Category Archives: Manufacturing

Vertecology’s Gone to the Bees!

Okay so it’s official. In between rocking out the Hanging Gardens and the rest of the goodies, Vertecology LLC has gone to the bees. Specifically, mason bees, little critters that are about 100 times as effective as honey-bees at pollination and without the sting or the susceptibility to the dread Colony Collapse Disorder. In layman’s terms this means that mason bees, 140 species of which are native to North America (there are about 300 species worldwide, mainly in the Northern Hemsiphere) are so easy to “keep” that even kids can do it and don’t need special training or clothes, and it also means that the fruit apocalypse predicted by doomsayers with the attendant collapse of the bees doesn’t have to happen.

In fact honeybee populations are in trouble, but if enough of us get mason bees augmenting them in the garden, we can still enjoy peaches, plums, apples and apricots and lots of other stuff for a million seasons to come. And when the honeybees do make a comeback, which they certainly will as queens adapt to the new ecological reality, their sharing of the turf with the native, solitary mason bees will not hurt anyone, in fact, will allow for an even more robust ecology.

The idea of offering a number of habitat designs came with a fun and lively bug in my ear by the name of Laura “Bee” Ferguson, principal of Bee Haven International, and we’re both working closely with Pacific Domes International of Ashland, Oregon. While I haven’t got the much hoped for day job with the folks at Pacific just yet we are now excited to be working together on this venture.

In anticipation of the page launch I put up a number of the habitats for sale at the first annual Autumn Ashland Maker’s Market put on by the Southern Oregon Crafters’ Collective, sold a few and got a lot of interest.

So now it’s time to let the secret out, the page is up… click here or just go to the “Mason Bee Habitat” link at the top of this site. There’s a much richer bit of info up there, and it’s going to fill in more in the coming days and weeks, as will the product and build-it-yourself options. On a business front this is exciting too, as it creates an additional layer of very affordable, participatory, permaculture-oriented Vertecology products that will move very quickly and provides the opportunity to prototype and test out business models formerly reserved only for the big installs a lot more easily. Here in fact is the current business plan & financials, if you’re so inclined, thanks to SCORE on this one.

If you’ve got a garden in the zones where mason bees thrive (check the spread on the Mason Bee Page) or know someone who does, make a purchase if you can either from the sidebar on the right side of the Mason Bee page or directly from the Etsy shop… it will support Vertecology, the ecology at large and bring you a lot more yummy fruits and veggies next spring. And do keep checking back as I’m about to get crazy on the design side of things.

Thanks again and enjoy!

Vertical Ecology: The Hanging Garden Goes up at the Famous Brewery

Well a picture is worth a thousand words, and a video is worth a lot more than that. So this time around I won’t say much and let the pictures speak for themselves.

This five-level Hanging Garden, built from reclaimed plywood from the Reuse People was installed Tuesday afternoon at Philip Horvath’s loft in the Brewery. The hardest part was getting the ceiling – concrete, but above 3-1/2 inches of pure, white, crumble as you drill into it and of course, eco-friendly styrofoam – to take something from the hardware store strong enough, and long enough, to do the hanging part.

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Getting the piece up in about 3 hours, was a real triumph and proves the concept at a whole new level, not to mention the fact that I’ve upgraded the craftsmanship considerably and used a coat of Peonfin oil for a long-term waterproof, beautiful and eco-friendly finish. Now it’s just a matter of further refining the product, testing some new materials and manufacturing approaches and staying in connection with Philip and Barry to see the piece get planted and move through a hopefully very long life cycle. I’ll be sure to update here as the plot thickens.

The video and still footage captured, some of which is shown here is also going to be quite a resource when the Kickstarter is launched for the Venice Community Garden build. Thanks for looking & if you’re interested in a Hanging Garden: markscottlavin-at-gmail-dot-com / 818.538.6586. Thanks!

Blowing Through the Bottleneck & Occupying Opportunity: A Hanging Garden for the Venice Community Garden

Well some of you might have perused the blog here and seen some cool design projects emerging into some sort of business and then a few rants on new economic models. “Make up your mind,” you might have found yourself thinking, or you might have just wondered how the threads were eventually going to merge, sort of like Cirque and Soleil… is it a Barnum & Bailey circus or risqué theater… which is it…? Well, I’m happy to tell you that the threads do merge into one, and it will become a bit more obvious how here. Opportunities to rise to the occasion and to step into one’s vision often come in strange packages.

