Utilizing Outdoor Space for Small Homes

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Front view of the deck at our new cabin

When we built our 700 sq. foot cabin, we knew we’d be somewhat space-challenged once we move in, as there are five of us, we homeschool, and we do like to spread out with our projects. In anticipation of that, we invested in a large wraparound deck attached to the house, with the idea of spending much of our time there when the weather is nice.

We have seen this practice implemented by many people living in little homes – sometimes, the outdoor front porch or deck will be even larger than the house itself. Decks, porches and pergolas are wonderful for spreading out a spring or summer brunch, hanging out with friends and watching the sunset, relaxing in a rocking chair with a good book or a needlework project, or even taking a laptop with you and catching up on emails while you soak up some sunshine.

Of course, this isn’t possible at all times of the year. Those who live up north by necessity spend several months every winter inside. Around these parts, what keeps us indoors is mainly the heat, during the peak of which people tend to stay in air-conditioned spaces. However, as we love the outdoors, the smells of nature and fresh air and wind, a deck is a great solution for us.

For a front porch or deck to be inviting in hot weather it needs, of course, to be shaded. You can choose a complete waterproof awning that will also give you protection against rain – and it really is lovely to step out of doors and stand on a covered front porch and hear rain gushing all around – or if you just want shade, you can use bamboo canes or a sailcloth.

Foliage Provides Natural Cooling

Another attractive option is natural foliage. What we have seen on our visits to some friends, and what we intend to do ourselves eventually, is erect a network of poles and supportive wire all around the deck and plant grape vines in such a way that they are trained to grow up and provide shade for the outdoor area. It does take time, but the result is lovely natural shade that provides a degree of moisture and coolness that can’t be achieved by simply spreading an awning. And of course one also gets to enjoy some delicious fruit in time!

While grape vines are by far the most popular local front porch/pergola plant and grow very well around here, other people opt for passionfruit, which grows faster than grapes and provides awesome edible bounty as well. Of course, you can also choose a purely decorative climbing plant, such as morning glory, honeysuckle, jasmine or climbing roses.

If you are building a deck on uneven terrain like we did, keep safety in mind and fence off any risky areas. Don’t just put in a decorative border, but invest in a good, tall sturdy fence, especially if you have small children that can climb over and fall off the deck.

Even if one lives in a house that is roomy by all standards and has no space constraints, I consider a front porch or deck a wonderful addition to promote wholesome outdoor time that will leave you refreshed and relaxed.

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna’s Mother Earth News posts here


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Think Green AND High-Performance Building

Jack Clark home

One of the wonderful things about building a green home is that it will help you meet multiple goals (such as lowering your carbon footprint, getting better indoor air quality and lowering utility bills). But what if your home could do even more? 

Increasingly, people interested in building green homes are moving toward creating high performance homes. By adopting this holistic building philosophy and giving careful consideration to the design and materials that go into your house, it’s possible to create living environments that meet a host of goals, not just your environmental ones.

There are two schools of thought on how to build high performance homes. The first is to take advantage of the best and newest building science available. The second is to stick to tried-and-true natural building methods that have created quality, healthy homes for generations. Take time to research both and see which is right for you. It’s possible that adopting elements from both will deliver the best possible outcome.

What is high performance building?

The National Institute of Building Sciences (NIBS) defines high performance building this way: “High performance building means a building that integrates and optimizes all major high-performance building attributes, including energy efficiency, durability, life-cycle performance, and occupant productivity.”

“From our perspective, green certainly focuses on one aspect of building performance,” says Ryan Colker, a presidential advisor for the NIBS. “We look at high performance more broadly to include green and sustainable building, but also to look at the other things we want buildings to deliver. It’s not a singular focus but a more broad look at how buildings help owners and the communities in which they sit.”

The NIBS breaks this definition down into eight subcategories homes should address in order to be considered high performing. Besides sustainability, there’s cost-effectiveness, productivity, safety and security, aesthetics, accessibility, historic preservation and functionality.

Colker gives examples to explain why these considerations matter and how they relate to green home building. “If you were to build the most sustainable house, but you don’t pay enough attention to those safety and security aspects, and there’s a natural disaster and the house is destroyed, you end up putting all those resources into a landfill, or you have to think about other ways to dispose of those materials,” he says.

In other words, it doesn’t matter how green the home is if it isn’t durable enough to last for generations. 

Colker gives an additional scenario to explain why a home’s functionality is so important. Building a home that’s highly energy-efficient can lead to lower utility bills, greater comfort and fewer carbon emissions. But here’s something people don’t often think about: “If your home is super-insulated and you have a freak snow storm that knocks out power, being able to maintain a habitable environment in a home without electricity could be an additional benefit,” he says.

In other words, high performance buildings helps residents stay safe, comfortable and healthy in the face of multiple life circumstances.

Other key parts of high performance homes

These cases illustrate the importance of sustainability, safety and security, and functionality. But what about the other aspects of high performance building?

Aesthetics, accessibility and historic preservation are all somewhat related. When you build a home, you want it to last as long as possible. Keeping structures standing means all of their embodied energy remains in the house. There’s no need to harvest, fabricate and ship new building materials to a site to create a new structure.

