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

Plastic-Free July & Other Tips to Reduce Your Waste


"Plastic-free July" is a movement to reduce our dependence on plastics. You may already reduce your usage of fossil fuels and you have cut back on single-use plastic grocery bags, but what else can we all be doing to lead a much more eco-friendly lifestyle including how to make our homes eco-friendly beyond their four walls? Have you considered how trash impacts your environmental footprint?

In college, I was asked by my environmental studies professor if I knew where my trash went. I was completely embarrassed, as a self-proclaimed environmentalist, to stare blankly across the room and finally admit that I had no idea where my trash went after it left my household. And what’s even worse, is I didn’t even know how much trash I was really producing. Apparently, I am not alone.

Sustainability writer for, Syd Ulrich-Dogonniuck, breaks down the American waste habit and the impact trash is having on our environmental footprint in Are We Wasting Our Waste?

When you think of “waste” what do you think of? Trash day? Setting the trash bin on the curb once a week? Or have you thought about what happens to the waste created from your home after it leaves the curb?

For years, decades even, it seems our society has had a very “out of sight, out of mind” mentality about waste—you do your due diligence to keep your neighborhood clean, you pick up litter in the park, you wouldn’t dream of throwing a Styrofoam cup out the window on the high way. On the surface the “waste issue” doesn’t seem like an issue at all—it seems well contained, old news even. Dig a little deeper, however, and some truths start to materialize… The average American produces a whopping 5.91 pounds of waste daily.

At nearly 6 pounds of trash per day on average, most of us need a little help in finding ways to cut the waste and to do so easily. From electronics, to groceries to paper products, Ulrich-Dogonniuck provides us with the 8 Quick, Easy Ways to Kick-Start Your Zero Waste Lifestyle to help motivate us to reduce our trash in fun and easy ways. 

Since this is plastic-free July, it’s also a good time to rethink the use of plastic. One area where plastic is used with great abundance is the beauty industry.

Since World War II the beauty industry has been in love with plastic packaging—it’s cheap, lightweight, moldable, and doesn’t degrade when in contact with fluids, be it shower water or a gel or foam product. To obtain all these characteristics, however, means that most of the plastic packaging that is used is not easily recyclable, and as such will end up in a landfill once the product is finished (or you find a new favorite product to replace it), says Ulrich-Dogonniuck in Going Waste-Free Beautifully—How to Clean Up Your Beauty Routine.

Following these simple and easy tips to reduce your beauty-routine’s reliance on plastic will make your morning all that much brighter.

This July, and every month, taking just a few steps to change your everyday routine will reduce your trash and create a positive impact towards your environmental footprint.

“Small acts, when multiplied by millions, can transform the world.” – Howard Zinn

Photo by Pedro Aguilar on Unsplash

Kari Klaus is the founder of, a data-driven real estate platform which overlays sustainability intelligence onto home listings.

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 Win the Battle of the Thermostat

battle thermostat 1

Thermostats are an amazing invention — the ability to regulate the temperature in your house just by turning a dial is one of the greatest technological achievements of the modern age and a powerful way to reduce your energy use.

But what happens when you’re constantly battling with your family members over the preferred temperature in your home? You like it cool; your partner prefers to be toasty warm. You pay the electricity bill, but your mother-in-law insists on cranking the air conditioner — you get the picture. The balance between energy savings, comfort, and finances can be difficult to achieve in a multi-person household, but with a smart thermostat, you can take back control.

Set the Perfect Schedule

battle thermostat 2

Almost 90% of people with programmable thermostats never program them, largely because it can seem complicated. This means they may leave their HVAC system running while they’re gone or make it exert itself to play catch up when they turn it on after a long day. It’s inefficient and results in a waste of energy — and money.

Smart thermostats take the pain out of programming with pre-set schedules ready to go out of the box. They can be changed to suit your household using an app on your smartphone instead of the buttons on the device itself.

No Schedule? No Problem

A thermostat schedule is ideal if you have a daily routine, but for those with unpredictable days, geo-fencing and sensors let smart thermostats respond to your location and adapt your cooling and heating accordingly.

