Gettin’ Techie with It

We’ve made a lot of progress with the house, although most of it has been in my head!  After the Passive House training, I had some important decisions to make before we could move forward with the design.  So I spent a couple of months mulling over different options and comparing prices.

I’ve decided to square off the house and remove the two bump outs that we had in the master bedroom and bath.  This will make it much easier to create a continuous air barrier and continuous insulation without any thermal bridging.

And it breaks my heart to say this, especially after writing a whole post about saving it, but after much deliberating and weighing options and prices, I’ve decided to take down the magnolia tree.  We were planning on putting the house on piers in order to not disrupt the root system of the tree.  The tree would have to be trimmed significantly either way, so the house could fit under it.  But I talked with a foundation company regarding the price, and the piers themselves would cost around $7-8,000, and on top of that we have to get a structural engineer involved, then pay for lumber for the floor joists and the cost of a finished floor.  All of which could cost three to four times more than using an insulated slab for the foundation.  Because the slab will be insulated, we can also use the concrete floors as our finished floor; it creates a cool, industrial look!  And we get the benefit of being coupled with the ground, which can help on heating and cooling costs since the ground is cooler than the air in summer and warmer than the air in winter. And unfortunately because of how far down we have to dig for the slab foundation, I don’t think the tree would survive the trauma to its roots.

A few weeks ago, I was at a gas station pondering my tree decision.  I looked over to my left and saw a big truck that said “Gil’s Tree Service.”  I remembered that they had taken a tree down for me when I was building my first home.  I stopped Gil and asked his advice on the Magnolia tree.   He went and looked at the tree and thought it would be a good idea to take it down.  AND he has a sawmill and can mill the wood from the tree so that I can use it in the interior of the home, either to do some cool trim details or possibly a whole wall of magnolia wood!  Knowing that helped me feel a lot better about the decision!

Another difficult decision has been deciding on the best option for domestic hot water.  The Passive House standard has mostly been used in cooler, dryer climates, so the challenge we face with building this kind of house in the deep south is heat and humidity.  We want the Relative Humidity in the house to stay between 40-60%, and some of the Passive Houses in the south have struggled stay in that range in the summer time.  The Energy Recovery Ventilator and the heat pump mini-split haven’t been quite enough to keep the homes cool and deal with the humidity in the middle of summer.

I’m hoping that I can use a heat pump water heater to help with that.  A heat pump water heater pulls heat and humidity out of the air and uses it to heat the water.  It’s kind of like a water heater and an air conditioner in one because once the heat has been removed from the air, it blows cold air back out into the space around it.  It can be 2-3 times more efficient than a standard electric water heater because it’s much more efficient to transfer energy or heat than to generate it.  And if it’s really cold in the winter, you can change it to electric resistance mode.  Currently the price of these water heaters is around $900, so it’s a pretty affordable option.  The question was then where to put this water heater. They recommend about 1,000 cubic feet of space, which we didn’t really have with our current design!  Originally the office on the first floor was going to be open to above, but we’ve decided to place a floor above the office space and use that as our mechanical room.  We can have the ERV, hot water heater and possibly the electrical panel in that room.

My hope is that the ERV and the mini-split, together with the heat pump water heater and the concrete slab coupled with the ground, will be enough to keep the house cool with the humidity levels under control in the summer!

For the insulated slab, we use a couple of inches of foam underneath the slab.  The foam acts as the form that you can pour the concrete into, and then the foam just stays in place after pouring and doubles as insulation!  We have a layer of poly that runs under the slab and comes around to be taped to the outside of the OSB sheathing, creating a continuous vapor barrier and an air barrier.

The wall that I plan on using for any construction geeks out there is a 2×6 stud wall on 2 foot centers, with dense packed cellulose in the wall cavity.  The OSB will be the sheathing that attaches to the outside of the 2×6 wall.  The OSB is then sealed with a liquid flashing called Prosoco, which creates an air and vapor barrier.

Attached to the OSB, we’ll have 3-4 inches of exterior insulation, probably Rockwool, which is made from industrial slag.  It’s a pain to install but it’s non organic, so it handles moisture well and doesn’t attract bugs because there’s nothing for them to eat! It can also be obtained locally because we have a manufacturer in Leeds!

On top of the Rockwool, we’ll have furring strips, (which are wood strips) that attach through the Rockwool to the studs, so that we can create a rain screen or drainage plain. At the bottom we’ll have a screen to keep insects out and towards to top of the wall, we’ll place another vent so that the air can circulate and dry out the area.  The hardi-plank siding will be attached to the furring strips and that’s it!

So next we have to figure out how to tie the roof into this wall system without raising the overall height of the house too much.  We could do an unvented roof, which means we just have to be extra careful about condensation issues.  We have to make sure that our dewpoint won’t happen on the interior of our house, creating a moisture problem. J

Rebecca is currently working on the window schedule, which is a list of windows and sizes that we’ll use in the house, so that I can get window pricing. I’m comparing prices with a few different window manufacturer’s. She’s also making the changes to the elevations and floorplan, so we can begin inputting all the data into the Passive House Planning Package software to make sure we’re on track with the Passive House standards!

Here are a few pics of some Passive House projects we saw when I went out to the Passive House conference in Boulder last month!  More to come soon!

 

One Year Later

At many times a long the way I’ve wondered if change was possible. Sometimes my old beliefs and habits can feel so ingrained, that it’ll make me question whether or not humans are truly capable of change.

When I started this blog about a year ago, I was hoping to have my new home built by now, but more importantly I was searching for a shift within myself and a different outlook on life.

And a year later, I can honestly say that a lot has changed. My life has become less frantic, and I take time to do things that truly nurture me. I’m saying “no” a lot more, and I have a new overall commitment to my own well being. I cook healthy meals for myself. I take my lunch to work. I’ve reduced the amount of clutter and waste in my life. I take time to write. I spend time most days doing stretches and exercises that help me realign my posture and stay out of pain.

