Making Your Home More Liveable

Many of us have suffered in a hot house or a cold house and now, there are designs for passive houses. Nick Radford and April Sampson-Kelly explore the ways to make existing homes more liveable and sustainable.

True Cost of a New Liveable Home

The way that we build today, in this privileged society, uses a high level of manufacturing. It’s really quite hard to achieve what we would call genuinely sustainable. There’s a cost – environmentally and financially. It’s difficult to wear the cost of building at the moment. The building industry is no longer about shelter. It’s driven by capitalism.

When we’re starting with our housing stock that is not well designed, not well built for passive solar, what can we do about that?

Nick reminds us, this system we have is not the one we must have. In a lot of European countries renters have much more security. They have very long leases that are really hard to break as a landlord. And it is worth upgrading the performance of your rental because you know it’s going to pay for itself.

Goldilocks

What’s the goldilocks recipe for a liveable home? We can get a good picture of climate sensible building from many traditional cultures. In cold climates are usually squat and they’re often rounded to reduce the effects of wind and for the ease of construction. And they have minimal airflow and high insulation. Whereas homes in the tropics are often elevated to shade the area below. They are tall and narrow. They have high ventilation and high airflow. The steep roof also helps to shed water. They have low insulation and low thermal mass. On the other hand, homes in the deserts traditionally are squat they have high thermal mass, often have a flat roof. So, you can sleep on it at night. And they have small windows to reduce the sun’s heat rays.

Keys to the modern climate responsible, liveable home

A liveable home needs to be warm, not too hot, not too cold, dry, light, a good amount of light to work with clean air and secure. It’s nice to feel cool in summer and warm in winter. This can be achieved without fossil fuels. To be cool we need to shade the area, be insulated from the sun’s rays and have air movement. That can be created by the shape of the building or by devices like fans. And we can use something called a heat sink. That is a block of thermal mass to absorb some of the heat.

With passive solar, the occupants actively modify the building throughout the seasons. Whereas in the passivehaus standard, the house design and materials respond.

The bear has personal insulation (fur) as well as an insulated cave home

How do we create warmth?

How do we make a space warm and liveable? We can use energy from nature but actually our bodies create a lot of warmth. So, if you are cold right now the fastest way to get warm is to insulate your body. Put some more clothing on. Also. we can reduce the amount of air movement. Because, we know when air moves it cools down. And we can insulate the building so the warmth is not lost. The buildings need to stay water tight. By being watertight we have more control over the temperature.

Insulation, thermal bridges and thermal mass
Termites build homes with Thermal Mass, good ventilation and natural materials
Termites build homes with Thermal Mass, good ventilation and natural materials

There are many creatures in this world that use insulation – like the bear in a cave, and the fur on its skin and the sheep with its wool. But when we look at the elephant – it uses its ears to cool down. It fans those gigantic ears to cool its body. But if it was in the snow then it would benefit from insulation on those ears because they would be very cold. The ears are like thermal bridges they move the heat from the elephant’s body out into the air. So, if you have a doorway or a window that has wood a wooden lintel right through from the inside to the outside that is a thermal bridge. When we cover the thermal bridge we’re reducing the heat loss or the heat transfer from outside.

Thermal mass is usually a bulky material like mud boulders. Or even water tanks, a brick floor or a wall can act as a thermal mass. In many ways it’s the opposite to insulation because insulation is usually light and airy using the trapped air to block the transfer of heat. However, wood can act as a thermal mass. But it can also act as insulation. Some homes, especially underground homes and cave homes, don’t need much thermal mass because the cave or the soil around it is the thermal mass. And we see evidence of ancient underground housing as well as many modern underground houses use the constant temperature of the earth.

Use Natural Energy for Liveable Spaces

One of the most important aspects of building a design is its orientation – the way it greets the sun. Thousands of years ago, Socrates noticed that when the homes are facing the sun the light can penetrate into the home. And if there’s a portico on the front that stops the hot summer sun from coming into the home. But in winter the sun can still get through underneath the portico or the porch. These were gracious, liveable homes.

