Thursday, February 21, 2013

Retrospective: Bathroom

Editor's note: This is an early posting of tomorrow's article in the Wanganui Chronicle. I won't have time to post tomorrow. 

Many renovations are heavy on kitchens and bathrooms and light on everything else. It appears that there is a belief that these improvements will increase the resale value of a home while also improving functionality and/or style for the current occupants. That thinking is hard to argue with, except that new kitchens and bathrooms can cost tens of thousands of dollars each, and that the housing market appears to be stalled in Wanganui, and it could take quite a while for dwellings to appreciate enough to ‘pay’ for the renovations when ultimately sold. (Wow, that was a long sentence.)

Old kitchen before conversion to bathroom.  

Large expenditures on new kitchens and bathrooms may exhaust a homeowner’s funds available for renovation, and preclude them from investing in strategies that will definitely pay for themselves in a matter of years, such as insulation and solar hot water. But let’s face it: insulation is not sexy. A new bathroom or kitchen is.

Old kitchen before conversion to bathroom.   

Eco-thrifty renovation is about finding the middle ground between serving the needs of a home’s occupants, keeping expenses reasonable, and putting less pressure on the planet. Instead of, say, spending $10,000 on a flash new bathroom and another $10,000 on a flash new kitchen, we were able to get functional and attractive versions of each, plus insulate our home and install solar hot water for under $20,000.

Terry Lobb wrote a guest column here on our kitchen a couple of months ago, highlighting some of the unique design elements made possible by shopping for second-hand, quality items, such as our antique leadlight cabinet doors purchased at Hayward’s Auctions and our Shacklock 501 coal range purchased on TradeMe. We used both of these sources, along with Wanganui’s Renovator’s Centre, when outfitting our $2,000 bathroom. Purchases included a claw foot bathtub, a toilet, a pedestal sink, a laundry tub, and a wall cabinet.

Temporary shower.  

Temporary shower.  

But quality, second-hand goods are just part of eco-thrifty renovation, which also includes efforts to improve thermal comfort and energy efficiency. Our bathroom has a large, northwest-facing window that receives a lot of winter afternoon sun that could potentially raise the temperature of the room to the high twenties, unless heat-tempering strategies were used.

We ‘capture’ some of the sun’s heat in thermal mass that takes the forms of a heavy, iron tub, and two layers of plasterboard on the wall opposite the window. Thermal mass absorbs excess heat in the afternoon, ‘stores’ it, and then releases it when the temperature of the room drops overnight. In order to slow the cooling of the room, we insulated the ceiling and the two external walls. We also installed a pelmet over the window, and use thermal curtains and window blankets during cold weather.

Extra layer to plaster board going being installed. 

This combination of materials and design strategies has provided us with an attractive bathroom (color choice made by the wife) in which we can take an evening shower in the middle of winter using free solar hot water, and then step into a 23 degree room also heated free of charge by the sun.

Fully installed tub and vanity.

All this was done in a tired, old villa. Imagine what one could accomplish if starting from scratch.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, February 15, 2013

From the Power of One to the Power of Community

By 8:30 on Sunday morning I was covered in stale beer and smeared with butter chicken sauce. It was not a scene from The Hangover II, but the scene at the service entrance to the Masters’ Games village at Springvale Park where a team of five hardy volunteers and I had just sorted 36 and ½ barrels of resources passing through what was the Zero Waste Events programme implemented at this year’s Games.

Of that total, we tallied 14 wheelie bins of glass bottles, 13 bins of aluminium cans, four bins of plastic bottles, four bins of biodegradables, a giant stack of flattened corrugated cardboard boxes, and just one and one half bins of general rubbish. Our resource recovery rate peaked at over 95% by volume and close to 99% by mass (on account of the weight of all those glass bottles). This is a world-class effort more than likely unmatched anywhere in New Zealand. The NZ Masters Games organizers, Trustees, and volunteers have much to be proud of for this accomplishment.

