Saturday, March 22, 2008

Home Design in Cold Climates

Home Design in Cold Climates
by Douglas Barnes

I am currently in the process of designing a home for myself and my wife. Living in Canada, the number one priority is warmth. To solve that problem, we must focus on energy capture and energy storage.

To capture energy, the house will be oriented with the long side facing the sun. This side will be fenestrated to allow the entry of solar energy from the sun (which, strikes the Earth with over 950 Watts per hour per square metre before any loses come into play). The energy needs to be stored once it has entered the home or the house will heat up nicely in the daytime but become quite cold in the evening. In this case, the main storage will be a monolithic concrete slab floor.[1] In addition to this storage, there will be a masonry fireplace, whose massive brick structure will hold energy, and earthen or lime rendering of the walls will also help.

Windows are good. Too many windows are bad. So, fenestration will be reasonable. We will match percentage of window area with our latitude. We’ll be building in Southern Ontario at about 45o north latitude, so we’ll have around 45% window area on the southern wall.[2] Too many passive solar homes in Ontario have nervously designed what amount to glass walls on the south side thinking that if a little is good, a lot is better. The result is over-heated homes. While there are some who might not mind 30oC temperatures inside in January, they certainly don’t like the over-heating that will occur at other times of the year.

The Canadian Housing and Mortgage Corporation recommends making thermal mass (the dense material that serves as heat storage – concrete, brick, and mud in this case) be around ten times greater in area than the area of sun-side fenestration.

General layout of the rooms recognizes at what times the rooms are used during the day. The first place people go in the morning is the kitchen. It therefore makes sense to place the kitchen on the southeast side of the building (northeast if you are in the southern hemisphere). In this way, light and solar heat is available first thing in the morning. From there, other rooms follow the sun according to the usage of the room. The exception is the dining room which is placed next to the kitchen for practical reasons.

With this information, it is possible to design a building that performs brilliantly from an energy perspective. However, there is no guarantee that the house will be even remotely livable inside.[3] To make the home a place that I actually want to live in and keep for the rest of my life, I am using Christopher Alexander’s A Pattern Language to design the home.

Another advantage to the passive solar layout is that it creates a nice pattern in the home. A long, thin home has a series of rooms one after another. This helps create privacy in the home and avoids giving the house an overcrowded feeling.

In too many modern homes these days, visitors immediately have full view of the private areas of the home as soon as they enter, and sometimes as they approach the main entrance. There needs to be a gradient of intimacy from public to private areas of the house.

The interior space must have a natural flow that takes into account the uses of the space inside. Hallways and corridors have been avoided as much as possible. Rather, movement flows through rooms making some areas very social and inviting to people moving through the building.

The common area of the home is at the heart of the building that intersects with all the major traffic flows throughout the home.

There is a sequence of seating spaces in the home that offer different levels of intimacy. The living room has a main seating area that is very social. It’s on the main path through the home, in a sunny place, and centrally located. Just off this main space are two other seating options ranging from semi-private to private. There is also a sunny nook off the kitchen. An additional seating space will be available on the second floor (which is currently being revised).

While this does not include every pattern I used in the design, it highlights the main ones that had the most influence in guiding the layout of the interior spaces.

1. The optimal thickness for thermal mass storage is 4 inches thick. Any thicker and diminishing returns start. If it is too thin, it will heat up and cool down too readily rendering the mass less effective. (For example, tile on subflooring heats up and cools down so fast as to have no appreciable effect in storing energy.)

2. This is Bill Mollison’s rule of thumb, and I have checked it out with a local architect and friend, Steve Hilditch (, who has designed passive solar homes. Steve agrees that Mollison’s ratio is appropriate for this area.

3. I have a number of friends that have built many homes for themselves in the same area. After each one is build, they find that the house was not what they really wanted, so they sell and build a new place, hoping that it will be the right one. The error is that the layout of the home was not approached with a recognition of what problems one faces in designing a space. For example, when designing the entrance, it needs to be readily apparent what the entrance is; there needs to be a transition from the inside to the outside; and there needs to be some sort of an entrance room that creates a public space for visitors that is separate from the private areas of the home. This is just one example of many problems in design that must be addressed in the layout of the house.