Socrates suggested that we elevate this sunny side and lowered the sunless side to block out winter winds. It allows the sun to come in in winter but not in summer because it has shade control on the sunny side and not many windows if any on the sunless side. But it also has thermal mass on the floor to absorb some of the energy during the day and release it at night in winter.

Frank Lloyd Wright used the same principles but it incorporated a berm on the back of the home. In front was a large section of glass and overhanging is the roof it comes out sufficiently so it blocks the sun in summer.

April in a cozy earthship without any heating

Earth ships are very similar. Here I am in an earth ship in Taos New Mexico, United States and it is in the middle of winter. You can see some snow on the ground there was no heating for this house. And you can see the sun is coming through onto a small dividing wall which is a thermal mass dividing the area between the kitchen and the living room. And you can also see (a little bit further to the right and a little bit screened for privacy, I imagine), is a large thermal mass in the bathroom.

Socrates work became the start of solar passive design thinking, yet thousands of years later, modern buildings depend upon fossil fuels.

PassiveHaus sits tight and regulates

The passive housing standard doesn’t rely on sunlight but you can have the same treatment on the sunny side. You can have your windows. But they tend to have triple or double glazing on all the windows. Because the whole Passivhaus standard requires that it is super insulated, the thermal bridges are covered. And so, there’s very little chance of any exchange of energy – warmth from the inside to the out or vice versa. The colder your climate the more that passive housing suits. It’s useful also in a warmer climate that’s subject to heat waves.

The passive house is about really super heavy insulation and the ability to shut the building completely off the outside world. And then really carefully regulate the airflow – the temperature movement across the wall. So, we’re probably going to need more and more houses that are resistant to heat waves. I like that it measures the actual built performance because in Australia we’ve got this big gap between the theoretical performance and the stars that are awarded to a design compared to the the actual built performance. And it is quite hard to measure whether the house really stands up to the standard. And passive houses is very clear on what the standards are and how you measure them.

More liveable

There are a couple more things that make homes feel liveable. Being secure includes being fire safe and there is a standard for this. We need to determine if the building honestly meets the standard. Or make plans to escape. And chemical safety is a factor especially if the homes are surrounded by pollution or have lead paint or a long history of chemical use. For pest control in the building construction phase we can choose to use physical barriers like a termite mesh instead of chemicals. But this is tricky to retrofit on established buildings.

Liveable Spaces For Climate Security

Homes are more liveable when they provide other functions such as harvesting water, generating electricity, supporting indoor production by having sufficient natural light. And some buildings have really good outdoor spaces where we can work they provide windbreak, frost protection, some reflected light, some shade and of course the runoff water.

To design for the variation of the seasons and for climate change use the angles of the sun to set up shade. Add thermal mass or phase change materials within the home. Add insulation, especially between the roof and the ceiling in that cavity. Block thermal bridges such as window and door frames. Adjust the air flow. An increase in ventilation will be cooling. Whereas, when we block off rooms – divide the rooms – it makes them snug and warm. In summary, liveable buildings are warm. They’re not too hot and they’re not too cold. They’re dry. They have good natural light. They are safe and secure. And I hope this has given you lots of ideas on how to improve your home.

Why did the Wallaby cross the road? – wisdom, action and support for young people

Another high profile international sportsman, Wallaby David Pocock, picked up the ball and starting running in the Australian federal election. What motivates young people into climate change action. And how can we support them?

Climate activist Greta Thunberg discussed EU plans to tackle the climate emergency regarding the Climate Law, a proposal seeking to commit the EU to carbon neutrality by 2050. Thunberg criticised the committee proposal as insufficient: “The EU must lead the way. You have the moral obligation to do so and you have a unique economical and political opportunity to become a real climate leader”. Greta went on to say “You, yourselves, declared that we are in a climate and environment emergency. You said this was an existential threat. Now you must prove that you mean it.”

It is vital to follow “ a science-based pathway”. “Anything else is surrender.” “This climate law is surrender. Because nature doesn’t bargain and you cannot make deals with physics.”

Introducing her, environment committee chair Pascal Canfin said the energy of young people transforms society. 

