Wednesday, July 2, 2014

The Thousand Year Old House

Why do we make and build so much of the things in our lives to be disposable? Our clothes, cars, appliances, furniture and even our houses? In 2011 the average age of a house in the US was 35 years. In Nevada it was only 19 years. The oldest average by state is in New York at 57 years. This doesn't mean that half of the houses of these ages will be torn down and replaced tomorrow, but it does indicate that a large portion of the houses in the US don't make it to their centennial birthday. The very oldest houses still standing were built in the middle to late 1600's making them about 350 years old. In contrast, there are houses in Europe that have been continually inhabited for the last 700 years. Now, part of this is due to the history of the European conquest of the Americas. But the Acoma Pueblo in New Mexico has been continuously inhabited since the twelfth century making it almost 900 years old.

Why is this important? Because building and making stuff consumes limited resources. This is important because we are quickly reaching the limits where these resources are being consumed faster than they can be replenished (have you bought anything made of mahogany lately?). Most things, like clothing, are impractical to make durable enough to last a lifetime (or several). But it turns out, a well built house that can last centuries, does not have to cost all that much more than one built to last only decades (they can, but it is not a requirement). The only question is why don't we bother?

Usually the answer is, it costs too much. But look at the oldest continuously inhabited building in the US in the picture above. It is essentially made of mud (adobe) and has lasted almost a millennium. Now, most of us don't aspire to live in mud huts, but it turns out you can make a very comfortable house that requires almost no energy to heat or cool out of mud, straw and sand for a fraction of the cost of a 'traditional' wood frame house. These materials shaped into bricks and baked in the sun are called adobe. Molded into a free standing wall that cures in place and it is called 'cob' (an old English term which means loaf, as in bread, about the size of each piece that is added to the wall one at a time).

So why don't we make all of our houses out of these materials? No wood to rot over time, get eaten by termites or that needs to be painted, scraped or stained every few years. OK, a cob or adobe house does have wood frames for the windows and doors, but those can be replaced if needed with little or no affect on the structural integrity of the structure. And some designs like the one above have wooden framed roofs. But some designs (domes and half-cylinders to name two) use the same material for the roof so have no shingles, roof repairs, leaks or replacement for the lifetime of the structure. And what is that lifetime again? Oh yeah, one thousand years. What was that reason why we don't make all our houses to last a thousand years?

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Rethinking Garbage

Do you know where your local garbage dump is located? Have you ever been there? Few people have, but it is both informative and insightful to visit yours and see what happens to all the stuff you put in the can that gets picked up on your curbside each week.

Most municipal solid waste facilities (let's just call 'em dumps, 'cause that's what they really are) operate (accept garbage) from 30 to 50 years. My local dump opened a new facility in 2005 designed to accept 100 tons of garbage a day for the next 20 years. This is in a county of less than 30,000 residents. That's approximately six and a half pounds of garbage per person per day. The current fill rate indicates we may even be exceeding that amount. Why do we produce so much garbage? I've discussed this topic in a previous post, but have gained some new insights since then.

Recently, I moved just outside the city limits and no longer have the privilege of paying to have my garbage picked up by the city. Which means I either have to take it to the dump myself or pay a private firm to do it for me. I found it an eye opening experience to witness the dump firsthand. Of course there is the smell. But the overwhelming sensation was more like watching a family member being mugged, violated or beaten. The savage destruction of nature that takes place in a 'waste management facility' is visceral, disgusting and shameful. And we all bear responsibility.

Thankfully, my community has a pretty good recycling program, taking everything from cardboard to paper to plastics and glass. And if you separate out the glass, they will take everything else in a single stream. So I have three containers in my kitchen; one for all recycling (I remove the glass before the run to the dump), one for kitchen scraps that goes into the compost (more on that below) and one for everything else. The interesting aspect of this system is I find that the smallest volume ends up being the 'everything else' container, which is mostly plastic film (Saran Wrap), Ziploc bags and chip bags. I would guess that three-quarters by volume of what I take to the dump goes into the recycle bin.

The compost bucket collects all kitchen scraps except meat or bones (I'm a vegetarian, so that is not an issue), soft paper products such as used Kleenex and paper towels, fruit and vegetable skins and rinds, seeds, peels, coffee grounds and anything else that was recently alive (thus avoiding the classification issue with plastics, which are mostly petroleum products which technically were alive millions of years ago). I am amazed at the volume and weight of product that used to go to the landfill that now provides free (and organic) fertilizer for my garden. Of course, sending any kind of yard waste to the dump makes no sense whatsoever, so please stop putting grass clippings in bags for the garbage man unless your community has a specific composting program.

This is not the utopia I imagined in another post, but I think it is a big step in the right direction.