Category Archives: Land Use

Building Fundamentals: Thoughts on Picking a Place to Build

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Unless you live under a rock on another planet whose sentient inhabitants have developed advanced anti-BS technology and the ability to block HGTV, you’re just about sick of the word “green” right now. With green oil companies, green Wal-Mart, and even green warfare (I shitake you not!), it’s enough to drive a rational person to pledge allegiance to another color. Alright, before we start the chartreuse revolution, let’s take a deep cleansing breath and get back to basics. Why green instead of blue or pink?

The answer is plants. You bring sun, soil, water, and air together and you get plants. Green plants. Underneath the hype, spin, and snake oil lies the simple profound concept that we live on a little magic rock that maintains a self-sustaining balance between a complex matrix of variables that together produce the color green…and LOTS of it. Any process or product purporting to be “green” is claiming to be conscious of and in some way in synch with this natural perpetual motion factory, this Green Machine.

A green building, then, is a building designed to work in concert with its natural surroundings. Admittedly, this is a complex undertaking that requires a lot of give and take, especially in the context of a “modern building” that is called upon to support a complex and demanding indoor lifestyle. Still, the most fundamental component of a green design is how the building interacts with the Green Machine manifested on the piece of land on which it sits. In fact, choosing the land and siting the building are more fundamental than the building itself because the building can be designed to fit the land, not vice versa.

Given this reality, what should you look for when buying a piece of land or choosing a building site for a green building project? Here’s my list of the top five things to consider:

  1. Sun. The sun’s path through the sky changes in a regular progression through the course of a year. For our region, the summary is that it hovers low in the southern sky during the winter and spends a lot of time high overhead in the summer. In our climate, a well chosen building site can provide considerable direct solar heat in the winter, solar generated electricity and hot water for much of the year, and protection from the sun’s heat in the summer. A poorly chosen site can produce the exact opposite results, changing the sun from your best friend into your worst enemy. In the mountains, this effect can be exacerbated. A northern ridge can create a situation where a section of land is completely (and frigidly) shaded for three months during the winter while a contiguous section enjoys full solar exposure. Luckily, it isn’t difficult for someone with simple equipment and a little training to create an accurate analysis of how the sun will interact with a given piece of land.
  2. Water. Water evaporates off bodies of water, falls to the ground as snow or rain, and then flows over or under the ground coming to rest in a body of water for the process to start all over again. This Ferris wheel called the hydrologic cycle is the ultimate recycling program and is a poignant manifestation of the old saying “what goes around comes around”. In green building, our goal is to redirect and use water as needed without affecting it adversely. Our first consideration is planning for the water that will fall on the land. Rainfall in our region varies widely. For example, the annual average for precipitation in downtown Asheville is 37 inches. Fifty miles away at Lake Toxaway, the yearly average is 92 inches!  Atlanta weighs in at about 50 inches. The amount of rainfall your building encounters can have an effect on a number of decisions from building materials, to water collection strategies, to garden and planting designs. For this reason, it’s important to research the rainfall profile for your specific location. Next, we need to consider how water flows over the land which means analyzing the existing contours and how they relate to potential building sites. Another consideration is finding a clean source of water for domestic use. The options are raincatchment, a spring, a well, or a municipal source. Where I live, for example, we were able to access a spring high enough above the house site that gravity creates sufficient water pressure. The result is a free, clean source of water that requires no pumps or external power source. Finally, we need to consider how to responsibly return the water we use to the hydrologic cycle.
  3. Wind. Wind can be used to generate electricity, though in our region residential projects rarely muster the requisite conditions (including enough cash) to make this practical. For the most part our concerns about wind will be focused on protecting the building from cold winter winds, exposing it to cooling summer breezes, and utilizing design and construction methods that will allow it to withstand the worst storms expected on the site. Unfortunately, air movement is the most site specific and unpredictable of the natural forces. Especially in the mountains, the only really accurate way to assess wind patterns is to chronicle the wind over an extended period of time, ideally at least a year. This can be done either by living on site or by installing a device called an anemometer. However, knowledge of regional patterns combined with common sense and some experience can go a long way toward understanding how wind on a given piece of land might interact with a planned building.
  4. Earth. So far we’ve looked at forces that operate on the land. Now, we turn to the land itself. We need to look at the shape, contour, and constitution of the earth to consider how a building might best nestle in to and be supported by it. We need to look for materials on site that might be useful, such as stone, timber, and clay. Perhaps most importantly we need to analyze the state of the existing natural balance, the Green Machine, and determine how best to partner with it. In urban settings, this process can be a lot more fun because the land has often been devastated by human intervention. The building project in this situation can be an act of repair. In a more pristine setting, construction will almost certainly be destructive to the natural order, so careful thought needs to be put into creating a long term positive out of an initial negative.
  5. Access. Roads are disruptive and expensive. If you’re building in the mountains, quadruple that sentiment. In the context of a green building project, the rule is simple: the shorter the road, the better. This can be counterintuitive because the first impulse is often to head for the ridge and that panoramic view. In many situations, there are simply better places to build…and by better I mean more pleasant and beautiful in addition to more practical.

