Outdoor Sink Makes Water Recycling Simple

This is my new outdoor sink. I found the cast iron sink on the side of the road in Pomona and gleefully dragged the heavy beast several hundred yards to my car. I had a frame built for it out of scrap wood lying around the yard, the faucet and pipes came from another discarded sink, and we hooked it up to the hose outlet. It drains into a simple 5 gallon bucket which I can then pour out into the nearby landscape. It is super simple grey water. Now instead of going inside to wash my hands or rinse produce from the garden, I can use the outdoor sink and easily recycle my water. Plus, there is less dirt and compost in my kitchen sink. This is the kind of so-simple-its-brilliant stuff I just love. While I would like my entire house to have a greywater system, that isn’t really feasible at this time. The house is old and the pipes are very difficult, perhaps impossible, to access. So we are starting with the sink and soon we are doing a simple greywater system from the washing machine as part of our Summer Workshop Series. Every drop counts so we have to start somewhere.

Humanure Dry Toilet Made From a Milk Crate


Modern toilets take two valuable resources, water and nitrogen rich human waste, and combine the two to create a problem: sewage. In a dry or “humanure” toilet, you cover your deposits with a layer of non-toxic sawdust. Once the toilet is full you dump the contents into your outdoor humanure pile and compost the waste at high temperatures for at least a year. You can then use that compost as fertilizer for plants. The ubiquitous five gallon bucket is the most commonly used humanure receptacle. Most humanure toilet designs I’ve seen such as the ones on Joseph Jenkin’s website make use of wood which I’m not crazy about in the wet environment of a bathroom. Even with a coat of paint wood gets grungy. Alternatively, you can buy plastic camping toilet seats that will clamp on to a five gallon bucket but they have, in my opinion, an unacceptable wobble when you sit on them. For these reasons I designed a sturdy dry toilet making use of a scavenged milk crate. Even if the idea of humanure grosses you out (and it’s definitely the most controversial subject in our book), our milk crate toilet would be great for camping, emergencies or your remote cabin.

Putting this toilet together takes just a few minutes. First, find a milk or beer crate and a five gallon bucket. Make sure that the crate you use is large enough to accommodate the bucket. And note, I know of someone arrested for scavenging beer crates behind a strip club, of all places, so be discreet or ask for permission. Incidentally, when the police finished booking the beer crate scavenger the officer placed the paperwork in . . . a scavenged beer crate doubling as an in box!

Attaching the Toilet Seat to the Crate

Next, find a toilet seat. Forage one or pick up a cheap seat at your local hardware store. In an emergency situation, you could also use the one on your regular toilet and simply bolt it back on when the zombie threat has passed and the sewage pipes are flowing again. To attach the seat to the milk crate simply position the plastic bolts and nuts that come with the lid in the center and on the short end of the bottom of the crate. Don’t over tighten.

Cutting Out a Hole in the Crate

Place the bucket so that it will be appropriately positioned under the seat. Mark the outline of the bucket on the crate with a knife and cut out a circle with a jigsaw or keyhole saw so that the bucket will fit through the former bottom of the crate.

Attaching Legs to the Crate with Cable Ties

Cut four pieces of scrap wood (we found some old table legs for a more finished look), and attach them to each corner of the crate so that the bucket projects about a 1/2-inch above the level of the crate. The legs will be approximately 13 1/2-inches. Make sure that the toilet seat will fit snugly against the top of the bucket. We attached the legs with cable ties, but you could also use screws or bolts.

Moving the Spacer

The last step is to move the spacer on the bottom of the lid, so that it does not hit the top of the bucket. Pop it out with a knife or chisel, drill another hole, and reposition.

Your humanure toilet is now done and ready for use. Simply lift the crate off the bucket when it comes time to empty the contents. Follow the detailed instructions on Joseph Jenkin’s website to learn how to properly compost human waste.


This toilet is simple to make, easy to clean, and is made of readily available materials. I think this particular design will be useful in emergencies and, when combined with Jenkin’s excellent humanure methods, would prevent the dangerous raw sewage nightmares of the sort we saw in the aftermath of hurricane Katrina. There is a creative commons licence on all the text and photos on this website so feel free to translate and disseminate this post widely. We’re “open source” here at Homegrown Evolution. If you make an improvement in the design please let us know.

Swedish Shack Attack

Thomas Jefferson, Henry David Thoreau, the Unabomber, the bloggers over at Ramshackle Solid and Homegrown Evolution all have one thing in common. We’re all proud owners of shacks. We’ve posted before about the wonderful Tiny House Company and the virtues of actually living in your shack. Today we share a photo of a lovely Swedish shack we spotted in the arctic town of Kiruna. A family of five used to live in it in the early 20th century and it can’t be much more than a hundred square feet. No doubt, “shacking up” meant fewer trips to the woodpile during those cold winters (“winter” being nine months out of the year in this place). Its current location is in the parking lot of an old folks home. Looks like it’s now used for storage.

