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Building Off-Grid Casting Notice


  • We’re looking throughout the United States for folks who will soon start to build an off grid home and plan to complete the build before April of 2019. We cannot consider builds that are already well underway.

  • If you are selected for the show, you will receive compensation of up to $10k upon completion of filming and building.

  • **Please note, in order to be considered for the show, the home must primarily be built on rural land where it will ultimately exist (as opposed to being 100% built in a warehouse and then transported to the land)**

Please email margaret.halkin AT or call me @ 415-828-5828 if interested. I will be happy to answer all questions and fill you in on all the show details.

Here is a sneak peek link to the show:

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Novel Wind Turbine Concept

The O-Wind is made with vents in the exterior so that it can catch city crosswinds and spin accordingly. This means that city dwellers might be able to generate their own electricity with the typical swirling winds found in cities. You can read more about this interesting design at

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Conserve Water

Many people feel that an adequate supply of clean water will be one of the most significant issues of the future, and I have no reason to doubt that. The United States has been blessed with an abundance of good water, and we have gotten used to having it at the twist of a faucet handle. It can be a shock when water supplies diminish and water has to be rationed, or if the supply gets contaminated and is no longer available for potable use.

Water agencies always advise conservation; they know how precious and limited the supply is. In fact, many plumbing codes now require that new installations of toilets be low consumption models and that showers be fitted with restriction diaphragms to limit the flow of water.

Other strategies for conserving domestic water tend to be rather controversial. The reuse of gray water, using rain water catchment systems and composting toilets all conserve water but may be frowned upon for various reasons, mostly to do with health concerns. In many places these practices are flat out illegal, even though they have been shown to be safe and effective when utilized carefully.

Recycling gray water (from the drains of baths, showers, washing machines and bathroom sinks) is very tempting because it seems so benign and obviously of value. Black water waste (from toilets, kitchen sinks, garbage disposals and dishwashers) is more clearly of dubious value because of all the organic material it contains and the potential for bacterial contamination. About 2/3 of all the water used inside a typical house could be diverted for the use of watering plants, flushing the toilet or washing clothes.

Here are some guidelines for gray water use: never use for direct consumption; don’t use directly on anything that might be eaten; don’t spray it; never reuse water from washing diapers or cleaning meat or poultry; occasionally water plants with fresh water as well to leach away any buildup of toxins, and use biodegradable soap.

Because of continuing drought, California legalized the use of gray water in 1992. However, it was only legalized for subsurface use, either with drip systems or mini-leach systems. Drip systems require the use of a surge tank to clarify the water, where leach systems may use the gray water directly. In either case the water must be introduced at least eight inches below the surface.

This below-ground cistern is being installed to store rain water.

Rain water catchment is definitely gaining popularity throughout the U. S. , with an estimated 250,000 cisterns in use. There are many places where it is the only way to get decent water. Again, these systems are not without some health risks, so care is advised in setting them up. Rain water can be used directly without treatment for evaporative coolers, toilets, car washing, chlorinated swimming pools, and surface irrigation. For other household uses, it is advised that the rain water be disinfected.

Roofs made of metal, clay, tile, or slate are often used to catch the rain; other types of roofs might leach harmful components into the water. A clever way to capture the initial rainwater that might contain bird droppings, dust and debris, is to employ a standpipe where the first water fills the pipe, and then the overflow goes into a cistern. This standpipe is then drained after the rained has stopped. It is recommended that about ten gallons be diverted for every 1,000 square feet of roof area. The cistern or storage tank should be situated as close to the downspout and at as high a level as practical. Of course during seasons subject to freezing weather, the system must be protected from frost damage. Also a sealed tank will keep the water cleaner.

The above photo shows a little water fall and pond arrangement that was where the overflow water from the cistern pictured earlier discharged.

Sometimes water is captured from paved areas, and that is best used for watering plants. A considerable amount of water is typically used for watering landscaping, especially lawns. It takes about 660 gallons of water to put one inch of water on 1,000 square feet of lawn. When my wife and I were living in a bus conversion motor home, we managed to accommodate all of our domestic water needs (including showering) on about 20 gallons a day, so that bit of lawn watering would have provided us with about a month’s worth of water! If you must have a lawn, just water when it really needs it, or better yet, let it go brown during the dry season. Other strategies for diminishing outside water use include mulching plants, using drip irrigation or soaker hoses and planting indigenous, drought-resistant plants.

