Friday, April 29, 2011

Getting Down to the Nitty Pretty

This weekend I fought through a sinusitis induced haze to complete an important mission, buying test pots of the paint we will use in our kitchen and bathroom.

We are planning to use earth plaster to cover the walls in the majority of the house, but are using paint to cover the walls in the two "wet" areas. We are doing this out of the need to complete these areas fully before our building consent expires. The areas that can wait a bit longer will get the earth plaster treatment in due time. (Due time being within the next few months, or year, or 18 months…).

I know that MC already mentioned our addiction to Grand Designs. Thanks to a special delivery from our neighbor and the aforementioned sinus attack, we've been watching a lot of Grand Designs episodes lately. A lot, a lot. And I have to say that the major lesson I've learned from Kevin McCloud, as he gracefully talks us through projects that didn't quite work out, and ones that were a great success, is that design is intentional.

Our approach to interior design thus far has been less than intentional. Gathering bits from op shops and auctions has left us with a rather eclectic bunch of materials to work with. We have gold curtains, a kiwiana mint green stove, and two beautiful leadlight cabinet doors with various shades of blue.

Once the idea of paint colors came to the foreground it became apparent that I would need to do some designing to pull together all of the elements. Otherwise, as Kevin says, it might come off looking like a "dog's breakfast" or even worse a "pig's ear". Neither of which are desirable, by the way.

In my internet travels I came across a site called Pinterest. If you love inspiration boards (I do), if you love design (I do), or if you just simply love finding new random things on the internet (I do), then this is the site for you.

Scrolling through all sorts of inspiration I have created a folder about our kitchen. It features some of these beautiful ideas:

And even more if you can believe it. They have led me to create this mock up of our kitchen design:

Yes. I am a huge nerd.

So what do you think? Pig's Ear? Dog's Breakfast? or the sweet accomplishment of a successful design? Am I wrong in thinking that light blue is the tie together color for our kitchen? Is there another option that stands out to you? We'll see once we get the sample up on the wall. But if you have any thoughts in the mean time, please share them.

- June Cleverer

Tuesday, April 26, 2011


The south winds are blowing now, and even the insects have come in from the cold.

Praying for warmth.

When we bought the cheapest house in Wanganui, we knew we were getting a lot of space (110 square meters) for the money (less than a Ford F-150), but that NZ villas are notoriously cold and drafty.

Yes, this was our house in October.

A large house with high ceilings is a great asset for half of the year, but now that the equinox is behind us and we're closing in on the winter solstice, the amount of indoor space becomes a liability. So what I've been doing this week is cutting our losses. Heat loss, that is.

Yes, this was also our house in October.

While I've written about insulation and draft-proofing in previous posts, I have not yet addressed one of the simplest and most elegant forms of energy conservation in a home: shrinking it. I learned and lived this in Ladakh during the winter of 2006.

Ladakhis have big, beautiful houses, but they live in a desert at 3000 meters (9000 feet).

Traditional building in Ladakh was relatively cheap because houses were made mostly of earth and straw. Labor was cheap because your family and neighbors built the house with you.

But because of the cold climate, the entire house was used for less than half of the year. Fuel (dung or wood) is scarce in Ladakh, so during the winters the entire family lived in one room: the kitchen. Cooking also heated the living space while the rest of the house literally froze. Both eco and thrifty. Right on!

While we won't be restricting ourselves to the kitchen just yet, we have cut the size of our interior living space by 40 percent for the winter. Here's how:

Step 1: Frame a doorway in the central hall.

Step 2: Carefully install door purchased for $5 at local auction.

Step 3: Use leftover GIB around frame.

All that remains for step 4 is to paint and put up the trim. Step 5: curtains.

Note that we have cut off the south (poleward) side while we have increased solar gain on the north (toward the equator) side. The two large bedrooms on the south side where our interns John and Amy stayed over the summer are now secure storage for surf boards, bicycles and tools. These rooms will buffer our living space from the cold southern winds and provide dead air space (insulation). Also, they're a great space to store our great pumpkin harvest.

Come spring, we'll open the door again.

Peace and perspective, Estwing

Sunday, April 24, 2011

Sustaining the Unsustainable

By all reasonable, quantitative measures, the global financial system is spinning out of control. Those of you familiar with fiat currency know that it is a giant Ponzi scheme where everything appears to be functioning well until it all comes tumbling down.

We all know that happened in 2008, but the numbers show we are due for another go-round soon. Of course clowns like Bernanke and Geitner will deny it and do everything in their power to build the pyramid higher and higher - making the inevitable crash even worse. Take the U.S. debt, the Greek debt, the Irish debt, for example. As Mike Shedlock says, "What can't be paid back, won't be paid back." But in the meantime, the financial policies coming out of Washington and New York just keep kicking the can down the road.

In other words, they are sustaining the unsustainable and doing it with more and more debt. We are destroying the planet at an accelerated rate on credit. And why? Maybe this headline has something to do with it.

(Source: The Wall Street Journal)

It is a disturbing and unsustainable trend.

Over the last 5 decades the share of food and energy as a percentage of consumer spending have decreased. Meanwhile, wages have remained stagnant for the last decade when considering inflation. At the same time, state and local cut-backs (aka "austerity measures") require individuals and families to spend more on what were formerly public services. Ultimately, a combination of debt, loan repayments, government cut-backs and higher food and energy prices will force "consumers" to cut back. That is when the unsustainable cannot be sustained anymore, although I suspect Bernanke will continue to "print money" and keep interest rates ridiculously low as those seem to be his only strategies.

