500 Year Vision

Take pleasure from walking lightly on this Earth

Learning to love composting toilets


One strong motivation for moving to South Bohemia was the spirit of enviro-entrepreneurship*.  Back home I had been working on a design for an accessible bathroom – to meet the needs of carers and those with profound disabilities, and organisations which want to be able to cater for them.  The design was to be based on a shipping container and fully independent – so not needing mains water and sewage – by harvesting rainwater and composting waste.  It could go anywhere on a temporary or permanent basis.  I had done a lot of research, and wanted to experiment with the various component parts of the system. Luckily…

When we first arrived at Nový Mlýn, we were surprised to discover that our 130 year old house did not have a water treatment system or water supply… unlike our fully serviced neighbour who had built his new home downhill of the house.

Life was hard for the eighteen months it took us to get permission to pump water from a new well to the house, but it gave us ample opportunity to radically reduce the amount of water we use, and many of these good habits have stuck.

Mike immediately constructed a toilet – an inglorious outhouse that at first didn’t even have a door.  We were clear that we wanted to actually use the compost which was generated, so we would dig a new poo hole and move the structure onto it every few months.  This was not a one person job, and gave us the inspiration for the Teepoo (more later).

The use of drinking water for toilet flushing is extremely inefficient because then contaminants then need to be removed from the water.  Urine is a sterile, ph neutral  fluid which contains nitrogen, phosphates and potassium – the main macronutrients required by plants. It therefore makes sense to operate waste separation at source – something people soon get used to.

There is a university in Austria working on a urine only toilet – and it would be nice to have a bespoke design (a wiidet) , however, instead we installed ‘rock bogs’ inside the house, by filling the water in the bottom of the toilets with pebbles. This greatly reduced the amount of water needed for flushing (a single litre for a completely clean flush), and provided people with a very visual reminder not to use the toilet for anything other than liquid.  We then installed our WWUK reed bed – a plant based system of cleaning waste water, and connected the bathroom plumbing to that.

Any household with more than one toilet could instigate a rock bog (urine only toilet) and therefore massively reduce the amount of water needed for flushing. It’s really, really simple. It would be nice to have a toilet insert designed to take the place of the stones, but stones are simple,  freely available and aesthetically pleasing.

As well as rock bogs inside the house, we now have a more sophisticated composting toilet system attached to the house.  Composting toilets will smell bad if they get wet for any reason (urine or rain water) or if waste is not adequately covered.  We purchased an insert to catch urine – as well as the box and a supply of cornstarch biodegradable bags. We think this beats even Moule’s Earth Closet – though an earth ‘flush’ would be great.

We have hosted 75 volunteers over the last two years. They have all but one been able to operate the composting toilet without leaving any unpleasant surprises.  We would recommend leaving a vinegar spray in the cubicle to clean the plastic as you would need to with any other toilet.

While the job of emptying the soil box is not pleasant, waste is always dry and covered with a cup of ash or earth, you tie the bag shut and put the lid on the box before moving the box to a ready prepared hole. You tip in the bag, then cover it with earth by digging the next hole.  We don’t bury compost directly in the vegetable garden, but instead under the paths through it. This trench system means that we are efficiently closing the loop and returning nutrients to the earth.

*My very first unsuccessful business was the Vermenathon Forest project which I worked on obsessively during the last few years of the millennium. This was, in short, a tree sponsorship scheme which people could visit physically and virtually – I’m happy that more successful business people had the same idea.

