Monday, July 29, 2013

Processing Our Chooks

Our four hens have grown old and their egg production has dropped off. We have not seen an egg for 6 weeks and it is likely to be another four to six weeks before they start up meager laying with the spring. Instead of feeding them through the winter, we decided to eat them and then buy layers in the spring. Here is a brief description of our process.

* Please note there are some photos that show the humane killing and processing of chickens.

First, I like to carry chickens by their feet. I'm told when the blood rushes to their heads that they calm down. I have found this mostly to be the case.

I made a killing cone and mounted it over our compost pile, but then we discovered a youtube video of a woman slitting a chicken's throat without a cone, but just squeezing it gently between her knees. We decided to go with this option. In the video, she gently massaged the neck where she would make the cut. She also held the beak and head in an overhand grip, as you can see below. My index finger was on her beak a little like the trigger of a gun, and my thumb firm but gently head the back of her head so she would not squirm at all.

I pulled just enough tension on her neck to keep it straight, and so that she would not wriggle.

I'm not sure how the muscovies felt about witnessing this event, but they happened to be next to the compost pile at the time.

It took only about a minute for the blood to drain from the neck.

We don't have pictures of the plucking, but here is where we did it. We dunked the birds in hot water and then hung them up to be plucked.

We collected the feathers to put into the compost.

Jessea gutted the birds and then we put them in a pot with homemade veggie stock for a long boil. You can also see our homegrown pumpkins and homegrown blackbeans cooking.

The whole process took about two hours - faster than I would have expected. Mind you, we had three people working together on 4 chooks.

The entire process was very calm. There were no freaked out, clucking chooks or people. I think the mindful processing of these birds is about as good as it gets.

Peace, Estwing

Friday, July 26, 2013

Passive Solar Renovation

The other day we were driving home at about 5:30 – just after sunset – and could barely make out plumes of wood smoke exiting cowls on Heads Road and Cornfoot Street. The day had been sunny, but cool, as would be expected in July. Our curtains were still open, so we hurried along while remaining under 50 km/hr.

We parked, grabbed the bubs and groceries, and walked inside. Upon entering our old villa on Arawa Place, we were pleased to feel the warmth gifted us by the sun. The thermometer in the kitchen read 23 degrees Celsius.

By now, my wife is tired of hearing me say, “Wow, it’s so warm in here. I can’t believe all those houses had wood burners going.”

I chalk the difference up to legacy and sunlight.



Unfortunately, Whanganui has been left with a legacy of thousands of homes built with seemingly no regard to the sun or even thermal comfort for that matter. Many of the dwellings I’ve audited during the last three months through Project HEAT share these characteristics: cold in winter and hot in summer.

Our home would have been the same before its passive solar renovation. As a matter of fact, we met a woman shortly after we bought the villa who told us, “I’ve been in that house before. I babysat there once. That’s the coldest house in New Zealand.”

While no longer the coldest home in the country, it is still far from the warmest. But on a sunny winter day, we find ourselves toasty warm inside long after dark, and with plenty of solar heated water – all free energy with no daily line charge!

The primary way we tapped into this free, abundant energy source required no specialist equipment and no specialist skills. As a matter of fact, the ‘solar collectors’ we used already exist in every home in the country: windows. The problem with most homes is that the windows are evenly distributed between the north, south, east and west.

On sunny winter days, only the northerly-facing windows have a positive energy balance. In other words, they gain more heat through sunlight energy during the day than they lose through radiation at night (if properly curtained, as you would). All of the other windows have negative energy balances even on the sunniest of winter days.

For us, the obvious solution was to ‘shift’ windows from southern exposure to northern exposure. While retaining roughly the same amount of total glazing, we were able to dramatically improve the solar gain of this old villa where – once upon a time – someone decided to put the toilet in the north corner.



Shifting the toilet to a more appropriate location was accompanied by opening up the north corner to create a bright, warm, cosy kitchen with French door access to abundant backyard vege gardens and an outdoor pizza oven. All of the work was done in accordance with the New Zealand Building Code, with special attention paid to weather-tightness and bracing.

At the same time, we insulated the ceilings as well as those walls that were opened up during the renovation. And finally, we added thermal mass inside of the building envelope to moderate and store solar thermal energy, but that, my friends, is a story for another day.

Friday, July 19, 2013

Bad Advice - Good Advice

Bad advice can come at a good price, or even for free. What appears cheap initially, can prove expensive in the long run. Of course we don’t know if advice is good or bad when we first get it – that’s why it’s called advice.

