Posts Tagged ‘Sustainable living’


I received a note from a reader a while ago asking whether we’d hooked up our solar system and was surprised to note that I never did actually write about that part of the project. I suppose if it hadn’t worked I’d have been on top of writing about that but as it turns out it’s been working quite well for us.

I should start by saying that we do not have the massive loads that we did at the older (traditional) house. And there are some things we do without, or will do without for now until the system can be expanded. The best advice that I can give anyone wishing to go off-grid is: figure out what you can do without, and then cut it back just a little bit more.

Some of the things that we don’t use (and couldn’t if we wanted to, without compromising our energy bank) are any electric devices that convert electricity to heat: coffee percolator, electric heater, curling irons (Shane has to go au naturel), hairdryers, microwave, toaster- those sorts of things. We could get away with using some of these devices during peak energy times but they’re such a draw and there are easy alternatives that we don’t bother. We also don’t run a lot that works on a 24 hour cycle, like clock radios. Our router and cell phone booster are the exceptions to the rule. This house is as solid as a fortress- without the booster we’d be SOL for a signal. (It’s worth noting that we did unplug both last night, and saved ~15 amp hours, so we may start doing that regularly.)

We don’t do without very much. We use stovetop espresso makers for our morning coffee, battery operated alarm clocks, LED lanterns provide nice room light, and florescent bulbs provide brighter light for reading or cooking. Shane works from home and requires two monitors, an iPad, and a standard computer, in addition to his personal computers (2) and I have 2 laptops that I use fairly regularly, for online courses, research and writing. We also have a nice speaker system that we’re running regularly. We have a woodstove for heat and a separate woodstove for cooking, and I have an induction cooktop that I’ve yet to use but plan to check for power usage some time in the next while, though I expect it’ll be primarily a summer item. We haven’t used a television in ages now but we watch movies, documentaries and shows on a big screen computer (below).


Now… there are some things that I don’t expect everyone would be happy to sacrifice. We don’t have running water yet, and I’m not sure what kind of system I’ll ultimately settle on (powered or gravity fed). I have as much rainwater as I could possibly want to last me into the spring and beyond but I do have to move it by pail, whether into the Berkey for filtering and drinking, or to heat for dishes. We also have to dispose of greywater manually, which makes it easy to direct but a pain in the ass sometimes nonetheless. There’s a photo of the laundry sink and pail underneath it at the end of this article. Old school, but it works for us right now.


We also don’t have a traditional toilet, but then we’d moved over to the Humanure system long before we moved into the new house. I’m used to it, and a strong proponent of the system having used one for four or so years now, but it will no doubt freak out houseguests. Which is actually not a huge downside to me because I’m not an entirely big houseguest-person.

Other little things that we do- I have a haybox (which is not so much a haybox but a what-can-I-throw-together-in-under-a-minute box) that I put my teapot inside in between uses and overnight. It’s a rough model but it does keep my tea warm for quite some time. And our fridge is a converted freezer, so we don’t waste cold air pouring out of the fridge every time that we open it. It’s a pretty easy conversion (especially if, like me, you just watch someone else do it- thanks babe) and is decent on energy. And we have a gazillion, or at least half a dozen, LED lanterns and flashlights that we use rather than turning on room lights every time we are passing through, or for use in rooms like the water room where we don’t need a lot of bright light.


We also have a couple of small independent solar powered items. We have a Soulra speaker system that is solar powered. We used to use it as a primary system (with Shane’s iPod) but have since switched to new speakers. Still, it’s good to have. Would I recommend running out and buying it? Meh. I wouldn’t run, but it’s decent- it takes forever to charge by sun but it can be charged electrically as well, and charges quickly that way. And we have a solar JOOS charger- the orange model- and use it to charge everything from iPods to cell phones. Unlike the Soulra it is a very good little machine and I’d highly recommend it.


