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

Off-Grid Log Cabin Built in Alaska


Have you ever thought about building your own off-grid log cabin? Often it seems so out of reach to people who work full-time jobs with busy lives but today we want to show that it’s entirely possible to do your own build, even if you have no building experience.

A couple in Alaska, built their log cabin during weekends, and the exterior was complete in just 5 months. They had next to no building experience and at the time that they built, there wasn’t much information online as to how to build so they just figured things out for themselves as they went along.

They followed five basic steps in their build; planning, foundations, logs, roof and exterior finish.

Their planning stage involved a late night sat up together searching for land, and when they came across a piece of land that was not only in their dream place in Alaska, it was also affordable – they snatched it up.

They used post foundations to raise their log cabin off the floor, and started to lay their logs using a saddle-notch. To roof the cabin they build two gable walls and then built a frame to lay their roof onto.

To finish, they stained the exterior and filled the interior with unique little pieces of handmade furniture.

Here is the video of their off-grid log cabin build, including details of how they did each step

David Woods is a carpenter, outdoorsman, and author with more than 30 years of professional woodworking experience. He is the author of best-seller How to Build a Log Home and has educated more than half a million people on how to build a log cabin via his blog, Log Cabin Hub. Connect with him on Facebook.

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.

Building Greener Appliances

green appliance 1

We’ve come a long way from cleaning our clothes with washboards and doing the dishes in wooden buckets. Innovations in home appliances have helped us gain a precious resource: time. Today’s appliances also help us lead greener, more eco-friendly lifestyles.

From washing machines that waste less water to fridges that use half the energy of older models, appliance makers are innovating to save consumers’ money and the planet’s resources. Here we’ll look at some of the newest features of home appliances that help you lead a more environmentally conscious life.

Look for Energy Star and WaterSense Appliances

Start by looking for Energy Star- and WaterSense-rated products. Our household’s appliances account for 20 to 30 percent of our energy use and 25 percent of our indoor water consumption, according to the Green Building Council. We can quickly cut 10 to 50 percent of that energy use by opting for Energy Star models and conserve 20 percent more water with WaterSense products (more than 30 percent if you install low-flow faucets).

green appliance 2

Upgrade Your Washing Machine

These updated models focus on cutting down resources to make your laundry routine more sustainable.

Go small: The average household does five loads of laundry a week, and while we all want to be greener, sometimes you just have to throw in that filthy soccer uniform for a quick wash all by itself. Be guilt-free with a washing machine featuring a secondary small washer. New models from LG and Samsung offer small-capacity machines that fit in a pedestal or extra drawer in your machine so that you can run a small load without wasting excess water.

Try a front loader: While top-loading washers have also made great advances in water consumption, front-load washers featuring high-efficiency technology wash your clothes with a lot less water. They use the friction of the machine’s drum to tumble-clean your clothes, using an average of just 8.78 gallons of water per load, compared to an average of 16.15 gallons of water with top loaders (source).

Get connected: Smartphone apps let you start, pause, and run your washing machine and dryer remotely. More important, they allow you to monitor your energy usage. Plus, they can schedule the laundry to run when energy is in lower demand, which puts less strain on the grid and more money in your pocket.

green appliance 3

Make Your Fridge Eco-Friendly

Cut down your food waste and your energy usage with these refrigerator features.

Get a window: Just opening the refrigerator door makes up about 7 percent of our refrigerators’ overall energy usage. New models from manufacturers like LG and Samsung offer door-in-door features so that you can put drinks and snacks in a spot that’s easy to reach — without having to open the whole fridge. Another innovation in this space is a tap-to-wake window, where you can knock on the fridge door and a light turns on so that you can see inside the fridge from outside, without opening the door. This takes fridge-grazing to a whole new level!

Go smart: While some smart fridge features can feel a bit gimmicky, one real benefit of connecting your fridge to the internet of things is energy savings. Some smart fridges are capable of syncing with electricity grids to make the most out of their energy use. They run energy-intensive defrost cycles when energy rates are low, alert you to power outages, and let you keep an eye on how much energy you are using so that you can learn and adapt.

green appliance 4

Reduce Your Dishwasher’s Water Usage

Traditional rinse cycles can waste a lot of water, but these features clean your dishes with much less.