A special thanks to the folks at Dinosaurs and Robots for the term “shackitecture” and their many shacktacular posts.

Make a Garden Work Table from a Pallet

Pallets are a ubiquitous building material, your free lumber yard in tough times. Homegrown Evolution patched together the garden work table above for use with seedlings and storing pots and watering cans. Hopefully the picture is all you need to put one together yourself.

Some tips for working with pallets:

1. We prefer projects that don’t involve disassembling the pallet. The nails in pallets aren’t meant to be removed. Trying to take one apart with a crowbar will, in most cases, result in a lot of split, useless wood. A Sawzall reciprocating saw would work better if you must take one apart. For the table above we simply cut the pallet in half with a circular saw and handsaw.

2. Use screws not nails and predrill all holes. Pallet wood is very brittle and splits easily.

For some other design ideas check out:

This nice coffee table. Note that you simply use the whole pallet.

And this cool idea: an art/architecture collective Municipal Workshop has a nice way of avoiding the problem of pulling pallets nails. They cut pallets apart and use all the small pieces of wood like tiles. Here’s some more info on their “Autotron Unit”, pictured above.

A Tensegrity Table

Tensegrities are an attractive structure that can be built with rods and string or wire. The term is Buckminster Fuller’s combination of “tension” and “integrity”, though Fuller probably did not invent the concept. Having seen a coffee table that used a tensegrity as a base, I decided to see if I could make a similar table, only out of scavenged materials (scavenging seems appropriate in these crummy economic times!).

To make your own tensegrity table, molecular biomechanics professor Dr. William H. Guilford has some very nice step-by-step instructions here. My version is slightly different, but frankly Guilford’s design is probably more stable. I used some electrical conduit tubing left over from remodeling the house, some rope and a stop sign that I found laying in a driveway (note the “anarchy” graffiti – is that “stop anarchy” or a pro-anarchy statement?). Putting the tensegrity together was a bit more time consuming and frustrating than I expected, but once I got my head around the geometry of the concept and learned how to tug the rope, my slightly wonky scrap tensegrity miraculously seemed to assemble itself.

Tensegrities make a nice project for using up short scrap materials and can be stacked to form a tower. An example of a very tall tensegrity structure is sculptor Kenneth Snelson’s “Needle Tower”, installed at the Hirshhorn in Washington D.C. While more of a traditionalist when it comes to architectural forms, tensegrities make a nice addition to the Hoemgrown Evolution design vocabulary and I’m contemplating a tensegrity bean trellis for the backyard . . .

A Used Tire Hose Caddy

Here’s a cheap and easy way, using one of our favorite junk building materials–used tires, to keep that hose from trippin’ you up in the back yard.

Cut out the sidewall of one side of a tire using a sabre saw. You could use a sharp knife, but electricity makes this task a lot easier.

You’ll end up with the half cut out tire you see above. But your work is not yet complete.

Drill a bunch of drainage holes in the bottom of the tire, at least one hole every three inches. This is to keep water from pooling when it rains. Incidentally, used tires combined with water make the perfect breeding ground for mosquitoes (more on the tragic global consequences caused by mosquitoes incubating in tires here). With a bunch of drainage holes you won’t have a problem.

Got more used tires? See our used tire composter here.

FEMA Plans for a Bar That Folds Into a Fallout Shelter

Sometime back in the early 1990s I signed up for the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s free home study course in radiological emergency management. Along with the text book and quizzes came a couple of plans for home built fallout shelters. Most of these shelters were what you would expect, underground cinder block cubes accessed through a trap door on your back patio. But one plan really stood out for its cocktail era inventiveness, a basement “snack bar” that converts into the perfect place to ride out Armageddon.

“The principal feature of this shelter is a sturdy wood overhead canopy which serves as a part of a pre-built snack bar in a basement recreation room. Consisting of three units hinged to the back wall, the canopy can be lowered to rest on the snack bar in an emergency.

In basements where the level of the outside ground is above the top of the canopy, adequate shelter from fallout radiation is provided for 6 people when the canopy is filled with 8″ solid concrete block or brick.

The snack bar should not take more than 5 man-days to construct.”

Incoming missles? Just fold down the snack bar’s false roof, toss in those cinder blocks and hunker down for a few weeks of endless martinis and canned cocktail wieners with five of your best friends. To help you prepare for the possibility of Kim Jong Il interrupting your holiday party (assuming you’ve got “5 man-days”), I’ve posted a pdf of the plans for this bit of FEMA genius here.