I think it’s a good sign that I have to rack my brain for things I’ve had to do without, or adjust to. So far, so good. And we’ll see what we decide to do going forward to enhance the system. As I’ve mentioned repeatedly over the years, though I’m fine with a pretty serious off-grid transition I’ve never had any desire to live like a hobbit. Not that I have anything against hobbits, or people who choose to live like hobbits, it’s just not my bag. The longer we live here, the more my fear of that fate lessens. Still, I’m keeping an eye on my hobbit-lovin’ fella…




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I have a ridiculously short attention span. I’ve probably mentioned that before. I’ve done, what I consider, well with maintaining this blog over a three year period but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come back to with all of my other interests taking priority. Anyway, it occurred to me that I have not updated this page since our mass heater fiasco and the ensuing mad dash to replace it with a working stove.

After all of the effort required to take this project this far though, I do intend to finish it with our experiences actually living in the off-grid home we worked so hard to complete. So you can expect, sporadic (as usual) updates over the winter and into the spring and we’ll see how I feel about writing anything more (on this subject) at that point.

We’re doing fine- I’ll start with that as I keep getting asked. We’re not freezing. Quite the opposite- there are times when I have to strip down because it’s so hot in here, but I am absolutely not complaining. The humidity that some of my readers were wondering about is pretty much non-existent, with the wood stove drying things out enough that I have to keep a pot of water on the stove to add humidity.

Our solar power is serving us quite nicely, but we don’t have the loads that we did at the other house. More on this in another blog. Suffice to say that I don’t worry about having lights on, or running my computer (and Shane’s five computers), or the speakers, or the fridge and freezer. (Though I will say that Shane’s constant hovering is enough reminder to conserve energy, in addition to being annoying.) We do, however, have generators just in case, or to equalize the batteries during the long, dark winter.

I’m still adjusting to using a wood stove for all of my cooking. My breads turn out beautifully, as do pizzas, stews, stir fries. More precise cooking (like my delicate cookies, or yoghurt) will take a while to perfect. Sometimes I am beyond impressed with my newfound abilities and other times I can be found swearing a blue streak in front of the stove. It’s alright though- I have been swearing a blue streak over something since I was yea high; if it weren’t the stove it’d be something else. “Hot little pistol with a potty mouth,” is how Shane sometimes describes me, which simultaneously makes me laugh and creeps me out (who uses the expression “potty mouth”??).

Bearing in mind that this entire thing was one grand experiment for us, a couple of ‘city folk’ trying to see just how far we could take an off-grid lifestyle, we’re doing quite well overall. I haven’t taken photographs of the entire interior yet but I’ll leave you with a view of our living room. It’s not finished (since our rocket mass heater demolition) but it’s as finished as it will be until spring.


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It’s true. Or at least that’s how it feels. I work ungodly hours on a daily basis, ramping up- not down- on weekends, and yet it seems nothing ever reaches completion. The farmers around here laugh and quip, “welcome to the neighbourhood”. I don’t find that particularly funny so I can only assume they’re laughing at, and not with, me.

Well, today that came to an end. I actually completed a project, and what felt like a monumental one at that. I placed the last of the shingles on the roof today. I shingled the whole thing by myself, having had no experience going in. I have to admit a feeling of immense self-satisfaction.

The satisfaction is amplified by the amount of work it took to even get to shingling. We began with three round rooms of varying heights, sloped for drainage, and built two gable roofs that come together at the bedroom. No easy task. In fact, I can in all honesty say that blood, sweat and tears went into the building.

Some of you will note that this is no longer an entirely ‘green building’. True enough. While we continued to salvage and reuse what we could find at various transfer sites, those are indeed new shingles (made only in part of recycled materials) and we did of course need to purchase a certain amount of new wood. A lack of viable and timely options (and a mouse issue, which I may share at a later date but am entirely too happy to right now) necessitated deviating from the plan. I’m okay with it. There’s been next to zero waste which compares extremely well next to traditional construction and what few scraps I have left over are in the shop waiting to be used on other projects.

I have lots of other news that I’ll probably (maybe?) get to at a later date but I’m rewarding myself today with a partial day off. I think I’ll read a chapter or two of a book, or maybe just lie flat on my back on the living floor for an hour or so. Tomorrow we’ll be back to work again.





