Tag Archive: books


“why such philosophical talk about something as worldly as homebuilding? Because what is worldly about homebuilding is that it happens on this earth, it uses natural and man made materials and it requires money. The rest of homebuilding has to do with beliefs, feelings, spirit and passion. Certainly shelters can be made without these, but they probably will not be the kind of structures that speak positively and warmly to future generations of occupants. For most people, homebuilding is full of the most sensitive emotions. It seperates them from their life’s earnings, either to a good or ill end. It can bring families together or it can tear them apart, for homebuilding can be a dark and dangerous sea full of shoals and turbulant currents. I believe a well designed and well constructed timber frame house is worth the voyage, and I offer this book to help chart the course”

This is the last paragraph of the introduction to The Timber-Frame Home: Design, Construction, Finishing written by Tedd Benson. And for me it captures much of why I build. Building, to me, perfectly matches my inclinations as an artist and person who strongly identifies with place and fulfills my desire to walk a “mystical path with practical feet” (a phrase taken from Bill Plotkins, Nature and The Human Soul). Building is a worldly endeavor with tangible, real outcomes. But is also so much more then that. It can build community, make a statement, create a sense of place, give pride, provide an anchor, a home. Who are we without a home?

It has been a little while since I have written about building but that is not because I have stopped exploring it. Quite the contrary, I think I have become even more committed to it. Almost six months ago I was given the honor of acceptance as a Heartwood School Apprentice. I will be one of four apprentices who will stay at the school through this summer taking courses and also being offered many fantastic opportunities outside of the courses to participate in raising’s, go to timber frame guild meetings, and visit historical timber frame structures in the northeast. And to add to this honor I also received the very first Berkshire Woodworkers Guild scholarship to help with the cost of this summer. This was an exciting and unexpected gift that reassured me that I must be doing something right.

Almost a month ago now I went to Heartwood for our first course, Fundamentals of Woodworking. It felt great to be there. I felt at home almost immediately. And although I am sure their will be many times during the apprenticeship where I will be challenged, get frustrated, and perhaps even doubt my abilities, this first week I felt strong and confident, which felt like a good way to start. In this first course I learned a lot about tools in the shop; their function, safety, and maintenance. And we also built a toolbox as well as a beautiful little shaker stool. I was quite pleased with how mine came out and will hopefully get a picture up here of it soon. I also met one of the other apprentices, Jack, who at 17 years old is the youngest apprentice Heartwood has ever had. We got along fantastically and I am excited to meet the other two apprentices, one of whom is coming from Argentina!

When I returned to Ithaca I was almost immediately presented with an opportunity to put my new knowledge to use. It was quite amazing actually. I had just pulled into the parking lot of Ecovillage at Ithaca (where I am renting a room until I fully move into heartwood on June 13th) when I saw Dave, a fellow ecovillage resident, struggling to carry a bunch of wood and tools from the shared shop back to his house. I offered him a hand and by the time we had reached his house he had enlisted my help in his projects. Dave is an amazing man. A professor of neurobiology at Cornell University, he built his own timber frame home in Song, designing everything, including his own ingenious windows and doors and enlisting a local blacksmith to help give his house a unique and beautiful look. He also tinkers with electric bikes in his spare time, using them to commute back  and forth to Cornell when the weather is nice (the hills in Ithaca make doing this commute on a regular bike only for the the most ambitious) and driving his small hybrid car that gets 70 miles to the gallon in poor weather. Now we are almost done building 4 storm windows that will match his interior window design and have a plan for a screen door that we are both pretty excited about and hope we can pull off.

In the little spare time I have between these projects and my work at the amazing local food coop, Greenstar, I have been reading some books on Timber framing. The first was Build a Classic Timber Frame House by Jack A. Sobon, a fantastic how to book that walks you through exactly how to build a classic hall and parlor house. And, having just finished that one I am starting in on The Timber Frame Home by Tedd Benson. Already I like his writing style which seems to intertwine the philosophy with the practicalities, because lets be real, yes, I like that building is practical, but if it doesn’t also fit into my belief systems and worldview then I would not be interested. The philosophies, beliefs, and ethics of building are of just as much interest to me as the practicalities of it, and I hope I never lose site of that as I delve deeper into learning all the practical skills to create a delivery system to manifest those more abstract parts of who I am. After I finish this book I hope to read The Company We Keep: Reinventing small business for people, community, and place by John Abrams, a book about a timber frame business on Martha’s Vineyard, and what it takes to run a responsible and ethical business. I like what one of the reviews on the back of the book says; “the company we keep is a soulful and refreshing reminder that businesses are no different from families, communities, or any other human organization– without mission or purpose they can be lifeless, even destructive, but infused with intention, they can sow the seeds for a hopeful future.” -Gary Hirshburg

