Posted in Sustainable Homes and Living

Homesteading Family Living Off-Grid in a Spectacular Earthship

This inspiring off-grid homesteading family lives in a renovated stone earthship. They grow their own food, collect rainwater, use solar power, have composting toilets, and they have a pond that filters their grey water. On top of living an eco friendly lifestyle, they dedicate their work to important projects like urban gardening and promoting industrial hemp as “Hempbassadors.”

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Posted in Sustainable Homes and Living

The Lost Art of Pantries and Root Cellars

In this age of electric refrigeration, the use of cool storage pantries and root cellars has all but faded into oblivion. This is unfortunate, since they have great value for many reasons. There is only so much that can be put into a refrigerator, and the bigger the fridge, the more it costs to keep it cool. With pantries and root cellars, the storage potential is much greater and the cool atmosphere is free and non-polluting.

There is a distinction between a root cellar and a cool pantry: humidity. A true root cellar should be kept fairly moist in order to best preserve the crops that are stored there, whereas a pantry needs to be much dryer to avoid spoilage. Root cellars are limited in their use, but a pantry can store practically anything.

Before the days of refrigeration, root cellars and ice boxes were about the only way to keep certain crops fresh after harvest. Root cellars were usually separate from the house and dug into the ground to take advantage of the cool, stable temperature beneath the surface.

Depending on how often the produce needs to be accessed, there are differing strategies for creating the space. The simplest concept is to just bury a garbage can in the ground, with the lid protruding above, then digging a trench around the can so that straw can be thrown on top and then plastic sheeting placed over it all with rocks to hold it down. Damp burlap or sand can be enclosed with the produce to maintain the proper humidity. Obviously it takes some work to get at the produce, but this method will store some items, especially over the winter.

A more elaborate and convenient root cellar will have a door for entry, sometimes placed flat on the ground or at an angle, but probably the best arrangement is with a vertical, insulated door. If the root cellar itself is completely underground (which it really needs to be to take advantage of the cool earth), then there would be steps that descend to the door, or a covered entrance with steps after the door. Another possibility is digging into a hillside. Depending on the stability of the soil, the sides of the excavation might either be left unfinished or lined with materials to create a retaining wall. The roof needs to be supported by some fairly massive timbers to support up to two feet of dirt placed on top. Care should be taken to avoid contact between the dirt and any wood used. Sheets of heavy polyethylene can be used to good advantage to protect the wood. Usually if the floor is left as natural earth, or just has a layer of gravel on it, the humidity will remain high enough to store most produce.

It is a good idea to provide some ventilation, with a high outlet vent and a low inlet vent. These could be closed during really cold spells to assure that nothing freezes, but having some air movement keeps the space fresh and allows off-gassing of the produce to occur without harm. Apples will give off ethylene gas which can cause potatoes to sprout prematurely and make carrots go bitter, so store the apples near the outlet vent.

If you keep a thermometer/humidity gauge in the root cellar you can monitor the space for optimal conditions, and make adjustments as needed for what you are storing. Vegetables that like to be cold and very moist (32-40 degrees F., 90-95% humidity) include: carrots, beets, celery, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, Brussels sprouts, rutabagas, turnips, collards, broccoli and Jerusalem artichokes. Produce that likes to be kept cold and fairly moist (32-40 degrees F., 80-90% humidity) include: potatoes, cabbage, cauliflower, apples, grapes, oranges, pears and grapefruit. Produce that likes to be kept cool and fairly moist (40-45 degrees F., 85-90% humidity) include: cucumbers, sweet peppers, cantaloupe, watermelon, eggplant and ripe tomatoes. Vegetables that prefer cool and dry conditions (35-40 degrees F., 60-70% humidity) include garlic and onions. Produce that likes to be stored in fairly warm, dry conditions (50-60 degrees F., 60-70% humidity) include: dry hot peppers, pumpkins, winter squash, sweet potatoes and green tomatoes.

Unless you have an abundance of the produce mentioned above, a root cellar may not be so useful for you. On the other hand, a cool pantry would be useful for almost anybody. We built one as an extension of our house and would feel deprived without it. We decided to make a rather large one (about 100 square feet), and I’m really glad we did. This allows us to keep lots of staples on hand, which diminishes our need to make that trip out to stock up on food, and it’s a great feeling to know that we could survive all manner of problems and help our neighbors as well.