Be aware, however, that often times the person offering advice may also be offering a product or service to sell based on that advice. This is particularly true of the automotive repair and home improvement professions.

For example, most of us know little more about our car than where to put the key, where to put the petrol, where to put the wiper fluid, and maybe where to put the oil. When there is a problem, we take it to a mechanic for advice and, most likely, servicing and parts. I suspect this is why everyone says, “You need to find an honest mechanic.”

An honest mechanic will give you good advice at a fair price. She or he is, after all, a trained expert in the field and deserves to make a living.

The same should be said of builders and architects. They are trained professionals who deserve a fair wage. But from my observations in North America and New Zealand, very few builders, architects, or any trade for that matter, understand how energy flows through a home and how to optimize thermal comfort and the health of the indoor environment. Please note I said few, not none.

This is what is possible when good design is involved.  

There are those in Whanganui in the design and building professions who know much more than me. We might call them ‘experts’ and their advice will be excellent, but not inexpensive. Remember, you get what you pay for, and in cases involving the energy performance of your home, expert advice may pay for itself in energy savings over the course of ten, twenty or thirty years. That, I consider, is a good investment, and anyone considering a new build or a major renovation should budget the advice of an eco-design expert into the cost of their project.

I remember a project in New Hampshire – where I used to live – where a company was able to double the size of its offices without having to increase the size of the heating and cooling system. They did this by hiring an ecological design advisor who did some research, crunched some numbers, and made recommendations that saved them tens of thousands of dollars by not having to install a second heating and cooling system. On top of that, they enjoyed lower operating costs. That said, businesses tend to be more budget conscious than householders.

That said, I have seen more than a few examples of bad advice and bad design over the course of the last three months and 80 free home energy audits provided by Project HEAT (Home Energy Awareness Training). That bad advice, in some cases, has cost homeowners thousands of dollars – money that could have been much better spent elsewhere. Unfortunately, that’s water under the bridge, or, rather, heat through the building envelope.

Hurry, free advice ends this month.  

But for you, however, I may have something to offer in these the waning days of Project HEAT. Please note, I have nothing to sell but practical advice made possible through the generosity of an anonymous donor along with community-minded Whanganui citizens Melinda Hatherly, Murray Jones and Jason Quinn.

And that said, Act Now! Limited time offer! Don’t miss out! Free advice for a warm, dry, healthy home.

Seriously, if you have a question, please ring me. 

Friday, July 12, 2013

Creative Reuse and Eco-Art for Kids

Creative reuse, or what some people call “repurposing,” is common practice among the ‘oily rag’ crowd. Seeing a practical and/or beautiful use for something in a second life exhibits a form of thinking that is simultaneously creative, ecological, and fiscally responsible.

Once a dangerous deck... 

... now a beautiful, functional fence. 

My talented wife spends many hours on a website called Pinterest, where other talented wives post digital images of their ingenuity and then feed off of the ingenuity of others. This feeding frenzy of creativity is called ‘pinning’ and probably also ‘re-pinning.’ I don’t know much about the site, except: 1) it eats free time; 2) there are some amazing photos from re-purposers far more creative and talented than us.

Nonetheless, we do our best to make things for our home that are functional, beautiful, and easy on the planet. One example is the pelmets I made from rusticated weatherboards that we removed while re-cladding. Turning the old, weathered cladding into an attractive interior feature required a lot of scraping and sanding, priming and painting, and then some more painting. This is what they do not show on Pinterest!

I’ve written about our pelmets before so I’ll put this briefly. I inverted the weatherboards so that the scallop was facing down (opposite of its orientation as exterior cladding), and ripped them lengthwise with a circular saw to suit the width for different rooms. The photos show 1 and 1/3 weatherboards screwed together to make a tall pelmet reaching from the top of the door in our ‘mud room’ to the ceiling.

 Once a tagged weatherboard...

... now a pelmet.

Regardless of whether you like pelmets or not, you’ve got to admit this was a fine reuse of a demolition material on site. Perhaps our best example of such.

But judging from the two overenrolled window blanket workshops we ran last month, the humble but effective window blanket appears to be the most well-known of our eco-thrifty creations.

Yet, as with anything humble but effective, it has it detractors. About a year ago – when I first wrote about window blankets in this column – someone at the Saturday market passed on a comment from someone else that went something like, “How many middle-class, middle aged, women are going to put blankets in their windows at home.” Judging from the number of middle-class, middle-aged women who came to our workshops, a fair number.

