Tuesday, January 27, 2009

EntropyPawsed uses "A Pattern Language"

When we purchased our property, the house was an unfinished shell. We considered tearing it down – its long axis runs north/south, rather than east/west, the best passive solar orientation. We eventually decided to work with the existing structure so as not to waste the wood products already used. To do this, we knew we needed some design guidance.

We utilized the book “A Pattern Language” by architect Christopher Alexander and others. By 2001 when we began designing our EntropyPawsed living space, this book seemed almost as if it were brought to us by destiny. Several years prior, as we first began exploring organic gardening, and then Permaculture, we had been given several introductions to the book: by a relative who was an architecture student; by several practitioners of Permaculture; and finally in Frank's Permaculture courses at the EcoVillage Training Center and Earthaven.

In our modern culture, unless we have specifically trained in design or architecture, most of us feel unable to undertake the design process without professional help. The beauty and strength of “A Pattern Language” is that it provides virtually all of the tools needed to design fully human living spaces. It really is as simple as sitting down with the book and giving it enough time and attention. We can still recall the feeling of personal empowerment that came as our design progressed.

While the patterns of construction described in the book are fascinating, they were never really worked out and accepted. We opted to go with a more standard “stick built” approach because it is easily accessible, and Frank felt most comfortable in implementing and enhancing the standard construction experience he had gained over the years.

We spent hours looking at the various inter-related patterns described in the book, and ended up using more than a dozen in our home. We found that using the “language” of these patterns helped us look holistically and systematically at what outcomes we wanted in our home: function, comfort, beauty, ease of maintenance.

Our primary pattern is “Farmhouse Kitchen.” We wanted the home to reflect the rural surroundings, be comfortable, and to function well as a place to transform garden produce into fresh and preserved food. Using the “Open Shelves” pattern in the kitchen saved the expense (and space) of cabinets. The “Cooking Layout” and “Sunny Counter” patterns also helped create comfortable, usable space.

Within the “Farmhouse Kitchen Pattern” we embedded the “Fire Circle.” The fire has always been a place where people gather for conversation and story telling. We very carefully considered the location and orientation of the wood stove. We wanted the “Fire Circle” to connect and function, without interfering, with the “Farmhouse Kitchen.” We also needed the stove to be centrally located for even heat distribution.

“The Intimacy Gradient” pattern helped us with the placement of various design elements in relationship to the flow into the cabin from the front door, with the more public spaces near the front of the house, progressing to the more private areas in the back.

Our home is just over 500 square feet. Dividing it into small rooms just didn't seem practical. The discovery of the “Alcoves” pattern was a real revelation. Instead of a bedroom, we have a “Bed Alcove, with a “Sleeping to the East”-facing window. Instead of a separate office space, we have a “Half-Private Office” in which we have our desk, computer and assorted (small) electronics. Between the bed alcove and office space we have a “Dressing Room,” which provides privacy when dressing and undressing and a place to store clothes. All of the patterns are nested within the primary “Farmhouse Kitchen”and give consideration to the “Intimacy Gradient.”

We used the “Warm Colors” pattern in a number of subtle ways. We painted the ceiling a very light, soft yellow. The plywood walls allow the natural wood grain to be seen, and have a clear finish with a slight red tint. Using windows to bring in “Light on Two Sides of Every Room” resulted in natural light reflecting off of almost all of the wood surfaces.

The true test of any design is the feedback provided by how we are feeling while being in the space. We are gratified to report that not only are we pleased with the result, but that visitors uniformly describe our home as “warm” and “inviting.”

Our ultimate goal was a comfortable, beautiful place with minimal adverse environmental impact. We think we succeeded. For us, “A Pattern Language” was a valuable tool assisting us to significantly downsize our environmental impact.

Pattern Language has a website, http://www.patternlanguage.com/

Visit the EntropyPawsed website, http://entropypawsed.org

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

EntropyPawsed Solar Electric System

Our EntropyPawsed cabin solar electric system is small and simple, yet the learning curve for us was considerable. When designing the remodeling and finishing of our cabin, we incorporated solar electric into the design. Our theme of simple and low energy included a desire to be able to do most of the work ourselves.

The discovery of the "Sandia Report, Photo voltaic Power Systems and The National Electrical Code: Suggested Practices" after fits and starts of reading and research, provided me with enough information on how to wire a system that I could proceed with growing confidence. When I started the installation, gaps remained in my ability to conceptualize it. However, upon completion, it now seems very straight forward and easy to understand.