So the moral of the story is, if you have any money in an American bank, 1) you are not earning any interest on it, and 2) it is becoming worth less and less every day through Bernanke's policies of "monetary easing." So get your money out of a bank and put it...

...under your mattress. Not exactly. Put in in your ceiling, in your walls and on your roof.

Insulation and solar hot water are about the best investments you can possible make at the moment. They will return more in savings that any bank, and they cannot be de-valued by the Federal Reserve. Being eco-thrifty is not about not spending money, it is about spending it in the right places. Along with immediate energy savings, these types of investments will add to the long-term value of you home more than any other "home-improvement" project.

Peace, and preparation, Estwing

Friday, April 22, 2011

Something else old...

Continuing the theme from the last post, I'd like to share more ideas about the interface between old and new. Clearly, there is much to address.

Sometimes there is no cohesive marriage of the old and new, and it makes more sense to remove or replace something no longer useful. For instance, this is the last of the villa windows. Both panes are broken and it faces south (ie, poleward here in NZ). Although beautiful, it is a major energy loser and replacing the glass would be costly.

It will be removed in the same way as the old window that was in the center of the wall in the image below. The cavity will be insulated and sealed.

The window that was just to the left of the electric box faced southwest. This made it a net energy loser in winter and a net energy gainer in summer: the worst of both worlds. So we essentially "swapped" it across the house into the northeast wall.

This maintained the same amount of glazing, but this window is a net energy gainer in winter and more or less neutral in summer. As for the old rusticated weatherboards we removed to apply the new siding, some will find new life as pelmets indoors above the windows.

If you are asking yourself, "What's a pelmet?" tune in to a post in the near future. Until then...

Peace, and pray for Perry's Texas. Amen, Estwing

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Something Old, Something New...

Forget borrowed and blue, melding the old with the new is what renovation is all about. And I would also argue that it is what sustainability, and much of permaculture for that matter, are all about. In other words, it is about carefully choosing what 'modern' technology to embrace while maintaining appropriate traditional materials and techniques. For instance, back on my farm in New Hampshire I had solar electric panels to power my 220 year-old farm house, but used antique hand tools including a scythe and hewing axe.

Trollbacken, Andover, NH. 2006.
One of the most sustainable properties in North America.

Here in Whanganui we are connected to the grid and I am using more power tools on this project. But we still meld the old with the new. Take GIB for example. Some of the plasterboard on our walls serves as bracing for the house. The major bracing elements must be built using Braceline GIB. (Yes, it is blue.)

Standard GIB (GS1) to the left, and Braceline GIB (BL1) to the right.

Other bracing elements require plywood. (Not borrowed.)

Plywood bracing panel with old sheet of GIB to cover it up.

We are happy to use new materials for these bracing elements, because the most sustainable house is the one that does not fall down. But in case of the Braceline GIB and the ply, non-bracing sheets abut bracing sheets, and/or go on top of them. Instead of buying new sheets of plasterboard for these, we are simply reusing many that were left laying around when we took possession of the structure. Note that these are light brown in the following shots.

Bracing sheet (left) meets non-bracing sheet (right) above the French doors.

In one case, we had leftover off-cuts of Aqualine Gib from the bathroom, so we used that as well. Note that Aqualine is treated with a fungicide and should not be used in gardens. Therefore, we wanted to use up the Aqualine off-cuts first, and then have any leftover standard GIB off-cuts for the gardens.

Aqualine GIB off-cuts fill in above the other French doors.

And, because this is a wonky reno project, an existing wall was designated to become a brace wall in the new plan. But we did not want to tear it out and then rebuild it - neither eco nor thrifty. (Note to builders: Luckily, there was sarking on both sides of this wall which, more than likely is much stronger than a GS1 brace wall.) So what we did was screw the existing GIB off in the bracing pattern as required by the building code.

Note the screw pattern on the white bit to the right.

Granted, at the moment we have 5 different colors of GIB on our walls: blue, green, grey, white and brown. But after our gib-stopper friend comes to this weekend and we get a coat of primer/sealer on them, they awkward joins will disappear.

But even having lined all of the walls, we still had more GIB leftover, in addition to the old villa window frames (cleared of all that pesky glass by helpful local enthusiasts.) And so we combined these old items in the skillful hands of Amy-the-intern to create a pair of amazing new paintings.

Thanks Amy! Now, what to do with the rest of these? Any suggestions?

Peace, (and we just passed our 'post-line' inspection. Yahoo!) - Estwing

Monday, April 18, 2011


It is hard to believe that we've been onto this for nearly six months. But the first blast of Antarctic wind yesterday put an end to the 'Indian Summer' and foretold of days to come. A neighbor called it a "lazy wind." "Doesn't bother going around you. It goes right through."

We spent time on the weekend further transitioning our garden from summer mode to winter mode. This included harvesting basil...

...and seeding carrots, boc choi and chives.

We also made time to save bean seeds for next year.

And we even had enough surplus for the first time to give some greens away to our neighbors.

The productivity has been amazing. This tagasaste tree was up to my knee 6 months ago when we planted it, and now it's over my head.

The whole place has blossomed from an abandoned wreck into a home.

Life has been bountiful here at Arawa Place.

And when life gives you basil...

make pesto!

Peace, and pass the pine nuts, Estwing