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Teaching Peace

To view the full campaign visit igg.me/at/EarthAndMe

Stories have a power and a good story stays with you for a lifetime. Growing up I was blessed with many powerful stories that came to me through The Shadow Box Theatre. These stories included African drum, inspired by African folktales, Lumpy Bumpy Pumpkin, a Halloween rendition of the well known ugly duckling story, and  The Earth & Me, a tale of a child asking the earth, “How do you make a tree?” Opening with a Native American quote, “All things are interconnected. What befalls the earth Befalls the sons and daughters of the earth. We did not weave the web of life, We are merely a strand in it. Whatever we do to the web, We do to ourselves,” The Earth & Me truly caught my imagination as a child and is a cornerstone of who I am today.

The Shadow Box Theatre is a non profit theatre founded in 1967 and run by an amazing woman, Sandra Robbins, who just happens to be my grandmother. When I found out that they had lost a little over $30,000 due to damaged equipment and canceled shows from hurricane Sandy and were considering canceling their spring production of The Earth & Me I knew I had to help. This theatre teaches peace and respect and empowers children from diverse, often under served, families with messages of hope and change. And this show seems more important then ever in the wake of Hurricane Sandy.

So we are gearing up for an ambitious IndieGoGo Campaign as one way to make up our deficit created by a few rainy days. In preparation for this campaign, that should launch by mid February, we need to raise our visibility on all channels as much as possible. Doing this is simple and free and only requires a few minutes of your time.   Will you help us out?

Sandy Robbins and See-More say "Hello!"

Sandy Robbins and See-More say “Hello!”

And, if you have been touched by any of SBT’s productions, which include books, multimedia puppet shows, CD’s and DVD’s, as well as workshops for children and families and teacher guides, we would love if you can write us a review on yelp: http://www.yelp.com/biz/the-shadow-box-theatre-new-york
I will, of course, do my best to keep you all updated on our campaign’s progress through this blog but the best way to stay in the loop is to also make sure you are following us on facebook and twitter. And of course, please pass this on to anyone you think might be interested!
To view the full campaign visit igg.me/at/EarthAndMe

Mark left today for a short overnight trip to Vancouver to pick up some tongue and groove wood to complete the dance floor, so it is just me holding down the fort until tomorrow evening. I start my day by reading a bit more of Celestine Prophecy.

The Third Insight describes a new understanding of the physical world. It says we humans will learn to perceive what was formerly an invisible type of energy. In other words, the basic stuff of the universe, at its core, is a kind of pure energy that is malleable to human intention and expectation in a way that defies old mechanistic models of the universe. It’s as though our expectation itself causes our energy to flow out into the world and affect other energy systems.

I flash back to the healing work my grandmother does and the little bit about auras and energy work that I was reading and learning while staying with her six or so months ago.

So yes, much of this stuff isn’t new, but the idea that enough of us might be having these insights at the same time to actually cause a global shift now, in the early part of the 21st century… That is exciting.

The sun is starting to feel warm and I am ready to leave this wind sheltered structure. I decide to take a walk down the road and try to find Dave’s place. He is a cob builder on the island. I am not quite sure how to get there, especially since the directions I received from Dave, who I met briefly yesterday, and those I received from Mark seem to be a bit different. But I decide I will try my luck, as I want to go for a walk anyway.

As I walk briskly, I realize that all of Lasqueti’s roads seem to be dirt roads. I don’t think I have seen a single paved one yet. I recall yesterday, backing down one particularly bumpy dirt road with Mark to pick up some logs and him saying jokingly, “I think you would have to go to Northern Pakistan to find a lifestyle like this.” His comment may have been a bit of an exaggeration, but a lot about this island feels more like places I have been in rural Bolivia then anywhere in the industrialized world. And the amazing thing is most of the people living here left an urban, more modern lifestyle and chose this one. Mark has made very clear that it is, indeed, a lifestyle choice, and that it takes work to live here, but for him and the others on this island the rewards are well worth it.

With no watch and no cell service on this island I am not sure how long I have been walking, but it has been a pleasant, quiet walk on these dirt roads. I have come across piles of sand and clay, which must mean cob is nearby. Indeed, there is a little footpath, which I follow to a cluster of cob structures.

Dave is at work in a cob greenhouse, hanging some laundry out to dry. But he welcomes me and says he was about to take a break for lunch and asks if I will join him. Over a simple, but yummy meal of soup and crackers we begin to talk. Dave is a gentle man of probably mid forties who is in the process of moving from Vancouver to the island with his 7 year old daughter.