It’s amazing how good I can feel just by taking care of myself.

It’s very different than trying to force myself to live a “healthy” lifestyle or “be good” or “save the environment.” It really comes from a deeper place of wanting to truly live my life in alignment with what’s best for myself and the world around me. And I really don’t believe that those are two separate things. Of course I don’t do it perfectly (not even close!), and I don’t think I would want to. But I’m grateful for what this project is bringing me, and I hope to be able to continue sharing the things that are changing and the ways I hope to shape my professional life to line up with that vision as well.

I watched a you tube video this past week about a family of four who manages to only have one tiny bag of trash every few months. Here’s a link if you’d like to see how they do it.  They say that some people have criticized them and called their lifestyle extreme but that they are truly happier and healthier and their expenses have been reduced significantly by living this way!

Like with so many things, I don’t think it has to be all or nothing. I try to continually, gently incorporate smaller things into my life and see what habits I can gradually change. Things that feel really awkward at first, can become second nature over time. The last time I went to the grocery store, I looked at the conveyor belt and saw how nearly everything I was buying came in a package. So I’ve been saving my packages and buying more in bulk, using cloth bags to put the bulk items into. I keep a couple of tupperware containers in my car or purse to use as to go boxes at restaurants and take my water bottle at work, so I don’t have to use disposable cups. It’s fun; remembering is the hardest part! I’ve also been more conscious about only bringing things into my home that I really want or need. So just a few small changes at a time, that hopefully over a lifetime can make a difference!

Later this week I’ll write more about our progress with the house! I’ve been working on a few construction projects lately, so here are some photos from a Homewood bathroom remodel I just finished, and a screened in porch we tiled in Mountain Brook. In the bathroom, we used a low flow toilet and plumbing fixtures, an LED light fixture over the vanity, low VOC paint on the walls and ceiling, and we re-used the medicine cabinet over the vanity and painted it to match the vanity wood! All of these options were comparable in price to their conventional equivalent.

Here’s a link to my first post around this time last year if you’d like to read more about what this project means to me!

Why Passive House?

Affordable Passive House in Urbana, IL, built for $110/ square foot. The trellis is designed so future vines can provide shading for the south facing windows.

The Passive House builder’s training last week was more than I could have hoped for! I met some wonderful people, learned so much, and now feel more confident in my understanding of what it takes to build a Passive House.

I have a newfound respect for the amount of attention I will have to pay to the details of the construction of this home and for the amount of time and energy I will need to invest in convincing people that we can do this, especially here in Alabama.

I’ve gained confidence and fear at the same time. Building such an air-tight envelope makes for a more energy efficient building, and the intentional ventilation creates superior air quality and comfort within the home, but it also means the building is less forgiving if mistakes are made during construction. If the walls aren’t designed well or the windows aren’t installed correctly, you can create a situation where water can accumulate in your walls. And with airtight walls it’s much more difficult for the building to dry itself out.

Up until now, I’ve relied a lot on my experienced subcontractors to educate me about their trades and best building practices. But in order to make this project happen, I will have to be able to communicate and demonstrate how to do a lot of the construction details to my subs. I think many of them will be open to it, but some will probably fight it.

Building a Passive House, in many ways, is like turning conventional construction on its head. It will be an uphill battle talking with inspectors and subcontractors, to convince them that this new way of doing things is going to result in a better building.

Essentially, Passive House is a building that won’t become obsolete in 20 years. The goal is to create a super-insulated, airtight, thermal bridge free envelope that uses balanced ventilation through efficient mechanical systems, high performance windows and doors, and passive elements to create a comfortable, durable building that’s renewable ready!

On the first day of training, we looked at some graphs that showed our projected increasing energy demands over the next few decades. With a growing global population and technology reaching parts of the world that have never known things such as air conditioning, the only way we’re going to meet the rise in our global energy demands is through energy-efficiency.

In the U.S., 40% of our energy consumption comes from the operations and maintenance of our buildings. Buildings built to the Passive House standard consume approximately 90% less energy than conventional buildings, so imagine how much energy can be saved if all of our buildings were built to this standard!

I often hear the argument that renewable energy is too expensive, out of reach, but that is largely due to the fact that our buildings are inefficient, so it requires a lot of renewable energy to operate the building. If we make our buildings 90% more efficient, then renewable energy, such as solar, starts to make a lot more sense.

Currently it costs around 10% more to build a home to Passive House standards, but a lot of people are working to show that it can be done affordably. One of the Passive homes that we visited in Illinois was built for about $110 per square foot, which is pretty cheap! And as the construction standards and some of the materials used become more widely known, it will become even more affordable. As Adam, one of our instructors at the training says, with a Passive House, your monthly payment, when you add up your mortgage payment and your energy bill, will be equal to or less than your total payment with a conventional home. What doesn’t make sense about that?! And then you’re putting your money into the quality and equity of your home instead of giving it to the power company!

The Passive House standard is based on the performance of the building. For example, to meet Passive House certification when the home is tested under pressure with a blower door test, there can be no more than 0.6 air changes per hour, compared to 7.0 allowed by code! But the specific way the building is built depends entirely on the climate of the area and the availability of materials. So each project has to be evaluated individually to come up with the best system and materials to use on the house.

The learning curve on all this is steep, which is why it’s taking me so dang long! The other houses I’ve built were designed and built in about 9-12 months total, and I think we’ve been in the design phase with this house for about 9 months now. We probably have another 3-6 months to go just to finalize the design, to enter all the data in the Passive House Planning Package Software, estimate the costs, and submit the project to the Passive House Institute for pre-certification. I’m hoping to have every construction detail drawn and planned out before we start building, and I’m guessing that once we break ground, the actual construction will take a year or so.

