Ground Breaking News

I am now the proud owner of a big hole in the ground and several huge piles of dirt.

Additionally, at the far corner, you can see a couple of white drain pipes that will carry water away from the foundation (footer drains) and from overflow from rainwater collection, and dump them above the level of the nearby retention pond.  In contractor speak, these are referred to as “daylight drains” because they can see daylight at the downstream end; they don’t need a sump pump because they drain above ground just by gravity.

Excavation began at about 9am on Monday, when it looked like this:

Using the survey stakes set earlier, Enslow Landscaping1 dug about 7′ into the ground with about 3′ of extra space on the outside of each wall as working space for the foundation contractors.  The picture at the top was shot at just before 4pm.  Not bad for a day’s work, right?

Shortly afterward, it rained, and then I had several inches of water in the bottom of the hole.  My cat Zephyr decided to check it out.  (Curiosity and all that… I don’t think he’d die if he’d fallen in, but he would have gotten very wet.)

Then somewhere around 11pm on Tuesday night, as I was trying to go to sleep, I noticed something on reflection that I should have seen while it was right in front of me.  There was no excavation done for the stairs that go down to the basement!  I sent them a text, and they came back today (Friday) to address this and also to adjust the drains to get rid of the standing water.  Within a few hours (between 9:30am and 1pm) they had both issues fixed.

  1. I’d give the Enslow team a link, but like so many small construction businesses, they barely even do email much less have a web presence!

Staking My Claim

The phrase “staking a claim” started out as a literal description of an activity: marking a piece of land with stakes.  Today, the figurative returned back to its literal roots.  This post is now at the northeast corner of my building lot.

The surveyors went further and put in marks for the corners of the house – actually, offset by 5 feet from each corner to allow room for excavation.  These days, surveying is mostly done with differential GPS (DGPS) which has such remarkable precision that the surveying team was able to determine which of several marks on a nearby manhole (within an inch of each other) was their previous measurement reference.  Taking advantage of this, they put in large (2″x2″) stakes for the house corner offsets, and then repositioned the point of the GPS on top of the stake so they could mark a specific point within that 2″ square and put in a nail at the point.

This then allowed me to run strings (which unfortunately are barely visible in the photo) to mark the actual location of the house.

Today I also received a new excavation quote which is $5,600 lower than the previous one and includes all the materials, which is a huge improvement.

Just as exciting, my friend an neighbor Steve took delivery today of his new tractor, with which he’ll be starting a farm on the east end of our community’s land.

There’s other exciting news on the horizon, but for today I want to get this posted.  Pun, as usual, intended.

Deep Thoughts

No, not a Jack Handey reference, although I did find those amusing at one time.

I’m here to talk about my basement.  Why on (or more accurately, under) earth would I put thousands of extra dollars into a basement which doesn’t even provide living space?  It turns out that there are a host of reasons, many of which are quantifiable in dollar terms.

