Saturday, July 30, 2011

Times for Permaculture

There is a fantastic article on permaculture in the New York Times that is well worth reading.

I especially love the Lexus ad at the top of the page.

Of particular interest to me as an educator are the many references to transformative learning experiences that tend to accompany peoples' discovery of permaculture. Permaculture is a holistic, regenerative design system that can be applied to rehabilitating degraded land...

Transformed from a weed-infested yard full of rubbish.

...a falling down house...

Transformed from the verge of collapse to a warm, cozy home.

...or a dysfunctional, unsustainable culture.

The belief in perpetual growth without consequences must be overcome.

For learners of all ages, permaculture can be both the journey and the destination. And the truth is, we never really arrive. It is all about embracing certain levels of sustainability, peace of mind, and joy. Here are a few gems I picked out of the article that just might make their way into my dissertation. (See link above for source.)

“It’s an ecological theory of everything,” Mr. Cody said.

The ethic of permaculture is the movement’s Nicene Creed, or golden rule: care of the earth; care of people; and a return of surplus time, energy and money, to the cause of bettering the earth and its people.

In its effort to be universal, permaculture espouses no religion or spiritual element. Still, joining the movement seems to strike many of its practitioners as a kind of conversion experience.

As a system, permaculture impressed him as panoptic and transformational. “It shook my world,” Mr. Pittman said.

“I don’t know that anyone has ever done a double-blind study of permaculture,” said Mr. Pittman of the national Permaculture Institute. “Most people in permaculture are not that interested in doing those kinds of studies. They’re more interested in demonstrating it. You can see the difference in species diversity and yield just by looking at the system.”

As Mr. Weiseman observed, permaculture may be a “leap of faith.” But not leaping might have its own consequences.

“We know what’s right,” Mr. Weiseman said. “We know what’s best. We feel this thing in our bones and in our heart. And then we don’t do anything about it. Or we do. And I did. And it’s bearing fruit.”

And I thought all the NYT was good for was mulching the garden...

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

More on Pelmets

I mentioned in the last post on pelmets that we are using a different approach in the kitchen, dining room and bathroom than in the lounge. The lounge has a high ceiling so the pelmet was placed directly above the window. But the other rooms have low ceilings, so we are having the pelmets serve a second purpose as crown molding as seen here in the bathroom.

Note: Pelmet not yet painted.

After removing rotten studs, reframing the walls and putting up new plaster board, I nailed a 2 x 2 into the top of the studs at the ceiling. In this case, I also had to pack it off a little to make sure the curtain has enough clearance to open and close easily.

Above dining room window.

I have mentioned before that we are reusing weatherboard from the exterior for our pelmets. I've ripped it down to 150 mm but left on the rustication as seen in the next two images.

The nice curved bevel will make an attractive crown molding above the windows and the French doors. For continuity, I have run the pelmet/crown molding along the the wall-ceiling juncture on all exterior walls in the dining room/kitchen and in the bathroom. This ties it all together. Now if the wife would decide on a paint colour...

And finally, in the mud room/air lock, I used two weather boards to come down about 350 mm from the ceiling to cover the curtain rod that was mounted just above the door. This allows us to use a standard length curtain rather than having an extra long one custom made.

Please note in the image above that we are supporting local artists by hanging their original pieces in our home. Word up to MAE4!

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hedge Against Inflation

I have often written about investing in energy efficiency and food production capacity as ways to hedge against inflation. And none too soon!

Dominion Post, 19-07-11

This article from Wellington's Dominion Post points out that inflation is at a 21 year high, and that petrol is up 20% year on year, vegetables are up 20%, electricity is up 8% and...we'll skip the cigarettes. While no one may be happy to see these numbers, those who consciously design their lives with the expectation of such increases can at least know that all of their wise planning and efforts are paying off. (Not to mention a certain level of vindication from those friends and relations who like to criticize such plans and efforts.) Additionally, after over 20 years as an environmental educator, I have observed that there is no better way than high prices to convince many people to take so-called green steps such as conserving energy, recycling, driving less and planting a garden. That's one reason that we emphasize equally the economic and ecological benefits of this project.

