Foundational Beliefs

As I so often seem to do, I’m leading off with a pun.  I want to write about the principles that are guiding the Little Rental House project, and the principles that I’m hoping to apply in writing about it.  At the same time, I’m in the process of getting quotations for the foundation, so I intend to update you on that as well.

Principles

Transparency

My wife Raederle has observed that as we have become more open about sexuality, money has remained one of our greatest taboos.  In writing about this house construction project, I’d like to work on breaking down that barrier and start talking about some of the relevant financial issues, including:

To this end, I intend to post my a priori budget, along with an explanation of what it is based on, so that we can look at a before-and-after comparison and talk about where the estimates were out of line, and why.

I will also be posting about the economics of rental homes and how this is part of a transitional strategy toward retirement.

Passive-Level Energy Use

The community that I live in refers to itself as an “eco-village,” and accordingly all of the homes here have been built to extremely high standards in terms of both lifetime energy efficiency and the use of local materials and non-toxic materials to the greatest extent practical.

I want to go a step beyond this and build a house that as closely approaches a passive level of energy use as possible – a “passive house“.  This means among other things that sufficient heat is captured and retained from normal daily activities (body heat, plus cooking, electronics, etc.) that active heating is never required, even during the coldest part of the year.  I will talk in detail about the choices that support this and why I think it matters.

Grid Flexibility

Related to, but separate from the passive house considerations is the idea of a house that can operate flexibly either on or off the grid.  Every existing home in our community has at least some “grid” requirement, either in the form of electric (grid-tied solar) or natural gas, or both.  Furthermore, the existing homes all rely on a community water supply that comes from a local aquifer before treatment.

With this house, I will be building in grid flexibility.  Essentially all day-to-day activities will be possible using only the solar panels provided on the house.  While some activities (such as drawing a 50 gallon bath of pure hot water) may be limited when off grid, in most cases normal practical activities (such as a 10 minute shower) will be possible.  I’ll talk about what activities are supported and curtailed, and how the passive house choices play into this.

Progress

This week, I’m scheduled to have the surveyors out.  Although they charge quite a bit to “mobilize” (mainly for travelling here and getting all their equipment set up, I think), I’m coordinating this effort with several other interested parties so that we can get more measurements (a total of about 20 survey stakes) for an estimated $850.  This doesn’t actually have a line item, so I have to decide whether to count it as “site prep” or just take it out of the contingency budget.  It seems logical that putting the stakes in at the corners of the site and the house is a form of site prep, so we’ll go with that.

Separately, I’ve received price quotes on excavation and foundation.  The first excavation quote came in at $21,000 which puts it 162% over budget!  Part of this is the lack of a budget for utilities (my fault) but they attributed part of it to a junior employee making the estimate and not recognizing potential places to economize (such as, putting both water lines and basement drains into a shared trench).  I’m working with them to get a more definitive estimate, but I’m also looking to get a second quote – if I want to keep things on budget, I need to not just go with the first price I get, even if the contractor in question has been very affordable in the past.

My first foundation quote was based on the use of insulated concrete forms (ICFs).  However, as I was considering things, I realized that given that the basement is going to be purely mechanicals, there isn’t any good reason to insulate it.  So I also requested a quote based on formed and poured walls – slightly thicker (8″) walls to compensate for the lack of other structural elements.  (It turns out this saves money in another area, because the ICFs are required by code to be covered with a fire-resistant surface – drywall – even though it’s not living space.)  The quotes broke out the slab from the footers and walls, so the total is $14,200 for footers+ICFs or $10,300 for footers+formed and poured walls, another $3,000 for the slab, and then on the order of $700 for waterproofing.  Add in another $1,000 if a pump truck is needed for any of the three operations.  (I should be able to avoid this by making sure that a regular truck can back directly up to the site.)

I am strongly leaning toward the formed and poured solution for pure cost reasons; this would give a total of about $14,000 which is still 35% over my budget.  Part of this can be explained by the addition of a “bump out” to install basement stairs.  Although I could use pre-fabricated concrete stairs (quoted at $1,800 delivered and installed) I could not use the prefab solution and still have the stairs be the width I wanted (48″, to handle large water storage tanks) or come out the distance that I need (72″) to keep the house within the appropriate envelope of the lot.  So some of that cost overage is compensated by the fact that I’ll be putting in wooden stairs instead.  (None of the comparable designs I used for budgeting had exterior basement-access stairs, so this was an oversight.)