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I don’t know where exactly a person has to live to be able to comfortably deny climate change but it certainly isn’t here, in a drought zone so desperate that the government bought land back from the settlers so that they could leave in the late 1930s, where it’s been raining steady since April. This following an extremely wet and early winter, with record snowfalls. Following an even wetter spring of 2012. Anyway- suffice to say this ain’t no drought area anymore and we’ve been adapting to the wet weather the best we can.


A lot of work has been delayed because of the rainfall but one thing it’s good for is gardening. Granted, the leaves of some of my plants are pretty pale and could use some sun but they’re doing alright so far and with any luck we’ll get sun some time in the next couple of weeks. (Not this coming week- another 50+ mm of rain is predicted.) Once again, I’ve moved the gardens around. I think I must just love moving earth because I keep changing my mind and move my gardens every year. The upside to that is with all that beautifully conditioned soil the grass isn’t competing well, and dill and mint and milk thistle is popping up all over the “lawn”.


I did a few bucket gardens again this year, this time with kales and mustards and zucchini. The Giant Red Mustard is delicious and the Tasoi is quite nice too, and I’m thinking in another week or so I’ll be able to harvest some of the kale varieties. I have French Sorrel in the garden and am hooked on the light lemony taste, and some broccoli coming along quite nicely, with celery, rhubarb, strawberries, oregano, basil, tomatoes, beets, string beans, and peppers all off to a good start.


I have a few smaller gardens too, with everything from carrots to turnips, assorted peppers, and more kale, a bit of mustard, poppies, and a few things I’ll remember once they’ve matured and I distinguish the leaves. I’ve found keeping everything mixed together keeps the pests down and the bees happy, is the best use of space, and looks just beautiful when it’s all in bloom. A couple of weeks of sun and the space will be transformed. I put some flax straw down thinking to keep the moisture in, but that was a premature decision.


We also planted close to 900 trees, and when I say “we” I’m kind of going with the royal use of the word because Shane was entirely busy with work when they came in. That was a lot of work. With the soil being so bad out here, each hole has to be dug deep and amended with compost to prepare for the seedlings and it was the one week we didn’t have rain so I had to haul buckets of water along with me. This year we planted more lilac, Siberian larch, oak, green ash, hawthorn, Scots pine, spruce, and crabapples.


That’s a little over 2,000 trees planted since we moved here six years ago. I am so pleased with the growth of the previous years’ trees. I was told there were certain trees that wouldn’t take out here (like maple) but it just goes to show what a little extra care will get you- they’re doing beautifully. (That pretty 3′ tree in the middle photo was an itty bitty stick when I planted it 2 years ago.) It’ll be several years yet before the property really transforms because we’ve started almost all of our trees from tiny seedlings but I’m already excited just having them in the ground.



And some music for you, for no other reason than I’ve been listening to The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars album (again) and I can’t be the only one to end the day leaping around and playing air guitar (again). 🙂


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Still amazed by how much (and what) people throw away. Our most recent score was a couple of very large towers, some perfectly good garden trellis, a couple of rolls of tin, some cinder blocks, and some pallets from the dump. Driving past someone’s house we noticed some logs and Shane asked if they were throwing them away- sure enough. All of the wood in the picture has been salvaged from one place or another, including the wood roof which Shane is going to cover with our found tin.

pallets etctowerswood

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Once again, it’s been a while. I’ve been busy making considerable changes/additions to my life and have been somewhat on the fence about sharing those in a blog. Not because of any privacy issues but because this is, after all, primarily a blog about natural building and sustainable living, though my political views occasionally figure. Suffice to say I’ve been distracted by my other pursuits and made the decision to let Canadian Dirtbags slide for a while.