Winter falls early


We have inadvertently stepped through the back of the wardrobe into Narnia. After a brief hailstorm, the snow began to fall… not a flurry as we were expecting, but a blizzard which continued for days, not hours. The temperature dropped suddenly and rapidly… fortunately the day before we’d bought two new fire stoves – one for the bathroom (how nice, to have a bath alongside a wood burning stove) and another for our bedroom. With the old range in the kitchen and giant barrel stove in the upstairs lounge we have been able to keep all the rooms in use at a decent temperature – though the hallway is now down to 12 degrees c.
More worryingly, there are still green leaves on the trees here, and I have heard the sound of migrating birds taking a rest from flight through the blizzarding snow. As with the flooding early in the summer, the locals say that these kinds of weather conditions are seen every 5 years or so in the Czech Republic, but it certainly must wrong foot many species to have winter arrive mid October. I hope this is temporary (we have lots of trees to plant yet, and not enough wood cut by far) however the snow is still falling five days later.
Luckily, as well as chopping wood, we have been insulating in recent weeks. Rosie – a workaway visitor – put her carpentry skills to use by ensuring that all the secondary windows were able to close properly. I also had an idea to use the cheap Ikea Irja curtain poles (29kc) installed directly into the wall* around the windows to hang a secondary layer of curtain (behind the thin, decorative curtains we have in the rooms currently used. As insulating curtains we have used the cheap Ikea single Mysa Gras quilts (69kc) which fit perfectly into the alcove of our Vienna windows. They are lightweight, washable and allow some light through, but substantially thicker than curtain material. We can keep these curtains shut during the longer winter nights, when the temperature outside drops off as soon as the sun goes down. Claire and Emily did a sterling job on Thursday – putting up many more curtain rods so we are now as insulated as we can be until I next visit Ikea for more supplies.
Did I mention the number of pairs of socks the house came with? We have put these to use as insulators of the current (temporary) plumbing system. They look rather like an art installation… I need to think of a good title for it.
Yesterday morning I had to clear a path through the snow to the composting toilet outside… we moved it to the back of the garden because though it was convenient to have it close to the front door, you did feel somewhat exposed when trucks came past the garden. Now we have a fantastic view up the valley… currently a wintery landscape of frost and fir trees, and beautiful white scenes from every window. Definitely not what I was hoping for in mid October.

*The curtain pole goes in via a parallel parking type manoeuvre. We cut the metal curtain pole to 3cm longer than the gap, then on the left hand side of the window, with a masonry drill bit the same diameter as the poles, drilled a hole 3cm deep angled towards the corner of the wall on the right, then again in the same spot, parallel with the glass, and a 1cm hole on the opposite side.

What do Minstrels and our floorboards have in common?


Wanting to stay as close as possible to nature – we decided to try Shellac as a varnish on the stripped floorboards. This is bought in the form of flakes and dissolved in a very strong alcohol – it would have been nice to use a local alcohol – and would have certainly smelled more pleasant, however it needs to evaporate completely – so Slivovice was not the thing to use. Shellac is a secretion from an Indian bug, which is then scraped off the trees and processed. It is the same bug which is used for the production of cochineal – and in fact, Shellac is used in food production – such as over the brightly coloured coatings on Skittles. Yum. As with anything in our immediate environment – including skin creams, the fact that it comes in an edible form gives me confidence that we’re not inadvertently poisoning ourselves by using chemicals which have not been tested a, in combination with other chemicals, and b, over the course of lifetimes rather than weeks to check of ill effects. Shellac has been used for hundreds of years in the form of French polish. It has a long history as well as uses in the food industry.

We have two litres of Shellac made up, I’m interested to know how far this will go – so far I’ve used it to treat the areas of floorboard which have woodworm damage – long dead woodworm which has attacked the wood from the sides, rather than the top – suggesting to me that the woodworm was in the wood when it was cut into planks.

The filler I made up with sawdust and shellac hasn’t been successful – perhaps because the sawdust wasn’t fine enough. I was hoping I could fill the woodworm holes with this mix, but it’s not quite right yet. It’s nice having the chance to experiment anyway.

Whitewashing in the truest sense


Most people are aware of the quantity of man-made chemicals we now carry in our bodies – with all sorts of nasties even being present in breast milk. Fire retardants are particularly vile, and, as with most modern day decisions, ‘you pays your money and you takes your choice’. Fire retardant on pillows: you are less likely to set fire to your head, and more likely to get cancer.

Whitewash is essentially a mix of calcium hydroxide, chalk and water. I can buy it ready made for 165kc for 15kg – so it’s much, much cheaper than paint. It appeals to me for the same reasons we’re experimenting with Shellac. Once I’ve got the basic repair and decoration finished I plan to experiment with pigments added to the whitewash – though I will certainly not be using pig’s blood as they did to produce ‘Suffolk Pink’ in the old days. I was thinking more along the lines of leaves and berries for a Dulux style hint of colour.

I’ve been painting with the whitewash for a few days now. If you get it on your skin it’s incredibly drying – it’s important to wash it off quickly or your hands will become dry and cracked (rescued only by the Body Shop’s Hemp hand cream).  I’ve been using a domestic whisk to mix the paint – which settles over time into a watery layer over the heavy, cream cheese consistency, lime. Once mixed together thoroughly whitewash should have the appearance of yoghurt.

