Category Archives: Resource Management

Nauhaus Primer: Talking Head About Carbon Neutrality and the Nauhaus Prototype

We recently recorded this video intended as a draft to help us work on our public spiel. It needs a lot of work, but I thought I’d post it anyway because it’s a fairly thorough introduction to what we’re doing generally and the prototype in particular.  Just pretend you’re in high school and lunch is next period…Go generic sports team with some sort of mammal as its mascot!


Carbon Neutrality and The Nauhaus Prototype from Clarke Snell on Vimeo.

Peak Phosphorus

Believe it or not, peak phosphorus is probably our biggest global emergency.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t hear anyone talking about it.

The problem

Phosphorus is one of the most the important elements of life.  It is a major component of RNA, DNA, and ATP (the molecule produced by photosynthesis that carries energy to the other plant cells – which in turn provide us with energy).

Of the nutrients used as building blocks for life, the following elements all have gaseous phases at the temperatures and pressures found on the surface of the Earth and are therefore easily redistributed through the air:

  • Hydrogen
  • Oxygen
  • Carbon
  • Nitrogen
  • Sulfur

However, the following elements are solids or liquids and don’t move around so easily:

  • Phosphorus*
  • Sodium
  • Potasium
  • Calcium
  • …64 more

In a natural ecosystem or on a traditional small farm, plants take these molecules out of the soil and air to build themselves.  Animals eat the plants and use the same molecules to construct their bodies.  When the plants and animals die, microbes return the molecules to the soil.  Lather, rinse, repeat.

On the other hand, with our current industrial agriculture system the plants do their part and take in the molecules they’re supposed to, but then we ship them to a feedlot or city where they are consumed and decay far away from where they originated.  The molecules of the elements easily transported by air are replaced relatively easily, but the molecules of solid and liquid elements won’t make it back to the field they came from for a long, long time.

Phosphorus is more sensitive to this imbalance than the others because it is 10X more concentrated in the body than it is in the Earth’s crust.  None of the others are more concentrated in living beings like that.

To replace the missing phosphorus, we mine phosphate rock and sprinkle that on the soil for the plants to use as RNA, cell walls, etc.  This seemed like a great idea when we figured it out 170 years ago.  It continued seeming like a good idea all the way up until about 40 years ago when we started noticing the two big problems with this system:

Big Problem #1

Phosphorus that doesn’t get used is washed away by rain into rivers and eventually into the ocean.  Phytoplankton (algae) in the ocean are very happy with their newfound abundance.  They grow fat and reproduce prolifically.  The problem comes when they die.  As the algae is decaying, the bacteria breaking it down use too much of the oxygen dissolved in the water, killing everything else in that area.

La-Jolla-Red-Tide.780Algae bloom near La Jolla

Big Problem #2

We’ve already used half of the phosphate rock available.  According to a study by Patrick Dery peak phosphorus occurred in the US in 1988 and the rest of the world in 1989.  Others think we’re still 30 years away from the peak, but it doesn’t matter who’s right.  Either way, unless we change what we’re doing now, we will have depleted our supply of the central building block of life within a few hundred years of discovering it, and we do not know how to make more.

Peak_P_websiteChart from phosphorusfutures.net

Current uses of mined phosphate rock:

90% fertilizer.

5% animal feed supplements.

5% soft drinks, toothpaste, etc.

P_rock_price

phosphorusfutures.net

The Solution

Fortunately, the solution is easy.  We did it for our first 100,000 years, and we’re the only creatures not currently doing it.  The answer is eat, poo, and die in one place.

That doesn’t mean we all have to be farmers, but it does mean we need to be localvores and get over being sqweamish about the fact that we’re animals that are part of the web of life.

Plant food in your yard.  Buy the food you don’t grow from local farmers.  Insist on pasture raised meat.  Compost every organic material you can find.  Crap in a bucket.  When it’s time to die, have yourself planted in the ground without preservatives so that a tree can build itself out of the molecules you’ve been using.

Humanure: Goodbye, Toilets. Hello, Extreme Composting

(From Time Magazine)
By Adam Fisher Friday, Dec. 04, 2009

David Bailey helped install a composting toilet in Austin. Sawdust is used to eliminate odor.

For more than a decade, 57-year-old roofer and writer Joseph Jenkins has been advocating that we flush our toilets down the drain and put a bucket in the bathroom instead. When a bucket in one of his five bathrooms is full, he empties it in the compost pile in his backyard in rural Pennsylvania. Eventually he takes the resulting soil and spreads it over his vegetable garden as fertilizer.

“It’s an alternative sanitation system,” says Jenkins, “where there is no waste.” His 255-page Humanure Handbook: A Guide to Composting Human Manure is in its third edition and has been translated into five languages, but it has only recently begun to catch on. His message? Human manure, when properly managed, is odorless. His audience? Ecologically committed city dwellers who are looking to do more for the earth than just sort their trash or ride a bike to work. (See reusable toilet wipes as one of the top 10 odd environmental ideas.)

