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Wednesday, 18 August 2010

Call me the Michelin Man

No, I haven't suddenly put on 20 stone and become bald. Let me explain... a bit later...

Well first of all apologies for the recent bloggy silence. It has various reasons: one, I have to admit, is I discovered Facebook, and despite myself, I'm rather enjoying it. Now don't get me wrong, it's not that I'm spending all day and night on Facebook now, but having found many of my friends past and present there, I decided to put the more... how shall I put it... chatty bits, you know the "our-life-in Italy" anecdotes there and concentrate this blog on what it was created for: The Path to Self Sufficiency. I know some of you enjoyed those other bits too, so I suggest you simply find me on Facebook and you'll see photos of our 20th wedding anniversary bash, a jam session we had in our kitchen last weekend, some walks we go on, Eddie growing etc and I post links to links to articles regarding the environment, music, Italy and other subjects that interest me. Some photos are for general viewing, some you'll have to be known to me. I'm easy to find, I believe I'm the only one with this name on FB. See you there if you like?

Another reason for my recent inactivity on this blog is that of course it's a busy time in the garden. Most days we are out there watering (although the last week-10days has been somewhat cooler with intermittent rain), harvesting the bounty of fresh produce and preserving it.

Finally I spent some time thinking about the direction our "path to self-sufficiency" is going to take us next. In the 5 years since we started cultivating our plot of land we have achieved I'd say 80% food self-sufficiency. We cannot produce quite sufficient carbo-hydrates (only potatoes to feed us for maybe half the year and some corn) and we have no livestock to supply us with animal proteins. We get around that by buying flour directly from the mil to make bread, buying large quantities of cheap pasta, rice and other staples whenever we do have money, bartering eggs for jam or favours and greatly reducing our meat consumption to once a week (less when we are really broke).

We are still dependant on fossil fuels for electricity supplied by the state supplier at around €50 for every 2 months (at least Italy is currently non-nuclear), to cook with gas (about 2 x10kg gass bottles per year at €16 each) some of our heating (another 5 gass bottles per winter) and to run the car, which we are trying to keep at around €20 a month, which gives us a range of approximately 200km. The largest bill by far is for communications: Currently we pay around €100 every 2 months to have an internet and telephone connection. I do have a pay-as-you-go mobile, costing me a negligible €10 a year. There's also insurance and tax for the car, which is currently being paid for us, which isn't exactly a satisfactory solution. Water bills and other taxes I've been so far successful in dodging all together in true Italian fashion.

So if you do your sums it tells you that we live on something in the region of €3,000 a year. How can we reduce that? I have recently started following the activities of Mark Boyle. He has lived for the last 19 months in a caravan without money. He is promoting his "Freeconomy" as a counter-balance to the money-based economomy. It is a kind of bartering system, where everyone within a community offers their services free of monetary charge. I very much like this concept and in many ways it still exists in the village I live in although complete independence from money is in my opinion not quite possible unless we retreat back to the caves. However, Mark's ideas are if nothing else inspiring.

So back to our situation: Let's start with the obvious, the car. Why do I still need a car? Partially to earn money, a large part is needed to run the former. The other reason we need a car is the distance between our land and our house (12.5km). Whilst we cycle and walk as much as possible, sometimes we have to transport bulky items one way or the other and there's a steep hill to climb either side of the valley.

At the moment Eddie our puppy is starting to be too big to ride on the back of the bike, but yet too small to run along. He's also in the chewing-everything-in-sight stage, meaning he can't be left home alone safely for a long period of time. So it's walking or driving at least for the moment. We can afford to drive maybe once a week. Other days I put on my rucksack and put a heavy compost bucket in it, returning with it empty but several kilos of potatoes, pears, apples, tomatoes, courgettes, aubergines, cucumbers... you get the picture. The other day I climbed back up our 300 metre hill with some 30kg on my back in the August heat.

This leaves us with very little energy to do a lot of the work that needs to be done and would therefore make us more independent, and we fall behind with pockets of jungle taken over various corners of our land. Also it greatly increases our calorie consumption, meaning we have to grow more to feed our greater calorie need. It's one of the reasons we are not complete vegetarians, because we literally crave higher value calories at times, feeling list-less and exhausted at times.