Use your senses: Newer dishwashers feature sensors that can detect how soiled your dishes are and adapt the cycle time accordingly. This helps cut down on wasted water if you’re good at scraping your plates.

Pick your cycle: Like washing machines, dishwashers have an array of cycles to choose from. When you can, opt for the “efficient” cycles, which use less water and energy but take a little longer to complete.

Manufacturers are always coming up with new ideas as they strive toward building greener appliances for us and our planet. The next time you’re shopping for a new household appliance, prioritize features that conserve energy.

With more than 15 years’ experience writing for newspapers, magazines, and marketing and online content, Jennifer Touhy is an award-winning freelance journalist located in Charleston, South Carolina. She covers a variety of topics, but her passions lie in green living and technology, and the intersection of the two. If you’re considering improving your appliances for efficiency, check out The Home Depot’s website for a wide selection of refrigerator, dishwasher, and washing machine options.

This article is editorial content that has been contributed to our site at our request and is published for the benefit of our readers. We have not been compensated for its placement.

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.

A 5-Step Guide to Finding a Log Cabin Kit

Log Cabin Kits - How to find A Kit

Choosing your home is one of the most important and expensive decisions you'll ever make. When you choose a home that is already built, you have the benefit of being able to see exactly what you're getting for your money. When you choose to buy a kit home, you assume that you're buying a complete and finished product but that is not always the case. Some companies sell only the main components of the kit, some include fittings and some don't.

To make sure you know exactly what you're buying, we're going to look at the five steps which will ensure that you choose a good quality log cabin kit home. One of the benefits of buying a log cabin kit home, over a home that's already built, is that you can tailor is to your specific needs and lifestyle. But you need to be sure that you are purchasing the right home for you, and from a reputable company.

Budget and Location

The company and kit that you ultimately choose will entirely depend on your budget. So before you even begin to contact specific companies, you need to make sure you know what budget you're working with.

Once you know how much you can afford to spend on the total build, you can then work out how much of your overall budget to use for the kit. Depending on the level of finish you opt for, you should allow two times the cost of your kits for remaining costs and materials. For example, if you have a budget of $120,000, allow $40,000 for the kit and $80,000 to finish it.

If you’re employing contractors to build the cabin for you, you'll need to include labor costs. A more appropriate ratio is 1:3. For example with a budget of $120,000, allow $30,000 for the kit and $90,000 for labor and finishes. As a rough guide, you can expect to pay a minimum of $125 per square foot of your finished log cabin. This number can significantly increase when you start adding more luxurious fitting and finishing, and even labor costs.

Once you know what budget you're working with, you need to buy the plot of land on which you intend to site your cabin. It's pointless approaching a log cabin kit company without knowing where you want to site your cabin. Any reputable company will take into account the land type, views, utilities and a range of other things when designing your kit.

The Right Kit for You

Before you approach a company, you should know exactly what you're looking for in your home. Otherwise, it can be easy to get persuaded into buying the wrong product through their effective sales techniques. As a bare minimum, you should know;

What your ideal square footage is;

How many bedrooms and bathrooms you need;

How many reception rooms you want.

You don't have to know exactly how you want the room layouts to work, because the supplier you choose will help you with that. But by making these minimums and maximums clear, they are unlikely to try and influence you to buy unnecessary extras. 

Type of Wood

There are roughly two dozen different types of logs used to build log cabins, each with their own unique appearance, R-value (energy efficiency) and cost.

Some of the most popular choices are Pine, White Cedar, Cypress and Spruce. You can expect to pay in excess of $15,000 if you upgrade a Pine kit to a Cedar kit, so the cost may be a large factor in deciding which wood type you'll choose.

Keep in mind that whilst Cedar is considered a premium timber due to its slow growth, the majority of species of wood that companies offer produce a stable and long lasting log home.

Supplier and Kit Quality

Now you know your budget and location, you can start researching suppliers. With over 300 log cabin kit companies throughout the US, how do you know which one to choose? You can use this checklist of questions to help you decide which company to use.