Soon we are talking about Ishmael, by Daniel Quinn, and Taker and Leaver Societies. I share a bit about Celestine Prophecy, which alludes to a similar need for a shift in worldview but attacks it from a more spiritual angle. Dave shares of another book called the Continuum Concept by Jean Liedloff that looks at two tribes basically living untouched by modern civilization. He tells me how the author, after living a few years with these tribes, concluded that there was something different about these people. It took her a while to put her finger on it but eventually she realized it was that they were happy. And so she spent the rest of her life figuring out and synthesizing what allowed them to be happy in a way that she rarely saw in modern society. The book explains her conclusions.

These books and other experiences have led Dave to make a conscious, political decision to try and not feed or support the current system, which he has judged as dysfunctional, and instead look to an alternative. This island and cob building seem to be part of his solution.

I ask him if he ever lived in any intentional communities and how he finds living on the island similar or different to living in these communities. He thinks for a bit. Then responds that that he appreciates the question and that yes, he has lived in a few intentional communities and in his experience they didn’t work because there was still a power structure and those in power would end up wanting to keep that power. After a pause, he added, “It’s ironic, the people on this island seem to come seeking independence, but they end up inadvertently creating community.” Perhaps it is that once their own needs for independence, self-sufficiency, and happiness are met, they have more to give others?

The Fourth Insight exposes a human tendency to steal energy from other humans by controlling them because we so often feel depleted of energy due to being disconnected from the larger source of energy. We are stuck in a kind of competition for each other’s energy, which we gain by controlling and manipulating each other.

I recently finished a book called Strangely Like War: The Global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan. Reading this book made me think twice about many things, including how much toilet paper I take to wipe my bum after taking a dump.

According to wiki.answers.com, “Twenty nine million, eight hundred thousand trees (29,800,000) are cut down every day in the world.” That is 3720 acres an hour, 62 acres a minute or 1 acre every second! For reference, an American football field is 1.32 acres is size. And these are using the official numbers from the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization 2005 reports. The numbers have since gone up. Even in 2005 these far under estimated the real numbers which would include illegal logging, muchof which is done within the timber industry itself.

So why am I telling you all these depressing statistics? Well, for me as an aspiring builder, this book has made me think hard about the building industry’s use of wood and it has increased my opinion of the merits of building with earth and other alternative, non energy intensive materials. Yes, wood is a beautiful and practical building material for many of us but do we really need to build McMansions that use clear cedar (cedar with no knots in it, and therefore of higher aesthetic and structural quality) in places where it serves little to no structural purpose and may not even be visible? Do we need to use exotic amazon wood to make furniture that to the untrained eye looks just like a native oak desk?

In terms of my own building practices I am setting an intention right now to only use wood that comes from a local, known source, because as Derrick Jensen says “…in the end, only low-tech forestry operations for local consumption will ever be truly sustainable.” (pg. 130), My preferred wood will actually be wood that has been salvaged from construction sites  or structures being demolished. I also will not build bigger then I need to and I will always weigh the full embodied energy of possible building materials and only use wood where other materials don’t make sense.

But beyond just how I plan to build I also plan to be more aware of my use of other paper products, such as paper and tissue. Its amazing how much of the forests that are cut down end up being pulped and made into these products. According to Derreck Jensen “more than a third of the trees cut are pulped for paper” (pg. 104). Can you imagine huge old growth trees, perhaps even the infamous red woods, being cut and pulped to make measly rolls of toilet paper? There has got to be a better way. And there is. Historically, paper was made from other plant fibers such as flax and cotton (plants that don’t take hundred of years to reach maturity and don’t support some of the most diverse, complex, and precious ecosystems on our planet) and recycled materials like old rags and waste paper. Paper can also been made from agricultural waste products of crops such as wheat, barley, oats, rye, rice, and sugarcane. So there are alternatives, but logging corporations are powerful money making machines with shrewd propaganda tricks that I won’t get into here (read the book if you want to know more)  that seem to have successfully convinced us that we must consume more and more tree products. As a result, America, being the overconsumption capital of the world, “With less than 5 percent of the world’s population… consumes between 25 and 38 percent of the world’s wood and paper products,” (pg. 102).