Incidentally, despite the 1960s vibe of this publication, it’s dated 1980 and some of the other designs were kept up to date until at least 1990, proving that cold warriors kept up the fight late in the game. I wonder if FEMA had any nifty hurricane plans . . .

Make a Rain Barrel

There’s a lot of advice floating around the internets about how to make a rain barrel. Most barrel pundits suggest drilling a hole in the bottom of a barrel and installing a faucet, a kind of connection called a “bulkhead fitting”. Unfortunately such improvised fittings have a tendency to leak. My favorite way to make a rain barrel is to take a 55 gallon drum, use the preexisting fittings on the top and turn it upside down, a process explained nicely here (complete with a list of parts), by B. Chenkin who will also sell you a kit at Aquabarrel.com.

To get started, you get a ubiquitous 55 gallon drum with two threaded “bung” holes that look like this:

A good source for this kind of barrel is your local car wash. Just make sure that the barrel you scavenge didn’t have nasty chemicals in it. You punch out the center of one of the bungs, as shown, and insert a threaded PVC fitting. A few more PVC parts from the sprinkler section of your hardware store, a brass hose fitting with a valve, and you’ll have this:


Glue that up with some PVC cement, wrap the threads with teflon tape, and you’re almost ready to collect rainwater. But first, turn the barrel upside down, drill a hole for the down spout another hole to insert an overflow pipe made out of a threaded 3″ waste pipe fitting:

The last step is to prop the barrel up on some wood or concrete blocks to give some clearance for your hose connection and some extra elevation for a gravity assist to help push the water through a garden hose.

The overflow connection is another reason I like Chenkin’s design. It’s important to keep rainwater away from your foundation especially when, like us, you live on a hill. The picture at top shows our barrel installed with the overflow pipe connected to a pipe that runs down to the street. Los Angeles’ building code required us to run our rainwater out to the street, where it helps wash pollution into the LA River and the ocean (see creekfreak for more on LA’s pesky water issues). At least we’ll be channeling some of that water, via the barrel, to our new fruit trees. Those of you with flat yards could simply connect up an overflow pipe that would take the water at least ten feet from the foundation.

In Southern California, where rain never falls between May and October, a 55 gallon drum won’t meet much of our irrigation needs, though Chenkin’s design does allow you to chain multiple barrels together. What we really need is an enormous cistern, something with a capacity in the neighborhood of around 10,000 gallons. Ideally houses here, as in the ancient Roman world, would have been built with huge underground holding tanks. A small rain barrel like this makes more sense for those of you who live in places with rain throughout the year, where a small amount of collected rainwater could be used to bridge a gap in rainstorms. I put this rain barrel together as a test and because I was tired of looking a blue drum that sat in the backyard for a year giving our patio a methamphetamine lab vibe.

Again, for complete instructions and a list of parts visit Chenkin’s ehow page or, if you’re not adept at perusing the isles of the local hardware store, buy a kit from him through Aquabarrel.

[Editors note: due to spamming (are rain barrel enthusiasts really that excited about internet pharmaceuticals?) we've had to shut down comments for this post.]

Cooling with Beer . . . Cans

Root Simple dropped by Houston’s famous Beer Can House, created by John Milkovisch in the 1960s and 70s. We won’t plumb the messy depths of the meaning of “visionary art”, the academic art Mafia’s euphemism du jour for this stuff–we’ll leave that to our art bloggin’ amigo Doug Harvey.

So sidestepping the whole debate over the intentions of its creator, we’ll point out that all of Milkovisch’s house mods have both aesthetic and practical benefits. The beer can cladding that covers the entire exterior of the house means never having to paint the underlying wood. The concrete yard means never having to mow a lawn (we’d prefer vegetation but Milkovisch’s concrete work is, like the rest of the house, magical).

But on to our favorite detail. It’s damn hot in Houston most of the year, and to deal with the blazing sun on the south side of his humble bungalow, Milkovisch crafted this intricate, shimmering screen made of beer can tops and bottoms that hangs from the roof line like an aluminum grass skirt. Not only does it shade the windows and walls, producing a dramatic decrease in cooling bills, but it also functions as a pleasing wind chime.

We’ve been thinking of doing something similar on the hot south side of our house, except with deciduous vines. That way, we’ll let light in during the winter and have a living shade wall during the summer. Perhaps we’ll grow beans and become Los Angeles’ Bean House.

The Beer can house is located at 222 Malone Street in Houston, Texas and is lovingly cared for by the Orange Show Center for Visionary Art.