So what are we planning for the building season? Well, a greenhouse addition for starters. Someone had asked a little bit back whether we intended to go ahead with original plans to add a greenhouse and I believe I hemmed and hawed over the decision. I am getting somewhat tired of building all the time and wasn’t sure whether “more building” was something I was entirely into. I also have an extensive garden to tend that I haven’t had much time for, and plans to incorporate bees, and perhaps ducks and geese, maybe even a goat or two, plus- ooh la la- some time for me perhaps. So much to do, so little time! At least in Canada where all of the seasons but winter are short.


Having said that, we decided that food production was too critical a matter to slack off on. Especially since some of the changes I’ve made in the last while mean that we’re no longer purchasing any refined or processed foods and are instead going with Michael Pollan’s suggestion to, “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (If any of you have read “In Defense of Food”, let me know what it was like- I haven’t read it.) And since we are juicing as well as eating, we are going through a lot of produce.*


We have pretty much settled on, but not yet purchased, the Rion sunroom. It is not (in my books anyway) cheap but it will save considerable time scavenging and framing to just buy the thing new. We are leaning towards the 14’ model, since our summers are scorching and winters are lengthy. Anything larger than that could be an utter waste of space.


We will be building the back (north) side of the structure with earthbags for ease of construction and to provide some good solid mass. We haven’t finalized the plan yet but will be building with the intention of integrating an aquaponics/hydroponics system at a later date. Shane is quite interested in those things and I’m happy to leave him to it. I have seen the results of growing produce hydroponically, as opposed to traditionally, and they do seem to outperform.


If you have seen the pictures of the house, the completed structure will look just like that but with a greenhouse extending 14 feet on the east side of the building, connected by a central foyer. The entire back of the building(s) will be bermed and the long stretch along the south will have an extended garden. I’m excited to see the plan complete this year!


riongreenhousekit.com photo

riongreenhousekit.com photo

*I will write a post later about how to use veg pulp from juicing. We’ve found so many uses already!



On a totally unrelated note: I hope that many of our readers will be joining in the One Billion Rising movement today. When one in three women on the planet will be beaten and/or raped in her lifetime, this is a global issue- not a ‘female’ one. There have been actions all over the world today- including in Manila where 15 blocks were shut down for the mass of women and men dancing in solidarity! If you have not heard of this revolution, I encourage you to visit the One Billion Rising website.




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Well, having taken the time to post a rant I figure it is probably high time to update our friends about the actual building progress. Long story short- we’re not in and won’t be until spring. Short story long, see below…

As of mid-November we were still planning on moving into the new place this winter. And then I hit a wall. Upon heading outside in the mornings I started to feel like if I had to spend one more freaking day toiling I was going to break down in tears. I was kicking at the snow and muttering clever things like, “stupid house!” From April until November the schedule had been: get up, go to work (house and garden), come home, make supper, pass out, repeat. Which might not have been so bad except that I determined (in my infinite wisdom) to work seven days a week at the beginning of the year. Previous years I’d taken time to dirt bike, read, visit with friends- what a difference a little down time makes.
Anyway, add to that my inability to complete floors and ceilings on my own and the decision was made to postpone the move. Having had a month off physical labour, I’m ready for spring and excited to go again but hey… The decision was made.
I’ve had a lot of questions about what the temperature in the new house is like and don’t feel qualified to answer at this time. Because we haven’t moved in, we’re not heating it regularly. Shane fires up the stove and heater (sometimes) when he goes out but there have been weeks when we haven’t even gone inside. The wood stove in the kitchen does heat things up quite a bit (and quickly). The mass heater takes longer to heat things up but stays warm quite a bit longer. And the passive solar in the living room does add a good amount of heat to the room.
We will finish up berming in the spring. Our intention is to berm at least 3/4 of the way up the buildings on the north, east and west sides leaving only the south side exposed. We didn’t have time to berm very high this year before the snow fell but you can already tell the difference in temperature between what’s exposed and what’s ‘underground’. I suspect that because we didn’t insulate, the berming will be critical to the liveability of the house. We’re actually considering buying a small tractor (wheeeeee!!!) and, if we do, that should move things along nicely compared to our manual shovel-work.
Of my “lessons learned” from the year, I would say that the importance of berming in a northern climate ranks near the top. (And don’t work seven days a week for seven months straight.) The other two big ones: we should have gone with larger (or more) windows in the kitchen and maybe the bedroom (solar gain in the living room is drastically better and does add a good deal of ‘natural’ heat); and deciding to put a room on the north side at last minute, in spite of advice, was not the best idea. It’s very cold in there. We will insulate the room come spring (from the outside) in addition to berming and that should save it.  I also think that building lower would not only have saved time but also been more efficient insofar as heating. Granted, we hadn’t intended cathedral ceilings so much as belatedly changed our minds about a second story and decided to throw a roof up… In any case, it looks fabulous but a shorter building would have done.
Like every other year, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a few lessons learned. 🙂