Geo-fencing works well for single occupancy homes. The thermostat locks onto your phone’s location and sets itself to “Away” when you leave and “Home” when you are heading back.

For larger households or those with members who don’t have smartphones, sensors work well to track temperature and motion. Compatible with higher-end thermostats, these are small devices you place in different areas to monitor the temperature and movement in certain rooms. They communicate to the thermostat to adapt your climate according to whether anyone is in the home and where they are.

Knock Out Cold Spots

battle thermostat 3

Those same sensors can also help you knock out cold spots — another common complaint when battling over climate control in your home. For example, if your son is always too cold in his bedroom, set your thermostat to target the sensor in that room so he’ll always be comfortable.

These sensors are also useful if your thermostat is not in the best location for measuring temperature, such as a hallway. Put a remote sensor in your living room or other high-traffic area and program your thermostat to ignore its internal temperature sensor and respond to that one.

Lock It Down and Take Control

If none of these solutions finally end the battle of the thermostat in your household, you have some more traditional options. First, you can lock it down. Smart thermostats let you set a user code so only authorized users can change the temperature – it’s a high-tech version of having a lock box over the thermostat.

Second, you can take control from anywhere using the thermostat’s smartphone app. If you’re suspicious that your roommate is cranking up the air conditioner when you’re gone, use the app to check in and adjust it if necessary.

Geek Out on Data

Sometimes, no matter how vigilant we are over controlling the thermostat, those energy bills are still sky high. Smart thermostats can provide you with energy reports and will analyze your usage patterns for you. This can help you find areas where you can cut back on your energy use to save money and resources.

With a smart thermostat on your wall, you can finally win the temperature battle by using its intelligence to create an ideal climate for your whole household. Plus, when everyone’s happy, you can avoid drastic temperature swings, saving money and energy at the same time.

A smart thermostat on its own is good, but pairing it with a complete smart home hub and security system is even better. Combining your smart lighting, temperature control, and locks lets you automate your home on every level. You can simplify your life, make your house safer, and decrease your impact on the environment—a win-win all around.

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Home. She writes about the smart home, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications.

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.

Consider Zoning Laws when Purchasing Homestead Land

Rustic Farm Fence In Country 

Homesteads have a rich history in the United States. In the pioneer days, homesteads were spread out throughout the western portion of the country, and in the rural areas of the eastern U.S. as well. People who lived on homesteads made their own clothes, grew their own food, and generally took care of themselves with the resources available to them from their properties.

Modern homesteads are similar their pioneering predecessors but very different in some ways. On the plus side, advances in technology (e.g. solar panels) have made homesteading a much more accessible and comfortable lifestyle. On the other end, certain laws and regulations may throw a wrench into homesteading plans if you don't do your research.

If you're interested in homesteading, understanding zoning laws in your area can help you find the right place to settle and build your homestead. Knowing the zoning laws in your area can help you live on a homestead while staying within the bounds of the law.

How Zoning Affects Homesteaders

Most communities use zoning laws to regulate the types of activities that occur on different property types in specific areas. Properties under residential zoning are intended to be used for living accommodations. Properties zoned for commercial may be used to produce goods or services that are sold to others.

Of course, zoning laws are rarely so simple. They're written by legal professionals, and tend to have complex language that many people find difficult to understand. If these laws are misunderstood from the outset, this could lead someone to buy a property with plans to homestead, only to find out later that they cannot do what they want legally.

Many communities prohibit or at least regulate livestock that can be kept outside in residential areas. There may be ordinances dictating the number of animals allowed per lot or acre. Some areas may prohibit or allow the sale of eggs or milk on the property. If one's homesteading plan includes owning cows, pigs, bees, etc, it would be prudent to know if these animals are allowed on a property (or the land they intend to buy), as well as what kinds of accommodations, if any, are required.

Homesteading With Chickens

Contact Your Zoning Department More than Once

Reading zoning laws can leave most people feeling lost and confused. One of the ways to ensure that the property you want to purchase is zoned for homesteading is to contact your community's zoning department. Contact your zoning departmentámore than one time.

