Monday, August 31, 2015

A couple of weeks in our new house

Thanks for support from afar as we moved into our new house. It has been super momentous and blessed, though perhaps I was being overdramatic in weathering what felt like a particularly overwhelming few months.

The off grid stuff:

We learned our small fridge, which we brought over from our old house, is pretty low quality, in that it sucks massive amounts of energy every time the motor starts up, thereby tripping our inverter (the thing that converts DC to AC). We also returned the pump that was going to pump water from our Jojo rainwater tank into our solar geyser and bathroom, as it had the same problem. The amount of power we have from our 4 panels seems to be close to ok, but our main challenges are related to surges and starting motors. For now, we're using our deep freeze, which does not have the same problem as our fridge when it comes to surges, and then using our fridge as a glorified cooler box, where we move items from the freezer to the fridge as we need them. We generally have to be super careful about our batteries, and must choose when we have electricity (i.e. not in evenings/at night)-- which I think is going to get better as we get closer to summer, but is surprisingly not a huge deal.

Given the issue with our Jojo tank pump, we're currently using all municipal water inside the house. Which means we're not really off the grid. With a low-pressure gravity solar geyser, our hot water pressure is very low, and we use very little water when showering. We have to start filling the bath an hour before the kids are set to bath, to get them a few centimeters of bathwater. Yet what the geyser lacks in pressure it makes up for in heat. It's a very simple hot water heater, and it basically heats up the water directly, in glass tubes. So even though we're still coming out of winter and the sun is often hidden by clouds, the water is steaming hot. Given that we're not using water in our toilet, our water needs are quite modest and we're wondering if the most practical thing is just to continue to use municipal water in our home. The good news is that our 5000L Jojo got lots and lots of water with recent rain.

Our trees are surviving, and starting a food forest is a complicated, slow thing. The big challenges so far seem to be giant moles and wind. The wind can be fairly brutal on young trees, and our plot has about a trillion brazen moles. There's not a lot we're keen to do about the moles right now (it's low on the long list of projects-- I heard you can eat the moles but I'm really not sure how to start with that?), so I'm trying to think of ways to break the wind, and extend the food forest gradually from more sheltered areas of our farm, outwards. As summer comes, we'll need to start thinking of ways to conserve water while giving the trees the best start we can.

Eli with Cutie the tortoise. He is pretty hard to find, but we know he's always somewhere on the plot!
Eug made a sand table from scrap wood and leftover building sand. 
Wonderful fireplace. Heats up the house, and is hot enough that we're able to cook bread and use the stovetop as well. 
The fire is pretty tiny, but the heat gets spread along the flue.

Eug had the idea of drawing on tiles with acrylic pens.
Unstaged, the other side of our bathroom. Up to now we've just had buckets of dry grass next to the toilet. We've recently bought hay so that I don't have to keep gathering dried grass...
In the Humanure Handbook, the author suggests that you have four buckets with good lids, then you just have to take the buckets out to the compost pile once a week, at most. Our bathroom is too small to store buckets, and our compost pile is relatively close to the house, so once a week doesn't work for us. It makes the most sense to take a bucket out as soon as it gets full, which is currently every 2-3 days.

I'd love to talk more about the toilet as we get more experience with it: shared toilets in South African townships are dangerous for women and children, frequently dirty or fill or locked, and generally problematic. We're too new to this way of doing toilets, and to the complexity of issues in townships, to espouse specific views just yet. Nevertheless, it's super cool that you can get some old buckets, some old grass, and make a wooden box and a toilet seat and voila! a safe (from a public health perspective), non-smelling toilet.

We don't have any greywater system per se just yet. Our water comes out in two places into rocks, underground, a few meters from our house. It's pretty high on our list of projects to turn this water into a resource. Our bathroom water can be sent directly to our food forest, as it's fairly clean. Our kitchen water will need to be filtered through a reed bed, which makes it more work to set up, but it is also more urgent because we're going to be washing diapers again soon.