A New Start

This blog has languished for some time while a number of shifts have happened in my life.  While I’ve learned many things in this time, I haven’t been producing much intellectual output aside from my work.  I wanted to change that, and as this timing coincides with receiving a building permit for a new home that I’m about to build, it seemed a great chance to combine the two threads.

So, while this post is a new start for the blog, it also represents a new start in the sense that economists would call “building starts” – a permit has been issued for #3 White Hawk Ln. (affectionately known as the Little Rental House), and I’m hoping to begin construction soon.  I expect to be blogging about the design, the process, and various other aspects.

The new house will be essentially one story, with two bedrooms and one full bath.  There is some additional loft space above that can be used for storage, office, etc., but other than the house is intended to be ADA accessible by design.  Beyond that, it will also have the highest insulation levels of any home yet built at White Hawk, in an attempt to reach “passive house” levels of efficiency.  (I won’t write that out in German because I think it’s a trademark if I do.)  I have a wide range of other “neat features” planned but I won’t spoil all the fun by writing about them in this first post.  I plan to be doing a lot of the construction myself to keep costs in check.

Obviously, I don’t have any interesting pictures to share, but I’m including a rendering of the house as seen from the west (looking in the windows into the kitchen, at the left, and the living room, at the right).  I have also uploaded the full plan set (large, 2.3M PDF) for people who might be interested in those details.

The current status is thus: I have the building permit in hand.  I am waiting for the surveyors to come out and mark for both the lot position and the house position.  I’ve started seeking quotes from contractors for excavation and foundation work, which I don’t feel qualified to do myself.  I’ve been learning about the differences between pre-fabricated Bilco basement entry steps and building the staircase myself; and I’m looking into how this impacts the choice of equipment that I can potentially put into service in the basement.

And I’ve already (based on the first quote) gone something like $13,000 over budget.  So… I’ve got to work on getting that down.  My estimate was based on the fact that the total cost for site prep and excavation for my current home was $5,300 (in 2007).  I expected this to go up, and resources like this suggest that maybe 50% increase was reasonable, so my budget was $8,000.   You can imagine my surprise when I got a quote for $21,000.  Of course, the quote isn’t quite comparable, because it includes work that on my current home was recorded under “utilities,” and which I hadn’t properly estimated in my initial budget.

I’ll keep you posted on how things look as I move along.

A better form of weeding and feeding

Hello readers.  This morning I’m writing as I sip a homemade smoothie. My wife Raederle turned me on to smoothies and it helped me get back to the waist size I had when I was in college – I dropped about 3 inches in only a month or two, and am very pleased.

Today’s smoothie was brought to me by my back-yard garden.  And not actually by anything that I planted on purpose, but by the weeds that are growing in my pepper patch.

  • Step 1 – remove weeds
  • Step 2 – wash off stray dirt
  • Step 3 – blend1 (with some added water and a little “green powder” if you’d like)
  • Step 4 – enjoy while writing to you about this discovery

Now maybe I’m just lucky to have a really good seed-bank, but I’m pretty amazed at how many of the weeds I’ve got growing in this patch are edible.  Principle among them is purslane (Portulaca oleraceabut we also have kale (Brassica oleracea, although only certain cultivars are grown as kale), dandelion (Taraxacum officinale), wood sorrel (Oxalis acetosella), and amaranth (probably Amaranthus retroflexus, but hard to tell) in the patch.  Of these, I’d recommend keeping the amaranth for salads or cooking – in smoothies it seems to leave an unpleasant astringent sensation.  You should probably toss the dandelion if, when you pluck the leaves off, there is much visible white latex sap, as they’ll be unpleasantly bitter.  Look for these in your garden and consider whether you might make a meal of them rather than simply tossing them in the compost pile.

Between them are some not-very-edibles: quackgrass (Elymus repens) – which fortunately is no longer prevalent; ground ivy (Glechoma hederacea) – a mint-family member which some consider edible but which others consider toxic; and something that is probably Queen Anne’s lace (Daucus carota) or wild carrot (Daucus pusillusor parsley (Petroselinum crispum) but which is to easily confused with more toxic things such as wild parsnip (if I give you the binomial Pastinaca sativa wikipedia will lead you to common garden parsnip, which is confusing because USDA seems to agree that Pastinaca sativa is a noxious weed and not a food plant) or even poison hemlock (Conium maculatum).  If you were me, you’d just weed these out and not bother trying to figure out whether they were edible, because your blender would easily fill up with the known goodies above.