It's easy to get the wrong information, or to get the right information but to misunderstand it. Contacting the zoning departments more than once and speaking to more than one person is an effective way to ensure the information you've been given is accurate. The first time, call and ask your questions. Write down the answers. Then, contact someone else from the zoning department and ask them the same questions. Compare the answers.

Consider Working with Professionals

Buying a homestead is more complicated than buying other residential properties. Working with a lawyer or agent who has experience with the area you are looking at can help immensely. When seeking the help of a professional, ask them about their experience helping clients find suitable land for homesteading. Find out what they know about the local zoning laws, and what can be done to ensure that the property you wish to purchase will fit your needs.

When interviewing your real estate lawyer, ask them for references, and ask them what process they use to ensure that the property you purchase is legally viable for homesteading. Ask about their rate, as well. While rate is not everything, you will be expected to pay your lawyer at some point, so keep this in mind while deciding which professional is right for you.

Keep Documentation

Sometimes homestead properties will go up for dispute. Different laws can be interpreted in different ways. If the legality or validity of your homestead property should ever go up for debate, you'll want to have proper documentation to show that you did your due diligence when making your property purchase.

Keep all documentation relating to your homestead and the purchase of your homestead. Should a dispute ever arise, you may need to consult with your lawyer again. Having documentation on hand will make the job easier.

Zoning Laws Change

Zoning can change over time. The frequency and significance of these changes will vary widely from county to county. Having a finger on the pulse of local government decisions can help potential homesteaders understand what areas might be best suited to their needs.

On the other side of things, there are cases in which properties are given permission to change their zoning or request a special use permit/variance. How this is done will vary based on local laws and procedures, so it is advised to have a lawyer help with this.

'Measure Twice, Cut Once'

Putting in some work up front and figuring out what you can or cannot do with a property or parcel of land can save many headaches down the line. If you dream of homesteading, start making a plan now.

Do you want goats? Cows? Chickens? Do you want to sell eggs from your house? Would you like to install a wind turbine on your land? Knowing what you specifically would like to do with your homestead will help you research and find the perfect area to settle.

Ryan Tollefsen is the founder and team leader of Unity Home Group. As an avid supporter of sustainable living, he aims to help homesteaders navigate some of the lesser-known challenges of finding the right place to build roots for their homestead in his guide to assessing off-grid land. Read all of Ryan’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.

Why Adding Your Old Phone to Your Mobile Plan Can Be A “Green” Choice

Green phone 1

Smartphones have a huge carbon footprint. A recent study found that the energy consumption of a smartphone will be more than desktops and laptops by 2020. The problem isn’t in the energy they use — 85% of a smartphone’s emissions impact comes from production, and the precious metal used in their hardware is mined at high energy costs. Add in the energy from the data centers they rely on to send text messages and stream videos and that sliver of glass and plastic in your hand could have a major impact on the environment.

Cell phone providers and manufacturers encourage us to upgrade our devices every year or two, and we often trade in perfectly good phones to have the latest and greatest model. In reality, most smartphones can last five or six years with proper care.

While there are plenty of options for recycling smartphones, the best way to limit their impact is through reuse. You can donate them to charity or sell them, but the smartest thing to do is to hang on to them and get as much use as possible before recycling. How can you reuse your old phone? Consider the following three options.

Use it as a backup

Green phone 2

When you get a new phone, keep your old one as a backup. While you might get some money off your new device if you trade in the old one, having a backup in case you lose or damage your phone can be useful. An extra also means you won't need to pay insurance for your new phone, which can cut down on your monthly bill. Most carriers will let you keep it on your plan for just a monthly line fee — or in some cases, no fee at all — and add data only when you need it.

Pass it on to your partner or family member

If you share a plan with your spouse or a family member, consider getting on a staggered “upgrade cycle.” When it’s time to get a new phone, the old one gets passed on to the user who is not upgrading. That person’s phone then becomes a backup or can be passed on to a grandparent or family member whose high-tech needs are low. This cycle of reusing old phones keeps them in use and out of the recycling stream for longer and also helps reduce the need to manufacture new ones.