I’ll write another post soon for any construction geeks out there that want more information about how I plan on building the walls of this house and an explanation of the ventilation system that makes Passive House possible!

On the Road Again

It’s been a traveling month!

I spent a week near San Francisco, exploring the city and attending a retreat where we worked on our inner selves for a few days.

Then last week, I took a road trip up to Virginia for my friend’s baby shower. I couch surfed at a community house in Asheville that focuses on sustainability. They capture their grey water in buckets and use it to flush the toilets. They dumpster dive outside of a local natural foods store and bring home the slightly damaged packages of food that get thrown away. The have earth paint on their walls, make their own mead, live without air conditioner, and capture their rain water and compost for their organic garden. Their mosaics on the shower walls were made from found broken pieces of tile. It was inspiring to see all these guys were able to achieve in real life. It pushed me to think a little deeper about what other things I could be doing in my own life. It also helped me realize what things I wasn’t interested in, like crapping in a box to make my own biogas!

After leaving the precious historic town of Lexington, VA, where the baby shower was, I worked my way back home.

I headed to Damascus, Virginia to bike the Virginia Creeper Trail and spent Sunday night at the Hiker’s Inn, which is a cozy little inn/ hostel that provides a hot shower and a comfortable bed for the thru hikers that are walking the 2,000 miles of the Appalachain Trail, a footpath that goes all the way from Georgia to Maine.

On my way to Damascus I thought to myself, “I’m really glad I’ve gotten over the urge to hike the Appalachain Trail myself.”

But of course, all it took were five minutes of talking to the hikers, and I was ready to just abandon everything and follow them down the trail!

It’s a strange desire that’s hard to even articulate, but I have such an intense longing for the ridiculous simplicity of carrying everything on my back in the middle of nature with nothing but what I need to survive. It’s rugged and dirty and there’s no pretense. It can be lonely, scary and incredibly uncomfortable, but something about it feels like home. I miss Chris and other people/comforts while I’m gone, but I come home and after a few days, I’m ready to be back in the woods!

It brings the rest of my life into focus, magnifying the things that matter most to me while encouraging me to let go of the things that don’t.

So I guess it’s partly about the experience itself and partly about the contrast that allows me to appreciate all of life a little more.

As one of the hikers from the inn mentioned, “Being on the trail is like life in a capsule.” He said, “In the last six weeks, I’ve been extremely happy, intensely depressed; I’ve gained and lost friends, and I’ve had a relationship that lasted two weeks, but felt like a year! “ And I thought, yeah that makes perfect sense! Six months on the trail is like a metaphor for a lifetime.

Since I’ve been home, it’s become crystal clear to me that I have to make some changes in my professional life. I feel like I’m underpaid and under functioning. I have to find a way to increase my income and create a professional life based more on the things that I enjoy most, or else I will always feel trapped.

My hope is to slowly work on creating a business that helps people live happier, healthier, more sustainable lives! There are some certifications that I’ll be working on this year. One is the training to become a Passive House consultant.

I’m terrified and excited. I don’t know how I’ll work out all of the logistics yet, but I’ve started doing some research and am excited to have some direction.

We’re also making headway with the house! The elevations are done, and I’ve decided to go ahead and start building the garage.

Very few people have looked at my house in Hoover, but I can afford to build the garage even without selling my house. That’ll give me lots of storage space and an upstairs office above the garage where I could occasionally sleep while the main house is being built! That means only having to move once!

Rebecca suggested the idea, and I love it. It helps me feel like the project isn’t becoming stagnant.

It will also be great practice; I’ll get a chance to try incorporating all the Passive House techniques on a smaller scale without the pressure of having to get the structure certified.

The plan is to go before the design review board to get the neighborhood approval for the house and the garage on July 11. I have to apply for a variance because the garage takes up more than the allowed space in the backyard, but I’m hoping that won’t be too much of a hurdle. The goal is to break ground on the garage in August, and then start on the house as soon as the garage is finished, which will probably be the first of next year. It’s nice to have a concrete plan for the house and my life!

Jones Valley Teaching Farm

It’s about becoming ”understanding and connected to the life that is giving you life”.

This was my favorite quote from my January interview with Rachel Reinhart, the Program Director with Jones Valley Teaching Farm.

Jones Valley recently changed their name from Jones Valley Urban Farm, and I learned a lot through this interview about the focus of the farm and all they’re doing to better our quality of life and the health of our families, communities and environment. I hope you will enjoy Rachel’s insights as much as I did!

(It’s so long it took me four months to transcribe it, but I think it’s well worth the read!)

Me: Why do you think what Jones Valley is doing is important?

Rachel: I think it’s important for a few different reasons. One is community redevelopment.

Jones Valley is a way to get people back outside, knowing, talking to and caring about one another. Not just at the Jones Valley location downtown, but also through what we help people get started, through other community gardens, farmers markets, food policy council…

Me: Do you feel like it reconnects people across class lines, bringing the community together as a whole, rather than keeping us so compartmentalized?

Rachel: I wish it did, but I don’t think that we’ve really realized that yet, which is part of why we do what we do.

One program I run is a community garden training program. So even if all of our community doesn’t come together, you can start a community garden in your neighborhood, bringing your neighborhood closer together. Then we facilitate a chance for your neighborhood community garden to meet with other neighborhood groups.

Me: So you’re actually showing people how to create their own community gardens?

Rachel: Yes, how to create and sustain them because the hardest part is sustaining them. And the trick to doing that is community organizing, so we also teach community organizing.

So there’s the community redevelopment part of it, and the other part of it that REALLY matters to Jones Valley and to me personally, is creating better access to fresh, healthy food. And that’s partly through the gardens, partly through the farmer’s markets, and partly through teaching people a way to value and actually get food locally that is good for them.

