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Building for the future, today – combining the best of historical wisdom and modern technology.

A Tucson Couple Builds Houses of Mud and Straw

The following post is an excerpt from Home Work: Hand Built Shelter (Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time Mother Earth News contributor Lloyd Kahn. More than 1,500 photos illustrate various innovative architectural styles and natural building materials that have gained popularity in the last two decades, such as cob, papercrete, bamboo, adobe, strawbale, timber framing and earthbags. If you love fine, fun and/or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

Ongoing and never-ending remodel of early 1900s adobe ranch/farm house

On a hot day in late July, 2002, I drove south from Tucson, heading up into the high desert to visit Bill and Athena Steen. Bill and Athena, authors of the The Straw Bale House book, a best-seller and precursor of the straw bale building movement, had done an impressive mud/straw/bamboo series of buildings with villagers in Ciudad Obregón, Morelos, Mexico, and I wanted to do a story on it for Home Work.

Another reason for the visit was the chance to meet photographer extraordinaire Yoshio Komatsu, author of the stunning book Living on Earth, who with his wife Eiko was visiting the Steens at that time.

Athena, Yoshio, and Bill

The Steens live on a 40-acre homestead 70 miles southeast of Tucson (15 miles by crow-flight from Mexico) and at the end of a dirt road. They bought the land in 1985 and Bill converted a run-down shack into what is now a gracious and comfortable hacienda, with adobe walls and floors of Mexican tile.

These days, Bill and Athena use their homestead to host a series of workshops on straw bale building, natural wall finishes (main ingredient mud), earthen floors, clay ovens, and harvesting and cooking agave and prickly pear.

What I expected was to work with the Steens on their Mexico project. What I didn't expect was such an elegant house, set alongside a creek, in a place with Feng Shui up the kazoo, with good vibes, sights, colors, smells — the essence of wonderful shelter — plus there was a series of experimental earth buildings, each one a delight, and with a variety of textures, colors, and construction innovations.

Kitchen sitting area, corner seat of adobe, walls painted with homemade casein paints

Bill, Athena, and their three kids — Benito, 11; Oso, 10;  and Kalin (Bug), 2 — are way out there in the desert. The older boys are home-schooled. Bill and Athena work on their building techniques, writing, photography, and teaching. Bug happily wanders around barefoot all day, whacking a golf ball with a driving iron and amusing himself in amusing ways. One day, he came up to me with a salad bowl on his head, a straight face, and watched for my reaction.

I slept in an adobe-walled bedroom, with two screened doors opening out into a bamboo grove in the garden. The first morning I hiked up on the hill to watch the sunrise, then came down and shot pictures. The second night there a storm hit, and thunder, lightning, and the good smells of the desert came in through the screen doors next to my bed.

Interior of guest cottage, by-product of firsts straw bale workshop/happening in 1990. Adobe wall/seat divides bathroom space from living area. Back side of the wall forms lime-plastered shower.

Lloyd Kahn is a sustainable living visionary and publisher of Shelter Publications. He is the author of natural building books, including Home WorkTiny HomesTiny Homes on the MoveShelter II , Builders of the Pacific Coast, and The Septic System Owner’s Manual (All available in the Mother Earth News Store). He lives and builds in Northern California. Follow Lloyd on his blogTwitterand Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts here.


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Gift Giving When Living Off the Grid

Have yourself a minimalist Christmas. It's not how much we give. Spending time with those we love is how we live.

For Christmas, either my friends and family are cheapskates — or they finally realize I don’t want material things as gifts. I was very happy to see that the majority of the holiday posts from my friends on my social media were about spending time with family and all the great food instead of all the material presents people received.

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Handmade potholder “from” granddaughter to grandmother

Because most of my immediate family has worked in the medical field, we've never celebrated Christmas on the day of, due to having to work that day and, becauese we are multicultural, we celebrate all the holidays. Why be limited to one day and one holiday? Celebrate the 12 Days of Christmas, the 8 days of Hanukkah, but most importantly, Happy Solstice as the sun comes out and the days get longer.

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Solar nerd alert: Axial tilt, the reason for the season

I had the luck of having parents from different religious backgrounds and who worked very hard to instill in me the value of experiences over things. We celebrated and learned about all the religions and holidays.

I love receiving and giving cards, letters, handmade things (even “useless” trinkets), and volunteering with the needy, but don’t understand why we tend to limit our giving nature to a few weeks in winter. Have you ever experienced the joy of giving and volunteering? Very fulfilling, no matter the time of year!

