Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Educating Kids

We just renovated and expanded a school just outside of Granada, Nicaragua for 450 kids. When we started they had four severely storm-damaged classrooms and no bathrooms or clean water. The staff was teaching classes in neighboring makeshift buildings and the students were using the bathrooms, such as they are, in neighbor's houses. This week, they have seven safe, clean, wired, and dry classrooms (four renovated and three new), bathrooms for the boys and girls, a water system, and a safe waste treatment system. In a few more weeks, we'll have repaired existing furniture and acquired additional furniture, we'll stock the school with books and supplies, and we'll make and deliver hundreds of school uniforms.

Before We Started - June, 2010

Storm-Damaged Classroom

A diverse group of eighteen people participated in completion of the school: men and women; professionals, retirees, and students; Rotarians and non-Rotarians; with ages from 22 to 72. The common bonds amongst this diverse group are enthusiasm, commitment to service, and willingness to work. I was amazed by the team's completed work in our five day building blitz.

New Classrooms Under Construction

Nicaragua is the second poorest country in the western hemisphere (behind Haiti). The South Granville Rotary Club has completed six service projects here because the need is great and we have amazing partners at the Granada Rotary Club. We partnered to build four school libraries and a medical clinic prior to this school project and we plan to continue our service work in Granada in the future.

We found a broad base of support for this school. Six Rotary clubs, two congregations, two companies, the Rotary Foundation, Rotary District 7710, and 21 individuals all contributed to make up the total budget for the project. No single donation was more than 1/6th of the total budget. We are grateful for the generous support, in money and effort, of all the participants.

When we deconstructed the damaged roofs on the old classrooms, I saw some of the fastest and most direct re-purposing of materials ever. The cementious roof materials immediately - literally - became fences, roof ridge caps, siding, and (the smallest pieces) road gravel. A great example of frugality-based green building.

I find that I get completely immersed in planning, arranging supplies, paying vendors, working with local contractors, and doing the work that I sometimes do not see as much of the kids and community as I probably should.  This trip was no exception. Teachers come by the building site with the school children and sing us a song or read a poem or ask for the notebooks and colored pencils and school supplies that we bring. I noticed and smiled and focused right back on the work. On the last day, though, a group of elementary-school-age students walked to the site and presented a thank-you poster. Then they did the sweetest thing.  Four or five of the girls went went down the line and gave us a carefully practiced "thank-you" (in English) and a kiss on the cheek. Turned us into putty. What a gift.

Monday, March 14, 2011


I seem to be the center of a worm theme. My oldest, Aspen, started out as a wiggle worm graduated to bookworm and now we just call her "Worm". You know how family nicknames evolve.

So when she started a worm bin we took it in stride. "What is a worm bin" you ask? So did we! A worm bin is a composting system that you can have inside your home. In fact it needs to be in your home so the worms don't freeze the winter and it will be very convenient to use.

You can buy worm bins online, but the daughter of a builder tends to lean toward "do it yourself". Aspen found and enjoyed a workshop at Durham’s Scrap Exchange on Foster.

Now, back to the worm part of our story for they are the heroes of this story. Aspen’s worm bin is made of a plastic storage bin with a tight fitting lid. She drilled holes in the top and sides to give the worms air and in the bottom to drain the worm "tea". To start the process she filled it with shredded newspaper to the top. Then you moisten the paper just so. Not to soggy but definitely moist. Then you add the worms. Two pounds of worms (roughly 2000) to one pound of food scraps expected a week seems to be one formula, but the supplier of Aspen's worms gave her two fists full and that seems to have worked. The worms self-adjust their population based on how much you feed them, so the amount of worms you start with isn't that important. The worms need a few hours to become adjusted to their new accommodations. Start them off easy with just a couple of cups of vegetable scraps. Let them munch on that for a week. In the meantime you can start placing your food scraps in another smaller plastic container in your fridge. That process will keep them from rotting quickly and adding an unwanted bouquet to your kitchen. Then once a week add that collection to your worm bin and they will happily (so Aspen tells me) compost them for you. Each week you add fresh moist newspaper to the top to control odor and bugs. When you feed the worms you should use a gardening claw to lift up an inch or two below the top of the soil the worms have made and place your food under that layer.

Every six months or so you harvest the compost and add more newspaper. Weekly you can harvest the "tea". Aspen mixes her tea with a ratio of one-third tea and two-thirds water. She uses for plant inside and out. Sort of a poor mans Miracle Grow.

Recently Aspen started pestering me to pimp her worm bin. She wanted an easier way to harvest the compost and tea and to roll it in and out from under the shelf in the pantry.

A quick trip the big blue box store netted wheels, a plastic paint tray and a couple of plumbing parts. A few minutes of assembly (with a teaspoon of father/Worm banter) and voila, the worms have a new ride!

Friday, March 4, 2011

A Different Outlook

Josef Mayr is a long-time friend, an Austrian, and one of the owners of BuildSense. I was set up on a blind date with Josef's sister, Christina, an au pair in Oak Park, Illinois, when I was 19.  Through Christina, I became fast friends with Josef. There is a lot more to this story but I'll save that for another time. I just wanted to introduce Josef. For now, jump forward a few decades…

When Josef and I toured housing component prefabricators and CNC wood cutting equipment makers in Bavaria and Austria a few years ago, the thing that I remembered most clearly is European's reaction to prefabricated housing.  Instead of the perception that you most often see in America, which is: "I don't want a poor quality tin-can trailer, " Europeans will say: "oh my, they are expensive but that is one nice house." Okay, it was actually some other variation of "oh, my," possibly not appropriate for a family-friendly blog. After visiting four different companies and several completed projects, I understood why. The houses delivered through this process are so well built, so carefully detailed, so comfortable and efficient, and so focused on the long term that they are completely unlike 98% of the best housing in the States.