But like any world-class athletic feat, this performance had humble beginnings in smaller arenas. As well, the story of Zero Waste Events consists of a string of individuals who each committed themselves to a team that grew bigger and stronger with each new member. It is also the story of ordinary people advancing an ordinary idea to achieve something extraordinary. This is how it began…

Once upon a time, there was an overfed, long-haired, leaping gnome who decided to volunteer at the YMCA of Wanganui’s Connecting Families Day. He used his knowledge of waste management to encourage the Y to order only biodegradable cups for water and hot drinks. This is called, “pre-cycling” and the Y agreed. With that sorted, almost the entire resource stream for the event would be recoverable as compost or one of the many categories of recycling used in Wanganui.

The waste minimization effort was so successful that his mate took notice. He said, “Hey mate, why don’t we apply for funding so we can replicate this.” The gnome agreed.

Together they wrote an application to the Positive Futures Trust, and received a modest amount of funding. The pair managed a couple of small events in Wanganui before taking the idea to Mike Cronin at the NZ Masters Games. Mike was receptive, and must have mentioned it to staff member Simon Watson, who expressed an interest in joining the Zero Waste effort. Over the course of eight months, the four met to share ideas, plan, and try to get as organized as possible before the opening ceremony.

And then we were off like sprinters to a starter’s pistol! Thanks to the help of our Games volunteers, we managed the 10-day even like a relay race, passing on the Zero Waste baton from weary team members to fresh team members day by day, and all the way to a world-class finish.

From the gnome, to his friend, to Mike, to Simon, and to the volunteers, each character in this story made a decision to make a difference. In Dr. Seuss’s well-known story, The Lorax, the tale ends with a moral summed up in one word: Unless.

“Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing’s going to get better, it’s not.”

This is how the Power of One becomes the Power of Community.

Your Sincerely, Leaping Gnome

Friday, February 8, 2013

Partnering for a Healthier Community

Editor's note: This is today's column published in the Wanganui Chronicle, serving as one last invitation to community partners, and promoting our first 4 neighbourhood events. 

Project HEAT

After spending the evening at a friend’s home recently, I found my arms covered with goose bumps after a short walk to the car. It was a starry night with a crescent moon, and the temperature was dropping toward the single digits. More than a month after the summer solstice, we find ourselves sliding into autumn.

Earlier in the evening, I met a couple that told me they greatly appreciated the advice from this column last winter on ‘window blankets’. They told me that they tried them out and noticed positive results immediately. They felt their home was dramatically warmer, and that their childrens’ health had benefited from this eco-thrifty approach to slowing heat loss through windows.

That same evening, our hosts – a young couple with a 4-month old baby – mentioned that they had installed polythene sheets under their home and had noticed a major difference in terms of the rising damp.

Indoor (above) and Outdoor (below) temperatures in Celsius. 

Both of these are examples of the low cost / high performance strategies that home owners or renters or landlords can take to improve the energy efficiency and health of their dwellings.

Regular readers of this column will notice that I have not written about these types of things for the last four months. The obvious explanation can be summed up as: who wants to read about how to keep their home warm and dry during the summer?

This is not to say, however, that I am now proclaiming an end to summer, or that I intend to start writing about improving thermal comfort again this month. What it does mean is that I am inviting community groups and local businesses to become partners in Project HEAT: Home Energy Awareness Training.

Project HEAT helps renters and owners alike to make their homes warmer, dryer, healthier and less draughty in three ways: 1) presentations in every suburb explaining easy, low-cost ways to save energy at home; 2) home energy audits; 3) instructional DIY workshops that teach how to make and install low-cost energy-saving devices. The presentations and audits will be provided free thanks to the generous support of our financial backers. There will be a small fee for the DIY workshops.

Items donated by Bunnings. 

Although the project formally kicks off in March, I wanted to make one last offer to potential partners. At the moment, we have many different types of partners.