Our pantry is situated right next to our kitchen, which makes it especially useful. Most food items will last much longer if kept cool and dry, so we have grains, beans, nuts, dried produce, dry milk, canned goods, pet food, wine, etc., much of it in 5-gallon containers. There is lots of room in there to store empty bottles and miscellaneous kitchen wares that we don’t need frequently. We don’t have a separate root cellar, so we also store fruit, potatoes, garlic and onions, yams and squash in there. These items definitely last much longer than they would at room temperature in our kitchen.

This pantry is dug about five feet into the ground on the north side of our house. It is semi-circular in shape, with sloping walls made of polypropylene bags filled with sand at the lower level and crushed volcanic rock above that. The conical roof is partially supported with a pole framework because the pitch is too shallow for the bags to be self-supporting. The whole thing is just covered with several layers of plastic sheeting and then covered entirely with dirt. There is an inlet air vent on one side and an outlet vent at the very top. The floor is adobe poured over plastic sheeting, so the atmosphere is fairly dry. After quite a few afternoon rains, the humidity in there is only 64%. It has never leaked. The temperature ranges from a low of about 36 degrees F. (in the dead of winter) to a high of about 65 degrees F. in the heat of the summer. If it were dug deeper into the ground this spread would be less.

Another interesting approach to building a pantry is to bury a section of a large culvert pipe. One man took an eight feet diameter by fifty feet long culvert, welded the ends closed, and created a hatch for entry. The air vents and entry were camouflaged, so he had a secret hideaway/storage unit. This same concept could provide a completely buried pantry that is accessible from inside a house.

Many house designs would not easily accommodate a buried pantry. Another strategy for keeping a room cool is to locate it on the north side of the house, and have substantial air vents that are opened only at night during the warmer seasons. This requires a little more attention to maintain a cool temperature, but makes it possible to retrofit an existing house with a nice cool pantry. The room should be well insulated to keep it from warming up too much during the day.

The idea of having a large cool storage room next to the kitchen makes so much sense to me that I think all houses should be designed this way. This facility uses no energy to keep things cool and promotes a lifestyle of fewer miles driven, along with a feeling of abundance and security. What a winning combination!

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Posted in Sustainable Homes and Living

The Carriage House

About 15 years ago I built the “Carriage House” using a prefabricated steel vault as a supporting structure for earthbags filled with scoria as insulation. It is a two story affair, with the lower one being a garage/shop and the upper one an office and storage space. I located a new 34′ X 16′ steel quonset building that was sold disassembled for $1900 delivered. I realized that if I raised it up 4 extra feet, I could build a loft in it, so that is what I did, using a double row of earthbags on either side to support it. There is potentially about 900 s.f. of usable floor area on two stories.

Each arched section is composed of five pieces, and there are 17 sections, so it entailed a lot of ladder work to bolt the thing together one piece at a time. Since the steel vault is completely covered with insulating earthbags, the building is very well insulated, and comfortable year-round. This concept could be converted to residential use, with the addition of kitchen and bathroom functions.

The end walls were created with wood framing and siding materials. Most of this wood was either recycled from nearby building projects (taken from the dumpster), or bought as remnants. The cedar lap siding actually represents four different styles, so the facade has a rather patchwork quality. The door and windows  were all recycled as well. The bags were initially covered with papercrete that adds to the insulation value, but then later the entire vault was plastered with durable stucco.

The first floor houses the garage, shop, and some storage functions. There is a separate entry door, as well as the garage door. If the building is oriented with the glass end wall facing south, significant solar gain can be attained (in this case it might be advantageous to provide a solar shade over the window to shade it during the summer. The staircase to the second floor is rather narrow (about 2 feet) because it must fit between the two-foot intervals of the joist/ties. The interior of the shell could be finished in a variety of ways, or even left with the steel showing, as I did with this workshop and office. Cloth material could be draped over it, sheetrock could be scored on one side to allow it to curve to the shape of the vault, or wood tongue and grooved siding could be installed, to name a few possible surfaces.

The second floor has 6′ 7″ of head room in the center, and this diminishes toward the sides. The significant counter space utilizes areas where standing room is not available. The front office area has plenty of natural light from the southern windows, which can also be opened to provide ventilation through to the northern window.

The cross section shows the hybrid nature of this design. In order to gain height, the steel shell is erected on top of an earthbag stem wall, and then the earthbags continue on up over the building. The double columns of the stem wall provides thermal mass on the inside and insulation on the outside. An insulated concrete pad is poured for the shop/garage floor. The second floor joists and tie beams are essential elements of the design, since they resist deformation of the vault from all of the weight on it.

As I recall the entire cost of the Carriage House came in around $5000, with me doing most of the labor, and a lot of scrounging for materials. You can read more details about this at  greenhomebuilding.com and the basic plan is available at dreamgreenhomes.com

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