Climate activist Greta Thunberg by European Parliament – This file has been extracted from another file, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=88931682

Ready, Set, Action

Candidate David Pocock played rugby internationally and has 83 with awards. He told the Canberra times that running for the senate is “a huge challenge and it’s an exciting one,”. Although the Canberra region is the home of the federal parliament house it has an independent political nature.

David Pocock says "we need new voices in politics standing up for our community with long-term thinking and a visions for our future.
Wallaby hopeful David Pocock https://assets.nationbuilder.com/davidpocock/pages/112/attachments/original/1650602626/David_Pocock_Policy_One-Pager.pdf?1650602626

Despite modern town planning, Canberra suffered in recent heatwaves (43 degrees Celsius (110 Fahrenheit) on January 4, 2020). The residents felt and smelt the smoke and dust from the fires of 2019-2020. And their once popular local tourism industry, the snow fields has begun to slowly melt away. Canberra knows first-hand the impact of climate change.

Take Action

Be Supportive to be Active

The sad thing for young people is they can’t see the change and many older people won’t admit the losses. But given the right education and ability to research, they quickly learn the changes that demonstrate climate crisis. Young People need easy access to records about losses of biodiversity to make forecasts effective response.

Next, we must stop politicising and blocking action on climate crisis. Then, develop empathy, real support (secure housing and employment) and foster leadership.

Taro, monstera, yams, cumquat, sweet potato, watercress and more enrich this young person’s balcony

Climate action steps in each Permaculture Zone

At the heart of our action (Zone 0) we develop listening and empathy skills with non-violent communication. Then we step into actions for Zones 1-2 by documenting ideas and giving skills development. As well as giving real life assistance such as accommodation, sharing resources and financial support. When we share the workloads, offer business guidance, offer informal training for young people, we create employment readiness.

Next up, Zones 3 and 4 accommodate the sharing of resources. These include workspace, seeding capital, equipment, plants, and produce offers young people a chance to develop their own businesses. For example, Mark Sheppard of New Forest Farm offered start up resources such as apples for young people to make a cider business, herbs and flowers for another young person to start floristry and herbal remedies. Established generations have much to offer the next generation. And young people have creative ideas and energy to make it work.

Finally, Zone 5 supports remaining wildlife and models of sustainability.

Learn how to design a sustainable society and environment using Permaculture skills.

How To Make Soil – Faster

Good soils do vital work. They sequester carbon and nourish the plants. And therefore they nourish us. Here’s how to make soil faster.

There are five components of soil topsoil. Firstly the soil needs air. Secondly, it needs water. Water to get into it – not just to sit on it or run underneath. It needs nutrients. it needs organic matter or OM as some people call it. And it also needs organisms. The organisms allow the good soil to continue to grow – to continue to cycle and make the organic matter into nutrients. Poor soils can offer specialist niches so maybe there are some native plants or adapted food plants that prefer poor soils, particularly poor soils. So, before you set about creating the perfect soil, investigate the value of the existing unusual soils.

macadamia seedling
macadamia seedling

Ground-braking Threats

To make good soil we need to think about the threats or the barriers. Whatever effort we make we don’t want it to be undone. So, we need to consider erosion from flood, wind, and the damage caused by too much sun. T

he next step would be to identify your resources. Look at the vegetation that’s already there perhaps that’s valuable vegetation or perhaps you can take some of it to create better soils. Look for tools that you can repair or borrow. Or are there some tools that you can create? And then, use your waste the waste is a valuable resource. And find ways to build the organisms that are on the site.

The Guardians of Good Earth

Fungi and glomalin are critical to holding soil particles together reducing erosion and supporting the plants. So, if you have young plants. And they don’t have the beneficial fungi and glomalin from their parents, you might need to bring a little bit of that to the site.

Most people will notice the weeds on a site. Some people say a weed is simply a plant out of place. Because a permaculture system works to create a diverse collection of food plants, a weed would therefore be a plant that dominates the food forest and doesn’t support diversity.

And weeds can be indicators. For instance, flat weeds on the bare ground can indicate compaction whereas lush green weeds can indicate an abundance of nitrogen.