For more design information, please see Designing a Livable Passive Solar Home

Sunday, March 16, 2008

Permaculture Books

Permaculture Books

I get asked frequently enough to recommend books that it warrants a look at some of my most favourite books. Originally, I had thought to just go through my entire library and write a brief synopsis of each book. The list, however, would likely be longer than any reader would care to parse through and certainly longer than I would care to write. Instead, I will just go through the top ten books that I use the most.

Without further ado:Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison. Simply put, this book is a must if you are a designer. And it is sort of like a martial artist’s black belt: the experienced designer’s book starts getting frayed over the years. Even weighing in at a hefty 1,520 grams, it always goes out with me whenever I am designing a site.

The book introduces the permaculture concept, covers how to go about designing and methods of design, patterns in nature, climate, trees and their impacts on environments, water in systems, soil and soil health, earthworks, designing in the humid tropics, designing in drylands, designing in cool and cold temperate regions, aquaculture, and strategies for designing on a society-wide scale.

Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison with Reny Mia Slay. Introduction to Permaculture is basically a condensed version of the Designer’s Manual. Most of the topics of the Manual are in Introduction, though with a few variations on some of the techniques illustrated.

Edible Forest Gardens Volume 2: Ecological Design and practice for Temperate Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. It is not a mistake putting Volume 2 first. The appendices of this book have excellent quick-reference information on plants that is invaluable. Most permaculturists have these tables of plants floating around in notebooks or on hard drives; but this book puts a huge collection of temperate plants together in one format. It is an expensive book, but the 149 pages of appendices alone make it worth every penny. The rest of the book has practical information on designing and establishing forest gardens.

Edible Forest Gardens Volume One: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture by Dave Jacke with Eric Toensmeier. A handy but hefty text on forest gardening for people who are intimate with sub-zero winters. Volume One introduces the theory behind the integrated approach to edible forest gardens and has a handy “Top 100” plant list in the appendix.

Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World By Paul Stamets. I agree with the author that this is his most important book. In writing this book, he was terrified that he would have a heart attack or a car accident and never get it finished. Thankfully he did. Reader’s will want to look elsewhere for a basic understanding of mushrooms, but with a brief introductory background, this book will change the way you look at the world. There is no clearer illustration of the importance of the interconnection of organisms in ecosystems than this book. After reading it, it might even have you wincing with each step the next time you walk through a forest. But the book is not only theory. It has tested and proven techniques for rehabilitating devastated landscapes and strengthening currently existing systems. It also opens up a huge new avenue in energy cycling. Our standard waste-to-compost cycles can be expanded into waste-to-mushroom-production (and secondary and tertiary mushroom production) to compost to soil. Or better still, waste to mushroom production to animal feed production, the waste from which can then go to mushroom production or compost or biogas to compost. The combinations are exciting to say the least.

Cornucopia II: A Source Book of Edible Plants by Stephen Facciola. I call it the phone book of plants. It is the closest thing to an exhaustive list of the world’s edible plants. I have used it to suggest plants for overseas systems and used it to cross-reference many plants in many different situations. Here’s an example of a random listing:

Eleusine coracanaRagi, Finger millet {S}. Grains are boiled and eaten as a cereal or porridge, popped, malted, ground into flour for use in cakes, breads, and puddings, or made into a beer-like alcoholic beverage called marwa. Other fermented foods made from the grain include ambali, kaffir beer, busaa, merissa, chang, and munkoyo. In India, the flour is boiled in diluted buttermilk and kept overnight for use the next morning. Ragi malt is mixed with milk to form a refreshing beverage. The leaves are also edible. Tropical Asia, cultivated.