For us, the prospects of climate change and peak oil (both of which are already here) motivated an intentional design strategy for the location, orientation and development of our property on Arawa Place. Taking a look at the Dominion article, I'll address the three areas of inflation that pertain to us.

Petrol: Simply put, we want to use a little petrol as possible. This influenced the choice of location of our house. We are three blocks from a bus stop and it is a six kilometer easy bike ride on a flat road to the city centre. Below is an excellent graphic from Good magazine showing the relative fuel efficiencies of different forms of travel. Note that bicycling is the most efficient form of travel on the planet!

Good Magazine

Vegetables: Over the last 8 months we have planted over 20 fruit trees and built close to 40 square meters of garden beds. We continue to build beds and plan to plant a dozen berry bushes in the spring. For a great set of photos showing the progression of our weed/rubbish filled yard into a food forest/garden go here.

Electricity: We have made major investments in solar hot water, a super efficient washing machine and insulation, and minor investments in light bulbs and a second hand under-the-bench fridge. All in, we are using less than 10% of the electricity as compared to the average Kiwi home, and our return on investment looks to beat even that high rate of inflation of 8%.

Our Eco-Eco approach is paying huge dividends for the planet and for our bank balance. And we want to share this success. I am just finishing up a PowerPoint presentation on the Eco-Thrifty Renovation "so far." Please contact us if you'd like to book a presentation in your community.

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Hooked on Pelmets

I have been interested in energy efficiency for decades, but I had never heard of a pelmet until I came to New Zealand 3 years ago. Now I'm hooked on them. This is what Wikipedia says.

A pelmet (also called a "cornice board") is a framework placed above a window, used to conceal curtain fixtures. These can be used decoratively (to hide the curtain rod) and also help insulate the window by preventing convection currents[1]. It is similar in appearance to a valance, which performs the same function but is made of fabric. A pelmet can be made of plywood[2], and may be painted, or fabric covered.

The convection currents mentioned are illustrated below with red arrows representing warm air and blue arrows representing cold air. The thick black lines are the wall and floor, the Yellow wavy line is the curtain, and the short, thin black line above the curtain is the curtain hanger.

Without a pelmet, what happens is this: Heat is radiated through the window as shown by the short, red arrows. This results in cold, heavy air falling to the floor, which creates negative pressure. Warm air is then drawn down from the ceiling to take its place. This warm air is cooled and the cycle continues. The entire room becomes a convection current fueled by the heat loss through the window. Not good for energy efficiency.

A pelmet (shown in green) breaks the convection cycle by creating a physical barrier to the air flow. The cold air next to the window does not sink and pull warm air from the ceiling. Genius! Thank you Mr. Pelmet.

Here is the pelmet we installed in the lounge. It is made from a beautiful old piece of exterior weather board mounted into the lintel.

We are using a different approach to pelmets in the kitchen, dining room and bathroom. I'll write about those in another post.

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, July 16, 2011

Update on School Programmes

For those of you interested in the ways we are using the ETR as an educational tool in schools, here is an update on three innovative projects we've completed and a sneak peak at one that is in development. What follows is a first draft for an upcoming article in our local paper.

Peace, Estwing

Conservation Education

From year 1 students at Aranui School to year 13 students at Wanganui High School, high quality, innovative sustainability education is reaching learners throughout the city. With financial support from the District Council, the Sustainable Whanganui Trust and the ECO School have been working together since January of this year to develop an adaptive approach to sustainability education that is responsive to the needs of both teachers and students. A principle aim of this effort is to respond to teachers' needs and to design educational projects that compliment - rather than compete with - The New Zealand Curriculum. Three projects have been implemented so far and another is currently in development.

