinking about my own type of setups. Water filtration for cisterns, greywater, glycol solar thermal heating, etc. The picture I included are some parts for the greywater system. For cisterns I found out they use gigantic salad bowls to catch the water! How funky is that?? Anyway, all is well and I'm looking forward to seeing my brother Kyle out in LA next week! Soon I will be posting on the organization I'm visiting down in Tuscon, DCAT.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Tire pounding, in force!

The week started off both crazy and nice...

On Sunday I took a trip to Pecos National Historical Park, just outside of Santa Fe. It is a pretty amazing place, site of the Pecos Indians ruins, but also the site of a civil war battle which essentially ended all hope of Confederate conquest of the west. There are incredible views, both of the ruins and the surrounding landscape. What's so crazy about a bunch of ruins? Well, nothing. I had just lowered myself into a kiva, an underground place of worship, when the sky opened up. Phew! I was protected. I waited until the rain stopped and exited the kiva with the intention of walking back to my car and discontinuing the hike, only, when I exited the kiva and was halfway to my car, it started pouring and lightning and hailing on me! Sheesh! I drove in this weather with the hail pinging off the car thinking I would get out of the storm and minute, but I just ran into more crazy/intense lightning storms with sideways bolts of lightning and something called virgas...when you can see the rain falling, but it evaporates and never quite hits the ground. I think that happens in the Sahara a lot too? Crazy. The nice part of the day was later on...I went to a BBQ at the Angel's Nest (an earthship) and finished the weekend with a good meal and great company.

Monday...same old, same old, working up in Arroyo Hondo on an addition to an earthship. I'm getting pretty good at plastering!

Tuesday (today)...we finally pounded a TON of tires (that's me, going at it!). Picture swinging a sledgehammer for 7+ hours in the hot sun. Yes, I am exhausted, but happy. Pounding tires is a lot of work, but when those babies are pounded, they are not going anywhere. We asked tons of questions, saw how an earthship can be laid out, and then got cracking. When the end of the day rolled around, I was ready for a nap...but back to the farm! I shoveled manure, planted some rye, and added bedding for and fed the chickens. A long day, for sure. Now making some kimchi and a cucumber/tomato/onion salad for lunch tomorrow...

Saturday, August 14, 2010

Second week of work, and a RAINBOW!

Nothing to report this week...continuing crazy storms. There was a TRIPLE rainbow. I still cannot believe it. (you can't see in the photo I included, but it was there...)
On the jobsite, it seems I am continually building bottle walls and mixing cement. Seth told me I could do something else next week, but I actually think I will stick to plastering the walls...I need to get better at it. Kind of like drywall--you gotta get rid of all the seams and make it look totally smooth. I am very impatient, and thus I am terrible at it. We'll see how I fare next week.
Thinking of going to Taos Pueblo today and walking through the galleries. Tomorrow I'm planning on spending the day in Great Sand Dunes...

Sunday, August 8, 2010

Art in Santa Fe

It's Sunday--the day before Monday (aka manual labor day)--and I've decided to spend it in Santa Fe. Santa Fe is about an hour south of Taos, but decided it was worth driving the hour there and hour back. Taos is cute but small, and I explored the area on Saturday, so I felt I could go somewhere else today...

I LOVE Santa Fe, or at least what I've seen of it (which is not very much). I drove here with only one mission in mind--to go to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum-- but instead of immediately satisfying my desire to see art, I accidentally ran smack into the middle of an arts festival in the main plaza! It was very much like the Allentown Art Festival that happens in Buffalo, only picture southwestern style art, weavings, metalwork, etc. The town center itself is filled with shops, cafes, etc. almost in a New Orleans style...super concentrated, lots of galleries, live music in the plaza. Seems very walkable, at least in this section of the city.

After exploring and grabbing a fabulous gelato at Ecco, I went to the Georgia O'Keeffe Museum and was surprised and delighted by the exhibit. I hadn't realized how cool of a woman she was! There was a quote on the wall I thought my aunt Judy would appreciate...essentially...if all people were trees, then she could get along with them much better. Thought that was pretty funny. Anyway, being an accomplished woman painter when men were telling her she couldn't be is reason enough for me to like her, but what really struck me was not about feminism; it was how she viewed her art. Her abstractions of flowers or landscapes or shapes were how she felt about the object in question. Not a novel idea I suppose, but it struck me because I had recently been telling a friend about displaying what you feel in your everyday life...a bright colored vehicle isn't necessarily an indicator of "I'm a tool, I want everyone to notice me," and it very well could be that's the brightness they feel in their life (though not in every case...I consider yellow trucks just obnoxious attention grabbers). This idea of displaying happiness on the outside invites others to engage with your happiness, to share, and to make a connection...

The other part of why I enjoyed this exhibit so much was one of the quotes I read on the wall, about why she paints. Unfortunately I didn't write this one down either, but it was about how painting is the way that she gives back to the world...she did what she loved to do, and by doing that, she was contributing to the world in the best way she knew how. Exactly. Like my Nonna used to sing to me: "do what you love, love what you do..." It's like displaying your feelings in your everyday life; pursue something that you love to do, you will be happy, and through your own happiness you can contribute meaningfully in the best way you know how (again, not in every case...I doubt even if you loved to screw people over in business transactions that you would ever be contributing meaningfully...)

Headed back to Taos soon...meeting Jeff/Tania/Joe and visitors for a potluck dinner. Tomorrow is back to work, and SO looking forward to it!