Now comes the touchy subject of compost toilets. People either love the idea or hate it; I’m somewhere in between. My wife and I have lived with a compost toilet on several occasions, so I can speak from experience. The first one we used I built copying the design of the Swedish Clivus Multrum system, and we used it for a few years. It’s a pretty clever, low maintenance design, where the waste material slowly slides downhill so that the finished compost is available at the bottom of the tank. A network of pipes provide air to the composting mass to assure aerobic decomposition, and a large insulated vent stack carries any fumes outside the building. It actually worked pretty well, but occasionally flies would set up camp in there and that was a problem. Also periodically cleaning the thing out was no fun.

The next composting toilet we used I installed in our bus. It was a commercially made Sun-Mar boat and RV toilet. It also worked, but we had two major problems: the fly situation became intense at times, and unfortunately the capacity of the collection drum was not great enough for the two of us using it full time. Thus I had to clean out the tank before the waste material was fully composted; that was really no fun! So if you’re interested in pursuing a composting toilet, I suggest that you carefully size it to your needs, and be prepared to deal with the very organic nature of it. If you are good at keeping a garden compost pile cooking along, you might enjoy using a composting toilet.

Water conservation is partly a matter of consciousness and partly a matter of having appropriate systems. It is obvious that we can get by with a lot less water than we typically use, so why not start using less now and be prepared for possible shortfalls?

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Building Amazing Homes & Mobile Spaces Using Shipping Containers!

In this video we explore and learn how to use shipping containers as strong, durable and mobile building blocks to create amazing structures of all kinds, like a house, addition, office space, or cabin; and we feature a few stunning projects to get you inspired! Anthony Ruggiero from Storstac Inc. ( showed us around their yard in Toronto, Ontario and took the time to teach us about the ins and outs of building with shipping containers.

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Housing Our Society

Think about the people that you know and ask yourself how many of them fit into the “single family” model of chosen lifestyle. Perhaps you know an elderly person who doesn’t want the responsibility of maintaining a big home and would rather live with other folks in a similar situation. Maybe you know someone who doesn’t want to be married, but does want to live “in a relationship” with other people. How about a young person just starting out on her own, who is ready for some independence, but is not ready to take on homemaking on her own? What about a several generational family that wants to be close to each other, but not necessarily live in the same house?

In general, the zoning for developing residences across much of the United States is classified as “single family”; only one family may reside on any given lot. So what is a single family in the United States at the beginning of the 21 st Century?” The definition of what constitutes a family has gotten rather vague.

I sense a yearning among many people to experience life at home in a more communal way; they want to be able to share their lives more intimately with friends or like-minded people. They want to be able to share some facilities, and not be responsible for every aspect of a house unto themselves. They want to be able to find and afford their own place, which may not necessarily be a large house.

I feel that it would be much better to recognize and accept the great diversity of people around us, and actually provide homes for all of us, legally. This would mean making available small rental units, mother-in-law apartments, co-housing projects, cluster housing projects, multi-unit dwellings, along with the single family homes. Embrace the diversity!

This would not only be good for people, but it would also be good for our environment in that sharing facilities and leaving more open space is a more sustainable approach to living. Less redundancy means more efficiency in energy and materials used.

Co-housing is a particularly interesting concept, in that it provides for the needs of individuals or small family units, while at the same time giving them access to each other as a close-knit community. A typical co-housing project will have space for six or more living units which are private from each other, and then there will be common space to be shared. This shared space might include a large kitchen and dining hall, a recreation or meeting room, meditation or spiritual room, laundry facilities, and workshop or garage space. There are many forms that such a community could take, and this form is under the control of those who organize it. Usually members own their particular quarters, and have shared rights for the use of the common space.

Cluster housing is a little different, but has some similar attributes. Basically the idea is to cluster several houses within a relatively small area, leaving a substantially larger area undeveloped as open space. This gives the residents the opportunity to share their lives and facilities in some ways, like co-housing projects, while maintaining greater autonomy. This also affords the preservation of more open space than would happen with the same number of houses occupying lots in a conventional way.