This particular opportunity came a few weeks ago as the second client, the Venice Community Garden, lined up for a Vertecology Hanging Garden. Our discussions were filled with excitement. Their existing grant could cover it and they had a spot already picked out.

We all saw that a Hanging Garden, eventually perhaps several, would be great for the Community Garden. A three-level unit could turn one square foot of blossoming, mulching, carbon-sinking, food-making garden space into three with trellising to boot. It would bring beauty and novelty that would make people curious, draw them in and peak their interest in gardening, community, food forestry and permaculture. It could even inspire more creativity, yield potential new gardening students, and bring more income to the community garden’s capable users and teachers.

We saw as well that it would be good for the earth. It is said that an organically-sourced 1.6% increase in soil in currently farmed lands throughout the earth would be the death knell for global warming. Enter the Hanging Garden as soil multiplier. It could create new “edge” and microclimate conditions where biodiversity thrives. It could bring more life into the area, helping to make the whole neighborhood more fertile: think new varieties of plants in each of the boxes attracting the birds and the bees. Meanwhile it would be pulling reclaimed wood out of the waste stream, or at the very least putting income into the hands of sustainable wood suppliers and intrepid CNC Do-it-yourselfers.

And it would be great for me. I’d earn an honest keep, would reinvest the surplus funds to refine the product, design a cool stand to create a freestanding option, develop a manufacturing process, and get lots of footage for outreach and for the Kickstarter campaign I’ve been contemplating. It would bring more exposure for the concept and for Vertecology and new clients to my doorstep.

Great for the community, good for the client, good for the earth, good for the creator; everybody wins. Why then wouldn’t it happen?

Well then last week, the deflated message landed in my voicemail while I worked away at my new full-time “day job” that’s quietly morphing into a part-time job… “The grant is almost gone. We can’t afford the Hanging Garden.” No new blossoming, mulching, carbon-sinking, food-making garden space. No curious visitors. No new inspiration, no new potential students, no new soil, no new biodiversity, no more fertility in the neighborhood, the wood ends up in the garbage after all and the FSC suppliers are a little more broke, no design innovations, no footage and I’m sitting on my hands worried once again about making rent.

We have all been taught that this is the way of things, that there is no other way the world could work. Well-meaning peers remind me of what I already know: that this sort of thing happens all the time. It is to be expected. The best thing is to just plan on it happening some big percentage of the time and move on to the next sale.

But as I said before, opportunities to rise to the occasion often come in strange packages.

Perhaps a year or so ago, newly armed with a Permaculture Design Certificate and ready to kick some ass, I spent the $3 I had in my pocket and a good solid day at a coffee shop exploring how I could launch what is now emerging as Vertecology. It was just an idea then, and in there somewhere was the beginning of a notion of how to break through the bottleneck inherent in the economic monoculture. The point was to be able to do the “good” kind of work, the “work to be done” as Starhawk once called it, the kind of work that liberates the 100% forever, not just the 1% for a little while, that restores the earth’s plenty, the work that continues to yield real ecological, social and technical and artistic “profit” generations after our hands have stopped moving and creates time… The point was to liberate myself and others to be able to do this work and yet share the in the bounty our current economy at least appears to promise.

So here’s the idea, now being called into the game. I was already planning a Kickstarter campaign as I mentioned earlier. A little one, maybe a thousand dollars or so, to work out the refinements, manufacturing and delivery of the Hanging Garden enough to say I can deliver to expectant buyers in a timely fashion. The plan was to start it after the Venice Community Garden install. I have begun already to compose letters to a couple of very green and like-minded companies for sponsorship. Maybe you’ve heard of the LifeBox? Think receiving your Hanging Garden in a LifeBox, then cutting up the box, throwing the shreds in the hanging planters, water and voila!