“It’s one of those life-changing books,” says Erik Knutzen, 44, an eco-blogger in Los Angeles. “You read it, and the lightbulb just goes on.” Now he eschews his porcelain potty for a big bucket with a toilet seat. He “flushes” by tossing in a scoop of sawdust, which not only neutralizes smells but also helps speed the breakdown of material for compost. Like many back-to-basics sophisticates, he believes Jenkins’ humanure system is more sanitary and more rational than the conventional alternative. “Human waste is a perfectly good source of an important resource, nitrogen,” Knutzen observes. “Water is a valuable resource too. Why mix the two and turn all of it into a problem?”

Wastewater treatment is much more energy-intensive than composting, which needs little more than time (about a year) for complete decomposition and pathogen elimination. In Austin, Texas, a sustainably minded nonprofit called the Rhizome Collective succeeded this year in getting the city to approve what may be the first legal composting toilet in the U.S. “The hypocrisy is amazing,” says Lauren Ross, 54, a civil engineer involved in Rhizome’s four-year battle to get a permit. “The city will buy you a low-flow toilet, but they’ll fight you all the way if you want to build one that uses no water at all.”

It’s an idea that you, dear reader, might be asked to take seriously. Not long ago, Nance Klehm, 44, a self-described radical ecologist in Chicago, invited her neighbors to stop using their toilets and start saving their poop. More than half of them — 22 of the 35 households — accepted her proposal. In three months she picked up 1,500 gal. (5,700 L) of excrement, which she’ll give back to participants this spring after she and Mother Nature have transformed it into a rich bag of fertilizer. “I’ve sent a sample in for a coliform test,” Klehm says. “There is zero detectable fecal bacteria.” (Read a brief history of toilets.)

At one point, Klehm invited her “nutrient loopers” to a potluck and was surprised to see who had agreed to participate. “It was the white collar people, not the ragtag anarchists. Mostly, they were delighted that they got this wacky proposal,” she says. “They didn’t know how to connect with the earth, but they could s___ in a bucket.”

Meanwhile, over in California, the Marin Composting Portable Odorless Outhouse Project, a.k.a. MCPOOP, is doing Klehm one better. The goal of MCPOOP (which is pronounced the Irish way as opposed to the rap-star way) is to get the government into the night-soil business and put humanure toilets in county parks and town squares. The group is less than a month old but already has the support of the local environmental establishment and Marin County supervisor Steve Kinsey. “The whole thing is like a good acid flashback,” says Kinsey. “We approved several experimental permits like this in the ’70s.” He estimates that a small-scale municipal demonstration project could be under way in less than a year. (Read “Is It Time to Kill Off the Flush Toilet?”)

MCPOOP was founded by a couple in their 50s. “We’re on a mission to re–potty train America!” says John Wick, a rancher in the western part of the county. “We’re going to start by replacing those nasty blue loos,” says his wife Peggy Rathmann, referring to two chemical toilets on their town’s main square. If that goes over well, they’ll replace the chemical toilets around Tomales Bay that kayakers often use. And then, who knows? Wick and Rathmann don’t see why every home in Marin County shouldn’t be humanure equipped.

To Joe (Mr. Humanure) Jenkins, nothing could be better news. “On a small scale, my system works like a dream,” he says. “But in order to do more research and development, I need to to collect humanure on a larger scale.”

MCPOOP and other projects are eager to help on the supply side. “We’re going to have plenty,” predicts Rathmann. “Tons of tourists come to West Marin, and they all leave us their poop!”

This is an expanded version of an article that originally appeared in the Dec. 14, 2009, issue of TIME

Framing and Drainage

Today the framing of the second floor began, and measures were taken to provide proper drainage from the building.

Click here to view the entire Nauhaus Prototype Construction Chronology.

Tim uses a custom-made tool to measure for the Hemcrete.
Tim uses a custom tool to measure for Hemcrete.

David Madera stopped by to discuss Hemcrete.
David Madera stopped by to discuss Hemcrete.
A strip drain is placed at the bottom of each wall.
A strip drain is placed at the bottom of each wall.
Gravel is shoveled into the Eastern trench.
Gravel is shoveled into the Eastern trench.
East Wall
Wast Wall Framing

Five Elements of Green Building

By:  Clarke Snell

This is the first in a series of columns written for New Life Journal on the quickly propagating though illusive animal known as “green building”. These days it seems like there is such a frenzy to do “green building”, that few of us slow down long enough to really say what it is. I’ll remedy that problem right off. For me “green building” grows out of the broader concept of “sustainability”: the simple idea that the way of life we choose must not lead to circumstances that prevent that way of life from continuing. Bees have got it down, rabbits can do it in their sleep, but we humans just can’t seem to wrap our big brains around it. In order to even start moving in the direction of sustainability, I feel that we need to create buildings that balance five often conflicting traits:

Five Elements of Green Building

(1) Low Construction Impact. Building is almost always an initially destructive act. Land usually has to be at least minimally cut and reshaped, holes need to be dug, and materials refashioned to serve the building. A green building minimizes its construction impact on the local ecosystem through careful design that considers the building site as a partner rather than an inconvenience. It minimizes its impact on the ecosystem of the planet by utilizing replenishable materials that cause the least amount of environmental destruction in their use.