Is the supplier reputable?

Every reputable kit company will be registered with the international log builders association, such as the National Association of Home Builder, Log and Timber Homes Council, or the Home Builder Association. They will have past projects that you can look at, and previous customers who you can speak with about their experience.

What’s the quality of the kit?

Where is the timber from? Is it slow grown? Is it grade stamped? Don’t just check the timber, ask about all the other components too – the roofing materials, insulation and fittings.

What’s the manufacturing process?

Do they use correct notching techniques? The most popular ones are saddle notch and dovetail. Do they allow you to look around the factory in which your cabins being built? Can you speak to the technicians? These are all good signs that they are producing quality homes.

Do they offer service and aftercare?

Do they offer an installation service, or any on-site assistance? Always be waring if a company doesn’t offer this. You should also check how long the warranty is – most companies offer a minimum of 10 years guarantee on the condition that a maintenance schedule is followed.

What materials are included?

Below, you’ll read about the different options you have on the level of kit finish. Always get a full list of materials included so you know exactly what to expect.

Total Cost

When you’ve selected the supplier and kit, you need to ensure that you are getting exactly what you trust you’re paying for. To further explain this, you need to understand the difference between the main three packages available; Shell Only, Dry-In Package and Turn-Key Package.

The Shell Only Package includes just the logs for your cabin; this is also referred to as the log wall system. You’ll need to source your own windows, doors, floor, roof and all the interior and external finishes. You can expect to pay $50-$80 per square foot for a shell kit.

The Dry-In Package is the most popular choice and includes the logs, the doors, windows, roof and floor. Always double check exactly what the kit includes though, because this varies from company to company. The average cost for a Dry-In Package is $70-$130 per square foot.

A Turn-Key Package includes all the components you need, from start to finish. It will provide you with everything you need to move into your home. The average cost per square foot for a Turn-Key Kit is $130-$180.

Last Thoughts

Once you are satisfied that you’ve chosen the right supplier and kit, double check that there are no further hidden fees, such as delivery costs and sales tax. Sales tax can quite easily add up to 10% onto the cost of your kits. Finally, make sure you get everything in writing and sign a contract. Good luck with finding the right kit for you!

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.

'Balecob': Combine the Benefits of Straw Bale and Cob Building


Stem wall of urbanite and earthbag.

We live in exciting times in the world of natural building!  In the grand scheme of things, the natural building movement is still in its infancy.  While building with earth and sticks and such is ancient and global in application, its renaissance in the western world goes back only 30 or 40 years. And those 40 years of experience have been tempered by codes, regulations, and the river of twisted cultural values resulting in a slowly evolving field.  But, it is growing like never before as people seek a greater sense of belonging in their homes and communities and look for a more authentic existence.  With this growth, as with any new technology, natural builders continue to spawn innovations and creativity.  Balecob is one such innovation whose time has come to be on the center stage.

There are many wonderful and inspiring books and websites out there that go into great detail about the quixotic nature of clay or the transcendental qualities of cob buildings and so on (check out, for starters). With this article, however, I’ll start with the assumption that readers have a basic understanding of natural building.

What’s Balecob and Why Now?

What are the best inherent qualities of Cob?  And what does a strawbale have going for it?  How can they elegantly work together to give us beautiful, functional, soulfully wonderful homes?   Balecob provides the answer.  

There are things we come across in our day-to-day lives that intuitively make sense and help to create a new paradigm of understanding.  Every child, for example, grasps the rightness of the ascendant seeds of a dandelion.  I had similar feelings the first time I read Christopher Alexander’s timeless book, A Pattern Language. I found myself nodding my head in agreement to his design assertions page after page.  It was this same feeling I got when I saw and learned about Balecob.  And, as I describe it to others, they have the same nodding-of-the-head-in-agreement reaction.  

Ianto Evans and the good folks at the Cob Cottage Company in Oregon came up with the original idea for Balecob.  Ianto is the grandfather of the modern natural building movement and I gratefully tip my hat to the work he and the CCC have done for the past several decades.  I learned Balecob from Coenraad Rogmans of House Alive and it’s a slightly different technique that I’ll explain forthwith.   