This summer we had come up with a part solution in setting up a semi-permanent tent on one of the lower terraces, but man I'm getting old. When I was young I didn't mind lying on any surface to sleep, but now I get up after a night on hard ground and I have trouble moving and my back is killing me, which is not conducive to a second days hard labour on our terraces.

Last year we had planned to build a larger and more solid wooden shed than our existing one, which looks like this:

We had gathered a lot of scrap wood off tips and were ready to start when I drove that %~+>£&** piece of bamboo into my arm. That put me out of any serious work for 4 months by which time the olives became a priority and then the weather changed. Now I look at the pile of timber gathered rotting on the top terrace and think of my efforts in woodwork classes in school. I was the kind of kid that came home with my piece from woodwork class and my parents would enthusiastically pronounce: "What a lovely... hedgehog?... piggy bank...? thing!"

Now finally the connection with the Michelin Man: last week I came across this web-site about how to build a house (low skill required!) entirely from recycled material, namely old car tyres, plastic and glass bottles and aluminium cans. They called it an earth-ship And hey presto a plan evolved in me head, but PSSSSSSSSST!!!! don't tell anyone. Strictly speaking I have no planning permission to build a dwelling on our land and not likely to get one either. I am allowed an up to 12m2 agricultural building, but I want more. The plan is this:

I'm intendingto construct a semi-permanent structure on our land using old car tyres filled with our clayey sub-soil (I knew the clay would be useful for something!) as main supporting walls. Some parts will however be sunk into existing terraces and covered up again with a vegetation covered roof, making them invisible from the outside, quasi underground. Not sure yet whether the vegetation will be grass growing on top or simply some climbing plant. Having in the meantime spoken to a couple of people with an engineering background, I was advised that the weight of the tyres might cause my terraces to subside, and I can see that.

Having chosen a realitively shady area with not much growing on it bar weeds on terrace 6 for the location of what I estimate to become an approximately 25 m2 house, I decided to build a foundation on terrace 7, also from tyres.

Not one to hang about for long, project Earth Ship got under way yesterday:

The only problem now is to find a sufficient number of tyres, so if you read this and you are in the area, please let me know of any hordes of dumped tyres, pick up any you may find on the side of the road, safe any from the tyre change on your car, please.

Eddie was helping too.

The idea is that I would like to build a building where I can store my tools and equipment safely, and which has a proper sleeping area, a kitchen and a bathroom. This way we can spend most of the summer there, use our produce fresher (rather than mashing them on the back of a bumpy bike only then to carry part of them back as compost), we'll have facilities to preserve them on-site and we have a shelter near our food source.

Longer term we may be able to work out some energie and communication solutions which won't involve being connected to the main network. We could possible sell our current house to finance things like solar panels and water retention systems etc. We wouldn't need a car any more and we may be able to keep some livestock.

This obviously is going to take us a while. I need to do a lot of excavation and more importantly we need to find a couple of hundred tyres and transport them to our land. Any advice by anyone on this would be much appreciated. Anybody wanting to get their hands dirty and help, you are more than welcome. For the moment Eddie is having a rest from his part in digging on the beginnings of the foundations:


Stefaneener said...

Ah, Facebook. I suppose it was inevitable.

Eddie is huge! Quite a proper doggie. We'll help some for a day this fall, but who knows where you'll be by then? It sounds like a semi-workable solution for you and I like the way you're interrogating your situation. The competing demands of age and desire are quite something, no?

Heiko said...

Oh we'll be here! This is just it, we want to make this permanent. My vagabonding days are over. The only trouble of course is that we'd become illegal by living on our land. However every time a pope dies they tend to give amnesties on illegally built houses, so might just get away with it. Otherwise we'll just do a sit-in protest. Surely they can't evict us from our own land.

Mr. H. said...

Wow, what an exciting undertaking. I can't wait to hear more about your little hobbit house in the garden, and I love the shed.

Check this out if you get a chance.:)



Mr. H. said...

Here are a couple of links that you might find interesting.



Heiko said...

Thanks for the links Mr.H, very useful, especcially since the official Earthship site isn't all that forthcoming with info unless you pay them.