A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction by Christopher Alexander, Sara Ishikawa, Murray Silverstein with Max Jacobson, Ingrid Fiksdahl-King, Shlomo Angel. The book just hints at the subject of passive solar design, so it cannot help much on that front. But when it comes to designing a livable home or a complex of buildings put together in a functional pattern, the book is invaluable. After reading this book, I can understand why so many people buy a home then want to move out after just a few years. Most buildings do not recognise the aspects of design that makes them places where people want to spend their time. If you are designing a home, keep the general design in tune with your climate, but use this book to show you how to make it a functional home.

Growing Gourmet and Medicinal Mushrooms By Paul Stamets. This thick text covers growing dozens of mushrooms on different substrates indoors and out, and it even has recipes. If you get hooked after reading Mycelium Running, you are going to want to get this book. At 575 pages, it packs in a lot of really useful information.

The Organic Gardener’s Handbook of Natural Insect and Disease Control: A Complete Problem-Solving Guide to Keeping Your Garden and Yard Healthy without Chemicals, edited by Barbara W. Ellis and Fern Bradley. This Rodale book does not cover every single method of pest control you will need, but it is a handy reference for identifying friends and foes and suggests methods to balance your system and reduce foes.

The Permaculture Book of Ferment and Human Nutrition by Bill Mollison. This unique book covers preserving, storing and cooking, fungi, grains, legumes, roots and bulbs, fruits, nuts, flowers and oil, edible plant stems and leaves, aquatic food sources both fresh and salt water, meats, dairy, fermented beverages (hooray!), spices and sauces, composts, silages and liquid manures, and an excellent section on nutrition and environmental health. Sometimes cross-referencing brings me to this book. But most of the time, I just open it up because it is fascinating.

There are many, many other useful books I did not include in this list, but they often are very specific like seed saving, growing organic apples, constructed wetlands, etc. They are incredible books, but to keep a general list that would be useful to the largest group, I whittled down about 100 books to just these 10. It is not necessary for someone to have all ten books on their shelves and not all these books are suitable for all climates. These are the ones that I have used the most so far and are broad enough to interest a wide audience of readers.

Monday, March 03, 2008

Paradigm Shifts and Permaculture

Paradigm Shifts and Permaculture

by Douglas Barnes

Not long after I started this website, I came to the shocking discovery that there are those who express an almost violent hatred of permaculture. At the time, I could not understand why anyone would object to a system that simply seeks to provide us with the tools to make our lives sustainable. What could possibly set someone off against a system that treats long-term sustainability as a serious endeavor and works to develop simple, affordable systems that lead us in that direction, I wondered. I had thought that even if one is set on continuing their life within the model of the status quo, surely they would be happy that we permaculturists are there in the background working out solutions to current and future problems.

I was wrong. There is something in permaculture so inherently threatening to some that I occasionally receive very irrational attacks, extending on one occasion to what basically amounted to a death threat. What could it be that causes some people to react so irrationally?

One clue is the origin of the attacks. They are always coming from individuals in wealthy nations. The comments I have received from people living in economically poorer nations have always been ones of appreciation and support. For one group, the need for inexpensive, sustainable solutions that really work is readily apparent. For the other group, people can currently afford to ignore reality, and the suggestion that change is needed is threatening.

An example of the first group expressing appreciation is my relationship with the Green Tree Foundation in Andhra Pradesh, India. Though formerly a tropical region, Andhra Pradesh is now a semi-arid zone receiving as little as 500 mm of rainfall after very long and hard dry seasons. Rainfall is the source of water; and there are tense times waiting for the rains. (Last year they even tried cloud seeding to get rainfall, and when the rain finally fell, I felt relief from 10,000 km away.) The need for sustainable solutions is not a matter of debate there; the solutions are literally needed if they are to survive the short term. Food is produced locally, and drinking water is sourced locally as well.

That can be contrasted with a First World equivalent. Consider an average ¼ acre lot in Tucson, Arizona, which receives 253,621 litres of water a year via rainfall, but the average 3-person family there consumes 454,248 litres (almost twice that nature provides them with). Additionally, the 253,621 litres it receives in rainfall is largely shunted away quickly by storm drains.1 Water supplies come from expensive outside sources. Food is trucked in from other parts of the U.S. and from other nations. Only monetary wealth makes such waste possible.