Aranui School opened its doors to a week long project for the years 1 and 2 classrooms, which used a cross-curricular approach to teach about solar energy, recycling, composting and growing vegetables. Each lesson explored these issues through science, maths, social science, English, health and physical education, technology and the arts. The lessons engaged students' minds, hands, and even their feet - in the form of relay races, dance and educational games.

Wanganui Intermediate School's needs, however, were quite different. "We expressed our need to have sustainability issues linked to science curriculum requirements in the run-up to the Science Fair," said Keith Beautrais, Head of Science and environment Keith Beautrais. The approach that was designed in response was a 40 minute interactive presentation called "The Science of Sustainability" based on the types of science - primarily biology and physics - involved in a demonstration eco-renovation project in Castlecliff called the Eco-Thrifty Renovation. The presentation, said Beautrais, "made the link in a clever way - linking ideas with a narrative style. Many staff spoke to me about how useful the session was."

And finally, the approach at Wanganui High School was different yet again. Sustainability teacher Matt Carroll was interested in exposing his senior students to local sustainability initiatives. Two appropriate projects were identified: the Sustainable Schools Programme and the Eco-Thrifty Renovation. Lessons were designed to link these initiatives directly to the students previous learning and their understanding of the aspects of sustainability. Two classroom presentations were followed by a field trip to the Eco-Thrifty Renovation where the passive solar design was performing perfectly on a sunny, June afternoon.

Feedback from both teachers and students has been excellent for all three programmes, which has provided impetus for the development of another one called "Eco-Maths." The project has been developed in the form of a professional development session for teachers. Dates and locations will be announced soon. For more information contact The ECO School at:

-Nelson Lebo

Friday, July 15, 2011

Domestic Bliss

He mixes mortar while she makes pumpkin soup. Just a typical day here in Wanganui.

There are a few minor inconveniences when you are living amid a project like this. I'm sure many of you home renovators can relate to the dusty, constantly changing, always innovative living conditions.

We came home late one night last week and I was the first one in the door. MC grabbed my arm and said "Don't go in the kitchen unless you turn a light on!". When I entered I discovered what I am affectionately naming our "lion trap". A massive hole with sinister looking rebar spikes emerging from what used to be our kitchen floor.

Hmmm. O.K. then.

MC worked hard all week to turn the lion trap into the foundation for our multi-fuel cookstove, which he will install when he returns from Australia. I, unfortunately was not much help, due to a bruised vertabrae in my back. No lifting, twisting, or activity for 10 weeks. Yikes! So I compensated by baking, cooking, and cleaning.

Domestic bliss.

-June Cleverer

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Permaculture as Education

Kia Ora from Melbourne.

I am sitting in a hostel drinking instant coffee (yuck) and quickly posting before I am off for 4 days at:
This symposium brings EE researchers from around the world to think and talk about the future of research in the field. While I am pleased to have been invited, I will miss my other project, my ducks and my wife. (Also wish I could have finished putting in the wood-burning stove before I left. Stay warm, honey.)

What is exciting about being in the heart of international EE research are my constant attempts to consider it through a lens of permaculture. I am more than halfway through my dissertation and I am pleased at the way I have applied permaculture principles and ideas to every chapter. (That will be a big blog post one day in the future.) But this week - surrounded by academics - I will be curious about how the permaculture ethics apply to the field: Care for the Earth; Care for people; Share the surplus. Additionally, Australia just passed a "progressive" carbon tax, and so I'll be keen to hear how "progressive" it actually is from the Aussies.

I apologize for not writing about gardens, insulation or weather stripping this week. And I apologize for recycling another piece of writing (see below), but I received a bit of positive feedback on it through the Permaculture in New Zealand summer newsletter.

I promise I'll be back next week with more practical posts.

