NOTE: Make sure you read the first three posts (in order!) before tackling the rest, or it could be confusing: Post 1 is Designing the future, Post 2 is Setting up the problem, and Post 3 is Estimating basic requirements.


Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Defining the garden

As promised, I pulled together a list of unordered requirements for the “Peak Oil Garden Project”. These are intended for general use, rather than a specific size garden in a specific area. We’ll deal with that later.

So, here are what I consider important requirements for an easy-to-maintain, productive organic garden. Feel free to comment on these, as my domain expertise in the field of gardening is very limited.

The garden shall ensure all plants are within X inches of a walking point.
Your value for “X” will vary depending on your own arm reach or if you want it to be accessible for children. A typical value (per Square Foot Gardening) is 24 inches.

The garden shall have walking paths greater than X inches in width.
A good rule of thumb would be about twice the width of your foot at a minimum.

The garden shall be mulched to a depth of X inches. Mulching specifications are found in the document “Mulching Guidelines” [TBD later].
I’ll work on putting together an actual mulching guidelines based on my readings and your comments.

The garden shall reuse all organic waste, excepting diseased plants or soil.
This can be accomplished using a compost pile, turning dead plants back into the soil, or simply using the plants as mulch directly.

The garden shall use only organic pesticides and fertilizers as defined in the document “Specifications for Organic Gardening” [TBD later].
Hard-wiring this idea into your requirements should help keep your hand firm every time you have an urge to reach for a bottle of commercial bug spray. (I’ll try to find a ready-made document to fill this niche – I’m sure some exist.)

The garden shall have no less than X different plant species.
The garden shall have at least 2 varieties.
These requirements help ensure biodiversity in the garden.

The garden shall be enclosed with a barrier per the document “Garden Barrier Specification” [TBD later].
This requirement is for guarding against critters. If something like a fence is impractical (e.g. a large lot), you can rewrite it so that you can use natural barrier strategies such as putting peppers on the garden perimeter. If you don’t have or anticipate such a problem with hungry animals you could probably exclude this requirement.

Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Engineering beauty

On the last post, DJEB commented that his aesthetic garden designs may not fit very well with the concept of modularity. I agree that engineering does have the tendency to suck the beauty out of designs or appears at odds with permaculture principles, but this is only when applied in isolation.

In my view, modular gardening techniques such as square foot gardening do not necessarily imply rigid lines and boxes. The key principles behind such methods are to break up the garden into manageable chunks and to identify clear paths for foot traffic.

I see no reason why something like a spiral-shaped (or von Karman trail-shaped) garden wouldn’t meet the requirements for modular gardening. In some ways, such a shape is a better design choice: a spiral shape provides clearly identifiable walking areas and puts plants within easy reach from multiple points.

One of my own gardens is pie-shaped, and it easily meets the goals of modular design. With one board down the center (for walking) and walking paths on the edges, the garden is aesthetically pleasing and functional. So please, don’t let the seemingly rigid nature of engineering ruin your ideas for beautiful designs.

Tuesday, November 21, 2006

Subsystem design: Garden requirements

Gardening is an inexact science, which can make for difficulty when trying to apply Systems Engineering. I’m very much a beginner in the realm of gardening, but I’ve gathered a short list of items from various readings that we can develop into requirements. For more in-depth help on permaculture and gardening try DJEB’s, Aaron’s, or Emme’s blogs, or check out Farmgirl Fare.

We may be getting ahead of ourselves here in the design process, but I want to work on some ideas for developing requirements on our gardens. To keep matters simple, we’ll make this a design problem separate and distinct from the Peak Oil Homestead Example Problem.

For now, I’d like to throw out some general concepts I’ve learned about sustainable gardening that we can turn into requirements in a later post.

1) Keep it modular – Square Foot Gardening by Mel Bartholomew emphasizes growing plants in an easy-to-manage area grid (as opposed to rows), which really appeals to my engineer’s mind. This way you can work on your garden one square at a time and avoid overwhelming both yourself and your plants.