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I am concerned about the lack of civility in some social media posts I see. We say "Peace on Earth", so let's start right at home and lead by example in the true (pick your religion) way. I am a Rotarian. If we all truly followed the 4-Way Test of Rotary and kept things non-political and non-sectarian as intended, we would truly be better off. This is especially true on social media, where I would suggest we consider beforehand whether our post accomplishes the 4-Way Test of Rotary:

• Is it the truth?
• Is it fair to all concerned?
• Will it build good will and better friendships?
• Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Poem By Bob Iltis

Just nuts parking at the shopping mall
Jacked up debt the bankers know.
Plastic trinkets piled up on the floor,
And oil displacing eskimos.
Everybody knows the turkeys are all GMO,
And the hams are not cage-free.
Seems the folks all around me proclaim:
"Merry Christmas to me".

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I look forward everyday to the interactions I have on my Living Off Grid, Really!?!? Facebook page and hope you will join the discussion there. Stay energized.

Aur Beck has lived completely off-grid for over 35 years. He has traveled with his family through 24 states and 14,000 recorded miles by horse-drawn wagon. Aur is a presenter at The Climate Reality Project, a fellow addict at Oil Addicts Anonymous International  and a talk show co-host at WDBX Community Radio for Southern Illinois 91.1 FM. Find him on the Living Off Grid, Really!?!?Facebook page, and read all of Aur's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Indoor Air Quality and Your Health

The holiday season is the perfect time to think about Indoor Air Quality (IAQ). Our homes are closed up tightly against winter and full of people and pollution generating activities like cooking and cleaning. A growing body of research indicates that poor IAQ leads to physical health problems and reduction in cognitive function.

Reducing the air leakage of your home is one of the best things you can do to improve its energy efficiency. If you’ve done any weatherization to your home, the air leakage rate is probably fairly low. Even in an old drafty farmhouse, the air leakage rate is likely to be minimal unless the wind is blowing. When your guests arrive for the holidays, more people are sharing the same amount of air in the closed environment of your home. People inhale oxygen and exhale CO2. The CO2 and VOC levels in the air can quickly increase and we begin to feel the effects. Exposure symptoms range from a general feeling of weariness to headaches and dizziness. Long term exposure to certain VOCs can cause severe problems.

Measuring Indoor Air Quality

Foobot Indoor Air Quality Monitor

I recently received a shipment of Foobot indoor air quality monitors for a home energy and environment study I’m working on. The Foobot measures VOCs and particulate matter, along with an estimate of CO2 levels. I had to familiarize myself with it at home first and discovered some unpleasant surprises! You can learn more about the Foobot and what I found out about my home in this unboxing video. Knowledge is power, but it can also be a pain, because once you know something is wrong you need to act.

Steps to Improve Mental Stamina and Breathe Healthy

• Open at least two windows for cross-ventilation
• Turn on the exhaust fans
• Upgrade recirculating range hood fan to a ducted exhaust that moves air to outside
• Gas ovens release large amounts of moisture, CO2, and nitrogen oxides
• Upgrade your home with a heat-recovery ventilation system
• Purchase a Foobot or CO2 meter and keep track of your home’s indoor air quality
• Find some lithium hydroxide and duct tape, and cross your fingers (hey, it worked for the astronauts)

You can learn more about indoor and indoor contaminants at the CDC Indoor Environmental Quality web page, and learn about specific products and associated pollutants from the National Institute of Health, household products database.

Paul Scheckel is an energy efficiency and renewable energy consultant and author of The Homeowner's Energy Handbook and other books. Visit his Amazon Author page to keep up, and read all of Paul's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Green Cleaning for a Healthy Home

citric acid crystals

Citric acid crystals. 

When standing in the household supplies aisle in a supermarket, it’s easy to be dazzled by all the various cleaning agents in colorful bottles and packages. However, most of that stuff isn’t just outrageously expensive, it’s harmful for the environment and can even be downright dangerous. Luckily, it’s possible to clean house simply and effectively, just the way our grandmothers did – combining simple materials which don’t cost a lot and aren’t dangerous to keep around small children.

Vinegar. Simple, cheap distilled white vinegar isn’t much good in the way of eating, but it does superb job cutting through grease, getting windows and mirrors to shine and removing lime scale, which is a permanent fixture in Israeli households due to our hard, calcium-rich water.

To create a simple, effective and cheap window and mirror cleaner, combine vinegar and water at a 1:3 or 1:4 ratio in a spray bottle. Spray on glass, wipe with a soft dry cotton cloth (a cut-up old T-shirt works well) and polish off with crumpled-up old newspaper.

