I currently fix and improve the house I have rented for two years in New Haven, as often as I can. This is not without long-term intentions, because I have been spending a lot of time lately considering just what it is that I want to do, and where and how I want to live, after Yale. This process has been focused intensely by a great deal of time spent researching, and this use of my time is at least partially related to my January visit to the Eisenhower Farm in Gettysburg PA; reading a tome of a Thomas Jefferson biography and a monster of a George Washington biography earlier this year; and reading excerpts from a variety of Wendell Berry books (and the associated interest that kindled in researching modern day homesteading/agrarian types on the internet). In short – I want to get away from noisy, rude (New Englanders – edit: as was pointed out to me, the northern New Englanders ARE much nicer. Apologies for unfairly calling them out for their MA, CT, and NY brethren’s bullshit), and self-indulgent folks who sink into the quagmire of being incapable of fixing their own homes, or cars, and overpriced groceries and costs of living, and polluted air and earth. To be sure, I like people, but my goodness gracious am I ready to just be left alone to peace, quiet, and feverishly turning my own piece of land into the paradise I want, the way it should be, as I can afford it.
To be sure, I am very thankful for this education and those that preceded it, but over time I have recognized more and more that I won’t be able to easily flourish in the midst of paying too much money for bills, housing, and the other costs of living; what’s more, I would feel ethically questionable working in a job trying to help other people help themselves in a sustainable and clever way, and not be living that out in my own life. Sustainability, like charity it seems, starts in the home. Especially a house designed and built by a Mike!
Figuring out what kind of building(s) I want to have, and which kind of property, post-Yale
The most important part of this whole project, I should think, is determining the land I want to purchase; I certainly want to improve wherever I end up, but it would be better to have a mixture of terrain (plains, forests, a river and some streams, and some big hills) from the beginning, rather than buying 200 acres of plains and realizing after 6 months that “this really isn’t my thing.” To be sure, I am flexible and will make do with whatever I can get, but to ensure the highest returns on the investments I am planning (everything from solar and wind power generation; to growing all my own food with a very clever and automated operative farm; to other projects of all sorts) I need to have access to many different things on my own land.
This is not set in stone, of course (yet – I may end up trying my hand at operative masonry, in addition to that other kind I already do; more on this in the months and years to come), but I am currently leaning towards central Virginia as the intended locale for my land purchase; the proximity to friends and jobs in the DC/VA area combined with the low population density (as per above) and extremely low cost of large acreage makes for a compelling case, to me. Plus, sunnier and warmer climate = better solar power returns and longer growing season for crops!
There exist a variety of television programs to kindle one’s passion for the beauty of the natural world – the BBC in particular does a lovely job of showcasing the planet itself and the wondrous varieties of life thereupon. As I mentioned in the preceding section, I would like an admixture of different kinds of terrain and features, not least of all to keep the place fun and interesting. But with more of a purpose in mind, I am looking for three things in particular:
1) the presence of a dilapidated old barn that is fit for restoration (not least of all because 1) its 25% of the cost of building a new one; 2) I happen to love fixing old things; and 3) Federal and state tax credits for restoring barns as historical/agricultural landmarks) –> this will be the location of the Grade-A workshop I want to put in, to facilitate tinkering ad nauseum but also so I can work on my eventual mansion of a house I want to build over time
2) a significant connection to an important body of water, preferably one that is not entirely clean but not beyond saving; I have some ideas on how I want to put in natural water-cleansing mechanisms on my property (Federal and state tax credits also come to mind, here, besides wanting to demonstrably produce good outcomes for the environment in addition to not harming)
3) the presence of adjacent open lots, so I can expand over time.
Though I am going to be very flexible about these things and life in general (the plans of mice and men, as they say), I am really going to strive to have those three things on the land from the beginning. We shall, of course, see how it goes!
Having been raised on a steady diet of This Old House and The New Yankee Workshop when I was a wee lad, and working on the basic sentiment in the preceding section, I am really going to put most of my time, work, and money into making one hell of an awesome workshop. Supplementing my adolescent diet of those shows with reading blogs about fixing up decrepit old buildings and then putting in a gorgeous workshop, I realize it would be silly to go about building up my intended Edenic agrarian lands without having a SERIOUS work space and the concommitant tools to make it worthwhile. So I am continuing to watch and read many things about making workshops in unusual spaces; and on a budget; and with maximum flexibility and useability. More on this as I get closer to moving down there, I hope!
