Everybody’s workin’ for the weekend

As it turned out, we had a very interesting weekend (July 19/20). Having just acquired our land we decided to go spend the weekend on it. It does, after all, have a big trailer.

Kat (my partner) and I have no experience with big trailers so there is a big learning curve when it comes to figuring out all of the systems. We figured out the electrical systems, but we couldn’t get the propane stove to light so that is still a work in progress. Also, we need to fill the water tanks before we can get running water in the trailer.

There were a few bugs to contend with, and the trailer needs to be leveled, but over all it was a fun change to stay there.

But that’s not all we did.

You see, the area around Bancroft is turning into quite the Earthship hot spot. When we went down on Wednesday to pick up the keys for the trailer we also met another couple who just bought land and are preparing to build an Earthship. We spent the afternoon with Sophia and Andres talking all about Earthships and plans and all that. It was a tonne of fun.

During our conversations, they mentioned there was another gentleman, named Phillipe, who was also building an Earthship close by. We looked up his website and sent him an email. He comes up every weekend to work on his Earthship and we decided to go join him for some tire pounding fun on Saturday.

This is what his build site looked like when we got there.

BuildSite

As you can see, he’s only done the first course of tires so far, but that’s quite a bit further along that we are. We all got to pound some dirt into tires that day, though much discussion was also had regarding everything Earthships. I did get photographic evidence of Kat pounding her first tire.

(Screenshot or it didn’t happen)

KatsFirstTire

Here is a picture of Phillipe pushing dirt into a tire in preparation for pounding it.

Phillipe

Sophia and Andres also came by in the afternoon to help out. We were a merry bunch.

SophiaAndresAndKat

Of course, the environmental inspector had to come around to make sure we were building a sustainable, green building. They’re always difficult to impress, but I think this one was more interested in the foliage around the build site.

EnvrionmentalInspector

We also made some other interesting connections. The first Earthship in Canada was built by Pat and Chuck Potter some 16 years ago or more, just down the road from Phillipe’s. Below is a youtube video of them talking about their Earthship.

As it happens, their grandson, Justin, has an Earthship in the next lot beside Phillipe’s. He’s also the engineer who is working with Phillipe on his drawings. We met him as well on Saturday. He’s worked on about eight different Earthship projects so far.

On top of that, some friends/neighbours of Sophia and Andres came by just to see what we were doing. When you build an Earthship, be prepared to get a lot of interested visitors.

All in all, it was a great weekend, though it was quite warm on Saturday. Drink lots of water when you’re pounding tires in the heat and humidity.

Oh, and thank you Phillipe for feeding us lunch too ๐Ÿ™‚

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LAND HO!!!

Yes, I am happy to announce that we have just acquired some land. Back in this post I mentioned that buying land was step 5 in our 9 step plan to get to the point of starting to build. Well, scratch that one off the list now.

I’m sure you’re all wondering what we bought, where it is and what it looks like, so I won’t delay any further. Let’s get right to the pictures.

Map

It’s a bit odd looking, admittedly. It’s roughly 15.8 hectares (39 acres). It has a nice hill on it and lots of trees. Here’s a picture of it in summer.

Satellite Image Summer

Yes, lot’s of green stuff there. Some trees will need to be sacrificed, but, as my Dad keeps telling me, trees are a renewable resource, when managed properly ๐Ÿ™‚ What kinds of trees are they, you may ask? Well, here is another picture in early spring.

Satellite Image Spring

It looks almost naked now. That’s because most of the trees are hardwoods, so they don’t have their leaves out yet. That could mean some significant dollar value to the lumber, if I were to sell it. I’m looking more to see about renting one of those portable saw mills and milling it myself and keeping it. More work, but having your own lumber on hand could save some dollars too.

Anyway, I know you’re all anxious to see what other features it comes with. First off, it comes with a driveway already built right from the road up to the top of the hill.

Driveway

It will need some work, otherwise nature will just take over. There is also an old shed which isn’t in the best shape, but might be useful for storing some building materials.

Shed

We even have our own spring fed pond. It comes conveniently with its own bench for you to sit and enjoy it. Though it was raining when these pictures were taken in early spring, so it doesn’t look too fun. It’s also really full too; we did have quite a wet spring.

Robinson Rd Pond

PondWithBench

On top of all of that, it also comes with a large trailer which will be really handy for having somewhere to stay while building. It will need some power and water, but having somewhere convenient to stay on your own property is quite advantageous.

Trailer1

There is also another, smaller shed behind the trailer. The trailer is only ten years old and was in nice shape (we did get to look inside it).

