Earth Repair Corps – Ten Elements of Sustainable Design
Written by: Kirby Fry
2018 09 07
Following is a list of 10 design elements that may be found within sustainable human settlements – organized from the lowest amount of maintenance to the highest amount of maintenance.
MECHANICAL SYSTEMS (Lowest Maintenance Required)
- Sustainable Building
As a builder, I believe that a well-built house should pay you to live in it. So how do we build a home that generates the electricity that it needs for power, the water that it needs for plumbing, and the income that it needs for financing? Three parts of this question are answered below – solar energy, rainwater collection, and graywater harvesting. However, homes need to first be properly oriented to take advantage of passive solar heating and cooling. A house should be oriented broad side to the prevailing summer breeze to allow for air circulation through the home. A house should have evergreen tree cover on the west and north sides to shade it from the hot setting summer sun and shelter it from the cold winter winds. Good insulation, continuous ridge vents, and double hung sash windows are also key design elements for passive solar cooling and heating. A wise home should also orient its occupants to the patterns in nature and the flows of energy through the landscape by having comfortable indoor outdoor living spaces like screened in porches and comfortable patios. If a home is a duplex, or has a garage apartment next to it, then it can also generate income.
- Solar Energy
When a home faces its broadest side to the south in Texas it is not only optimized to receive the prevailing summer breeze, but it is also aligned to receive the maximum amount of solar gain for photovoltaic or solar panels on its roof which generate electricity. A standing seam / hidden fastener metal roof is best for attaching solar panels to because the panels can clamp on to the standing seems of the roof panels and not require that screws be set into and through the roof which might result in leaking. Our friends at Sun Power and Freedom Solar Power have demonstrated that for a very reasonable cost these days, 15 to 20 340 watt solar panels can be attached on to a home’s roof top and yield 100% of a home’s energy requirements.
- Rainwater Collection
Collecting rainwater off of your home’s roof and gutters is some of the lowest hanging fruit that there is for any mechanical system. Rainwater storage systems are quite affordable these days – about 50 cents per gallon of storage, and there is no cleaner source of water, in my opinion, that the rain falling from the sky.
Every 100 square feet of rooftop surface area here in Central Texas, where we get an average of 30” to 36” of rainfall per year, warrants 1,000 gallons of cistern for rainwater storage.
So a 1,000 square foot roof would be justified in having 10,000 gallons of rainwater storage connected to it. To make this water available to us and our family, however, you will also need a pressurization pump and a filtration system that can easily be installed in a garage or mechanical closet.
- Graywater Harvesting
By collecting the rainwater off of our home’s roof, using that water in our house, and then harvesting the resulting graywater in the landscape we can eliminate the possibility of wasting water. The easiest graywater to collect is the water coming out of our laundry machines because a pump lifts that water up and out of the laundry machine and can pass it through a wall and deliver it into the landscape to be used for irrigating trees and bushes. This Old House, and the City of San Francisco made a great video of how to harvest gray water from a laundry machine.
Sinks are the next easiest graywater to harvest because they are up about 2’ 6” from the level of the floor or slab, and can also be brought through a wall. Bathtubs and shower stalls might be the most challenging to harvest because the drain is below the floor and can generally only be retroactively harvested from homes that are on pier and beam.
PLANT BASED SYSTEMS (Moderate Maintenance Required)
- Annual Gardens
I believe that, in Texas, a productive annual garden begins with good fences. Our garden fences need to at least be deer and rabbit proof, if not squirrel and raccoon proof. Cultivating soils on contour, relying on efficient irrigation systems, and using cover crops and sheet mulch are also essential for sustaining productive annual vegetable gardens. Choosing climate specific and plague resistant varieties of non-genetically modified seeds is another important step in the design process.
- Perennial Gardens
Orchards, trellises for grape vines and berry brambles, and edible beneficial perennial gardens make up the heart and soul of permaculture design. How do we weave these plant based systems into our local ecosystems and create agriculturally productive ecosystems? Soil conservation strategies, protective caging, cover crops, mulch, and drip irrigation are some good techniques to help us with this objective. Every homestead should also have culinary herb gardens, medicinal herb gardens, and pollinator gardens. We need to be familiar with what planting zone we are in, how much rainfall our region gets, and what perennial, edible, beneficial plants will do well where we live. Microclimates, as well, should be created to accommodate other plants that might be doing well in areas just beyond our planting zone.
How many acres of land, and how many mature trees does it take to grow your own home? This is a puzzle, that as a forester, I would like us to solve. Some of our native trees like pine, oak, cedar, and cypress are fantastic trees for home construction, fencing, tool making, and fuel woods. A sustainable homestead should include a woodlot where trees are planted from seed and seedling, and cultivated to grow and replace the wood we use in our day to day lives. Improvements on portable wood mills make milling your own lumber for timber framing and natural building more possible and easier than ever.
- Ecological Restoration
In Texas, most of the state was either logged, burned, plowed, developed or overgrazed by 1865. Today, many of us end up inheriting land or buying land that is secondary or tertiary growth, meaning that it has been cleared and has regrown, again and again.
The initial diversity of plants and animals that once existed here in Texas is now gone, or hiding out in remote isolated pockets and islands. As stewards of the land, we need to get to know our local natural regions and ecosystems, and reintroduce the plants and trees that once existed here in abundance.
In our efforts to become better stewards, we often find out that deer populations, more than any other factor, are determining what is allowed to survive in many Texas natural regions. Tree cages and drip irrigation are now necessary tools for reintroducing essential keystone species of flora that have been missing, in some cases for hundreds of years.
ANIMAL BASED SYSTEMS (Highest Maintenance Required)
- Small Animal Systems
Chickens, pigs, and goats can provide food and income for any homestead and farm, and are a great way to make use of thrown away food scraps, to control insect plagues, and to reduce woody vegetation that may pose a fire hazard. Eliminate the need for composting food scraps by feeding them to your small animals. Chickens can be moved through the landscape eating weeds and insects. Many of our friends in Texas, like at TerraPurezza Farm, who are raising pigs have also diverted massive amounts of food being thrown away to feed their livestock. Goats browsing woody brush may also be one of the best ways to feed people and keep woody brush at bay, reducing fuel loads around our homes and infrastructure.
- Rotational Grazing Systems
In Texas, all too often we see improper cattle grazing techniques being used to obtain the 1-d-1 agricultural property tax evaluation. With better cell grazing and rotational grazing techniques, however, land owners can still maintain their 1-d-1 ag evaluation, and actually restore grassland and savanna ecosystems rather than degrade them. Improvements over the past couple of decades on portable electric fencing, and movable water troughs have made intensive cell grazing easier and more efficient than ever. Allan Savory presents a wonderful TED talk on this subject and Jaime Braun, who has taught at our Permaculture Design Course, runs some very successful cell grazing systems right here in Texas and in Mexico.