Yup, thats right. “The average person in America consumes almost 700 pounds of paper per year; the average in Great Britain and Japan is 330 pounds per year; the average in the non industrialized world is 12 pounds per year,” (pg. 122). That means me and you, as individuals can do a LOT to improve. And, that may not even mean lowering your wonderful standard of life. I mean Great Britain is just as modern and industrialized us as by most standards and the average person there consumes less than half of what we consume in paper products! The amount of paper consumed in the U.S. has increased fivefold from 1920 to 1990 (pg. 105). What happened?
So what can you do? A bunch of things. Here are some ideas:
  1. Set your printer to print double sided by default. Or if your printer won’t do that, like mine, go through the 2 minutes extra effort of printing “odd pages only” first (You do this in “paper handling,” which is one of the drop down options before you hit print) and then restack the pages from last to first and print again “even pages only.” So, it took me a few times to figure out how to order the pages to get this right but then I put the steps on a sticky note and put that right on my printer so if I ever forget there it is telling me odd numbers, last to first, face up, even numbers.
  2. Or, are you printing something like a powerpoint or graphs that don’t need to be the size of the full page? Go to layout (another drop down options in the printer window) and put 4 or 6 “slides” per a page! If you want to get advanced you can do this and print double sided and quickly save hundreds of pages.
  3. That stack of one side used paper that you have been saving but not actually using? Start using it! Print on the other side, make note pads with it for shopping lists and household notes, or notebooks to take notes on in class (its fun to read the printed on side when you are bored…. its like having a magazine hidden in your notebook!). If you really get into this and want more one side used paper try asking you local library or office. Many places are either throwing this one side used stuff away or just recycling it, but we should always reuse as much as we can before we recycle. The saying is “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle” and its in that order for a reason.
  4. When you have reduced the amount of paper you use and and reused every single sided sheet so that both sides and every corner are used then…. recycle it! It does make a difference. “In the United States, every 10 percent of recovered waste paper saves a million acres of forest from being cut” (pg. 45). One Million Acres!!
  5. And, when you go to the store to buy paper products look to see if they have recycled goods. If not demand it! I get wanting soft toilet and tissue paper but do you really need baby soft paper towels?
  6. Building a house or doing a home improvement project? Think about the materials you are using and where they are coming from. Demand local, sustainably forested wood when wood must be used. Or even better, find salvaged wood. Places like Restore that do “green demolition” salvage still usable wood, appliances, sinks, etc. from old buildings. These places are becoming more popular. Ithaca has the ReUse center, and I’ve seen other similar things popping up elsewhere. Goodwill, consignment stores, and other second hand stores are great places to find furniture, clothes, and more. These places help reduce  consumption of virgin resources and will help you save money.
There are some places to start. On a larger scale where should our logging industry be headed? Well, Derrick Jensen talks about restoration forestry which helps being forests back to states of biological productivity, biodiversity, ecological stability and resilience. And, unlike the timber industry would like us to believe, this does not mean choosing owls over jobs.
“‘It means that many more people will have to be employed in the woods, not less; using smaller machines and more reliance on draft animals. It means smaller mills… Restoration forestry leads to a steady yield of high value timber. Clear cutting and/or short rotation forestry leads to periodic return of low-quality timber. Restoration forestry makes much better ecological sense and it makes better economic sense.’
           We need to distinguish restoration forestry from restoration ecology. Forestry is for producing a supply of wood. If you are an inteligent forester, you would restore tree stands (such as plantations) to natural, optimal fiber-producing capacity. But you are still a forester, looking for wood fiber, An ecologist would protect or restore fully functioning forest ecosystems, and consider fiber production for human use to be completely subordinate to the full range of natural ecosystem functions…. We must move away from industrial forestry and towards restoration forestry. We must then move away from restoration forestry and towards restoration ecology.” (pg. 131-132)
But getting there will be a long a hard road. The logging industry is full of powerful corporations with lots of money. They know well how to work the revolving door between their corporate world and public office and they have even infiltrated some of the larger environmental groups. But like any change, in the words of Margaret Mead, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
Note: All quotes with page numbers in this post are taken from Strangely Like War: The global Assault on Forests by Derrick Jensen and George Draffan unless otherwise specified.

Bridging the Gap

Although my days have been filled with building my nights have been free for me to fill as I please. I saw a great talk tonight by Thor Hanson, the author of the book, Feathers; the Evolution of a Natural Miracle.  I’ve also been going out contra dancing and playing my fiddle, which has been great fun and led to an unlikely friendship with a man named Alan Boyne, a trained biochemist and neurobiologist with a book about to be published by the name of Headwaters of the River of Bullshit. The talk on feathers and my conversations with Alan have got me thinking about how information, particularly that of a scientific nature is conveyed. Hanson did a great job of weaving his information into engaging, anecdotal stories that required no scientific background to enjoy. Contrary to this experience, so often there seems to be an impenetrable wall between the world of science and the general public that does nobody good. It leaves the public easily hoodwinked into believing ridiculous things such as climate change being a myth, and scientists frustrated when ineffective policies are passed without public outcry that seem to disregard all science, whether they be lousy conservation laws, or shrewd political tricks to make natural gas from shale seem like a good idea (yes that is a stab at Obama’s recent State of the Union that spoke positively of natural gas extraction from shale).

