2009-Eco choices

Conventional, cob, sandbag....: lowering our ecological footprint through our use of building materials methods:

Initially, we investigated building a Cob house, having stayed in a really delightful one in Barrydale whilst on our property foray. The effectiveness of the insulation was very efficiently demonstrated one Saturday when the outside temperature reached 36oC and inside the cob house it was a comfortable 24-25oC. But time constraints unfortunately put an end to that - it would take us the rest of our lives and every weekend to complete a cob house - if it's exposed areas did not weather / deteriorate during the rainy seasons.

Next, we considered building an Ecobeam sandbag house . We spent a good couple of months researching it and meeting / talking to people who had employed that method of building their home. We even went so far as to get some empty bags from Ecobeam in order to fill them and use them as part of the walls for a temporary shower we erected.

(We use a camping shower (mainly in summer) which is basically a 5lt black plastic bag with a short hose and plastic shower rose, which you fill with tap water and place flat on the ground in the sun - it works very well for such a simple device.

Our very basic solar shower area errected at the back of the caravan - the main thing is it works!



Equally, in autumn and winter, we have filled it with 1/3 tap water and topped it up with almost boiling water from the kettle which we heat on the gas stove in the caravan - pure luxury! It was warm enough to enable us to more or less ignore the prevailing air temperature long enough to get clean. In summer the air temperature is obviously not a problem! But, most importantly, our hygiene needs were fulfilled by a simple camping shower.)

However, to my complete dismay, as I was very keen on a sandbag house, the Ecobeam bags disintegrated and the sand blew away, probably due to a large extent because they were left exposed for too many months - but apparently they now have new, much stronger bags. But because of what we had experienced we decided on a conventional brick and mortar house - being built in two phases as it becomes affordable.

We have sourced locally made clay bricks - which results in minimal transport (lower carbon footprint) whilst simultaneously supporting/providing local employment. Due to the heat in summer the ground in the area bakes rock hard - part of the crusting effect of renosterveld. Thankfully we sourced a local digger / loader and got the driver, Stan the Man, in to dig the foundations. And plenty of holes for trees! He even managed to dig us a small dam - unfortunately we will have to make it a little deeper, as the water which filled it last November during the heavy rains, and a couple of showers since then, has either evapourated because of the heat or just seeped back into the ground. I don't know what we would have done without Stan and his machine!

Phase one of the build is the very important bathroom (no more Porta Potti®!)and a large double volume room which will eventually become the open plan lounge/ dining / kitchen area, and, until phase two is built, it will also accommodate our bed - hidden by hinging 4 simple basic cupboard doors together creating a screen. We will be able to recycle / re-use the cupboard doors when the bedrooms are built in phase two.
 
Render

We have decided to use a high lime render on the internal and external walls, which, amongst other benefits reduces carbon in the atmosphere due to: the lime hardening by a slow process of carbonation, reacting with atmospheric carbon dioxide over a period of weeks ( www.buildingconservation.com/articles/cement/cement.htm ) and "The older houses in Cape Town have soft sun-baked bricks that develop mould if waterproofed fully as moisture becomes trapped in the walls - this is very unhealthy for the occupants. It requires paints that breathe and allow water vapour through or alternative finishes like lime rendering." (www.urbangreen.co.za/current/regulars/14-1greenbuildingallcolours.htm) We feel that this is very important for our building as there is a large amount of clay in the ground which retains water and could cause rising damp problems on the foundation walls in the rainy season.
 
Roofing

The roof will be clad with Resin Tiles . This is a Cape Town company which recycles car bumpers, computer monitors, etc into roof tiles. They are a company who’s fully committed to reducing the amount of post-consumer plastic going to landfill and this company apparently utilizes up to 350 tons of post-consumer plastic every month. The appearance of the tiles is identical to that of conventional cement / clay roof tiles, but they are cheaper and more lightweight, precision formed, non-porous, UVA, UVB and Fire Retardant and, finally, they are aesthetically pleasing. There is also a Johannesburg company which also produces an eco-friendly roof tile - Savuti Roofing. In addition, for the all important temperature and sound insulation, we will be using a vermiculite ceiling board obtainable from Vboard. The added advantage of using Vboard, as opposed to normal rhino ceiling board, is that, if, for any reason in future the tiles should need to be removed (perhaps when we join Phase 1 with Phase 2) or during installation they should break, they are re-usable by mixing the pieces into the earth in order to retain water - vermiculite is generally added to potting soil because of its high water retention qualities. Therefore its recycling properties are brilliant. And vermiculite is a natural product.
 