The (Nano) House
So, it certainly isn’t breaking new ground, to be interested in building a small and super-efficient house – I have at least one book showcasing some very clever iterations of just that! When combined with the fact that I am currently working to not only get my beloved car engine working in proper order, but to have the fuel injector nozzles and engine computer upgraded, which will nearly double the horsepower and torque my car produces. This is vital to be able to tow a trailer anyways, but particularly to tow one between the nearest lumber yard and my home. Certainly cuts down on the cost of building an initial house if 1) the thing is 200 square feet or less; 2) I can transport the materials with my own vehicle and trailer without a problem; and 3) I design and build it myself, using simple principles and interlocking sets of materials to make a sturdy and energy efficient home.
So the last step that will be involved in making this a reality, and perhaps the most important (at least, according to the majority of ancient cultures in world history), is giving the place and project a suitably strong name, one that captures a bit of the place but also the purpose. To some degree, I am a bit SOL: “Monticello” and “Walden” have already been taken. Any and all suggestions are welcome….
Powering the premises
So, the easiest options that come to mind are often written off as too expensive – solar and wind. I have found, however, a gentleman who was tired of being told those types of power cost too much, and did what (I am finding more and more) I do best – figured out a way to do it on his own, for cheaper and to a higher degree of efficiency! He made his own solar panel; figured out how to make his own wind turbine; the guy even figured how to make his own biomass gasifier, to make fuel that way!
This is one aspect of the future living situation which I will be testing out this summer – keep an eye on my blog for updates!
HVAC – specifically, geothermal
The change of seasons, for people in temperate climates who have modern conveniences, also signals the change of which utility bill hits the hardest: gas or oil for heating in the winter, and electricity for air conditioning in the summer. Well, this also carries concommitant costs of multiple machines that can break and wear out over time; to me, this seems a waste of natural resources AND money. Instead, I have been reading up on geothermal – basically, a system of coiled pipes under the ground that have water and anti-freeze flowing through them, and take advantage of the ground’s more constant temperature to exchange heat out of your home in the summer, and into your home in the winter. One machine, 50% less energy than heating with gas, and 35% less energy than cooling with air conditioning. Not too shabby, right? This is one of the technologies I won’t be able to really try out in New Haven, so I am going to redouble my efforts to read up on it until I feel comfortable to go build my own, in a year or so. Until I do, I am told that wool sweaters and box fans are fairly energy efficient methods of heating and cooling.
Going for the home run of self-sufficiency – an aquaponics-based automated farm
I don’t like spending too much money on things that can be cheaply made or done on my own – after 6 years in Washington DC and then (an eventual total of) 3 years in CT, both places with absurdly high costs of living, I am looking forward to bargain prices on food. But having thought about this for a while, I don’t like genetically modified foods which haven’t been tested; I don’t like pesticides and other chemicals on my food; and I would prefer to 1) not pay for food and 2) perhaps grow enough to sell the extra to local markets on the side. So, aquaponics: a portmanteau of “hydroponics” (growing plants without soil) and “aquaculture” (farming aquatic organisms), this is a cyclical system of growing plants and fish for consumption. The fish make their water dirty (and at scale, a 500 gallon tub would hold a LOT of tasty tilapia and thus get dirty quick), mostly with ammonia, and this breaks down into nitrates, nitrites, and a handful of other trace minerals. The plants in the system will directly consume the first two as fertilizer and take the water they need out of the system; the grow beds will features earthworms living in the gravel to consume the remaining trace materials and turn them into fertilizer for the plants as well. All told, this system uses approximately 2% of the water of traditional agriculture, while growing more volume more quickly. Why doesn’t everyone do this, again??
This very summer, I am doing a miniaturized iteration of this very process; check it out here on the blog in the near future!
Also, the real deal will likely build upon the cleverness of other DIY’ers, folks who have figured out that it is cheapest to cut 55 gallon plastic barrels in half to make the grow beds, for instance. Then, the aquaponics system will be paired with an enclosed and mobile chicken coop or two, so that the chickens naturally fertilize different parts of the lawn while being kept safe AND while helping consume the tilapia carcasses and other waste products from the cycle; plus, egg shells will help add calcium to the water of the aquaponics system, which is a good thing, too! Isn’t this awesome???? 🙂
Fun bits of potentially serious add-ons to the property
I am actually not kidding, I have purchased several books about the care and keeping of raptors, and hot damn this is exciting. They are fascinating creatures, with evolved eyelids to handle the wind pressure when diving at 200+ miles per hour and still be able to catch their prey mid-dive. Plus, I remember as a kid going to the public library and having park rangers bring in owls and falcons for us to see and learn about, and have always held the fascination thereof on the back burner. Cool fact: owning raptors carries a Federal and state mandate to hunt with them during certain months, to help keep non-migratory bird populations down to healthy levels. This is a pipedream within the pipedream of this whole farm (Cobb), but I thought it would be interesting to include here.
Additional resources for other interested folks will come in the future; for now, that was QUITE the lengthy post. Good night everybody!