If this all sounds complicated, it is. In fact, these basic parameters, along with others, come together to create an intricate matrix. What’s more, decisions made at this point have long reaching effects. For example, in a matter of minutes, a bulldozer will expose soil layers built up over millions, perhaps billions of years. The decision to move that soil is a decision to make a, for all practical purposes, permanent change to the make-up of that piece of land.

Don’t let that daunt you, though. The good news is that at this point in your project no decisions and therefore no mistakes have been made. Relax and enjoy the possibilities. I’m writing about this topic this month because this is the best time of year to be analyzing land for a green building project. It’s easier to get a picture of year round solar exposure when the leaves are off the trees and it’s easier to walk through the woods before the understory sharpens its thorns for the spring. If you’ve got land or are looking for land, now’s the time to put on the hiking boots. One word of advice: get some professional help. Our company offers land analysis services as do a number of other qualified professionals in our area. The stakes are simply too high to go it alone. Remember, the Green Machine is watching.

Wherever You Go, There You Are: Me In Community

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Remember the Wizard of Oz? For you youngsters, it’s the story of a young teen who is bummed about her scene. Based on an irresponsible article in High Times magazine, she eats some moldy bread and has a bad trip. After a rough night filled with singing imps, neurotic talking animals, flying monkeys, a good witch, a bad witch…all the basic Jungian archetypes, she decides to finish high school and go to business college.

Most analysts dismiss this tale as a cheesy piece of anti-drug propaganda, but I’ve always seen something deeper. To me, it’s a modern parable about the search for community. I know because I’ve lived it. About twenty years ago, I too was bummed about my scene. I had friends, a solid love relationship, a nice place to live, and even time for creative pursuits, but I still felt alone somehow. Apparently I wasn’t alone in my aloneness because the topic seemed to be a mainstay of every party and pot luck. Though there were many variations, the central theme was that the modern world was too big, impersonal, competitive, and alienating. We wanted more cooperation, communication, and connection with people around us. We longed for the return to some hypothesized village paradigm. In short, we wanted community.

After the requisite false starts, wrong turns, and utter disasters, I did eventually get involved in the creation of a small “intentional community” in which I’ve lived for the past ten years. Based on these experiences here is my top four list of things to think about when searching for that special social nest:

1. Moral Cloning. Imagine yourself in a group of people who share your identical interests and opinions. You eat the same foods, read the same books, have the same hobbies, and chew the same gum. Come on, be honest. That sounds horrible doesn’t it? Even if you could stand it, what would you learn there? Also, as a group you’d have clear strengths, but also incredible weaknesses. Now imagine a group of people who run the gamut of opinions, skills, and experiences, but still consider themselves a community. Get that going, and you’ll be on Oprah in a week, baby.