Windows and Glazing

We have elected to double glaze our windows using Swartland window frames - the cost is approximately 40% more for the frames - which we feel is well worth the expense. We felt that wooden double glazing window frames were more eco-friendly than PVC, and we prefer the look. The glass can either be supplied by GSA or Compass Glass (tel : 021 981 7785) - they will be supplying us a 4 : 6 : 4 ratio double glazing - basically that means the glass in the windows consists of 4mm toughened glass on the outside covered with a reflective film : 6mm vacuum : 4mm toughened glass internally with a Low EO covering.


We are going to glaze the happy doors with 6mm laminated glass together with the same reflective film on the outside as the windows.

Walls

For added insulation both the internal and external walls will be protected using Insuladd which is a ceramic nano particle substance that one adds to paint in order to insulate and reflect heat - apparently it works by reflecting the heat away from the house in summer and retaining the internal heat produced in the house in winter. I have read conflicting reports on Insuladd, but we have probably decided to try it none the less. We will be using the nano particles in conjunction with a local low VOC (Volatile Organic Compounds) paint manufactured by Harlequin Paints in Cape Town.

Floors

We have decided not to tile our floors with mass produced tiles - instead we will be probably be wood floating our screed prior to scattering / adding oxide in order to obtain a coloured screed on which we will imprint the appearance of tiles by scoring straight lines in the newly laid screed. We will be sealing the floor with Harlequin Paints' Cement Floor Lacquer which apparently does not chip or peel off if one has wood floated the screed. Wood floating causes a rougher finish which enables the floor lacquer to adhere better.

For an update on this please click on the following link: http://ecofootprintsa.blogspot.com/2010/02/november-december-2009-moving-in.html
 
Bathroom and waste water

A septic tank has been installed (again with the help of Stan the Man and his digger / loader who not only dug the foundations, moved the infill, dug holes for the trees, but also dug the dam) for our black water - unfortunately the Swellendam municipality would not allow us to use a self-composting toilet system - not for any particular reason except that it is probably too new a concept. The water from our kitchen / bathroom basins and shower is going to be directed to our vegetable patch and also to a grey water reed bed - but will first go through a filter - plans for the reed bed are available at various sites on-line or from local eco-architect Andy Horn of Ecodesign Architects. We have sited the reed bed above the existing small dam which catches rain water / runoff so that the dam can also catch any overflow from the reed bed.

In the house we will be using surplus glass from our balustrade installation business to make a splash back behind the kitchen sink and behind the bathroom basin - where we will also be using an old shower fitting which I've been hoarding for years. We have created a large "wet" bathroom with no bath and a dual flush loo. This means we can literally hose down the bathroom if ever necessary (e.g. clay mud brought in after a day working outdoors, etc.) and it will all be expelled out the shower drain. We are not going to tile behind the shower - I can't handle cleaning the grout when it starts getting mouldy. A coat of Harlequin's Plaster Primer and then Satin Sheen will apparently do the job - and if ever it becomes scruffy looking then another coat of Satin Sheen will sort that out! A Kexin (Brights Hardware in Cape Town stocks them) gas instant hot water geyser will provide our hot water requirements - including providing us with heated towel rails via additional piping. We have also been told that a 100mtrs of simple black irrigation pipe, connected to the tap and coiled on the roof (facing the sun), which is in turn connected to a 25lt bucket, also provides ample hot water for the bathroom and kitchen in summer. Perhaps we can try that once the roof is on!
 
Cooking and Heating

The kitchen will not be a conventional one re: kitchen cupboards. We will be using a couple of locally manufactured builder's workbenches on castors (so that they may be moved away from the walls in order to clean behind them and to be able to check for spiders or snakes (who aren't respecting our mutual boundaries) which will be sanded and low VOC stained with locally manufactured (providing employment and income for local people) deep baskets for storage. I absolutely adore and will be getting a Dover stove - available in the Western Cape from either Negosiegat (tel. 028 572 1120) in Barrydale (they are cheaper and will deliver within 75kms of Barrydale) or Dassiesfontein - or, in Johannesburg, contact Ndebele Stoves (011 932 1376 or e-mail stowe@lantic.net).  That allows me to re-use / recycle perfectly good kitchen equipment. I haven't had the pleasure of visiting Negosiegat yet, but intend to as soon as possible - it looks a fascinating shop on the web, and where I can imagine one could spend hours browsing recycled goods(and spending money!).