Many folks express their concerns about allowing more than one “unit” on a lot. Some think increased traffic would be a problem; others feel that greater density would not pay for itself, in terms of maintaining the infrastructure. Someone might ask, “What about all of the lot owners who bought their lots knowing they were zoned for single families, and then years later discover an apartment next door?” I feel that these are all valid concerns that need to be addressed.

I think it is possible to have denser development without compromising open space. One approach to keeping density in check would be to require co-housing projects to acquire as much land as would be needed for a comparable number of single family units. Cluster housing typically creates more open space than would be left if the same land were developed as a series of single units. Likewise, there could be minimum lot sizes for allowing other forms of multi-unit development. Doing this would also equalize the potential for greater traffic.

How do you fit into our social equation? Why not make space for all of us to live to our fullest potential within housing arrangements that allow for the marvelous multiplicity of our personalities?

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Making Retaining Walls with Earthbags

I recently received this question about using a particular commercial product for making retaining walls:
“I’m ready to do an earthbag-style retaining wall project at the end slope of my front yard. I’m looking at an earthbag-style product called Flex MSE, which is basically UV-safe PPE material that can be sliced open to insert seeds or native plants. Flex MSE apparently strengthens as a retaining wall as vegetation becomes established. But the bags are specially formulated and have aforementioned UV-blocking properties, which is opposite of the much more affordable PPE earthbag that has to be shielded from the sun. The result of putting plant matter in a small slit in the Flex MSE bag is that the vegetation spreads and covers the bag, which makes UV protection unnecessary so long as it is fully developed in cover. Do you know of anyone who has cut small slits in plain earthbags for inserting plant matter? Would you recommend against it? I assume that plant coverage could protect a plain PPE bag from the sun, just as long as it is a vine or perennial that doesn’t recede during winter months (Zone six Western Pennsylvania here).”

“Plain earthbags would save us hundreds of dollars here on our retaining wall, as the Flex MSE product is just about $4 a bag; we need 128 for the project, plus a proprietary interlocking plate product that would act as the barbed wire does in a traditional earthbag setup to hold the bags tight to one another, working in tandem with gravity. The plates are about the same price per unit and are used in a 1:1 ratio with the build style we’re using for our retaining wall, although I feel that using barbed wire instead would be just as effective and so much cheaper. Let me know what you think.”
So I wrote back:
I don’t believe that there is a completely UV-proof Polypropylene material. The coatings that are used do have a lifetime, and they are usually measured in a matter of weeks, or months at the most. I would not trust the coating to protect the bags for very long. On the other hand relying on plantings to ultimately protect the bag material from sunlight is equally uncertain; as you know, nature never provides complete and uniform cover.
As for slitting the bag material in order to directly seed the soil sounds counter productive to me. Such cutting of the bags can only weaken the integrity of the matrix that creates the monolithic nature of the earthbag retaining wall. And, as you point out, replacing the barbed wire with specially fabricated connectors just adds extra cost to the project.
If I wanted a green retaining wall, I would use standard earthbag methods and protect them with stabilized plaster, then add a secondary commercial green living wall system, similar to what is shown in this article. By doing this you would create a more durable and likely less costly retaining wall.

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Owen is Improving!

I got word from Thailand yesterday that Owen’s health is improving. The email I received says, “Oh he get better very much. He can breath by himself. Today he eat first meal. He try to talk but still no voice.”

I think that all of our thoughts and prayers have contributed to this. Thank you all!

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Owen’s Health

Many of the regular readers of this blog have probably been wondering why Owen has not been posting here for the last few weeks. The reason is that he has been ill and is now in a hospital.

About three weeks ago I got a message from Owen that he was doing a serious worm cleanse and was weak, asking me to take over making regular posts. That is the last I have heard directly from Owen.

When he stopped answering my emails after several days I did some research to find out where he was staying in Cambodia. He was there because of problems in maintaining his visa in Thailand where he has been living for the last 13 years. I also contacted his adopted Thai family to see if they knew anything about him. They soon answered that they had located Owen and one of them was on his way to Cambodia to assist.

Owen was very weak and was transported via ambulance to a hospital where he was given fluids. More ambulance rides brought him back to his home town in Thailand, where he now is recuperating in a hospital. He is being fed via a tube and has assistance with breathing because of a lung infection.

Owen could use our prayers and blessings at this time.