In order for a home to stay standing for a long period, it needs to be aesthetically pleasing or someone will tear it down. It needs to be accessible so that homeowners can stay in it as they age or if they become disabled. And it has to offer enough value to a neighborhood and community that it will be preserved even after the original owners vacate it.

Productivity refers to the health and comfort of the people who live and work in the building. In order for residents to carry out day-to-day tasks and accomplish long-term goals, they need to stay healthy. They also need to be an environment where they feel comfortable, both physically and mentally.

High performance homes can have excellent indoor air quality, which is a big factor in keeping people free from sickness. Their tight envelope and corresponding healthy ventilation systems also give inhabitants consistent indoor temperature, freedom from drafts, and a quiet and relaxing environment.

Building a high performance home can be more expensive than constructing a conventional home – even higher than building what we think of as a green home. But the operating and maintenance costs are likely to be much lower over the long duration of the home. If you look at the whole lifecycle of the house, high-performance homes are very cost-effective (the last item on NIBS’s list). As new building technologies continue to advance and become more mainstream, the expensive of building a high performance home is slowly getting lower.

Building science vs. natural building methods

It’s worth noting that there’s more than one avenue for achieving high performance goals in a home. One is to make use of the newest building technology that’s available. Systems such as heat and energy recovery ventilators, air and vapor barrier systems, and smart thermostats are modern and high-tech systems that help high performance homes achieve their goals.

DIY or other home builders interested in learning more about creating high performance buildings with technological solutions can visit the National Institute of Building Sciences, Whole Building Design Guide (which is produced by NIBS), and U.S. Department of Energy for information, resources and case studies.

People more interested in using traditional building methods to achieve the same results can learn more by studying building biology or baubiologie. The International Institute for Building-Biology and Ecology (IIBE) educates professionals and the public about this building philosophy. They guide them “to an understanding of the vital, complex relationship between the natural and built environments, and teach them the means for merging these complementary environments into greater harmony.”

Here’s an example of how these approaches differ in meeting the same goal. Homes that use conventional building techniques such as stick-framed walls, structural insulated panels or foam insulated concrete forms (ICFs) rely exclusively on tightly wrapping a building and installing mechanical ventilation systems to provide indoor fresh air exchange, which mitigates the buildup of indoor moisture.

Alternatively, building walls out of clay-straw forms, wood fiber-cement block, or straw bales are ways that encourage a more natural “breathability” (which refers to the movement of moisture, in the form of vapor, inside a home; for more on this commonly-misunderstood building term, read this blog post). DIY and other home builders interested in learning more about building biology can visit IIBE or the Institute of Building Biology and Sustainability.


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Are Straw Mattresses the Natural Bedroom Solution You've Been Looking For?

 

I’m a classic over-thinker – every decision I make, every purchase I consider, it has to take me like five times as long as a normal human being. Whatever man — I work hard for my money, and I don’t wanna waste it on junk.

It’s this thought process that went into my decision to try out sleeping on a straw mattress. I know, it sounds crazy, just hear me out here.

So it started like this — we had moved across the country to a very small town in central Montana, and the house was fully furnished, meaning there was a gargantuan, very uncomfortable California king sized mattress in the master bedroom. After the landlady agreed to move the mattress out, it was time for us to start mattress shopping.

Pft, as if. One does not simply, go mattress shopping.

It was a couple of years prior to this that my husband and I had fallen down the rabbit hole that is sustainable living and permaculture. We had started listening to Jack Spirko’s Survival Podcasts, as well as Paul Wheaton’s permaculture podcasts, and become flies on the wall at the forums at Permies.

After building up this mindset, even something as simple as just buying a new mattress was a weighted decision for us. We knew what these mattresses were made of, we knew what they cost, and ultimately, the idea of buying one just didn’t sit well with us.

Sustainability: More Than Just Product Sourcing

To me, the pursuit of sustainability doesn’t just have to do with things like recycling and reducing our dependence on fossil fuels — it’s about living a life that requires as little outside input as possible. That means frugality, making what you can, bartering when you can, so when it came to mattress shopping, the idea of spending $ 500 or more on something that wasn’t even going to be what we really wanted just didn’t make sense.

We went back to the drawing board — what did people sleep on before memory foam and Sleep Number?

I conducted hours of research on the topic, and found some interesting tidbits of information, but all in all, the web wasn’t proving to be a hugely rich resource on the topic – it was very hard to find any detailed accounts, let alone guide to making and using different kinds of beds.

I read about wool mattresses, corn husk beds, soft feather beds, until finally, I stumbled across the most primitive mattress of them all: straw mattresses.

The Best Nest You’ll Ever Sleep In

This is generally something that hasn’t been done for a couple hundred years, so it was pretty challenging determining exactly how feasible sleeping on one was going to be. But hey, straw is cheap, and if anyone was going to make a suitable guinea pig, it was me, a pregnant woman, working on concrete floors, with a history of lower back pain.

With the odds stacked against me, I presented my idea to my husband, and we set to work.

I loved our straw mattress. Loved it. It was my cozy little nest at the end of a long day of work, cushy, yet firm, and free from the nasty smell of polyester and foam.

