Friday, June 18, 2010

Quick update from the blog-slackers

1. The earth oven is ready for the final step of plaster aka beautification!
2. We decided not to build a cottage on Brad's parents property.
3. We are in the process of purchasing our OWN property (YAY!), on which we are planning to build a straw bale structure (not enough soil for cob).

So, we haven't had a lot of building to write about, as we were basking in confusion and pursuing property. We did participate in building a cob caterpiller bench at an elementary school, which is going to be super cute. The caterpillar project was through Design, Build, Live, a natural building group in Austin. The people we have met through it are absolutely amazing, and we will be partnering with them to hold workshops on our new property. (Workshops are genuis! People learn; we get help with our building--it's win-win!) It's been very cool to start connecting with Austin architects, builders, artists, designers, etc., and I believe having our own place and project will help us further build our community here. Of course, when we get into the building stage, if you're interested in helping/learning, we'll be happy to put you to work as well!!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Busting out of the mortgage myth

At the ripe old age of 24, I am meeting a lot of resistance when I discuss skirting the "responsibility" of buying a house, holding a mortage, and holding down a "real job." Wanting to avoid debt (especially to avoid a full-time job) seems to be an immaturity or even a moral failing on my part. "There is good debt and bad debt," I am told. "We need good debt to keep our country running." I understand that debt can be accrued for good and bad reasons (education versus excessive partying, for example). However, no matter how I look at large-scale, real-job-inducing debt in my personal life, I can only see it as bad. Very, soul-killing, paralyzing bad.

Home-owning is at the core of what it means to be responsible, middle class adult in our culture. Now, in all my other lessons about personal finances, I have been taught that is responsible to save money and not accrue a bunch of credit card debt on stupid piddly junk, like booze, hookers, and gambling. Or clothes, shoes, and jewelry. Whatever. However, all this thrift and restraint is apparently not to keep you out of debt and enable to live a free life of following your bliss, but so that you are a financially viable candidate for the yoke of a mortgage.

Today, I was talking to an acquaintance who happens to be a real estate agent. I've mentioned to him before that Brad and I are mildly interested in getting a small plot of land out here (in the Texas hill country) to call home base. Specifically small. Like an acre. I've talked to this guy before about natural building, so immediately he understood that we didn't want to be in a development. So far so good. But what he had trouble with is that we didn't want much land.

True, I do want a LOT of land someday, many consecutive acres, as much as we can handle. But I want it for cheap, and I want it to be beautiful, fertile, and even have a water source, and be a part of a good community. Of course, that's a bit hard to do here. I'm thinking more along the lines of not-in-the-United-States.

However, I would also like to have a home base to come back to during the in-betweens, rather than living off other people and keeping my cherished journals and pictures boxed up in a storage unit for...indefinitely. I want my own space to decorate and host parties and overnight guests and leave messy when I feel like it. These (and more) are not liberties you can take when it is not your house.

So anyway, this acquaintance said, "I wouldn't even bother for less than three acres if I were you." Of course, the three acres he had in mind ran a cool $90,000. He helpfully reminded me that we were young and could pay on it...indefinitely.

I said, "But we don't want to pay on it. Then we'd have to get real jobs."

He laughed pretty hard at this and said, "Yeah, that's what you gotta do, that's what people do."

"Well, I had a real job the last couple years, and it turns out I'm not cut out for that, actually," I said flatly.

"Huh," he said. "Yeah, real jobs do suck."

Vested interest aside, I'm sure he's not the only person who gets the eco-friendly, non-wasteful thing about natural building but still has trouble with the idea of NO DEBT HOUSING. We, Americans, are indoctrinated with the beliefs that: you must buy a house, you must hold a mortgage to have a house, and you must faithfully work at "real job" to pay the mortgage...indefinitely.

As a kid, I remember more than one teacher exasperated with the classic classroom stalling question--"Why do we have to learn this? When are we ever going to USE this?"--answering with, "You need to learn this so you can go to high school and make good grades, so you can get into college and get a good job and buy a house (and a car) someday."

Really? All this algebra and state history somehow all boils down to shelter?