  1. This step is a lot easier with good high-speed blender like our BlendTec or a Vitamix.

IMBY Solution: Lemon Juice

With this post, I’m starting a new series called “IMBY Solutions” where I look at a backyard or local replacement for something that otherwise would need to come from far away.

Consider lemon juice. With the exception of little dwarf trees that can (and must) be moved in and out of the house for the winter, ours is not a climate for growing lemon trees. But lemon juice is a really useful ingredient – I enjoy it just as a hint of flavor in water, but there are many recipes that call for it.

Here is today’s IMBY Solution: pink champagne currant juice.  Although it’s not exactly the same flavor, and not quite as tart as lemon juice, it makes a pretty fair substitute.  I have one small bush in my yard, and it produces a lot of berries. Red currant could be used as well, but if you want a juice that looks anything like lemon juice and doesn’t add natural food coloring, the pink champagne current is a better match.  In terms of production – that is, converting berries to juice – one could use an electric juicer, but I don’t have one and I’m interested in lower-tech solutions anyway.  So here is my process.

  1. Collect and wash berries.  Get rid of any that look bad.  I had 1-2 cups of berries to start with.  You may want to dry them a little to prevent dilution of the juice.
  2. Wrap them in a thin kitchen towel or other clean, thin cloth, preferably cotton.
  3. While holding over a clean bowl, bunch up the towel so that all the berries are in a pocket and you can twist the loose ends to tighten the towel around the berries. As you continue to twist, the juice will be squeezed through the towel leaving the pulp inside.  You may need to “knead” the berries somewhat to make sure they’re all getting properly squished.
  4. When done squishing, pour whatever portion of the currant juice you think you can use immediately into a jar.
  5. The remainder of the juice can be put into ice cube trays to freeze for future use. (Unlike factory-processed lemon juice, this juice will start to ferment over time, so unless you want currant wine or currant vinegar, freezing is the easiest way to keep a fresh supply on hand.)

Enjoy!

There and Back Again: Part 1

As regular readers may already know, I have been travelling a lot this year.  My latest journey was not purely work, but a combination of two weeks of work in Ferndown, Dorset, England, plus a little more than two weeks of travel with friends through Ireland and Scotland with a few days in London at the end.  Since it’s not particularly practical for me to reconstruct all of the things I may have purchased, and how local they were to wherever I was at the time, I thought I’d post a bit of a travelogue instead.  I’ll skip the worky-bits.

Jun 27-28 – Bournemouth, Chalke Valley History, Jurassic Coast

Due to the (slow) machinations of my employer, my two week stay at my favorite hotel near the office was interrupted by lack of availability. As a result, I had a brief stay further south in Bournemouth, an English south coast “beach resort” town.  In a truly tiny hotel room.  tiny_hotel_sinkJust to give you a sense, this is how they fit the sink into the bathroom – they cut it in thirds, took the middle third with the faucet, and turned that sideways. Not really… but that’s about how big this is. However,  the beach was very close – only two blocks up and about 100 feet down. It seems that most of the coast is made up of large cliffs dropping off to the beach below.

bournemouth_beach

On the weekend, one of my colleagues from work kindly offered to take me to the Chalke Valley History Festival, a combination of living history (re-enactments), military history (including tank and WWII airplane demos), and talks on history ranging from prehistoric archaeology through the origins of the space shuttle program.  No easy way to sum this up in one photo, so I present here cvhf_fightera WWII bomber, cvhf_vikingsViking invaders, and cvhf_knights_interviewa group of knights being interviewed before they fought each other (with real swords and armor, but not real death) for the grand prize.  cvhf_tardisOh, and a TARDIS, because England.

The next day, another colleague graciously took me to his house, introduced me to his family, and fed me lunch.  Then, they took me on a tour of part of England’s “Jurassic Coast” – so named because the rocks that have been exposed here through tectonic activity are from the Jurassic period, and (not coincidentally) contain a lot of fossils to prove it.  You can see the strata here.jurassic_strataThis part of England is known for its chalk soils – not exactly your typical blackboard chalk, but rather harder white stone (but still soft for stone) made from the same calciferous shell sediment. One thing that I learned, and found quite surprising, is that this kind of chalk deposit is also typically rich in flint – because flint appears where siliceous material somehow infills areas within the chalk.  Interesting, even Wikipedia claims not to know exactly how this happened.  “The exact mode of formation of flint is not yet clear…” As if 145 million years hasn’t been long enough to clear this up, but we might know soon?

We walked a ways (up what my colleague’s daughter affectionately calls the “hill of death”) to see the Durdle Door, a huge stone arch carved by the sea.  For size reference, those are people on the beach.jurassic_door

The beach here was itself interesting – a typical “pebble beach” created by the sea washing away the softer materials and leaving only stones. Not as comfortable to sleep on or as practical for the building of castles, but very pretty.jurassic_pebbles

 

Then it was back to work (and the Kings Head Hotel) for another week. The main other exciting thing that happened was that I finally got a chance to see the changing ringing in Wimborne Minster rather than just hearing it. The church is known for having one of the finest sets of bells in the southern part of England, and every Tuesday the bell ringers practice their art. On this visit, I finally made it up into the bell tower to watch how the acoustic sausage is made.  (It does involve squeezing a lot into a small round space, and twisting and pulling things, but I think the resemblance ends there.) Suffice it to say that while I learned a lot, most of it was about the magnitude of my own ignorance.

What I’m Reading Lately

I thought I’d try posting something a little different here, although I think still very relevant to the topic. I’ve read a few interesting books recently and want to share some thoughts about them. Between summer work in the community and travel, it looks like I’m just about fit to keep up a monthly update right now.

 A Year Without “Made In China” – Sara Bongiorni

This seemed like the sort of book that would be a perfect accompaniment to this blog.  In many ways, it touches on the same issues – what do we need to import versus what can we get more locally. However, though I enjoyed the book, I was somewhat disappointed on a couple of fronts.

First, Bongiorni seems to be coming from a dramatically more “consumerist” mindset than I can wrap my head around.  For example, she wages a near-constant battle with herself not to give in and buy her kids everything they demand in the toy store; whereas, to me, the idea of walking up and down the aisles of a crap-our-grandparents-never-saw toy store with kids sounds like something the ancient Greeks would make up as a punishment for someone who defied the gods.  The amount she obsesses over a pair of sunglasses for her “poor” husband, so that he doesn’t have to walk around squinting and embarrassing her, is, or should be, more embarrassing than the dilemma itself.

Second, the book title is depressingly literal.  The target – the only target- of her boycott is essentially the “Made in China” label. Made in Mexico? Fair game. Made in Germany? Fair game. Made in Vietnam? Fair game. Made in Hong Kong? Well, she proves herself to be a little “geopolitically challenged” as well – fair game until she figures out what a “special administrative region” is.  In all of her work to screen out Made in China labels, she seems relatively oblivious to the idea of buying local, or of thinking at all about the impact of shipping products all around the globe.  It’s hard for me to believe that in a year, this question didn’t cross her mind, but if it did, she didn’t have much to say about it.

I don’t want to be too harsh. It’s a pretty well-written and engaging book, and the publicity that it garnered has surely helped a lot of people to look at an issue they might have gone on ignoring forever without Bongiorni’s help. The question of “what has become of American manufacturing”, which she does address to some extent, is an important one and one that needs to be addressed in any serious effort to buy local. It does feel like she could have taken this further, though.

The Post-Corporate World – David C. Korten

Although I’m not done reading this, I’ve been very pleased with what I’ve seen so far.  I’ve had several of Korten’s books on my bookshelf awaiting enough time to read them, and in some ways I’m starting in the middle of a “series” – but it’s definitely the good part.  In his earlier books, Korten has identified a problem, and tried to draw attention to it; in this one, he turns the corner and lays out, if not the solution, at least solution that provides a glimmer of hope.

The problem, in some sense, is the fact that we’ve allowed ourselves to be convinced that “democracy”, “the free market”, “capitalism”, and “world domination by mega-corporations” are inseparable, when they are not. In the aftermath of the “Red Scare” and the “Cold War”, politicians afraid of communist and socialist ideas have swung toward an opposite extreme that is equally damaging: fascism, or as Eisenhower would have described it, the military-industrial state. Korten himself only touches on this political issue, preferring instead to talk about the dichotomy between money and life.

A good example of this is voting rights: should voting rights be tied to lives (“one person, one vote”) or to money (the equating of money spent to free speech, and the inclusion of corporate personhood in free speech rights)?  We have allowed ourselves to be sold the idea that you can’t have a free market without placing money above life, and yet there’s nothing about “the market” that requires it to have any role at all in things like politics or voting.

Korten goes back again and again to original sources, from Aristotle to Adam Smith to Thomas Hobbes, to understand how things have gone so far off the rails. Smith is known as the “father of economics” and is the person to whom the phrase “invisible hand” of the market is attributed.  Korten points out that, far from believing that people act only in self interest, Smith’s treatise on “The Theory of Moral Sentiments” (which Smith himself appears to have considered his most important work) focuses on the extent to which social relations between people influence them to do things for the greater good.  At the same time, Korten shows how the philosopher Hobbes (whose work essentially argues that humans are naturally horrible and need someone like a king to rule them and prevent them from self-destructing) has infiltrated economic thinking, and underpins the idea that money knows what’s best for us, so we’d better do what it says.

In the end (well, middle really, but I doubt this will change) Korten goes back to Adam Smith for a set of key principles about how markets should function.  First, he points out that Smith’s market is equally applicable regardless of the currency, and suggests (metaphorically) that life rather than money should be the currency. (Consider the significance, to use one of Korten’s simplest examples, of rewriting the phrase “time is money” to “time is life.”)  Second, he takes a principle straight from Smith, that the decision maker should bear the costs of the decision. If fossil fuel use destroys the environment, those choosing to use fossil fuels should themselves pay the penalty for this (e.g. a tax used to offset the consequences), rather than having others pay it (e.g. distributed health care costs from smog, or heaven forbid government subsidies to fossil fuel producers). Third, he emphasizes Smith’s expectation that businesses should be small.

There are numerous other points, but among the consequences of these first three is locality of commerce.  If large businesses are regulated/taxed out of existence, and only small businesses exist, and if the costs of shipping items across the country or around the world are borne by the purchasers of the products, then there will be a natural shift toward relying on local suppliers for all but the most exceptional and life-affirming goods.

Korten also talks about how to get this shift in consciousness, expectations, and practice to occur. Though I haven’t read all he has to say about this, one thing is clear. We cannot wait for some grand consensus on changing our political and economic system. We have to begin to act in accordance with what we expect, and allow that to seep broadly into the consciousness of humanity.

And after all, isn’t that really the point of this blog in the first place?

Enter Title Apology Here

Hi reader(s).  (I know there’s at least one of you, because you told me so in person… thanks, Vera!)  I’m feeling kind of bad about neglecting you for a whole month; you might accept my excuses but I certainly hope you’ll accept my apology.  To make it up to you, I’m going to start trying to add some pictures.

I don’t think it makes sense to go over everything that’s happened in the last month in one post, so I’ll bring you up to date with a few highlights. Three trips out of town – the first two look remarkably like The Travelling Engineer Problem as I made two more trips to Ohio; the third was to Princeton Reunions which was another thing entirely.  There was also the Memorial Day holiday, and learning to be a spumphouse_small_croptonemason1.  We determined that we needed a “well house” to protect all of the equipment that goes with the new well that’s coming online soon, and so we decided to berm it in to save on heating costs.  Let me tell you, this is slow, heavy, hot work.

Evening Entertainment

On a friend’s recommendation, we tried a different place for karaoke, called K-HOUSE.  This seems to be a local one-off Ithaca establishment despite the rather generic name.  The bulgogi was far from generic – it was truly excellent.  The song selection was quite good, although our tastes are obscure enough that between us we failed to find a dozen songs we were hoping to sing.  One of the weirdest things about the place is that although there’s a stage in the corner, the big screen for the words is right over the bar, so unless you rent one of the private rooms, you wind up standing in the middle of the room singing to the bartender, rather than facing your “audience.”

Then, while at reunions, I had the great pleasure of attending Princeton University Players’ production of The Fantasticks.  This show is one I did as an undergrad, but with Cameron Platt ’16’s creative directorial choices, it came to life in a completely new and very moving way for me. I also got to see the always hilarious improv of Quipfire!, the group that had to wait for me to leave before they started.  And, of course, arch sings.
wildcats2015_arch_crop

IMBY Progress

Some miscellaneous progress notes: Believe it or not, the pallets of concrete blocks shown above had a wrapper that indicated they were made in NY.  Also, I finally ordered wood for the “covered bridge” shed I plan to build – and that was locally grown, rough cut hemlock from Robinson Lumber. When I had to buy gas for the lawnmower, I followed up the Mirabito lead (Apr 12) and found they are selling ethanol-free gas (which you might consider a good thing, or a terrible thing, but since I’ve followed Agway’s advice and used that, I haven’t had any carburetor or muffler exhaust problems).  I bought a hammer to replace one I’d lost2 and was pleased to find that Stanley Bostitch makes hammers in Mexico (could have come a lot further)… and that they have a 100 year warranty.  Wow.