Moving Past Wall Systems

Generally, when folks talk about the type of natural building they want they define it by what their walls will be.  Like, “I’m building a...strawbale, cob, rammed earth, earthbag... house”.  I encourage you to leave this type of limited thinking behind and instead focus on what materials will best meet your needs in a given wall or section of your house and what you have available.  Got a lot of windows and doors on the south side?  Consider framing it with wood.  Have a long, cold north wall with no windows?  Go with balecob or strawbale.  Want curves?  Use cob.  Lack clay?  Consider earthbags.  Got cordwood up to your elbows?  Cordwood-cob might be part of the answer.  Interior walls could be light straw clay, etc.

By defining your home as a “natural building” instead you’ll put yourself in a new framework that opens more possibilities for a better overall building and building process.

Cob and Strawbale Attributes

Cob and strawbales are both great...for some things.  


Cob is strong and durable: it holds up roofs, it can last for centuries, it will stop runaway cars

Cob is malleable: it can be shaped into curves, domes, and whatever (think clay)

Cob provides thermal mass: cob stores heat and heat moves through cob slowly (~1”/hour) thus moderating temperatures in a building

Cob is local and cheap: most of the material can usually be gotten from under your feet or just down the road

Cob is good for you: just earth; no solvents, glues, paints, nasty stuff that makes your hair fall out or sperm count decline

Cob is for the people (Democratic Building): anyone can do it!  

Cob is a great teacher: it is self-correcting in the sense that, as you experiment, cracks and crumbling will let you know you have room for improvement

Cob is a poor insulator

Cob lends itself to community building

Straw Bales

Most strawbales to be had in the U.S. are wheat straw.  They generally come in two sizes: the larger three-string bale of about 48” x 24” x 16” or the smaller, two-string variety: 36” x 18” x 14”(see pic). Check on sizes and availability well before you begin construction so you can plan the dimensions of your structure accordingly.  

Strawbales are good insulators.  They provide an R-value of about 2 per inch.  For reference, conventional fiberglass insulation has an R-value of about 3.5/inch.  With conventional strawbale construction that sets the bales wide-side down, total R values are about 48, much higher than code calling for R-13 or R-20 on walls.  This is great but also a bit of overkill that has merely been a function of bale size (note: we’ll explain later how Balecob sets bales on their narrow side.  Think to yourself why this is a good idea and give yourself a star if you turn out to be on track).

Strawbales take up a lot of space.  Whereas cobbing a wall can seem excruciatingly slow going as it rises inch by sluggish inch, plopping a row of bales on a wall leaves one feeling downright effervescent!  Of course, it’s never as straightforward as that and there’s always more work to be done with bales but volume is volume.

Strawbales are structurally weak (load-bearing strawbale houses, for example, make use of a lot of wood and wire to provide structural support and shear strength).

In conclusion: use cob for strength, mass, and curves; use strawbales for volume and insulation

Balecob Building

The Foundation                                               

The foundation has two parts: the rubble trench and the stem wall. Rubble trenches are an age-old technology that always impress me with their simple effectiveness.  A well-built rubble trench does two things very well: Moves water quickly away from a building keeping the above-ground materials dry; eliminates any chance of frost heave

Conventional concrete foundations must be set below the frost line (often 4’ or more) because they are solid and will heave if water freezes and expands under them.  Rubble trenches do not have to extend below the frost line because if water does pool and freeze in the trench it has room to expand between the gaps and will not heave the walls.  How deep you make yours is a function of the annual rainfall your area receives.

Next comes the stem wall which also does two things: Raises the cob and bales above the ground keeping them away from water; provides a solid base on which to build walls

Stem walls can be made from many materials including stone, brick, urbanite or earthbags.  One could also pour concrete but their natural building Karma will suffer.  Whatever material you use, center your stem wall over the rubble trench and be sure to make it about three to four inches wider than your bales’ width (narrow-side).

The height of your stem wall will depend on your conditions and materials available.  If you get lots of rain and it is often driving, then higher is better especially on the windward side. If you have access to lots of great stone or urbanite, you might choose to make it higher thus reducing the need for bales and cob.