A few days ago I used paint which hadn’t been mixed properly thinking that it might save me time on additional layers – it went on well, however when I came back to it today I found that it had cracked into small squares and was loose or peeling off the walls on about half of the places I’d painted. My only excuse was I was rather unwell with a horrible cold, but it was a bad job. Mike said it could have been the paint itself, but I know that I tried something different and it’s worked well in the other rooms. Lesson learned. I then had to sweep down the walls again, vacuum up the mess and start again. The brilliant white emulsion is faster and doesn’t rub off on other things (like a paint made of chalk does), but I’m far more concerned with our health and the health of the house – why add VOCs to your home if you don’t have to?

Moth repellent revisited


Last year I researched which essential oils were disliked by moths and put little glasses in various cupboards and drawers to ward off unwanted visitors.  When I went back to them, the scent had faded and a sticky oil residue was left on the containers – which was a pain to clean off.

I cheated a few weeks ago and bought a commercial bio  ‘lavender’  moth repellent – but it stank out the room – even with the wardrobe door shut, and I started having difficulty breathing.  The lavender I planted earlier this year is not yet thriving.  I would be happy to have a good supply of it.

Eventually a solution has occurred to me… I’ve gathered some pine cones from the forest and put the essential oil (geranium to deter flies, and peppermint and cedar to keep moths away) on these – it’s soaked in without touching the shot glasses. Tomorrow I’ll add some chilli and cloves to the glasses and put them about the house.

Using a helicopter isn’t eco friendly


I watched an interesting documentary recently about a family involved in an eco home project. In order to speed things on a bit when their home was inaccessible because of road conditions, they USED A HELICOPTER TO FLY IN BUILDING MATERIALS.

Did these people genuinely believe that their efforts could in any way be labelled ‘sustainable’ when, surrounded by forest, they airlifted wood in to build their home? What did they think this would do to their carbon footprint?

In a similar vein – I listened to a radio program this morning about sustainable travel – in which they skirted round the fundamental problem – if you are travelling by plane, it’s not a sustainable holiday. The man interviewed, who runs a sustainable travel website, recommended that we travel less frequently by plane, and, I quote “we should all start taking less frequent, longer holidays, like we used to” – like who used to? the landed gentry?

And if another person tells me that “using a dish washer actually uses less water than washing by hand” – I will scream (at the sheer horror that so many otherwise intelligent people can be so easily ‘greenwashed’). Do the maths. Do you really use a bath full of water to wash up a cup? What research did the marketing department of said dish washer manufacturer base their claims on? (update: the comparison was with people who wash dishes under a running tap). Why would you accept this without question – unless you were looking for a convenient excuse not to modify your lifestyle in the face of global warming.

We’re going to hell in a hand-card, and it’s our own stupidity wheeling us along.

Domestic carbon sequestration


This morning I was thinking about chimneys. A strange thing to wake up wondering about but bear with me. We had our chimneys swept by Vaclav Havel on Thursday (namesake of the first president of the post-communist Czech Republic). It was all very high tech – surprisingly – we had been expecting Dick Van Dyke I suppose. The 21 century equivalent brings with him a camera and lights in order to film the chimney lining to check that it’s safe.
After our chimney fire two weeks ago, I cleaned the sand out of the chimney (filled to extinguish the blaze). With the sand came out big clumps of carbon, solid like soft charcoal. When I had looked into the burning chimney, the walls glowed like a furnace – it was this charcoal like lining which was burning.
Carbon sequestration has been happening in our chimneys for the last 20 years (Vaclav Havel said they had not been cleaned for a considerable length of time.) Currently the science exists to take the harmful carbon out of the pollution from coal burning power stations. The problem has been the cost of including such technology – and seeing as global warming has until recently been intangible – then there is no direct financial benefit to energy companies to include the technology.
Though there is a logical argument for us burning wood as a source of heat – it is a renewable source of energy as the wood is taken from a sustainable source – I wonder how far down the line is development of domestic sequestration.

How to live without running water – lessons from 15 dry months


I thought that we’d have a big celebration when we got water… so many of my sentences began with ‘when we have water, I’ll…’. But, to my own surprise, it doesn’t feel like such a big deal. And why? because we learned to live without it.