In Jefferson County, we’re number three in the country in obesity, number 2 in the country in childhood obesity and that number is growing. All the diet related chronic health problems that come from that, like diabetes, heart disease, stroke, etc. are all going up, and if we can combat that by providing better food and teaching people to appreciate it, find it, cook it and eat it, then we have a chance of improving their personal health as well as our community and environmental health and safety.

Me: Why do you it’s important that Jones Valley is an organic garden? Or in general why do you think organic gardening is important?

Rachel: I think it’s important for a few different reasons.

One, we’re building on an ideal appellate. And it’s not just physical health or community health. It’s also environmental and economic health. For environmental health, it’s important to be conservative and sustainable with our natural resources, such as soil and water. Organic gardening is the most careful with those resources and promotes the health of the soil.

Organic gardening has a way of building the health of the soil and the health of the plants, so that you actually leave a garden bed healthier than you found it. You’re able to repair and undo past damage.

I think that’s important because in Birmingham we are still recovering from the contamination of our industrial area. We’re still recovering from the contamination of our social set with the racial injustice that has happened and still does happen. And until we tend to our soil and our communities and our neighborhoods, I don’t see that [recovery] happening.

Plus organic gardening produces healthier food. The food is more nutrient dense. It doesn’t have the toxic contamination of synthetic pesticides, or synthetic fertilizers.
It doesn’t create a contaminated water supply by causing toxic runoff into our streams. It helps increase the water retention capacity of the soil, making it more drought tolerant. And it creates a better habitat for bugs and birds and worms, all the small creatures that not a lot of people care about!

Another thing about organic gardening, especially when it’s done on a small scale like we do it, is that it connects you back to the work of producing the food that you eat. So you suddenly become understanding and connected to the life that is giving you life.

Instead of purchasing it in a store, where it doesn’t seem to be part of your own eco-system. I mean when you have a bag of Spinach that came from Atlanta, was packaged in Michigan, and grown in California 6 weeks ago, it makes for a real different connection than planting a seed, nurturing it, watching it grow and finally harvesting it and loving it.

Me: I’ve heard a lot about the difference in the energy requirements for producing plants versus animals. What can you tell me about that?

Well, I can talk about a few different things related to that. One difference is conventional farming versus organic farming.

I recently read a wonderful article from the Atlantic monthly. They were saying that people always say that organic farming cannot feed the world, but there have been more than a hundred studies to the contrary, saying that it can. So the Atlantic mentions and links you to all of those studies. In fact, even agro-business says that not only can organic farming feed the world, but a change in our food systems that includes organic farming is going to be necessary if we’re going to feed a world of 9 billion people. Organic farming requires 50% less energy input than conventional farming because we rely on a lot less mechanization.

It’s also a lot less consumptive of water. Because on organic farms, conservation is a key ethic. So generally, you water with drip tape irrigation rather than by overhead irrigation. Less is lost to evaporation, and the water is more directed, straight the roots of the plants, rather than on the leaves where you don’t need it.

The same article in the Atlantic says that when we compare conventional farming to organic, we should really look at conventional farming as a 75 year experiment that has not necessarily turned out a positive result because we’ve only been doing this centralized factory farming of plants and animals since after WWII. It really didn’t exist like that at all before then. Everything was grown on smaller farms, and families had gardens.

And that’s just conventional versus organic, but when you’re talking about plants versus animals. It takes so much energy just to raise an animal. Even when animals are pasture raised or free range, they still require supplemental feed, medical care, housing, heat, etc., depending on the climate. Then the meat has to be butchered, processed, refrigerated, packaged, transported, etc., and every step along the way adds up.

If you’re looking at conventionally raised livestock, they are now in confined animal feeding operations, usually housed in a building with a concrete floor, where there’s timed, mechanized distribution of their feed and washing off of their waste. Animals kept in confined conditions must be given antibiotics because they’re all so close together which leads to antibiotic resistance among humans because we’ve bio accumulated their resistance by eating their flesh. They’re given hormones to increase their rate of growth, so that they can be turned into food more quickly. And now we’re looking at the possibility that their growth hormones are being bio accumulated in us. Besides that, to keep a whole lot of animals in one place, takes a whole lot of energy, a lot of water, a lot of electricity, and a lot of fuel.

Me: So what are the main programs that Jones Valley is offering right now?

Rachel: In the last year, because of a change in leadership and really a change in focus, we’ve tightened our focus. So what we’re doing now, and this is really new, within the last 6 months, is our flagship program, called the Seed to Plate Nutrition Education Program for grades K-8. And typically Seed to Plate is a field trip program to the farm, with kids coming from schools or camps. The group of kids performs a series of hands-on farm activities, a series of hands-on nutrition activities, and a series of hands-on kitchen activities. Each program is built around a theme, and the kids harvest, learn about the nutrition, and cook or otherwise prepare and eat the food that they’ve harvested.

We’ve found this program to be really powerful. We’ve already served thousands of kids and our aspiration is to serve every kid in our metro area. We want to be a regular stop on school field trips. There is no one else who really does this, and we feel it’s a critical need.

We’re seeing that it’s not being covered in the classroom, so we’ve developed a curriculum and a set of activities that we do on the farm, as well as a curriculum that the teachers can use in their classroom. And this summer we’ll be developing an Alabama Math Science Technology Initiative (AMSTI) kit for teachers to take back to the classroom to use in agriculture, food and nutrition activities. They’ll be able to then connect it back to the core curriculum that they’re required to teach.

So we’ve really narrowed our focus for that to be the main program that we offer.

One of the other two programs that we still offer is Delicious Nutritious, a cafeteria cooks training program. We’ve found in working with schools that the cafeteria staff really loves and cares about the children, and they take great pride in what they do. But most of them, with the exception of the registered dieticians and the cafeteria directors, or child nutrition directors, have never been trained in nutrition or in cooking.