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I never would have figured myself for a garbage picker but it’s become quite the habit. So much so that I look forward to our visits to the transfer site, and I know the pick up schedule so I can time my trips. We hardly generate any real waste to dispose of so we almost always leave with more than we drop off.

What we’ve really lucked out on is wood- lots and lots of wood- which amazes me on the prairie but works for me. We’ve got quite the stockpile going already and still haven’t finished retrieving the last pile of fence posts. Other recent finds include a working Bosch saw of some kind, a butcher’s table that just needs a little cleaning up, a little sled (that I needed for hauling compost!), a funny little fridge that I like the look of but am not sure what I’ll do with yet, a nice new firewood holder (still had the sticker on it), and some stainless steel pots.

I don’t always have a plan for the things that we collect. Sometimes I just like the look of something and I put it aside in case I figure out a use for it. Other things, like motors, we’ll no doubt use for any of the multitude of projects we have on the go. Still other things are simply oddities that I wouldn’t come across in a regular store, like the brown jug I plan on polishing up to use as a vase. And I’ll have to clean up and repaint some things, like the outdoor fireplace.

If you have enough time and patience, a lot of building materials can be had for free from scavenging. We’ve collected windows, screens, doors, good 2 x 4s, plywood, glass bricks, insulation… I’ve also been collecting a good amount of paper and cardboard for sheet mulching, papercrete, and some projects I would like to eventually get to when the building is complete.

It may have been outside of my comfort zone just a few years back but I’m not afraid to admit it today- I’m a scrounger. A dedicated one at that. 🙂



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Week two of being snowed in. A little over a week ago we decided to brave a blizzard in my tiny little car in spite of the warnings and it ended up being a 23 hour trip rather than the 13 or so we’d bargained on. We had to abandon the car a kilometer away from home and then trudge back and forth from the car to the house and back again unloading groceries. The next day, we shoveled a path for the car and pushed it home. Ah, Canadian winters- can’t beat ‘em.

Anyway- in my last blog, I spoke about borrowing property as an alternative to buying. There are other options. Intentional communities for instance. An intentional community is any group of people owning, or sharing, property together. There are many kinds of intentional communities. Some are set up with the sole intention of sharing the cost of the property. I came across one in Calgary, Alberta that is a group of townhouses- the owners purchased the block and a couple of vehicles for sharing among them. They share property but are otherwise completely autonomous.

Other communities share a common vision, or goals, whether the link be religious, environmental or a more encompassing set of beliefs and way of life. Many of these have a communal kitchen and shared chores. Oftentimes, a community will have an application process and sometimes a ‘trial period’ for newer members during which a decision is made whether the person ‘fits well’ with the existing community. Some communities require that you “buy in”, others require no financial input.

I’ve never been much interested in communal living. Some of you may have deduced from my previous articles that I’m not really a people-person. The thought of lively closely with others, well… Let’s just say I’ve spent most of my life moving away from, rather than towards that. Shane is very much the same and I’m eternally grateful for that. I don’t think that I could handle trying to balance my life with a social extrovert. (Actually, I know that I couldn’t- I’ve tried.)

I was very much surprised then, at how remarkably comfortable I was (we both were) with the whole thing when we visited Oregon to take a couple of courses. We shared not only work and living space with others, but meals, and evenings. We had many late night discussions with Donkey, and Brian, and Fabien, among others, down at the smoking spot. We discussed everything from politics, to philosophy, to building practices, and books. It was all very interesting to me, not just in the topics we covered but in the fact that I could spend that much time with people without feeling the urge to run.