Dover 8 stove
The Dover stove will provide our winter cooking and central heating energy - and utilize local alien wood (Australian Black Wattles abound in the area) - sourced, cut and sold by local "Working for Water" employees - again providing local employment and reducing the transport footprint. We are almost at the point of throwing our floor screed and RMan is very interested and keen on putting down piping in order to create under floor heating - this will be achieved via an add-on to the Dover stove - which is basically a cast iron tank attached next to the wood burning section of the stove, that stores and heats water whilst the stove is lit - which we can envision will be 24 hours a day in winter - we woke to 0oC in the caravan last winter! The chimney we will run internally up to just below roof level in order to capture that heat too - makes no sense to let that all important heat escape outside when we can use it, thank you very much. I will also be buying a Butlers / Belfast sink - a large deep rectangular ceramic kitchen sink - which costs the same as buying new - just perfect for a farmhouse, or should I say a farm cottage!

A couple of years ago I came across an article on how to make a simple solar oven - in which I converted an old Coleman's Cooler box into a solar oven.

Homemade solar oven
It worked beautifully and, amongst the meals I have prepared in it, the whole chickens and legs of lamb which it cooked were the tenderest and tastiest we have ever eaten.I subsequently purchase a solar oven from a non-profit organisation in Johannesburg, the Sunstove Organisation (contact Margaret on sunstove@iafrica.com for availability and price) and have continued experimenting successfully with various dishes. I can't wait to try baking bread in it this coming summer. It even provides hot water for washing up in the evening! So the solar cooker, together with the gas stove from the caravan, which we will be installing in the kitchen, and the all important evening braai's, provide all our summer cooking facilities.

Actually, not only summer braai's - we're crazy enough to braai all through winter too - there's something very special about a mid-winter braai, especially all snug in our down jackets and with thick beanies on our heads. And then going into the caravan and finding that it's 5oC inside and realizing that it must be 1-2oC outside - gives the luxury of the caravan a whole new meaning and imbues one with an even greater feeling of appreciation for the caravan! "Bring the bush to your backyard" featured in HOME Magazine in June 2008 provided me with a design for a simple braai, except we adjusted it to the materials available on our plot (this is only do-able in winter when the rain softens the clay under the hard earth. (A cold and very messy job, but it well worth it.)

The bush braai and shade cloth
pergola in the making
We have certainly used that braai - it has been our major source for cooking every night except on one occasion when I made pasta on the stove in the caravan. We have tried not to cook in the caravan - the thought of sleeping and breathing cooking fumes all night didn't appeal to us! So, if it's not raining, we braai - and the food has never tasted so good!)


Our completed version of the bush braai
When we built the braai, instead of bricks and cement we used clay and rocks - we omitted to add lime so the whole things is disintegrating, but that's OK because we need to move it closer to the house that is being built anyway. This time we will add lime!
 
Lighting

Our interior lighting requirements will be provided by LED lights which will run on our deep cycle battery. RMan is going to wire the house with 2.5mm electrical cable which allows, via a change-over switch on the main board, for the use of 12 or 220volt - a two in one solution which will allow for the use of a refrigerator in future. Outside lighting will be provided by solar powered garden lights as pathway illumination which will double up as battery chargers for the batteries for our digital camera, torches, toothbrush, etc. I have found, and am very excited about, the release of Energizers Solar AA and AAA battery charger later this year ( http://www.goodcleantech.com/2008/12/exclusive_first_photos_of_ener.php) for what is the point of rechargeable batteries if one has to recharge them via conventional means.

We also have dynamo torches with 4 LED lights (purchased for R14.95 from Shoprite in May 2009) and they are plenty bright enough to see ones way to the Porta Potti ® in the dark and 8 - 9 "pumps" of the handle create more than 3 hours of constant light - which is even bright enough to read by in bed :). I am considering getting solar powered security lights from the Green Shop, but need to do a bit more research on the lumen output. The other option is to get a 12volt security light from http://www.earthpower.co.za/. They both cost about the same.

Power

We have noticed that there is always a breeze of some sort on the plot and my most exciting future purchase - one which I dream about (and plan and try to afford) day and night - consists of a 1Kw Wind turbine with an inverter and, to start, 4 X deep cycle batteries = approx. R37000.00. I think wind turbines are one of the most exciting inventions on this planet! Initially I thought one could only get Kestrel wind turbines in this country, but then I was told about Future Green and Earth Power . Earth Power is a very exciting local company based in Westlake, Cape Town and I have found that their turbines are the most reasonable. We went to see a 1Kw Earth Power wind turbine which was installed on a plot in Tesselaarsdal, near Caledon. The couple who use it are quite content and say that it works well. However, that purchase will only be next year. Once that purchase happens, though, our power needs will be complete. We have estimated that 1Kw will be sufficient as the only appliance we need to run is the fridge - irons - don't do ironing anyway - blenders - not that often - tumble dryers - what a waste of energy - and anyway, we have the constant breeze - washing machine - once a week, and if the power in the batteries is low then I will begrudgingly, until we have the wind turbine, use the 6Kva generator we bought on sale at Builders Warehouse last year - and, happily, whilst the washing machine is on we can also simultaneously charge the deep cycle batteries. Lighting, as mentioned before, will be via LED lights - and they draw very little power and I have a lot of ideas for hanging them - watch this site - pictures will be posted as soon as the lights are installed.