While we looked at and considered cabin systems from various alternative energy suppliers, in the end we decided to piece the system together ourselves from several different suppliers. This saved a lot of money; our entire system cost less than $3,000. The Photo voltaic (PV) panels, deep cycle batteries, distribution panel, system controller, inverter, charger, generator, LED light, ceiling fan, and exhaust fan, were purchased from various on-line suppliers. The wire, connectors, junction boxes, conduit and miscellaneous hardware was purchased from local retail stores.

Our PV system consists of one GSE 60 Watt thin film panel, and two Sunwize 55 Watt polycrystalline panels. After purchasing the GSE panel, I read that most of the “25 year” polycrystalline panels purchased over 30 years ago were still producing in excess of 90 % of rated capacity. For us, longevity trumped new technology in the form of thin film.

The panels are mounted on a treated wood frame attached to the front of our south facing deck. I constructed the frame in a way that I can rotate easily to three positions; winter, spring and fall, and summer. Having the panels four feet high allows us to clean them of pollen, dust, snow and ice.

The panels are wired into a junction box where the three sets of leads are combined into one set of heavy 6 gauge wire. One can consult charts to determine the voltage loss at certain distances to determine the gauge of wire necessary. The 6 gauge wire runs 20 feet through conduit under the cabin and into a junction box, then into the cabin to a circuit breaker/cutoff.

From the inside cutoff, we use smaller 10 gauge wire to go 12 inches to our Morningstar Sunsaver 20 Photo voltaic System Controller. This inexpensive yet nifty little device acts as a charge and load controller. A particularly valuable function disconnects the load when battery bank voltage drops to 12.1. This protects the batteries and helps to maximize their life. As the saying goes, “Batteries don't die, they are murdered.” The Morningstar device works with panels producing less than 20 amps total. However, for larger systems, more than one device can be used in parallel.

The battery bank consists of three “no name” 12 volt, 75 amp hour glass mat lead acid batteries wired in parallel into a safety cutoff, and then into the Morningstar Controller. All devices powered by the system are referred to as the “load”. We purchased a 12 volt pre-wired distribution panel from New England Solar Electric for load distribution. Each of our four load devices are on a separate 10 amp Square D “QO” breaker circuit. Only this breaker reliably works with 12 volt systems.

Our four load circuits/devices are an LED light, a ceiling fan, and exhaust fan, and an inverter. Our inverter is an AIMS 1250 watt truck inverter, the kind normally plugged into a cigaret lighter, but hardwired in ours. Since it is much larger than needed, the inverter works very efficiently. The inverter is located near the load center to minimize 12 volt current losses. A back up inverter is stored nearby, as the inverter can be a weak component in PV systems.

A dark green extension cord (matches our trim) goes from the inverter window seat location near the front of our cabin to the office alcove at the rear. It plugs into a three-in-one adapter. Plugged into it are two 6-outlet power strips. This arrangement powers our DSL modem, our laptop computer, computer speakers, our printer, Bonnie's cell phone charger, our AAA battery charger, and our cordless phone. We have found it important to be very diligent in completely turning off everything when not using the system. Our stored photons are very precious.

When it is cloudy and our battery bank voltage falls below 12.1, the system cuts off. Then we must run our generator to recharge our batteries. Our generator is located in a shed far enough from the house to preclude exhaust fumes. We run a heavy red (14 amp) extension cord to a small box on the outside of the cabin where we plug into our Xantrex 40 amp charger located inside next to the battery bank. It takes about three hours to fully charge the batteries. During this time, we use a second extension cord from the generator to supply the power strips in the office alcove.

We have been using the system for about a year and a half. We are using the wired LED light, ceiling fan, and exhaust fan very infrequently. We use the modem and computer a great deal, and the other devices in our office alcove as needed.

We vigorously debated the merits of doing PV versus no electric (our cabin is “off grid”). In researching solar electric energy returned on energy invested (EROI) results range from 0.5 to 20. If we trust the low end of the range, that means solar electric is unsustainable. If we trust the high end, the energy returned is better than fossil fuels. Only time will tell if such systems are sustainable. I think perhaps they are not, but are rather a bridge to a low energy future for those of us who have grown up in the age of electricity.

The PV System has afforded us the opportunity of transitioning our EntropyPawsed project to a perhaps more sustainable remote learning basis. From a Permaculture perspective, whereby we take advantage of fossil fuel inputs to implement a sustainable system, we can justify the resource investment in PV, while knowing as we proceed into the future, these inputs will grow increasingly scarce.