We were a little nervous, jumping headfirst into sleeping this way, but it worked out beautifully. We made our own mattress ticking with some heavy duty canvas we ordered online, and as a result, we couldn’t even feel the sharp ends of the straw needles.

Though the initial stuffing process was pretty dusty, when we finished up, you would have never known there was straw in our bed (aside from the amorphous blob shape it took). There wasn’t so much an odor of straw, since it’s not as fibrous and fragrant as hay, and since we were careful to keep it dry, we never had an issue with mold.

Getting Used to Sleeping on Straw

Sleeping on straw was an interesting experience, particularly while I was busy incubating a tiny human in my midsection. Though the straw was firm, it does tend to shift around a bit over time, and so eventually, we noticed that there were some pretty distinct indentations in the mattress that were shaped like our bodies while we slept – mine complete with a gaping space for my rotund belly.

My husband called it “memory foam, with a really good memory” – the longer we slept in it, the more pronounced the impressions got. Every few months or so, we’d have to beat the major lumps and bumps out of the mattress, whacking it with our forearms and stomping around on it, til eventually it was somewhat uniform again. There would be a few days of awkwardness as we coerced the mattress into a more reasonable form, then back into blissful slumber.

One challenge we did have to overcome was getting it off the ground — though not necessary, I began to have a hard time rolling my gestational butt out of bed in the mornings, so to ease the hilarity of the situation, we devised a sort of bed frame for our odd mattress.

Using a queen sized metal bed frame and some heavy duty rope, we created a sort of grid-like rope hammock, rather than just use boards, where the spaces would allow the straw to bulge through. At first, it worked great, but then we ran into the issue of everything wanting to pull to the center of the “frame”, and we wound up with a significant lip of straw around the perimeter of the mattress where the frame was, further boxing in the pregnant lady.

In hindsight, I think just using boards with some plywood sheeting laid across the top would have worked fine, and I’m not really sure why we didn’t think to try that — the rope idea seems vastly more difficult.

Historically, these mattresses were fluffed once a week for high class citizens, and maybe a few times a year for poorer families. We reshaped ours about every 4 months, and only emptied it of straw after a year because we were moving.

The Mattress You Can Compost

My favorite thing about this mattress was that it was completely, 100% biodegradable. The straw we emptied from the ticking went into the chicken coop, where the hens happily bedded down and laid eggs. The remainder went out as mulch on our hugelkultur bed, where it eventually decomposed into the soil.

Throughout this entire experience, even with my horrendous history of lower back pain, and running around on concrete floors with my big bad pregnant self cooking and waiting tables, I never once had lower back pain — it was unbelievable. The lumpiness that formed around where we slept every night made it a little challenging to get up, but never once did I feel like I couldn’t find the sweet spot and settle in for a good night’s sleep.

I encourage everyone to challenge themselves, and determine exactly what they really need to get a comfortable night’s sleep. No matter your age or activity level, it’s possible that the mattress you use is actually doing your body more harm than good. There is a significant amount of research out there to suggest that people do much better sleeping on firmer surfaces, and straw is definitely a step away from pillow toppers.

From Straw Mattress to Floor Sleeping

After we moved, we said we’d sleep on a few blankets on the floor until we had a chance to refill our mattress ticking. After a few weeks though, we noticed we weren’t really uncomfortable at all sleeping on the floor, even with them being hardwoods, so we just never used a mattress again.

Two years later, we’re still sleeping on the floor, with just a couple of comforters separating us from the hardwoods, our toddler son nestled between us. We all sleep quite contentedly, with no aches or pains, and no mattress, and we’re truly blown away by how many years we spent on one. Now when we go to hotels and visit friend’s houses, we do everything we can to avoid sleeping in a bed!

The bottom line is, conventional mattresses are not the most eco-friendly purchase a person can make, and the expense definitely doesn’t fit the model of a sustainable, self-reliant lifestyle. If you’re feeling bold, I encourage you to try a straw mattress out, or even just sleep on the floor for a few nights — you may be surprised by just how comfortable you can be with so little.

Destiny Hagest is personal assistant to Paul Wheaton, founder of Permies.com and RichSoil.com, as well as a content curator and freelance writer. You can catch Destiny hanging out in the forums at Permies.com quite regularly, and visit her LinkedIn profile, and follow her on Twitter. Read all of Destiny’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here. 


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Natural Alternatives to Conventional Mattresses

I feel like a home manager sometimes. At work I’m a writer, editor, assistant, coordinator; but at home, I handle inventory, accounting, scheduling, purchasing – so I get to handle a lot of the decision making when it comes to what we buy.

A couple years ago, we found ourselves in need of a mattress. In our fully furnished house, the California king sized mattress the landlady had in the master bedroom was bordering on the ancient, and proving to be back breaking. With a baby on the way, it was time to find an alternative.

stuffing a straw mattress 

Why I Hate Mattress Shopping

There’s a little method I use to make sure we’re always getting the best possible products and necessities for our home. Since it’s not financially realistic to just go out and buy healthy alternatives to the junk we’ve acquired over our lives, every time something needs replacing or updating, I just troubleshoot it like crazy until I find a solution that makes sense.