Trailer2

If you look on those satellite images, you can see a sizable lake to the south of the property. Our property doesn’t touch the lake, but it comes within about 10 meters (roughly 30 feet) of it. We walked down and took a look at it.

Lake

Pretty exciting stuff, but a whole lot of kafuffle to acquire. You don’t really think about things like mineral rights, right of way, year round access and all that when you buy a house in a city. But these are all things you need to pay attention to when buying land.

First off, we didn’t want anything we didn’t have easy access to. You can find land for sale that there is no way to get to except by boat, through crown land or over someone else’s property and usually they are quite cheap. But imagine all of the extra expenses you will have if you have to build a road to your property, let alone on your land.

You also don’t want to have to deal with crossing a neighbour’s land to get to yours. You may be able to swing a deal with the current neighbours, but that may change if the neighbours change and it can make a messy legal battle. Something else to avoid.

It also helps if the road you have to your property is maintained year round. No sense building a house you can’t get out of during the winter because the road isn’t ploughed. Unless, of course, you own one of these things.

SnowCat

That could be fun too, but we don’t have one.

What about things like mineral rights? Well, that, as it turns out, is some work. Much of that is discovered through the title search done by the lawyer. In Ontario, things can be weird with regards to mineral rights. You can, in fact, purchase a piece of land, live on it and someone else can own the mineral rights. It’s a bit retarded, if you ask me, but that’s what we have. They can’t walk onto your land and start drilling holes, as that would be trespassing, but they could tunnel under your land from an adjacent lot and there wouldn’t be anything you could do about it. So, we wanted to make sure the mineral rights were included. This turned out to be an interesting process.

The initial title search done by the lawyer didn’t turn up anything regarding mineral rights. So we had to get someone down in Belleville, ON where the land patent registration office is located to find out when the patents for the land were issued. Apparently there is a magic date of May 6, 1913 when some mineral rights act law came into effect that is important. If the land patent for the lot you are buying was issued before that date, you are okay, because anything before then is considered null and void and the rights pass to the owner. If, however, the land patents were issued after that, you need to do more searching. As it turned out, we had to do more searching.

The initial report back from Belleville was that the land patents were issued after that magic date. What this meant was we had to actually obtain copies of the land patents from the Ministry of Natural Resources (MNR) as they are the organization in charge of these things. My lawyer requested the land patents (there was more than one, as the land we bought occupies parts of more than one lot) and we received them in good time. As it turned out, the patents were issued in 1902 so it ended up there were no problems with gaining the mineral rights. Yay! All is good… or is it?

Interestingly, there was some additional information listed on the land patents to the tune of a Crown timber reservation on white pine. Back in the early days the government used a lot of white pine for things like the navy and so forth. This was not a good thing for us, however. There isn’t a lot of pine trees on our lot, but if we need to remove one and weren’t allowed to, this could cause major issues.

So, back to the MNR. My Dad, being a former MNR forester got me in contact with the right people and it was determined that all of the timber reservations that were listed on the land patents were null and void due to the Free Grants and Homestead Act. Whew! All was good.

Our closing day is today, July 15th, 2014. It wasn’t a very smooth process, but you do need to make the effort to ensure you aren’t going to end up with a legal mess later on. If you plan on buying some land, do your research and make sure you’re getting everything you want.

Passive Cooling

Sorry for the lack of posts. I’ve been busy doing summer things, seeing as it’s summer and all.

Last time we were talking about how to keep your house warm using only the sun. That’s called passive solar heating. Today, we’re going to talk about how we stay cool during the summer.

When we talked about keeping things warm, having good solar gain through south facing glass was a key part to that. However you might wonder that having all that sun exposure would make things really warm during the summer. The first thing we do to help with this is angle the glass that is facing the sun so it is perpendicular to it during the winter. This will give us the best solar gain when it is cold, but it will also reflect much more of the light away during the summer. The angle of the sun during the summer is much higher, so it will hit the glass at a much steeper angle, causing more light to be reflected away. Here are some simple diagrams.

WinterSunAngle

SummerSunAngle

So just by the fact that the sun is higher in the summer, means we have less solar gain. However, the sun is also stronger during the summer, so the angled glass alone will not suffice. To further help with this, modern Earthships make use of something referred to as a double greenhouse. That’s a bit of a misnomer, but I’ll explain as we go along.

If you’ve been following along and looked at the tour posts, you’ve seen that on all of the global model Earthships there is a long hallway that you come into first when entering the house. This hallway always has copious amounts of plants in it up against the glass. Examples of this can be found on the Global2 tour

Global2_002

… and the Suttan tour.