From my perspective, just because something is eco-thrifty does not mean that it cannot be attractive. From a friend of mine’s perspective (an eco-engineer working in the Indian Himalaya at 3,000 – 4,000 metres), “Warm is always beautiful.”

Well kids, here’s your chance to combine these two perspectives into one great holiday programme at the Sarjeant Gallery! I have the pleasure to be working with art educator Andrea Gardner and artist Sue Cooke to run a free holiday programme for children ages 10 to 14 to make window blankets that are also works of art.

The programme runs 24th-25th July, with other cool “Art Adventures with Recycled Materials” happening the 16th-18th as well as the 23rd (ages 7-12). The programme is inspired by Sue’s Paradise Project showing at the gallery, and funded by Horizons Regional Council. Let’s call it, “The Fun Plan.” Please ring Sietske at the Sarjeant to enroll. 

Monday, July 8, 2013

Mid-Winter Gardens Update

Even in the heart of winter, we see new growth in the gardens and around the section. The prime examples include garlic...

broad beans...

and olive trees setting new leaves.

We also see broccoli, cauliflower and cabbages growing well without pesky white butterflies around.

Finally, we see one ripe lemon on our world's smallest lemon tree.

Figs cling to branches after the leaves have fallen.

But hungry birds are on to that.

Finally, check out what one of our plum trees has been up to!

There are dozens of these looped branches on the tree. Does anyone know why?

Peace, Estwing

Thursday, July 4, 2013

Serious Composting for Serious Results

When I was in intermediate school in the states, I took lots of nonsense state and national tests, but I didn’t need the government to tell me how dumb I was - my older brother was quite enough, thank you.

I was rubbish at these tests, and especially the “verbal” (English language) sections. I could never complete the “reading comprehension” sections in time, and was baffled by the this-is-to-that-as-the-other-is-to-what? I-was-like-wtf-mate!

Now that I’m no longer in school and have learned to think for myself, I understand the thought process of these types of questions. For example, the All Blacks are to winning as _______ is to losing. While there are lots of options here, I think most of us would agree that Wallabies is the most appropriate.

Try this one for yourself: Insulation is to an eco-home as ________ is to a garden.

While there may be a few possibilities, the best response is compost.

Compost and insulation share the following characteristics:

Neither makes good cocktail party conversation.
Each remains slightly mysterious to many people.
Both are the unsung heroes of their respective domains.
Each must be done properly to function well.

An energy-efficient dwelling is only as good as its insulation, and an organic garden is only as good as its compost. There are many other factors that go into a home or garden, but these are the biggies.

Oh, and one more thing they have in common: Winter is a good time for both.

Obviously the colder months are when we rely on insulation in our homes to keep us warm, but winter is also an excellent time to make compost in preparation for spring planting. Nothing beats having an excess of high quality compost at the ready.

Making your own compost is the cheapest and best way to obtain a quality product. It’s not rocket science or brain surgery, but some knowledge and skills are required.

I usually make 1 cubic metre at a time, although at the moment I have six cubic metres going. Hot composting relies on a certain ratio of volume to surface area to stay warm – up to 50 or 60 degrees – which is reached at about 1 cubic metre. As the pile ‘cooks’ the volume shrinks as carbon dioxide and water vapor are ‘exhaled’ by the micro-organisms munching happily away.

Hot composting requires a balance of carbon-rich material such as shavings or brown grasses and nitrogen-rich materials such as manure, food scraps or green grass clippings. The materials should be layered so as to maximize the contact between carbon and nitrogen. Build a pile but don’t constrain it.

I am an advocate for free-range compost: no bins, no boxes. This makes turning the pile easier, as oxygen is the limiting factor. Turning a well-balanced pile once every 48 to 72 hours for one month will result in the best compost you’ve ever made. This has been the secret to my vege production for over a decade.

However, I have run into a challenge lately with some so-called ‘biodegradable’ products that are being promoted around Wanganui. After four months of hot composting they show no sign of decomposition. Upon contacting the supplier, I’ve learned they require 6 to 18 months to break down, which doesn’t fit my timetable. I guess the bottom line is that not all biodegradables are created equal. Caveat emptor.

Want to learn more? Check out these upcoming workshops:
The Carbon-Neutral Lawn: 13th July, 3-4 pm, or 14th July, 3-4 pm.
How to REALLY Compost: 13th July, 4-5 pm, or 14th July, 4-5 pm
Registration essential: 344 5013  -  022 635 0868 -