Tiny Homes Simple Shelter by Lloyd Kahn

Full admission, I’m a bit of a Lloyd Kahn fanboy. So when he announced a new book Tiny Homes: Simple Shelter I knew I had to have a copy.

Kahn has profiled the alternative building scene since the 1960s and edited the building section of the Whole Earth Catalog. I often thumb through a tattered copy of his seminal book Shelter that I picked up at a garage sale. Want to live in a driftwood shack? Shelter will show you how.

I heard Kahn speak at Maker Faire and show photos from the new book Tiny Homes. He began his talk by describing the first two best selling books that he wrote, both about geodesic domes. To Kahn’s credit he pulled these books from print when he realized the folly of dome building: the waste of materials (plywood comes in 4 x 8 sheets), the fact that they are hard to add on to and their propensity to leak. As he put it, “I didn’t want any more domes on my karma.”Of Dwell Magazine, he says that he doesn’t believe that anyone actually lives in the fastidiously clean and sterile rooms shown in the lavish photos spreads.

In contrast to Dwell, the buildings shown in Tiny Homes look well lived in. And very diverse: there’s everything in this book from conventional frame structures, to intricate masonry, to cob, to yurts and sailboats. Plenty of inspiration and ideas here for the aspiring owner/builder. And Kahn has an eye for vernacular American architecture.

In a way my favorite building is Tiny Homes is the most modest–Tom’s cabin. It’s a a $4,000 Tuff Shed from Home Depot turned into a cozy caretaker’s cabin. Tom took the shed, which already has a built-in loft, converted that loft to a bedroom, insulated the walls, put in a small kitchen and covered the interior studs with 3/8″ particle board.  Ton’s cabin isn’t much to look at from the outside, but on the inside it’s a real home. And that’s the point. It may not actually be practical for many of us to live in really tiny houses (Kelly and I are happy with our current, and by the standards of this book, mansion-like 980 square feet). But size is not what matters. While limited to buildings of less than 500 square feet, Tiny Homes is really about the search for meaning and spirit in the places we call home. After years of bloated McMansions and the debt crisis that went with them, it’s no coincidence that this book has appeared at this time.

My Trip to Maker Faire


Getting ready for the earth oven workshop this weekend meant that I never got around to reporting on my trip to Maker Faire up in San Mateo on the 19th. I spoke in the low-tech “Homegrown” shed far away from the high powered tesla coil displays happening elsewhere. To add to the low tech/high tech irony, I was not able to use my PowerPoint and had to speak extemporaneously. This worked out for the better, as I was able to pull up a member of the audience to demonstrate her solar cooker–much more fun than showing pictures of solar cookers. And, after all, maybe it’s time we retire PowerPoint.

Some of the things I spotted at Maker Faire:

Long lines for the tiny house. I’ll review Lloyd Kahn’s awesome tiny house book later this week (he gave a talk just before me). Not sure what’s up with the white robe outfit in the foreground.

Also spotted: bamboo bikes!

Cornelia Hoskin, who curated the Homegrown Village part of Maker Faire, her husband and new bambino. Cornelia also runs homegrown.org.

Yes, there were paintings done by snails.

Solar popped popcorn.
A rep from Sweet Maria’s Coffee gave a great demo on all the ways you can roast your own coffee.

Expensive AK-47 toting garden gnomes.

And solar powered bikes. Not sure how this would work out on an LA street.

Someone in the Homegrown area was processing greywater in bulk containers planted with bamboo.

Overall I had a great time. It was a wee bit heavy on the robots and 3d printer gadgets but that’s to be expected. At least there were a few chickens present to balance out the proceedings. However, next year I’m coming with an overhead projector:

Our New Earth Oven and How We Built It

Untitled
The almost completed horno–waiting for its final plaster coat in a few weeks.

Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher taught an amazing earth oven workshop at our house this weekend. Keep your eye out for classes these guys offer if you are interested in earth ovens, adobe houses or earth plasters and finishes. Contact information is below. Here I thought I’d briefly describe the process with a few pictures.