Ianto and his wife Linda, who run the property and courses, stressed the importance of community throughout. Ianto even had us go through the uncomfortable exercise of sitting closely, no further than elbow width apart, to help assimilate participants to communal living. “We’ve been socialized to build walls,” he asserted, and to work alone, and as such we are destined to fail. Interesting concept. At one time, I would have dismissed the whole thing as hippy-drivel but spending some time watching and living in that kind of environment left me with a completely different mindset.

In a relatively short amount of time, we did a tremendous amount of work. We built an addition to a building- complete with roof, built several rocket stoves including a water heater, wandered through the forest collecting deadfall suitable for building, discussed building specifications, plastered a small home and a good section of a courtyard wall. Our meals were shared and always timely, the dishes were always done, and the property in perfect order at the end of the day. And yet at any given time there were people off wandering by themselves or in small groups, meditating or simply enjoying the weather.

I don’t know about you, but when I take time off to wander the property or read for leisure or am otherwise ‘unproductive’ the chores quickly stack up. I could easily be busy every waking moment and still not get everything that ‘needs’ to be done completed. The expression “many hands make light work” suddenly took on new meaning for me.

So did the notion of equality for that matter. While I did overhear a couple of complaints from people about others who weren’t ‘doing as much’, for the most part people accepted that everyone had something of value to contribute. Those contributions might not be directly measurable against each other, but added to the overall well being of the community in some fashion or other so were equally valuable.

Of course, common ground is essential to communal living. There’s no way that Shane and I would be able to spend any amount of time with people we had nothing in common with, let alone share the same property. I think more important than having common characteristics though is having a common goal. All sorts of people from different backgrounds and with different ideas and interests can come together and work quite well if their goals align.

Eventually, Shane and I will probably welcome others to share our property. We intend to produce more than we can consume ourselves and will have plenty to share. But with several large gardens to tend, and the animals that we plan on keeping, as well as bees- well, the days will be quite full. I personally enjoy manual labour, especially that which takes me outdoors, but I can see how having a few extra hands might free up the days. So at some point we’ll search out some friends who are also interested in abandoning the cash economy and are willing to pitch in with a few chores in return for a home on the property and a share in the food produced. Free us all up to spend more time enjoying the day and less time ‘working’.

In the meantime, for those of our readers who are struggling for options- consider an intentional community. There are as many types of communities as there are personalities. Take the time to do some research and you just may find your perfect fit.

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Don’t have the money to buy land? Consider ‘borrowing’ a patch of land before you lock into a mortgage that will have you working to pay it off for who knows how many years.

We met a gentleman last year who has been borrowing land for about forty-five years. Hasn’t owned land since he landed in the U.S., has never paid rent, and has never been without a home. Instead, he approaches a landowner and offers to build a home on their property in return for a five to ten year rent-free lease on the property. At the end of the term, he simply moves on to do it again with the landowner now in receipt of a home they can either live in themselves, rent out, or use for guests.

It sounds a little outlandish- but like I said, he has never been without a home and has managed to avoid all of the normal costs associated with rent or ownership. Obviously, you’ll want to put up something more than a shack though or you’ll be unlikely to garner favour with your benefactor and won’t have any examples to show to future prospects. But with earth-building, whether cob or earthbags, you can build a beautiful home that will last for next to no money.

Now that he’s in his seventies, our friend has landed at a beautiful little patch of forest with a cozy cob home in Oregon. His current ‘lease’ extends through his lifetime, so he’s not faced with moving and building again. During the time he’s been on the property, he and lots of helping hands have managed to build an entire village of small natural buildings and communal spaces that the property owners will inherit.

Quite the notion, isn’t it? Imagine spending your days working on your property, whether building spaces or gardens, rather than leaving your home to work for the cash to pay for it. No loans or solid credit rating required.

A good place to call home


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