Suttan004

On the right side of the pictures you can see the angled glass that faces the sun. On the left side you can see another wall of glass. This creates a buffer zone in the main greenhouse. The temperature can fluctuate within the main greenhouse, but in the living areas, the temperature remains constantly comfortable. To give you some idea of where the sun is in relation to the green house, I have some pictures.

Here is a section drawing of where the sun falls during the summer.

EarthshipSummerSun

As you can see, the sun will only fall within the buffer zone created by the two glass walls. We can also further help reduce the solar gain buy using window shades or blinds. You can see those in picture of the Suttan house above.

Now in winter, it looks like this:

EarthshipWinterSun

Now the sun light goes all the way to the back of the room, covering a lot more area that will absorb the heat. Make sure your floors are made of something with a lot of thermal mass: brick, flag stone, tile, concrete or adobe are some options. You don’t want to use things like wood, carpet or vinyl as those will act as insulators and you will lose all of that heat coming into your house.

Back to cooling. With the sun beaming down in the front during the summer, it will make that greenhouse fairly warm. Unfortunately, I don’t have any pictures of this, but up in the ceiling of the greenhouse are openable skylights. This will naturally vent the hot air from the greenhouse out the roof, as we all know, heat rises. However, this isn’t all. There is one more feature used to help with overheating during the summer: cooling tubes.

Cooling tubes are 10″ diameter (25.4cm) steel culvert pipes that run into the back of the house from the north side. The north side of the house is all bermed up with earth right up to the roof, so the cooling tubes are buried deep in the ground. You can see the cross section of a cooling tube in the pictures of the sun angle during summer and winter above on the bottom left side.

Because the cooling tubes are buried in the ground, they tap directly into that constant 15 degrees C that the earth maintains. Any air moving through the tubes will be cooled to that temperature, so all we need to do is get it into the house for further ventilation. We don’t use any fans or other mechanical devices, we use pure convection. Take a look at this picture:

EarthshipCooling

Above the door in each room, an openable window is placed. By opening it, we tap into that natural draft happening in the greenhouse. Remember, it’s pretty warm in there with the sun shining down on it. We have those skylights open up top, letting out the hot air. With the venting windows open above the doors, this will naturally pull cool air from the tubes into the room. Warmer air will be pushed out the vent, into the greenhouse and up and out the skylight.

This maintains a constant cooling airflow through the rooms where the people are and it uses no mechanical or other powered systems to do it, just naturally occurring phenomenon. Pretty elegant when you think about it.

Now I’ve skipped over some details to try to keep from overwhelming you all at once. For instance, how do you choose what angle to put your front face glass at for optimal sun gain? Well, it depends on where you are in the world and a few other factors, but I’ll save that discussion for next time.

Passive Solar Heating

Today we’re going to talk about thermal mass, insulation and all sorts of other fun things, boys and girls. But before we begin, let’s set the stage.

What would you say if I told you there was a way to build a home in which you would never need to pay for heating and cooling ever again? No, I’m not talking about finding your own personal oil well, or natural gas deposit. This home would maintain a comfortable temperature year round, regardless of climate and it would not burn any type of fuel or electricity.

Sounds too good to be true? Stay tuned and I’ll show you how.

First, let’s talk about mass. Mass is a term we use to describe the quantity of matter contained within a volume of space. If I have a liter of marshmallow and a liter of concrete, the concrete has more mass as the molecules that make up its structure are packed much more tightly. The more molecules you can pack into a volume, the more dense it will be and the more mass it will have.

Now, heat and mass get along very well. The more dense mass you have, the more heat it can store. You might imagine putting an aluminum pie plate in the oven along with a cast iron frying pan. Turn the oven on and heat them both up. Then take them out of the oven. The aluminum pie plate will cool down pretty quickly, but the cast iron pan will stay warm for quite a bit longer. This is because the cast iron pan has much more mass than the aluminum pie plate.

Okay so far? What about insulation? We talk about insulation a lot these days, but what is it really? It’s a material that can be used to block the transference of temperature. So, you want to insulate your house to keep the heat in and the cold out during the winter. Let’s discuss how this is done in a conventional house.

Conventional housing, generally, uses a wood frame structure which is then insulated around on the outside and covered with a wrapper, something like siding or brick perhaps. We put a peaked roof on it, insulate the attic, and slap some shingles or other roofing material to keep the rain and snow from falling into the house. In general, conventional housing is designed to keep the outside elements outside as much as possible.