One of the nice things about this oven is that it was almost free. The only two expenses were for sand and some bags of gravel. The clay we mined from the backyard and almost everything else was scavenged. Total cost was less than $200 and most of that was the delivery charge on the sand. If I’d had a pickup truck I could have loaded the sand myself for much less.

In our backyard the ground beneath the top level of organic matter is almost pure clay. I found that a 50/50 sand/mined clay mix with just a bit of chopped straw thrown in for stability seemed to be about right for making adobe bricks. There’s no recipe for building with earth. You have to get to know the clay content of the soil you’re working with and test how much sand to add to it to make a solid brick. Ben and I made quite a few test bricks to come to this formula. Then I made 100 adobe bricks using just a simple wooden frame as a mold.

Untitled
A simple gravel pad.

To build the horno we started with a gravel foundation held within a border of treated wood. The base of the oven was made from adobe bricks that I made over the past few months and cured in the sun. I’m a big believer in adobe. Making so many bricks familiarized me with the soil I was working with and put me in touch with the original building material of the American Southwest.Though we only used half of those bricks, I’m happy to have some left over for other projects in the backyard I’d like to try. Also, after all of our lead trauma, its great to put the soil from our yard to good use. This was a healing project in some ways.

Untitled
Base nearing completion.

Untitled
Bottles acting as an insulation layer. We should have had Sierra Nevada sponsor this oven!

Once the base was built we filled it with leftover gravel and adobe bricks. The top layer of the base is a mix of clay, straw and beer bottles. This acts as an insulation layer to keep the base from soaking up the heat of the oven.

Untitled
Laying the oven floor.

The floor of the oven is made of standard red bricks set in a thin layer of sand. Fire brick is recommended for this application, but in Kurt’s experience it’s not really necessary. Plus fire bricks are expensive and we had a lot of red bricks laying around that we wanted to use. Again, we wanted to build this oven without having to buy a lot of materials.

Next we sculpted the shape of the oven in wet sand. This form will allow us to shape the clay dome and will be scooped out later.

Untitled
Kurt points at the completed sand form.
Untitled
Packing on the thermal layer.

With the base completed, on day two, we started to work on the dome. We packed a four inch thermal layer of more clay, sand and straw over the sand. Next came a insulation layer with yet more clay, sand and a lot more straw. The dome layers are cob–stiff and very difficult to mix. I think if I were building a house I’d use adobe bricks which can be made with a concrete mixer. At the end of the day we scored the dome to fit the door.

Untitled
Carefully cutting open the door. This is the completed thermal layer. The scratches in the clay will help the next layer adhere.
Untitled
Starting the insulation layer over the thermal layer.

Untitled
Stinky fermented cactus juice is added to give strength to the final plaster coat.

On the third day Kurt cut open the door hole and carefully removed some of the sand from the dome. In a dry climate all the sand might have come out on that day, but we decided that the dome was still soft and decided to leave most of the sand in for another week, just to be extra safe.

Next we mixed a coat of earth plaster–again, basically the same ratio of sand, clay and straw we used for the adobe bricks–with the addition of two stabilizers to help repel water: fermented prickly pear juice and wheat paste. The prickly pear juice we made by chopping up some cactus pads from our front yard, adding water and letting it sit in a five gallon bucket. The finished material is lurid green, slimy, and stinks to high heaven. The wheat paste is just flour and water.

We’re going to let the oven dry for a few weeks before applying the final earth plaster layer. That one will be as smooth as we can make it. And we’ll need to sand the dome opening to fit the door. Once that is done, we wait some more. The oven can’t be used until it is completely dry, which should take about a month.

Untitled
Applying the first of three earth plaster coats.

I find earth building, while labor intensive, very satisfying and meditative. It’s also something that is much better to do in a group. So thanks again to all who helped helped: Kurt, Ben, Brian, Jenny, Connie, Laurie and Leslie. We’ll post some more pictures when the oven gets its final coat of plaster.

For more resources and classes on how to build with earth see:

Three Days of Earth Oven Building Compressed Into a Short Video

We just finished a three day earth oven workshop taught by Kurt Gardella and Ben Loescher. Many thanks to all who participated: Laurie, Brian, Leslie, Jenny and Connie.We’ve got to let the oven dry for a few weeks before we put on the final coat. But it’s basically finished. The base is made with traditional adobe bricks and the dome is cob.