Then it struck me like a lightning bolt; roll the Venice Community Garden design/build into the Kickstarter! We’re brought together by our common vision and desire and now a wider community can decide if the project is worth it. The amount of money to be raised wouldn’t need to change and the prototypes would get a home right away. The outreach can be to thousands instead of hundreds of people, and all those stakeholders in the success of the Community Garden, Vertecology, Venice, Los Angeles, even in the ideas of permaculture, regenerative economics and community gardening themselves, can vote with their dollars. To the extent they have the dollars… Well, the idea in this first stage of implementation isn’t completely bottleneck-proof, more on how to solve that in a minute. Just saying that for now the Kickstarter idea is enough to get this ball rolling.

And so what about the second stage of the idea, the second stage which could make our unfolding un-bottleneck-able? Truthfully, it makes sense to test the first stage first, but here goes a little preview, inspired by the new openness and willingness of all you Occupiers to hear. I just can’t help myself. The future, say the day after next Tuesday…

Take out the word “Kickstarter campaign” and replace it with “IOU.” As in: the Community Garden issues an IOU, interest-free, backed by its ability and willingness to redeem the IOU for equivalent value to anyone who hands it back to them. To the degree that the community trusts the Garden to redeem the IOU on request, we accept it as money. I can use it at restaurants, in parking meters, at the car wash, to pay rent (which is a lot lower with the loan interest off the landlord’s back). I can issue IOU’s too but of course the same terms apply. Maybe I’ll call mine Buckys after Bucky Fuller. You can issue too. What would you call yours? Einsteins maybe? After all, the power to issue and the power to choose what you accept or decline is a fundamental human right, just like air, and there wasn’t even anything that says it was illegal, even in long ago 2008 (I’m just sayin’). But little Jedis, with great freedom comes great responsibility. If I’m trustworthy with my IOUs and you charge interest for “loans” and play games like cooking the books while trying to force everybody to accept only your IOUs, karma’s going to getcha, just like our bankster friends. My Buckys will soon be worth four of your Einsteins and good luck dear sir!

Anyway back to the present with the caveat that this future is already being worked on, read about it in Thomas Greco’s Money: Understanding and Creating Alternatives to Legal Tender, and ‘nuff said. Once I have enough experience, partnership and clout with Vertecology, I’ll be investing Vertecology’s resources into helping to make that last paragraph a living reality. Then there won’t be any trouble getting Hanging Gardens out there till something truly better for everyone makes itself known. For now, forget I said anything. Scratch it from memory.

Norma at the VCG is already excited about the Kickstarter idea and I’ll be launching in the next month or two, as we get the materials organized. The Venice Community Garden will get its Hanging Garden after all. Stay tuned & thanks for your continued interest!

A Review & Response: Thomas Greco’s The End of Money and the Future of Civilization

While I’ve got several projects in the pipeline and lots to blog about on that front, I’m taking a break to critique the groundbreaking book I just read – Thomas Greco’s The end of Money and the Future of Civilization.

While the plan around Vertecology is to make some money, the plan within the plan is to help us all transition beyond the need for it. Until we’ve done that, we won’t have a regenerative or creative society and it’s not a problem of the left or right but a fundamental design problem. The current economic regime is a boat with a hole in it. Until that’s dealt with, the boat will sink, no matter whether it’s piloted by the red or the blue.

While politicians haw about “jobs, jobs, jobs” and imaginary debt ceilings, the “money system” as currently structured is a resource bottleneck. While there is plenty of computing power, steel, bamboo, sun, biomass, mulch… The millions of people with arms and legs and nimble minds ready and willing to do the real work to be done with the resources sitting all around them are left instead begging for jobs in cities where it’s illegal to grow fruit trees on public property for fear of litigation. And so the factories sit idle, or worse, make things that make life more difficult for all of us.Missile Image

There are of course plenty of people who would empower the willing, give access to the tools and space they need to unfold truly beneficial skill and innovation. But they can’t afford it.

I’ve built treehouses for the children of the ultra-rich in Bel Air. I’ve also built for the destitute in post-quake Haiti.  While both have presented awesome design challenges, it’s pretty easy to guess which has brought greater financial reward, greater “incentive,” and even “smart, realistic” encouragement from well-meaning loved ones. Spirituality aside, it’s pretty apparent who and what gets rewarded, and who we all end up working for.

