Friday, November 30, 2012

Retrospective #30: Change is Good.

1st, December, 2012. Welcome to the first month of the rest of your life. I do not know much about the Mayan Prophesy, but I do know that 2012 was one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen. From what I understand, some people say the world will end this month. Others claim it will be more of a transformation that takes place: the death of old ideas and ways of thinking, not the death of all life on Earth.

I don’t know about you, but I prefer the latter of these scenarios. I prefer it for a number of reasons: 1) I have a bubs who is three months old; 2) I’ve got a little more living to do myself; 3) I reckon there are a good number of old ideas and ways of thinking we’d be better off without.

Yesterday (30th November, 2012) was the official due date of my doctoral thesis, which represents four years of research, careful thought, and a massive amount of writing and rewriting. The gist of my thesis is that school science can be taught in such a way – relevant, experiential, local, solution-oriented – as to improve students’ scientific literacy, ecological literacy, and some students’ attitudes toward studying science. If you were one of those students who did not like science and dropped out as soon as you could, this approach to science teaching and learning is (was?) for you!

Transformation as nature does it

But this week’s column is not about boring you with the finer details of science education research, it is about transformations and seeing things differently. The reason I included the reference to my thesis above is to emphasize that transformation from old ways of thinking to new ways of thinking is not necessarily something to fear or avoid, but to welcome. For example, those students who reported a more positive attitude toward studying science when it was more experiential, local, relevant and solution-oriented experienced a change in their perception of school science. Would anyone argue this was a bad thing?

Transformation as nature does it

If December, 2012 brings about a change in our collective thinking that results in a more kind, just, fair and sustainable world, who would argue against it? (Actually, I think I may be able to name a few.) The point is that change – while sometimes scary and unpredictable – is often for the best. And that’s how a pile of wood sitting in a warehouse in Aramoho became a kitchen floor in Castlecliff.


The off-cuts and B-grade Tasmanian oak was not of use to the door manufacturer, so he put them up on TradeMe with a Buy Now price of something like $88. I did not know what I might use the timber for at the time, but I knew it was a bargain. I clicked it up and then I picked it up. And then it sat in our yard under roofing iron for over a year.



I don’t know when or why the motivation struck (probably when I was good and tired of writing my thesis), but one day while my wife, Dani, was at work, our Chinese intern Ji Qiao (don’t ask, it’s a long story) and I transformed the kitchen floor from trashed to treasured. The look on Dani’s face when she returned home said it all: “Change is good.”


Tune in next week for the tale of the Chinese intern, his smart phone, and how to get a 15.2 m2 floor out of 15.4 m2 of timber. 

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Retrospective #29: Kitchen Vision

This is the 29th in a series of articles appearing in our city's newspaper, the Wanganui Chronicle

Last week I wrote about transforming a tired, old kitchen cabinet into a fresh, new kitchen cabinet. The key elements in that process were: 1) vision; 2) patience; 3) resourcefulness. In many ways, these are the same elements required when taking on a major home renovation. If you’ve ever seen the British television programme, Grand Designs, you will know that those couples who lack a clear vision and/or are impatient usually exhibit the most stress. While this makes brilliant entertainment, it does not make for a good renovation process.

All renovations require vision and patience, but not all renovations require resourcefulness. Let me explain.

Under one scenario, you could hire an architect who helps you with the vision and a builder who asks you to be patient. The builder asks you to be patient because renovations almost invariably take longer and cost more than anticipated (see Grand Designs). This approach to renovation does not necessarily require resourcefulness because most (but not all) architects and builders will assume that they are working with all new, off the shelf products, materials, and accessories. In most cases, if you want to do something out of the ordinary, it will end up costing more in labour due to the extra time required. There is nothing wrong with this scenario, and it can result in beautiful, functional living spaces.