Don’t worry, we’ll explain the process in future blog posts. Right now we’re too exhausted to write about it. In the meantime, please enjoy our highly compressed video version of the past three days.

Saturday Linkages: Improvised Motocycles, Permaculture, Bear Attacks Man In Outhouse, Unicorn Poop Cookies–Yes, It’s a Strange World We Live In

Stuck in an African desert, a man improvises a motorcycle out of his Citroen with no tools. You can’t get more bad-ass than that!

Homemade motorcycle improvised out of a Citroen 2CV in the middle of the desert: http://boingboing.net/2012/05/23/homemade-motorcycled-improvise.html

Geoff Lawton on the Future of Permaculture | The Survival Podcast http://bit.ly/JRtgEb

Outhouse bear attack survivor was grabbed from ‘throne’ http://soc.li/u7Qdapb

3D printed Yogurt Cup SIPs from Carlyn up on Thingiverse – thanks to @rootsimple for the inspiration! http://bit.ly/JzNbXX

HOWTO make unicorn poop cookies: http://boingboing.net/2012/05/23/howto-make-unicorn-poop-cookie.html

West Coast Women’s Permaculture Gathering: http://westcoastwomenspc.weebly.com

Functional Coat Hooks Made of Unlikely Upcycled Material | Designs & Ideas on Dornob http://dornob.com/functional-coat-hooks-made-of-unlikely-upcycled-material/

Art from plastic waste in Kenya: http://www.afrigadget.com/2012/05/20/the-women-of-minyore/

No need to rewash pre-washed leafy greens barfblog: http://bit.ly/JnUIbv

Limiting barf in bike races | barfblog: http://bit.ly/JuTUCP

Imidacloprid bee study appears flawed: http://scientificbeekeeping.com

Follow the Root Simple twitter feed for more linkages.

Three Front Yard Vegetable Gardens

I spotted some nice front yard gardens while I was out for a walk the other day. Check out these finds:

Above, these gardeners have used some scrap lumber as retaining walls to allow them some extra soil depth for planting. In this small front yard bed they’re growing beautiful kohlrabi (my new favorite vegetable), some climbing beans and a few different kinds of squash. Keeping a veggie garden doesn’t have to be either complicated or expensive. Neighborhood gardens like this are really what inspired us when we started out. They taught us to plant boldly, to plant casually, and to plant anywhere we wanted.

This yard above delighted me. It seems they’ve given up on their lawn and instead have planted an army of caged veggie seedlings in orderly rows across their front yard. Not pictured is a little strip of  established food garden at the front of the yard. It looks like they wanted more room and said, “To heck with the lawn!” I’m going to keep checking progress on this one.

In this front yard, the lawn has been replaced with drought tolerant perennial shrubs and grasses arranged around gravel paths. It’s very pretty. I like that the landscaper included some artichoke plants in the mix, proving that gardens can be edible and stylish. Many people don’t know that artichokes open into huge, striking purple flowers if you don’t harvest them for food–so it’s win/win either way.  And bees adore artichoke flowers. They roll around in the thick pollen like gangsters in cash.

Indigo 101

Graham stirs the vat with his “witchy stick” –which is tinted many beautiful shades of blue.

One of the primary lessons of gleaned from my Shibori Challenge is that cotton is difficult to dye with natural dyes, whereas wool and silk take these colors beautifully. Know your materials!

Building on that, I’ve also figured out that the reason indigo dye is the favored dye for shibori techniques is because indigo gets along very well with cotton (and other plant fibers) and the dyeing characteristics of indigo are ideal for shibori. In fact, the idiosyncrasies of indigo probably led to the development of shibori, way back in the mists of time. So, if I want to make shibori patterned cotton cocktail napkins, as was my challenge to myself, I may as well fall in with thousands of years of tradition and dye with indigo.

Book reading and Internet surfing are all well and good for gathering knowledge, but to learn an unfamiliar process, nothing works better than to find someone who knows what they’re doing and go watch them. That way, you learn via a pleasant form of osmosis, rather than by frowning at at a glowing screen.

