Thursday, February 24, 2011

Twenty-One Days - Day 1: Shelter

In an extreme survival situation, the first thing a person needs is shelter. One will die faster from exposure to the elements than from thirst and hunger combined.

In our lower energy future, we won't, necessarily, be dealing with "extreme survival" situations, but we will have less - less energy, less food, less money. Moving should not be a priority at this point. We're out of time to find that perfect off-the-grid piece of heaven out in the country.

Even if one could find that perfect place, today, moving takes time and energy and money. If we spend those things moving, now, we might end up neglecting some of the other things we need to be doing to secure our future.

I haven't always loved my house, and there have been times when I really felt strongly that I needed to not be in this town.

But here is where I am, and this is where I will plan to spend the rest of my life. As such, I need to be doing everything in my power to adapt this house to a lower energy future.

I can't afford not to.

None of us can.

The best we can do right now is to assume that we're not going anywhere and make where we are perfect for us. The best any of us can do right now is to make where we are as comfortable and as low energy as we can get it.

For my family, that's meant a tankless water heater, heating with wood, digging up the yard for garden beds, and keeping chickens. In the future it will mean power-generation equipment, an outdoor kitchen with a well, some sort of cold food storage, compacting our living space by adding a second floor and knocking off a couple of back rooms to make better use of solar energy, and gardening design with an eye on long-term food production.

What that means for others may be different, but the bottom line is that renovating is a much more efficient use of our time and resources than building new ... and no boxes to pack :).

In their book, Green Remodeling by David Johnston and Kim Master provide some suggestions for ways to remodel one's current home with an eye on efficiency.

If you would like to be entered into the drawing for a copy of the book Green Remodeling, please leave a comment. The winner will be announced on Monday, February 27 :).

Edited to add this link to the most recent Archdruid's Report in which he talks about insulating for energy savings (from heat/cold loss). That would be the first step toward making our homes more adaptable in a lower energy society. The less energy we have to expend staying warm/cool, the more energy we will have to apply to other areas of retro-fitting our homes - or to just paying off our homes, because really, the most important part of "securing our shelter" is being debt-free.


  1. Sounds like an interesting book.

    I blame you for all the sleepless nights when I have envisioned how I can remodel this house to better fit our family ;)

  2. We live in a 200 square foot guest house while we build our next house to sell. That house will have a 650 square foot guest house which we will move into soon while we finish the house in the next year or two..(we do ALL the work ourselves). I really think that is all two people need..650 sq feet husband can pack a lot of living in 650 sq ft...a full kitchen, bedroom, living room and a big bathroom...lots of storage. I LOVE where I live and I am grateful for that everyday..

  3. ps...I would love to enter for the book...

  4. A lot of people look at "generating their own power" and balk at the cost — simply because they're not looking at what's needed rather than just switching over. My off-the-cuff guess is that 200W capacity, with one or two deep-discharge marine batteries, would be sufficient for actual needs and a few creature comforts for a family. That would be enough to run some LEDs or even a CF lamp, keep a radio and/or laptop going, plus a few trinkets (and a shaver, can't forget that).

    A lot of the plans you make depend on whether you expect a fast crash or slow decline. I'm in the latter camp, although many of my doomer friends are in the former. I expect a slow decline simply because a fast crash would solve too many of my current (civilization-based) problems for me — it's actually the worse of the two evils for me personally.

  5. patricialynn - I'll accept that blame ... and I hope that someday you will see those dreams come to fruition :). Glad I could help :).

    Ain't for city gals - I agree. We don't need nearly as much space as we think we do to be comfortable.

    FARf - believe it or not I'm actually in the slow decline camp, too. I think the difference is that I believe we're *in* the slow decline now, and have been for many years, which means retrofitting our homes is just going to become more difficult (and necessary), and we should be doing all we can do right now, rather than hoping for that sometime in the future move to a better place. It just may not get better than what we have. You know?

    I'm hoping for a 400W system - maybe more than we *need*, but I'd like to keep the freezer ;).

  6. Okay, Wendy, so you know my whole story now. I'm not sure how we can do what you suggest in the very first day of your 21 days! Sure, we can work on the house some and we can grow a little bit of food in a small yard, but we have to sit here and stare at a huge expanse of unused off-limits land. While we could plant a forest of fruit and nut trees, one cannot live off fruits and nuts alone.

    As far as an outdoor kitchen, can't happen. I've still got to carve out a place inside to use the pedal-powered grain grinder...

  7. I would love the book. I'm thankful I live on one and a half acres and my home is all paid for. I just need to get as enery effecient as I can and as off grid as possible, maybe totally. I'm working on it.

  8. Chile - when I was writing this post, I was actually thinking of you :). It's really not about "doing what I'm doing", but adapting your space where you are.

    As for living off of nuts and fruits - if you add eggs from the chickens you're going to get, and if you were to do some container gardening with greens, and perhaps add some berry brambles, I think you'd find that you fed quite well on fruits, nuts, a few greens, and eggs ;).

    P.S. The Linden tree (basswood) has edible leaves. A friend of mine calls it the "lettuce" tree ;).

  9. Alla - I'm in envy ;). Sounds like you have a great place ;).

  10. Oooh, count me in for the book. We're renters right now, but maybe there are some things we could talk our landlady into doing.

  11. I'm thinkin', I'm thinkin'.....

    What I'm wondering with our county regs is when they say "nothing man-made" within 50 feet of the wash, does that mean man-made materials (such as steel and plastic) or anything constructed by humans. Because, we could probably fashion a grape arbor out of the bamboo on our property and I think it'd work really well where I had half a ton of compost sitting for months... I'd even be willing to spray paint the wire needed to hold it together a dull brown color to be less visible.

