Ecocities with Lonnie Gamble

This week has been all about cities. This has continually surprised me, because here in the SL program all we ever focus on is how bad cities are. They are too big, too crowded, too dirty, and they rely on everywhere but themselves for all of their needs (and waste). So here I am in my last class at MUM, learning about a concept called Ecocities for the first time. I had no idea there has been endless designs and brainstorming workshops all over the world for the past fifty years about this! It turns out people are really upset that cities are centered around cars instead of humans. That seems to be the main focus as far as I can tell. There is of course much more to it, that’s just a good way to sum it up. Other focuses in Ecocities include inviting landscapes and walkways, ped malls, bike paths and lanes, and edible landscaping.

After spending the week learning about this movement, I think it is time to experience a healthy city. I want to visit somewhere that has focused on these initiatives and seen positive changes. Unfortunately it seems like a lot of what’s happening is still in the design stage. It doesn’t really surprise me that revamping a city has it’s challenges. There is so much invested by so many “shareholders” that it would take years to make even the slightest change. And so it has, that’s exactly where it seems to be. Luckily there are places around the world who have made some really good steps in the right direction. It would be so neat to organize some sort of ecocity tour around the world, where I could take notes about each city and the good things that seem to be working. Now, hopefully there are people who have done something like this already.. But let’s face it. Cities are always changing, so one ecocity tour is completely different then the same tour a year later.

It’s been a very beneficial week here at MUM. I’m so happy to explore cities in my last course here because it’s definitely a hot topic. My education has been so well rounded, this is just the cherry on top of the cake. Here’s to the future! I hope to continue learning much more in my personal time away from this small town in Iowa.

Building Design with Mark Stimson

This week I got to spend time learning with Mark Stimson.  He is a truly talented man with an amazing passion for building. We discussed his favorite building materials that aren’t “natural” at the beginning of the week: Glass, extruded polystyrene foam insulation, aluminum window screen, steel (screws, nails, ect), rubber (roof membrane), and pex (pressure plumbing). I can definitely see why he appreciates these materials. Most of them are beneficial in regards to time, others are beneficial because they are seemingly irreplaceable. Their functions are all so important and unique it’s very nice to have them in your building.

The latter part of the week was spent working in groups designing for a specific climate. My group and I chose to work with the Fairfield, Iowa climate and designed a 5 home community. It was neat to take into account all the building materials and temperature extremes associated with this area. We tried to stay local, using black locust wood and straw bales. Both are abundant in this area and work well when building here. We designed one power source for the entire community, a wind generator and solar panel bank. We also utilized a pond nearby to store and supply water to all the homes. It was so fun to dream big and let our imaginations go wild as a group! We focused on the largest aspects like structural materials and power sources, as well as the smallest most specific aspects such as floor plans and spatial considerations. I drew some close up views of the bathroom and bedroom of one of the homes, and I’m very happy with how they turned out 🙂


By utilizing the sun’s energy on the South side and designing thermal batteries to capture and store the sunlight, the home can naturally provide it’s comfort. The building’s will be very in tune with this climate and work with the sun path and rain/temperature patterns. The amount of embedded energy in all of the materials is going to be as minimal as possible so the home can feel uplifting and natural.

This project was supposed to be an example of what could happen when buildings worked with nature rather then against it. I really feel that creating a space that does not take away from the existing environment, but rather works with it is what needs to happen from here on out. Our five home community is a model that could be replicated by future neighborhoods. There is a lot that needs to happen in society before people would consider creating spaces such as this, but it is definitely on the forefront. Lets hope things can keep rolling in the right direction 🙂

Natural Building with Kevin Rowell

This week has been amazing! Kevin is a fantastic teacher and it’s so fun to see the things he’s been apart in creating. We’ve been spending the mornings in the workshop experimenting with different natural building components, and spending the afternoon diving even deeper into ideas and concepts. It’s insane how  many questions I have been having.. Luckily the majority are getting answered 🙂

The first couple of days we focused on big questions, such as: What is Natural Building? What is a “natural” material? What does Natural Building look like? What is Sustainability? We’ve been going around the room and asking everyone to say one word or a one minute description of their opinions, and somehow they are all SO DIFFERENT! But at the same time very similar.. This exercise has really been helping me understand that everyone thinks differently, and for the most part everyone is right. It’s such a great thing when the options are endless and everyone can express themselves differently, within a similar foundation or framework. We’ve also been focusing on this equation of materials + method = design (in a place). This is apparently a really big deal. Ha Kevin keeps coming back to it and trying to help us understand how this basic equation can help explain so much of what natural building is. It represents the same thing as the exercises, a huge range of possibilities all within a similar framework or foundation.