There is an issue with this though. If it is really hot outside, we have to add artificial cooling to the building to make it livable. Similarly, if it is cold outside, we need to add heat to the building otherwise everything would freeze, no matter how much insulation you have, unless you live in an airtight bubble and never go outside. I don’t think you’d last too long in that situation.

Hmmm, time to do some more experiments. Lets look at this one:

GlassJarsExperiment

You could think of the first case, with the glass jar full of air, as a representation of a conventional home. What we do is heat and cool the air, but as you can see, air doesn’t hold temperature very well. It will equalize to whatever the ambient temperature is pretty quickly. We could add insulation to the jar of air, but it still won’t hold its temperature nearly as long as the insulated jar with water in it.

So, lets use our imaginations and consider what it would be like if we were to live in jars like these:

HumansInJars

Am I suggesting that we all should be living in jars full of water? Not really. But the concept is valid. With these ideas about mass and temperature, the ideal outer wall in a house would look like this:

IdealWall

Using a dense mass to hold temperature, we insulate it against the outside and then the mass will stabilize the interior temperature of the house. When there is a temperature difference between the air inside the house and the mass of the walls, the heat always travels from hot to cold. So if the walls are warmer than the air, the heat comes out of the walls to heat the room. If the walls are cooler, they will pull heat out of the room.

Now if you’ve ever heard anything about geothermal heating and cooling, you would know that once you go down past the frost line, the temperature of the earth is stable around 15 degrees C (around 60F). You can experience this simply by standing barefoot on a concrete floor in a basement. It feels great in the summer when it’s really hot outside, but it feels quite frosty in the winter when you’re trying to stay warm. In actuality the temperature of that floor doesn’t change much (without working at it, anyway); it’s stable throughout the year around 15C. Geothermal heating taps into this and we’re going to do the same thing, but without digging big holes and running pipes that pump water around all of the time.

Remembering that we want to have some dense mass walls, we’re going to put them in direct contact with the earth. Oh, we’ll probably put down a moisture barrier first, but the mass walls need to be in contact with the earth to get access to that stable 15C temperature. Forgetting everything else, if you were to just do this, insulate the walls and close in the house, your house would maintain that temperature of 15C. (There are a few details I left out, but this is getting long :P) That’s not super warm, but your toilet and other plumbing will never freeze, for one thing.

So, we have our massive walls attached to the ground and then we make sure to insulate them so they can keep their temperature. But how do we get things warmer when we need it? We use a simple thing called the sun. If we look at the regular approach to sun gain in a conventional house, it looks something like this:

ConventionalHouse.

What we need to do, is reconfigure the house so it faces the sun as much as possible. This would be south in the northern hemisphere and north in the southern hemisphere.

EarthshipSunshine

Does this really work? Can you heat your house in winter just with sunshine? The answer is a resounding “YES”. There is a good chance you have encountered this phenomenon yourself. Ever have one of those really cold, yet sunny winter days? Have you ever been driving into the sun on a day like that and find yourself turning the heater down or even off? Heck, you don’t even need to be driving. Just park your car with its windshield facing the sun for a while and then get in it. It may not be super toasty warm, but it will certainly be much warmer than the outside temperature is. This works the same way during the summer, when you come back to your car that is parked in the sun and find the interior is like a blast furnace; i.e. much warmer than the outside.

There is a tremendous amount of solar energy falling on every square meter of land and for the most part, we completely ignore it. What a waste.

So, we have our mass walls, they are insulated. We’ve aimed the house to the sun, with lots of glass there to let it all in. We’re also going to berm up the house on the east, west and north sides, which will further work to keep that stable temperature inside. It does this by raising the frost line up closer to the roof, thus ensuring that your structure won’t be heaving from the frost in spring/autumn.

The sun comes up in the morning, shines in our windows and heats up those mass walls we have. At night, when the sun goes down, the air in the house starts to cool and the temperature we stored in the walls comes out, keeping the house at a stable temperature.

Now you know why Earthships are built using tires packed with dirt. This provides the mass that temperature can be stored in. This is really just a simple man’s version of pure rammed earth building techniques. It has the advantage of using up a huge waste resource we have, as well as breaking it down into sizable brick-like chunks, which you wouldn’t be able to do with traditional rammed-earth as you’d need to tamp the whole wall at once to avoid cold joints.

Anyway, that’s the basics behind how to heat your home without burning fuel or using electricity. It’s completely passive. I have left out some details to keep it simple and I haven’t talked about cooling yet either. I’ll save that for another post ๐Ÿ™‚

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