That’s how it was with replacing our mattress. I did a lot of research on the topic, and what I surmised from my reading was that typical mattresses were not only expensive, but made of some really nasty stuff. Petroleum based textiles, flame retardant chemicals, materials that were hard to clean, had to off-gas for days before they were usable…it was really unappealing.

After a few days of reading, I still wasn’t sure what the solution was, but I knew it wasn’t something from Serta. That’s when the real research began, and I became really familiar with the alternatives to these types of mattresses that exist on the market today.

Natural, Non-Toxic Mattress Options

Depending on your preferences and budget, some mattresses are going to make more sense than others, but here you’ll find that you can do something other than buy a memory foam filled abomination on any budget, with pretty much any lifestyle or family size.

Organic Latex Mattresses

This is probably the most well-known option out there, and one that fits the bill for the conventional mattress shape – you can put it in a bed frame, lift it off the floor, put a fitted sheet on it – for all intents and purposes, it’s a regular mattress, made out of a less toxic, more sustainable material.

However, the problem I ran into with these was that once again, they were prohibitively expensive. For a queen sized bed, we were looking at right around $ 2,000 – entirely more than we were wanting to spend. These mattresses are beautiful and thoughtfully made, but there are also a lot of imposters out there.

Cheaper alternatives made of 70% of the junk you’re trying to avoid in the first place with this kind of mattress litter the market, and it was a painstaking process watching what we thought were affordable contenders drop off the list because of what they were made of.

The bottom line is, with a latex mattress, you’re going to have to shell out some serious cash for the natural materials, and that was a deal breaker for us – we wanted an option that was both environmentally and financially sustainable.

Japanese Style Futons

I’m kind of in love with the idea of just rolling up my bed every morning and having all of this floor space. Sleeping on a lightly padded floor has actually been shown to be wildly beneficial for your spine health, and many chiropractors suggest it to patients with back problems.

Futon style mattresses present a more affordable choice that’s another ship-to-your-door option. Though most are filled with polyester, you can find some bound in cotton fabric with natural fillings like organic cotton and latex. The kind you can roll up are my favorite – very thin, with just enough cushion to keep your bones from really digging into the floor while you sleep.

However, even the thinnest shiki futon mats with these kinds of materials are a little spendy, with queen sized ones running about $ 600. It’s an affordable enough option, but for such a minimalist bed, I’d just assume sleep on a couple of comforters, which is what we are actually doing now.

Floor Sleeping

We tried a straw mattress for a while, which I’ll get to, but eventually my husband and I wound up just sleeping on a couple of comforters on our hardwood bedroom floors. It’s not that we could never rustle up the money for a mattress, it’s not that we were cornered into the choice, but rather, we just realized we really didn’t need a mattress.

As a person who has suffered some nasty lower back issues in the past, I was skeptical at first, but it’s been an incredible eye-opener as to just how unnecessary mattresses are for so many people. I’m a pillow-top mattress loving fool, but the bottom line is, when I wake up the next day, I’m inevitably achy, awkward, and uncomfortable.

Every day when I wake up on the floor of my bedroom, with just a couple of comforters under me, I’m not sore, nothing aches – my body is ready to go. If you’re a minimalist, this is about as minimalist as a mattress alternative gets, and it’s a highly versatile option. My bed is easy to clean (important with a toddler in the mix), can be rolled away during the day, is safe for our son to sleep in (with no danger of rolling off of anything), and is so good for our backs and posture.

Give it a try for a few days – you may be surprised how well your body adjusts.

Straw Mattresses

If you just plain need a mattress, this option is definitely my second favorite to floor sleeping. Though it may seem unconventional, straw makes a wonderfully comfortable bed, and talk about natural – this material is about as eco-friendly as you can get.

We used a straw mattress for about a year, only disassembling it when we moved, and then later realizing we just didn’t need a mattress after a couple of weeks sleeping on the floor, surrounded by our moving boxes. However, this mattress option is incredibly economical, something you can very easily make yourself, and is even compostable – how cool is that?

I’ll be doing a follow up post next week that chronicles how we made our straw mattress, and how it worked out for us, but let just preface that post by saying, it was the bees-freaking-knees. Details to follow.

Wool Mattresses

This is something you don’t hear much about these days, but let me just say, I am in love with the idea of sleeping on wool. I’m saving my pennies for a locally made wool mattress pad to replace our pile of comforters with, and I cannot wait to give it a try.

In addition to wool being a beautiful, natural material, it’s also incredibly insulative, without being too stuffy, so it’s great for keeping you warm and cool through the seasons. There’s also some speculation that wool mattresses help with circulation in some way, though I haven’t been able to find any science to back that claim up.

The drawbacks to these mattresses are that, for one, wool can be quite expensive. If you want a true wool mattress, you’re going to be hard pressed to find enough to fill a ticking for under $ 1,000. Thinner mattress pads (like what I’m pining after), aren’t quite as pricey, but still will set you back about half as much.