Escom is available - they are currently installing power to the area. However, they wanted a hefty deposit and a monthly minimum service charge of R268.00, both of which together would've resulted in a cost of +/- R45 000 (excluding any usage) over the 5 year contract (which we would have to sign) period - whether we utilized power every month or not. Ludicrous! And that cost was at current electricity prices - prior to the 31.4% increase they just obtained in June 2009!)

In order to provide RMan with the means to listen to those all important rugby / cricket matches and some music, for his birthday this year I purchased 12volt car radio / CD player, which will run off our deep cycle battery. Unfortunately, at the moment, the battery has to be taken home with us and charged via our house electricity - again the wind turbine will sort that out. Can't wait!!

Recycling


A precious find from my hoarding tendencies is an old gate handle which we are going to recycle and which is going to become the new door handle on our kitchen door – it’s a little rusty but that will clean off beautifully with some sandpaper – and it is perfect!

Also, the balance of the wooden beams used for the landing support (each approximately 1.5mtrs in length) will be used as shelving on the kitchen walls.


Refrigeration

For temporary refrigeration there are two options open to us: firstly there is the charcoal fridge. "The safe" as it was called in the olden days. This is a wire box surrounded by charcoal through which you drip water and the evaporation process cools the fridge or "safe". The second option is the Nigerian fridge - that is the one we are going for - basically it is a structure of two clay planters, one smaller than the other, with the smaller pot fitting inside the larger one. The space between them is filled with river sand which is kept wet - connecting an outlet to the timed irrigation will relieve me of that responsibility.

Nigerian Fridge
They are both covered with a wet cloth, which, together with the evapouration of the water in the towel, and damp internal sand / walls, causes the chilling. Placing the larger pot on a couple of bricks enables the draught to circulate completely round the larger damp plot. I will also place a drip tray underneath - that way if there is any excess water it will not drip away into the soil, but rather it will collect at the base of the pot and continue it's good work! That "fridge" is where I will be keeping our salads and bread. I can monitor the inside temperature via the pool thermometer(see pic alongside). The pro's and con's: on the plus, it keeps out insects and snails, and the only hassle with this 'fridge' is that one has to take most of the contents out - for invariably what I need is at the bottom!

For the meat, milk (small bottles of UHT) and eggs - we tend, at the moment to go to the plot for no longer than a week at a time, and if I take a couple of 5lt bottles filled with frozen water, and all the meat is frozen, the cooler box stays cold long enough to ensure that the food doesn't spoil and the frozen water / goods even chill the husbands beers to perfection! Ultimately we will be re-using the fridge from the caravan once we have the wind turbine.

Self Sufficiency

Because of the hard, crusted ground (in summer), the crops that are grown in the area tend to be surface harvesting crops (wheat, canola, etc.) so for our requirements we will be having a raised veggie patch filled with the plentiful supply of local cow "paddies" for compost and surrounded by one of our customers discarded fences to keep out rabbits, sheep, etc. The fence will also be covered in either 10% shade cloth or thin wattle branches - to mute down the high summer heat and wind, thus protecting the vegetables and, hopefully, reducing evaporation and watering, but not restricting sunlight too much. I will thus be able to grow potatoes, onions, carrots and turnips in the raised veggie beds, as well as all my normal salad goods and herbs. They recommend a bed 900 - 1000mm wide - that will allow me to harvest crops without actually having to get into the bed and possibly damage other adjacent crops. So we are planning on a bed that is a minimum of 600mm deep and 5mtrs long X 1mtr wide. It will be easy to add on another bed if I fill the first one too quickly - there is plenty of room! I am also thinking of having a raised bed in front of the cottage - for herbs and garden plants. Weeds on the plot are totally different to weeds at our house in Cape Town and one has to be very aware of snakes when one begins a weeding session. Add to that the rock hard soil and weeding becomes quite a fraught time. We are only going to be growing plants indigenous to the area though.