2) Diversity – A variety of plants is important from a nutritional standpoint and as a method to thwart pests. Diversity becomes even more important when we consider the reports of dwindling pollinator species and climate change affecting growing seasons. A genetically diverse collection of plants could help protect against this and other random devastating factors (e.g. the Potato Famine…)

3) Mulch – A thick layer of mulch (some recommend at least 12”) is essential for a healthy, low-maintenance garden. It keeps the soil moist and soft, and prevents weeds from growing. The No-Work Garden Book by Ruth Stout is a great reference on gardening with mulch.

4) Composting – A constant source of decomposed organic matter enriches your garden and reduces (or eliminates) the need for fertilizer.

5) Raised beds – Raised beds protect against some hungry critters and improve soil drainage.

I’m sure the permaculturists here can offer many more key pointers :) I’ll take a look at how to transform these types of ideas into requirements over the Thanksgiving week. Happy Turkey (or Tofu) Day to all!

Friday, November 17, 2006

Peak Oil Money

An article at LiveScience today discussed the results of a study showing that even thinking about money can lead to a reduction in selfless behaviors, even when the selfless activity has nothing to do with competition for wealth. It's unfortunate that we're wired this way, but it's something to consider when trying to build community. How can we encourage our neighbors to emphasize cooperation over competition?

The response from some will be "well, just do away with money altogether!", but I would contend that any measure of wealth would elicit the same primal instincts (this is a totally unproven hypothesis, but it seems likely to me). Wealth can be measured in land, trees, gold, energy, goats, or barbie dolls, it all depends on the culture of the social group. Even a small community of sustainble-minded Peak Oilers would not be immune. So given the idea that we can't live without some drive for the acquisition of wealth, how can we manage it to become a positive factor for sustainability and the community at-large?

My personal ideas for solutions to this innate human quality is to instill a sense of community with frequent social gatherings and encouraging daily personal visits to the homes of other community members. Such actions seem so simple, but I think go a long way in distracting from self-enriching behaviors to community-enriching behaviors. I know there are even better ideas out there than this; anyone care to share?

Thursday, November 16, 2006

Florida gardening

The growing season in Florida is just barely underway. I’m brand new to gardening (I haven’t gardened since I was a kid), so I started small with a couple raised beds. One is shown in the pictures below.

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

Photobucket - Video and Image Hosting

We have a sampling of tomatoes, cucumbers, kale, carrots, scallions, pepeprs, spinach, lettuce, and radishes on the left, and strawberries on the right. A good windstorm the other night knocked a dead branch full of precious deciduous leaves from my elderly neighbor’s tree, which I procured in spite of her confused stare at the request. It was a lucky find of free mulch for the strawberries in a place where leaves rarely fall.

Monday, November 13, 2006

If you build it…

You are a genius. You just designed a 3000 square foot house completely powered by a 100-foot tall windmill and a massive rainwater cistern driving a paddlewheel. The three-story house boasts an intensive green roof, two wood-burning stoves, strawbale insulation, 2x12 framing timbers, and a greenhouse for your banana crop. Cool. Now build it.

If time and money are at your easy disposal, building your design may pose no problems. Of course, non-standard construction such as wide-board framing or green roofs will challenge most contractors, taking longer and costing more than conventional techniques. Plan on building it yourself instead? Anticipate things taking MUCH longer, especially if you have little experience or help. Building after Peak Oil effects have hit? Game over.

These concerns illustrate the reasoning behind including producibility requirements in Systems Engineering. It doesn’t matter how avant garde or functional a design is if it can’t be built with the available resources.

Consider your finances as you’re designing. Can you really afford a 30% efficiency 5 kW solar array with a tracking motor? Can you afford to use solar arrays at all? If not, what are the alternatives you can use to still meet your requirements?

In the context of our discussions, time is perhaps the most critical factor. According to some Peak Oil experts, oil production (and available energy) may already be declining. Can you risk taking five years to build your sustainable dream house? Can you risk even one? Maybe you should rethink your plans to ensure that you have a smaller-scale option available before you start on designing for more comfort.