Also, keep in mind that as you sleep on a wool mattress, the wool is going to compress – you’ll need to open the ticking from time to time to fluff the wool, a process that can be time consuming and tedious. In olden times, these mattresses were quite popular in France, where professional mattress-fluffers plied their trade to compacted wool mattress owners, but now mattresses like this are practically unheard of, and it’s likely you’ll be doing it yourself, if not making your own wool mattress altogether.

Cleaning can also be tricky, since wool is particular about how it likes to be handled – this is my biggest hesitation with really investing in a mattress. However, it is also naturally antimicrobial, and dries incredibly fast, so it could be worth the tradeoff. My hope is that with the wool being on the inside of the ticking, cleaning it won’t adversely effect the mattress too much.

There are a few other unconventional sleeping options out there, should you choose to take the bold leap away from those shiny white cushions we’ve all gotten so accustomed to. If you have access to enough feathers, feather beds are incredibly soft and fluffy, though a bit challenging to clean, and most evidence suggests that firmer sleeping surfaces are ideal for our spinal curvature.

It’s a hard adjustment to make, most of us have slept on the same thing for most of our lives, but deciding you don’t need a mattress anymore is oddly freeing, and it’s empowering to know that once upon a time, mankind slept just fine without Tempurpedic and memory foam.

Do you have an alternative sleeping arrangement? Share it with us in the comments below, and stay tuned next week for a more in-depth look at straw mattresses, and how you can make your own!


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Salvaged Trees Become Living-Roof Garden Arbor

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Jeremy Harper is used to making something out of nothing. For 20 years he has worked as an arborist and site clearer which has taken him across the United Kingdom, often repurposing would-be waste materials and giving them a new lease of life. But he admits that he has surprised himself with a personal project to build a living arbor in the garden of his family home in Milton Keynes, Buckinghamshire, England.

“The idea came from a trip through Norway and Iceland where my wife and I saw quite a few green roof structures on sheds and buildings,” he said. “It triggered an idea that I wanted one at home.” Taking that seed of an idea through to delivery didn’t involve a great deal of planning, Jeremy admits. “It was my first attempt at creating something like this in the garden and we made space by removing our grandchildren’s play equipment then writing down a few rough dimensions on some scrap paper. I looked at the size I wanted and decided upon 8” x 8” uprights and 4” x 2” joists.”

He was contracted to a demolished industrial unit to tidy up and preserve the remaining trees. A Leylandii hedge (a fast-growing evergreen) was left and rather than chopping it up for firewood, he decided to mill it down to the size required for the arbor. “I wanted something that looked dramatic so we went for the largest squares we could and everything was selected from the bigger poles. The joists were cut down from what was left.”

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On top of the structure sits the wild, green roof which exploded with color throughout a wet and warm English spring. “My wife found a sale tray in a garden center and we targeted things like thyme, rosemary and even strawberry plants. “We put wooden stepping stones around the roof to avoid stepping on the plants, then shook some wild flower mix in to the top soil. I wasn’t expecting a huge flush of growth but it produced a really colorful mix and so far it’s succeeded with poppies, cornflower and daisies.”

Jeremy says he was fortunate to have the materials available and the right tools for the job. He regularly mills wood for customers – creating bespoke sizes suitable for use in building, furniture and wood turning. He uses a Wood-Mizer portable sawmill which he bought second hand about five years ago.

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“We have been able to cut massive pieces of timber with it – wood that you never thought it would be able to handle. We work on a range of scales, from small pruning jobs to whole site clearances so we bought the mill to offer a milling service to other people and to be more proactive about what we handle. It always seemed to be the model to go for and I have not been disappointed. We have had some memorable milling times with it so far.” He now has a permanent reminder of one of those milling jobs in his garden.

The bandmill is housed in a barn across the road from Jeremy’s home. His business owns five cranes for moving wood around on site, but he says that for this particular project he didn’t make it easy for himself. “We moved everything by hand!” he said. “The uprights were the heaviest part of the timber work but the gravel we had to carry up the ladder to put on the roof was the most labor intensive part.”

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“To cut all the timber didn’t actually take long because we knew what we wanted. The worst thing you can do when milling is procrastinate so it’s best to have a cut list organized first and then you can just get on with the job in hand,” he said. “At first I wanted the uprights completely straight but in the end I went for a waney edge so it wouldn’t look too engineered. The decision that took the longest to make was what shape we wanted the end of the joists to be. We tried lots of different options before settling on the one we have.”

The upright posts are sunk into the ground and secured with soil. They bear the weight of the structure which is crossed with the joists. On top of the joists sit one-inch boards which form the base for the living roof which is waterproofed with a pond liner, then protected with geotextile layer to keep the roof watertight. Then Jeremy put down the heavy gravel – bags stone designed to improve drainage and then covered it with a root barrier and topped with a layer of carpet to help with moisture retention. The green roof physically grows in a mixture of composted wood chips and screened topsoil.

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To improve drainage, flat roof drainage points are glued to the liner and the run off is carried down chains which water the plants at ground level. Rather than a patio slabbed floor, Jeremy again turned to his sawmill and cut round sections of Leylandii to complete the natural look of the structure. The end result is not only impressive but something that the whole family can enjoy – whether that’s sitting underneath it or weeding on top of it. “I’m not a gardener – my wife is very good at all that – but I’ve become a bit of a gardener with my green roof and have found my work to be quite successful,” said Jeremy. “I usually spend a few hours up there at weekends and try to take pictures of it all the time to see how it changes throughout the seasons.”