Smoking Vans and Roller Girls

End of my first week here in Taos and I can say without a doubt that Earthships and the crew working on them are pretty awesome. Contrary to what everyone believes of the internship (what? you mean they don't pay you??), there was minimal tire pounding and infinite opportunities to ask questions (why bottle walls? do you build a foundation before tires? how far down do you dig for the greywater system in the planters?). This week I got to build a bottle wall from cement and beer bottles, built into the side of the hill in order to backfill around the cistern which is buried behind the building. That task was pretty monotonous...3 parts sand : 1 water : 1/2 bag cement, plus a pinch of fibers...throw it in the mixer and BAM! start packing out the wall. Luckily, I had brought my chalk line along and was the only intern with a chalk line, so I was promoted to a more technical task...working on closing in the greenhouse roof alongside our foreman for the next 2 weeks, Seth. The weather is gorgeous, if a little sunny/hot. I am getting my fair share of a tan, despite my best efforts to smother my body in SPF 50, and I am now forcing myself to drink 2+ gallons of water a day just to stay hydrated. Ick, water STILL tastes gross. Working 9-430 heavy labor everyday in the hot, hot sun perhaps seems like a terrible idea to most, but I am enjoying the absolute exhaustion I feel at the end of the day, and my body is definitely getting stronger because of it.

Pictures/stories for this week:1. Joe forgot to put the oil cap back on his van...we were dying in the fumes (as Sean demonstrates)

2. Went to a roller derby match. Those girls are wayyy intense...some girl walked away with a neck brace, and another girl got her nose smashed up a bit, not to mention the HUGE bruises on the players' arms/legs.
3. Playing with fire...met the boys for dinner on Saturday at the Angel's Nest (a modified earthship) and made a frosty the snowman wax sculpture, sitting/melting by the fire!

I already have a million questions about earthships, but I think just one suffices for this week...
How does one decide between permanency of structure and natural materials? Much of the outside of earthships uses cement and stucco coatings...is the embedded energy of cement justifiable since cement will last longer? Typically, portland cement must be heated to extremely high temperatures in kilns before it can be sold as the final product...think of the carbon footprint involved in processing and shipping such materials, not to mention the toxicity of the exhaust from the kilns that often burn things such as tires or other industrial waste. There is something about the cement that feels wrong to me, but at the same time I understand the justifications for using it...it's a solution to not having to re-mud a building every year...but, cement doesn't breathe! It locks out moisture, or in (which can present problems), depending on if it's well sealed. Is there a medium ground? Not cement, but not adobe/mud that weathers more easily? Ultimately, do we want structures to last 100s of years? Or is it better to follow the thought that if not maintained, we would want these buildings to eventually be able to recycle themselves back into the ground?

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

My schedule in Taos

Been here in Taos since Saturday/Sunday and have found myself falling into a more or less routine:
630 wake up in my yurt, with sound of ducks quacking and chickens squawking next door to me...make breakfast, see if Jeff is awake and needs anything done around the farm
8 leave for earthships, pick up the boys on the way (8 interns, 7 boys)
9 arrive on site, start working. Today I got to pound tires and I think the others were a little jealous...We are working on a mostly finished earthship, so there is a chance that is the only tire pounding that will be required during the month long internship. Tomorrow I will be building a bottle wall maybe? Everyday is a little bit different, but I am glad everyday is NOT pounding tires, because I think my body might give up if that were the case (SO tiring and tedious)
1ish break for lunch, listen to stories and guys telling...guy jokes...
430ish finish the day, relax and drink some beers with the boys (or in my case, a gallon of water...)
5-730...do whatever! Walk the plaza, pick up my bike from the bike shop, listen to the guy playing the guitar outside of a coffee shop who is there EVERYDAY, do something silly and totally spontaneous...
730 help Jeff for an hour on the farm
830 make dinner or go out for karaoke, or dancing orrrrr...any number of things!

Looking forward to the weekends...Joe and I have to man the booth at the farmer's market from 9-1pm on Saturday, but after that we are free to explore! Thinking of going to RollerDerby this Saturday, then maybe a leisurely bike ride and swimming in the river on Sunday?

Monday, August 2, 2010

Settled for the moment, and liking it!

I've finally arrived in Taos, where I will be staying for about a month to complete my internship at Earthship Biotecture. Taos is a funny place; it is very New Mexico, but also very artsy....I'm not even sure what that means, since the two aren't mutually exclusive, but I guess it's just not what I expected. It's a thriving little mountain town with tons of art galleries, coffeeshops, etc. Like New Orleans, all this would not be possible without tourism...

I am living on a farm/garden called Talpa Gardens, home to Jeff and Tania, and it is a lovely little place. I sleep in a yurt, shower in a solar shower (with a short window of time for warm showers...usually 4-7pm), and have wifi, hooray! There are dogs and cats and chickens and ducks and manure/compost that smells something awful if you're downwind from it, and lots and lots of veggies. There is also another intern staying with me at Talpa, Joe, and we work ~1hr a day for Tania and Jeff to compensate them for staying with them. I've only been on the road for about 2-3 weeks, but it's definitely nice to be staying somewhere for more than a day or two at a time. I feel like I have a place I want to and can go back to everyday. In fact, I said "I'm headed home" today from work on the earthships, as though it were a more permanent thing...weird...

Sunday, August 1, 2010

Fields of good and evil...

Driving through Texas was…an experience. Flat lands going on forever and ever and ever…and ever. Hours and hours and hours…and hours. The most inspiring sight? Fields of wind turbines. The scariest? Fields of oil wells and lots and lots of feed lots.