Even closer to home, the literal backyard is starting to yield food, and I’ve had some spinach (for instance, in an omelette with backyard eggs), lettuce, chives. The cherry in the front yard is promising real production this year, perhaps even enough to rival the abundance of the one tiny “pink champagne” currant bush that just keeps on giving.  Onions, potatoes, peas, peppers, and a cucumber are all progressing well so far. I may even let some of the winter rye I planted as a cover crop keep growing and see if I can process it.

Not as Local as I’d Like

I had to refill the water softener that serves my home and 3 others on one well. We use potassium chloride (KCl) because it’s better for the gardens, and as a nice side effect, I avoid having to eat bananas to prevent leg cramps.  The brand comes from the North American Salt Company, which pretty well describes them – they have mines and plants all over.  Packaging, at least, seems to happen along the Great Lakes, so there’s some chance this is getting here by rail or water.  If push came to shove, though, we could switch to sodium chloride (NaCl), and for that Ithaca has its own salt mines, close enough to bring it by horse-drawn wagon.  If one worries about such things in a post-industrial world…

I also bought some anti-deer fencing and wooden stakes, which though purchased at Agway, are surely from far-flung places.  Once the trees grow up (now hopefully unencumbered by the deer) maybe I can make my own stakes…

Frustrations with Mega-Corps

When I tried to find the whereabouts of Woodstock Foods, which has a nice looking “non-GMO” campaign going, I was pretty effectively stymied.  Their web site doesn’t have any physical location information on it.  A Hoover’s search suggests it is actually a subsidiary of United Natural Foods (UNFI, also of Providence, RI), a $6.7 billion dollar Fortune 500 company. That doesn’t inherently make them bad, but considering that the Gross State product of Rhode Island is only $45 billion and that UNFI isn’t even among the top 20 employers in the state, it seems unlikely that the company is particularly “local” to there, and by extension to anywhere.  Also, I found a piece of glass in my sandwich one day, and their peanut butter seemed the most likely culprit.

  1. If you build a stone wall and don’t charge anyone, does that make you a freemason?
  2. Thought I’d lost… oops.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: May 3

My neighbor Steve and I had a very fine weekend at Northland Sheep Dairy learning about horses and mules as draft animals from Donn Hewes’ Teamster School.  Some day, we think it would be amazing to have our own draft animals here on site… but for now, we still have a lot to learn. I was extremely excited about the possibility of learning to rebuild and repair old horse-drawn implements such as old McCormick Deering sickle bar mowers.

I’ll try to keep my notes on this weeks purchases concise. Good: Local cheese; used books; local port and brandy; car alignment check at a local service station.  (Although this could get better if my friend John becomes a neighbor and is able and willing to apply his mechanic skills to cars on-site.) Bad: Some garden implements from Agway, needed because old ones broke (plastic sucks).  Gas for car. Ugly: Greek mavrodaphne wine – this was something I tried years ago and wanted to sample again.  However, I will soon be bottling some homemade wine from my own Concord grapevines – which (you’ll have to trust me on this) is much better than you’d think based on Concord’s reputation. Also, wings and drinks at The Haunt’s karaoke night (again). Ambiguous: Going out to eat to meet with people.  These were three local, non-chain establishments: Viva Cantina, Hawi Ethiopian Restaurant, and the Rogues’ Harbor Inn.  In all cases, I’m sure many of the ingredients were non-local; Rogues’ Harbor probably did the best as my sandwich included local (free range, hormone free, antibiotic free) chicken, locally baked bread, local cheese, and beer from on-site, and all 5 beers in the sampler were also made on site.  Balance that against the fact that it’s the furthest of the three from my home.

It seems that now might be a good time to look in on some of the other purchases that have happened this month “in the background” – things like automatic payments for services or such things that don’t show up as receipts in my wallet.

Good: Trees from Musser Forests – they are relatively close, and once planted one hopes that the trees become a local and self-sustaining resource.  CO2 offsets from the Finger Lakes Climate Fund.  A donation to one of my Alma Maters – no goods received, the donation will do work locally where it is received. Service contract costs for my domestic hot water system.

