Friday, 27 May 2011

Beak House

Before we build our own perfect home, someone else was first in the queue.
Rose takes us through her labour of love:

I love my girls! The last hen house I built was with the old timber taken from the demolition of the verandah at Woodside Road. It had its flaws so here was the chance to improve and up scale-not that chickens really give a damn as long as their house is dry and they can perch off the ground.

We had a long discussion about placement and we finally settled on a sheltered spot in the front paddock, near the stream and facing east.

Al’s dad helped us put in six good strong 4” x 4” treated posts. In the interests of recycling the rest is constructed from the old packing crate that had been modified to form the pig house at Woodside Road.

  The floor went down next and fitted beautifully (well almost) and then a little framing, walls and a roof. I have to admit to the plan for this being in my head- I knew it needed to be raised off the ground to limit the hiding places for rats and hedgehogs-the natural accompaniment to feathered friends, the roof needed to slope and there needed to be a window and an exit but beyond that it was very much design as you go!

The framing meant that there was a natural space for some insulation- the Wairarapa winters can be fierce. I had a ready supply from work and so filled all the available spaces between walls and corrugated exterior with polystyrene squares. For some reason the girls love to eat this stuff so the battle raged between keeping it in position while I put the tin up, it blowing away and the girls taking every opportunity to peck at it.

 I put the pop hole on the Northern side, but realised after a few days of strong winds-mainly from the north that that wasn’t going to work, so it is now in the front access door-a door within a door!

 The girls (and boy) now have a well insulated, dry, watertight and if I do say so myself beautiful home. Just needs a lick of paint now...

Friday, 20 May 2011

Dog eared

The power of the Bark Side...

The Garden of Eden had its serpent – Little Bush (it’s the registered name of our block of land, so let's get the sniggering over with now) has dogs. Specifically, farm dogs owned by a neighbour who is surely completely deaf. Farm dogs whose frequent discussions with one another sound like Cujo and the Hound of the Baskervilles carrying out thorough and enthusiastic sound checks on AC-DC’s concert speakers. Quite how they generate the volume they do is still a mystery to us, but we suspect it’s something to do with the placement of their kennels and sound reflecting quality of nearby walls. We’re planning a trip to visit this neighbour, to discuss a drainage matter, and may finally discover how he managed to perfectly position his dogs for optimum neighbourhood misery. Maybe we’ll even discover what they seem to be so unhappy about.

We like dogs. Rose grew up with them and I don’t dislike them - although a couple in the past have certainly disliked me. The most memorable was a hound who took a bite out of the seat of my trousers (and me) while I was collecting for the SPCA.
I’m not holding a grudge; I just don’t see myself ever owning one. Rose and I are now both confirmed ‘cat people’, preferring a sometimes complex, slightly feline-favoured partnership to guileless canine servility in our household pets.
Our last happy home in Wellington was occasionally plagued by ongoing conversations between the neighbour’s dogs on either side of us, goading me to regular friendly visits and less friendly bellowing out the window. Fergus and Chester, you were nice dogs and we know it wasn’t your fault. Maybe you were bored, perhaps not brought up to live so close to other dogs, and maybe you were a little neglected as the children who used to put you at the centre of their worlds grew older and spent less time with you.
Its taken time, but I now no longer feel like howling myself every time I hear a canine long-range broadcast.

Our current situation is of course, a different matter. One of the first things every city dweller looking for a slice of rural paradise should heed is that the countryside isn’t actually that quiet. It is, in fact, a working environment, full of enormous and sometimes mystifying-looking machinery, herds and flocks of large, vocal beasts and, at the heart of it all – dogs. Occasionally you will encounter the Fergus/Chester situation, where a previously urban family will make getting a dog a mandatory purchase (usually a large, loud dog), along with an outdoor furniture set and a ride-on mower. Sadly, it doesn’t always mean that these poor creatures will end up any less neglected.
Farm dogs - working dogs, are quite different. They are deliberately kept hungry and alert, and their bark is encouraged as an essential part of their function. They are also often extremely-well disciplined, but evidently this doesn’t seem to be the case with our neighbour.