Our funding partners are Tree Life NZ Ltd. and an anonymous donor.
Our venue partners are the Josephite Retreat Centre, Wai Ora Christian Trust, Gonville Community Centre, and Progress Castlecliff.
Our in-kind partners are the Sustainable Whanganui Trust, Bunnings Hardware, the Sisters of Saint Joseph, the Wanganui Chronicle, Mediaworks, and the Wanganui Regional Primary Health Organisation.
Our educational partner is Community Education Services.

Presently we have funding for 10 neighbourhood presentations and 83 home energy audits. Our goal is to be able to provide 100 free home energy audits to low-income families and pensioners.

We have community presentations scheduled for Saint John’s Hill (4th, March), Aramoho (7th, March), Gonville (18th, March), and Castlecliff (19th, March). This leaves us six suburbs short of our plan to serve every neighbourhood in our city. If you don’t see your suburb on this list, please alert your church, sports club, or local hall, and have them contact me as soon as possible.

Together we can make a stronger, healthier and wealthier community. Join us.

Peace, Estwing

Saturday, February 2, 2013

Eco-Design Thinking

Editor's note: The following column appeared in today's Wanganui Chronicle to offer one more perspective on the ongoing issues with our waste water treatment plant. Is should be good for a laugh. 

Plant should work with nature, not against it.

Unlike most residents of Whanganui, I grew up around skunks. I’ve had skunks in my garbage. I’ve had skunks get into my food store while camping. Skunks had babies under my house once. And every dog I’ve ever owned has been skunked at some point in their lives. But never have I felt like I am living inside of a skunk…until now.

Whether it is opening the front door or opening the Wanganui Chronicle, I am constantly reminded of the continuing saga of the wastewater treatment facility at the heart of our malodorous melodrama. The commonly recommended remedy for a skunked dog is to wash it in tomato juice. If only our solution were as easy.

By most accounts, ‘fixing’ the problem will cost ratepayers on top of what we have already paid ‘experts’ to design, build and operate the facility. In slang usage, to skunk someone means to cheat them by failing to pay. In this case, however, it appears that ratepayers may be skunked by having to pay twice because of someone’s poorly done work whether that involved the design, the operation, or some protein discharge by industry. Someone made a mistake, but I see the problem as bigger than just finding someone to blame.

Instead of pointing the finger at ‘one of the above’ as others have in the pages of this paper over the last months, I’ll take a novel approach to the ‘problem’ by suggesting that the entire situation could have been avoided while dozens of local jobs could have been created if an eco-design perspective had been taken in the first place.

Eco-design is a large field with many slight variations, so I’ll focus on the work of two of the finest eco-designers on the planet: William McDonough and Michael Braungart. In their landmark book, Cradle to Cradle, the pair lay out their philosophy of “waste equals food” by promoting the idea that the mere concept of waste can be eliminated by designing systems in which the ‘waste’ of one process is the feedstock for another process. The same philosophy is held by Zero Emissions Research Initiatives (ZERI), which explains its perspective this way: “The common vision shared by the members of the ZERI family is to view waste as resource and seek solutions using nature’s design principles as inspiration.” (

From this perspective, protein discharges never would have entered the treatment plant as ‘waste’ because they would have been used by a secondary industry making a useful product and creating jobs. What we now face as a liability may have been made an asset that would both save ratepayers money and pay wages to local residents. The process of turning a ‘waste’ into a valuable product was depicted in one of the finest films of all time, Fight Club, where Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt and Edward Norton) recovers fat from the bins outside a liposuction clinic to make soap that sells for a very handsome profit. Waste = Soap = Profits.

From an eco-design perspective, any system can be designed to work with nature instead of against it. In the vast majority of cases, the end result saves money and provides a higher quality of life for human beings. Cheaper. Healthier. Better for the environment. This is known as a win-win-win situation. Yet our community now faces the exact opposite. Expensive. Unhealthy. Polluting. Having lived in New Zealand for four and a half years I cannot claim to have a worldview of a native Kiwi. But from a North American perspective, I reckon we’ve been skunked.

Peace, Estwing