Raised veggie bed photo source: 
http://haphazardgardener.blogspot.com/2009/03/raised-veggie-bed.html
Thankfully the plots are all provided with municipal water. The municipality has asked that everyone has at least 3 days water stored, so that entailed the purchase of a 5000lt water tank - not the worst idea as we would hate to be without water for whatever reason in mid-summer! We are also planning on diverting our rain water from the gutters to storage tanks with a view to possbily flushing our loo with that water, but definitely using it for irrigation purposes. We also have a small stream running near the plot. Because of the fact that, at the present time, we only get to the plot on average, once a month, we have installed a 4 station irrigation system with timer, purchased from Turf-AG which runs on a single 9volt battery and which enables us to water +/- 60 plants for 1/2 hour each day via a small pin prick in the main irrigation pipe, and, in total, consumes approx 4lts per plant / day which in total equals 10 - 15 Kl / month (including household use) depending on season - obviously in winter that consumption drops dramatically. We were advised to not install the more flexible, smaller, thinner irrigation pipe as the local mongooses tend to chew through them when water is scarce. So far we have employed this method of watering for the past 10 months, and all our plants are thriving. But we are thinking of installing a solar powered pump when we can afford it, available from Allpower, in order to pump up water from one of the pools in the nearby stream - because it is brak (salt) water we are going to plant brak water friendly plants i.e. olives, lemons, etc. Due to the lie of the land whatever excess water drains away from our plot it will naturally drain back down to the stream. Hopefully a cycle which benefits all!

Thankfully there is a local recycling outlet - we have been recycling our PET bottles, tins, paper and Styrofoam for ages, and I'm very thrilled that we can continue to do so. All it takes is four dustbins, with lockable lids to prevent unwanted foraging by whichever animal fancies getting inside, and then we drop off the items whenever we are going passed the dump. We absolutely adore trees - to the point that we only purchase one newspaper a week, sometimes none - our garden in Cape Town is one of the most treed in the area, and our plans for the plot are that we want to fill the perimeter of the land with olive trees, as well as lemons, amongst others. Indigenous trees of the area are yellowwoods (which we love and have planted three already) and those of the acacia family. Thus far we have approximately 45 trees planted. We have lined the one side of our driveway (it is 160mtrs long!) with aloes and when they are in flower it is an amazing sight. Ronnie has prepared an area for a small vineyard (5 - 8 vines) so perhaps we may try our hands at making some wine. If that doesn't work, well we love grapes anyway.

Foundations...

We initially wanted to build as far back and as high up on the slight slope of the plot as we could in order to maximise the view. Strangely enough, on agricultural properties, there is a minimum of a 30 mtr building line - quite odd considering that in towns one has a 1 mtr, and sometimes none at all, building restriction with your neighbours property. Also, even on a 2Ha property, they only allow two dwellings.

The whole experience has been incredible fun, extremely thought provoking and uplifting. I It's had its ups and downs too - we are currently employing our third builder - even inland it would appear there are sharks!

Correct foundations - 2nd
time around (the 1st incorrect
attempt is visible to the right)




The first builder threw foundations which weren't square and had to be re-done, and the second builder has decided that his quote is now incorrect. There is such an element of trust involved when one employs a builder and there is no project manager, especially when it is not possible to be there to monitor the progress. Builders! We all know - it's never easy building - and from 270kms away it is even harder, and draining on the cell phone account! Frustration, for the roof needs to go on, and the walls need to be plastered once the electrical conduit is in situ, and finally the floor needs to be screeded! So close, and yet still too far!Unfortunately, that trust has been abused to varying degrees - the question now is whether the two of us have the skills to complete the work ourselves?

Finally - foundation walls! (Jan 2009)
State of the build - mid-July 2009 - we've been
building since December 2008. The area to the
left is the large room and the lower wall
on the right is the all important bathroom.
It seems so close - and yet, as we all know, it is still so far. Can't wait to move into our one-and-a-half-roomed house. As for the caravan - well, that will be kept as spare accommodation for any guests who want to experience a simpler way - a more eco-friendly way of life. For the best part of any gift or privilege is to be able to share it.

2 comments:

  1. Hi there! I live in a suburban house, and we are trying to get off grid. luckily we have a rather large stand and started with planting our own micro fruit orchard. I LOVE what you're doing and have done. You are an inspiration to me and I trust your work will prosper into other communities as well. thanks for being there today when I needed some inspiration. please don't stop giving up hope. regards. magda.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Magda - Welcome - and thank you for taking them time to leave a comment. I see that you don't live that far from us :)

      Well done on getting your micro orchard planted - that is a good base from which to personally grow.

      Thank you for all your kind comments - I was at a low blogging point today myself and your very generous comments uplifted me as well :)

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