Solar Light Hack

We wanted a solar powered light over our new entrance arbor. The problem is that most of the lights available are just plain ugly. And the solar panels on the cheaper models are usually mounted on the light itself making it impossible to place them in a shady spot.

I came up with a simple solution. First, I bought an inexpensive solar light intended to be mounted on a fence. I took it apart and desoldered the LEDs off the circuit board. Next, I soldered four wires to the former connections to the two LEDs. Basically, I created a extension cord to the LEDs. I mounted the LEDs on a small scrap circuit board and soldered the ends of the wires to them.

What I ended up with is a battery and solar power unit connected by wire to two LEDs that I could place in a more attractive enclosure. We had a candle lamp that Mrs. Homegrown found on the street that worked perfectly, but we could have used just about any fixture. We could now place the solar panel in a sunny location on top of the entrance arbor and then hang the light underneath.

Next on my agenda is to create lights from scratch that flicker like candles.

Here’s a primer on working with LEDs. Note that LEDs have positive and negative legs, so if you hack a solar light, remember to connect up the LEDs respecting the polarity.

More Furniture in 24 Hours

With our stained and Doberman-thrashed thrift store furniture about to end up on the sidewalk, my thoughts have turned to what to replace it with on a limited budget. Naturally, I’m thrilled when the interweb answers my conundrum with yet another 1970s era plywood furniture building manual. This one comes courtesy of a design blog called Ouno, who put up a flickr set of a few pages and plans from a book called More Furniture in 24 Hours by Spiros Zakas and students at the Parsons School of Design.The space bench looks kinda not-so comfortable, but one shouldn’t be sitting around when there’s a chicken coop to clean or a possible trip to Studio 54.

Pallet Mania

A chicken coop built from pallets

I’m a sucker for anything built with pallets. Why? Quite simply, they are the most useful bit of detritus in a constellation of easily scavenged items that includes used tires, milk crates, futon frames, headboards and shopping carts. Reader Mike “Garden Daddy” Millson from Jackson, Tennessee, who blogs at www.gardendaddy.blogspot.com sent me an interesting link to a Canadian pallet enthusiast who has built some nice structures and saved himself a load of Canadian dollars. Check them out here:

http://summerville-novascotia.com/PalletShed/

The amateur architect critic in me will note that many of these structures look better before they were completed, but I’m in a much more forgiving climate that allows for open air experimentation. Note the wise practice of keeping pallets whole and using them like large bricks. Smart, because the things split up like crazy if you try to take them apart.

Now will someone please build a house with those headboards and futon frames?

When the Crate’s Better Than the Chair


Steve Badgett of the design/art/architecture collective Simparch tipped me off to Dutch furniture designer and architect Gerrit Rietveld’s set of chairs built out of crates, done back in the 1930s. As Rietveld put it,

“A piece of furniture made of high-grade wood and manufactured completely according to traditional production methods is transported in a crate to avoid damage…no one has ever ascertained that such a chest embodies an improvised, highly purposeful method of carpentry…there must therefore at long last be someone who chooses the crate rather than the piece of furniture.”

You can bet our next book will have some Rietveld inspired DIY designs. In the meantime, for the industrious makers out there, the chair above would be a cinch to back-engineer with pallet wood. Rietveld sold pre-made kits for the volk to assemble themselves. You can still buy a crate chair kit for $450 produced by Rietveld’s grandkids, but a few hours with a sawzall, drill and some screws and scrap will be De Stijl in no time.

A special thanks to daddytypes.com for some info on this–oddly, Greg at daddytpes seems to share my interest in hippie building manuals and furniture made from junk.

Out Of The In Box

While my architectural tastes run closer to Prince Charles than Buckminster Fuller (those damn domes leak!), I have a soft spot for DIY hippie design manuals. I recently stumbled upon Ken Isaacs’ 1974 book How to Build Your Own Living Structures, which contains plans for everything from a simple chair to a multi-level home, all in a distinct modular style. Best of all, it’s available as a pdf for free here along with a couple of other interesting books from the period.

Above is Isaac’s clever cube crapper. Not much headroom in the head, but what a nice view.

Isaac’s work has a playful plywood-meets-the-moon lander vibe. I think I would have loved this modular bunk bed as a kid.

Dwell Magazine did an interview with Isaacs recently:

After I complained about hippie aesthetics in a previous post, an astute reader countered that hippies are the only people who have done grassroots building in recent memory. Good point. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that, during the “great recession”, we’re revisiting books such as this one rather than heading to Ikea.

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.