2. Consensus or Not to Consensus. After watching the winner take all football game that is U.S. electoral politics, the benefits of consensus decision making seem obvious. These days gaining the 20% of the vote (52% of the 40% of eligible voters who actually vote) is considered a “mandate” to do whatever your heart desires. Still, in a small group with limited time to devote to decision-making, the problem often isn’t agreement but actually getting things done. If someone is willing to volunteer to spearhead building maintenance or garden planning, for example, not scaring them off the task might be more important than everyone getting exactly what they want.

To take the argument a step further, if you find yourself in the position of starting a community initiative of some kind, make as many unilateral decisions as you can at the outset. We modern westerners aren’t very good at this community stuff. It’s hard enough for us to get along under a defined social structure. Asking us to make up the rules as we are trying to work out interpersonal dynamics is really pushing the envelope.

3. There Are Bad Questions. Is your idea of a perfect summer day sitting in a meeting discussing gravel prices? If not, then community may not be for you. Community means meetings, so do yourself a favor and get good at having them. I once suffered through a couple hours of a community meeting in which the group discussed what might be the law pertaining to a non-profit paying property taxes. Regardless of what your third grade teacher told you, this WAS a bad question because our opinions and theories had no access to the actual factual law in question. Be boring: have an agenda and stick to it, use Robert’s Rules of Order, set time limits.

4. Wherever You Go, There You Are. In my work, I often consult with people who have  just bought land in the area and are planning on moving here to build their dream homestead. As they outline their plans, they invariably describe the bad things about their present life and the good things they imagine for the new life they are beginning. It’s as if they will leave the bad behind and pack only the good for the move. Of course, life doesn’t work like that. You need idealism to fuel changes, but too much will catch your dreams on fire. In my opinion the quickest way to kill community is to expect it to solve your problems. If you are thinking more about what you’ll get than what you’ll give, you might be headed for problems.

As for my own situation, though it was hard work and there were rocky times, things seemed to have settled out nicely in our little community. We don’t have many meetings anymore and I often don’t see some neighbors for long stretches of time, but regardless there is a strong feeling of camaraderie that I feel with everyone in the group. When I analyze our situation, though, we really haven’t created a unique infrastructure or made any inroads into changing typical social patterns.

In fact, after all of the time and work I’ve spent on this project, I think the main thing that is different about my life now as compared to 10 years ago is my own attitude. I seem to be better able to empathize, cut people slack, and accept my own limitations. I’m even making inroads into forgiving myself for all the mistakes and miscalculations I’ve made over the years. Maybe that’s a result of living in an “intentional community” or maybe it’s just the result of living a few more years on planet earth.

Upon reflection, I think the whole “intentional community” approach might be the long way around. If you accept my opinion that the ideal community would be made up of people with the broadest cross-section of opinions, skills, experience, and lifestyles who still thought of themselves as a community, then you have two choices: either start with the goal of community and work to find the group of willing people, or accept the group of people in which you find yourself (whether a neighborhood, school, or country) and work to create the will to be a community. Though I don’t condone the use of hallucinogenic bread mold, I think Dorothy had it right. You’re community is all around you. All you have to do is see it.

Building Fundamentals: Building "Green" Beyond the Home

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

If you think about it, the “green” in green building refers to plants. Our health and survival depends on the color green in the form of a vibrant plant committee with which we coexist. That’s why it’s surprising to me how often a “green building” project doesn’t include a focus on the area around the building, the place for interaction with plants and the rest of the natural world. This month I sat down with permaculture and edible landscaping expert Chuck Marsh to discuss how we can reconnect with the area around our houses.

I went to my first permaculture event, a design course in Texas, about 20 years ago. Since then, it seems that permaculture has gained almost mainstream status as a design system. Still, I don’t often see it defined. From your point of view, what is permaculture?

Permaculture is an ecological design system for the creation of regenerative human habitats. “Regenerative” is a key word here. Sustainability means “to hold up”, to maintain. I think we’ve reached a point where that’s not enough. We have a higher calling than to maintain what is. We now need to build up, to reweave the web of life, to restore abundance and diversity to the landscapes and spaces that we inhabit. So, while many people think that permaculture is a gardening system, it is in fact a complete ecological design approach to craft how humans inhabit landscapes whether built, planted, or natural.