Our friend Graham Keegan dyes with indigo and sells his beautiful canvas and leather creations in his own Etsy shop. He kindly invited me to come to his studio and watch him dye some test swatches yesterday.

Continue reading…

World’s Largest Chard Grows in SIP

The story of SuperChard:

Its origin is unknown. It might come from Bountiful Garden seed, or perhaps Franchi.

It volunteered in a corner of one of our backyard beds, in a bed we were resting. We didn’t water it. It grew all summer long anyway, despite having no rain at all.  In fact, it grew huge and lush. We never harvested it, though, because it was growing in our lead contaminated soil. So we continued to ignore it and it continued to thrive.

It sucked up the winter rains and grew even bigger. Then, early this spring, as part of our whole “dealing with the lead” problem we tore out the two raised beds in Lead Central in order to dig out the clay beneath them to make adobe bricks. By this time SuperChard was so magnificent I couldn’t kill him (around this time I began to anthropomorphize the chard), so I trimmed off his outer leaves (some of which were as long as my arm) and transplanted him into a self-watering container (SIP).

I knew that transplanting such a big, established plant would be difficult, but by this time I really wanted to harvest this plant’s seed. So I told him that I wanted to preserve his genetic legacy–what plant doesn’t want that?–and praised his beauty, and babied him through the transition.

SuperChard adapted beautifully to life in a container and quickly grew back to full size. We took him  with us to our various gigs, both to show people what a SIP was and to blow their minds with the beauty of chard. I wish I had a pic of SuperChard in full leaf. In the photo above all his energy has gone into the flower, so the leaves are a sad shadow of their former glory. Basically, SuperChard used to look like an exotic, pampered tropical plant. One that did not mind rattling around in our hatchback and getting dragged all over tarnation.

Chard reproduces in its second year, and SuperChard’s time has come. He began to bolt with our first heat wave and has sent up a huge flower spike. He drinks like crazy to support the SuperSpike–so we  fill the SIP reservoir daily.

I’ll be sad to say goodbye to SuperChard, but I will be collecting his seed. And I do believe we will have to keep our promise to him and spread his genetic diversity far and wide by sending his seed across the country to be stewarded by our readers.

Watch out for a seed giveaway later this summer.

Reminder: Earthen Oven Workshop This Friday-Sunday at the Root Simple Compound

There’s still a few spots left for the oven workshop with adobe master Kurt Gardella. Here’s the details and registration information:

Earthen ovens are inexpensive to build, fun to use, and provide baking environment impossible to recreate in the kitchen.  This May, Kurt Gardella returns to California for three days to teach you how to make your own earthen oven.  Kurt has built dozens of these ovens in New Mexico, and has great expertise in both adobe construction and earthen plasters and finishes. Attendees will leave the class with the knowledge necessary to built an oven of their own, with materials that you may already have in your yard.
The class is suitable for bakers, building professionals and do-it-your-selfers, and is a great introduction to adobe construction and earthen plasters covered in more depth in adobeisnotsoftware’s other classes.
Topics Include:
  • Local considerations and the siting your earthen oven
  • Soil and material selection, sourcing and testing
  • Foundations and oven base design and materials
  • Sizing
  • Sand Form and Oven Domes
  • Natural oven plasters and finishes
  • Firing and baking in your oven.
Instruction Type:
This is a hands-on class. Attendees will have the opportunity to get dirty and use tools and equipment typical of adobe construction and earthen finishing. Due to the course format, enrollment will be limited to 10 individuals.  In the unlikely event of inclement weather, instruction will occur indoors.
Instructors:
Kurt Gardella teaches adobe construction at Northern New Mexico College, is Director of Education for Adobe in Action, and is certified as an earth-building specialist by the German Dachverband Lehm.
Ben Loescher is a licensed architect, founder of adobeisnotsoftware and principal of golem|la, an architecture firm specializing in adobe construction.
Location:
The class will be conducted in the Silver Lake area of Los Angeles, and hosted by Root Simple.  Coffee and nibbles will be provided at the beginning of the day; lunch is included.
Registration:
Click here to register.  Early bird tuition is $190/person for registrations before April 20th, standard price registrations will be $220 after that date.
Questions?: