Recently on the homestead

A visit to Quail Springs Permaculture

sasha's house

Our architect and natural builder friend Nicholas Holmes took Nathen and I to visit Quail Springs Permaculture, a demonstration farm and village nestled in a canyon near Santa Barbara. Quail Springs hosted a weekend harvest festival that included a tour of the farm, Q&A, and workshops on milking and butchering.

Brenton speaking

Because we went with Nicholas, we also got an architectural tour, which was great! The handful of houses on the property all seemed to be around 400 sq feet, and each boasted a slightly different design and mix of materials while maintaining a sense of aesthetic unity. A bit like a historical reenactment village… OF THE FUTURE. Some houses had kitchens, while others were just studio-bedroom pods (there is a communal kitchen and composting toilets just a little ways down the canyon).

W's house? Brenton & Jan's house Hide house

Nicholas described a roofing system used on several of the buildings at Quail Springs: reed mats are tacked up to the rafters with strips of wood; an earthen plaster is applied from the top and wiped flush from below. Then blue-jean insulation batts go between the rafters, and a plywood and metal roof is screwed on top. I like the texture of the ceilings.

Reed ceiling

Nicholas had lots of great things to say about light straw-clay (otherwise known as straw-clay, light-clay, or leichtlem), which is straw coated in a clay-slip and tamped into forms around a timber frame. Apparently it offers more insulation than cob due to the high straw content, while being more moisture-resistant than straw bale, due to the clay (I’m making a test brick right now, with clay harvested from a wash and some extra mulch straw).

straw-clay with 3 kinds of lathe
The side of a straw-clay bathhouse in progress, showing three kinds of lathe: reed, burlap and metal.

We slept in a straw-clay dome two nights while we were there, and I loved the japanese-paper texture of the walls and the cozy feel.

nathen, sleeping

Also, the view! sasha's view

There’s a lot more to say about Quail Springs, but that’s enough for one post.

Pod living

dream house w/attached office

Earlier this year I drew up plans for a dream house. We seemed on the brink of acquiring an acre and a half very near where our trailer is now, next to two sets of in-laws. I read obsessively about passive solar, kitchen ergonomics and earthships. We visited locals and I revised my drawings daily.

dream kitchen sketch

The land, it turned out, was not (yet) for sale, and with Nathen working full time we knew we wouldn’t have the time to start building right away anyway.

Around the same time, I got concerned about water. Plenty of places that call themselves deserts get 10 or even 20 inches of rain a year. Joshua tree gets about 4. If you haven’t thought about rain in inches much, those four inches could come down in 4 torrential hours. PER YEAR.

weather station screen
Half way through the August rain event, our weather station registered .54 of an inch.

Because of some questionable uses of our local aquifer, Joshua Tree has recently started buying water from Northern California, via the California aqueduct. Aqueducts are huge energy consumers and don’t contribute, generally, to a strong sense of water security.

Given all that, does it even make sense to put down roots here? Am I ready to make that leap? 

So I temporarily put away the idea of home-building. But here we are, and the need for a more functional home didn’t go away. Recently I’ve been thinking that my dream house, under the circumstances, might not be a house so much as a series of pods.

pantry/trailer aerial
Nathen putting a new roof on the pantry, where our fridge and chest freezer live.

Pods are a way of meeting our shelter needs while turning the idea of a house inside-out (or rather, outside-in). A pod-based design allows building in stages, as time and resources permit. It allows experimentation with materials. Pods are also potentially moveable if we end up with land nearby. And local building code allows for 100 sq ft sheds (eg, 12′ x 8′) without permits.

bathhouse aerial
The bathhouse, with Grandpa Bob’s trailer off to the side.

The bathhouse and pantry are already useful pods. My sewing RV is too. Each of those can be improved, aesthetically and functionally. The next pod on my wish list is a sleeping pod. The trailer is hot in the summer and cold in the winter. Building a little, well-insulated room that fit just our bed and clothing would also take a lot of pressure off the trailer: the area that is now our bed could become two couches with a hallway between them, which would give us somewhere to sit other than the kitchen table.

We converted two single beds with an aisle between them into a king-sized megabed, which we have to crawl over to get to the closet on the other side. It's worth it.
We converted two single beds with an aisle between them into a king-sized megabed, which we have to crawl over to get to the closet on the other side. It’s worth it. Pictured here is the shaker peg rail we installed to hang our curtains and “bedside pockets.”

So here is the plan, as of today:

pod plan v5
“Inertia” and “Tioga” are names of RVs (guess which one drives?). South is to the right – most of the structures have a long side facing south, for solar gain in the winter.

And here’s are two books that have inspired my pod-homestead thinking:



June/July homestead update

It has been very hot.

How to make clarified butter: put regular butter on the counter for about an hour. Your results may vary.
How to make clarified butter: put regular butter on the counter for about an hour. Your results may vary.