Here are the most important lessons learned through our relationship with PV:

  • Climb most of the learning curve before purchasing expensive components and attempting installation
  • Buy polycrystalline PV panels
  • Do not use Romex (solid AC type wire) or AC components. 12 volt must be wired with braided wires, mechanical connectors, and special spring loaded switches.
  • Make sure your wires are suitable gauge
  • Do not add a battery to your Glass Mat battery bank after it has been in use for more than a month or two.. Carefully size your bank initially. Wait until replacing the entire bank to add capacity.
  • Don't add other significant loads to the generator when running your deep cycle battery charger (You might melt your charger wires/connectors)
  • There is nothing so complicated that an American cannot further complicate it.
  • The PV system is never big enough in a West Virginia winter
  • We like oil lamp and candle light. Bonnie doesn't miss television. Frank only does a little during football season:)

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Gardening in January

To plant a seed is to believe in the future

In our part of the Northern Hemisphere, January is a time for garden planning. The soil is hard and snow-covered, the compost pile frozen, the soil amendments stored away for the winter. There's not much visibly happening outside.

Inside, near our warm wood-burning stove, we study seed catalogs, read and re-read garden advice books, and look through the newest garden calendar from the West Virginia University Extension Service.

We gauge the square footage in our garden, keeping vertical space in mind, as many plants such as tomatoes, beans and cucumbers grow well on trellising. We make a list of what we want to grow, based not only on what we like to eat, but also on what is easily grown and preserved and has the most nutritional value. We consider what can be grown in pots on window ledges and on the porch.

We draw a diagram of the garden, thinking of what to put where. The hard-neck garlic is already in, planted in October to be harvested in July. There are still potatoes in the ground; with heavy (~6 inches) mulching, we have found this is an easy way to store them over the winter. We have three patches of Jerusalem artichokes, also known as sunchokes. The roots of these self-propagating perennials can be an important emergency food source.

We decide what else to plant. Here is a list of 11 superfoods from a New YorkTimes Blog, Tara Parker-Pope on Health. We cannot grow all these foods here, but we can grow beets, cabbage, chard, blueberries and pumpkins. We also like tomatoes, beans, butternut squash, kale, spinach, brussel sprouts, and potatoes (Kennebec's are the local choice for our surprisingly short growing season here in the mountains). Our final selections will come from the above named foods.

We order most of our seeds from two catalogs: Seeds of Change (www.seedsofchange.com) and Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org). These catalogs offer certified organic and heirloom seeds, and provide detailed descriptions of the varieties listed. These organizations obtain their seeds from independent growers and plant collectors dedicated to preserving heirloom plants. We have also purchased from Turtle Tree Seeds (www.turtletreeseeds.com), which offers bio-dynamically produced seeds from the Camphill communities (www.camphill.org) .

Over time, we hope to propagate as many of our own seeds as possible. Not only does this save ordering and buying each year, but over time the lines of plants we cultivate will adapt to the specific conditions of our site.

Gardening books we have found helpful include: “How to Grow More Vegetables (than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine)” by John Jeavons; “Four Season Harvest” by Eliot Coleman; “Gardening When It Counts (Growing Food in Hard Times)” by Steve Solomon; and “Seed to Seed,” a book about seed saving, by Suzanne Ashworth.

Winter is also a good time to clean and sharpen garden tools. If replacements are needed, they can be found in an unhurried way versus a rush when they are needed, and are frequently less expensive in the off season.

So even though activity in the garden in January appears to be at a standstill, for the successful gardener, it is a month of planning and cultivating a vision of future success as the Earth advances along its orbital path around the Sun.

Tuesday, January 6, 2009

Introduction to EntropyPawsed 101 Module 1

The EntropyPawsed project, physically located in southeastern West Virginia, seeks to utilize the Second Law of Thermodynamics, human development, Permaculture, Deep Ecology, medicine, and life experiences to demonstrate how to survive and thrive in the coming years. To date, EntropyPawsed has been described by its developers Frank and Bonnie Gifford as “a nature linked low energy living demonstration site.” Beginning in early 2009, EntropyPawsed will post a series of on-line articles and videos focused on issues and skills relevant to the future. In this way we hope not only to attenuate the inherent contradictions of high energy expenditure travel to promote sustainability, but also add to the growing conversation of how we design for the future.