(2) Resource Efficiency Through the Life of the Building. After a building is built, people move in and use it. This hopefully long relationship usually constitutes the main period of impact that the building will have on the planet. Heating, cooling, lighting, bathing, and watching re-runs of “Survivor” all require resources that are often non-renewable and polluting. A green building creates the daily indoor environment for its human inhabitants in the most efficient, non-polluting, and renewable manner possible.

(3) Longevity. Creating a building requires natural resources such as construction materials and fuels as well as human labor and ingenuity. The longer a building lasts, the longer the time span before the natural environment will be asked to ante up resources to repeat the process. A green building, then, is designed to have a long fruitful life.

(4) Nontoxic. It’s a true testament to our dire straits that this one even makes the list. As bizarre as it may sound, we have to be very vigilant if we want to create a modern building that is nontoxic to its inhabitants or the environment at large. Okay, y’all, it’s pretty simple: a green building does not poison its inhabitants or the environment.

(5) Beauty. To be simplistic (give me a break, it’s just a short column), a sustainable system is one where component elements work together to create a self-regulating, self-maintaining cycle. The complex tangle of relationships that tend to create such systems in nature develop slowly over eons. Everything on the planet earth developed, changed, and adapted as part of a sustainable system.

Flash forward to today. We modern humans find ourselves out of the sustainability loop. What happened? Simply put, we left home. Once we cut ourselves off from a deep, cultural connection to a specific place, an exact climate, a complex matrix of relationships that slowly developed over time, we left the basic source of our sustenance, our sustainability. Now we are left with the daunting task of trying to rebuild that delicate connection to the web of life.

Hey, don’t look at me. I can’t begin to imagine the delicate negotiations we’re going to have make to get back in the club. It does seem to me, though, that to create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical, and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes a long time to build healthy soil to grow good food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of a house’s cooling strategy. These things simply won’t happen if we aren’t sufficiently seduced by our buildings to stay with them for the many years it will take to turn them into integrated places that nurture both their inhabitants and the environment. A green building, then, needs to be deeply and personally beautiful to its inhabitants, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child.

From Theory to Practice

Okay, we’ve defined the task, let’s build some stuff! Unfortunately, we live in a place called the real world where things are never that simple. The fact is that the five elements I’ve outlined are often in conflict with one another. For example, to save energy using passive solar design on a forested site, you need to create a larger construction impact by cutting more trees to access the sun. On the other hand, cob, a mixture of clay soil, sand, and straw, can have an incredibly low construction impact, but isn’t the best insulator. Cob buildings, then, will often use more energy to heat, than comparably sized buildings using other wall systems. Even the seemingly no-brainer concept of building without toxins is harder than it sounds. When it comes to drain pipe, for example, you’re probably going to use PVC. It’s a non-renewable petrochemical product and highly toxic dioxins are released in its manufacture, but I have yet to find a truly practical alternative.

In the end, “building green” is a deeply personal process in which you make judgments as to how a building will best merge with your own personal mode of survival, be it computer programming or subsistence farming, to create the most beneficial impact on your environment, both local and global. An ideally “green” building, then, must be a very specific thing, matching your idiosyncratic personal needs with the fabric of your exact local environment. It’s a daunting challenge, yes, but what more important goal have you got on your to do list? In the coming months, I’ll be throwing in my two cents worth as to how you might go about creating that strange, beautiful animal known as the “green building”.


Concrete Slab and Storm Drain

Today, JBS Construction came back to pour the concrete slab over the vapor barrier.

Click here to view the entire Nauhaus Prototype Construction Chronology.

JBS places a matrix of rebar over the hardened foam.
JBS places a matrix of rebar over the hardened foam.
Concrete Pour in Mechanical Room
Concrete Pour in Mechanical Room
Jeff and Jackson Buscher
Jeff and Jackson Buscher
JBS Smoothing the Slab
JBS Smoothing the Slab

Slab at Corner
Slab at Corner
New Storm Drain
New Storm Drain
New Box for Replaced Storm Drain
New Box for Replaced Storm Drain

Foam Insulation Sprayed

Today, Home Energy Partners came out to spray the closed-cell insulation for the slab and exterior walls.

Click here to view the entire Nauhaus Prototype Construction Chronology.

Advantek sheathing and brick mold are installed first to stop the foam and eventually to support the Hemcrete.
Advantek sheathing and brick mold are installed first to stop the foam and eventually to support the Hemcrete.
Brick Mold Installation
Brick Mold Installation
Home Energy Partners Spraying North Wall
Home Energy Partners Spraying North Wall
Home Energy Partners Spraying North Wall
Home Energy Partners Spraying North Wall
Home Energy Partners Spraying Underslab Foam Insulation
Home Energy Partners Spraying Underslab Foam Insulation
Home Energy Partners Spraying Underslab Foam Insulation
Home Energy Partners Spraying Underslab Foam Insulation
Spray Foam Insulation around Ground Loop Stub-out
Spray Foam Insulation around Ground Loop Stub-out
Spray Foam Insulation on CMU
Spray Foam Insulation on CMU