Educating Everyone

After living in New Zealand for two and a half years I finally
listened to Talkback Live. The good news is that it was not Michael
Laws. The other good news is that David Suzuki was the guest. The bad
news is that he does not mince his words regarding the fate of the
planet. The interviewer accused him of being an ‘alarmist’ to which
Suzuki replied, “Of course I’m an alarmist! I am trying to sound the
alarm so people will hear it!”

The Suzuki interview came just days after Dani and I went to a local
(bike-able) screening of the film ‘Home’ which was equally sobering.
At the end of the film, the sponsor stood up and commented on its
powerful message and urged us to “do something.” While I agree with
the encouragement to act, I take issue with its vagueness.

As educators, we need to provide the opportunities and resources for
learners of any age to take specific sustainable actions. I submit
that to be a permaculturist is to be an educator. A permaculture
practicioner who is unwilling to educate others is not a
permaculturist at all, but a survivalist. More than likely they own a
gun and 100 cases of canned beans.

After listening to Suzuki and watching the film, there would appear to
be ample reason to jump in the ute with Smith, Wesson and Watties, and
head for the hills. But as permaculturists, we recognize our survival
is only assured by the survival of those around us, and that education
is the key. Dani and I are, indeed, ‘doing something’ regarding
sustainability and education in a little corner of a little street in
a little city in a little country. But it is making a big difference
in our lives and the lives of those around us. We are permaculturists.
What else would we do?

Peace, Estwing

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I am so tired of climate change deniers! I am really quite irritated at them. My tolerance has worn out. I was thinking just that last night as a thunderstorm passed over us - in the middle of winter. I know there is a difference between weather and climate, but the documented increasing incidents of extreme weather (as predicted by climate scientists) indicates a changed climate. Fed up with certain local deniers, I wrote the following for our local currency (River Exchange and Barter System) monthly newsletter.

What is it called when someone predicts something and then they are right about it? Success? Do we call it success?

What do we call someone who has studied something for decades and is at the cutting edge of research in that field? An expert? Do we call them an expert?

It would appear that the "experts" of climate change (ie scientists) have experienced a good deal of "success" lately. Lets take extreme weather. The climate scientists predicted that global warming would lead to increasing incidences of extreme weather world wide. A number of peer reviewed papers have been published confirming this prediction quantitatively. But their success is our failure. Weather extremes cost individuals, governments and economies tens of billions of dollars annually. Just as REBS seeks to enable a strong local economy less vulnerable to volatile forces outside our community, what would it look like for Wanganui to protect itself from the volatile forces of climate change and the associated extreme weather?

Many of you will have seen your home owner insurance premiums skyrocket because of the Christchurch earth quakes and increases in reinsurance costs. What happens when the reinsurance costs of climate change pile on top? Plus rates increases to fix municipal infrastructure damage? And a compromised NZ economy due to impacts on agriculture?

Maybe it is time to listen to the "successful" "experts" and act accordingly.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, July 8, 2011


I was reminded recently that I have now spent three full years living and studying in New Zealand. I came to pursue PhD research in permaculture education at the University of Waikato in Hamilton. Before I enrolled in December, 2008, Dani and I spent 3 months house sitting in Wanganui. We liked the city and our friends here so much that after 2 years in the Hamilton area (2009 & 2010), we moved back to Wanganui and started this project while I write my dissertation. But those aren't the memories I'm talking about.

Just before flying into Auckland in June, 2008, I just missed my 15 minutes of fame back in New England. As I was sitting in the LA airport waiting to catch my connecting flight, I got an email from a TV news reporter from Boston. He wanted to do a story on my farm based on a recently published article in the Concord Monitor.

With gas at $4 per gallon, most people in New Hampshire can feel their wallets draining along with their car tanks. Not Nelson Lebo. He doesn't have a car. He's not worried about the cost of home heating oil either. And soaring food prices? Not much of a problem.

Lebo, 40, lives in a 1782 farmhouse in the woods of Andover that he has dubbed Pedal Power Farm. He heats it with wood cut from the property. He gets around on a bicycle. He grows much of his own food and buys locally otherwise. He gets his electricity from solar panels.