Because this answer narrows the view of all the things education can provide, I'm sure many educators would agree that it is the wrong answer, or at least incomplete answer, to give children. True, education level is a very good indicator of quality of life, so I see the connection to nice houses. However, I do not believe that "real jobs" and "nice houses" are the sole purpose of my life (or education), nor do I believe everyone who has a real job and a nice house is abundantly happy and fulfilled. In fact, I think a lot of well-intentioned, hard-working middle class Americans are down right miserable.

For me, happiness is tied strongly to being able to do what I want to do. We'll call this freedom. Because what I want to do is often subject to change, I prize my mobility more than any house or job. Proponents of home-owning like to remind you that paying rent is throwing your money away when you could be putting it towards owning your own place. Last year, I "threw away" exactly $375 a month in rent, plus bills, in Washington. Good thing I did, because turns out what I really wanted to do was quit my job and move to Texas. I didn't have to stay through another rainy winter, I don't have a house on the crappy market, I don't have a mortgage that I would still have to pay even though I don't live there anymore. Thus, I prefer to think of that rent as the exact cost of my freedom to change my mind.

Because that $375/month seems a high price to pay, I'd prefer most of all to purchase my own place to OWN OUTRIGHT. As in, "Here is my $10,000 for this land, I'll pay my annual property taxes, but otherwise, we're through here." The vision is to then build a DEBT-FREE HOUSE, due to the low, low cost of natural building materials (as in, the dirt that you dig out for the foundation becomes the cob walls, the shelves, the furniture...). You've already paid for that hunk of earth--so make a shelter out of it! And if you can pull off this magic trick for less than the cost of a year's worth of rent, you are the most free you can possibly be. You no longer have to pay for housing. You can grow a lot of your own food. You can still work if you want and buy your food. You even can go work a 9 to 5 in California and pay ridiculous amounts of rent if you want. You can travel abroad (to a cheap destination) and live off the money you make by renting it out. You can do everything exactly the same or everything differently. All things equal, one thing is pretty much ensured: you have more choices. You probably don't have to work full-time and you definitely don't have to stay there.

So NO, I don't want to "pay on" 3 acres for however long it takes me to make $90,000 three times over (hello, COMPOUNDING INTEREST) at a "real job." Overspending does NOT make my life more legitimate, mature, or responsible. It doesn't have to cost a $35,000+ annual salary for one person to live, not even to live comfortably, and certainly not to live adventurously. When you separate the needs from the wants, and avoid taking out loans to finance the wants, you need very little to live on.

To me, there is a responsible and an irresponsible way to do just about everything. You can buy a house and mortgage and have a real job the responsible way: buy a house within your means (seriously downsize your notion), pay off your mortgage as quickly as possible (I'm talking 1 to 10 years, not 30 to 50), and seek out a job that you actually care about. The irresponsible way, you owe too much, you work too much, maybe even hate getting up in the morning for work, and you are adding undue poisonous stress to yourself and your family. Raising your children in a "nice" house is all good and well, but if it's an unhappy nice house--well, what's the point?

Taking a pass on the whole mortgage thing seems to get me branded: IRRESPONSIBLE. I admit there is quite a few irresponsible ways to get around mortgages: mooching, drifting, stealing, coercion, squatting, and so forth. Couple those images with my love of furry creatures and penchant for vegan baked goods, and I see why you might suspect a little nasty free-loading hippie in me. However, as anyone who remembers the days of Amber in tears over a "B" on her report card can attest to, I am probably one of the most neurotically responsible people you'd ever meet and still consider being friends with. The responsible ways I pursue my mobile lifestyle is to a) pay the price (literally, in rent), b) find a creative solution that is not a burden (such as volunteering in Peru in exchange for room and board, and now living with Brad's parents who are so excited to have us back and working on projects for them), and hopefully, wonderfully, c) owning our own place without incurring life-altering debt by purchasing land within our means and building with natural and salvaged materials.

These principles are already in use by many responsible low-income people. Of course, many are renters (though this doesn't translate to "freedom" as much as it does for me), but also many double- and triple-up with relatives in a mutually beneficial living situation (childcare, etc), and, well, even "c" has been done with the help of Habitat for Humanity, though not as cheaply as could be done with natural/salvaged materials. While good credit and mortgages mean the the middle class doesn't NEED to use any of these budget-savvy techniques to obtain shelter, they might WANT to think about it for their life's sake.