Within the context of our sheer numbers, at first glance humans seem well equipped for future survival. However, when viewed within the context of the human population growth curve and ecological systems, human actions and reactions of the recent past several decades raise serious questions as to whether we are equipped perceptually to survive in a post industrial world. Systems upon which the vast majority of modern humans rely for basic survival needs - water, food, and sanitation - are often and increasingly centralized and/or fragile. A very real possibility exists for increasing dysfunction and possible collapse of these and other systems integral to modern industrial civilization.

The Second Law of Thermodynamics is also referred to as the Entropy Law. Simply stated, Entropy says energy always goes from concentration to dilution. The implications of this simple fact upon science, technology and modern industrial civilization are immense. One might legitimately ask what something as seemingly arcane as entropy has to do with surviving in the future? This concept has proven difficult or impossible to grasp for most, probably because it stands in opposition to our inculcated world views. By taking a patient, open minded approach with the material and references herein, the links of entropy to the future will gradually reveal themselves in their full importance. The concept of entropy was not discovered through theoretical thinking . Rather, its discovery came through observations of steam engines during the Industrial Revolution. Understanding the Second Law through reading can be daunting. While a scientific grounding may seem required, actions and writings of many modern scientists suggest the 2nd Law is not well understood even in the scientific community. Many scientific community supported proposals such as those for a hydrogen economy, biofuels, pervasive nuclear technology, coal slurry impoundments, clean coal, and the introduction of terminator genes in crops, suggest either an ignorance of the 2nd Law, or wishful thinking for a successful violation of it. In fact, the modern human desire to override the 2nd Law is so strong that once the Entropy Law was formulated, Maxwell's Demon, a thought experiment seeking exceptions to it, soon followed. Maxwell's Demon was devised by Scottish scientist James Clerk Maxwell in 1867. Its sole purpose is to find some way around the Entropy Law. A good starting point for more information about entropy is http://www.secondlaw.com/index.html. Once one has developed a reasonable understanding of the Entropy Law, then the folly of proposals to use biofuels, hydrogen, air, algae, etc...to power a continuance of our auto and truck based modern culture will then be seen as fruitless if not ludicrous. When first assessing notions of entropy, it is important to remember that fossil fuels possess concentrations of potential energy from millions of years of sunlight upon living plants and fungi. A more complete understanding of the Entropy Law yields a possible future that is more agrarian and less industrial. Unfortunately, from some perspectives, the nature of the Entropy Law seems counter to the “American Dream”.

By observing the actions of our political and economic leaders during the extant financial crisis, a potentially unsettling picture develops. To a perceptive observer, it quickly becomes apparent those in charge have an extremely limited palette of insight and responses. Even though a vast multitude of businesses and individuals are in “hock over their heads”, all remedial actions to date seem aimed at providing yet more credit. The majority of these remedial actions unfortunately may well prove counterproductive to any kind of effective longterm response. Diagnoses of the problem tend to revolve around various kinds of assessments of deficit in newly engineered financial instruments, oversight, social conscience, etc.. Is it possible that the financial crisis and resulting economic meltdown are really just symptomatic? Does the combination of resource stringency, environmental degradation, human overpopulation, and climate change play any role in the current crises? These questions beg questions about what it means to be human. How do I perceive the world I inhabit? How is my world view shaped? Unfortunately, from the observed inept responses of our current leadership, it appears no consideration has been given these crucially important questions, likely due to the inability to perceive even the need for such questions.

We see and react to a thunderstorm, but we cannot perceive the dire state of forest health in the eastern United States. The thunderstorm happens quickly, and humans evolved to perceive this immediate threat. Forest health is being slowly, over the course of decades, attenuated by human polluted air and rain. Our lifespans are too short, and the process is too long, for us to notice or it to cause widespread alarm. An answer to this is the development of the ability to observe and understand longer term phenomena. Fortunately for younger generations, there is a group that works exclusively in this area of human perceptions. The entity here in the United States is the Institute for the Study of Human Knowledge, or ISHK. Robert Ornstein, PhD, a world renowned psychologist, is the executive director. ISHK has a website, http://ishkbooks.com. with a“Recommended Reading” list. Our project, EntropyPawsed, is partly the result of a number of years work with the materials distributed by ISHK. This work's yield is that any of many possible scenarios that seek to leave a reasonable Earth to future generations of living beings includes a critical mass of humans who are aware of what it means to be human, who understand the deficits in our perceptive apparati, and who have learned to consciously remediate perceptive deficits.