There is also the matter of physically building your house. One or two non-experts can probably manage well enough to build an 800 square foot one-story house in short order, providing they have adequate tools and ingenuity. But suppose you plan on having a basement in rocky soil – your back will be in severe pain if you don’t have either a backhoe or 50 friends. Can you hand-mix enough concrete for it? Dubious. How about constructing your cistern? Think about what heavy equipment will be available or affordable over the course of your building schedule.

Producibility is just one more idea to keep in the back of your mind as you are designing, along with maintainability and reliability. Spending the time considering such things now could save you from heartache and failure in the future.

Friday, November 10, 2006

Waste of a good woodburning stove

Apologies for the drop in activity -- I've been out-of-town and my internet connections did not pan out.

The other day we were looking at a house up north with a woodburning stove in the basement. Since the lot was heavily wooded, a woodburning stove was a great addition to aid in the warming of the house and transistion past Peak Oil. Unfortunately, the design of it was less than brilliant -- the stove pipe was routed from the basement to the roof outside of the house. It was such a bizarre thing to do, I could hardly imagine why they had done so. Besides the obvious loss of heat for warming the inside of the house, putting the stovepipe outside drastically increases the rate of creosote buildup. This raises the risk for chimney fires and constricts the air flow within the pipe.

The benefits of the wood stove could be recaptured by enclosing the pipe with brick and busting out the old exterior section, or by simply re-routing the pipe through the interior of the house. Both options are easy enough in concept, but a pain to implement on an already completed house and stove. This is just another prime example of why it's so important to lay out your entire system before you build it in order to save loads of work later on.

Monday, November 06, 2006

Bug Boom

LiveScience had an article discussing the implications of an insect population boom in response to global warming. One sentence that stuck out at me was: “If they’re crop species, we could count on needing to use more pesticides and it could be very costly...” What are the implications for the organic gardener without access to (or desire for) pesticides? Over the coming years, it might not be a bad idea to study up on what type of pests munch on your crops in warmer latitutes, so you have an idea of how to fight them should they appear in your area. And, as always, ensure you plan out multitudes of crop diversity for your garden.

Friday, November 03, 2006

Child Safety Requirements

There are important differences between requirements and specifications. Requirements give specific information about the project (or sub-project) at hand whereas specification give general guidelines to follow. I’ll try to illustrate the distinctions using one of the underdeveloped topics in the Peak Oil Homestead Example Problem: making the Homestead safe for children.

Notice that all ambiguous terms in a requirement must be defined explicitly or by referencing a specification. Also note that not all values are defined in these requirements and specs; there are placeholders that we will fill in with later research.

The Homestead shall have railings (per Spec XYZ) on all exposed stairways.

The Homestead shall provide safety protection for all sharp corners per Spec ABC.

The Homestead shall provide safety barriers (per Spec AAA) around all hazardous areas and devices.

The electrical system shall provide protection for electrical outlets per Spec AAA.

Spec XYZ:
Railings must be X feet high above the stairway. Railings with slats must have a slat spacing of less than Y inches.

Spec ABC:
Corners can be deemed “rounded” or “sharp” by inspection. If pressing your palm on the corner leaves an indent, it requires protection. Protection can consist of foam, sponge, or cloth securely attached to the fixture.

Spec AAA:
A safety barrier near any hot object such as a wood stove or water heater should be at least X feet away and composed of non-flammable materials.
Electrical outlets may be capped with plastic inserts or an external cover.

These specifications are not complete, but hopefully demonstrate what specs should contain.

Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Sustainable Power Resources

For the vast majority of us working to transition to a comfortable post-Peak Oil life, our resources are seriously limited. We’re short of available time, money, land, and skills, and our windows of opportunity for acquiring all of these are rapidly shrinking. So, the more help we can get to build our future efficiently and cheaply, the better.

OtherPower has great information and products for building your own power, water, and heating systems from scratch. Done correctly, you can save quite a bit of money by building up your own systems.

Greener Shelter discusses a number of sustainable house design strategies. While they don’t have detailed plans, it might get you thinking in new directions for further research.

Sketchup is a free Google tool you can use to quickly visualize your design plans. It can really help bring your dream home to life.

I’ve only just started exploring Hammer Zone, but it has a lot of information on general home repair projects, much of which is still useful for sustainable design projects.