This whole hippie dippie venture is actually an exercise in responsibility. I'm thinking about the impact of my home will have on the environment, the greater community, my partner, and, yes, on my personal well-being. Sometimes I feel I am making a terrible affront to a lot of responsible, respectable people in our society. However, I refuse to give into ye old Puritanical guilt complex, and I hope to shake others out of it before they trap themselves in mortgages (and jobs they don't love). I am trying to intentionally create a life that makes sense, that I can be happy in, and not one I will be emotionally and financially paying for...indefinitely. Wish me luck.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Cobbing with princess feet

After much fuss about the foundation, I finally got my first true cobbing experience. We shoveled some sub-soil onto a tarp, then shoveled on the right ratio of sand. We hosed it down, jumped on, and danced in it barefoot. I quickly discovered that, for me, it is not the easiest dance ever. I had to really push with my legs to mix and smear it and keep from falling over. Furthermore, my tender little feet felt an uncomfortable sensation--cross-between tickling and pain--from all the grit.

After you smear/dance the soil and sand, you grab the tarp on one side and walk it over to the other. This folds the mix over itself. You jump back on for more dancing. Fold, dance, repeat, until the stuff all sticks together in a nice, fatty mud burrito. Then you add straw. You want the straw going in all directions and coated in mud. This dance is more about working it in and not so much smearing.

I stepped hard on a couple rocks, and I was done. Brad, of course, has mighty man legs and hobbit feet so he finished the batch right up. From then on, I have been mixing while wearing rainboots.

When you've got it all mixed properly, you make "cobs" out of it. It's a really delicate procedure where you mush stuff together into mud snowballs. This is where cob building gets its name--"cob" is the old Welsh word for "loaf" (as in loaves of bread). So you take your mud snowball bread loaf things and chuck them to/at your partner who drops them on the wall. You can also just scoop the cob up with a pitchfork and dump it on the wall.
From here you try to smoosh it all together in a wall-like shape. You try to get few/no seams by smearing, poking, etc. I can't do much to describe it for you. It's something that has to be done by feel (a feel reminescent of making those ugly clay pots as a child that your mother loved). You can use a stick to kind of shove all the straw in and "tie it" together. The holes made by the stick help the wall dry out. You leave everything kind of rough so that tomorrow's batch has more surface area to stick to. All in all, it's a pretty straight-forward process that can be a lot of fun. True, the dancing isn't quite as easy as I had imagined. But whenever I get a rock in my foot, I'll think of the alternative--wood, saws, hammers, nails, safety goggles, right angles, MATH--and, well, I'll just grab my rainboots.

Earth oven progression

We're just about ready to add the dome!

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Yes, I am living with my boyfriend's parents

...And I get free food. And it is really, really good.

I'm starting to appreciate the full range of benefits of co-habitating with Brad's family, also known as "mooching." Admittedly, I originally was eager to partake in the no-rent, frequent-free-meals, high-quality-shower type of benefits. This is what allowed me to quit my job and take a resort-style break. (Thank you God.) (And King family.)

These selfish reasons are certainly the temptation of every low-life mooch. I felt less guilty, however, after I read Little House on a Small Planet.

A central theme of the book is that more house means more waste. It’s wasted energy to heat and cool, wasted land a.k.a. destruction of other species’ homes, wasted time because it takes more work to afford it and more housework to maintain it—you know, a giant waste of your life and Planet Earth.

A year ago, Brad and I were heating our cabin in Washington, Brad’s brother was heating his downtown Austin apartment, and Brad’s parents were heating this whole house. Brad’s brother moved into the house (for unrelated reasons) and then we moved back. The house that was supporting two now supports five (and three dogs). By sharing a single house, the King family and I are using a more responsible share of the world's resources.

In the States, the norm is for a child to grow up, leave a bedroom empty in his/her parents' house, and create a new household with a mate. Often, this new household actually means new construction, tearing up land that has never been built on, creating new roads, mining, smelting, shipping materials of various toxicities, and so forth (perhaps “construction” is a misnomer). Meanwhile, that empty bedroom is still being heated and cooled, as a "guest room" or maybe a "sewing room." Bummer for Earth.