As I look at houses, whether they’re in the city or the country, new construction or older in a historic neighborhood, I’m struck by how little the area around the building is actually used. Few people grow food anymore or craft outdoor space that allows them to spend productive time outside. Can permaculture help us connect again with the world outside our front doors?

Everything we build, plant, or just leave alone is an element of our landscape. A central goal of permaculture is to foster relationships so that the yields of one element meet the needs of another. We want to create interdependence.

The house, then, is one piece of a whole system. It has all kinds of companions. Driveways, pathways, gardens, existing habitats, outbuildings, etc. Let’s take a central tenet of green building: energy efficiency. If we consider only the house, we’ll add insulation and energy efficient appliances, then consider the job done. But if we see the house in relationship to the landscape, we can find many more opportunities to conserve. For example, we can place trees for cooling, either through redirecting wind, establishing natural vortexes of air movement, or creating shade. We can also introduce plantings to block winter winds, therefore preventing heat loss in the building.

These same plants can provide food and be a natural habitat, in other words they are multifunctional and therefore can be part of a complex interplay between elements. This multi-functionality is also central to permaculture. So, for example, in addition to being a lane of passage, pavement or pathway surfaces can be chosen to add heating or cooling to the area around a house. In combination with plantings, they can provide both. A bird bath or garden pool can be placed at the right angle in the right spot to bring light and passive solar energy into the house while adding color variation and the magic visual combination of light reflected from water. These are just examples of ways that multifunctional landscape elements can work together to simultaneously create food, thermal efficiency, natural habitat, visual beauty and many other positive effects on the livability of both the interior and exterior environment.

Of course, we used to do this. Nobody had lawns until the beginning of the 20th Century. Instead, people had what were called “door yards”. This was an outdoor space whose center was the kitchen door. It was swept, not vegetated, and was the space where clothes were washed, meals cooked, and beans shucked. Chickens were kept here and fed recycled food scraps in exchange for eggs. Today’s patios are a poor representation, a non-functional replica, of these yards. I think there’s a desire to move back in the direction of useable outdoor space. You see it in high-end outdoor kitchens being included in large custom homes. We can do the same thing and much more at the lower end of the budget scale too.

What can people do to start the process toward reengaging with the area around their houses?

The first step is to throw out the idea of a “maintenance free yard”. Maintenance has gotten a bad rap, but essentially it means “to care for”. Maintenance is love. We need to be creating landscapes that draw us outside, that pull us into interaction. We need to lure kids away from computer generated magical landscapes to the real magic of the sights, smells, sounds, feelings, and tastes of the changing seasons.

How can we trigger this reengagement? The best way is through our mouths. That’s how we discovered the world as toddlers. Therefore, we start with edible plants. We place them along paths and in front of doors, places where people will naturally pass by and take a taste. Next, we intermingle plants and other elements that have different colors, different textures. We create an environment that engages all the senses as it changes through the seasons.

Fundamentally, I see the house as a place for refuge, safety, and nurturing, not for all human activities.  We are fortunate to live in a climate in which we can live comfortably outside for seven months of the year. By seeing the house as a single element of a larger landscape, we can shift many activities outside. Why, for example, heat up the indoors in the summer by cooking when an outdoor kitchen is both more enjoyable and comfortable during those months? Remember, too, that useable outdoor spaces are much cheaper to build than their interior counterparts.

The bottom line is that we need to transform our conception of outdoor environments from eye candy viewed through picture windows to functional spaces in symbiotic relationship with interior spaces. The result will be more efficient buildings, a more enjoyable lifestyle, and a reconnection with our true home, the earth.