Give it to your child

Green phone 3

At some point, your child is going to want or need a smartphone. Putting a phone worth hundreds of dollars into a preteen’s hands can be a scary prospect, but giving them an older device offers several benefits:

1. You know exactly how to use it, so set up will be easy.

2. If they break or lose it, you’re not out a fortune.

3. Adding a second or third line to your cell phone plan isn’t as expensive as you might think.

Most cellular providers offer family plans. Some don’t charge anything to add a line, so you pay only for the data your child uses. If you don’t want them to use data and just want the phone to be a device they can text and call you on, adding it to your plan can be very inexpensive, or even free.

Ultimately, keeping your smartphone and using it for as long as possible is the greenest, most responsible way to use these devices. It’s beneficial to you, your family and the planet.

Jennifer Pattison Tuohy is a freelance writer and contributor for Xfinity Mobile. She writes about the smart home, mobile phone technology, consumer tech, small businesses, and green living for a variety of newspapers, magazines, and online publications.

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.

Save Money and Address the Climate Crisis with Advanced Heat Recovery


One of the important attractions at the Science Museum of Minnesota is hidden away deep in the interior of the building. Yet people still find it interesting and inspiring. Last year more than 200 engineers, building operation managers, environmental activists and other curious folk descended into the museum’s cavernous first floor mechanical room to witness a breakthrough technology that helps curb climate change while saving money and promoting green jobs.

At first glance, it’s not all that impressive. The Advanced Heat Recovery (AHR) system resembles a backyard grill crossed with a water heater, decked out with an enormous fuse box and pipes running here and there. It looks like something that might win top honors at a high school science fair for cooking 400 hot dogs at once.

What’s impressive is that it prevents about 1.8 million pounds of carbon dioxide from being released into the atmosphere each year, cutting the museum’s carbon footprint by 16 percent. This is significant in the fight against climate change, stresses Patrick Hamilton, the museum’s Director of Global Change Initiatives, because buildings account for one-third of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions.

While grants covered the cost of the Science Museum project, Hamilton estimated that the system otherwise would have paid for itself in three years.

“We love that,” he said, “because it means we have $293,000 that can be redirected to the scientific and educational mission of the museum rather than to paying utility bills.”

What is Heat Recovery?

So, what’s the amazing technology that accomplishes all this? Two heat recovery chillers (think of very large versions of the heat pump in your refrigerator) capture excess heat produced by the museum’s lighting, electrical, and mechanical systems, which then is used to warm the building during colder months. The result is lower energy use, and that translates immediately into plummeting CO2 emissions and smaller heat bills.

Hamilton points out that the museum’s heating costs are down 65 percent since the AHR system became operational in March 2015. For instance, on a 4-degree Fahrenheit February morning, the museum was purchasing no heat from a local utility.

Here’s how it works. Heat generated by all the electricity used by the museum’s computer servers, elevator motors, telephone switching equipment and other big electricity loads is piped into the two heat recovery chillers, rather than being rejected to the outside, as is standard procedure in most commercial buildings.

Inside the chillers, compressors step up the heat energy to produce 115-degree water, which then is used to warm incoming fresh, cold winter air and circulated through radiators along the building’s extremities. It makes no sense at all for the Science Museum to purchase energy to heat the building while at the same time it discharges hot air to the outside.

“You don’t throw your aluminum in the garbage at home. You recycle it. So, you should recycle the heat in your building instead of throwing it away,” explains Matt Presser, account manager at Ingersoll-Rand, which manufactures the Trane chillers used at the Science Museum.

The museum embarked on this Advanced Heat Recovery project as part of its education mission. “This project proves you can save money and help protect the climate at the same time,” Hamilton declares.

“What was learned at the museum is that any building over 100,000 square feet can use this technology,” Spresser adds. “It’s a no-brainer for energy savings.” Regions Hospital in St. Paul, The Minneapolis Institute of Arts, and Minneapolis College of Art & Design have all approached the Science Museum seeking more information about AHR.

Another AHR success story is the Evansville State Hospital in Indiana, where installation of heat recovery chillers manufactured by the Multistack firm reduced heating bills so dramatically the local gas utility sent out a technician to see if the meter was broken, according to Mark Platt, a manager for Trane speaking at a Science Museum green energy event.