The concept of flipping a house is fairly alien to Austrians and Germans as is the idea of a starter house, the next one, and the next one. The best translation of the "ownership" of Josef's family farm (in Mutters, outside Innsbruck) is that the farm and surrounding forest owns the family, rather than the other way around. Permanence, durability, and stewardship figure prominently into the equation.  Their family house is few hundred years old.  They store apples and farm supplies in the old house after they built an adjacent new home (in the 60's).  Multiple generations of the family live in the house.  Josef and his sister built their houses on family land. Josef's brother will have the family house. They all plan to stay.

This mindset translates seamlessly to the building choices that they make.  They pick for comfort, for efficiency, and for very long-term returns and value. Too often, Americans consider only initial cost.  If we go beyond initial cost, we might consider just a few years of operating costs. The impact of the choices that these different mindsets yield is astonishing. This is the crux of the argument for (and against) building a quality house (or a sustainable house, which I understand is the same thing). Do we make a higher investment in our houses now and enjoy the benefit of comfort, health, low (or non-existent) energy bills, low water bills, and a healthy environment? Or is the investment in our home so transient and short-term that we build a barely acceptable code-standard house and pay significantly more over time to energy companies and health care providers? Unfortunately, our banking, real estate, building code, and appraisal stakeholders all support and perpetuate the initial-cost-focused model.

Two places stood out on this tour.  One, the Hundegger factory. They make CNC (computer numerically controlled) machines that mill wood, engineered lumber, and SIPS (structural insulated panel systems).  These machines figure prominently in the construction of prefabricated house components. They crank out prefabricated components with speed, precision, and controlled repeatability that a master crafts person cannot touch. Two, the Baufritz house factory. The wall panels, roof panels, floor panels, and house components that they produce on their immaculate and fully automated production lines are crafted like fine cabinetry. The Baufritz factory uses Hundegger equipment (as well as other brands) to create their products.

Take, for example, a Baufritz house wall section. The studs are dovetailed into the siding. This is unbelievable. There is simply no way to tear this house apart short of a bulldozer. Water, necessary for life and pleasant as it may be, can destroy a building faster than almost anything else. Note the flashing and details around the windows.  These details and level of care is a fine defense against the war that water will wage against your home.

Builders often order precut studs for standard wall heights. This saves time and is an efficient use of materials (they are ready to go and there is little waste in cut-offs). A CNC process follows that same course but exploits the benefits to the nth degree. Imagine sill plates notched to squarely accept wall studs only one way and in one place. Imagine every opening for conduit, ducts, or pipes precisely drilled and cut in a place that optimizes system performance and structural strength.  Imagine a system where everything fits precisely, plumb, and dead level. With precision and fit comes strength. With strength comes efficiency and a reduction in bulk materials.  With a reduction in bulk materials comes resource efficiency and reduced cost.

I walked away from this experience with two primary ideas. One, buildings are a product of our mindset and culture.  Two, we have in hand better ways to build houses than the 140 year old unmodified stick frame.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Pricey Poultry

Thanksgiving is a huge event at our farm and something we look forward to every year.  Last T-day, we had over 50 people in attendance.  As you might imagine, this crowd can plow through some turkey.  We had the quasi-brilliant idea that we would raise our own turkeys for the event (as well as a few chickens). While I have some distant experience with raising poultry, with my grandparents on their farm when I was a kid, I was surprised by the seriousness and difficulty of the enterprise. We started with 15 turkey chicks and ended up dining on 3 extremely tasty, free range, organic, and locally grown birds that I cooked on the grill.  Good thing they were tasty, because the cost per pound was ridiculous. Ignoring the time investment, we had over $20 per pound in the initial chick purchase, feed, brooder lights, bedding, material for the turkey tractors, and slaughter and dressing costs. If you add in the cost of the time, the number is silly. Turkeys are famously stupid and ours were no exception.  Three drowned in their water bowl. Many others fell prey to predators. All the while, the chickens got along with no problem.  When chickens, in comparison, seem smart and barnyard savvy, you know that there can only be 3 to 4 synapses actively firing in each minuscule turkey brain.

With this many people coming to Thanksgiving, we needed a fourth bird.  I found myself in Costco staring disgustedly at the $.99 per pound price tag on the turkeys, about 1/20th of my total costs (again, discounting four months of minimally successful poultry husbandry). I bought the bird. It was also tasty, this one fried.

We are unsure whether we might try again. Try or not, I've developed a very personal respect for folks who can raise and sell organic beef and poultry. We recently got together with friends and family and bought a side of beef from Chad and Jodi Ray (outstanding green builders as well as farmers) that was grass fed and pasture raised and is free from drugs and antibiotics.  Some of the best beef I've ever had. I've also purchased and enjoyed organic chicken from folks at the Durham Farmers Market.  I no longer think that buying meat from these folks is expensive.  Instead, it is good food at a good value.