The Walls

The Bottom Bead of Cob

Once your stem wall is up and mostly level, paint it or sponge it with some clay slip and start building a layer of cob about 8” to 10” high.  Fill in any gaps and spaces in your stem wall as you go so you can have a more level surface on which to stack your first row of bales.  Some sections may only be 6” while others are 12”.  That’s ok as long as this cob bead is helping to make the base level.  Re-apply slip to the wall as needed so it is wet when you lay on the cob.  This layer of cob should match the width of the stem wall and will tie in the separate components of your stem wall creating a very strong foundation.

Stacking Bales

When the cob bead is still soft and wet, coat a bale with slip on all sides.  You can scoop slip onto the bale and rub it into the straw (put a tarp underneath) or dunk the bale in a flat of slip a few inches deep.  The idea is to coat the straw thoroughly so future layers of cob will adhere strongly to the bale.  Without the slip, any cob smushed against the bale will likely fall off.  Think of slip as primer.

Set each bale on its narrow end so they are centered on the cob bead.  This should leave a couple inches of exposed bead on either side of the bales.  That’s good because it will be the base upon which we’ll eventually apply more cob to the sides and the finish earthen plaster.  We set the bales on their narrow sides because we can save space on our footprint and foundation and use fewer bales while still getting an R-value of about 32 which, for walls, is outstanding.  The one downside is that the broad side of a strawbale has the straw running lengthwise which is harder to stick plaster to which makes slipping it even more important.  I feel, however, that this disadvantage is far outweighed by the advantages.

Cob Columns

When designing your building in the beginning take time to plan out your wall lengths and heights with consideration for the sizes of your bales, the widths of the cob columns, the height of the bottom bead, and the top bead of cob that will support the roof.  Plan to use half-bales for the start of each successive start.

For each Balecob wall we build there will be two or more cob columns as high as the walls providing much of the structural support to hold up the roof.  For a short wall of ten feet or less, there need be only one column at each end of 8” - 12” wide by the width of the bale.  For larger spans, an additional column in the middle will be necessary.  On a house with 30’ walls we built in South Dakota, we built three cob columns (two ends and the middle) each two feet wide.  This left 24’ for bale infill – or three bales on each side (either 3 full bales or 2 full with 2 halves).

Cob Base Coat

As each slipped strawbale is added to the wall, cover it all over with a one to two inch layer of cob.  This means the sides, ends, and the top.  Then, set the next bale right against the first.  There will always be gaps between bales so really cram the cob into these cavities.  This encases each bale in cob and one can start to imagine how strong the wall and structure will be as the cob forms a lattice of strength over, under, and between each bale.  Add to this the cob columns and the top and bottom beads and a strong wall will be had!

Upper Cob Bead

After the last row of bales is stacked and set it’s time to lay the upper bead of cob.  Make this bead about 10” thick for larger structures (on my pig house I went about 4”) and use the natural malleability of cob to level out any rises and depressions in the bale wall so that the top plate and roof beams will lie true.  This bead will connect the cob columns to the cob base coat to the lattice between the bales to the lower bead like a python hugging a chubby kid (or a Capybara, a giant South American rodent).

Connecting the Roof to the Walls

It’s very important to connect your roof with the mass of the wall to ensure a solid and strong building.  We use “dead men” and metal strapping for this purpose.  A dead man, in Natural Building parlance, is a hunk of wood (dimensional or not) set into a cob wall and then surrounded by cob that serves as an uber-strong anchor for shelves, stairs, benches and, for our purposes right now, to securely attach roofs to a wall.

In straight-up cob construction, we set metal strapping with deadmen all along and into the cob walls 16” or more from the top of the wall.  This provides a super-strong anchor to tie to the bottom plate or beams of the roof structure.  There are several ways to roof a cob building but that is beyond the scope of this article.

With Balecob we use similar methods:  dead men and metal strapping in the cob columns as well as under the top bead and under some of the top-most bales every couple feet (this will vary based on your roof type). Over the length of a wall this gives numerous, well-anchored attachment points.  