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Having the main material available and sawmill to mill the timber has allowed the project to be extremely cost effective. Jeremy said, “I priced what it would cost to build the structure in green oak and it came to about £3,000 ($ 4,000). All it has cost us is the time and a bit of fuel. I’m absolutely delighted that it’s better than I thought it would be.”


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How to Clean a Front-Loading Washing Machine Naturally

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I love my front-loading washer. It has many eco-friendly advantages, such as being energy efficient and using less detergent. The downside is that it can develop a funky smell over time and leave my clean clothing smelling not-so-clean. However, this is avoidable if I clean the washer on a regular basis.

Why Does Your Washer Smell?

There are several reasons a front-loading washer can start to smell:

Adding too much soap or fabric softener. The leftover detergent does not wash away and becomes trapped in the machine and the pipes. This leads to a buildup of mold and mildew, making not only the washer but the entire laundry room smell.

Leaving wet clothes for too long. If you let washed clothing sit for hours before putting it into the dryer, it’s not the washer that’s starting to smell but your clothing.

Cold water. If you only wash with cold water, you aren’t killing the bacteria that builds up over time. Cold water saves money and energy, but it also leaves behind more residue.

Infrequent cleaning. The detergent dispensers and rubber door gasket are not being cleaned regularly, leading to mold and mildew.

How to Green Clean Your Front-Loading Washer

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The most important thing to remember about owning a front-loading washer is that it needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much time, and with the regular use of hot water and vinegar, your washer will have no smell.

• Use vinegar instead of fabric softener to keep your washer and drainage pipes clean. Vinegar is a cheap and natural cleaner and no, your clothes will not smell like vinegar. Simply add one-fourth to one-half cup per load. The vinegar helps to break down the detergent leaving no buildup of residue in the washer or on your clothing. It fights static cling, naturally!

• Use high efficiency (HE) detergent. More is not better when it comes to a front-loading washer, which uses less detergent. To avoid the buildup of detergent, use an approved HE detergent. There are several eco-friendly HE detergents on the market. If you make your own detergent, remember to use less than you would in a top-loading washer, or consider a front-loading washer that distributes detergent for you based on load size calculations.

• Wipe down the inside of the washer, the detergent dispenser and the rubber door gasket weekly with vinegar. I have a spray bottle handy with equal parts vinegar and water. I spray the rubber gasket inside of the washer drum and then wipe it dry.

• Run the washer every other week on the longest cycle available using hot water. Add a half-cup of baking soda to the washer to break down the dirt particles and a half-cup of vinegar to the fabric softener cycle to break down the buildup of soap and grime.

• Leave the door open between cycles. This helps to air dry the washing machine and avoid a buildup of moisture.

These small steps will keep your front-loading washer clean and fresh. The best part? No chemicals are necessary!

Sommer Poquette’s website Green and Clean Mom helps homeowners incorporate eco-friendly measures on everyday household chores, such as washing and drying clothes. If you are researching washers and dryers, including styles discussed by Sommer, you can visit Home Depot’s website here. Read all of Sommer’s MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.


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Keep Your Front-Loading Washing Machine Clean and Green

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I love my front-loading washer. It has many eco-friendly advantages, such as being energy efficient and using less detergent. The downside is that it can develop a funky smell over time and leave my clean clothing smelling not-so-clean. However, this is avoidable if I clean the washer on a regular basis.

Why Does Your Washer Smell?

There are several reasons a front-loading washer can start to smell:

Adding too much soap or fabric softener. The leftover detergent does not wash away and becomes trapped in the machine and the pipes. This leads to a buildup of mold and mildew, making not only the washer but the entire laundry room smell.

Leaving wet clothes for too long. If you let washed clothing sit for hours before putting it into the dryer, it’s not the washer that’s starting to smell but your clothing.

Cold water. If you only wash with cold water, you aren’t killing the bacteria that builds up over time. Cold water saves money and energy, but it also leaves behind more residue.

Infrequent cleaning. The detergent dispensers and rubber door gasket are not being cleaned regularly, leading to mold and mildew.

How to Green Clean Your Front-Loading Washer

Image 2

The most important thing to remember about owning a front-loading washer is that it needs to be cleaned on a regular basis. Fortunately, it doesn’t take much time, and with the regular use of hot water and vinegar, your washer will have no smell.

• Use vinegar instead of fabric softener to keep your washer and drainage pipes clean. Vinegar is a cheap and natural cleaner and no, your clothes will not smell like vinegar. Simply add one-fourth to one-half cup per load. • The vinegar helps to break down the detergent leaving no buildup of residue in the washer or on your clothing. It fights static cling, naturally!
• Use high efficiency (HE) detergent. More is not better when it comes to a front-loading washer, which uses less detergent. To avoid the buildup of detergent, use an approved HE detergent. There are several eco-friendly HE detergents on the market. If you make your own detergent, remember to use less than you would in a top-loading washer, or consider a front-loading washer that distributes detergent for you based on load size calculations.
• Wipe down the inside of the washer, the detergent dispenser and the rubber door gasket weekly with vinegar. I have a spray bottle handy with equal parts vinegar and water. I spray the rubber gasket inside of the washer drum and then wipe it dry.
• Run the washer every other week on the longest cycle available using hot water. Add a half-cup of baking soda to the washer to break down the dirt particles and a half-cup of vinegar to the fabric softener cycle to break down the buildup of soap and grime.
• Leave the door open between cycles. This helps to air dry the washing machine and avoid a buildup of moisture.