By contrast, an eco-thrifty renovation (ETR) involves vision and patience, but also requires resourcefulness. (You may recall that three of our seven design principles are reduce, reuse and recycle.) In many cases, the resourcefulness involved in ETR actually increases the level of vision and patience required (ask my wife). An example of this would be our $2,500 kitchen that took over a year and a half to complete. Aside from some structural elements required by the building code, nearly everything else is second-hand. Despite that (maybe because of it) we now have one of the coziest, most comfortable kitchens I’ve ever been in.


Alongside the hanging cabinets I wrote about last week, other reused components include: the kitchen bench; the cabinet under the bench; the electric oven; butcher block; Welsh cupboard; Schacklock 501 and the bricks in the surround; light fixtures; pelmets; and, it may be argued, the Tasmanian oak floor. The floor, while not technically made from reused or second-hand (ie, previously used for another purpose) materials, is made from off-cuts and B-grade timber that I bought on Trade-Me from a door manufacturer in Wanganui. The floor – which will be the topic of next week’s column – is another great example of resourcefulness, vision, patience…blood, sweat, and tears. So make sure to tune in next week.


Because we reused second-hand components in the kitchen, and I did most of the work myself, the bulk of the $2,500 went to plumbers. Besides that, I hired one friend to do the Gib-stopping and another to do the brick-laying. Money well spent in my opinion! Other expenses include the Shacklock 501 ($250 on TradeMe) and the refrigerator ($300), which we purchased new for two reasons: 1) we had recently been through a bad experience with a second-hand washer; and, 2) most second-hand refrigerators have low Energy Star ratings. After an electric hot water heater, a refrigerator is likely to be the largest energy user in the average home. Part of our strategy for low power bills is to use an under-the-bench fridge with a high Energy Star rating. It uses about ¼ of the power of a standard full-size fridge. Plus, all of the squatting down to get a cold beer has given me buns-of-steel. Look for my workout video on YouTube! 

Peace, Estwing

Friday, November 16, 2012

Retrospective #28: Beauty from Vision

For the last couple of weeks, I’ve been writing about many of the aspects and levels of ‘resilience’ addressed by eco-thrifty design thinking. One of those articles focused on the peace of mind provided by a low-energy and low-resource home, and the other talked about the growing global movement towards resilience to storms: both literally in terms of damaging storm surges such as Hurricane Sandy in New York, and figuratively like the damage caused by financial ‘storms’ such as the global financial crisis which appears focused in Europe.

While examples of resilience can be gleaned from around the globe and connections can be made to our local context in Wanganui, I do not mean to overshadow another important component of eco-thrifty design thinking.

There is no reason things cannot be made as beautiful as they are resilient.

This also gives me the opportunity to thank Terry Lobb for her kind words three weeks ago when we swapped columns. Terry wrote about the aesthetics of our $2,500 eco-thrifty kitchen by focusing on a number of key elements including the cabinets over our hob with their leadlight doors that reminded her of fantails.

I love fantails, I love those leadlight doors, and I love where we got them: Hayward’s Auctions. Not only is the weekly auction great entertainment, but bargains can be had of an eco-thrifty nature: low cost and high performance. We paid a fair price for the leadlights – about $50 for the pair – but ended up with a design element in our kitchen that punches above its weight. In other words, the value we receive from these beautiful doors far outweighs the price we paid for them.

This is not to ignore, however, the fact that we had to sand back the wooden frames, and then carefully apply two coats of primer and two coats of paint. The other thing I had to do was build cabinets to suit them. It took me nine months from purchasing the doors to realize the cabinets had been here all along. I just had to remove part of the forest to see the trees.

During the process of turning the old kitchen into the new bathroom, we had to take down the old cabinets with their classic 1950’s Kiwi-mint-green doors. While that color is bound to make a comeback one day, it is not today. 

We removed the unit and put in a back room to serve as miscellaneous shelving. And there it sat until one day, for no particular reason, I had a vision.

The vision was that by cutting away at the cabinet and reshuffling some of the bits, this old rimu unit could see new life in a new kitchen in the same old home. The process was almost exactly like pruning a tree, a process that also starts with a vision. The series of photos show how the process unfolded.