Lebo is no typical homesteader, content to stay tucked away in the woods, living off his land. He thinks he has ideas the rest of us could use. And he's ready to share them.

"I've been living in a post-petroleum world for the last 18 years," he said. "Everyone else is going to start living in a post-petroleum world next year."

Lebo has been a fixture in Andover since he was hired to run Proctor Academy's environmental program in 1991. He stopped working at the private school last year because of a herniated disk, but he still manages the organic gardens there. He was a part-time dorm parent this year.

But his teaching days are far from over. Let Lebo talk, and he will engage you for hours - he verges on ranting - about energy policy, American consumerism and the design principles around which he has built his life. One thing you won't hear much of is a holier-than-thou attitude.

He said he doesn't want to make people feel guilty about how they live. (He pointed out that he wears his hair in a crew cut and used to coach football, evidence of his own mainstream credibility.) He wants to encourage people to live differently. That, he said, is his "duty and obligation."

He and girlfriend Dani Lejnieks are moving

to New Zealand this summer, where Lebo will pursue a doctorate in environmental education, looking at how to apply permaculture principles - which say that human societies can be designed to mimic natural systems - to education.

Lebo thinks people should have less of an impact on the Earth as they become better educated. The way he sees it, most people become bigger consumers as they become bigger earners.

During his last few weeks in Andover, Lebo has been holding seminars at the farm, inviting a few people at a time to see how he lives. He has gone to some attendees' homes afterward, charging $40 per hour, to help them find ways to conserve energy. Some of his clients have been focused on living greener. Others want to save money.

Lebo said he used to call himself an environmentalist.

"Now I tell people I'm an economist," he said. "And not only that, I'm a conservative economist."

After years of being perceived as "just the kook at the end of the road," he said, his ideas - his way of living - are in high demand.

"It feels like my whole life has come to this moment," he said.

A 'lazy farmer'

Modern society has been designed around fossil fuels, Lebo said as he stood in front of his home on a recent sunny afternoon. But those fuels are running out.

"We, as a culture, will look back in 100 years and curse the designers," he said.

A moment earlier, he was praising one designer: the man who built his Old College Road home 226 years ago. He noted that the house, which he bought eight years ago, faces southeast, so the first rays of morning sun hit the front windows. The chimney in the center of the Cape-style home heats the whole house and is insulated from the cold.

The road in from Route 11 climbs a hill past several large, regal Victorian homes and sweeping green fields. It turns to dirt and narrows once and then twice, becoming bumpy and dark under the thick canopy of trees. The road crests a hill and continues into the small valley where the farm sits.

Story continues if you are interested:

It is not 100% accurate, but it gives the idea of what my farm was all about.

Peace, Estwing

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Act Locally, Share Globally

I am a natural skeptic about new technology. I am not an "early adopter." I am more Amish in my approach - carefully weighing the costs and benefits before choosing what is appropriate. The technologies we've chosen to embrace for this project have well-documented results for return-on-investment in terms of energy savings. Examples are insulation and solar hot water.

Education also embraces certain technologies. And naturally, I am skeptical about those as well. It took me years to appreciate the power of blogs and podcasts. But now I am sold on their educational value. One of my favorite podcasts is called Two Beers with Steve.

I have done a number of interviews with him in the past, but this one is designed to coincide with my do-dig garden series: Part 1, Part 2, Part 3.

While I remain skeptical about much of the use of the internet, I think it has been a great help to us sharing the success of this project with a world wide audience. Our goal is to demonstrate that being green is not expensive. On the contrary, not being green is expensive! We enjoy a high quality of life with very low energy and food bills, and we are actively involved in making our local community more sustainable. Some of our experiences may be considered useful by someone on the other side of the planet. The web allows us to share our story with them with a very low carbon footprint.