I started a new part-time job. I really like my new workplace and my employer.

What you see when you pee at my new workplace
Recycled metal siding at my new workplace.

My brother-in-law, Damian, harvested mesquite and palo verde off their property and shared some with us.

Mesquite flour ground in a vitamix.
Mesquite flour ground in a vitamix.
Palo Verde beans, blanched.
Palo Verde beans, blanched.

The next day I harvested some palo verde myself.

Hard work, yummy beans.
Hard work, yummy beans.

From the garden, we’re getting a lot of tomatos… and tomato worms.

tomato worms

I leave for Oregon and Not Back to School Camp in a week, and then Vancouver. I’m excited to get out of the heat and see some of my favourite people up there.

Home improvement

Seeing Nathen put in a new garden in just a few days made something click for me: a little bit here and there makes a huge difference. Here’s what I’ve been working on the last few days.


Springtime is garden time.

Nathen dug a garden in the old goat pen. Have I mentioned that my husband is very good at getting things done? He bought starts and we filled up the garden on Saturday: tomatoes, hot peppers, cantaloupe, squash, corn. It was so fun, and has changed my relationship to the yard. I see new possibilities in every direction. Next up, rabbit proofing and a couple trips to the dump.

My earthship

Yesterday I watched Garbage Warrior, a documentary about Michael Reynolds and his Earthships.

(Earthships are passive solar homes, often made of recycled materials and employing “renewable energy and integrated water systems [to] make the Earthship an off-grid home with little to no utility bills.”)

Though you do see Earthships in the film, the story is mostly about Reynolds’ battle with the state of New Mexico to pass “housing test zone” legislation that would allow for experimental building projects that don’t fall within current building and subdivision codes. In the midst of a grinding legislative battle, the Earthship team travels to the tsunami-devastated Andaman islands and then to New Orleans to build rainwater-catching garbage houses. You can watch the whole film on YouTube.


In response, I added a garden room to the south side of my dream house design. The idea of an indoor garden is a little confusing – What about bugs? Where does the water go? Would the garden get too hot in the window? Should there be a door between the garden and the house? – but there would be some very cool things about being able to grow food so close to the kitchen. Also, my grandfather says the front door should be on the east side of the house, where it’s more shaded, and adding a solarium across the south side was a way to do that.

Although my dream house is rectangular and not domed, I am pretty excited about the possibilities of superadobe and hyperadobe. Both apparently perform very well in earthquakes, which is a plus in this area.

Dream house floor plans

Lately I have become obsessed with designing a modestly-proportioned passive solar 

house to one day build. I’ve been refining this design on and off for a month now. I really like it. At first I was drawing 2 foot straw bale exterior walls, and then I read about hemcrete so now that is my fantasy building material. Unencumbered by the particulars of any actual land, the design is guided by the principals of passive solar, as gleaned from the internet. Since it’s my dream home it will also have solar powered in-floor heating, photovoltaic panels on the roof, a composting toilet, and grey water recovery system. And in case you’re wondering, that’s a drum kit in Nathen’s office and of course an ironing board in my studio.

A friend told me that the best way to save money building a house is to buy windows that other people ordered custom that didn’t work out, so I’ve avoided getting specific about their size and placement. In general I’m thinking lots of big windows on the south side, and a few little ones everywhere else. The thick wall across the middle is thermal mass, supports the roof and has clerestory windows at the top to let heat out on summer evenings.

What is your dream house like? Where is it situated?


The joys of inconvenient

In an article entitled Is it Convenient? Would I Enjoy it? Wrong Question, Mr Money Moustache writes:

Let’s suppose you want the latest iPad. You want it because it is convenient to be able to look at pictures and websites and books and play music around the house. Sure, you already have other computers that do those things, but the iPad is special because it lets you do them while holding it in one hand, sitting on the couch. 

Wow, that couch is pretty convenient too, isn’t it? It is comfortable, enjoyable, convenient, and joyful to sit and lie on your couch. In fact, wouldn’t it be best to just lie on that couch all day? Forever? Yeah! Maybe you could even hook it up with a catheter and a bedpan, and a friend or robot could bring you all your food on the couch too. With each release, the latest iPad could be delivered to you, and you’d have the most convenient and comfortable and effort-free life ever.

[…] With proper understanding, almost any consumer purchase (and almost any bad habit) these days, beyond the necessities, should start to sound like a catheter and a bedpan to you.

This idea has really stuck with me, as a way to make sense of my recent choices.

Our life in the desert is not convenient at all. We use a bathroom and shower that are almost a minutes walk from the trailer. Our fridge is half a dozen paces outside our front door. We have no wifi down at the trailer. We spend very little and do a lot of what we can ourselves. And I love it.

All of which reminds me of a fantastic, novella-length David Foster Wallace essay, A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again, about luxury cruising. Read it some time.