Alan is also not just a neurobiologist. He has a passion for stories and believes strongly in the importance of context. Hence, when I first met him I learned about his whole family history going back to the Irish Potato famine before hearing about his own life. And apparently much of these fantastic stories are woven into his book about the importance of the right side of the brain, which is much under utilized in todays society. Writing a book for the public took some work on Alan’s part, who was used to writing for research journals. To give you an idea of the differences, if you haven’t had to read a research journal yourself in recent memory (count yourself lucky, if this be the case), in scientific writing almost all sentences are in the passive voice. Yup, thats right, no “I poured chemical A into chemical B.” Instead “Chemical A was poured into chemical B.” And every claim or statement must have half a dozen qualifiers (within 0.05 percent margin of error, with 95% accuracy, under X, Y, and Z conditions blah blah blah). No wonder no one wants to read that stuff!

At Cornell one of my favorite classes that I took was called Science Writing for the Mass Media. Here we learned to write about science in short, succinct, action packed sentences. I think it was this class that finally got me to decide I might not be half bad at writing and that I might even actually enjoy it. Perhaps it is even part of the reason why I now have this blog. The last week has reminded me that this realization was quite a gift it that it allowed me to recognize and further develop an important skill; writing in a way that bridges gaps and and brings people in to expand their minds and learn about things outside their daily routine. Isn’t that the original reason for reading books? To expand our imagination and knowledge? Isn’t that what TV, radio, newspapers, and other media can do at their best? It seems we have lost sight of this in recent times and media is instead seen purely as entertainment, too often used unconsciously to do nothing more than support what we already think we know. What happened to media that makes us think, question and imagine beyond what we “know” to be true?

I am setting an intention right now to do my very best to write each post on this blog in an engaging and thought provoking way, no matter what the subject matter. I don’t expect to succeed every time but I think it is a worthy goal to work towards. Well, those are my reflections for tonight!

Over the past year  or so I have been dreaming of building my own cob house. Every time an idea comes to me I write or draw it, leading to the accumulation of many possible house designs. The designs are still rather rudimentary as I consider all of this part of brainstorming, an important part of any design process.

The design process that I do my best to follow is the one used by many permaculture designers (if you want to become a certified permaculture designer click here to see info on the amazing course I took with living routes at the Sirius Ecovillage in Shutesbury, MA). Below is a diagram of this process taken from the blog of AppleSeed Permaculture (click on the link for a more in depth explanation of the design process)- a blog that has a lot of good info on permaculture.

Based on this diagram I have been working on articulating my goals. As of now here is my goal statement for what I am calling my evolving dream. Keep in mind this is my big, long term vision. I hope it will one day manifest!

” My land has all the necessities to sustain a community; a clean water source for drinking and bathing, woods and open space with good solar exposure for growing food and siting buildings. It is surrounded by a vibrant, progressive community and natural beauty.

My home is small but sufficient for me, a partner, and a child. I designed and built it with my own two hands and it is made of all natural and non toxic, sustainably harvested materials. It blends into the land and exemplifies sustainable design. It gets good natural light, and provides for my heating, cooling, cooking, and other needs at little or no cost to me or my environment. It has the ability to evolve over time as my family, needs, and means change.

There is at least one large common space on the land that can be used for small retreats and for educational purposes, including creating and doing art, both visual and movement based. There is also a common dining area with a kitchen, and simple accommodations such as tent platforms, and small dwellings. All structures demonstrate sustainable design, showcasing a myriad of natural and green building techniques, and were built through community builds and workshops.

The whole land exemplifies permaculture principles and is filled with an abundance of wild and cultivated edibles and medicinals. It is a safe and holding space for all people of any race, age, gender, faith, orientation, and culture. We try our very hardest to make everything that we offer at, and through this place, as accessible as possible to all.”

Phew…. That is a long goal statement and, I realize, a tall order. But why not dream big!

So I have my goals articulation, but I don’t yet have a site, making it hard to analyze and assess the site. In permaculture the site often dictates, or at least strongly shapes one’s design so one might wonder why I have already begun to brainstorm building designs when I don’t even have a site yet! Well, part of it is just pure excitement and impatience and a desire to do something while I wait for the time when I feel ready and am able to commit to a site. And also, I have found that through my designs I am beginning to clarify my vision and therefore what I would look for in a piece of land. When I started I did not realize I really wanted land with it’s own water source, including a place to bathe in such as a natural spring, river, or pond. I also did not realize that I really do want land that is big enough to one day house more then just my family and become an educational retreat center. All of these realizations have been immensely helpful and so I am glad that I have started to think about the design possibilities before committing to any one location or site. And who knows! If I am part of a small eco-village or retreat center maybe more then one of these designs will manifest into reality! It has also been fun to see what themes and similarities have emerged as I become clear as to what I like and want, and it has also been interesting to see what has evolved and changed as I have more information and knowledge to inform my design process.