Sidebar: Tips from Chuck

  1. Don’t place your house on your favorite spot. Doing so turns the sacred into the vulgar or common.
  2. Place your house consciously in the microclimate. For example, when building on a hill, site the building mid-slope. Ridge tops are windy and cold and basins are frost pockets.
  3. Avoid north, northwest exposure. Winter winds create convective heat loss in buildings. If there is no existing natural barrier, place outbuildings or windbreaks to block these winds.
  4. Start at your kitchen door and work outward. Gardens needing the most care should be near the kitchen. Once you’ve managed these, move outward.
  5. Make enjoyment easy. Place berry bushes and small fruited plants along paths and driveways so that you’ll pass by and graze.

CHUCK MARSH is a permaculture and edible landscaping/ecological land use teacher, designer, and consultant.  He is the founder of Useful Plants Nursery and a co-founder of Earthaven Ecovillage, south of Black Mountain, NC, where he lives and grows.  He can be contacted by phone at 828.669.1759 or by email at marsh2246@bellsouth.net.

Outdoor Rooms: Save the World With a Smile on Your Face

This article by Clarke Snell was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Given a choice, most of us would rather be outside. I mean, most people imagine vacations on the beach or walking through the woods, not sitting in a room with a TV on, an air conditioner humming, and the shades drawn. That’s not surprising because if you get down to basics, our home is the earth. Sure, you live in a house, but everything inside originated outside. Air, water, food, fuel, fabrics, even all of that plastic crap and junk mail. Origin: outside.

In fact, the whole concept of a place called “inside” is really an abstraction. We are a part of the outdoors, of the self-sustaining ecosystem of the earth, and as such we need a constant and intimate connection to the outside in order to survive and flourish. The only question is how we go about making that connection. The trend over the last 50 years or so has been to focus on creating indoor environments that can dial in specific variables (air temperature, water temperature, light intensities, etc.) with fine levels of control. A building with a mechanical heating and cooling system and electric lights, for example, can theoretically create a consistent indoor environment regardless of what is going on outside. That can be a good thing. However, if applied mindlessly, this paradigm leads to exorbitant energy consumption with its consequent pollution and pillaging of finite natural resources. (Since about 40% of the energy we use as a country is consumed by our buildings, that’s quite a bit of pillaging.) This approach also sets the stage for the cubicle, bad air fresheners masking poor indoor air quality, the video-game/TV-addict-couch-potato-geek and a variety of other side effects of extreme separation from the outdoors.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not suggesting a return to the cave. Campfires are an extremely inefficient and polluting technology. A couple billion of them would be an environmental nightmare. All I’m proffering is that we expand the concept of where it is that we live. For example, we need to stop thinking of our houses as ending at the front door. For me, a house has three basic parts: indoor rooms, outdoor rooms, and the transitions between them. Outdoor rooms can be designed to be just as functional as indoor rooms. In fact, generally they mirror the uses of indoor rooms, allowing us to choose the best locale for a particular activity based on the weather. This layout can take a load off interior space while adding inexpensive outdoor space.

For example, a home office that combines an interior room with a private covered patio can allow the indoor portion to be much smaller. The same is true of kitchens, bedrooms, living rooms, even bathrooms in the right situation. The end result can be a smaller house with lower upfront cost, lower utility bills, and happier inhabitants who are spending more time outdoors while still going about their busy modern lives. Smaller buildings using less electricity and fuels also mean less pollution, fewer greenhouse gas emissions, and less dependence on foreign oil. As for existing buildings, adding outdoor rooms won’t make them smaller, but they’ll still benefit from considerably lower utility bills…you don’t need to heat or cool a building or run lighting when you’re outside.

Some of the hardships you might have to endure to reach these frugal and lofty goals are (1) sleeping outside under a ceiling fan on a screened porch off your bedroom; (2) cooking outdoors (five feet from your herb and greens garden) whenever you feel like it rather than waiting for that elusive “cookout”; (3) taking a private solar shower outdoors under an open sky (note to reader: don’t die without experiencing this!); and (4) typing those emails with the smell of flowers as a backdrop… It’s a hard job, but I say someone has to do it and it might as well be you.