So they still cook things in a way that’s not very healthy. For example taking a giant tray and filling it full of giant cans of corn, putting two pounds of butter and two cups of sugar in it. Because they haven’t been trained any differently. So when we go in and talk about the health statistics of the children and what that means as far as their ability to pay attention in the classroom, and what it means with regards to their long term health outcomes, the cafeteria staff is appalled and says, “Teach us something else to do”.

So we give them recipes on how to use things like fresh herbs rather than salt, or on how to replace some of the battered, fried things with meats and vegetables prepared in different ways. And it’s gone over great.

So far every public school cafeteria worker in Jefferson County has been through at least one training session through this program. And we plan to keep doing it. Pretty much every school that we’ve talked to would like us take over the training of their cafeteria staff. So we have to try and find funding to provide. We had a grant that funded that program, but that grant’s finishing. I don’t think we’ll be able to do them all because we don’t have the staff or the funding to serve that. But what we would like to do is train the cafeteria managers, so they can go back and educate their staff.

And the other program we’re still doing is Grow Together, which is our community garden training program.

Me: Going back to the cafeteria training program, I feel like that’s so important because you’re bringing kids out to the farm, showing them how to harvest their own food, prepare it, eat it and enjoy it. But then if they go back to a school cafeteria where nothing is fresh and everything is processed and unhealthy, then there’s a huge disconnect. It could seem very hypocritical that their school would send them on these field trips while they keep feeding them junk on a daily basis.

Rachel: For the past 2 years, we’ve had a farm to school program, which focuses specifically on changing the policies in the school regarding what the policies allow the schools to purchase and serve and also regarding what education and preparation the staff has in order to provide healthy meals.

That program is grant funded, and that funding is coming to a close. But it’s been a very successful program, so we’re looking for ways to continue that.

Me: So do you think that will come through another grant? Or will it depend on private donations?

Rachel: Everything we do is dependent on private donations, grants, and community and corporate support. There’s no one thing that we do that can live by grants alone, so we’re constantly looking for new funding opportunities.

That’s one of the reasons we still grow produce. We grow produce partly to inform and validate our educational program.

Me: Right, to show people that it’s possible. It’s hard to teach people that organic gardening is possible if you’re not doing it yourself.

Rachel: Exactly, and it’s a demonstration farm for them to see, and it’s also a hands on learning facility for them to do.

So we do that, then we also sell the produce as one of the ways to fund our mission.

And then we ask a lot of people for money! We ask for little bits, big bits, one time bits, sustained donations… and that’s just part of being a non-profit. That’s how the game works.

Me: So would you say that the garden is more about education than it is about sourcing produce to the community?

Rachel: Oh, yes, because we can’t source enough produce to feed the community in a sustained, meaningful way. Our actual mission as it stands right now is “helping Birmingham grow organic produce and healthy communities through urban farming and education. “

So it’s never been our intention to grow a bunch of food and give it away. It’s never been our intention to be a highly productive urban farm. But it’s always been our intention to teach the principles and practices that we have, the organic gardening skills and the nutrition education to promote better health in our community.

We can grow food ourselves. I don’t know that in our current culture we’re going to get back to it. But 2 generations ago, if you had land, or even just a yard, you had a vegetable garden. And you didn’t call yourself a farmer; you just had a garden.

Me: Yeah, I know in the area of Birmingham where my boyfriend grew up, he said it was just normal for everyone to have a garden, and all the neighbors would share vegetables with each other. And that was only 30 years ago.

Rachel: When I was a kid, my parents didn’t garden, but both sides of my grandparents had huge gardens, and the gardens were more important than any other part of their yard.

You know I call myself a lifelong organic gardener because my grandparents would have us picking peas as soon as we could walk. Then after I became a “greenie”, I asked my grandfather about the methods and chemicals he used in his garden. He was a very simple man that never graduated high school, but he said, “I don’t know about organic gardening. All I know is that I don’t even know what that chemical mess is. Why would you put that on your food?”

And the idea that my parents wouldn’t garden was shameful.

Me: So I’m sure Jones Valley has faced many unique challenges. Do you feel funding is the biggest challenge the garden faces right now?

Rachel: We have a few challenges. One is definitely funding because our annual budget is somewhere around $500,000 now. And that’s after shrinking our overall operation considerably. We let go of our Mt. Laurel site in November, and Jim N’ Nicks is now running it.

Me: Oh wow, that’s cool! Is that so they can grow their own food for the restaurant? Are they still using organic growing methods?

Rachel: Oh yeah, Jim N’ Nicks has a big commitment to sustainable food. They use sustainably raised pork, and as much as possible, sustainably grown vegetables. That’s just one of their personal commitments. Nick of Jim N Nick’s actually lives in Mt. Laurel.

It’s in the beginning stages of them taking it over. But they’ve developed a very successful business model, and as their success has grown, they’ve wanted to do things more sustainably. And so far that’s really been working for them.

Me: That’s neat. So was Mt. Laurel just more than Jones Valley could handle with the staff and funding that they have?

Rachel: The idea when we moved out to Mt. Laurel was that it would take us 3 years to turn a profit. But there is a lot that has to go into it as far as infrastructure, etc. The Mt. Laurel property is actually owned by Ebsco Industries and Ebsco is one of Jones Valley’s big supporters, and they subsidized that three-year process. They put a lot of money and assistance into it. Their grounds crew would come out and bush hog anything that wasn’t cultivated, and their maintenance crew would come work on the irrigation systems and any equipment failure, etc. They provided housing to our staff. And they’re tremendously successful, but over time they were looking for it to be self-sustaining. They still own the property, but they were looking at our growth to increase the funding as they decreased their commitment, but that didn’t happen. It is really, really hard to make a living as a farmer, especially if your small scale and organic. So it was consistently costing us more than we were making.