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Saving Our Forests

In America we build our houses with wood. It has been that way since settlers from Europe arrived and needed to clear forested areas just to plant crops. The forests were so vast, it was hard to conceive that the day would ever come when we have cut almost all of the original trees. Only about 2% of the virgin coastal forests now remain in North America; over 90% of the rest of our forests are gone forever.

But wood is a renewable resource, right? We just need to plant more trees. The problem has been greed, an insatiable appetite for more wood, and lack of foresight. Timber companies, aided and abetted by the Forest Service, have gone after trees so voraciously that enormous ecosystems have been devastated, all across America (and in the rest of the world as well). Realizing that the source of their wealth is diminishing, the timber companies have finally started replanting trees in clear cut areas, but it is a hard go for the little saplings out there, baking in the sun.

The way we have treated our forests has negatively impacted biodiversity through loss of suitable habitat for plants and animals. Ground water is compromised, because forests attract atmospheric water and hold it in the ground. Top soil is lost through erosion, and the silt clogs our waterways and leads to flooding and declining fish populations. It becomes harder for new forests to take root, because the nutrient base is diminished. Forest fires become more prevalent because of all the logging debris that is left and the brush that grows in place of mature trees. The access to the forests through all of the logging roads further degrades these areas through the pollution left in the wake of people and their machines. Deforestation leads to global warming, because trees utilize the carbon dioxide that creates the greenhouse effect. And much of the oxygen that we breathe is generated by trees!

Selective harvesting to maintain a healthy forest is still a rarity. Instead we have tree farms that masquerade as forests. It is estimated that there are eight times as many miles of logging roads in our country as there are interstate highways. Long stretches of the Pacific Crest Trail now winds through tree stumps, or in some cases detours around clear cuts to try to avoid public outcry. The new trees are cut as soon they have potential value, usually way before they are mature; so many products are now made with wood chips or pulp, why wait?

In the end, we are all losers. As Rene Dubos wrote: humans adapt to “starless skies, treeless arenas, shapeless buildings, tasteless bread, joyless celebrations, spiritless pleasures – to a life without reverence for the past, love for the present, or poetical anticipations of the future. It is questionable that man can retain his physical and mental health if he loses contact with the natural forces that shaped his biological and mental nature.”

So what can we do to turn this situation around? One thing us “consumers” can do is reduce our demand for wood. We can come up with other ways to satisfy our needs, such as grow hemp for paper, use less paper, or use recycled paper. We can build our houses with wood conservation in mind. Domes made of compression materials like bricks or adobe or volcanic rock require little wood because the need for a framed roof structure is eliminated. In the parts of a house where wood is virtually a necessity, culled round wood can often be utilized, wood that improves the forest through thinning. We can design and build smaller, more compact houses.

Many products that have traditionally been made of wood are now available as 100% recycled plastic products. Some of these have simulated wood grain for appearance. Siding for houses, compost bins, retaining wall components, etc. are all available this way, with the advantage that they won’t rot or harbor insects.

The National Forest Service, which was established to protect our forests, has rarely done that. In fact our government has subsidized the logging industry through building roads for transport of the logs. This arrangement has been a net loss for us, both financial and environmental. Recent polls show that over 70% of Americans want our Forest Service to stop selling timber from our national forests. We should hold our elected officials accountable for this preference.

Another thing we can encourage is the certification of wood that has been harvested through a truly sustainable process, one that holds the health of the forest and our environment as the highest priority. With this sort of certification, we could force timber companies to look at the larger picture, because business as usual would not pay.

There are some national organizations that foster good stewardship of our forests that are worth supporting. American Forests, founded in 1875, is a leading advocate for forest conservation. They can direct you to many tree-planting groups ( The Nature Conservancy ( buys large tracts of land to preserve whole ecosystems. Perhaps, if you do build with wood, you could offset the tree loss by planting more trees or supporting these conservation efforts.

One of the reasons that I enjoy living in the Southwest is that I am not constantly confronted by the atrocities that have occurred in our forests, both private and public. In the Pacific Northwest, no matter where I looked I was reminded of what used to be. Here we have lots of open horizons and deserts, naturally.

As Americans we need to rethink much about the way we have been living, if we are to proceed into a sustainable future. Plundering the earth for its seemingly endless bounty can no longer be a way of life. We must be conscious that we and our actions are part of the intricate and delicate web of life that sustains us. We are all in this together.

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