Friday, August 7, 2015

Grey areas

The road to living in a sortof off-grid tiny-ish slightly-more-sustainable-than-our-previous-house is, in our case, paved with a lot of construction waste, plenty of on-grid (possibly diesel-generated) power (for all those power tools-- including completely blowing our fuse box in advance of turning off the grid-- good thing we've got solar!), getting our homeschooling kids addicted to YouTube because we're too tired and overstretched to engage with them, buying a lot of complicated equipment we don't completely understand, freaking out that our builders are going to steal our tools/giant, heavy lead batteries that store our solar power, freaking out because Eug is doing more building than the builders, freaking out about how expensive the house is, and whether/how much we've been robbed, freaking out that we're freaking out instead of being calm and keeping things in perspective.

Why don't they tell that story in Tinyhousetalk?

That said, Eug is amazing despite his stress, managing building and becoming a carpentry pro while I take kids on some adventure somewhere (probably the beach) while wanting to go volcano at our builder because I heard that if there's one thing builders can't handle, it's a super-angry super-pregnant woman. But I don't, because such an occasion calls for at least a little swearing, and my puritan upbringing means I can only swear under my breath, and even then only in German (thanks Anna).

Why can't our story be a little more like those peeps who show pictures of this amazing designer house that they built themselves in six weeks over the summer for, like, barely any money? With their hippie friends, who do it for the joy and love of it. Preferably made out of old bottles, or old tires, or that and some mud they sourced sustainably. With a green roof, and solar panels they made out of foil or something. Which will last forever and stores thermal mass so it's always 73 degrees F, or 22 degrees C, or whatever is considered the perfect temperature these days.

As best as I can tell-- or as best as I can attempt to show this to be the ultimately happy story that it is-- the reason that our experience has been so different to the hippies described above, is that we are doing things at different stages of our lives, in a different geographical location. With very little experience. And making some attempt to pass building inspection and respect some of the laws on this stuff, while gently but persistently pointing out that our neighbours in Masi are stuck living in overcrowded corrugated iron and cardboard shacks. I guess the key thing for me is that this house was an attempt to live closer to our calling (what an abstract thought), and that the reality is a lot more complicated.

In the morass of very complicated choices, prayer and faith play a huge role in figuring out how we spend our time. The reality is that as an educated, wealthy (relative to the world) family there are a lot of radical things that we could and should be doing for the sake of justice-- and because of our faith. Way beyond homesteading, which in the end is still just a cool idea. But perhaps it is powerful to consider that our calling represents the intersection between the thing we're drawn to, and the world's need (s). The process of house building made apparent the limits of my faith, but also that our faith and our calling are not static. We'll change and grow and God will help shape our next steps. For now that means extending grace to the builder we're paying for this job, who I perceive to be the closest thing I have to an Enemy right now, and who (infuriatingly) may never know that grace was extended. Despite the train-wreck of the past years' bureaucracy and building, we almost have a little house on an acre of land in a breathtakingly beautiful part of the world. Eug and I still love eachother after the build (always more than before). I have work and Eug is able to pursue his passions and the kids have place to explore and grow. My family lives nearby-- and there are hopes that my parents will soon be on the plot right alongside us. And we've experienced phenomenal amounts of support from my parents in particular, in whose home we've been living the past four months.

So yeah, we're moving into our unfinished/nearly finished sortof/almost/small/tiny house next week. Praying for a little wisdom on which day to move, and how to adjust to certain things. Like, not having a toilet. Or a high pressure shower. Praying for our kids to adjust and settle, and feel a sense of stability and love. Praying for lots of good friendships-- both for us and our kids, in the southern peninsula. Thanks for joining us on this journey.

You can see the olive trees on the right-- they need some love to get them bearing again, but I think they will give us plenty of olives with a couple of years of water, compost, and a little bit of pruning.

Our bathroom seemed super small during construction, but now it seems just right. Eug refinished a rusty cast-iron bathtub, which will also be our shower. The composting toilet will go in the back left corner.

We're still having problems with our geyser, but we did manage to get all the wires off our roof and the solar electricity is working. It will be an adjustment (I'm not sure if we'll have enough power for our chest freezer, for example), but having enough energy for lights and our bar fridge already feels wonderful.