Since it was an outgrowth of our original enterprise, and although we had a few educational programs going on out there, it was mostly production. We were seeing a lot of our resources going to support that enterprise and not enough was coming back from there to support our educational mission, so eventually our board of directors decided that it was a good effort, but it was longer working for us.

When we first were offered the option to use it, we considered moving our entire operation down there. Because it’s beautiful, huge, and says, “farm.” It doesn’t say urban but it says farm. And it serves a really different population. We saw that we would lose a lot of the spirit of what we’re trying to do if we moved down there. The school buses for Birmingham City Schools can’t leave Jefferson County without a special dispensation, so if we continued to serve school children, they would have to go into Shelby County to get there. Not to say that Shelby County isn’t deserving, but it would have been a real shift in our focus. We decided that education was more important than production, and we were best suited to do that downtown.

Another challenge is that we still don’t have a building. So another thing we’re looking at is having a permanent, stable infrastructure to support our mission and activities. Right now we’re in a construction trailer that was supposed to be temporary, but we’ve been in it for four years now.

And we have holding tanks; we’re not on sewer. The tanks have to be pumped out twice a week because we’re serving lots of people. We’ll have a hundred kids a week or more that use the bathroom. If we have an event, we have to rent port-a-lets. And our events are a big part of how we bring in revenue as well as educate people about what’s happening at the farm, but if we have an event and there’s inclement weather, then we have nowhere for people to go.

We’re looking at where and how we can stabilize and grow our organization. We’re very interested in staying downtown. We love our spot, but again, we don’t own the property.

Me: So who owns the property now?

Rachel: It’s owned by the Rushton Foundation, which is a private family foundation that has very generously allowed us to use the property for years. The Rushton Foundation provides us with financial support and spiritual support. They have a commitment to revitalize the city center especially for the community residents of the city center, and they’ve all been very, very generous with all kinds of things downtown. Initially they asked us to assist with a community garden that was there when the community was temporarily displaced for the building of the Hope 6 project. And as we gardened the garden, we began looking at the whole rest of the block. We approached the Rushton’s and said, “What are you guys planning to do with the rest of this block because we’ve got some ideas!”

So we negotiated a partnership, and they’ve been so wonderful. But we have to again negotiate with them to see if this is their long-term vision for the future of the lot, and if it’s part of their vision to have a permanent structure there.

We’re turning 10 years old now, and we feel we’re an established entity. There’s a lot to figure out right now, and the garden is under new leadership. Our new leader has been meeting with a lot of people and developing a lot of partnerships, and we’ll figure out the solution. It’s just that there are a lot of moving pieces to the puzzle.

Me: So who are the full time staff members at the garden?

Rachel: We have six people on staff right now. The executive director is Grant Brigham. He started in June. I’m the Program Director. Katie Davis is our farm manager. Katie’s been there three years. And Steph Munkachy is the Assistant farm manager. She and Katie run all things growing. Bree Garrett is our Nutrition Director, and Scott Silver is the director of Farm to School.

Me: Is there anything that I haven’t asked about that you want people to know about?

Rachel: I think what I would like to see in Birmingham is this: If people believe in the kinds of things that we’re trying to do, like revitalizing communities with community gardens, like nutrition education for all these children and adults, like connecting people to food resources within their communities. If they think that’s important, they need to make that known to their decision makers. Whether it’s through their neighborhood association meetings, or as part of the Birmingham Comprehensive Planning Process.

Contact your community groups, be it through your faith community or groups of friends or city councilor or commissioner. Because we hear again and again from individuals that they really support us and think that what we’re doing is important.

But when we speak to the community decision makers and legislators, they say that they haven’t heard that from other people besides us. So I would like to see these issues supported, whether it’s through talking to decision makers, or through volunteering to start or sustain your own community garden, or supporting an initiative like ours that focuses on our food systems. We aren’t the only one out there. It could be bringing a farmers market to your neighborhood or volunteering at your local food bank.

For example, my parents’ church, Mountain Brook Presbyterian, started a community garden two years ago. And it’s thriving. They are harvesting 2500 pounds of produce from it and giving it to Magic City Harvest where it’s distributed free to low-income people.

And they aren’t the only one. There are several other churches that have started gardens. They just aren’t as big.

Me: So talking to policy makers, volunteering, doing what we can to support or sustain small community gardens…

Rachel: And also, really advocating and using your power as a consumer to demand better food.

Me: And being willing to make those changes in our own diet. Like you mentioned, understanding where our food comes from and the value that it has for our own health, and then to incorporate all of these concepts in our individual lives.

Rachel: As a consumer, the squeaky wheel gets the grease. And you can ask your supermarkets to carry local and regional produce. The supermarkets will stock what the consumers demand. And if there’s not a demand for something, its availability won’t grow. It’s not just about organic. It’s also about just having access to fresh foods.

Me: Definitely, I was talking to a retired GI pediatric physician the other day, and I was asking him what he thought about organic produce. Because in working as a Spanish interpreter, I see so many childhood cancers and other diseases that seem much more common than in the past. All I can think is that it has to be environmental. It has to be related to the air that we breathe, and the chemicals on our foods, and the prescription drugs and chemicals that end up in our drinking water from our sewers and the runoff from lawns and gardens that have been sprayed with chemicals.

And His response was, “Well, that may be true. But when we’re eating so many processed foods, and we see such a huge improvement when people just begin to eat fresh fruits and vegetables and get more exercise, that should be our primary focus. Once we’ve got that worked out, we can start thinking about eating organic foods.

Rachel: The first step before organic is eating fresh fruits and vegetables. The step before that is just eating fruits and vegetables, and so many people just don’t. If they can eat them fresh, that’s great, but if they can only eat them frozen and prepared or canned, it’s not as great, but it’s still good. If they’re not eating them at all, then they aren’t getting their nutritional needs met. They can’t do appropriate protein synthesis. They can’t heal; their immune system doesn’t work properly. Their energy level is messed up. Their neurons aren’t firing properly.