Continue the trend long enough and you get the well intentioned of our world crying “I need a job,” crime, clear-cutting and corporations externalizing costs. You get televised false advertising 24/7, “I ain’t got time to garden” and kids who think veggies come from plastic wrappers and who never met their fathers.  It starts to look like the good ol’ USA, the richest, freest, fattest nation on Earth.

So what comes after? The End of Money and the Future of Civilization explores the “money problem” and its history, and offers some compelling and potentially real world solutions. While the proposals have also left me with questions, I am ecstatic to have in Greco such a brilliant and capable partner in this grand inquiry, perhaps the most important of our time. (Click here to check out his blog… At last I know I’m not the only one celebrating “bad” economic news these days).

Greco defines the money problem as having two major components. One is that currency is politically controlled. Just as church and state were once joined, such it still is with money. You have one official state currency, which can only be issued by a state sanctioned central bank. Legal tender laws require that the currency be accepted by all parties at face value, no matter whether they find the currency credible, and all value is calculated in terms of the official currency. Whether the bank is privately owned or state owned makes no difference as it’s a monopoly in either case.

This note is legal tender for all debts, public or private.

This setup enables the bank/state cartel to issue (debt) money out of thin air, hold its tax base accountable for paying the made-up bills, set the terms for getting credit, manipulate the economy in favor of those who can pay to manipulate the economy, and quash all alternatives.

The second part is that usury is built-in. The central bank prints money to cover state debt, but does so at interest, creating the inevitable situation that there will never be enough money in the world to pay all the debts that are owed, and what goes for the beleaguered state must trickle down to the taxpayer, who buys a house, goes to the bank, and has a 1 in 10 chance of foreclosure on the bank’s terms. The economy must grow to cover all this debt, meaning it must generate more debt to pay for the debt.

Credit Card Debt Stretcher

The solution offered comes first with the separation of money and state. Trying to do this politically is like trying to swim up a waterfall, so it’s best to create viable competing alternative systems that stay under the radar until they hit critical mass in the marketplace.

Once the monopoly has been dislodged, “monetary” systems would be left competing like any other product in the market. The most empowering setups would presumably win, and money-as-credit, once decentralized could become the most empowering setup. Credit clearing exchanges such as the former Swiss Economic Circle now known as the WIR Bank and the mercados de trueque that held the Argentine economy together while the state currency collapsed in the 1990’s could become the norm, small pods of prosumers (producer/consumers) creating credit networks that link together into worldwide exchanges. Each joins and offers his products and services and with usury out of the equation, the “money” supply always matches the actual products and services available.

Awesome, but I’ve got questions. I’ll pose them here in hopes of drumming up an interesting discussion. While I like the idea of letting currency systems compete in the marketplace, and the idea of credit-clearing networks, intuition tells me to look from a wider angle, that this approach can well replace the current financial regime, but that is not the whole solution. After all, credit-clearing systems in the current cultural context might still have reason to be manipulated, mismanaged or politically suppressed (and have been, as Greco himself has noted). As our capitalist economy has shown, people get greedy when their survival is on the line (regardless if the threat is real or imaginary).

I certainly don’t have a full understanding of what exactly would happen if the de-politicized global credit clearing genie were let out of the bottle. Maybe no one does. Maybe the explosive growth of internet phenomena like Facebook can provide a case study, maybe not. That’s why I want to jump into discussion and exploration.

I’m thinking from the permaculture principle of redundancy. Build multiple redundancies into the ecosystem you’re designing. Make sure you’ve got multiple sources of water, not just one, that way if one fails, well, you get the picture.

In that sense we’d include experimentation with credit-clearing networks on the free market, where it’s appropriate to use commerce to get what we want and need, and also make that but part of a larger strategy. We’d also go beyond thinking of the “money problem” in monetary terms so we can solve it. Perhaps there is also fundamental cultural evolution that must occur so that the system of energy exchange can take its rightful place in society, be an organ that serves, rather than devours people, communities and the planet.

Commerce is just an evolutionary strategy, an ecological adaptation. We trade things because it enables us to expend less energy than we would otherwise have to. As long as it’s efficient for us, it makes sense to trade. When it ceases to be more efficient for us, it no longer makes sense. As we widen our view and look upon the state of our world today, we are beginning to see that threshold. And a strategy is not who we are; it is just what we do.