So as the environmental movement evolves, I propose the next stage of evolution involves acting locally and sharing globally. Governments and corporations won't do it for us. We need to help one another learn how to be green and save some green.

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, July 2, 2011

Update 3: The back half of the house

This is the third and final post in the Update Series, giving you a glimpse of our progress on the project over the past 8 months. The first post talked about the exterior of the house, the second about the front half of the interior, and this post will focus on the back half of the interior.

This part of the house, a lean-to added to the house around 1915-1920, was in a state of disrepair when we arrived. A previous owner, or several of them, had begun renovating the space. When we bought it, it had been divided into several small rooms on the north-eastern side and one larger room on the north-western side. We quickly made plans to swap this around to take advantage of the sun's free energy (and to block it out when we don't want it).

This is what the large room in the northwest looked like when we arrived. It had been used as a kitchen.

We constructed a wall (reusing the studwork from other walls we took down) to close off this room. It would be our new bathroom. We made sure to move the heavy cast-iron bath in before we put up the wall. (Every once in a while we go about things in the right order!)
We then removed the old kitchen cabinetry and brought in a toilet, vanity, washer and tub. Kiwi homes traditionally have a small toilet room separate from the bathing room. We opted against this, because we thought having one big room would allow us to use the space in more ways. We can now dry our clothes in here on damp days, and were able to position our heavy tub to catch the sun's rays from a northwest window, acting as thermal mass.
We then removed the window that faced southwest. This was a net energy gainer in the summer and a net energy loser in the winter. Quite the opposite of what we were aiming for.

And finally, this is the stage we are at now. We're fairly close to being done in this room (which is very exciting after living with only a camping shower since October). Just a few finishing details to get to before we have (finally!) a fully functional and beautiful bathroom!

Moving along the house, we get to the back door. Although, do you still call it a door when it is boarded up with iron so you can't get out, but still manages to let a huge amount of rain in. Let's call it our "back weather inlet". First step was to reframe the door and fix the damaged wall.
We then built the bathroom wall, creating a back entry-way that would help insulate our cozy house against harsh winds and cold weather in the winter. It would also be a handy place to store garden tools, boots, our solar cooker, and potentially a hot water heater.
But it turned out that our solar hot water cylinder lives on the roof, so our closet can now get used for storage. It's actually the only closet in the whole house. This picture is kind of confusing, but this is how the back entry way looks now. Our closet door is on the left and our two back doors (storm door and inner door) are shown under a home-made pelmet. Gum boots to the right and tools tucked in the corner to the left. We have yet to add a door to seal off this room, but when we do, I am hoping to find a glass one that will let the light into the hallway.

Alright, so finally we get to the new kitchen. As you can tell from the below pictures this was all studwork when we arrived.

It was tough to get a full shot because it was so narrow and dark, but this is a view moving down the length of the room, ending at the pièce de résistance.
In a show of manly strength and strength of stomach, Nelson removed the toilet and the water damaged wall beside it.

He then framed out the doorway for our custom aluminium french doors. These will provide a second entrance to the back of the house, while simultaneously letting more light and warmth into the northernmost corner. The new exterior doors, combined with an added doorway from this room into the lounge, creates a much more light, warm, and livable living space.
Then it was time to add the insulation.

And finally, this is what the kitchen looks like now, panning along the same view as the combined shot above.

We have since plastered and painted an undercoat. As I write, Nelson is pouring the foundation for our Shacklock multi-fuel stove, which will serve cooking and heating functions. We still have decisions to make about cabinetry and flooring, but we're getting closer.
And so that's where we're at. The 8 months have gone by quickly, and to be honest it is surprising to see the progress when we lay it out in pictures like this. It's a bit of a motivation booster! I think we can, I think we can. The finish line is in sight (although given my husband's love of creativity, I have a feeling this house will never really be "finished").

What have the past 8 months brought your way? What are you most proud of accomplishing since November?

-June Cleverer