There are all kinds of things that food makes happen. This is the first generation in the history of the US in which children are not expected to outlive their children because of chronic conditions, many of which are diet related. And when you think about that, that’s really scary.

So as you can tell, Jones Valley is working hard to revitalize our communities, protect the health of our planet, and to provide nutrition education in the areas that most desperately need it. And the best thing we can do is support the things that we believe in, whether it be through financial contributions, volunteering or speaking to decision makers. We can educate ourselves and make choices in our own lives that reflect our deepest beliefs about health, community, sustainability and well-being, all with an awareness of how those choices enhance our quality of lives and of how interrelated our individual well being is to the health of the world around us!

If you’d like to visit Jones Valley’s website, it’s www.jonesvalleyteachingfarm.org.

Getting Ecologically Friendly

9 tips about a few small things that have worked for me:

1. Home garden

We’ve eaten lots of collards and cabbage this winter from the backyard garden. Collards grow so well here, and the bugs don’t touch them! The herbs have also done great. We had a crazy surplus of basil and parsley this summer. We also had some thyme, and the cilantro does well during the cooler parts of the year.

Cabbage and Collards

We didn’t have quite as much luck with our tomatoes this summer. I think we ended up with eight wee tomatoes, enough for one veggie sandwich! But it’s so fun to cook with things that come from your own backyard.

It makes sense on so many fronts. I use the water from the rain barrels to water the garden. (The hardest part is making myself walk down the deck stairs to the garden!) We grow the veggies organically, so there’s no pesticides used. There’s no energy wasted in the food being transported, and I don’t have drive anywhere to pick it up. Plus it costs pennies to buy the seeds and organic fertilizer, compared to the cost of the produce itself.

I know the idea of a garden can seem like an overwhelming amount of work, but if you do it on a small scale, it really doesn’t require much maintenance. Some things like herbs, lettuce and tomatoes can even be grown in pots on your porch!

Parsley from the backyard

2. Chemical free lawn

I don’t use any chemicals to treat for weeds in my lawn. The chemicals get absorbed into our groundwater and are found in the runoff that goes to our lakes, rivers, and streams, compromising their delicate balance and biodiversity, and ultimately ending up in our drinking water.

Zoysia is a very dense, shade-tolerant sod, making it difficult for weeds to grow through it. I put zoysia sod in my backyard over the summer. It’s a little more expensive on the front end but can make for less maintenance in the long run. I’ve also found some natural weed killers that I’ll use occasionally in natural areas, but they can be pretty expensive if you’re trying to cover large areas. Vinegar and water is another suggestion that I’ve heard, but it didn’t bother my weeds a bit.

My lawn doesn’t look perfect, but it’s nice enough, and I’d rather have a less-than-perfect lawn than to unnecessarily put more chemicals into the ground.

3. Sentricon termite bait system

The soil of most homes is pretreated during construction with hundreds of gallons of chemicals to prevent termites. I opted for a system called Sentricon. Sentricon is a system of small baits placed around the house that are monitored quarterly by your pest control company. If any termites are found in the baits, then they treat for termites.

Sentricon Bait Station

I use Wayne’s Pest Control, and the only downside to this system is that is costs $75 quarterly for the monitoring and termite bond, but there is no upfront cost. And again it’s worth it to me to avoid having all those chemicals pumped into the ground.

The blown Cellulose insulation that I mentioned in a previous post can also be a deterrent for termites and other critters. Since I’ve been in my home, except for the occasional roach, I’ve had very few bugs, so maybe that’s had something to do with it!

4. Mohawk SmartStrand Carpet

Mohawk has a carpet made partially from corn fibers. It is made from 37% renewable resources, requires 30% less energy to produce, supposedly releases no VOCs (volatile organic compounds found in paints and carpets that can be toxic to humans), and emits 63% less greenhouse gas in production.

Aside from these environmentally friendly things, the quality is superior, even though the cost (when I built my house in 2007) was comparable to other medium grade carpets. It’s naturally stain resistant and never loses its texture. Mohawk installed this carpet in the rhino enclosure at the Birmingham Zoo for two weeks, and after being cleaned it looked as good as new! I’ve been in my house for 4 years now, and it still looks new, even after spilling red wine on it!

Mohawk Smartstrand Carpet

5. Low or no VOC paints.

Low VOC paints have come a long way in quality and affordability in the last few years. Lowe’s, Home Depot, Sherwin Williams, and Benjamin Moore all carry affordable versions of a LOW to no VOC paint. When we first used them about 8 years ago, there was a noticeable difference in how many coats we had to apply and in the quality of the paint. But that’s not true anymore. You can save yourself some exposure to some volatile-ly organic compounds for a comparable price!

6. I-beams

I-beams/ I-joists in my basement

A timber I-beam or I-joist uses one-sixth the wood of a conventional joist for the same strength. They are made of wood composites so can be made of younger, more sustainably sourced woods and they’re lighter and easier to cut. They’re stronger than regular lumber, keeping your floors level over time, and also allowing you to span larger distances or create more ceiling height. When I built my home, the price of lumber had gone up, and I also had large, open spaces on the main level that needed to be supported, so in my case, it cost about the same as regular lumber to use the I-beams in construction.

7. Change out yo’ light bulbs

A Virginia Tech professor, Tamim Younos, and undergraduate student Rachelle Hill carried out a research study on the water-efficiency of some of the most common energy sources and power generating methods. For one part of the study, Hill calculated how many gallons of water are required to burn one 60-watt incandescent light bulb for 12 hours a day, over the course of one year. She found that the bulb would consume between 3,000 and 6,000 gallons of water, depending on how water-efficient the power plant that supplies the electricity is.