“Ninety percent of commercial buildings could employ Advanced Heat Recovery systems right now — it’s a lost opportunity,” observes longtime energy consultant Dave Solberg, who helped pioneer the application of this technology at a Minnesota food processing plant and semiconductor factories and solar power equipment in Asia.

In Solberg’s experience, building a new facility with AHR provides even more savings on operating costs than doing a retrofit like at the Science Museum. And AHR also substantially saves on construction costs by reducing the need for expensive heating, cooling and ventilation equipment and infrastructure, says Solberg, who recently joined Ingersoll-Rand.

AHR technology shows tremendous potential across the country for use in large facilities like office buildings, hospitals, factories, college campuses, schools, hotels, convention centers, sports venues, health clubs, houses of worship, museums and malls. In New York City, according to the New York Times, 67 percent of all greenhouse emissions are caused by buildings, prompting the city to initiate legislation in April mandating reductions.

More stringent requirements on energy conservation in Minnesota, New York City and other places could heighten the building industry’s interest in AHR, predicts Richard Strong, Research Fellow at the University of Minnesota’s Center for Sustainable Building Research.

Solberg calculates that 75 percent of energy use and costs for heating could be eliminated in commercial, health care and residential buildings through AHR, even in the frosty Midwest.  He points to a new health club in Edina, Minnesota, which is already saving on construction costs and projected to see 50 percent lower operating costs.

Applying this Breakthrough Technology to Your Home

Hamilton is also tracking progress on applying AHR technology to reduce individual households’ energy use. “The same AHR principles can work in your home,” he says. “The water heater could be used for dehumidification while also producing hot water, and warm air from the clothes dryer that is now vented outside could be used to heat the basement or house. Water heaters with heat pumps can extract heat energy from the ambient air surrounding them and transfer that heat to the water inside the tank, while causing water vapor to condense, get collected and directed to a drain.”

With all these advantages, why haven’t Advanced Heat Recovery systems become more prevalent in the US, especially at a time when the effects of climate change are becoming ever more apparent?  The technology has been a common feature of large buildings in Europe and Japan over the past 15 years.

Solberg cites the familiar challenge that bedevils many innovative green initiatives — “upfront costs,” which may cause sticker shock even though the projects save lots of money over the long run. Spresser adds that many construction companies and clients still don’t consider it as a practical solution. “People believe it’s a lot more complicated than it really is.”

Birth of a Breakthrough

The Science Museum’s quest to become the first non-industrial facility in the Twin Cities’ region to adopt an AHR system began the day Scott Getty, who handled the museum’s electricity account with Xcel Energy, called up Hamilton in August 2008 with a big idea. “Let’s make the Science Museum an exhibit in itself about energy efficiency,” Getty remembers telling him.

The Science Museum went forward with the idea, using financial support from Xcel Energy to contract with Solberg to conduct a thorough energy audit of the museum in summer 2010.

Solberg is an internationally known expert on “exergy” — which sounds like the name of a techno-rock band or science fiction trilogy, but actually is the science of matching the energy you need to the energy you use. He’s worked for both the US Department of Energy and the Paris-based International Energy Agency looking at ways to go farther than simply improving the energy efficiency of individual elements in a building’s operation by studying how all the elements work together to achieve even bigger gains.

“It’s a more holistic approach,” he notes. “Too often, people put the heating systems, cooling systems and lighting systems each in their own little silo, instead of putting them all together.”  Advanced Heat Recovery technology is one of the most common forms of exergy in practice today.

Solberg reported back in fall 2010 that electricity coursing through the Science Museum degrades into heat energy amounting to more than 20 billion BTUs annually, to which Hamilton replied, “Gee, Dave that sounds like really big number.” So, Hamilton translated that figure into an example anyone could understand. Although comprising just one building, the Science Museum’s electricity use at the time was equivalent to all 300 houses covering 18 blocks in St. Paul.

Then Solberg asked a pointed question. “You are throwing that energy away and then you are buying an enormous amount of heat energy. Why?” Hamilton paused a moment before answering, “Well, because no one ever laid it out to the museum in those terms before.”