Our options for improving this situation are extremely limited, to say the least. We’ve lived in this area for ten years, and know that the very thought of ‘life-stylers’ asking a farmer to keep his dogs quiet so that they can enjoy their glass of sauvignon in peace is a cross-cultural atrocity right up there with running a kissing booth in Dubai.
If we can address our drainage quandary, and establish some kind of friendly relationship with our neighbour, then perhaps we’ll find a way to make some kind of progress. But, on the other hand, because these particular dogs can probably be heard all over the district, perhaps we just need to get over ourselves and get used to the occasional explosion of ‘barking madness’, as everyone else obviously has.

As it has transpired we’ve established a friendly relationship with our neighbour and happily resolved the drainage issue (more on this later). However, he doesn’t actually own the dogs and yes, is somewhat hard of hearing. They are actually owned by his farm manager - another very nice man who I met recently.
The thing is, it’s been weeks since I originally wrote this entry, and Rose and I hardly notice the dogs now. Country living is all about adapting, an ability which is going to be crucial in the months to come...

Eco Worriers

Monty's permanently vexed expression makes him the perfect 'poster boy' for this entry

Speed wobbles are inevitable on our headlong flight into energy self-sufficiency, and our resolve is already being tested

Writing these entries has been useful not only in keeping others informed of our progress and sustainable living options available, but also keeping myself ‘in the know’. Rose’s mighty powers of project management can sometimes lull me into stepping too far back from things, confident that it’s all in the best hands and there’s little left for me to do. But this time I need to have a full understanding of the processes involved – for obvious reasons involving divisions of ‘labour’, decision-making and shared responsibility. We’ve always joked that the ‘apportioning of blame’ is the crucial first step in disaster control – and it can hardly be my fault if I’m not involved. (Actually, that’s not true – have I learned nothing in my life?) Being fully informed also enables me to write about our adventure here, and hopefully sound as if I know what I’m talking about.
Writing can also be cathartic. I like to think that Rose and I are both positive by nature, and so this blog will focus on the more exciting, enjoyable and hopefully humorous aspects of living in our box, and building our off-grid home. But I also want to present an honest and balanced account of what we are attempting, so it’s only fair to admit that sometimes we are scared.
This entry comes with a warning: it might not be the happiest one I’ve ever written, but at least it might make me feel better.

Living off-grid and producing our own clean energy sounds noble and if in some in small way might inspire others to try something similar, then it is. But as I’ve mentioned before, it is also initially very expensive; at least twice the cost of connecting to the grid. We’ve made our peace with this, confident that we will save both money and a tiny fraction of the planet in the long term, but in the short term it means diverting cash from our actual house build. Solar panels, photovoltaic panels and batteries, a power inverter converting AC to DC - sometimes relatively new technology is expensive, requiring constant maintenance and periodic replacement. And even after all this; we will hardly have power to burn. Two minute showers and being forced to regulate when we can use certain appliances will become part of our daily regime. We are prepared for this adjustment in the way we live, or like to think we are, but it’s harder to happily make sacrifices when it actually costs you more to do so. It’s going to be difficult enough to realise our dream home on our budget, without our ‘energy solution system’ gobbling more and more of our funds.
OK, that’s better, and even as I write this it occurs to me that I’m probably wrong to make a distinction between the two, living sustainably means that your home is an energy solution. There we are, this is working already – I’m feeling better and Kevin McLeod would be proud.