First, I removed the Kiwi-mint-green doors and took the cabinet outside. I carefully measured and marked where I wanted to remove parts of the old cabinet that was too big for our new kitchen. 

Next, I pruned away some off the length. 

Then some off the height. 

Then – and this was the hardest part – I had to reshuffle some of the bits so that the new, smaller doors would be centered on the pruned (smaller) version of the cabinet. 

Like any form of renovation, the work may proceed slower than building something new because we are forced to work around pre-existing elements. However, when care and time are taken, the results can be worth the effort. 

Peace, Estwing

Monday, November 12, 2012

Permaculture Garden Tour

Scratch to Patch Permaculture Garden Tour: From garbage dump to thriving edible landscape with over 100 perennial fruit trees and bushes in under 2 years.

Saturday, 17th November, 2:30 - 3:30 pm: (This tour is scheduled to match Saturday Castlecliff bus service). 10 Arawa Place, Wanganui. Koha

Sunday, 18th November, 2:30 - 3:30 pm: 10 Arawa Place, Wanganui. Koha

Front lawn before 

Front lawn during

Front lawn after

Back yard before and after

Side yard before and after

Lazy gardening

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, November 8, 2012

'Storms' & Resilience

I’ve written lately about some of the big ideas behind eco-thrifty renovation including the amazing power of design (Chronicle 27-10-12) and ways in which a low-energy home can empower the occupants by allowing them to worry less about raising power bills (Chronicle 3-11-12). What these two big ideas of eco-thrifty design have in common is the notion of resilience.

Resilience is the ability to weather a storm, to persist in the face of adversity, to ‘roll with the punches.’ Resilience is a cornerstone of Aotearoa/New Zealand. The first human settlers to come here – both Maori and European Pakeha – left familiar, comfortable surroundings to venture to a new (for them) land. Each group – in their own way and in their own time – had to remain resilient to all that the Land of the Long White Cloud could dish out.

For both, that often meant storms, or as the media like to call them, ‘weather bombs.’ Early Maori structures and the current Building Code both consider high winds and driving rains. In both cases, this is called appropriate design. You will recall, however, a time in New Zealand history when such appropriate design and construction was not practiced. That time is remembered as the era of ‘Leaky Buildings.’

But, as Bob Dylan, warns, “The times they are a-changing.” As someone who has followed discussions on global climate change for over two decades, I’ve been interested recently (the last three years) that the dialogue has turned from one of ‘prevention’ to one of ‘adaptation.’ Adaptation, in this sense, means planned resilience. From what I can tell, world leaders have resigned themselves that humanity lacks the collective will to keep carbon dioxide levels below what is considered ‘safe’ by the vast majority of climate scientists. The result, as documented in a flurry of recent pear-reviewed papers, is an increasing incidence of extreme weather events.

This was the prediction, and now data has born it out. What’s left for us to do is ‘batten down the hatches.’ Aotearoa / New Zealand has always be buffeted by storms, it’s just that now those storms are likely to become more frequent and stronger. A corollary to this – for those shocked by the increase of home insurance premiums due to the Christchurch quakes – is that we will all pay more to clean up after those storms.

One recent ‘storm’ that most Europeans are paying dearly for is the so-called ‘Global Financial Crisis.’ Like predictions on climate change, the GFC was also forecast but the warnings were ignored. Greeks, Spaniards, Irish, Brits, Portuguese, etc are paying for the storm through the appropriately named ‘austerity measures’: cutbacks in education, health services, libraries, swimming pools, etc.

Funny that many of the same things are happening in the states but no one dare use the word ‘austerity.’ Instead, the high and mighty politicians who racked up 16 trillion dollars in debt suddenly talk about the need for ‘fiscal responsibility.’

Be it York or New York, Las Cruces or Las Vegas, Athens or Atlanta, communities of people are getting together and creating local resilience to global finance in the form of local currencies, time banks and barter and exchange systems. These have become particularly popular in Greece as it is on the leading edge of financial and economic turmoil.

