Learning to Build A Rocket Mass Stove

Last Sunday, February 9, a couple dozen people gathered in a cold barn outside Erie, Colorado, to continue work on a rocket mass stove. Learning to build a rocket mass stove is easy, but there are techniques that are helpful.

Here’s a good explanation of the concept:

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If you still don’t get it, here’s the gist: you build a small, hot-burning fire with small pieces of wood. The design of the rocket-mass stove encourages a strong draft, which gets the wood burning vigorously. The hot gases from combustion are drawn through the slightly pitched “chimney,” which transfers its heat to the surrounding cob bench. Cob is a simple earth mixture of clay and sand that is ideal for thermal mass for a cob bench. Building with cob is cheap, simple, and highly labor intensive.

Mike and Avery, who led the workshop, are permaculturalists and natural builders. A few weeks ago, they led a workshop to build the “firebox” and “flue” parts of the heater. Those tasks are more complex, but definitely manageable. They based the design on the book “Rocket Mass Heaters: Superefficient Woodstoves You Can Build” by Ianto Evans and Leslie Jackson.

people stomping cob, then learning to build a rocket mass stove

Stomping cob is energy intensive, so gather as many people as you can.

 

 

 

firebox of rocket mass heater

Here’s where you build a fire in a rocket mass heater.

 

placing cob on the heat tubes

This is about 35′ of heat tubes, so the heat from the gases can migrate into the cooler cob.

Building with cob is hard work, but very low cost, nontoxic, and flexible with design.

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What Does Permaculture Offer To Cities and Suburbs?

Maybe it seems obvious, but most of us now live in an urban world. We can’t just walk out the back door and be in the wilderness, or even have a substantial private space. But we can improve the spaces we have with plants, and we’ll be more successful at that by using permaculture. What does permaculture offer to cities and suburbs?

Well, besides the health benefits we get from plants, we can grow plenty of food and repair our cities. The suburbs, with their larger lots, offer a huge opportunity to turn lawns into gardens.

The Permaculture Neighborhood Center

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Mark Lakeman on Urban Permaculture: City Repair, Re-patterning the Grid, Solar Cat Palace

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Cultivating A Suburban Foodshed

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Suburban Permaculture w/ Janet Barocco and Richard Heinberg

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These are hot topics right now, though the concepts are not. City Farmer got rolling in 1978. And Mollison and Holmgren were developing permaculture concepts in the early 1970s.

screen shot of City Farmer News; What Does Permaculture Offer To Cities and Suburbs?

City Farmer News has been a boots-on-the-ground resource for urban farmers since 1978.

The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably through

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The Regenerative Capacity of Permaculture

What’s the potential of permaculture to repair damaged land? Permaculturalist Geoff Lawton says, “You can fix all the world’s problems in a garden.” He worked on a small parcel in Jordan, first creating a swale for water catchment, then planting a variety of trees, building irrigation, and mulching heavily. Within a few months the figs were producing. This demonstrates the regenerative capacity of permaculture. Geoff Lawton’s site is here.

Permaculture: Greening the Desert

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Here are some other examples of people able to make desert land productive:

Qatar’s Plans to Turn the Desert Green Will Leave You Astonished

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Growing Forests in the Desert

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More wildly successful examples of regenerative approaches here.

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Building A Backyard Greenhouse with the Greater Denver Urban Homesteading Group

backyard greenhouse, Greater Denver Urban Homesteading Group

The plastic went on quickly, then we attached it with wiggle wire. 

On October 12, a group of 10 or so intrepid plant geeks got this greenhouse framework enclosed! Building A Backyard Greenhouse with the Greater Denver Urban Homesteading Group

Attaching the plastic to the frame was “wiggle wire,” which I’d never seen before. Clever idea:

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What a fun project!

The Suburbs and Permaculture

farming in the suburbs

The suburbs offer an outstanding—and obvious—opportunity for for food production and permaculture.

Here’s a good overview of the potential marriage of the suburbs and permaculture for growing food, similar to this post. With abundant lawn area in many suburban developments, people can easily grow much of their own food. Or they can share space, rent space, or trade space with people who want to grow food. Water is available through wells or city water. And the land area that could be used is huge.

A NASA researcher estimated that lawns in the U.S. are the most-irrigated “crop” in the nation. “Even conservatively,” Milesi says, “I estimate there are three times more acres of lawns in the U.S. than irrigated corn.” Read the article here.

Here’s what we could have:

veg garden - peas growing like crazy

 

CSA delivery by bike

CSA delivery by bike in Seattle.

Some areas may even be close enough for bicycle delivery of the veggies!

 

Is Permaculture Mainstream Yet?

Is permaculture mainstream yet? I don’t know, but I keep seeing more great stories of permaculture, like these located in Southwest Wisconsin.

Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture

Kinstone Academy of Applied Permaculture

Kinstone Academy is located near Fountain City, Wisconsin.

Primrose Valley Farm

New Forest Farm

Grist article about New Forest Farm.

Madison Area Permaculture Guild

Capital Times article

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Are Handmade Homes Better Than Prefab Homes?

A few days ago I read a blog post by Richard Olsen, who’s a former editor at Architectural Digest. His book, Handmade Houses: A Century of Earth-Friendly Home Design, celebrates the funky and creative in homebuilding.

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The author is critical of modern and post-modern design, including works from Le Corbusier to new iterations like those in Dwell. I can see his point, as homes such as the Clark House in West Vancouver are the ultimate example of a work of art you can live in, and celebrate both design and craftsmanship.

Olsen wrote in his blog about Le Corbusier’s ideas for “…a house free of idiosyncracies, a house in celebration of standardization, one made of parts not crafted by an artisan aiming for one-of-a-kind character but, instead, fabricated by an anonymous factory somewhere—capital-‘I’ Industry.”

And Dwell, he says, continues with that direction. Are handmade homes better than prefab homes?

Is Dwell really that bad?

However, I don’t feel so critical of Dwell homes and modern design. It would be nice if we could all have a handmade home, but I think we need better homes more than we need handmade homes. We need healthy, efficient, durable, and attractive homes, even if they’re factory made.

I’d like to see more variety in design, and more of a vernacular approach, too. Now the hot design motif is Mid-Mod; in the suburbs it’s the McMansion with a dozen gables. And so on. A factory-built home can have style—much better than a nostalgic suburban box—along with solid workmanship, a lack of artifice, healthier materials and construction techniques, and great reduction of waste. Not to mention better design, that is easier to heat and cool, and that will be more durable over time.

The handmade idea is great, but there’s no way to get that to the majority of people, so let’s go with prefab and factory-built in whatever style. The mass market can have dramatically better homes, and I see the prefab innovators dragging the industry toward better homes.

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Greener Cities Are the Future of Sustainable Living

You’ve probably seen some of the lists of “best places” compiled by various magazines. Outside, Money, and others compile their lists based on their idea of relevant criteria. You see a lot of repeat winners, with Madison, Wisconsin, as a perfect example. It routinely wins a place on both lists.

I like the Outside list, as it shows cities and towns developing new amenities for recreation. What’s especially interesting is towns like this year’s winner, Richmond, Virginia, that have cleaned up previously polluted land and rivers. The James River, for example, was closed to fishing for 13 years due to extreme pollution. After extensive cleanup work, it’s now a recreational hub.

 

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Kayakers on the James River in Richmond. Creative Commons photo from sdreelin.

Another approach to list-making is evaluating and improving the sustainability of cities. As more than 80% of Americans and Canadians are now urban dwellers, it’s clear that cities have a major positive impact on the environmental health of our world, and on our people. Greener cities are the future of sustainable living

It may seem counter-intuitive that cities can be centers of sustainable living—in contrast to living on the land and growing your own food, and so on—but it makes sense when you think about it. When people live in dense cities, they need to drive less—or not at all—to reach all the places they need to go. Delivery of goods and services is more efficient when more people are clustered together. Housing is more efficient on multiple levels with shared walls, for example, than having a home with four walls losing heat to the outside. Food is grown where there’s room to grow a lot efficiently, then transported to the mass of buyers. Waste is a resource and can be re-used or recycled. And cities draw people from the countryside and lessen humans’ daily impact on some rural areas.

So looking beyond simple measures of what we like in a place, such as good schools, outdoor recreation, and short commutes, what makes a place sustainable? And what are the most sustainable cities?

Siemens Green City Index rates 9 criteria

One measure is the Green City Index, developed by Siemens Corporation and the Economist Intelligence Unit. They applied these 9 criteria to cities all over the globe:

  • CO2
  • Energy
  • Land Use
  • Buildings
  • Air
  • Water
  • Waste
  • Transport
  • Environmental Governance

In North America, the top four most sustainable cities, of 27 evaluated, were San Francisco, Vancouver, Seattle, and New York City. This is a useful metric, but cities also have a huge negative impact on the natural world. Bulldozing an entire field and building apartments and offices, even densely, removes wildlife habitat, as well as plants that absorb CO2 and produce oxygen. How do cities mitigate this destruction?