To remove lime scale from kettles, pour in some vinegar and water at a 1:1 ratio (level of liquid should be high enough to cover all deposits) and let sit overnight. Rinse with water in the morning.

I often get limescale buildup on glass bottoms too, after I’ve washed my glassware and left it to dry bottoms-up a few times. To remove it, I simply pour some vinegar into a wide, shallow pan and place the glasses there bottoms-down for several hours, then rinse and wipe thoroughly. The unsightly deposits all come off and the glassware looks brand-new.

You can even add vinegar to the washing machine, in lieu of fabric softener. It will leave your clothes soft, clean and shiny.

Baking soda. Baking soda is great for scrubbing grimy pots, polishing silver and removing odors. A pinch of baking soda in an open container will deodorize a refrigerator that smells less than sweet and, as has been mentioned before, a baking soda and vinegar combo creates a fun, fizzy reaction that does wonders in clearing gunked-up drains. 

Lemon. Due to its acidity, lemon juice acts in a similar way to vinegar when used in cleaning, with the bonus of a nice smell. Use the half-peels left after squeezing a lemon by cutting them open and rubbing on the area you want to clean: I do it to my granite counters in spots which are frequently exposed to water and have limescale deposits. Or place the peel in the refrigerator for a few hours for an inviting lemony scent.

Citric acid crystals. Citric acid is widely used in the food industry as a natural preservative and to provide a refreshingly tart flavor. A small pinch of citric acid will give as much tartness as a generous glug of lemon juice (although, of course, the flavor will be somewhat different), which has led us to sometimes use it in the kitchen in lieu of lemon or vinegar, especially when adding more liquids isn’t desirable. It has also been great to discover the wonderful cleaning properties of citric acid – another natural material that can be used in getting your house sparkling without any health risks.

Citric acid in crystal form isn’t available everywhere – one must hunt for it a bit, at least here. We often find it in stores that specialize in spices and exotic condiments. It looks like salt or sugar (it’s important to keep a clear label on it so you don’t get confused), is very convenient to store, keeps indefinitely and is really cheap, considering how little of it you need to use either for cooking or cleaning.

Citric acid mixed with a bit of water acts in much the same way as vinegar or lemon juice, and the abrasiveness of the crystals makes them great for scrubbing. It is also great for cleaning toilets (which is especially important, as commercial toilet bowl cleaners are among the most toxic, dangerous and environmentally unfriendly agents found in the average household). This will require somewhat more citric acid than its other uses, but the result is definitely worth it. Take 1/2 to 3/4 cup citric acid crystals, pour into toilet bowl and leave overnight. In the morning, give the whole thing a vigorous brushing and flush.

Hot water. It’s incredible how much easier and more effective cleaning can be made simply by using hot water instead of cold. Hot water cuts through grease a lot more effectively when washing dishes (I can never get dishes properly clean after a chicken dinner without hot water), and sturdy heavily stained work clothes benefit from a hot cycle in the washing machine. Make sure to wear rubber gloves when cleaning or washing up with hot water, because the combination of hot water and detergent can cause your skin to dry and crack really quickly.

Steel wool. This is good when really, really, really grimy pots and pans need to get really, really, really clean. I only use steel wool as a last resort – usually during the annual pre-Pesach craziness that is so prevalent in Jewish households - because it will scratch pots. Keep steel wool in an airtight packaging between uses to prevent it from oxidizing.

Time and elbow grease. These old and unfashionable factors go a really long way in cleaning! For example, if I have a black, burned layer at the bottom of a pot, I can spray a degreaser – or I can simply pour some boiling water in and let the pot sit overnight, then scrub vigorously in the morning. Rolling up one’s sleeves and scrubbing is not very glamorous but definitely effective.

The post above was an excerpt from my book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living.

Anna Twittos academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna's Mother Earth News posts here


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

How to Prevent Wintertime Homesteading Equipment Theft

Whether you’re coming to the end of your homestead’s first growing season or its fifteenth, it can always be a bit surprising when things come to a halt so suddenly. With that first frost comes some cleanup, and you’ll need to get your outbuildings and animals ready for the winter, but after that? Well, a long winter’s nap is a much-deserved rest after the hard work you did all year long.

Not so fast, though. Just because you’re ready to stay inside and recharge for a few months doesn’t mean that everyone is. Wintertime on the homestead is often an enticing season for thieves. When you’re not active on your property regularly, it’s the perfect opportunity for rural criminals to case your place and make off with your valuable equipment. They’re banking on the fact that you won’t notice until it’s too late.

Early winter is the perfect time to take advantage of the relative lull in your farming duties to secure your property. Try these tips for keeping your farm safe from would-be thieves this season.