Windows and Doors, Electric, Plumbing...

Fear not, with Balecob, all of these can be incorporated into your building but this is, once again, outside the scope of this article.  Do your research, take a workshop with us, play around with the materials and you’ll get ‘er done and wind up with a beautiful and highly functional building.

All photos courtesy of Conrad Rogmans

Kyle Chandler-Isacksen runs the Be the Change Project with his wife in Reno, Nevada. They are dedicated to creating a just and life-sustaining world while having fun doing it. They were one of MOTHER EARTH NEWS’ Homesteads of the Year in 2013. Shoot him an email, and read all of his blog 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.

Natural Ways to Purify Your Water at Home

boiling water in pot 

Everyone needs access to clean water, but in many areas, the available water supply contains bacteria, chemicals and even sediment. These contaminants can cause everything from an undesirable taste to long-term health problems. Purifying your water can remove these unwanted elements and prevent these problems.

Some purification methods, though, involve adding even more chemicals and can be taxing on the environment. Buying plastic water bottles instead of using tap water is harmful in its own way. Whether you’re concerned about the safety of your water, or just want it to be as clean as possible, you can use these natural water purification methods at home to protect your health and the environment too.


You’ve probably boiled your water before if your city issued a water safety advisory. Boiling is a reliable water purifier that’s effective for removing almost every contaminant except dirt.

It’s a simple, natural technique that’s been used throughout history, but it’s not the most efficient technique. It takes a substantial amount of energy to heat water to the boiling point, and you’ll lose some water to evaporation. If you don’t have any other methods available, though, boiling your water can be a smart choice, at least as an occasional solution.


Plants are natural water filters both above ground and in the water. Hikers and other outdoor adventurers use plants in the woods to get clean drinking water, but you can do the same thing at home. There are a wide variety of plants you can use to filter your water.

Cilantro is one of the most common household items that can purify water. Just grind it up and filter water through it. This herb may even remove heavy metals as effectively as charcoal filters. You can also use lemon peels, the core of a cactus and pine tree branches.


If you’ve used ceramic pots for houseplants before, you know they allow water to flow through them. Ceramic has been shown to filter out water impurities in remote areas such as Cambodia. At home, all you have to do is pass water through the pores in a ceramic material. The water that comes out on the other side will be free of microorganisms. This method, however, is less effective against pesticides and organic pollutants. If microorganisms are your main concern, though, this method should work for you.


Carbon filters are another common type of water purification method, which has been found to suppress bacteria. There are several types of carbon filters. Activated carbon, which may be referred to as activated charcoal, has a positive charge, so it’s especially effective at attracting impurities. But block carbon has the benefit of a higher contaminant removal ratio.

Carbon filters are ideal for removing chemicals such as chlorine, benzene and pesticides, as well as unwanted tastes and odors. It’s not the best choice for removing heavy metals. It can remove larger microorganisms, but smaller viruses can slip through.

Reverse Osmosis

Reverse osmosis is one of the most effective ways to purify water, but it is a little more involved than the other methods. This method is used on a large scale to provide clean water to whole cities full of people, but you can have a smaller system installed in your home.

Reverse osmosis is the process of water passing through a semipermeable membrane. These filters, which have a pore size of approximately 0.0001 microns, are very effective at removing viruses, bacteria, protozoa and chemical contaminants. It can even turn salt water into drinkable water.


This method takes some time, but it’s a completely natural, affordable way to purify water. Just use the power of the sun to evaporate dirty water. The vapor will be clean, while contaminants get left behind.

You can make a solar water purifier at home with two water bottles and a thin PVC pipe. Place dirty water in one bottle, and let it evaporate into the other bottle. See the full instructions here.

If you want to purify your water naturally at home, you have plenty of options, and many of these same methods are providing access to clean water to communities around the world. Whether you want to invest in a long-term solution or just want a one-time fix, there’s a method for you. Using them can improve health and the well-being of the planet.

Photo credit:

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 Roof on a Root Cellar


In 2014 we built an earthbag and balecob/strawbale root cellar on our off-grid urban homestead.  