The next worry is a connected one (literally), but has been resolved and deserves an entry of its own, probably because people don’t think about this subject enough. Did you know that in designing a septic system allowances have to be made for a human being producing 180 litres of ‘waste water’ per day? Installing a self-contained waste disposal system is an absolute given when you live in the country. We used a septic tank system in our last home for a decade, and found it extremely efficient. The catch is that our beautiful block of land becomes very damp in the wetter months. Factors involving land contours and soil type means that the ground becomes water-logged in the lower parts of our property. Or house is sited on one of the driest areas (we’re not silly) but unfortunately the local council still insist upon a secondary aerated system to avoid the very unpleasant consequences of a standard unit failing because of excess ground water. Not only is this more expensive, but requires a pump which needs to run constantly to aerate the waste.
Producing our own largely solar generated electricity, this would be a constant draw on our power which we would find impossible to maintain. Literally finding ourselves up that famous creek without a paddle, the answer has materialised, thanks to a combination of Rose’s diligence, a very clued-up consultant, a failed Australian company and humble legless creatures found in everyone’s garden. More on this later, but suffice to say that it is an ingenious system using 95% less electricity than other set-ups and relying upon completely natural and staggeringly efficient natural processes. So, at this point, I can again write our own happy ending to this one.

The last issue might be more of a cosmetic one, but is still unresolved. Our future ‘life-style choice’ has also meant that we have had to be thorough in choosing the most energy efficient appliances we can find to populate our new home. In truth this challenge has been fun, acquainting ourselves with energy star ratings, LED lighting and the insidious gratuity of digital time displays. This has started well, but we seem to have come unstuck with the heart of the heart of the home – the kitchen stove. We have been reliably advised to forego an electric one because of its draw on our power reserves, and look at a gas or wood-fired option instead.
Initial forays have revealed that gas stoves are regarded as a thing of the past, and are a little more difficult to source. We won’t give up easily, but once again our sustainable energy choice is causing more difficulty, and probably money than if we were simply paying power bills like everyone else. And even if we do decide to choose this option we are starting to question becoming too reliant on natural gas. It’s a necessary evil while we live in our container, but ultimately probably as much of an affront to the conservation of natural resources as anything else we’re trying to avoid.
Rose had aspirations towards one day owning an Aga-style wood burner stove, and I must admit the ‘steam-punk aesthetics’ of these metal behemoths appeal to me. These same aesthetics don’t really compliment the sleek, modern kitchen which we are currently having designed (more on this later, too) however, and would probably look as cohesive as a steam locomotive engine pulling a Japanese bullet train. Then there’s the hassle of lighting the stove, the impracticality of using it on hot summer nights and, as always, the cost – which is comparable to the price of a Japanese bullet train.

So, will the lure of a sexy, inexpensive electric stove cause us to rethink our whole off-grid master plan? Will we shackle ourselves to a power company for the sake of a shacklock?
There’s no elegant solution to this last quandary as yet, but I’m sure we’ll find one. No-one said this was going to be easy, but we’re determined to hold the line.

From the inside of a dark box, you can still glimpse a rainbow

Wednesday, 4 May 2011

A sting in the tail

A cautionary story about living too close to nature

Despite having lived in the country for over ten years, I had somehow avoided two inevitable painful treats which rural living has to offer: a jolt from an electric fence, and a wasp sting. These are mundane and common events to most, but my own initial experiences, within a week or two of each other, possibly deserve sharing.

I’ve always been leery of farm fences, and tend to treat them all as ‘live’ with such care that I’ve been accused of ‘big girls’ bloused-ness’ many times, mostly by Rose. I’ve hardly led a pain-free existence so far, but have never seen the point in suffering any more than is absolutely necessary, either.
After a recent sustained period of rainy weather, I spent a day digging to widen the banks of one of our streams which had overflowed. My modest landscaping effort was enthusiastic enough to open up a large space under our boundary fence that could possibly allow sheep to escape through. So I began threading plastic fence standards between the wires of the fence to hang down above the water and make this a less attractive proposition for roaming romneys. Running out of standards I found a long branch to fill in the last gap, so stood in the stream and began attaching it to the fence.