Though many of us have experienced outdoor spaces that have elements of what I’m describing, most don’t. The reason usually is that they are being short-changed. Successful indoor rooms share basic components. They all have a floor, walls, and a roof, for example. They also all have a clear intended use that has been served through thoughtful design and careful follow-through in construction. Outdoor rooms are no different. The floor could be stones, the walls may include a bush, and the roof may prominently feature the sky, but the idea is the same: a collection of elements brought together to create a mood and support an activity. Outdoor rooms can be private, grandiose, playful, or solemn. They can be designed to maximize work productivity, encourage social interaction, or be a room of one’s own. In short, they can do anything an indoor room can do…just not in a blizzard.

Okay, so here’s my radical suggestion. Let’s enjoy ourselves immensely by spending more time outside; slash construction, maintenance and energy bills while doing it; AND cut pollution, carbon emissions, and consequently “save the world” in the bargain. All that’s standing in our way is the powerful aerosol air freshener lobby and some crazed X-Box geeks. Fight the power!

Next month: floors for outdoor rooms.

To Deck or Not to Deck: Floors for Outdoor Rooms

This article was originally published in the New Life Journal.

Last month I sat down to write a column answering a question I get asked a lot: “What’s the best approach to building an environmentally conscious deck?” Instead, I ended up writing a preamble column introducing the concept of “outdoor rooms”.

The reason is that a deck is the floor of an outdoor room. Yes, even that rusty hibachi and those overturned plastic Wal-Mart chairs on that windswept tundra behind your house is a room, just not a very good one. Picture instead a living room with a door in the middle. On the tax map, half is “inside” the other “out”, but in reality it’s one big room that we migrate within based on the weather and our whim. Like the indoor part, the outdoor section has a floor, walls, and a roof. It’s a full-fledged, card-carrying room, part of the mansion of the outdoors. Versailles, the Acropolis, and a mighty redwood forest all with an internet connection and only 10 steps from the fridge.

For me, then, the first step in discussing decks is to place them in their context as the floor of an important room in your house. From that perspective here are my observations, opinions, and interpretive dance (sorry, for those of you not watching my webcam simulcast…you’ll have to check it out on YouTube.)

If you don’t design it, how can you know what to build?

Take a moment to imagine a room that you’d love to have. A bigger bathroom, a better kitchen, or a cozy study. I guarantee that your thoughts didn’t start with a rectangular floor of a defined dimension that you then imagined a room to fit around. Yet this is the process by which many outdoor rooms come into existence. A deck is built to an arbitrary dimension or simply to fit into a space and then…well, actually that’s it.

I say, forget the floor initially and decide what exactly the space is going to be used for. Is it public or private? Will you be cooking there? If so what? How much sun do you want? Do you want to encourage breezes or block the wind? How do you want to interact with rain? Is the outdoor room working with or embellishing an indoor room? Will this outdoor room interact with any other outdoor rooms? For example, a 2nd story deck automatically becomes the floor of an outdoor room below it, whether you want a room there or not. The difference between that space being a useless, dank eyesore and a useful, shady living room or outdoor workshop is simply the presence or absence of conscious design.

Size matters

One of the most basic tenets of green building is that “small is beautiful”. Smaller means fewer materials and less of whatever related pollution and other problems might be associated with their manufacture and installation. It also means more soil and vegetation left undisturbed, less maintenance, and, not insignificantly, less money expended. The same rationale is true for outdoor rooms, but the argument goes even further. Since the idea of an outdoor room is to be outdoors, the room itself should be only as big as it needs to be before transitioning to the “real” outdoors. An outdoor kitchen should transition smoothly to a kitchen garden, for example.

The best deck is no deck

Outdoor floors are exposed to a lot more moisture than indoor floors. Even a covered deck is going to get hit by rain or snow, let alone lots of water vapor from fluctuating humidity levels. Therefore, if your outdoor room is on the first floor, my advice is not to build a deck at all. Place your floor right on the ground by building a patio out of stone, slate, brick or some other variant. Yes, this will most likely cost more, but it will also last much longer and  won’t require the same maintenance. Patios can also be designed to slope gradually in ways that can eliminate steps and create smoother transitions between inside and out.