I'm not so keen on my present shed myself. The rampant ivy on top is the only reason it hasn't fallen over yet. Mind you at least it makes it invisible, which means the tools inside are reasonably safe given that the door doesn't lock.

Ayak said...

This is a very exciting project Heiko...good luck with it...and I look forward to more posts on your progress.

So nice to see Eddie making himself useful ;-)

Laura said...

What a great post, and it is fantastic you are building your own dwelling! I also recently discovered Mark Boyle and Freeconomy, but I actually had heard of earthships a long time ago, and it has been in my mind to try to build one ever since. So I will follow your progress with great interest! (Sorry I can't help with the tires!)
When you really examine it, it is extremely difficult to be truly self-sufficient, though Boyle's story is inspiring. It is hard to get around bills for electricity, internet, etc. And then there are everyday products that you'd have to go back to pre-industrial ways of doing - making soap from lye, washing soda from kelp, etc.

Heiko said...

Ayak, thank you. When it comes to moving earth Eddie is all up for it. I just have to train him to move it from the right places to the right places. Him lying on top of the tyre is of course part of him compressing the dirt.

Laura, you are so right. Soap and soda are the relatively easy bits. Technology itself is reliant on a centralised moneyed system, machinery and drugs in hospitals. Of course Mark Boyle lives off many recycled things, which have already been produced, but this can't be possible forever. I recently read that the internet alone is responsible for 1% of global CO2 emissions and set to rise. All those data centres need a hell of a lot of energy!

chaiselongue said...

What a great idea! Recycling old tyres can only be a good thing. Surely the authorities won't notice.... I hope not. I really admire the self-suffiency you've achieved already so bon voyage on the path to further success!

I'll miss the chatty bits, so I'll look for your on Facebook - see you there!

Heiko said...

CL, I intend to hide even the visible outer walls under plenty of foliage. And even if some tyres peep out during the winter months, it'll probably look like any pile of rubbish that you see dumped around and nobody blinks an eye.

Anonymous said...

Wooden structures for agricultural use don't need planning permission and I'm sure your local commune won't have a clue how to to classify one made of tires, so I'm sure they'll ignore it if it ever came to their attention ;-) I'll be watching your progress with interest.

We considered building an earthship a couple of years back and the local tire dealer said we could use all their scrap ones for free (they have to pay for them to be destroyed). In the end though we've decided to build something similar into a bank as an occasional office / come winter accommodation for WOOFers out of tuffo blocks http://www.williamlishman.com/images/ughouse/Saringer.jpg

Heiko said...

That's what I'm banking on Contadina. However I am restricted to 12m2 even for a wooden structure. This thing is going to be considerably bigger though.

jann said...

Admirable! Your life. And I love Eddie.

Jan said...

This is very exciting Heiko, and I look forward to hearing how you're getting on!

pedals and paws said...

Eveline - another clog-wearer like yourself, recent Heiko Blog convert and friend here in Arles - told me about your amazing new project. Brilliant - just what you need for the summer. Can we come and stay??
By the way, your increased Facebook activity means that I am looking at it more than your blog - divided loyalities.
Edddie looks like a real dog - he's huge. Flea just looks like he did when you last saw him.
Love to you both

MikeH said...

With all due respect and not being critical, it seems to me that perhaps you are jumping too fast into a huge amount of work with the earthship. If you are looking for a way to avoid the 12.5 km trek and sleeping rough is too much, why not take an approach that requires minimal energy input so that the energy needed for food production is maximized. Build a wood platform for a large canvas tent. The platform would keep you away from the dampness of the soil and the wee beasties of the soil. Get cots or good thick foam to sleep on. Get a composting toilet. Use a solar shower. This would be a seasonal setup but it would allow you to work the terraces during the summer for days at a time.

Heiko said...

Thanks for the fair comment MikeH, Our 'Earthship is going to be a much more basic model. I do want something a bit more permanent than a canvas tent that I can also use in winter, so we can look after livestock, but it's not going to be as elaborate as the original. It'll take time to build, but we're in no rush. as far as showers is concerned, we already can take showers there and human waste gets spread around liberally without having to build a compost toilet. We just dig a hole somewhere. Thanks for your interest.