For the Third World, there are few illusions regarding their future. They know they are in trouble and the trouble will only increase without serious changes being made regarding the capture and storage of energy and resources. The Third World not only comes from poverty, they remain in poverty. The First World, however, has come out of poverty into a spurt of opulence. Once one acquires a taste of opulence, though, it is like a drug – hard to let go. And any suggestion that living high is no longer possible is met with lashing out similar to the confronted junkie.

Rereading the ideas of science historian Thomas Kuhn recently, I came to realise that what I was seeing in the attacks was a clash of paradigms.2 The old paradigm of progress driven by monetary wealth has a science fiction version of the future with fantastic technologies addressing every issue of material need and opening us up to a world of constant leisure time where human beings are freed from labour, able to pursue whatever endeavor their hearts desire. (Ironically, the monetary paradigm is giving us less and less free time to go along with the ever increasing amounts of technology it gives us.)3

This paradigm is so enticing that real answers to serious questions are glossed over. The appeal to technology as savior is the “sweeping under the rug,” in the late physicist Richard Feynman’s words4, of pressing problems humanity now faces. The appeal of seeking technology as an answer is understandable. As historian Ronald Wright pointed out in the 2004 Massey Lectures:

Our technological culture measures human progress by technology: the club is better than the fist, the arrow better than the club, the bullet better than the arrow. We came to this belief for empirical reasons.

Wright also points out, however, that “[o]ur practical faith in progress has ramified and hardened into an ideology – a secular religion which… is blind to certain flaws in its credentials.”5

Technology, it is said, is neutral – it is neither harmful nor beneficial. Only its uses determine helpful or harmful outcomes. I think it is rather the case that technology normally creates new problems that require ever more technology to solve the problems that technology creates.6 For instance, the creation of the modern steam engine led to the increased mining of coal, increasing the volume of machinery making coal inadequate to meet energy needs, necessitating the internal combustion engine, creating a car culture, necessitating highway systems, leading to the increased use of oil, leading to the current problems of peak oil and climate change, both very pressing problems we now face. The worst possible outcome I can imagine for the problem of peak oil is a technological fix providing the replacement of oil with some form of abundant, cheap energy. Energy on the scale we use today is only needed to continue us on our current path of ever more growth. At current world growth rates, we would see a doubling in economic output in a little more than 20 years time. However, each doubling of the world economy requires an equivalent to all the resource inputs for all of human history prior to the last doubling.7 In other words, to double the economy from where it is today, we will need to use up as many resources as we ever did in the past. Clearly, this would be disaster. Under the current paradigm, a technological fix to the problem of peak oil would lead to ecological collapse.

None of this is controversial, but if you are committed to the current paradigm, any reminders of such facts are threatening. If your way of life ends, so too do the dreams of the bright, shiny technological future. By seeking workable solutions only by currently existing technology and only by technologies that have either a chance of being sustainable or putting us on a sustainable path, permaculturists are indirectly shining light on the threats to the current paradigm. Permaculture then becomes an unwanted reminder that the days of the current paradigm are numbered. If one is emotionally invested in that paradigm, one may lash out against it.

Choosing to practice permaculture, on the other hand, means shifting paradigms. As Kuhn points out, one can only fully understand the perspectives of a given paradigm if one is in that paradigm itself. Permaculture causes a shift in perception of the world.

Traveling through a new subdivision, for instance, I do not see nice new modern homes that I would like to live in. Rather I see homes built without consideration for the energy needed to heat or cool them – homes that need tremendous energy inputs to make them livable. Looking inside, I see internal room layouts that do not facilitate either work or movement within the home, and little or no understanding of what patterns in architecture actually make people feel comfortable within a home.8 I see urban development without any consideration of community or energy. I see land dedicated only to conspicuous displays of opulence rather than the production of healthy food.