Desert trade caravan

So I’ve thought of “money problem” solution as a spiral. As we advance up the spiral, less and less depends upon the “economy” as we now understand it:

First, getting basic food requirements out of the currency-exchange equation – make food free for everyone – goes a long way to eliminating our dependence on money for immediate survival. While this may sound impossible to some, it can be easily achieved with cultural willingness, ecological literacy and techne (the Greek root for technique and technology, most simply, the knowledge of how to make things). One study considers that the arable land needed to feed an adult human being is about 1,000 square feet, if organic methods are used.

If permaculture principles are intelligently applied, then the land can produce until the next comet strike or alien invasion, and in such a way that when the ecosystem is mature on the land, there’s just some human guidance required and sustenance for the wildlife too. Even in the far north, people have been feeding themselves for generations, and with food forestry in modern urban cultures, the pressures on their lands will diminish considerably. It does take labor, of course, just not money.

Even more critical of course is water, but this is at the same point on the spiral because wise design for food takes care of water. Plants keep water on the land; then there’s just a need to harvest, filter, cleanse and replenish it, all of which can be handled via the ecosystem services that give us the food. Such systems also restore soil, pull carbon and pollutants out of the atmosphere, get us outside and exercising and meeting neighbors, reduce our dependence on big pharma, big ag and big oil, restore our relationship with nature and spirit, and provide endless opportunities for educating children.

Moving beyond this point on the spiral, society gets a little more courageous, since we don’t need the jobs as bad. We can blow the whistle, which hastens the next level of the spiral – energy. When we can get energy out of the money system, our means and volume of production will become consistent with real need and imagination, rather than balance sheet expectations. I’m not going to advocate for one kind of energy production here; I will only say that what we pull out of the field of endless possibility, once the groping hands of big oil have lost their ability to control our politics and pocketbooks will be contextually appropriate and consistent with our true science and values.

With our ingenuity, we will surely in time come up with automated, sustainable energy production, and with free energy, we advance further up the spiral toward ubiquitous, but also authentically appropriate decentralized DIY manufacturing. Since manufacturing will always involve human imagination and effort, exchange will always be involved, but by this point there’s far more incentive for that to become honest, equitable, mutually empowering and ecologically sustainable.

Next on the spiral comes health. As energy and manufacturing are liberated, medicine will become far more open source. Combine this with freer time, functioning ecologies and communities, organic food and medical research’s decentralization and release from money-dependence, you get far healthier people. (See the research on blue zones). We will always need practitioners for certain issues and honor them with energy exchange, but the bill won’t give us a heart attack.

And how about land? That is certainly the most entrenched form of “property,” going back thousands of years. One could imagine it coming far sooner on the spiral, except for that very reason. Yet I imagine in the liberated environment made possible by uncoupling food, water, energy production and to some extent automated manufacturing from the system of commerce, creative and innovative arrangements even here will become a lot more plausible, an appropriate balance between the commons and private ownership rediscovered.

From Money-Dependence to Global Commons and Regenerative Civilization

Part of my reason for starting Vertecology is to facilitate this spiraling process. 1,000 square feet doesn’t necessarily have to be all on the ground, and it can be artfully arranged. Free energy possibilities come in two forms really, both of which I am also exploring with gusto. One is conservation – transferring dependence from man-made systems like air-conditioning to naturally facilitated “passive” systems like solar chimneys. The other is energy production.

That said, I would love to hear response from Greco and others here, since from discussion can emerge more and more effective efforts in climbing the spiral. What I have to offer through Vertecology will be just one node in a whole ecosystem of efforts, skills, and approaches that will have to be engaged. Our two approaches can be complimentary, along with a host of others. Get the book to read for yourself here, and let the discussion, and the adventure continue.

Free Energy Can Be So Black and White

Ever the iconoclast, or at least ever the wannabe, I spent a good number of my teen years insisting on an all-black wardrobe, and to this day I still have my happy black days. Leaving for school in September, Mom would always ask “Aren’t you hot?”

“Nah…” (yes, but it was about looking good. Sweat, what sweat?)

So everyone knows a black outfit on a hot day is very different than a white one, even when they’re otherwise identical. Black absorbs heat and white reflects it.