  12. Hubby and I were discussing how to retrofit our home to decrease the AC use. We already have overhangs to decrease sun coming in, shades on all windows. They are single pane, typical in FL, but will need to be caulked. A project for March.

    We added 4 raised beds for veggies and instead of ornamental shrubbery have opted for blueberries, kiwi vines, etc. If it isn't food producing we don't want it.

    The book sounds good, we'd be interested.

  13. Chile - yeah! Now you're talking! Keep going with it ... what else? How about some espaliered fruit trees for a living edible fence? Could you throw some corn seed in that compost, and then some pumpkin seed ... and perhaps a couple of bean seeds for a three sister's garden? Brambles don't *need* support, they'd give you berries, and provide both food and shelter for wildlife. At some point, they'd be thick enough to be a fence that might even keep your dogs in ;).

  14. Chile ... wait! You have bamboo?? Like growing on your property? You know, you can eat it, right?

  15. Jennie - yes - totally get your landlady involved. She'd probably be up for approving any ideas you have the "improve" her property.

    Bellen - Sounds like you're off to a running start. We have the same problem on opposite sides of the coin - you're too hot, we're too cold. Be sure to check out The Archdruid's Report this week (linked in my post). He talks about insulation, which is good in both your area and mine.

  16. I'm a little leery of trying to eat bamboo after the significant reaction I had to wearing bamboo socks. Can you feed bamboo to chickens?

  17. Chile ... My chickens will eat anything I can eat, and a good many things I wouldn't ;). The only thing I know for certain that chickens can not manage is potato peels.

  18. Wendy, you should talk with ReVision Energy about your power generation needs. As you know I just installed an 1880-watt system for my shop, and granted, that was expensive. If you're only looking for a 400-watt system, that's just two 235-watt panels, and would be reasonably inexpensive after the state and federal rebates. They're on the web, pretty close to you, in Portland.


  19. I'd love to be considered for that book....I'm trying to follow your example and "bloom where I am planted". ;o)
    I've long wanted a little place out aways, but I'm in the outer 'burbs, and will be staying here for the foreseeable future. It makes much more sense, as you say, to accept that and turn THIS place into my dream. Fortunately, it's paid for, we have almost an acre, and I've put in a decent garden. Now if I can just get our county commissioners to change the regs regarding chickens on less than 3 acres...

  20. Once you start heating your home with wood as your primary heat source you really appreciate the need for renovations that increase the insulation in your home. Nothing like the physical labour of chopping wood to bring home the importance of keeping all the heat inside the house!

  21. @Jennie I rent too - when I talk about "improving" the house I'm in, it's all about improvements to suggest to the landlord (who is really an awesome man).

    I wanted to tell you something I did, as a renter, that my landlord really appreciates. He's not too keen on the idea of food in the front yard, but he said he'll allow it as long as it looks pretty. So I plan to surround the tree in the front yard with flowers, and then edge the flowers in with strawberry plants.

    The landlord is also letting me dig up a huge portion of the backyard to turn into a large food garden. As a thank you to him, I just ordered a lilac tree to plant on his property. It's only a $15.00 investment and a little work on my part, but a lovely addition to the property for the landlord.

    It's those little ways to say thank you that a property owner really appreciates.

  22. Steve - thanks for the suggestion. I'll have to look them up ;).

    Kate - you're so lucky to have your place mortgage-free! I'd definitely hang on to it, and re: the chickens - it's happened all over the place, even here in Maine, that suburban and urban dwellers have managed to get the ordinances changed. A community in Oregon even managed to get city goats approved :). It can be done.

    EJ - so right! It really makes one appreciate the work involved in getting the heat into the house when one is doing the work ;). One becomes even MORE aware of the heat issue when the wood pile starts getting really small, but there's still snow on the ground and more in the forecast :).

    patricialynn - I love the idea of edging with strawberries. Brilliant! And a perfect example of permaculture design ;).

  23. Of course I dream about the "perfect" home on a little land in the country, but I'm willing to make do on our .25 acre lot in a suburban town. We've been composting and gardening for years and added chickens last spring. We could really use some ideas to retrofit our 1912 house though.

  24. We've been talking more and more about generating some of our own power. We have a few friends who already are, two couples are off the grid completely...lots to think about and plan..

  25. Carla - I think, sometimes, I still dream of that "perfect" place, but the longer we stay here, the more I realize that *this* place is actually pretty perfect ... for us ;). It can be hard renovating an older home, but I think some of the benefit of those older places is that some of them were built to be "low energy" from the beginning, and maybe it's just a matter of reinstalling some of the old systems. And insulating!

    Julie - Indeed - there is a lot to think about and plan, and so many options when it comes to power generation ... especially if the goal isn't to replace every bit of the power that we've become accustomed to using, but rather only to generate enough to keep the best things humming (like the freezer ... and the computer ;).

  26. I actually started doing more canning, as opposed to freezing things, such as tomatoes and beets, so that I would not have to rely on the freezer...I mean, we have a generator that can run it, because we have one on the farm, but eventually, generators run out of fuel, right ;)

  27. Julie - we freeze some berries and some vegetables, like peas, but our freezer is mostly for meat. We raise 40 chickens each year, and then purchase a pig share and a cow share. Everything else is either canned or dehydrated ... or stored in the bathtub ;).

    We have a generator - still new in the box, and purchased several years ago on sale after a major power outage ;). It's not something I ever want to have to rely on for just the reason you give - generators fun out of fuel ;).

  28. We're pretty much the same, except that we don't store anything in the bathtub :D