The water supply to Nový Mlýn was cut off (we think that when our neighbour built his house, he simply disconnected the supply from Nový Mlýn and diverted it to his new home).  Our lawyer told us that it was a cheap and simple task to get a new well put in, so we went ahead with the purchase anyway. It took us 15 months to get the necessary paperwork to install a new well from our local council. The bore hole cost a bomb. Luckily, we had a lot of help with the necessary manual work (such as the metre deep trench to take water to the house).

So, now we have a tap installed on the outside of Nový Mlýn. With clean and plentifully available water. No more filling up the barrel and transporting it from town. No more plastic bottles. No more dependence on rainwater – which inconveniently freezes in the winter.

According to a UN report in 2000, half of the World’s population live without access to clean water.  Our experience over the last 15 months has given us a little insight into how the other half live.   Those who have water on tap in the west use it wantonly. It is not a precious resource & because it is provided at a flat cost for most people, no penalty for leaving the tap on while you brush your teeth or flushing drinking water literally down the pan.

So, here’s what we learned:

  1. Rainwater is really useful: flushing toilets, pre cleaning dishes, for all household cleaning tasks. If you’re not going to lick it, then does it need to be drinking water quality?
  2. We used drinking water for washing, drinking & rinsing dishes.
  3. Heat. A can of water is kept by the kitchen sink for washing dishes. You don’t need to heat water to wash dishes most of the time, the problem is that when it comes out of the cold tap it is normally as cold as the ground – ie about 10 degrees C. Raise this to room temperature and it’s good to go.  Try it. As a result for our future hot water supply we will divert the water supply into the attic to preheat it before it goes into the boiler. That’ll save us a good 15 degrees heating costs in the summer (when the back boilers aren’t functioning).
  4. We have a composting toilet outside as well as a liquid only loo inside. We reduced the quantity of water needed to flush the toilet by putting rocks in the bowl. This also served as a visual reminder for visitors.  Two litres instead of five makes a huge difference if you have to go fill up buckets with rainwater to flush. I’m really not keen on the idea of ‘mellow yellow’ – it’s not so mellow when you’re female. You have to flush it away before you go so you don’t get splashback. We will hook up the toilets to a rainwater tank in the attic when we get the guttering replaced.
  5. In the bathroom we had the following: baby wipes (which were washed out and used for domestic cleaning & insulation at a later date) , an alcohol hand gel (for more paranoid visitors), liquid soap and a mister (a water spray with a pump to add pressure). The mister allows you to rinse soap from your hands very easily with a very small amount of water which you can turn on and off.
  6. Solar water heating – those inexpensive 20 litre bags, with the shower attachment are surprisingly effective.  I don’t know why solar water heaters are so expensive. We are putting double glazed windows in the south side of our roof & will use this light to heat water before it goes into the boiler.

Our next step will be to get the water inside… then we will be working on the first new bathroom – the accessible shower room.

The larch roof begins!


Today is the day the roofers arrive to replace our roof with a beautiful larch wooden roof. I need to remember to take some ‘before’ photos.

Wooden roofing is by far the most sustainable option – and unlike Cedar – is grown locally – so less embedded energy in shipping. The slats are hand split to make them naturally resistant to woodworm & other bugs.

The roofers plan to start with the roof of the front porch – that’s great because we will be able to see it immediately. Wish us luck!

Altitude & temperature calculations


I’ve been working on our project plan today, and thinking about heating. One very useful website I found today is called Gaisma, the data from which I should be able to use to calculate what will be the most effective way of heating our home.

Nový Mlýn is at an altitude of 540 metres above sea level. It is this factor which is the main influence on our climate. We’re about 90 metres higher than our nearest town, Tábor, but close in altitude to a neighbouring town Pelhřimov. The average temperatures are likely to be above 10 degrees c for six months of the year (that includes night time temperatures).

Our approach to heating is decidedly ‘suck it and see’. This winter we will use the traditional heating method for this area – i.e. wood burning stoves, and see how successful this is. Will we manage to keep warm? How much wood will we need? Will the daily work of setting fires become a grind? There’s one way to find out.

We’ve moved our bedroom so it’s above the dining room & kitchen, which we keep warm during the day. The bedroom is now adjoining the room upstairs with the super efficient barrel shaped stove. So far, so good, but the temperature outside is a mere 0, and it has much further to go.

« Older Entries