What works: 98.6 degrees

March 31, 2010

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Along with securing potable water and edible food, any strategy for thriving during the post-carbon era will include maintaining body temperature at about 98.6 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s 37 C). There are several ways to accomplish this goal, even if you spend most of your time traveling. In this essay, I will describe the structures and processes we use to maintain body temperature at a comfortable level. I will ignore clothing because it’s such an obvious means of dealing with the elements.

As I’ve mentioned many times before, I invested a lot of time into finding our post-carbon landing pad. I tend to side with realtors on this one: location, location, location. For somebody my age, this place is not my first choice in the world (Belize) or the United States (Hawaii) or even the continental United States (extreme north-coastal California). But it meets the criterion of being within a tank of gas from the doomed Tucson sloburbs. And, within that large area, it falls at an elevation that experiences temperatures only rarely in the category of life-threateningly hot or life-threateningly cold. As indicated previously, we’re at 4,600 ft (1,300 m). Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we’ve inadvertently landed into an astonishing human community filled with self-reliant economic doomers. I’ll have more to write about that issue with my next post. For now, onto the issue of body temperature.

When I work outside, which is often, I like to have shade nearby. So I’ve built several of the easiest type of structure to build: awnings. In a classic case of obsessive-compulsive behavior, I’ve constructed nine awnings within the last year. One of my former students indicated I might be over-awninged at this point. But shade is nice to have, and awnings are easy and cheap, even for those of us who can barely distinguish between a screwdriver and a zucchini. My first awning was attached to the west end of the mobile home, and it dramatically cooled summer temperatures inside the mobile home.

I also designed and built a simple outdoor shower. Evaporative cooling can be used to bring down body temperature in a hurry, and our well-constructed water-delivery system provides water to every corner of the property.

We had the luxury of designing our house, and then had it built by an artist. No, really. He’s an artist, complete with MFA. Like most artists, he needs a job to pay the bills. I can assure you there is one less starving artist in the world, now that we’ve paid him. If you do not have the option of building your own house, now’s the time to invest in insulation, which is inexpensive relative to the cost of fossil fuels. Insulation becomes especially important when those fossil fuels are no longer available at any price.

The four adults who share the property drew up the original plan on a napkin at the dinner table. Then we transferred it to graph paper and gave it to the artist. He turned it into a straw-bale duplex, with the two, 750-square-foot living quarters divided by a 600-square-foot breezeway. My wife and I share one side, and our partners-in-property on the property and their six-year-old son share the other side. In addition to these private accommodations, the five of us share the 15-year-old mobile home, which is used primarily as guest quarters, storage for books and clothes, and for the winter kitchen while we still have electricity. And we share the 600-square-foot outdoor kitchen, the size of which doubled last year when I added an awning to the existing structure. But back to the straw-bale house, where we spend most of our indoor time.

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Outdoor kitchen

As with any house, orientation is key. The long axis runs east-west, to reduce energy needs. This places large windows facing south, and the two-foot eve ensures full sun striking the floor during the winter and no direct sun in the summer.

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South side of straw-bale house. Note large windows and overhanging eves

The large double-pane windows on the south wall allow the sun’s rays to soak into the acid-stained concrete floor, which serves as the thermal mass for passive-solar heating. The straw-bale walls, with their R-51 insulation, provide plenty of resistance against the elements. The south wall uses 2 x 6 construction with added rigid foam for R-37 insulation that matches the insulative capacity of the ceiling. We used recycled denim insulation to forgo the off-gassing associated with fiberglass.

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Kitchenette in straw-bale house. Acid-stained concrete floor serves as thermal mass

The first night we occupied the house showed us how well the house works. We did not heat with anything except passive solar and the outdoor temperature on a late-November night dropped to 18 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s damned cold). The temperature in the house, according to my digital thermometer, dropped from 64.8 F to 63.9 F. We can live with that.

We occasionally fire up the extremely efficient wood stoves in each side of the house, primarily for the primordial entertainment of watching a fire. While the flames are burning in the stove, Rome is burning outside. I get a warm feeling from both fires.

The house is cooled by opening windows at strategic times of day. We routinely experience 50 F diurnal temperature swings, so the house stays comfortable even during the brutish heat of 105 F (if you speak Celsius, that’s damned hot).

As a back-up to opening windows to cool the interior, we installed geothermal cooling by sinking four-inch-diameter PVC pipes several feet below ground. One end of each pipe terminates at a small fan in the ceiling of the living quarters. The other end terminates in a nearby mesquite bosque, with a screen over the end of the pipe. From house to bosque, the PVC runs about 100 feet (30 m). If I were to do it over again, I would stack several pipes atop one another to increase the volume of air being cooled by the Earth. Digging the trench is the difficult and expensive part, after all.

In retrospect, we have designed and built a decent set of structures. The house is well-designed and well-built, and the breezeway is a superb addition. And I’m about done building awnings, primarily because I’ve run out of structures to which another awning could be attached. Since awnings are my forte, running out of places to build them leaves me with a bittersweet feeling.

Tags: Building Community, Buildings, Coal, Education, Electricity, Fossil Fuels, Geothermal, Health, Natural Gas, Nuclear, Oil, Renewable Energy, Resource Depletion, Urban Design