Walking into the forest, I don’t see trees and dirt. Rather I see complex, symbiotic networks of fungi, microbes, plant and animal. I see parasitic organisms not destroying, but carrying out vital roles in keeping the overall system healthy and even increasing diversity .9 I don’t see “problem” organisms, I see organisms whose importance I do not yet recognise. Looking at a field, I see potentials for the capture and storage of water and the possibilities for a vibrant and dynamic diversity of organisms that can be placed to create an ecosystemic system to meet not only the needs of the individual organisms, but also the people living on the site.

Under the old paradigm, an infestation of corn borers means you need to spray pesticides, or spend millions of dollars to genetically engineer a variety of corn to produce a toxin (then still need to spray anyway). Under the new paradigm, you first of all see an over-abundant food source for parasitoids. Secondly, you see evidence of some sort of imbalance: soil infertility perhaps, lack of predator habitat, over concentration of borer food, etc. The costs of the old paradigm are ecological destruction and risks to human health both known and unknown. Additionally, there is a rather substantial monetary cost in the form of chemical and genetic research (funded in large part by tax payers), externalized health costs and clean up costs, and costs to the farmer for seed and chemicals. The costs of the new paradigm are investments in learning the functional ecology of your system and an acceptance of temporary losses while balancing the system.

What are you talking about?

Coming from a completely different paradigm, communication with those in the old paradigm becomes difficult, as Kuhn points out. Were Claudius Ptolemy to jump through time to today and teach a first-year physics class, he would tell his students,

The Earth does not rotate; otherwise objects will fling off its surface like mud from a spinning wheel. It remains at the centre of things because this is its natural place – it has no tendency to go either one way or the other. Around it and in successively larger spheres revolve the moon, Mercury, Venus, the sun, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn, all of them deriving their motion from the immense and outermost spheres of fixed stars.10

The students would either think it was a joke, or an argument would ensue with each side wondering why the other could not understand what was clearly the nature of the universe as evidenced by observation.

In my own experience, pointing out the potential dangers in biotechnology as an approach to pest problems11, for example, I am always met with stunned silence when I ask why there is a pest problem in the first place. One rarely encounters devastating pest outbreaks in natural systems, and there is a reason for that.12 That reason, however, is only visible from within the new paradigm. The new paradigm lets us see that the problem is not one of pests attacking corn or cotton or brinjal, or weeds choking out soybeans. The problem is approaching a piece of land as a factory. The “pests” are only doing what organisms do: finding a niche and filling it. Create a niche conductive to early-stage pioneers (what people commonly call “weeds”) and you will see a lot of those pioneers. Create vast monoculture smorgasbords of pest food with little or no reserves for pest predators (or kill the predators by spraying insecticide on them) and you should know what to expect.

Point this out to people dedicated to the old paradigm and at best they will just ignore you. More likely they will dismiss your approach a priori as impossible or unworkable. Or worse, they will lash out at you.

To give another example, this one less extreme but still important, a colleague of mine recently did a large design and implementation job for a farm in Australia in which I participated by providing graphics for swale designs. Not only is Australia dry, they have not been receiving normal amounts of rainfall over the past few years, so the swales where really the cornerstone of the design. Without the capture and storage of water, there is no guarantee that the trees planted on site will survive and the site would definitely not do as well without them. Unfortunately, the client did not operate from the same paradigm as my colleague and decided that the swales were unnecessary and would not put them in. As a result, our expectations for the site are not high. If nothing else, this can serve as a practical warning to designers of cross-paradigm communication. Clients need to understand fully what you are doing and why.

Shifting gears

For the permaculturist him or herself, the paradigm shift has its own challenges. The greatest obstacle to overcome is fear. Permaculturists in the First World must step out of the material culture that they grew up with. This is a huge challenge, even if they identify that paradigm as the source of many of the hardships they face in their lives. Questions arise as to whether or not they should just keep doing what they've always done: Can you really heat and cool a home passively? What happens if I attempt to grow my own food and the entire crop fails? Do I know enough about animal husbandry? Gardening? Building? Will I be adopting a way of life that leaves me alone and isolated? Will I miss the old life I had? How will I get land? Where should I get land? Can I use the site I’m on now? How can I pay for the initial expenses of setting up my system? Will this stuff really work? Really?