We’ve been using it since then and last year decided to put a green roof on it as well.  This “Part II” will describe our green roof process and about how the cellar has performed overall.

Root Cellar Use

Our root cellar is right next to our existing home and under twenty feet from our mudroom door - “Zone 1” in Permaculture parlance.  This close proximity is crucial because as things get even marginally more distant use and utility decline exponentially.  On winter mornings it’s still a stretch for me to put on shoes and go farther than the mudroom for our staples.  I find I often bargain with my wife: “If you get the potatoes from the root cellar, I’ll clean them and set them on the stove.” Or, I’ll interrupt my kids at play and remind them this is a small way they can contribute to our family’s continued survival...and that we’ve fed, protected, and sheltered them…and we cleaned diapers, lost a lot of sleep...they get the picture eventually.  

After the earth bags I switched to strawbales and the Balecob technique (recent blog article here).  The strawbales provide great above ground insulation and allowed us to plaster over them.  As is normal for us and our process, we’ve given the bales a good rough coat but have yet to give them a true finish coat.

Our food production and homestead knowledge have increased over the years so our root cellar has filled more, too.  With improved shelving we store crates of potatoes and onions, carrots in crates of sand, apples wrapped in paper and keep our jars of lard down there as well.  The temps inside the cellar stay consistently cool in the summer and never go below freezing in the winter.  In short, it works great!  

I should also reiterate in this Part II that our homestead is electricity and fossil-fuel-free (no solar, either) so food preservation is a bigger challenge for us.  Old and “Appropriate Technology” using the coolth of the earth has been essential to our increased sustainability.  Importantly, projects like this are also just plain fun; to build, tinker, experiment, fail sometimes, and ultimately connect more deeply with our land, our climate, our food and the direct role we take with our sustenance.  

The Green Roof

Originally, I roofed the cellar with some salvaged metal roofing and insulated it with salvaged R-30 fiberglass attic insulation.  This functioned fine but the low (4’ to 6’ above grade) metal roof, in a busy “pass-through” space from our house to our back gardens, felt too hard, harsh, and glaring.  In an effort to soften and beautify this Zone 1 area we decided to transform it into a green, or living, roof.  

Over the metal I cut in and placed two layers of inch-thick Thermasheath-3 insulation (acquired from some Burners who used it for a hexayurt shelter).  This served two purposes:  more insulative value while raising the surface above the metal fins of the metal roof so my next layer of vinyl would not rub on them.  

I built up the edges of the roof with 2 x 10’s to make a basin, essentially, into which we could place the soil.  Next, I laid out an old vinyl billboard sign on top of the insulation and tacked it to the sidewalls and to a ramshackle part of our house.  Billboard signs are a great urban resource - contact your local ad company for leftover signs and expect to pay about $20 for a 14’ x 48 ’sign. Finally, over this we put a mix of soil, compost and a few woodchips about 6-8 inches thick.  Thicker is better on top of a roof as they dry quickly but we’re only ever planning for sedums, some flowers, and weeds to grow there.  We were lucky to get a crew from Patagonia for a volunteer work day to do the heavy lifting and initial planting.  Many hands…

Along the bottom, low-side of the roof I placed a wad of rolled-up Agribon row cover against a section of hardware cloth to serve as a filter and catch to prevent soil and debris from leaving the roof.  I added a gutter after that which drains into a perennial bed full of Goji berries and protects the balecob section from drips.  

During our first growing season the green roof met our expectations of softening the environment while also growing some plants.  I didn’t notice a marked improvement inside the root cellar but, then again, I don’t keep very close track of temperatures.  Our biggest challenge was keeping the roof moist through hand-watering but this year we plan to irrigate it with a couple drip lines for consistency.  More flowers, more life, more beauty.  Amen!

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.

‘Home Power’ Magazine Gets Passive Solar, Off-grid Headquarters

The following is an excerpted from Home Work: Hand Built Shelter (Shelter Publications, 2004) by long-time MOTHER EARTH NEWS contributor Lloyd Kahn. The book features 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 or funky buildings, you will want to own this splendid book.