I got to choose my own material and method to focus on and research these past few days. Since I’m from Utah and I love that area and climate, I chose to focus on Earth as my material and Adobe as my method. Mark Stimpson introduced me to Adobe last October in my Natural Building class, where we spent two weeks in Texas and built a small adobe home. Mark encouraged us to read about Hassan Fathy and explore the origins of adobe in our own time (and the twenty six hour bus ride to and from Texas). Mark had no experience with adobe so alot of our trip was spent experimenting and learning together, but in the end we were able to accomplish something amazing.

ImageThis morning we experimented in the workshop with Kevin and it was really fun to get our hands in the materials and see how everything felt. We tried several soil tests (ribbon, washing, ball) and the various reasons we did those things. We also started combining sand, clay, fibers, and water to see how things came together and what it felt like. It was fun to have a masters perspective and see his techniques and small tips. It’s exciting to see what can be accomplished with these simple materials. Yesterday I doodled on my notebook “START NOW” with small words like design, brainstorm, observe, and discuss. This natural building movement starts with each of us. We really can make a difference together and help each other explore different perspectives.

Monday – Solar Misconceptions

It’s neat to read an article written by my professor, Lonnie Gamble. He wrote one that was published in the Iowa Source in 2005 called Ten Misconceptions about Solar Energy. I have actually spent time thinking about some of these myths, so I was very happy to see these questions addressed.

There were a few that seemed funny to me, like Solar Living means sacrificing conveniences and wind turbines kill birds. I have learned enough about these energy sources that I know both of these are false. It’s funny to me that birds are even brought up when it comes to a renewable source of energy-because nonrenewable sources of energy kill millions of birds through habitat destruction every year!

The one that I was really interested in was “It takes more energy to produce solar panels than they can every produce.” When it’s worded like that, I can see that they will indeed produce more energy over their lifespan then they used when they got manufactured. I always wondered if the materials used in the solar cells were friendly to the environment and if it would be destructive to mass produce solar panels. Lonnie made me realize that although it may require some toxic chemicals and nonrenewable sources to make solar panels, It is hands down WAY better then using coal, oil, or nuclear power sources! Not only can solar and wind energy power every home in the world, it can be affordable! A one time investment with small upkeep costs is a much better option then relying on dying sources of energy that are harmful to produce and expensive to distribute.

Another myth that Lonnie busted has to do with batteries. I was actually talking to a man in town yesterday who said that batteries are an extinct technology that are long overdue for a new idea. This man has no idea what else could be used in place of batteries. He has never spent the time to research it, learn where batteries come from, or even attempt to make something that would replace batteries. He had the nerve to tell me that he’s sure batteries will be replaced soon, so I shouldn’t bother investing in them for my solar system. So what does he propose, I should just wait for a new technology to explode the market and buy a crazy prototype? I don’t think so! Batteries have been around for over a century. The industry recycles more then 90% of spent battery lead, and even when they manufacture brand new batteries it’s done with over half the lead coming from recycled sources. The government even helps. Any place that sells batteries has to take old batteries and send them in to get recycled. It even comes with a price cut. Batteries may not be a new technology, but it is doing a pretty great job at reusing nonrenewable ingredients.

Friday – Environmental Equality

What does it mean to take shorter showers? For me, it means saving money. When I was growing up my dad would always lecture me about it. He would hear on the news that if everyone in the house shaved off a few minutes a day, the money savings was really something. I think this might be one reason I have never been the kind of person that showers every day. I would rather take one long shower every few days then really short showers every day.

Some people might think that by taking shorter showers, they are helping the water shortage around the world. Derrick Jensen thinks otherwise. He gives a staggering figure in his article Forget Shorter Showers in Orion Magazine. More then 90 percent of water used by humans is used by agriculture and industry. Taking shorter showers is definitely a good thing, but we really need focus on the Corporations and Big Ag that are using all the water! For example, golf courses. In Palm Springs there are 57 golf courses that each use a million gallons of water a day. That is usable, fresh water that is going towards a few people’s recreation! I know there are people all over the world that are searching for fresh water and going thirsty every day. How can we get them some water? Palm Springs is a desert! There shouldn’t be ANY golf courses here, let alone 57!

I figured out towards the end of Jensen’s article that his point is to actually stir up political protest. I have to say he did a good job at stirring up interesting emotions within me. I don’t often have strong opinions towards material that I read. Maybe because I don’t read very much serious material. This was really making me stop and say wait a minute! Apparently I do have some strong opinions towards political issues after all. I hope I can be bold enough to act on the serious things that are happening in my home state of Utah. When I get home I want to vote about things like nuclear power plants and drilling for oil in protected wilderness areas. I don’t want to be naive anymore-it’s time I stand up for my home!