In anthro class, I learned that our tendency to create our own lovenests makes us a "neolocal" society. In other cultures (and back in the day), it is/was perfectly normal to move in with the folks. If the dude moves in with his lady's family, it's matrilocal, and if girliepants moves in with her guy's family, it's patrilocal. These kinds of families can share labor, expenses, and childcare. With so many of us struggling economically--and emotionally--maybe it's time to think about what we lose when we trade the clan for a nuclear family.

Having a neolocal society means that we also lose out on some benefits of community. New construction leads to sprawl, and sprawl often leads to de-centralization of community. Isolated and fearful, some families try to install community through structured programs or youth groups. Kids are shuttled from door to door by way of car door. I’ve heard more than one older person say how things have changed—apparently, it used to be cool to leave your doors unlocked and let 9-year-olds run around the neighborhood(/woods/fields) unsupervised. I have not investigated this incredible claim, so don’t take my word for it. Would any parents or grandparents like to comment?

Of course, all this is not to say I will live here forever. First of all, these are my opinions, not necessarily the Kings’, and it is their house, not mine. To be living my ideals and not mooching, it behooves me to create my own home/community and share it with others. That is what we are here to learn about and brainstorm. Until we find our own place, I will continue to HIGHLY appreciate the eco-friendly hand-out. (Thank you, again, Kings!)

If you are interested in downsizing your impact and creating community without being “that guy who still lives with his parents,” check out Little House on a Small Planet. I am amazed at the diversity of people's responses to these issues. Some people build tiny houses while others get creative with community living and roommate situations. For example, CoAbode matches single moms with other single moms for all the benefits of a two-parent household without having to wait for Mr. Right!

More perks to Drippin’ livin’:

*I expected that not paying rent would free up time (I only work about 16 hours/week). What I didn’t know is that I would find a local job and feel the blessings of a downsized commute. I traded an 18-minute drive, 45-minute bus ride, and 10-minute walk for a simple 13-minute-drive. Hurray for more free time, less money spent on gas, and less carbon emissions!

*By having two other dogs, three other humans, and a big fenced yard in his life, Oser is getting much better socialized! I bet there's a correlation to children.

Friday, February 19, 2010

Update on mortar work

Amber and I finally shared our first morning of muddy messy masonry yesterday. These are some pics of the process. The idea (which only time will deem brilliant or idiotic) was to dry-stack the bottom two courses very carefully and only use the natural (meaning water sensitive) mortar once a safer height off of ground level was reached. This would keep the vulnerable mortar and the cob ring above it away from potential surface water while adding extra breathability to the structure's base. Moisture seeping into the draining rubble foundation could evaporate and be carried out of the oven's base via airflow without threat of interior condensation (often more threatening to structural integrity in cob walls than exterior wetness due to the constant saturating damp it creates). All of this is likely completely unnecessary over-thinking for a simple oven project. That said, it is in keeping with the spirit of experimentation and self-education of this leg of our journey. We intend to make good use of every lesson learned in this relatively low-risk endeavor, so why not? You get out what you put in.

We started by running the desired portion of decomposed granite (We have a pile of neglected leftovers from the construction of a foot path years ago) through a 4'x4' wood framed piece of hardware screen (wire mesh) that has been temporarily suspended from a conveniently located live oak. The granite has far too many large pebbles and rocks to serve as a mortar material in its natural state, but once screened, provides a beautifully varied spectrum of super sharp aggregate that locks into a very stable matrix once a bonding agent (in this case clay) is added and mixed by foot to the right consistency. This was our first run at screening material and the system proved to be functional but still needs some tweaking. I was experimenting with a flexible frame design that showed some promise initially, but proved too finicky in the long run. I got a grueling education in the economy of labor required by manually screening massive amounts of sand and gravel while working on a basic water filtration system in a rural village in Peru several years ago. Anything that requires constant adjustment or breaks the flow and rhythm of the work is usually not worth it.