Not that turmoil has anything to do with it, but Wanganui appears to be way ahead of even the Greeks regarding local financial resilience. The River Exchange and Barter System (REBS) has been in operation for over 20 years. You may have seen the stall at the Saturday market and wondered, “What’s that about?”

Well, here is the opportunity for you and your mates to learn more and to have some fun at the first ever REBS Quiz Night and Info Session. It’s only $20 per team of 3 to 5, but pre-registration is required.

Wednesday, 14th November. 6:30 – 8:30 pm
YMCA St. George’s campus
$20 per team of 3 to 5.
REBS members and non-members welcome!
To register your team, ring Donna on 345-7282

Friday, November 2, 2012

Resilience on Many Levels

I was fortunate to have the opportunity to speak recently to members of Balance Whanganui – a peer support group for mental health and addiction. They were an excellent, engaged group during the nearly two-hour presentation on eco-thrifty renovation. It was particularly enjoyable for me because they laughed at all of my jokes.

It was also enjoyable because I had the opportunity to draw parallels between healing a home and healing a mind. At its core, we have transformed a fragile and vulnerable structure into a robust and resilient one. This is, from my understanding, an aim of mental health treatment. “Life,” some say, “is less about what happens and more about how you respond to it.”

Homes and people are both subjected to external forces beyond their control. A home is subjected to wind, rain, earthquake, rates rises, electrical rate rises, and burglary. A person is subject to the pressures of social situations, financial stress, mood swings, rugby results, unexpected repair bills, family pressures, and the weather. In both cases, steps can be taken to build resiliency.

With the help of Building Control, we have made our home more resilient to wind, rain, and earthquake by following the New Zealand Building Code. We have made it resilient to rising electrical rates by investing in energy efficiency and solar energy. We have made it resilient to burglary by installing a home security system, but there is not much we can do about rates rises, which, along with electricity rates, outpace wage rises.

In the process of making our home more resilient, I have also improved my mental health. Like some other people, the sources of stress in my life are worries about: increasing energy and food prices, environmental degradation, financial uncertainty, Richie McCaw’s ankle, and social inequity. Through the process of renovating and living in our old villa and planting gardens, I have been able to address my concerns about rising energy and food prices, and in the process, financial uncertainty – to a certain extent. I also feel that I am doing my part to help the environment and to help low-income families and pensioners learn about easy, low-cost / high performance energy saving strategies.

A resilient home helps cultivate a resilient mind. In other words, I am more at ease because my home can better resist rising food and energy prices, and increasing severe weather events. (The conversation in the States right now is about how ‘resilient’ New York City was, is, and will be to extreme weather events such as Hurricane Sandy.) But I’m afraid Richie’s ankle will continue to linger on my mind.

I believe one of the great strengths of McCaw and the All Blacks is mental toughness. In sport, mental toughness is an expression of mental resilience: overcoming adversity be it injury, penalties, earlier mental mistakes, or the pressure to maintain a winning side.

Sport is often used as a metaphor for life, and now I’m putting forward the idea that making a home is also a metaphor for life. Energy wasting homes put the occupiers at the mercy of power companies while energy efficient homes help the occupiers take control.

The metaphor can be extended to the community level, as our city collectively faces many of the same worries as individuals. If each home in Wanganui saved just $10 per month on their power bill – quite easily accomplished – an additional $2 million dollars would be retained in our community each year rather than being sent to power companies in Wellington, Auckland and Christchurch. Additionally, warm, dry, low-energy homes have health benefits that would improve certain respiratory illnesses. And, as indicated by the positive feedback I received from the members of Balance Whanganui, I believe many residents would feel empowered by gaining a certain level of control over their power bill.

With all of this in mind, it only increases my sense of bewilderment as to why the Wanganui District Council would turn down an application to Community Contracts to bring home energy saving education to every suburb in the city. The application had the support of six community groups, but was turned down as the idea of providing easy to understand, practical advice and education to residents was not well aligned with the 10-year plan. With power bills tracking toward doubling in the next ten years, I wonder why it’s not.

Peace, Estwing