  1. Rainwater storage: $5,000 saved without direct burial.
    There are conventional water storage tanks which are designed to rest on a floor, and there are direct-burial “cisterns”. Even though both can be found in the price range of $0.70 to $1.20 per gallon, the cisterns tend to be on the higher end of the price range.  For 1500 gallons of water storage, a difference of $0.50/gallon is $750.  However, this is the least of the concerns.  A direct-burial cistern needs tank heaters if the frost line is below the level of the tank (and of course, it is here1).  These would obviously consume precious energy.  Then, there’s the excavation cost (assume a tank height of 48″, buried at maximum depth of 36″, in a 15’x10′ hole, excavated 8′ deep and then partially backfilled with compacted sand) which could add another $3,000.  Plus the materials for backfilling, perhaps another $1,200.
  2. Doing plumbing labor myself: $4,000 saved with basement.
    When one is doing plumbing work in a slab, one is literally setting into concrete the pipes and drains.  Any mistake (due to inexperience, or a design change) becomes extremely difficult to rectify after the fact.  I think it is fair to assume that being able to do the plumbing entirely myself will save $4,000.  (Typical plumbing costs for the reference homes were $8,500 to $9,200.)2
  3. Reduced heating costs relative to slab-on-grade: $150 per year
    By using the super-insulated SIP flooring over a relatively constant basement temperature, we’re able to save significant energy costs for heating and also require a smaller heating system. 3
  4. Solar storage battery lifetime extension: $600 per 10 years.
    Lead-acid batteries have a significantly extended lifetime and better retention of stored energy (albeit at a somewhat reduced capacity) if they are kept at lower temperatures.  Assuming a $2,000 battery array with a basic lifetime of 10 years, the loss in capacity might require a 10% increase in size, but the lifetime might be extended to 16 years.  Obviously the larger the battery array, the greater the impact, and this is an ongoing reduction in maintenance costs rather than a significant difference in initial cost.  The lifetime of electronics such as inverters and chargers is generally better at lower temperatures as well.
  5. Space for drain water heat recovery: $100 per year
    With a ground floor bathroom, it would be difficult to install a drain water heat recovery system.  This system can provide significant savings in the energy required to supply the home with hot water.
  6. Space for solar batteries and inverters.
    Although this doesn’t have a calculable direct cost impact, the fact that these large items don’t take up space in the home means that the living space doesn’t need to be increased to compensate.
  7. Space for greywater recycling.
    Again, this has no easily measurable cost impact.  However, because the toilet by itself uses over a quarter of the water in a typical US household, reuse of greywater from other sources for toilet flushing can dramatically extend the capacity of rainwater storage, allowing for a smaller system or better performance of the same-sized system (fewer “dry spells” that must be sourced from groundwater supplies).
  8. Space for rainwater first-flush system.
    Probably the greatest source of contaminants in rainwater comes from dust that collects on the roof between rain storms.  A “first-flush” system which discards the first 0.1″ of rain during each storm allows these contaminants to be washed away, providing much better water purity at the input.  Meanwhile, the flushed water can be routed directly to the greywater storage.  Such a system could be installed outdoors, but then it would be susceptible to freezing and potentially need to be disconnected during the winter time.  By implementing it inside the basement, it can be easily interconnected, easily maintained, and protected from freezing all at once.

So on the assumption that I have the house for 10 years, the basement is saving me on the order of $12,000.  Although I don’t have a direct way of comparing, this is comparable to the cost of the basement, and it also provides a number of non-monetary benefits listed above.

So, we go deep.

  1. Frost depth for a normal winter in the northeast is usually no more than 4 feet, so traditionally pipes are buried at 4 or 4 1/2 feet (5 ft for the main).  With only one day in February above freezing so far, the frost line has gone well below normal.
  2. Electrical work might be similar, except that in general very little of it needs to be done in the slab.
  3. Detailed calculation: Slab-on-grade, 102′ perimeter, 0.5 BTU/(hr-ft-°F), 24 hours/day,  6803 degree-days, adjusted to 8628 70°F-degree-days, gives about 10.6e6 BTU/yr.  SIP floor, 648 sqft, (70-50)=20°F temperature difference for comparability, R-41 SIPs, gives 361 BTU/hr or 2.8e6 BTU/yr.  Assuming a heat pump at $0.14/kWh, this difference is about $156/year.

Budgeting for Construction

Below is the budget that I have developed for the construction of the Little Rental House.  The lot was already paid for a long time ago (to help the community get the funds it needed for legal and infrastructure work) so that aspect is already known with accuracy.

When formulating the budget for the Little Rental House (#3, 992sqft, 2br 1ba), I used a combination of numbers from three homes previously built here at White Hawk: my own home (#6, 1536sqft, 3br 1.5ba), the home next door (#5, 1408sqft, 3br 1.5ba), and my parents’ home (#2, 1800sqft, 4br 2ba).  Because #2 was built in 2014-2015, while #5 and #6 were built in 2007-2008, the former gives prices much closer to “current day” while the latter need to be significantly adjusted for inflation.  However, #2 is a 4-bedroom home built with double-stud walls, so many of the architectural elements are very different.  #6 is the only reference with a basement, but was built with a lot of extras such as oak trim and flooring, so those costs aren’t representative of what I’m building.  And #5 is a good reflection of the trim level, but is larger and built a decade ago.