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Photo credit Unsplash

Join — or Start — a Local Farm Watch

It’s just not possible to keep a steady watch on all your acreage all the time. That’s why many homesteaders and farmers have banned together to combat crime in their regions by forming farm watch groups. These are like suburban neighborhood watch programs, in which members share concerns and information about local crime conditions.

You may even decide to take turns doing an evening patrol of each other’s farms to check for problems. The group can set out signs to warn would-be thieves that the area is under surveillance. Make sure to coordinate with your local law enforcement to avoid misunderstandings and to keep everyone on the same page. Many hands make light work, and sharing the burden of security checks can help everyone protect their properties.

Mark Your Animals and Equipment

If you don’t already tag or tattoo your animals, it’s a good idea to start. If thieves in your area are looking for a quick sale of stolen animals, they’ll struggle if you’ve tagged your animals because local buyers will recognize the brand. Once you’ve tagged your animals, consider putting up signs around your pasture alerting thieves about the tagging — they’re likely to move on to easier pickings.

You can also assign an owner applied number (OAN) to your tools and equipment. This program, set up by the FBI, allows for the quick return of stolen goods to their rightful owners. If local law enforcement recovers your equipment from thieves, they’ll check the number to a registry and return your property to you.

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Photo credit Unsplash

Protect Valuable Farming Equipment

Thieves love to pick up out-of-use equipment during the dark winter months because they assume you won’t notice it’s gone right away. Heavy equipment — like your tractors, backhoes and specialized field equipment — is incredibly valuable, and thieves often take advantage of the lack of license plates or tagging to make a quick getaway.

In addition to using an OAN, keep good records of your equipment serial numbers and any other identifying features. Keep your fleet in a locked area if possible, and consider adding security cameras to deter thieves and help you identify the perpetrator. You can also add wheel locks, shut-off systems and more to protect individual pieces of equipment.

Secure the Perimeter

Though it may not be feasible to add a fence around the entire length of your homestead, you should definitely add high security fencing around animal paddocks and equipment barns for extra protection. Make sure these are high and not easily scalable to deter criminals from even trying to enter.

Additional security features such as floodlights operated by motion sensors and a good, old-fashioned watchdog or two will also help keep your animals and equipment safe. Most thieves are looking for an easy score, and they’ll walk on by if you have these obvious deterrents in plain sight.

Enjoying Winter on the Homestead

It’s easy to think that choosing a simpler lifestyle on the homestead means leaving behind crime, but rural theft on farms has surged in recent years. By following these tips and taking care of a few important security chores now, you’ll be able to relax and enjoy your much-deserved winter break from the many of your homesteading activities. Take the time while you can — spring planting will be here again before you know it.

Megan Wild improves homes by focusing on increasing their sustainability and finding new ways to repurpose old materials. When she’s not holding a hammer, you can find her writing up her ideas and thoughts for her blog, Your Wild Home, and read all of Megan's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Meet the Mobile, Off-Grid Tiny Solar House Traveling Across America

 

What happens when a passion for solar energy gets combined with enthusiasm for traveling, facilitated by the small-house movement? Enter the Tiny Solar House, a mobile marketing campaign that gives people a first-hand example of the practicability of living in a home powered by solar.

The Tiny Solar House has been on a surprisingly big tour of America the past 6 months, sharing experiences and inspiration of a solar-powered lifestyle. Logging over 10,000 miles since departing from Austin, Texas, in May, the journey has made stops in 15 states and 10 National Parks.

This 210-square-foot off-grid house on wheels is essentially an RV with a different look. The base of the home is a dual-axle trailer atop a structure was framed, insulated, and enclosed.

The Tiny Solar House features a multi-functional living room/office/art studio, kitchen with full-sized fridge, double sink, and propane oven, shower, toilet, and upstairs sleeping loft big enough for a queen-sized mattress.

 

But the true beauty of the Tiny Solar House comes from the outside. 6 photovoltaic, 280-watt SolarWorld solar panels adorn the roof and send solar energy to a small metal box above the tongue of the trailer. Inside the box there are 6 deep-cycle batteries wired for 750 amp-hours at 12 volts, a Midnite Solar charge controller, and a clever Xantrex inverter with capability to plug into an RV electrical hookup if needed.

This special feature came in handy recently when stopped at a tiny house community on the outskirts of Austin, Texas.

“We were hit with back to back to back cloudy days which depleted our battery bank and forced us to hook up to grid power,” said  Michael Chance, owner of the Tiny Solar House. “It was a sad day, and the first time in six months that we had to rely on non-solar electricity,” he added.