These small steps will keep your front-loading washer clean and fresh. The best part? No chemicals are necessary!

Sommer Poquette’s website Green and Clean Mom helps homeowners incorporate eco-friendly measures on everyday household chores, such as washing and drying clothes. If you are researching washers and dryers, including styles discussed by Sommer, you can visit Home Depot’s website here.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.

Going Green at Home in 3 Simple Steps

Red alert! If you’ve been paying attention to the news lately, you’ll know that our planet is in deep trouble. Apart from the disturbing reports on the Middle East, we are also told that Mother Earth’s treasury is depleting faster than it can replenish itself. Reversing or mitigating the situation means making drastic changes in the way we farm, eat, and live. As different industries begin to re-evaluate their business practices based on a sustainable model, homeowners around the world are also researching and upgrading their lifestyle to a new green level. While there is more than one way to make your home greener, the principle of going green can be broken down into 3 simple steps.

Understanding Your Energy Expenditure

Going green may mean different things for each person. However, according to Sustainable Baby Steps, it is all about understanding your energy consumption and making mini-changes one at a time. As the author on the Sustainable Baby Steps Blog shares, going green begins with taking a hard look at your current lifestyle.

Your job is to find creative and practical ways to minimize consumption/waste, maximize existing resources, and prioritize your spending. Homeowners can do the research on their own or hire an energy auditor to professionally evaluate the energy efficiency of the home. Experts from Angie’s List also add that an energy audit not only can identify weaknesses around the house, but also “uncover mild or severe threats to health and safety.”

Making Energy Upgrades from Small to Big

Depending on your course of action, you can enjoy anywhere from 5% to 30% savings on energy bill by simply following the advice on the energy audit. While going green may eventually lead you to replace your old asphalt shingle roof with an energy efficient metal roof or invest in EnergyStar appliances, you can hold off on the big purchases and start small. For example, residential LEDs that are EnergyStar rated have been found to use at least 75% less energy, and last 25 times longer, than incandescent lighting. Fixing, repairing, or replacing your drafty windows can result in saving you approximately 10% to 25% on your heating costs. As we like to tell our homeowners, “Making your home energy efficient is an ongoing process with plenty of learning curves. The good news is that each change you make will take you closer to your goal.”

Taking Baby Green Steps, One at a Time

While an energy audit will steer you to the right direction and smart energy upgrades will slash back your monthly bills, aligning your personal actions to reflect a sustainable lifestyle is vital to “going green” all the way. According to Real Simple.com, homeowners can begin the adventure by avoiding fragrance-free products and conventional household cleaners. These products contain chemicals that are harmful to humans and the ecosystem. Instead, use green household cleaners that are made of natural plants. Purchase only soaps, candles, and beauty products that are scented by essential oil to keep your home (and the environment) fresh.

Going green can be inexpensive, fun, and transformational. From cleaning your refrigerator cords to supporting green businesses, there are many ways to save the environment and still live a comfortable life.

Credit: grigvovan


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Building A Cabin On Stilts

Our cabin, into which we hope to move in the near future, is roughly 700 square feet, which isn’t very tiny by tiny standards, but is still pretty small, given that it is meant as a home for five people. It is made of wood and has a rectangular shape which is efficiently divided into a central kitchen/living area, two bedrooms, a bathroom, and a smaller storage room. It has a large wraparound deck and is built on stilts – a construction method which enabled us to utilize uneven, rocky, hilly terrain without demolishing it in order to build our little home. I consider this kind of building both more efficient and more affordable – and more environmentally friendly. We were able to preserve the natural beauty of the terrain, sparing some trees which we would otherwise have to cut down in order to build.

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Our cabin in process of building

Of course, dispensing with ground leveling also means that we now have an uneven terrain to work with. We have had to put in steps in order to enable access to our deck and house, which can be a disadvantage under some circumstances (for example, when living with small children). Gardening will also be a challenge, which we intend to meet by intensively cultivated raised beds put either over the rock or in small pockets of earth throughout our property. Livestock housing and fencing will also have to take the peculiarities of the terrain into account. In some places I expect we will have to drill right into the rock.

Benefits of building a stilt house

1. We have a neat roomy space under our house and deck which can be used for storage and even, potentially, for housing small livestock.

2. We enjoy a wide, gorgeous view.

3. The elevation offers some protection against vermin.

4. Less damp during the rainy season; in areas where it is an issue, protection against floods.

Potential problems with building on stilts

Building on stilts provides ventilation under the house, which is a big advantage in many respects, but during hot summers like ours it has one drawback: the warm air rises and heats the downside of the house. We had lived in a house on stilts before, and during the hottest days the floors were actually warm to the touch.