Thursday – How Much Is Nature Worth?

I’ve never stopped to think about how much money it would cost if humans were responsible for everything nature does. For instance, how much would it cost to keep the Amazon River flowing? During the rainy season there’s up to 300,000 cubic meters of water per second flowing in the Amazon. That’s a lot of water to try and move using man-power.

One book gives some costs per acre of certain ecosystems around the world. It was shocking to hear that in very specialized areas like estuaries and wetlands, land is valued at $8,000-$9,000 per acre each year! That’s how much the world would have to invest if it wanted to keep things running the way they are using man-power.

Seeing these numbers, it made me think about oil. It’s weird that humans can take this natural resource out of the earth and make money off of it, but humans don’t have to pay the earth anything for the services earth provides.

Wednesday – Nick’s Solar System

Today I got to see Nick’s solar system he plans on using at his tiny house. It’s basically the exact same as the one I want to put on my cottage! Lonnie taught us some new concepts for two hours this morning, and then we got to work in groups all afternoon. My group is helping me get things ready and install a solar system at my cottage. Since no one in my group knows the first thing about solar system installation, we joined another group to experience how things work.

Nick brought everything to campus and spent some time explaining how he chose each specific component. I learned so many new words and equations, I am feeling overwhelmed! I know I need to choose the sizes for my system, so I decided to spend extra time tonight trying to decipher some ideas. Nick offered a neat how-to DVD for me to take home and watch, so I did. It explained very clearly what Ohm’s Law is and how to use Amps, Watts, and Voltages to determine what charge controller and what invertor I’ll need. I hope this gets easier.. Right now I have to move through everything really slowly and think hard what the difference between everything is.

Tuesday – What is Energy?

Energy is the ability to do work. Turns out, coal, gasoline and natural gas are all just forms of fuel. They are carriers of energy. Sunlight is a source of energy, a flow form. Humans are the only organisms that have figured out how to use stock resources of energy (otherwise known as “fuel”). Up until this point humans along with every other organism on the planet have relied on nothing but flow forms of energy to accomplish all the work they needed. Nonrenewable resources have never been relied on like they are right now.

Global warming is an idea that has been around for over thirty years. Yet so many people haven’t accepted, noticed, or know what’s happening. One article in Rolling Stone Magazine last August addressed three very critical numbers on the subject of global warming.

The first is 2 degrees Celsius. This is the agreed upon amount our earth can heat up before nature is disrupted beyond the tipping point. At the time of the article, earth had already heated up .8 degrees Celsius.

The second number is 565 gigatons. This is the estimated amount of additional carbon dioxide that can be released into the atmosphere by midcentury to avoid raising the temperature of the earth more then 2 degrees Celsius.

The third number is 2,795 gigatons. This is the amount of carbon dioxide that will be released when all the coal, oil, and gas reserves of fossil fuel companies gets burned. That’s more then five times the projected amount that earth could handle.

I really don’t know what to think about this. I’m not one for doom and gloom scenarios, so this is a lot for me to handle. I’d like to think things aren’t as bad as some people think. Hopefully the world is adapting to a new era, a time of responsible and efficient energy usage.

Monday-First day of Energy 101 Class

Today I spent some time reading several articles about the current state of the world’s energy usage. It appears we are at a crossroads. There is no way to continue using such filthy energy sources, for one reason among many: the majority of oil is concentrated on the other side of the world. America depends on it very heavily, yet doesn’t have very many local areas to extract it from the earth. For example, in 2003 America used 25% of the world’s proven oil reserves while only 2% of that came from our country. Saudi Arabia and it’s surrounding countries contain two thirds of the worlds proven oil reserves. This is a concern because the world depends on that supply so heavily. When one person controls something that many other people want, it becomes a lucrative commodity. In this case, oil would immediately be noticed if there was any sort of shortage or extreme price increase.

I say, why not begin the transition to a less oil dependent society right now? There are so many readily available technologies that just need a push to get going. If society encouraged renewable forms of energy in Hollywood and government subsidies things could really change quickly!

I learned about one idea today called micropower. There could be small renewable power plants spread out all over the world, near the areas where power is needed. Another thing I read about is called a fuel cell car. In 2003 the technology was released with high hopes, yet I never remember hearing about it. Of course, I was only twelve years old.. A car that emits only water vapor that is powered by hydrogen fuel is completely different then the cars I’m used to. I wonder if that could really ever happen?