[Side Note: If you are a traveller or concerned global citizen and have never heard of Hands on Disaster Response, do yourself and the rest of the world a favor and take a minute to check out their web page @ This organization is AMAZING. Amber and I spent a third of our three month Peru trip with them after the earthquake three years ago. This is not another pay-to-play volunteer organization where you can feel good about your vacation time by paying someone to let you work for them, and maybe do some good in the meantime. These people mean business. You pay your way there and they feed and shelter you for as long as you can commit in exchange for your willingness to work HARD, all day, six days a week, hand in hand with locals trying to put their lives back together after shattering tragedy. In my 20+ years of world travel I've never been so impressed with an organization or a self-selected group of volunteers. We made some life-long international friends from this experience, some of whom will be at our wedding in Oct. Nuff said.]

So, I will sure-up the frame before the next batch. Once we had the right amounts of screened aggregate and clay-based sub soil portioned out on a mixing tarp, we lost the shoes, cranked the bluegrass tunes, and danced our first muddy mix'n jig. For those of you unfamiliar with cob building and tarp mixing techniques, think the whimsy of mud pies, puddle jumping, music festival dancing, and traditional grape-stomping mixed with the attention to detail and multi-sensory input of a potter's wheel or a painters pallet. This is 'serious' fun in the fullest sense, and it was truly special to finally share the sacred mud dance with my favorite human.

The actual rock work went pretty slowly, something I'm finally getting used to. Its all unfamiliar ground for both of us every time we reach a new phase of construction. Taking our time allows us to learn everything there is to learn from each action, each movement. It can be frustrating for sure, but it is also rewarding in a sense adults don't often get to experience in our world. By using concrete the entire foundation could have easily been built (even by us) in a day or two max. Although this kind of speed and ease of labour sounds like an obvious winner, the sacrifices and compromises for a project like this one are too many and too subtle to list. I will be writing more about the role that concrete and lime play in my projects when we tackle the garden cottage's foundation.

We started by working out from behind the accent stone (the one standing on end). This is the trickiest, most delicate, and most visible section so it only made sense to start here. It is sometimes tempting to hop around the ring trying to find the right fit for that perfect stone you already have at hand. Although this can be instantly rewarding, it typically means a lot more work in-filling the gaps created between these 'perfect' fits because the size and shape of the gap has already been determined. If you only work out from one point in each course of stone(either direction or both simultaneously is fine), then there is only one place (when the course meets back up with itself) where your options are limited in this way. Make sense? Sometimes its worth it, most of the time its not.

We are using the mortar more as chinking and irregular bedding than what I understand to be typical for stone work. There are risks involved in this, but so far the trade-offs, like avoiding concrete, seem to be favoring the decision (only time will tell for sure). It is much slower than the slop and plop style typical for brick or mortared stone because the stones still need to be carefully placed in stable positions. They are essentially dry-stacked with the mortar adding stability and support. So far it looks and feels very sturdy.

OK... I'm done looking at his screen for today, but I'll pick back up later. Sorry there aren't any photos of the mixing. We were too busy enjoying, but there will be lots of photo opportunities to come.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

More Pics of the Progress

1: Brad tests a ball of all-natural mortar made from decomposed granite and sub-soil (aka dirt and dirt).
2: Brad made three different mortars and tested how well they could glue rocks together. This one was the most successful. No need to buy concrete, which is an energy waster!
3: The foundation for the oven is currently all dry stacked rock. We treat this as a giant puzzle because stability depends on the rocks fitting together snugly. We will start using the mortar higher up.
4: The oven foundation and wood pallets to re-use in the roof structure.

The oven project is coming together nicely, gaining momentum as we tinker with every step along the way. There has been a lot of rock in my (Brad's) life as of late. My self-education in drystacking has been slow but very enjoyable, and the bulk of the rock work is now complete. This took A LOT more time and effort than I had imagined, but I am really pleased with the result. A station for screening and mixing the decomposed granite and sub-soil is all set up and ready to start producing my specialy formulated natural mortar.

I have to wait until tomorrow to do the mortar work since the last two nights have seen substantial freezes here. The weather is looking good for the next week, so we should be able to get some muddy business taken care of.

The Truck (still needs a name) has been a great help. Check out all the free hard wood I have been able to find through Craigslist (leaning against tree and around site). We're gonna play with some pallet-truss design in the next week or so. I should be able to do all of the woodwork for the roof structure and oven counterspace with wood that was on its way to the landfill.