In all cases, I have the budgets (actual cost for #5 and #6, builder-estimated for #2) broken down into great detail, rather than just a lump sum total cost.  Thus, I was able to pick and choose, taking for example basement costs from #6, flooring costs from #5, and roofing costs from #2, with appropriate adjustments for number of rooms, square footage, etc.  Contractors often estimate construction costs on the basis of cost per square foot, and on that basis we find a range of $105/sqft for #5 to $124/sqft for #2 to $142/sqft for #6.

My basic budget (without the “extras”) has the Little Rental House just below the high end of the range at $136/sqft, even with almost no labor costs.  With the extras, it pops up to $147/sqft, higher than all of the reference houses.  There are several reasons for this.  First, the actual living square footage of the house is the smallest, so even though it is the lowest total construction cost, this increases the cost per area.1 Second, the basement is adding a substantial cost (about 6%) to the total.  Third, the additional cost of more heavily insulated walls adds another 6%.  However, it’s also unclear whether it’s fair to compare 2008 prices to 2019 prices; perhaps the homes built back then would be substantially higher today. 2

The budget below 3 represents the baseline that I’m working toward, will provide the structure for reporting the actual costs as we go along, and also provides the initial basis for estimated return on capital.

Budget ItemEst CostBasis for Estimate
Lot lease fee$40,000Contractual
Site preparation and excavation$8,000Assume same as home constructed on adjacent lot
Utilities-Oversight - was not budgeted
Foundation$10,330Assume: $4,000 for slab, $4,000 for ICF, 24.3cu yd concrete at $100/yd
I-beams$2,084Estimated based on weight of steel at $1/lb
Structural Insulated Panels (SIPs)$14,118$7.25/sq ft budgetary estimate, 1830 sq ft, $850 delivery
Framing material$3,000Detailed estimate from spreadsheet, rounded up
Framing labor$0Building it myself
Roof material$2,178Rafter framed, plus sheathing and steel roofing
Roof labor$1,600Assume same as home constructed on adjacent lot
Siding$1,800$1.5/sq ft
Siding labor$0Install myself
Windows and exterior doors$5,077Detailed estimate from spreadsheet
Electrical$2,250$25x40 outlets, $50x25 light fixtures
Plumbing$2,000Assuming I hire someone for septic but not for DW/DHW
Plumbing fixtures$1,700Use numbers from adjacent home but refactor for single bathroom
Heating$1,400Daikin RXS12LVJU
Wall finishes$7,000Use 60% of number from adjacent house based on smaller area
Interior doors$1,3004 interior doors
2 closet doors
Floors$5,952$6/sq ft
Kitchen$1,850Detailed estimate from spreadsheet for cabinetry, plus kitchen sink cost
Appliances$5,300Unique UGP-24CT1
Unique UGP-470L1
Combo washer-dryer
Microwave
Insulation$2,5004" R-6.5 foam over 7.25" R-3.6 cellulose in cathedral ceiling
Deck/porch$0Not including in initial build budget
Contingency$15,88820% of sum of above (except lease fee)
Extras - solar$6,718Battery backup
LED lighting
Extras - water$4,000In-basement rainwater collection and treatment
Total$146,045(including extras)

 

  1.  Some items, including the lot, have a fixed cost, so the smaller the home, the higher their impact.  Others, including site prep, plumbing, electrical, and roofing, have a significant base cost even if they do scale with home size.  Another important consideration is the fact that the home is mostly on a single story.  While this helps with accessibility, it means that there is, for example, more roof per square foot of house than there would be for a two-story home.
  2. One source suggests that this could have increased by as much as 50%, so that even the cheapest $105/sqft would really be $157/sqft, but I think that exceeds the construction cost people are seeing for other homes here, ones for which I don’t have detailed budgets.
  3. I apologize for the somewhat awkward formatting – I was torn between using TablePress (which gives you content in a searchable text form but doesn’t let me control the layout at all); or alternately inserting an image (which would let me make the format more legible, but wouldn’t contain text that you could access).

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?