Local lumber

Obviously, there are situations in which decks will make more sense than patios. What should we build them out of? Until a few years ago, the common wisdom was to use wood that was saturated under pressure with a solution containing chromium, copper, and arsenic. For some reason, it took a while to determine that the known poison arsenic is still a poison when injected into wood, but eventually arsenic was taken out of the mix. Now, the pressure treating solution of choice seems to be copper oxide and “a quaternary ammonium compound”. Call me a Nervous Nellie, but I’m not comforted by this.

Enter locust tree, stage right. Locust is an incredibly dense wood that is naturally resistant to water penetration and insects. It grows straight and fast and is fairly abundant in our region, sometimes even considered a “weed tree” because it grows in damaged soils and is somewhat scraggly. Locust is a great material to use for both the framing and flooring of decks. The downside is that locust isn’t a huge tree and can be rough on saw blades, two traits that don’t put it on top of the favorites list for saw mills. (You can forget about ever finding it at Home Depot.) That means you may have to look around a bit to find some.  However, I’m sure that the more we ask for it, the more our local mills will want to carry it. One caveat: like any wood species, locust has its unique characteristics. Make sure that whoever is building your deck knows about locust or does some research on how to work with it.

Composite materials

There are a variety of “composite decking” materials presently being manufactured. Most contain recycled wood dust and either polyethylene or polypropylene plastic. Polyethylene is what grocery bags and milk jugs are made of and at least one manufacturer uses only recycled plastic from these sources. Some of these products contain PVC, others have anti-microbial and anti-fungal agents. To my ear, that translates to “against carbon based life forms”, a group that includes humans, so I tend to steer away from products proudly proclaiming that trait.

Composites won’t rot like wood and most have a gritty texture that gives them good foot traction. I don’t know of any of these products that have the structural strength to be used as deck framing. We’ve had good luck with some composites, so I think that locust framing with high recycled content composite decking without anti-anythings is a good combination for building a deck.

Oops, the long-winded blowhard alarm just went off. I’ve gone over my column word count allotment once again. One last comment: No matter what material you use, make sure that your outdoor floor slopes gently away from the house, so that water will too.

Until next month, remember it’s all good…except for the bad stuff.

Is your Light Trespassing?

This article by Michael Figura was first published in the New Life Journal.

When most people think of pollution, many things come to mind- oil spills, garbage, smog, light pollution.  Light pollution?  As if CO2 was not far-fetched enough, what in the world are those tree-hugging hippies calling pollution now?

According the International Dark-Sky Association, a non-profit dedicated to protecting the nighttime environment, artificial light can cause light pollution by having adverse effects such as sky glow, glare (a blinding effect caused by stray light that reduces the visibility of the target), light trespass (unwanted light that shines onto your property), light clutter, decreased visibility at night, and energy waste.

On January 4th, 2008 the President of the International Dark-Sky Association wrote a letter to the Environmental Protection Agency requesting that light pollution be recognized as an EPA pollutant.  A portion of the letter, which is posted on the International Dark-Sky Association website (www.darksky.org), is given below:

“Based on our [International Dark-Sky Association] calculations, we estimate that several billion dollars are wasted each year in the USA due to over-lighting the night. We estimate that about 38 million tons of carbon dioxide are generated by this wasteful practice.

Poor quality nighttime lighting is the main cause of this problem. Such obtrusive lighting causes blinding glare and light trespass. It reduces visibility, rather than enhancing our nighttime environment. Glare, for example, is a particular problem for our country’s aging population. In addition, we are denied access to the beauty of our night skies; which for generations has influenced much of the world’s science, literature, art, and music.

In addition to these problems, wildlife can be harmed by excessive lighting. Migrating birds become disoriented, and sea turtles (all species of which are threatened or endangered) are losing nesting areas due to brightly lit beaches. In addition, recent research has shown a link with melatonin suppression and human health. Lights at night stop humans from producing melatonin, which disrupts our circadian rhythm [A 24-hour cycle in the processes of living beings that is linked to the light-dark cycle]. Melatonin suppressed blood has been shown to cause increased cancer growth rates in laboratory animals.