Bad: Water filter service contract from Aquasana – this seemed like an economical way to get filtered water, but it seems unfortunate to be shipping filters across the country.  However, I only need a new one every 6mo or so, which is better than when I was using a Britta filter. Phone bills – no obvious alternative to a big national corporation for a true (works when the power goes out) land-line phone.

Ugly: Netflix subscription – this is split between me and a friend; neither of us have (or really want) cable, and both of us have relatively esoteric movie tastes (things like old episodes of Doctor Who, obscure political documentaries, and Bollywood comedies).  And, because much of what I’m actually interested in isn’t available “on demand,” I actually continue to have them ship me DVDs.  There are certainly other, more local forms of entertainment, but considering the relatively light weight of DVDs in the mail, I suspect this isn’t an environmental catastrophe either.  Electric bills – would be nice to buy a Solarcity Powerwall, but not in the cards right now, and otherwise relying on our lovely NYSEG for power.  However, by buying wind credits I can home that some of my power is coming from Black Oak Wind Farm.

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apr 26

Around the neighborhood, this has been the weekend of visitors, chickens, and trees.  A new family considering moving in to our village came to visit us from the west coast, and we had a pleasant flurry of get-togethers1 so they could meet many of us in person.  Meanwhile, our coop co-op was gifted with 13 chickens that a neighbor’s relative was giving away, and at the same time a different neighbor got a mini-coop (not a mini-cooper) with 3 chickens. On top of that, a third neighbor got his first nursery shipment of the year (a miniature Valencia Orange) and I began digging planting holes for this year’s coppice trees (swamp white oaks and river birch from Musser Forests).

Good: Milk.  Beer: At The Haunt’s Karaoke Night – Ommegang Rare Vos, and possibly Bass, although who can tell where the heck this is made now that it’s owned by a multinational.  (I mean, Bass is possibly good.  Bass was definitely consumed.  I might have embarrassed myself on stage, but not because I had too much beer to remember the evening.) Lunch: At Viva Cantina – they source many things locally, although I cannot say with any certainty where all the ingredients in my lunch came from.

Bad: Car Tires. Actually, I was having some trouble deciding which category to put this in, and “Bad” seemed lonely. There’s no question that my car dependence itself is in the “bad” category. But as tires go, I was extremely pleased with the fact that Yokohama Tires has a “Sustainability” link at the top of their web site, and seems to be doing real measurable things in terms of GHG emissions and reduction of landfill-bound materials.  I also made the phone calls needed to determine that the actual tires I was buying were made in Salem, VA. Electronic Parts. I bought a power supply for the new LED path lighting I installed from DigiKey. I couldn’t come up with any good way to get something highly efficient to run these highly efficient lights2, other than buying it new by mail order. Technically, I could have built it myself, but I would still be ordering the parts from who knows where… and this is at least UL listed! Still, if TSHTF in the next 5 years (typical LED lifespan: 50000 hours) it’s nice to know I could.  But I’d probably have more to worry about than path lighting at that point.

Ugly: Breakfast. I needed something in walking distance of the tire store that was open at 8am, and although there are local options 15-20 minutes away, Panera was 3 minutes away, so convenience got the better of me. I guess they do employ people locally to bake for them, but it’s not like Dolce Delight. Dinner. Wings at The Haunt are probably not sourced from anyplace I would be proud of.

  1. A side note here: I made Maza (barley cakes) again, only this time I was able to use on-site sourced honey and regionally-produced sunflower oil.  However, I added non-local raisins to make them a bit fancier.
  2. My LED lighting is consuming 1.75W total including the power supply. A quick bit of research concluded that it was cheaper – not counting LED lifespans – to run them full time than to put them on a mechanical timer, because most of the mechanical timers consume 2-3W by themselves.  Isn’t that crazy?

The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Apr 19

My parents were visiting this week, helping out with their home that is being built in our village, and helping me out a lot along the way. (Thanks Mom & Dad for all the garden and building support!)  Their presence changed my shopping patterns in some interesting ways. For one thing, my mom decided that she needed to bring all the food for the week, somehow believing I had been existing purely on air and sunlight. (OK, who are we kidding, until this week it would have been air and snow.) She was shocked (“shocked, I tell you”) when she found she couldn’t fit it all in my fridge. Conversely, their presence got me started on some home-improvement projects I had been putting off, with attendant purchases.