With gifts from Target, Ecolab and Wells Fargo and a low-interest loan from the Saint Paul Port Authority, the museum began its groundbreaking energy retrofit in fall 2013.

As the work started, Hamilton noticed another obvious benefit of AHR — good-paying local green jobs. “I was impressed by the large number of skilled tradespeople coming through this building over the course of 18-months to work on the project — electricians, pipefitters, software technicians, riggers, concrete workers and truck drivers.” As well as factory workers at the Trane plant where heat recovery chillers are manufactured in La Crosse, Wisconsin.

“There are enormous economic and employment opportunities in addressing climate change,” Hamilton explains.

The success of the AHR project has spurred the Science Museum to adopt other green measures to boost the environment, save money and inspire other building owners to do the same. These include:

• An ongoing upgrade that will eventually convert all museum lights to energy-saving LED technology.

• A thorough audit of water use was done last year, and now is being studied.

• The replacement of controls on the building’s ventilation system to improve efficiency.

• Purchasing electricity from a new solar garden.

Hamilton said “we’ve been able to help pay for these energy efficiency improvements with the money we’ve saved with our Advanced Heat Recovery system.”

“Imagine the enormous economic, employment and environmental benefits that could be realized if energy-efficient buildings were not rare but commonplace in the US," he said.

Jay Walljasper — author of The Great Neighborhood Book — writes and speaks about widely about creating a greener world. He is also an urban writer-in-residence at Augsburg University in Minneapolis. Connect with Jay at and read all of his 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.

Upcycling and Using Urbanite


Chances are good that at this moment, close to wherever you live, there’s a pile of broken up concrete just waiting for a good home.  Most often it started life as a sidewalk, driveway or parking area but was recently demolished and is now waiting to be carted off to the landfill.  We call this material, “Urbanite” and love working with it.

New concrete is pricey and has a big environmental footprint (high embodied energy) what with all the mining and the heating involved to make Portland cement as well as its transport in big rigs. Therefore, urbanite is a good alternative for many projects.  In this article I’ll share some tips and uses of this abundant, free, salvageable urban waste material.  At our urban homestead I’ve used it for the bases of cob walls, foundations of earthen (cob) ovens, borders for our gardens and for our little front yard pond, paths, and as a parking surface.  We use it regularly as stem walls on cob buildings, too.

Finding Urbanite

Mostly I’ll see a pile somewhere in my travels around town and, if I’ve got a hankering for some, I’ll check it out and maybe come back with the truck to haul it home.  Everyone (no exceptions!) is overjoyed to get rid of busted, heavy old concrete instead of lugging it to the dump and paying to dispose of it.  Craigslist and Facebook Marketplace are also great options.  Search for “concrete."

Using Urbanite 

General Tips:

Be picky!  Don’t just take all of someone’s pile unless it’s good stuff that you know you’ll use.  Be clear and firm about that.  Use your confident voice. 

And...take extra.  It’s good to have a variety of sizes and shapes so you can have options for what goes where.  Hammers help with in making new shapes, too. 

This stuff’s heavy and as a man slowly and reluctantly approaching middle age I am not fond of moving heavy objects.  So, if the urbanite is too big to move around, I’ll tilt it up and let it crash down with the result that one heavy piece becomes two manageable pieces. However, depending on your project (maybe a parking or patio surface) large pieces may be very desirable so bring a burly young friend for help with those blocks. 

Look for chunks that are all the same thickness.  It’s a big pain and time suck to do just about anything with urbanite of varying thicknesses.  Trust me - don’t take it unless they’re real close to equal. 

Be aware of rebar and other metals poking out of the concrete.  Wear gloves as even the rocky edges can be sharp.  Keep that in mind when placing the urbanite - no one likes a bloodied shin.  

Usually there’ll be one smooth side (what was the top) and one lumpy (formerly the bottom) with 4”-6” thick lumpy and sometimes jagged sides where it was broken.  Consider what you’ll be doing with the chunks when you’re about to adopt them.  Some pieces are really just trash and you should leave those behind. 