Unfortunately, this piece of wood was not only much longer than the standards but also soaking-wet, and as I was concentrating on the lower wires, it touched the top-most, electric one.
I’ve read that wood isn’t a conductor, but the sentence must have continued over the page to say "unless it’s wet". For full effect, it might also be recommended that you stand in a stream, while making yourself part of an electrical circuit.
Let’s just say that this was no little sting - it actually felt as if someone very heavy had suddenly dropped out of a tree onto my shoulders, Robin Hood-style, kicking my arm hard in the process. My only consolation is that the sound of running stream water masked my loud, girly squeal.

But speaking of ‘stings’ the main event happened several days earlier.
I’ve always tried to maintain a live and let live relationship with most creatures, insects included. The first time I ever became aware of a wasp nest on our previous property, I decided that it was far away enough from the house not to cause us a problem, and left them alone. Shortly afterwards, Rose began to keep bees and then we became quickly aware of how devastatingly destructive wasps can be, as they began to raid and finally completely exterminated our first hive. Sadly, this wasn’t to be the last time Rose lovingly nurtured a beehive only to see them fall prey to these rapacious marauders. Needless to say, our attitude towards wasps changed. They had invaded and wiped out a peaceful neighbouring state, and we had no choice but to declare war. Transmittable poison was out of the question, as this can also destroy the very beehives which you are trying to protect. The best advice we had found was to locate the wasp nest (not always easy), then return at night when they’re relatively dormant, drop a petrol-soaked rag inside and sealing up the entrance to let the fumes do their work. I’m not proud of this, but Rose and I were so angry and grief-stricken at the loss of our first hive that this method seemed too passive by far. We introduced petrol into the wasp nest alright, and then promptly dropped a lit match into the entrance and ran. This isn’t to be recommended, but the eyebrow-singeing gout of flame that erupted and then burned for some time afterwards was enormously satisfying – and effective.

Despite similar encounters with wasps over the years I have never been on the receiving end of the delivering end of one of these vicious flying syringes of venom, until recently. The Wairarapa rail timetable means that I often have to leave the container very early in the morning to catch my train, in pitch darkness. I’ve always tried to disturb Rose as little as possible during this process – so leave my ‘schoolbag’ packed and my clothes folded up on a chair, enabling me to dress by torchlight and leave with the minimum of fuss.
Quietly getting ready on one dark morning, I was shocked to feel a sudden sharp pain as I pulled my underpants on. Still partially asleep, I stood dimly wondering how a sewing needle could possibly have fallen in there, before a sudden, angry buzzing issued from my crotch, and I was instantly wide-awake. I debriefed at lightning speed and to my absolute horror, the much-feared, black and yellow shape of a wasp fell out onto the floor and began to crawl away into the shadows.
Clearly it had flown in at some point through the always-open cat window and thought it had found the perfect, soft bed for the night in the folds of my underwear. Very fortunately for me, the combination of the dark and cold meant that the disturbed insect was also partially asleep – if it had been wide awake and I’d suffered a ‘multiple stabbing’ I’d probably have needed a wheelbarrow to get myself to work.

The initial sting was bad enough, but gradually the venom began to circulate and I spent the entire day gingerly padding around, feeling as if I’d been kicked in the groin. I can testify that wasp venom has none of the qualities of Viagra – quite the opposite, in fact.
Looking back, I can afford to be a little philosophical - after years of petrol bombing wasp nests perhaps I had this coming. And as doubtlessly unpleasant as this situation had been for me, I still wouldn’t have wanted to swap places with that wasp for anything.

Sunday, 1 May 2011

Drop Box

How was the container delivered?

On an enormous truck!  So enormous, in fact...

... that it needed to circle around Roger's paddocks to gain access
- and avoid breaking our over-head branches.

The site had been carefully prepared (OK - mowed) by me,
so now Rose and Dad spring into action.
Huge arms extend from the truck and several tonnes of
shipping container is craned into position.

Despite Rose's vigilant application of the spirit level...
Our new home has a slight, permanent West-East lean. (level is boring, anyway).
Toasting a successful delivery - all we need now is furniture.