The house we had lived in before had stilts located too far apart, which made the entire structure unstable. The house would move during strong winds, and shake and rattle when I turned on the washing machine. I didn’t have much apprehension of the house actually toppling down, but this caused damage to the window frames, the furniture and the floor tiles, which cracked in places. It is actually quite lucky that we had that experience of living in a house on stilts before attempting to build our own – this has helped us avoid many potential pitfalls.

It is important to remember that the stilts are what keeps your house standing – they are one of the most crucial parts of the entire structure. Our cabin stands on wooden stilts, but thinking back, we realize that a steel construction might have been a better choice in terms of stability and endurance. In the future we will have to reinforce and, most probably, replace parts of the foundation to prevent the house from sagging.    

This post was an excerpt from my upcoming book, Your Own Hands: Self Reliant Projects for Independent Living. Get book updates and more by following my Facebook page

Anna Twitto’s academic background in nutrition made her care deeply about real food and seek ways to obtain it. Anna and her husband live on a plot of land in Israel. They aim to grow and raise a significant part of their food by maintaining a vegetable garden, keeping a flock of backyard chickens and foraging. Connect with Anna on Facebook and read more about her current projects on her blog. Read all Anna’s Mother Earth News posts here


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Choosing Natural Building Materials for Improved Indoor Air Quality

Passive Home With Insulated Blocks

Photo by Michael Kolowich

There’s a good reason why everyone — not just people with allergies or chemical sensitivities — should live in a home with good indoor air quality. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Americans spend about 90 percent of their time indoors, where the air can be two to five times more polluted than the air outdoors. Spending the vast majority of your day inhaling oxygen that’s full of germs and toxins can have a seriously negative impact on anyone’s health.

You might think building a green home automatically means you’re building one with good indoor air quality. That’s not necessarily the case. There’s no guarantee eco-friendly materials are also low in pollutants. And what you put in your home after construction can have an enormous impact on air quality. Here are three ways to ensure the air you’re breathing inside your home is as good as — or better than — the air you’re breathing outside.

How to Choose Green Building Materials

As you research green building materials, make sure you check their level of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). VOCs are chemicals that easily become gases and mix with the oxygen in your home. Among the top building products that contain VOCs: insulation, carpet, vinyl flooring, caulk, adhesives, paint and varnish.

The good news is that no- and low-VOC products are becoming much more common and they’re getting easier to find. Start your search by checking out Greenguard Certification and Green Seal, two websites that review and rate products based on their level of chemical emissions.

A desire to avoid VOCs can lead to some fantastic discoveries for your home. One of our customers searched high and low for no-VOC flooring and finally settled on porcelain floors that look just like wood. Not only are they toxin-free, but they’re extremely durable, don’t have to be refinished, and are much less susceptible to water damage.

Get Fresh Air In and Stale Air Out

Air has many places to enter a home, but few places to escape. Over time, that air becomes moist, heavy and laden with dust mites, bacteria, pollen, smoke and other particles. Homes with poor ventilation often have an unappealing smell, or are more likely to develop mold and other problems that can lead to extensive remodeling.

The best way to keep fresh air continually moving in and out of the house — while not worrying about heat and moisture fluctuations — is to install energy recovery ventilator (ERV) and heat-recovery ventilator (HRV) systems. These extremely energy-efficient devices cycle air in and out of the house every three hours. Most come with filters that remove fine particulate matter from the air.

They also ensure heat doesn’t escape or enter the house, and keep the humidity level consistent. That means the house is more comfortable as well as healthier.

If you’re interested in learning more about ERVs and HRVs, talk to your local HVAC installer.

Look at Furnishings

What you put in your new or remodeled green home can also impact indoor air quality. Upholstered furniture and anything that contains foam (including mattresses and dining room chairs) can off-gas toxic chemicals. So can composite wood products such as bookshelves, entertainment centers and children’s furniture.

Look for furnishings that are entirely or primarily manufactured with organic and natural materials. A post on the blog Debra’s List has a list of furniture manufacturers that use wool, cotton, real wood, soy-based finishes and other low-VOC materials. You can find others by doing a Google search or visiting your local eco-minded furniture store.

Another possibility for buying “healthy” furniture is to pick up secondhand pieces. Even the most chemical-laden piece of furniture won’t off-gas forever — if you can get items that are a few years old, most of the chemicals will be gone already.

The downside to buying used furniture is that you don’t know what happened in the home it came out of (for example, it’s possible that dogs slept on that perfect-looking sofa and some of their dander lingers beneath the cushions). But if you don’t have specific allergies or health problems, buying used can be a great option. It’s good for your wallet and the planet, too.

What ideas have you implemented to improve indoor air quality in your home, office, school or other building? We’d love to hear from you.

Paul Wood is has more than 30 years experience in the construction industry. He spent over a decade with Habitat for Humanity International, building homes across Latin America, the Caribbean, and the United States. For the past 10 years, Paul has been the co-owner of ShelterWorks, maker of Faswall blocks, an insulated concrete form (ICF) that can be used to build extremely green homes. Connect with Paul on Facebook and Twitter.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Guidelines, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on their byline link at the top of the page.