Good:  I go to a local dentist.  We don’t have one on site (yet) but I think that’s good enough.  (Also good – just going for the cleaning and not having any cavities or other problems to complain of.)  On the grocery side I picked up some milk (inspired by the butter last week, I got this from Byrne Dairy, which has returnable/reusable glass bottles!).
Plantings.  I picked up planting potatoes and onions at our local Agway. Admittedly I’m not certain where they get these, but considering these will be truly growing In My Back Yard it’s hard to call this one bad.
Concrete blocks.  I picked up a few of these for a construction project, thinking that they were definitely going in the bad or ugly category.  It turns out that at least some cement is made regionally and it may be boat-shippable. Not sure where mine came from, but in the realm of how to get things here, this is at least plausible. (Not that extractive industries themselves are sustainable. Also, I feel guilty buying this from a big box store, but I was trying to match what was already installed.)
Bar drinks.  My “bars and restaurants” post was a result of Wednesday and Thursday night’s activities.  I try to get to karaoke with DJ Dale at The Haunt when I can, but this week we were stymied by a confusing calendar which showed both the karaoke (false) and a band playing (true).  We wound up at Felicia’s Atomic Lounge instead, a place that has a distinctly hip NYC feel but with a heavily locally-slanted bar menu.  I selected a cocktail featuring one of the two local gins, and got some things for the other folks (including the folks… my parents) that probably erred on the local side though I don’t have all the details.  On Thursday, I explored the opposite side of the STBC/GLBC equation from last week, and had a Right*O*Way*IPA at our local “Thirsty Thursday” networking event.

Bad: Bananas.  Source of potassium for parental units.  Not local, not likely to ever be.  At least they were organic, and maybe they can be shipped by boat, which may be more sustainable.  Rice.  Still a staple grain in my diet.  This is Lundberg organic basmati from California; although this is domestic, it’s possible that the shipping across the US is worse for the environment than shipping by boat from India.  That’s a hard one to calculate.
Propane Refill.  After 18 months (548 days, if you want to get precise) I used up my first 40lb propane tank.  That’s 0.07lbs/day or if you convert to CO2 emissions, about 3oz per day.  (Although there’s a big difference between living and fossil carbon, considering I breathe out 2.3lb of CO2 each day, I think I’m not going to get too bent out of shape about 3oz to cook my food.)
Misc fasteners.  That’s what they call all those little nuts and bolts at your local (or national chain) hardware store. Regardless of where you shop, there’s a pretty good chance they get their inventory from the Hillman Group.  It could be worse: nearly 60% of what they sell is made in the U.S.  But… it’s a bit disturbing how dependent we can become on a single bottleneck like this one distributor.

Ugly: Toothpaste.  I can (and do) buy Tom’s of Maine, but it’s not at all clear to me that they’re “of Maine” or even “Tom’s” any more, since they’re owned by Colgate-Palmolive.  Interestingly, their web site doesn’t whisper a word of this vicious, nasty rumor… er, fact.  Still, I’d like to keep not having cavities when I show up at the dentist, so what to do?  Brush and floss as best as I can.
Cat Food.  I’m not entirely sure what to do about this.  If the furball would feed himself entirely off of the rodents In My Back Yard I’d be rather happy, but he seems quite certain that I own him 3 (or 4, or 5) square meals a day, and will take it out on me (or out of me, in flesh) if I don’t live up to his expectations.  And… whaddya know, he’s allergic to grain.  So unless I want to deal with cat dietary allergies (don’t make me elaborate) I wind up feeding him the fancy all-fish stuff made on the west coast.  Well, at least they sell it in local stores?
PVC plumbing parts.  There really should be a better alternative, but when people don’t remember that you have to leave faucets open in the winter so they don’t freeze, I don’t want to pay for replacing the parts with brass.  I still have to go to Agway and get a replacement for the 55-gallon drum (recycled, food grade, less than $20 last I checked) that burst open from the freezing water – and figure out if that fits in a Prius!

Also, two more reasons that I love our local Agway.  First, when my second propane tank appeared to be malfunctioning, they help test it, bleed air from it, and topped it off again for free.  Second, when the sprinkler head for one of my garden watering cans cracked, knowing that these aren’t sold as replacement parts, store manager Dan Lee found a spare one he had kept from a shipment that had a damaged can, and gave it to me for free.  In this day and age, who does that? Ithaca Agway does.