Weeds are generally willing workers. They’re pioneer species. They do three main things: They mine poor soils searching for minerals. And then they shelter the earth because nothing else will grow. They go in there first and they shelter the dirt from erosion. And thirdly they do create habitat for animals, especially insects.

a common weed - petty spurge, contains skin medicine worth $130 per script
a common weed – petty spurge, contains skin medicine worth $130 per script

The Good Weed

There are medicinal weeds for instance this common weed that I know is petty spurge. It contains a chemical that my family has been prescribed to reduce their skin cancers. Many weeds are the forefathers of ancient foods. The reason why we don’t eat them now is that humanity has modified many of these foods so that they’re easier to harvest, more palatable and they have less defensive chemicals in them. So, be careful some of them are highly toxic. But some of them are fine.

Sprouting seedpod of Illawarra Flame Tree
Sprouting seedpod of Illawarra Flame Tree

The 5 Components of Good Soil

To create soil we need to think about those five components. These are 1. air, 2. water, 3. nutrients, 4. organic matter, and 5. organisms. By creating those five components we will have good soil. So how do we aerate the ground to accelerate soil creation?

Giving air to your soil

Air needs air. Air lets the micro-organisms breathe and allow water to penetrate. There are loads of ways to add air to the soil. We could dig it – but don’t turn it. Because the minute you turn the soil (especially on thin soils or poor soils) what you’re doing is you’re killing the microorganisms. And their dead bodies become fertilizer. But we can’t afford to do that in thin soils like Australian soils.

Alternatively, we could rip the ground which is like slicing a cake. But not plow it. Because plows can turn it. You could use a keyline plow which just rips like a comb going through the hair. Another way to aerate the soil is to spike it like little stiletto marks all over the surface. But a quick and easy way to start the aeration process is to use earthworms. And you can build your earthworms with no-dig and mulching to hydrate the earth. That is, to put more water into it. We can use keyline irrigation, plan to contour the garden paths. Or use swales and wicking systems. Ultimately mulch reduces evaporation. This includes edible living mulches like sweet potato.

self replenishing living mulch
self replenishing living mulch

Nourish your soil

The easiest way to nourish the soil is to use compost. Compost will help acid soils become less acidic bring them to neutral and it will help acidic soils to become neutral. In some cases, you might want to apply rock dust or ash if the soil is particularly acidic. Adding organic matter creates the compost. And that creates the nutrients anyway. We can add organic matter by mulching the area with prunings or using pioneer plants and then harvesting them.

no dig gardens at Permaculture Visions after 2 years. using waste to create soil - Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW
using waste to create soil – Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW

Waste not

The easiest way to add organic matter is to use waste. Any biodegradable waste can be applied to the soil even if it’s just added to the top to feed the organisms. You have two choices you can try and build up what’s already there to support the existing organisms. Or you can add food and organisms from nearby forests. This is quite a typical traditional method by the French. The French farmers would go into a nearby forest and harvest worms and organic matter from mature trees and bring that into the fields.

In fact, soil organisms are a vital part of the nitrogen cycle. In order to use and continue to generate nutrients, we need organisms. If we do nothing the soil that we are stewards of will most likely erode. Although, in some areas, doing nothing might be the right thing to do! It could allow the earth to heal.

If we follow traditional advice, the soil will grow at about a centimeter every five years. And that’s too slow!

enhanced growth and soil creation in just 2 years - Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW Australia
enhanced growth and soil creation in just 2 years – Silk Farm Mt Kembla NSW Australia

Ways to make soil grow faster

The easiest way to build soil is to use our own biodegradable waste either as mulch or in the compost or worm farm. Also, use the weeds. If the weeds are particularly tough you can turn them into liquid manure also known as compost tea. Next time you have a fire make biochar. Biochar is an amazing way to support the microorganisms, After this consider using animals to provide fertilizer weeding and waste conversion. And finally, start a forest with pioneer plants and use them to build your supply of organic matter.

Learn more by enrolling with us PermacultureVisions.