But just how useful might this principle prove in ecological design? What opportunities does it provide? Could we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? How about artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Could we reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? If so, painting the house isn’t just about pretty; it’s functional… and more profoundly beautiful.

So to grow as a designer and see what’s possible, I pulled together an experiment. It isn’t rocket science, and I know I’m not the first to do it, but it was great to engage.

With one of my wooden octahedron prototypes, about 3 feet to a side already painted black for the LooptWorks show, I painted the other one white. On each I put a triangular “table top” made of half-inch ply, one painted black, the other white. Then I lined them up about two feet apart along the sun-arc so that both got full sun all day and so that neither sat on a hotter or colder spot than the other.

The two octahedrons, one white, one black, side by side in the roof garden

With a laser temperature gun, I took the temperature at the center and corner of each table top, and for comparison, took the temperature of the tar-panel rooftop itself. I should also mention that I did this experiment on a hot LA August day, with not a cloud in the sky after the initial coastal burnoff by probably 10 am.

I found several relationships. When the sun is directly overhead, there was as much as 65 degrees F difference between the tabletops. The black might close in on 150 degrees F while the white hovered around 80 or 90. The difference fell quickly once the sun dropped to the horizon, and disappeared entirely once it was gone, so with sunlight out of the equation, factors other than color determine temperature.

Results from the temperature experiment, showing big differences between the black and white octahedrons

The temperature of the black octahedron swung wildly in daylight with even a slight breeze, more in the corner than the center. While I scanned with the temp gun for 20 seconds, the temperature at the corner might vary 10 degrees with a breeze. The thin plywood, with little thermal mass, would dissipate and regain its heat quickly. The white also fluctuated but not nearly so wildly. And the white sometimes even hung out in the 60 degree range while the hot sun roiled above, setting the roof ablaze to the tune of 120-140 degrees F. The temperature difference between the black center and black corner also varied as much as 20 degrees F while the sun was high up, showing again how the slight thermal mass and poor heat retention of the plywood gives it up to the air quickly.

So can we we generate flow in still ponds with patterns of black and white stone? Create temperate and tropical microclimates right next to each other? Artificial winds where the air gets purified as it flows? Reduce the need for powered heating and cooling with color? Yes, but exactly how and how much is a matter of more experimentation, as well as learning from people who have done these sorts of things, in some cases thousands of years ago, and in some cases learning from the most recent science available. A half-cup innovation plus a half-cup of remembering.

Thinking about the 2012 festival circuit, experimental structures in the “developing world” and some planned DIY offerings, this new awareness is definitely clarifying and helping to define some Vertecology build proposals already in the works.

Some design opportunities now apparent: Using a material other than wood will effect the temperature differences. Using steel or some kinds stone of could produce differences in the hundreds of degrees, maybe enough to turn electrical turbines or “magically” pull water out of “thin air,” though steel heat would probably dissipate a lot faster than stone heat.

Greater thermal mass would also take much longer to heat but also to cool, making it possible to radiate warmth well into the night and keep a house cool well into the day. And materials can be played against one another – low retention, low conductivity wood painted white, vs high retention and moderately conductive stone, vs highly conductive and low retention steel, to create truly designer passive solar effects.

Taking this into consideration, here’s one application of passive solar in a “permaculture structure” with multiple functions in the diagram below. This is based on solar updraft tower technology, and this specific set of diagrams takes the fuel-free energy-generation Botswana Solar Updraft test facility, which ran in 2007, as the starting point. (Their experiment documentation here).

Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits

While their small test tower would probably not generate much power, with the right combination and density of materials, its performance might improve dramatically without an increase in size. This at the very least would make a great project for the 2012 festival circuit, and it could become a model for community-scale free energy generation, desert-greening and even seed spreading and vertical habitat building… all at once. (I actually have less interest in really huge industrial versions of this structure 800 meters tall, which require industrial-scale funding, a corporate building approach, and which could have adverse effects on the earth’s atmosphere – think jets of our precious air superheated and streaming into space)

On a more immediate note I also now know why the Sugar Shack roof garden is frying, and we can do something about it. The first of the new tire planters has already been painted white, as of about 4 pm today.