Studying permaculture is a bit like going to a swimming pool: you are there because you want to jump in. The pattern most follow is dipping their feet in the permaculture pool as it were. You know that after jumping in, you will quickly adjust and enjoy it. It’s just that initial jolt you fear. People generally step in and step out, staying in longer each time until finally they just jump right in.

Once in, you don’t want to come out again. Personally, I am on the verge of selling off vacation property to purchase acreage on which to build a home of my own design and set up systems on a scale that I have only had the opportunity to do on others’ land. The choice between that and returning to my old life in the suburbs of Tokyo is clear. I will be happy to give a requiem for the nightlife, the hustle, the gleaming technology, the grocery bills, the water bills, the path that I know is not sustainable. It had its moments, but the perspective gained from the new paradigm makes living the old life impossible for me. As the physicist cannot go back to the Ptolemaic model of the universe revolving around the Earth, the permaculturist cannot look at the status quo conceptual framework of industrial society as even remotely sensible. Change becomes a necessity, even if that threatens some.

1. Lancaster, Brad. Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands. Volume 1: Guiding Principles to Welcome Rain into Your Life and Landscape. Tucson: Rainsource Press, 2006, p. 18 .

2. Bird, Alexander. "Thomas Samuel Kuhn" Dictionary of Literary Biography (2003), draft version available at; Okasha, Samir. Philosophy of Science: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002; Strohman, Richard. Epigenesis and Complexity: The Coming Kuhnian Revolution in Biology. Nature Biotechnology, March, 1997, pp. 194-200.

3.3 The San of the Kalahari work about 750 hours a year living in one of the harshest environments on Earth. By contrast, most North Americans work close to 3000 hours a year, more if you count housework. The best I have personally heard a permaculture system to achieve is around 620 hours a year. The is on a par with hunter-gatherer societies, which, counter-intuitively, require much less work to sustain themselves than “civilized” societies.

4. Strohman (1997).

5. Wright, Ronald. A Short History of Progress. Toronto: House of Asansi Press, 2004, p. 4.

6. This is not to say that some otherwise destructive technologies – the bulldozer for instance – cannot be put to very productive uses such as the creation of water catchment earthworks. However, I think a lot of the “green” technology is going to turn out to be subject to the Jevons Paradox, allowing increased and accelerated resource depletion because of increased efficiency.

7. Smith, Rod. Lecture to the Royal Academy of Engineering, Carpe Diem: The Dangers of Risk Aversion. Civil Engineering Surveyor, October 2007 cited in Monbiot, George. What is Progress? December 4, 2007 available at

8. For a guide to good design, see Alexander, Christopher et al. A Pattern Language. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.

9. For example, Armillaria mushrooms (honey mushrooms) kill off trees, but in doing so, they can create open pasture in forest. This creates new habitat for a variety of species that otherwise would not exist. It also sets up a rich edge ecology on the forest/pasture border. See Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Help Save the World. Berkley: Ten Speed Press, 2005.

10. Verma, Surendra. The Little Book of Scientific Principles, Theories & Things. Sydney: New Holland Publishers, 2005, p. 16.

11. Problems include but are not limited to unknown and unpredictable effects from gene order disruption, gene scrambling in or around the insertion points of transgenes, genome-wide disruptions, deletions of genes, currently marketed GMOs with anti-biotic marker genes, possible undesirable gene activation due to promoter genes, recombination hotspots within the CaMV 35S promoter gene, unpredicted allergenicity or toxicity, unintended environmental consequences from toxin expression in insecticidal GMOs, problems from increased use with herbicide-tolerant GMOs, etc.

12. Pest plagues in nature are almost always temporary whereas in conventional agriculture, they are systematic.