Overwhelmed? – How to Rejuvenate Flooded Soil

Permaculture design reduces risk. Risk causes heartache, resources and effort loss. And one of the greatest risks comes from flood. So, soil scientist, Ian Thomas shows us how to work with nature to heal the soil. And build abundance again.

Perhaps you heard about Australia’s the biggest flood event on record. The flood was heralded as a one-in-hundred year event. But then, a month later, it flooded again. The people in Lismore are famous as creative, resilient and lively. But the latest flood event has shaken the community and destroyed a vital food growing region of the nation.

Ian Thomas, soil scientist, advising flood victims for free

Some of the risks from floods may surprise you. These include contaminated water with sewerage, heavy metals, pesticides washed down from farms and people’s basements. Other chemicals include pollutants from industrial sites such as hydrocarbons from Petrol stations.

The problem with chemical contaminants is that we just don’t know which ones are lurking in there. We can’t smell or taste them. So let’s not assume that’s ok. Contaminant testing gives us peace of mind.

Ian Thomas

Meet Ian Thomas, Foodscaper

Soil is a complex topic. So, Ian offers guiding principles to help people revitalise their gardens. In response to the great flood, he offers a free short course to help flood victims or anyone who feels overwhelmed by deluges.

“When food is grown to be as nutritious as possible, not only does it taste better, last longer, is more nutritious and better for us,
but it’s also easier to grow and has less pest problems”

Ian Thomas, soil scientist and foodscaper

The Danger Period

4-8 weeks after a flood is the period where plants are picking up contaminants. Assume flooded plants are contaminated, use gloves. Remove food plants or give them a heavy prune to stimulate regrowth. Any plant tissue that grows later, will be ok. Compost the contaminated plant material but don’t use this compost on your food gardens. Use it on ornamental plants.

leafy greens catch and store contaminates

Do plants eat contaminates?

Leaf crops are the worst crops for absorbing contamination because they have a large surface area. And the leaf is transpiring moisture and the moisture after the flood leaf crops absorb toxins and biohazards.

On the other hand, fruits don’t transpire. Fruits that didn’t get flooded, are the least likely part of a plant to gather toxins. This is because the plant doesn’t want to pollute it’s offspring. For root crops, more toxins are held in the skin than in the centre.

Key Flood Recovery Steps

First up, get your soil tested. Then, dispose of any plant tissue that were flooded. Compost the material for ornamental gardens. Let them go and start afresh. Don’t risk your health. Prune hard to stimulate new growth.

Next step, rejuvenate your soil to fast track the natural decontamination ability of soil micro-organisms. Soil microbes can eat toxic compounds and harmful bacteria.

Decontaminant with Plants

Rather than use harsh chemicals which kill vital soil organisms. Plants are effective decontaminants. Phyto-remediation uses plants to immobilise, degrade and remove contaminants. The star helpers for Phyto-remediation are Sunflowers, brown mustard, corn and maize, brassicas, broad beans, radishes, lettuce, sorghum, barley and oats.

Phyto-remediation plants mop up a wide range of contaminants. Image by Ian Thomas

Clever little soil microbes

Soil microbes enhance phytoextraction. But in the short term they have the potential to increase contaminant solubility, improve mobility of contaminants. But they work to modify soil conditions such as the pH, redox and mineral balance. Using plants to address the issues of contamination gives the best long term results.

worms and microbes are willing workers

Rejuvenate your soil with plants. Buy bulk cheap seed to mop up contaminants. Soak and inoculate the seeds with compost. Loosen the soil surface (wear a mask in case of contaminated dust). Cover the area with mulch thinly. Thin the plant for maximum photsynthesis. Then remove the plants before flowering or fruiting. Compost them on ornamental garden beds.

Ian addresses the next steps in upcoming videos. He goes on to demonstrate how to assess and improve the soil structure (part 2/5). Boost soil microbial activity (part 3/5). Grow as many plants as possible to help boost community food security part 4/5). Check out Ian’s channel and find him on FB and Instagram. https://www.thegourmetgarden.school/

Thank you Ian Thomas for another great example of how to work with nature to heal the environment.