You may wonder what it’s like to live at DR, and in what ways we are living differently from the rest of America. This series of posts is intended to let you in on some of the practices and technologies we use here to reduce our impact on the planet. This is my personal story, and although there are people here that live simpler lives than I do, and some that live with more amenities, this should give you some idea of an average person’s lifestyle here. Most of the ways of living I explain you could practice where you live as well if you had the desire. It is a lot easier to do it at DR because we’ve set up our infrastructure around living more sustainably. But then, in many ways living closer to an urban area you may have more opportunities for cooperation and sharing of resources. You also may not have to travel as far as we do to get what you need to implement some of these systems.
Since shelter is a fundamental need for humans, and since my house is where I spend most of my time, I’ll start there with this week’s post. In future posts, I’ll explore how I meet other basic necessities such as food and water, and some not so basic necessities, such as power and transportation, in a more sustainable way.
My house was constructed of a combination of materials, some reclaimed and reused, most local, most natural, and some new and neither natural nor local. Most of the house is constructed of natural materials like clay, sand, lime, and wood, and natural fibers such as straw and cattail fluff. The major components that are not natural and were bought new are the roofing tin, the stovepipe, the cistern (which is plastic), cement in the foundation, and the power system. These make up a relatively small amount of the bulk of the house. My house features a living space, kitchen with running water, bathroom, and closet, but doesn’t have a shower.
Starting with the foundation, I used a gravel bed to take the drainage down below frost level. This took a load of gravel from the local quarry. The limestone gravel is broken up using fossil fuel powered machines but has far less embodied energy than cement, which could have been used instead (and usually is in conventional construction). On top of the gravel I built up a short wall of urbanite (a name for reclaimed concrete) I’d salvaged from the removal of a runway at the local airport. It was already cut into pieces and I just took the ones that fit my project. I used a lime mortar to bind the concrete pieces and finished the wall with a concrete bond beam reinforced with rebar. The south foundation wall was made of reclaimed cement block from a local house demolition, and the spaces in the block were filled with concrete. The whole point of using the reclaimed materials and the gravel was to reduce the amount of cement in the project. Cement has incredibly high embodied energy, and alone is responsible for 5% of the greenhouse gases emitted every year.
The framing of the house was built from reclaimed dimensional lumber, reclaimed barn posts and beams, and some locally milled oak posts and beams. Connectors for the timbers were mostly homemade from angle irons I’d scavenged off a metal tank stand we had sitting around by the machine shed. All the bolts, nails, screws, and a few connector plates were bought new. The tarpaper moisture barrier between the framing and foundation and a plastic foam base plate protector were all bought new. All the plywood and OSB used in the house was reclaimed. To get most of the reclaimed dimensional lumber, I demolished a house in nearby Rutledge who wanted the building taken down. It yielded a lot of two-by-sixes and two-by-fours.
The windows were all bought second hand from a local place that buys lots of windows. These windows were custom ordered and returned, or never sold for whatever reason. A lot of people here get their windows from the same place.
The wheat straw for my bale walls was bought from a guy in Memphis, about 15 miles away. Sand in the lime and earthen plaster, and the earthen flooring on the house was bought from a local concrete place. The house construction used probably 9 tons of sand. I’m not sure where it is quarried from. All the clay used in the plaster was from my foundation and cistern excavations. Clay makes up more than 1/3 of the plaster and flooring. Straw in the plaster and flooring came from local sources, as well. Cattail fluff used in the finish earthen plaster was harvested from the cattail pond behind my house or from the graywater pond for the common house and Skyhouse. The lime used in the exterior plaster was bought and has a higher embodied energy than the local clay obviously. Lime is made from limestone that has been heated to a high temperature. It has been used as a building material since Roman times and holds up well in weather as a siding if it is maintained. It makes a good exterior coating for strawbale walls. The “paint” on the lime plaster you can see in the picture at the top is actually earth pigment–basically ground up colored rock. It is a totally natural way to color your house if you have a lime exterior.
The metal roofing was bought locally, but is obviously manufactured somewhere else from steel using fossil fuel intensive manufacturing methods. The paint on the tin is likely toxic and derived from petroleum. The reason I chose metal, and the reason I think most choose it here, is that it lasts longer than asphalt shingles, and has less embodied energy. It also doesn’t require a plywood sheeting and is easy to install. I could have used thatch, but thatching involves a skill and techniques I didn’t think I could learn easily. Another factor is that thatching requires a lot of maintenance and if not done correctly, can leak. These are just excuses though, and thatch works in many parts of the world just fine. As yet there are no thatch roofs here at DR, but it would be nice to have someone try one sometime just to get a better sense of the limitations of the technology. There are a number of other roofing options that would be more sustainable than metal, such as cedar shingles, and clay, slate, and concrete tile, but they involve a lot of labor or expense. The gutters and downspouts for water catchment were bought new and are made of metal and ABS pipe.
Material for the thermal curtains, which convert a double-pained window from an R insulation value of 1.2 to around 7, was bought from the Warm Windows company. The pattern material was bought from online and is made of synthetic material. I chose synthetic because I thought it would be less likely to fade and would last longer. It also offered much more interesting aesthetics than the cotton fabric options. Other curtain material and accessories was bought online or locally at the Mennonite sewing store. The oak sticks used to affix the curtains came from waste wood from the local Mennonite furniture maker.
Other wood on the house was gotten reclaimed from a local guy who demolishes buildings for a living and sells the salvage. The soffit on the house is yellow pine from an old school gym subfloor. The fascia and interior and exterior trim came from a local guy who does tree removal and mills the wood into lumber. He sells a lot of nice oak and walnut that makes good finish material. Fish scale shingling on the gable ends was made from scrap wood from a local pallete mill. The second floor oak flooring was reclaimed from a local house demo.
The attic insulation is blown cellulose, which though not local, is made from reused newspaper waste. The drywall on the second floor ceiling was bought new and painted with homemade milk paint. The doors and wood stove were bought second hand locally, and the stovepipe was bought new. Stovepipe is one of those things that it’s not as practical to get second hand, and I imagine it is hard to find that way. Most people here buy new chimney kits and pipe when they build their houses. The kitchen cabinets and the stainless steel sink in the kitchen were all procured second hand for free or really cheap. The ceiling fans were bought new, as were a couple of light fixtures.
So that pretty much covers everything I used to build the house. As you can tell, different from your typical American home, the way we build here at DR is with an eye toward getting materials locally and limiting as much as possible the components that come from unsustainable sources. Houses are also usually designed to be more energy efficient than the typical American home, and they are on average much smaller than the average American home per capita. We hope that people in other areas will learn from what we are doing here and build their own sustainable home or find ways to make their existing home more sustainable.
In the next post, I’ll talk about my power and heat.
This article ©2013 Dan Durica