The Tiny Solar House is one of 19 tiny houses currently parked at Austin Live|Work, one of the largest tiny house communities in the nation. This 10-acre, alternative housing community is drawing like-minded individuals together for a number of reasons. Some tenants have chosen the tiny lifestyle to decrease their carbon footprints and get more in-touch with the land, while others see it as a path to financial independence and an escape from rapidly increasing cost of living, longer work hours, and frustrating commutes.

According to Chance, “There’s been lots of interest in solar pretty much everywhere I’ve been. At National Parks, the RVers will walk up and ask about the solar panels, and at the tiny house community a number of people have solar and many of the others have plans to incorporate it down the line.”

The Tiny Solar house will soon head west, traveling through New Mexico and Arizona before stopping in Southern California for the winter.

 

“Since the house is fully solar electric, I couldn’t incorporate heating or air conditioning into the battery bank that was installed. So my travels correlate with the seasons, and I rely on fans, windows, and good insulation to maintain comfortable temperatures,” he added.

 

After visiting California, Chance plans to take the tiny house north with stops in Oregon and Washington State.

Follow the Tiny Solar House journey on Instagram, Facebook, and the Blog for the latest news, photos, and updates.

Michael Chance is a self-proclaimed “solar enthusiast” and has been involved in the sales and marketing of solar to home and business owners for the past six years. Michael is the owner of Chance Marketing Group, an online marketing consultancy with specialties in content generation, search engine optimization, and company communications. His current project is the Tiny Solar House, a mobile, off-grid house on wheels which is traveling America to spread awareness about the reality of sustainable living powered by sunlight. Michael received his BBA in Marketing from the University of Georgia.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Choosing an Eco-Friendly Artificial Tree

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Let’s cut to the chase — there is no such thing as a 100-percent eco-friendly artificial tree, no matter how you slice it or dice it. Though these trees are reusable year after year, if you want to upgrade your artificial tree, decide you don’t like its size or shape, or its lights go out and stop working, it cannot be recycled.

For me, this is a conundrum. My daughter is allergic to real Christmas trees. She touched one when she was two and we ended up in the ER because her hands and feet became so swollen. Real Christmas trees can carry over 50 types of mold and trigger allergic reactions, making the holidays a drag for those with allergies and asthma. Having a daughter who’s allergic to different types of Christmas trees and mold means a real tree is not an option for my family.

If you are in the same boat, it’s okay. You can’t choose a totally eco-friendly artificial tree, but you can make some wiser choices that will lessen your environmental impact. Here’s how.

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Choose a PE Plastic Tree

Theses artificial trees have branches are made from injected-mold polyethylene instead of polyvinyl chloride (PVC). PVC off-gases volatile organic compounds and is made from non-renewable, petroleum-derived plastic. Many artificial trees made from PVC also test positive for lead. This means you need to shop for a tree that claims to be 100 percent PVC free.

Shop Used

If you cannot afford a PVC-free tree, consider saving an older artificial tree. Not only will you be keeping the tree from ending up in the landfill, but you won’t have to worry about the PVC off-gassing, as that only lasts a few days to a few weeks.

Shop with Longevity in Mind

Whatever you choose to buy, think long-term. If you buy a new tree, make sure it’s an investment that you’ll keep for a very long time and will match your decor for years to come.

Choose LED Pre-Lit Trees

Choosing an artificial tree with LED lights will save more energy than incandescent lights, so you can feel good about that choice.

Think Safety

If you do end up purchasing a PVC plastic tree, be sure to set your tree up in a place that is well ventilated. If possible, set your new tree up in the garage and give it at least two weeks before decorating to allow for the off-gassing. In addition, avoid letting children touch PVC trees, as they sometimes have lead contamination.

Consider a Non-Traditional Tree

It seems unfathomable, but you can still celebrate without a traditional Christmas tree! If you have a fireplace, you can decorate the mantel and have that be your focal point for the gifts and celebrating. Or, decorate an outdoor tree with lights and homemade ornaments for the birds instead. You may even consider making your own type of tree out of books or ornaments, or a cardboard tree that can be recycled.

Whatever tree you choose, do your research, ask questions and seek out a PE plastic tree if possible. If not, have fun coming up with a non-traditional tree idea and start a new trend!

Green and Clean Mom Sommer Poquette writes often for The Home Depot on lifestyle topics and green choices. If you are also in need of an artificial Christmas tree this year, you can find a wide selection online at Home Depot. Read all of Sommer's MOTHER EARTH NEWS here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.