So, for a few of my designs. I think this is the very first one I did, back in fall of 2010. South in this design in up. I will try to always make it clear which way is south as, at least in the Northern hemisphere south the direction in which you want to orient all major windows on a building if you are following passive solar design principles. Passive solar maximizes the natural light you receive and helps to heat your house naturally during the winter and keep it cool during the summer. You will notice the benefits of being south facing if you look at hills or mountains near you. Notice that the south facing slope is always warmer then the north, appearing sometimes even a few weeks ahead in springtime then north facing slopes!

In this design the front entrance opens up to a patio and greenhouse on the south side. A south facing greenhouse will optimize your ability to grow food in winter months and, if it is attached to the house as in this design, it will help to heat your house in winter months. The shower and bath are also in the greenhouse allowing for the steam and moisture created by these facilities to be released into the green house, which should be a warm and moist environment. Also, it would make for easy creation of a greywater or wetland purification system.

Almost all of my designs, including this one have a proportionally large kitchen. This is because in my experience the kitchen ends up being the center of the house. It is where people congregate, and often where the most time is spent, especially in a household that actually cooks its food. Also, in a household that cooks their food from fresh or preserved (canned, dried, etc.) local food and is trying to be sustainable a root cellar is an invaluable thing. This design has a root cellar in the lower left (NE corner) of the design. Placing the root cellar on the north side of a building is best as that side of the house will naturally be the cooler side with the least sun exposure. It is a bit hard to see but the stairs in this design also lead to a small loft that is above the desk and day bed area. This loft would act as the bedroom.

Another thing I tried to design into this house was the ability to built it in stages. The kitchen is almost circular and I thought could be built first. It is large enough that I could sleep and live in it with my basic needs taken care of until the rest of the structure was built. The patio and greenhouse would be built last, although a outhouse would be built earlier on of course.

Below is my third design and still one of my favorites. It is the house that inspired the image I call home, which has come to symbolize many things to me. I often call this my yin yang design.

In this design South is down. It is a bit hard to tell but the upper half of this yin yang is the structure while the lower half is actually a garden. The diameter of the circle I figure to be about 30 feet, making the area of house, if assumed to be half of the circle, to be about 350 square feet. For most in America this might seem incredible small but I would want the first house that I build to be small and manageable as the one thing about building by hand with cob is that it does take time. Also, as proof that living in such a small house is possible and people are doing it by choice, I have seen a family of three living quite comfortable in a yurt with a 25 foot diameter. That is only 490.625 square feet! And that was in Canada, not some third world country mind you. (I talk a bit about their lifestyle in another post, The Dream)

As an artist I like the contained wholeness of this design. It is elegant and simple. The shape of the upper half of the yin yang in the orientation that it is also maximizes the surfaces of the house facing South and gives both the bedroom area and the kitchen great south eastern exposure. I love the morning light so this is something that I like about this design.

Once again, there is a root cellar on the northern side of the house and this time the toilet and bath area is also attached on the north side. This would be good for cold winters when you don’t want to go outside to use the bathroom. This house could also be a single story or include a small loft above the bedroom area for storage or for a child to sleep.

Because I likes this design so much I also started to play with possibilities for the roof. Below are two possible roof designs I came up with.

 On the left is a more conventional roof design and honestly a design that appeals to me less. On the right is I design I did after seeing some pictures of beautiful cob houses with curved ridge beams, including one on page 232 of the Hand Sculpted House. These curved ridge beams give the house a beautiful, organic shape and I actually think this design would be relatively easy to build. The ridge beam would run pretty much east to west (with east being up in this picture) and the eastern end would be higher, allowing for a loft. Also, I realized that on the SE side of the house you could extend the beams creating a nice trellis over the patio that would be a natural extension of the house. I also tried to figure out where approximately one would need support posts. In The Hand Sculpted House they recommend that you do not span more then 12 to 14 feet without support, and so I drew in some support beams airing on the conservative side with spans no bigger then 10 feet.

My next few designs are for more typically shaped rectilinear plots. These design came after some thought during my green building course  given to the need to start creating sustainable designs for cities and the need for houses to be flexible and able to evolve over time. Much of this thinking came from watching a fascinating movie called How Buildings Learn. One of the beauty’s of cob is the ability to design furniture and individuality right into your structure often making a house that fits like a glove to the lifestyle of it’s inhabitants. But this does not always lend itself well to the possibility of the house changing owners. And so I decided to play around with a few more rectilinear designs that could more easily evolve and contain conventional movable furniture, etc.