Sometimes the smooth side will be painted and are you going for the painted urbanite look?


Cob Oven Foundations:  Make your base with an urbanite ring several feet high and then fill in the void with rubble, sand bags, old tv sets, new tv sets…I use cob as a mortar when needed to hold some of the more recalcitrant pieces together.  Regular mortar works, too, of course.

Paths: My friend Larry has the best urbanite paths I’ve ever seen.  He spent a lot of time (a lot of time!) leveling the hunks by digging out the ground underneath and then filling with sand for a base as needed  (he used urbanite of varying thicknesses, tsk, tsk).  He also incorporated interesting and colorful rocks and detritus and then filled the gaps in with a little concrete mix that he broomed into place.  To summarize, instead of buying sterile-looking pavers at Home Depot or tons of concrete he’s made a beautiful, aged-looking and artistic garden path with minimal new inputs. Magnifico!  This all could be done for a larger patio, too. 

Note: Pay attention to the width of the gaps and be consistent - it looks better.  Also, mind how you place the triangular pieces with square pieces - blend them to create repeating patterns so the individual sections become an integrated whole. 

Earthen Landscape Wall Bases: The urbanite keeps the cob off the ground so it stays dry, is super solid, and looks sexy a couple/few courses high.

Pond Wall: It’s just a way to cover the liner and make some usable space for birds, plants, a little height...We mixed urbanite with big rocks we had laying around.  It’s good to bury some of the edge, too, when propping them upright.  Muy estable! 

Garden Retaining Wall:  It retains soil, it retains heat, it’s decorative and metro-chic!  Kathleen’s grapes (and vetch) thrive in front of her south-facing border wall.  No, not that border wall, just a garden wall.  The thermal mass helps ensure the plants don’t get damaged by one of our malevolent late spring frosts.  Eck, they’re so malevolent.  She did a great job artistically with the shapes, angles, heights, and double layers.  A gold star for her!  Buried edges, again.

Parking Surface: We’re building a “green” conventional home on a lot near our house and the city wanted another parking spot...alongside the other parking spot...behind the other two parking spots...which don’t count because of rules and stuff.  But it’s fine.  Really, I don’t mind the extra work or cost.  It’s fine.  In the plans we put down “permeable pavers” so rain could percolate into the ground instead of becoming runoff and what we’ve done is this:

• removed the topsoil
• leveled the subsoil surface
• laid down a weed barrier
• added a few inches of ¾” gravel
• placed the urbanite to level-ish
• added more gravel to fill in the gaps
• It’s coming out nice.  We can park things there.

That’s it!  I hope this article has turned you on to the possibilities of this oft-overlooked but abundant resource.  No more is that just a giant mound of rubble:  it’s now a giant mound of rubbly possibilities.  Yee-haw! 

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.

Straw Bale House in the City, Part 3: Costs and Straw Bale Density


If you have not read Part 1 and Part 2 of this series, I recommend that you read both of those parts including, watching the video of our straw bale mock up in Part 2.

I had a somber tone as we drove back from the hay lady Laurie’s barn full of straw. I couldn’t believe that we had went to a completely different supplier and found exactly the same density straw bale. I used my phone to search for dense straw bale suppliers and found only one supplier out of New York. I wasn’t sure what to tell the developer, who so badly wanted us to build a straw bale house for her company. I hadn’t been able to locate a third party engineer to work with us during construction of the straw bale house, nor had I been able to find straw bales dense enough to meet code.

As we drove back to our Farm, Bob and I started discussing how a straw bale would have to be made in order for the straw bale to meet the building code for density. I reviewed the Michigan Residential Building Code Book’s section on straw bale construction and under the section labeled “Density”, it read:

Bales shall have a dry density of not less than 6.5 pounds per cubic foot. The dry density shall be calculated by subtracting the weight of moisture in pounds from the actual bale weight and dividing by the volume of the bale. Not less than 2 percent and not less than five bales to be used shall be randomly selected and tested on site. (2015 Michigan Residential Code, Page 840, Section AS103.5 Density)