The wide open spaces are the reason we live in the mountains. Our nearest full-time neighbor is more than six miles away.

I first saw Home Power magazine in the 1980s. It was a funky looking yet technically loaded and serious journal of (mainly) solar, wind, and water-generated electricity. Not only has it survived, but it’s gotten increasingly better. It’s now an all-color compendium of the latest in home energy.

Richard and Karen Perez are the heart and soul of Home Power, and after some years of living in funky sheds in the woods, they built their own home-powered home/office/hangout in the Oregon woods. I find it just amazing to look at a place like this: off-the-grid, its heat and power provided by sun and wind (and firewood). And they are running the computers and network that produces their magazine from the same clean electricity. These guys are walkin’ the walk!

Richard’s Brief History of Home Power Magazine

View from the sunken living room up into the dining area. The red tile on the floor covers the solar-heated, concrete slab.

We started Home Power in 1987 and to date, have published 90 issues. Prior do doing Home Power, I spent 10 years as an installing dealer of PV systems. I solarized our predominately off-grid neighborhood by installing more than 200 systems. I realized that folks had no idea of what current solar energy technologies could do for them — they were still running generators to power their off-grid homes and businesses.

I also saw an emerging renewable energy industry which had no way to contact their potential customers. Hence, Home Power was born.

Currently, we are entering our 15th year of publishing. Including folks who download our current issue for free from our website, we have more than 100,000 people reading each issue. We print 38,000 copies in our paper edition and about ⅔ of these are sold on newsstands worldwide.

For many years, we lived and worked in a 560-square-foot “plywood palace.” This uninsulated building was chock-a­block with the necessities of life and computers. Our site is six miles off-grid, and we’ve been powering all our electrical stuff using solar and wind electricity for decades now.

Home Power Gets a Custom, Employee-built Home

Our wood stove, which uses a secondary catalytic converter to increase fuel efficiency and reduce pollution. Last year we burned less than ½ cord of wood, thanks to the solar heating systems.

In summer of 2000, we did a total rebuild — the original cabin disappeared into the center of a new 2,300-square-foot building.

The new building has two stories. The ground floor is split-level, with a four-foot drop along its east/west axis. Thus, the building follows the contour of the south-facing hillside on which it rests. The building was designed and constructed by the Home Power crew.

Passive home design. Energy efficiency was our major design criteria. We employed both passive and active solar heating tech­niques. On the passive side, we insulated the hell out of the building — R-30 in the walls and R-60 in the roof. We installed many south-facing, double-glazed windows, a few east-facing windows for an “early morning wake-up,” and very few windows on the west and north sides of the house.

Solar hot water. Computer-designed overhangs prevent all these windows from overheating the building during the summer. On the active side, we installed four, 4-by-8-foot solar hot water collectors on the roof. These collectors directly heat a six-inch-thick, concrete, thermal slab on the ground floor.

Wood heat. The combination of passive and active solar heating, and super insulation have reduced the amount of wood we burn in our backup heater from five cords per winter to less than one-half cord per winter. We increased the size of our home/office by a factor of four and reduced our wood consumption by a factor of 10, which overall increased performance by 40 times.

Solar heat retention. Besides finally having enough space to not be crowded, the new building is very comfortable — warm in the winter and cool in the summer. We are located at 3,320 feet elevation in the Siskiyou Mountains of southwestern Oregon. It gets cold here in the winter. Nighttime temperatures are often in the teens, and it’s not uncommon to have several feet of snow on the ground. Inside the building, it’s always cozy. The thermal slab stores enough heat for around four days of continuously cloudy weather. Proof of wintertime perform­ance is that all our dogs and cats prefer to sleep on the solar thermal slab instead of any other place in the house.

Passive cooling. During the summer months, when the outside temperature is often in the high 90s, the inside temperature never rises above 76 degrees. We open the many operable windows after sunset and allow the cool mountain air to chill down the house. In the mornings, we simply close the windows and allow the super insulation to keep the house cool during the day.

Power room, which houses our batteries, inverters, and other renewable energy equipment

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 blogTwitter, and Facebook, and read all of his Mother Earth News posts.

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.