 

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

Vancouver and Stanley Park. Creative Commons photo from cakeordeath.

What’s missing from sustainability ratings

This blog at the Sustainable Cities Collective discusses adding more green elements to those sustainability scores, such as green-space percentage, natural areas, and biodiversity. Adding those elements to a sustainability ranking will add to people’s consciousness of their importance.

And why are they important? Green space not only makes our cities look better, people feel less stressed, the heat island effect decreases, plants clean the air of pollutants for us, trees add to property values, and provide a host of other benefits.

Green space, street trees, and natural areas can remediate pollution to create healthier, more enjoyable, more sustainable cities, while they also become the places where we play.

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What the Hell is Permaculture?

Permaculture continues to fascinate me. Bill and Becky Wilson from Midwest Permaculture delivered several workshops at the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s Energy Fair, and I attended nearly all of them. So what the hell is permaculture? You can find a complete description here, but my short version is this: permaculture is a design system that integrates sustainable agriculture and sustainable building to produce sustainable human culture. Permaculture practices heal the earth, and provide sufficient resources for living today, while not taking from future generations.

One example: creating a “food forest.” Build a swale to catch and hold water so the soil moisture is abundant. Then you can plant a variety of food-producing trees and shrubs, such as hickory, oak, hazelnut, apple, and walnut. Next work in smaller plants like blueberries, grapes, and gooseberries. This food forest will produce an abundance of food each year with no planting and minimal work. It’s also a resource for lumber, supports the honeybee population, and may provide meat from game and/or domestic animals. It’s a productive, robust, and sustaining system. And after you get it going, you reap the harvest without planting.

Bill’s own rain garden is another great example. His house has no basement and sits on a flat lot, so clearly this project is easier than one dealing with a basement or a steeply sloped lot. He directed the flow from the home’s gutters to the front yard, where he contoured the land into a slight swale or channel so the water flows slowly through the front yard, across the side yard and next to a substantial berm that directs the flow, and out to the back yard. All along this path the water is seeping into the ground, maintaining soil moisture, and recharging the ground water. This is treating rainwater as a resource, and not waste. And by planting perennials near the swale, the plants rarely need supplemental watering.

These are some tenets of permaculture that bear repeating:

  • wastes become resources
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored.

Bill also talked about hugelkultur, which is a German method of burying logs to create a highly fertile area. After a few months, the bacteria growth explodes as the wood decomposes, and they produce an abundance of nitrogen, which feed the roots of the plants you plant there. Here’s a video of hugelkultur construction.

This is just a fraction of the workshops I attended at the Energy Fair, but is a good example of all you can learn.

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A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy

Last weekend was the Midwest Renewable Energy Association’s 23rd annual Energy Fair in Custer, Wisconsin. Over the course of the weekend I attended 11 workshops, on topics such as Wooden Cities, Suburban and Urban Permaculture, Small Scale Permaculture Farming, From Foreclosure to LEED, Getting to Zero, Lifestyle Entrepreneurship, Sustainable Living Simplified, and A Permaculture Approach to Renewable Energy, which has really stuck with me.

First, presenter Bill Wilson of Midwest Permaculture talked about rocket mass heaters. I’ve read about these before but haven’t seen them in action. The story with these devices is their efficiency and ease of construction. They use only 25% of the fuel of an equivalent wood stove for the same heat output. They usually are built with a cob bench/seating area as thermal mass.

Bill described helping his neighbor build a rocket mass heater for the first time. The stove required some tweaks, such as learning how to get it started with minimal smoke, and realizing that the house was too tight with too little air leakage, they added a fresh-air intake for the heater. And they built the whole unit for less than $100. Simple, cheap, and effective.

As for wood, the rocket mass heater requires so little fuel that trimmings can work fine. Rather than cutting, splitting, and drying firewood, Bill mentioned a technique called coppicing to cultivate and harvest trimmings from deciduous shrubs and trees; a little goes a long way! Here’s an example:

Another fascinating topic was downdraft wood gasification. When burned in a certain way, wood produces abundant hydrogen which can be captured and used to power a gasoline engine. A group in Jefferson County, Wisconsin, produced the following video demonstrating the process. I’ll have to look into this more, but it seems like it could be a viable way to power a home generator for electricity production.

As for permaculture, a complete description of the 12 design principles is a little long, but Bill emphasized that permaculture is simply care for people, the planet, and the future, with these benefits:

  • waste becomes a resource
  • productivity and yields increase
  • work is minimized
  • the environment is restored

As always, I learned a lot, from people who are actively doing what they teach. I’ll add more in another post.

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The Farmhouse Media is all about living sustainably with

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