The one below I designed specifically with San Miguel de Allende in mind. The houses in this beautiful spanish colonial city are filled with color, interior courtyards, and gardens. It is also a city filled with artists and the creatively incline and so an art studio felt like a must to me. I cannot imagine going to San Miguel and not doing art!

In this design South is up again. It is a bit confusing to know what is the open courtyard and what are encolesed structure so I will do my best to walk you through it. The main entrance to this plot on on the lower North side. You enter into a garden/courtyard space with a structure on either side of you. On the left is the root cellar, kitchen, main area, and a bedroom. On the right is a studio space and a screen in patio for when it is rainy or buggy out. Above both the studio and the bedroom could be a second and third bedroom, giving this design the potential to hold quite a few people, which seems fitting for a San Miguel house which is often rented out to vacationers or passing through many hands. The upper right (SW corner) is where the bathroom and bathing area is, as well as a compost operation from which soil for the gardens could be taken.

Here is another design I did with San Miguel in mind for a friend’s plot. It turns our I got the orientation on the plot not quite right but it was fun anyways to play around with some real dimensions.

In this design South is to the left. The lower left and the right hand side of the plot are outdoor garden/courtyard spaces. It definitely was a bit more of a challenge to design to real plot dimensions and I am honestly not sure that I love this design. The biggest challenge was that I knew there were some big trees on the north side of the plot that the owners did not want to cut down, but that left the south side, where one would usually put the gardens as the logical place to build. I did get to actually see the plot after I did this design and there are definitely things I would do differently, but it was a good exercise and drove home the importance of knowing your site and designing for what already exists in terms of landform, solar orientation, and other things.

Here is one last rectilinear design I did, with more of a temperate, Northeastern climate in mind.

In this design South is up, on the side of the greenhouse. Once again, I don’t know if I love this design as I honestly think I prefer more rounded shapes and spaces. Despite that, I was playing around with another design tool, a book called A Pattern Language and I think I learned some important things from this design. One of the things I paid particular attention to in this design was the need for transition spaces, especially when entering and leaving the house. Therefore the entryway is either through the greenhouse, shade room, or pantry, all of which provide a moment for transition before entering the home life.

A Pattern Language is a fascinating books that uses patterns that the authors found in what appeals to people and makes people feel good in a space. These patterns are then used to guide the design of everything from a room, a house, a garden, a neighborhood, a school or even a city. The book is a big fat book but is set up in an easily usable way where you literally can start in one spot, say the bedroom of a couple, and read about what such a space should include and then at the end of that short little section it will suggest other spaces that often go along with a bedroom for a couple, such as a family kitchen or a house for a couple. And by this method you can slowly work your way through a design piece by piece, leaning about what makes a sitting spot in a garden attractive, and why shifts in lighting between spaces can be important.  If you are a designer, architect, or planner I would highly recommend this book.

Ok, getting close to the end of my designs I promise. This next one though, is one of my favorites.

South is the lower right corner here. I love this design for similar reasons that I love my yin yang design. It is rather simple and feels very contained. This design was inspired by both the yin yang design and the yurt that the family in Canada was living in. I was amazed at how spacious their yurt felt, which only had a 25 ft diameter. This circular design could use the simple roof structure of a yurt and would have about a 30 ft. diameter, including the thick outer cob walls, so the total square footage would be right around 700 square feet. Only some of the inner curved walls would be full walls, while some would be more like space separators with the height of maybe a countertop or a a privacy screen. There is the potential to attach a wrap around green house on the SE side as well.

As you can see, I have stuck with the theme of having a large open kitchen that is the main gathering and social area. In this design the kitchen is also divided from a sitting area by a peninsula like countertop. Then in the NE is the bedroom, placed so that it will receive good morning light and in the North you once again have the root cellar/pantry.

And lastly, here is one possible design for a common space.

Here the entrance faces south, which is in the upper left corner. The center space would be particularly well suited to movement, dance, yoga and things of that nature but could be used for other things as well. I thought it would be nice to have the side spaces as changing rooms or mini sitting areas but they could also serve as offices, art space or some other purpose. I thought the space in the north though should be bathrooms, showers, and changing rooms.

As you can see I have also drawn in some of the outdoors, including an outdoor amphitheater, and my thought was that in good weather the structure could turn into more of a gazebo like space with large doors thrown open on all sides, providing additional seating space for the amphitheater and bringing the outdoors in.

So that concludes my designs for now! I hope they were of some interest. There are many details that I left out, such as the placement of internal thermal mass to store heat, the placement of wood stoves, and other illustrations of sustainable design principles, but I did my best to illustrate some. Hopefully these give you some idea of my designs and the possibilities when doing natural building with cob, an incredibly sculptural medium, or other materials.