By promoting responsible outdoor lighting, we can reduce energy waste, control glare, stop most of the obtrusive light trespass, improve visibility and safety, protect biodiversity, live healthier, and preserve. the beauty of our night skies.”

Responsible outdoor lighting does not mean zero lighting.  Outdoor nighttime lighting has its place, especially where safety and security are concerned.  Rather, responsible outdoor lighting has to do with the intensity of the light used and the direction that the light shines.

What can we do as individuals and as community to minimize light pollution, improve our nighttime sky and reduce unnecessary energy consumption?  Here are a few suggestions:

  • Use outdoor light at night only when and where it is needed and at appropriate lighting levels.
  • Use fully shielded fixtures- fixtures that do not allow stray light to shine upwards or sideways.  An example of the impact that fully shielded fixtures can have on reducing light pollution can be seen when driving on Interstate 240 and comparing the Asheville Mall’s parking lot lighting to Wal-Mart’s parking lot lighting.  The City of Asheville had Wal-Mart install fully shielded light fixtures as part of Wal-Mart’s zoning approval.   For more information on light fixtures that are approved by the International Dark-Sky Association, visit www.darkysky.org and click on “Approved Fixtures”
  • Aim outdoor light fixtures downwards and pay careful attention to ensure that the light does not shine across your property boundaries.
  • Use light efficient fixtures.
  • Incorporate timers and sensors to shut off lights when not needed.
  • Ask our local governments to pass and enforce lighting ordinances as part of their land development ordinances.  The benefits of reducing light pollution are the greatest when the community as a whole takes action.

While being in the middle of the city and gazing at the stars sounds far fetched, the Planning Director of Flagstaff, Arizona told me (a city with a strong lighting ordinance), “it is amazing to walk out of my front doorstep and see the constellations.”

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.

Healing Land Through Intensive Grazing

Conventional wisdom says that overgrazing causes desertification of rangelands. Allan Savory says that’s dead wrong.

Plants have external digestive systems. We animals have microorganisms in our guts to break down food and make it useful to our cells, but plants don’t have that luxury. Their digestive bacteria and fungi live in the soil.

Savory divides the world into two areas:

Nonbrittle

In areas with a year-round high humidity, dead organism decay rapidly, and bare ground is quickly covered with vegetation. These areas cover about 1/3 of the planet’s land area.

Brittle

The other 2/3 of land area has prolonged dry seasons. During the dry season, plant matter dies, but the microorganisms that the plants need to digest that organic matter also die off. Instead of being digested, dead organic matter is standing. Since it doesn’t mulch the ground, the bare soil doesn’t retain moisture. New plants dry out before they get established.

In brittle environments, the bacteria in animal digestive tracks stays moist and alive during the dry season. Brittle environments require animals to build healthy soil. Before we humans screwed it up, massive buffalo herds in the US midwest would decimate the plant life in an area. However, at the same time they fertilized that area, and they moved on quickly allowing the plant life to recover. This cycle resulted in some of the thickest, richest top soil in the world in a semi-brittle environment.

Savory says overgrazing isn’t what’s turning brittle grass lands into deserts. A lack of animals is. In the US, the natural grazing animals are long gone, and for the most part our domesticated grazers don’t even live on the grasslands anymore. Our corporate industrial farming system has relegated grazing animals to hellish feed lots. Vast tracts of range land are left fallow, which most people would expect to be a good thing, but the plant life isn’t recovering. It’s digestive system is missing.

Smart land management in brittle environments mimics those natural buffalo herds and restores the land by intensely grazing it and moving the animals to new pastures often.

In this 1 hour presentation Savory goes into more detail and shows some convincing photographic evidence. He also argues that humans have been causing climate change because of this misunderstanding for a very long time.

For more information:

Savory’s website: 

Savory Institute

And his books:

Holistic Management Handbook:  Healthy Land, Healthy Profits, 2006

Holistic Management:  A New Framework for Decision Making, 1998

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