At first glance, the way that the code is worded seems confusing; however, the formula is relatively simple once you understand how the formula works. Below is an actual entry from the notes that we gathered as we tested our straw bales during the mock up:

Straw Bale #3

Moisture Content of Bale: 13.8%

Weight of Straw Bale: 26 lbs

Dimension of Straw Bale: 35 inches by 19 inches by 13 inches

Volume of the Straw Bale: 35 inches by 19 inches by 13 inches = 8,645 cubic inches

Convert cubic inches to cubic feet: 8,645 / 1728 = 5.002 cubic Feet

Weight of moisture in pounds:  26 pounds – 13.8% = 22.412 pounds

 26 – 22.412 = 3.588 pounds of moisture

To get our pounds per cubic foot number, we follow the formula in the code:

Actual Bale Weight 26 pounds – Pounds of Moisture 3.588 = 22.412 pounds

22.412 / Volume of Bale 5.002 = 4.48

The code requires this number to be at least 6.5!

Have I lost you yet? Take a moment to look these numbers over again so that you can understand how the code instructs us to calculate the density of the straw bales. This formula can make or break your project, and it is very important for you to put testing density of the straw bales that you are going to use at the top of your list of priorities.

We will discuss finding dense enough straw bales shortly, for now, let’s see if it is possible to create a bale that is dense enough to meet code.

The hay lady Laurie kept referring to her straw bales as “Three Dollar Bales”. What does this mean? Laurie told us that the straw that goes through the auction has to compete with other straw from other farmers, so the straw bales will all be baled close to the same way and cost $3.00. The machines that bale hay and straw can be adjusted to make denser bales if the farmer chooses to.

Bob and I started to discuss what we would have to do to take a three dollar bale and compress it to where the bale would meet the code for density. We can manipulate any or all of the numbers in the formula that we used above to help us determine what a bale of straw would need to measure and weigh in order to meet the code for density.

After Bob did that math, he noted that we would have to compress our bales from 35 inches in length down to 21 inches in length in order to get our numbers to come out to the 6.5 pounds per cubic foot number.

I finally sent the developer an email stating that we could not find dense enough straw bales for her project. She responded with a message that said that she has been emailing back and forth with a professor from the University of Michigan who had built a straw bale house with his students. She said that she would ask him where he got their straw bales and maybe we could use his source and get dense enough straw bales through them. I eagerly awaited the professor’s response; maybe we could build this straw bale house after all!

The response that she got from the professor left me scratching my head. The professor responded to the developer’s email by saying, “I used pretty bad bales on our house actually – they came from farmer next door – I didn’t worry too much since I compressed my walls….”

I have not researched this professor nor have I researched his project but I can say that knowing that an average straw bale would need to be compressed from 35 inches down to 21 inches in length leaves me with a few questions about the professor’s project.

The compression would have to come from the ends of the bale, pushing the straw together (this is how the baler machine compresses straw into bales then ties it), as opposed to the top where the compression would be pushing down on the bales. The professor compressed the bales from the top side from what I was told and I question if he was able to create dense enough bales using this method. Maybe they could, but verifying the density of the bale, as required by code, would not be possible while the bale is compressed in the wall assembly.

In conclusion, I feel that it is important to mention again, that the very first thing that a person should do if they are getting serious about wanting to build a straw bale house, is to check local and regional sources for dense enough straw bales.

The best option would be for a person to locate a farmer that bales straw and talk to that farmer well before straw is baled to see if the farmer will make a specific density bale for a straw bale house.

If you can’t find a local farmer who will work with you, you may be able to find a company that will ship you dense enough straw bales from some other part of the country. In either case, you should figure $9.00-$15.00 per bale plus shipping when you are figuring out the cost of straw bales for your project. That is considerably more than the $3.00 per bale figure that we were told.

Best of luck to you if you decide to build a straw bale house!

If you have any questions about straw bale houses, working with inspectors or any other questions or comments, email Adam at:

Adam D. Bearup is a designer, green builder and farmer, who learned about biodynamic and regenerative farming for a project he built in Northern Michigan, The Earth Shelter Project Michigan. Adam has degrees in marketing and management and a Masters of Science in Green Building. Read all of his 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.

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