The wanderer in the cocoon

Recently I have been wandering. Wandering geographically as well into the depths of my own mind, soul and heart. School, a place I used to love and thrive in, became a prison whose purpose it seemed was keep me from wandering. Everything I knew myself to be; a good student, confident and socially adept and involved, a leader in in world of extracurriculars, seemed in question suddenly. I found myself wanting to retreat, isolating myself  and wishing I could escape all the obligations and responsibilities of academia and society. And I hated feeling this way. I beat up on myself, trying to make myself go out and stay engaged, and yet the more I tried the more I knew I did not want to be there.

Asking my parents if I could take time off from college was one of the hardest things I have ever done. When I finally mustered the courage to ask they were receptive (thank god!) but getting there was a long, hard path of facing many of my demons and fears. My fear of being that college dropout, of not finishing what I started (I only have 1 more semester and then I will have my degree! How could I stop now?), of disappointing my parents, of disappointing myself! But something inside of me was screaming with an urgency, an urgency that I did not quite understand, telling me I needed to be free to wander.

Now, it is October of my year off. My classmates have resumed classes, I will not graduate a semester early in December, but the world has not fallen apart. In fact, I feel a huge weight lifted off me, and I feel myself expanding and growing in profound ways as I am allowed to explore my own depths at y own pace. And, I think I will go back and finish my degree, but I know that for now I made the right decision to take a year off. And in a society where “soul searching” is not always recognized as a valuable and legitimate thing to be doing with ones time, I am incredibly grateful that my family and community was and is able to support me in my decision

Although at this point I do not feel a need for outside validation of my decision, a recent book I have picked up has helped me understand my own need to wander and put things in perspective. The book is called Nature and the Human Soul and is written by Bill Plotkin. In this book, Plotkin, who is a a depth psychologist and wilderness guide, proposes a development model for healthy human development. Reading about his model, which is a circular model of development that is eco and soulcentric, I feel like my own trials and tribulations, as well as my own gut feelings about what is healthy and what I need has been fully validated. Reading his book has given me insight and understanding to why nature, both our own and the that of the earth, is so important for healthy human development. And it has also helped me understand some of the causes for much of the destruction and dysfunction I see around me. Plotkin skillfully explains the egocentric society that dominates today, where the primary objective is socioeconomic gain for the individual while also illustrating a viable alternative for moving towards an eco-soulcentric society where each individual manifests their own unique purpose in the world and acts from a place of deep connection to the whole world or cosmos. What a beautiful and in many ways simple idea! That a mature person would be acting not for the benefit of just the individual but for the whole world! And yet it seems this is not what most so called adults in our world are doing.

But I think things are shifting. Lately it seems that everywhere I go people are talking of and doing their part in The Great Turning, although they may not call it that. To my knowledge, Joanna Macy was the first to coin this phrase, but it is now being used by many across the globe. To me, the work that Plotkin is doing does much to address the third stage of the great turning; a global shift in consciousness. Without this shift actions to slow or call attention to the damage we are doing, such as the occupy wall street movement (which I fully support), or even education and analysis of the causes of this destruction will only take us so far in healing our planet, and therefore our people. We need to also look inward and do our own inner work.

This is what the 4th stage in Plotkin’s developmental work, the wanderer in the cocoon, is all about. This stage is also what Plotkin sees as the transition stage to becoming a true, mature adult.

Here is one passage from Bill Plotkin’s book describing the quest of the wanderer:

“The Wanderer (of any chronological age) seeks to discover her ultimate place in life. Not just any place will do… It’s got to be her place, one that is in keeping with her vital core. It’s a place defined not by the deeds she performs but by the qualities of soul she embodies; not by her physical, social, or economic achievements but by the true character she manifests; neither by her capacity to conform to the masses, nor by her ability to creatively rebel against the mainstream, but by the unique way she performs her giveaway for her community. Her ultimate place is identified not by any social forms or roles but, rather by the symbols, stories, and archetypes unearthed from the deep structure of her psyche and by the way the world invites her to belong to it.” (pg. 251-252, Nature and the Human Soul)

I am blessed to feel that I have reached this stage. As I read this book I know that my family and community has allowed me to fully experience not only this stage, but the three stages before largely from an eco-soulcentric place and I am grateful for that as well.

I have not completed reading this book and I may write another entry when I have, but as of now I feel quite strongly that for anyone feeling lost and confused in this world, or questioning the way things are, whether they are young or old I would highly recommend Nature and the Human Soul. And for parents or anyone working with children or youth or even in just any position of guidance and mentorship, perhaps even to adults, this is, in my opinion, one of the most important books you could read. I am certainly glad I am reading it for myself and long before I have my own children. It will definitely shape how I choose to raise them.

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