“The numbers are even more staggering if you multiply the water consumed by the same light bulb by the approximately 111 million U.S. homes,” said Hill. “The water usage then gets as high as 655 billion gallons of water a year.” By contrast, burning a compact fluorescent bulb for the same amount of time would save about 2,000 to 4,000 gallons of water per year.

And with LEDs becoming more and more affordable, the amount of money, energy and water you can save just by changing your light bulbs is incredible. Here’s a link to a great blog, The Simple Dollar, where you can find more specifics about how much you can save. With the current cost of LEDs, over 10,000 hours of usage for 12, 60 watt bulbs, you could save about $750.

8. Reuse

me and my jar

I try to reuse and repurpose as many things as I can. Especially glass jars! People at work freak when they see me eating cereal out of a Tostitos jar, but why spend money on Tupperware, when we can just wash our salsa and spaghetti jars and reuse them! We also save ourselves from being exposed to toxic chemicals that can be found in plastic.

Chris and I also bought a glass bottle-cutter online and have cut some of our wine and beer bottles to make drinking glasses and vases. It was more work than we imagined, so the whole mass production of artsy, upcycled drinking glasses didn’t quite work out. But it’s a fun way to never buy drinking glasses again!

9. No bags at the grocery store

People in the check-out line get bewildered when I say that I don’t want any bags for my groceries or other purchases. Within the last couple of weeks I’ve heard, “Well, they might think you’re stealing that.” or “I’ll just feel weird if I don’t put this in a bag.” Those were really cute responses, but it just amazes me sometimes how attached we are to our way of doing things. If I remember, I try to carry a reusable shopping bag, but if not I just put stuff directly in my car from the buggy and then grab the bags when I get home. I’m sure this could be more of a challenge if you live on the third floor of an apartment building!

Just a few ideas that have been easy for me to incorporate!

Next week Rebecca, David, and I are meeting all together for the first time to finalize the schematic design of the home. David’s going to help us understand the Passive House concept in more detail, so we can keep that in mind as we work on window placement and other final design elements. I’m really looking forward to it! I’ll post the latest version of the floor plan before our meeting and then keep you posted about our progress.

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Get Yo’ Self a Rain Barrel

The more water we save, the more energy we save and vice versa! We need energy to get our rain and waste water to the treatment plant, more energy is then used to treat the water, making it potable, and then it has to be pumped back to our houses. The water for our lawns doesn’t need to be potable, so why not collect it in a barrel from your gutters and save it a trip all the way to the filtration station and back! While saving yourself some money in the process! It’s also a small step in reducing run off and erosion, keeping unwanted things out of our lakes, rivers, and streams.

The Alabama Environmental Council offers rain barrel workshops that I believe cost $30 including all the needed supplies. They also offer DIY instructions on their website www.aeconline.org or already made barrels at the center for $60. I attended one of the workshops and made two barrels. Chris helped me spray paint them brown, and then it took me 6 months to get around to installing them! I broke a hacksaw in the process, but once I finally did it, overall the installation was pretty easy. I used some rocks as a stand to raise the barrel a couple feet off the ground, so gravity would help with the water flow. I set the barrel to one side of the gutter and then cut out a section of the gutter that was higher than the rain barrel. I attached a 6 foot piece of brown flex gutter to the top gutter with screws and then placed the other end of the flex gutter over the wire mesh in the opening of the barrel. The barrels have an overflow hose, and I was too cheap to pay $50 for a diverter that redirects the water back to the gutter when the barrel is full, so Chris had the brilliant idea of placing the overflow hose in the bottom part of the gutter which made for a homemade diverter! You can see the pics below.

I love watering with the barrels. There’s something very fun about knowing that I did something to capture that water, and it’s a good reminder that water is not an infinite resource.

If you have any questions, or would like help installing a barrel yourself, feel free to shoot me a message!

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Going Green on Buttercup

Not too long after I got into homebuilding, I became interested in how to create more efficient homes with less waste and toxic chemicals. I had been to a few green building workshops, but most of what I learned came from books and magazines. There are a few very affordable things that I picked up and incorporated along the way.

Stephen Guesman, from Greenworks Design/ Build who I mentioned in an earlier post, suggested that I use blown cellulose insulation instead of fiberglass in my walls. Blown cellulose is made from recycled newspapers and because of its density, reduces air filtration and can make the home 25% more energy efficient. The cost is basically the same as fiberglass, so I think it’s a great, greener alternative that any insulation contractor should be able to install.

A very important factor in indoor air quality and energy efficiency is how tight the building envelope is. As they explained at one Southface workshop I attended, you want fresh air intentionally coming into your house through a ventilation system, not through leaky windows and other leaky areas. Because then your air quality is affected as air is pulled through construction materials that often contain harmful chemicals and your heating and cooling system has to work a lot harder to do its job.

I used blown cellulose in the last two homes that I did, and the family living in the second home, says that their energy bill has decreased significantly, even though their previous home was much smaller than the newer home.

If you are doing a remodel or new construction, it’s amazing the difference it can make just to use blown cellulose insulation in addition to using cans of spray foam (can be easily found at Lowe’s or Home Depot) around the windows and doors and sealing air duct joints using a product called mastic. Mastic is a sticky gooey material that can also be found at Lowe’s or Home Depot. You apply it using a putty knife or paintbrush to the “thickness of a nickel,” and it keeps conditioned air from escaping into unconditioned areas where ductwork is usually located. They also make little foam gaskets that can seal around electrical outlets, another place where air can sneak in.

Although I don’t have the exact statistics and it depends a lot on how bad things were before, I would estimate that just those things combined with using fluorescent or LED lights could cut your energy bill in half (or more) for an investment of probably no more than a hundred dollars and a few hours of labor! And if you aren’t doing a remodel or new construction, just changing out your lightbulbs to fluorescent lightbulbs or LEDs and using the mastic on your ductwork could make a huge difference!

More to come this week on other small, affordable changes that I’ve incorporated in my Buttercup house! 🙂