EntropyPawsed also utilizes the principles of Permaculture as it provides a design system for sustainable human settlement. David Holmgren, co-founder of Permaculture, observes in his book “Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability” that humans know how to live sustainably. For virtually the entire time humans have inhabited this planet humans have lived in this way, except for this very brief instant of the past ten thousand years. The human way of sustainability revolves around indigenous lifestyles. These ideas are often in complete opposition to the inculcated world view of many inhabitants of modern cultures. Most Americans are so strongly biased against this notion it is not possible for them to evaluate this observation on its merits.

Deep Ecology dovetails with Permaculture. In effect, Deep Ecology ties the dis-ease of modern humans to the loss of connection to the natural world, and therefore seeks to establish ways for humans to reconnect with the natural world. For urban dwellers, likely starting places are balconies with plants, city parks and nature trails. For those more fortunate ones who dwell in a rural place, the reconnection with nature is significantly easier to effect; finding a daily walk, naming natural spots based upon observed characteristics, learning to find one's way without a GPS, learning not only the names, but also characteristics of plants you see.

The issue of health is integral to any possible desirable future, particularly one where humans thrive. “Dis-ease” could well be the result of humans living in arrangements for which we are not evolved. In indigenous communities all humans would know all other humans with whom they had contact, for their entire lives, and the connection with the plants and animals of the place where they lived would be strong. The arrival of a wayfarer would have been rare and strange. And yet in modern culture, we continually put ourselves in environments where we know few if any individuals, and where there are few other living plants and animals. Modern airports epitomize this condition. How much stress is created for the individual in these “friendless “environments? Any desirable future incorporates consideration for the health of the individual as well as all living beings, for one without the other is not possible.

Try walking alongside any road in suburban America to experience first hand the level of violence inherent in simple acts of transportation in modern culture. Witness a large track hoe digging up a 200 year old tree, roots and all in one “bite”. Modern humans are inured to violence, so much so that many will subject themselves to extreme depictions of violence in movies like Mel Gibson's “The Passion of Christ”, thinking it is somehow about their own personal redemption. The idea of redemption has merit, however this approach only yields more inurement thereby moving further away from health. Health is the opposite of what today's disease management system strives to perpetuate. Good health is not compatible with maximizing businesses bottom line, whereby chronic illnesses are “managed” rather than prevented.

John Michael Greer writes a weekly blog entitled The Archdruid Report. His essays are informative, entertaining, and thought provoking. In December of 2008 Greer wrote about dissensus. Merriam_Webster Online defines dissensus as difference of opinion. Greer was promoting the idea of allowing differences of opinion to exist, and even embracing them as we explore possible future lifestyles. This was within the context of thinking about our future, and how it may unfold. In nature, the yield of diversity is resilience.

EntropyPawsed embraces dissensus and diversity. It is acknowledged that no other humans would design the EntropyPawsed project quite like Bonnie and Frank have, or even give it the same name. We do not espouse this to be the one right way; just our way. A caveat: Doing one's own thing hopefully means not falling into one or more of the many pitfalls resultant from living in modern industrial civilization. A belief that the Entropy Law can be violated is a serious limiting factor when designing for human sustainability. For the sake of future generations, it is imperative that we learn to design in accordance to the Entropy Law, that we begin to fully understand what it means to be human in a modern industrial civilization, that we begin to embrace concepts of good health and detach ourselves from the current disease management system. We then learn to reject projects that purport success while relying on tacit violation of crucial laws like the Entropy Law, or the Law of Life as espoused by Daniel Quinn. One of the goals of the coming educational series is to describe more fully what it means to be human, and convey how growing up in modern Western civilization has skewed our view of reality. We hope to point out some of the pervasive myths of modern humans, like “technology will save us”, “there is plenty of oil if the price is right”, “all resources are infinitely replaceable”, “human progress is totally a result of human ingenuity”. We will discuss the importance of developing a strong positive but realistic vision of the future, and how by making the fulfillment of our vision our life's work, we find not only deep personal fulfillment, but also create the conditions for leaving a reasonable Earth to the future generations of living beings.

Friday, January 2, 2009

A Walk Up the Mountain

Bonnie and I have taken to walking up the mountain again. Actually, we have two mountains we can walk up. All walks up are beautiful, but physically challenging. Six years ago, before we moved, I explored this valley and had great range walking. I am looking to regain some range this year, after four years of sitting too much on my backside:) It might seem really simple, but if you look at a human body, the largest most noticeable (besides faces-another story) part is the legs. What is their evolutionary adaptation? Walking. For all of human existence, each and every one of us walked on average probably ten miles per day. I maintain almost all physical and emotional dis-ease can be eased through walking. Join us for a walk!