Blog Archives

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!

A New Rainwater Harvesting System Online on the Westside

Hello all! Once again I can’t say much because the pics speak for themselves. I just did a one day install at the home of Chris Toussaint, LA Westside permaculturist and filmmaker, said install consisting of a vinyl downspouts leading inexorably and leak-free(!) to a rain harvesting barrel provided by Sustainable Works in the City of Santa Monica… my second rainwater harvesting system. I got to see firsthand the lessons I learned from the Sugar Shack install working beautifully here, and I must say I left the work site ready to celebrate, pumping the tunes loud and hard in the hump-day traffic toward home.

As you can see in the little photo-diagram below, in the initial consultation we discussed a number of actions for optimizing passive water use on the property. Wednesday afternoon, the downspout went up beautifully; the rest may come later.

The celebratory mood came not only from the seamless installation, or from the fact that I have gained more wisdom to offer in the upcoming e-book, or from the new information we will gain from this install as it functions in months and years to come. It came also in  the recognition that this little 55-gallon system is another tiny but definitive step in the direction of freedom for all of us; after all, if everyone in LA put up a little system like this, it might be enough to give our aqueducts and maybe the Sacramento Delta or the Colorado River enough time off to regenerate the abundance they can provide for all of us.

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Thank you Chris for creating the opportunity and caring for people and planet. And thank you all for listening. I hope I’ve inspired you.

Toward a culture of abundance, ho!

Five New Square Feet of Urban Economic Liberation: Planting the Hanging Garden

I’m pleased to announce that the next phase of Hanging Garden R&D is underway. Starting with a 1-1-1 mix of sand, homemade compost and potting soil, I’ve seeded all five levels of a Hanging Garden now swinging from the rafters at the Sugar Shack with small herbs that will help prepare its soil for later planting, attract birds and beneficial, predatory insects like ladybugs, long-term test the Hanging Garden’s performance in outdoor conditions and offer the intentional community here another baby step toward urban economic liberation.

Part of the fun is getting to experiment with five separate “test tubes” if you will. The bottom three levels got dusted with seeds of the yarrow plant, which according to legend was carried into battle by Achilles because of its effectiveness in treating battle wounds, and whose tendency to accumulate minerals means rich soil will be left in its wake. The fourth level up is planted with both yarrow and echinacea purpea seeds to get an idea of how the two behave together. The top level is seeded with echinacea alone, and echinacea is the go-to plant for easing a cold out of your body (something the house could use right about now).

For both herbs the winning planting formula appears to include spreading the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep. The yarrow seeds are little bigger than fine grains of sand and get spread liberally. The larger echinacea seeds get dropped individually about 2 inches apart. Then on all levels, I overlaid some exhausted coffee grinds from the house coffee maker.

The setup will get lots of sun on the rooftop, just like these plants love. It is winter here of course, but it is Southern California and these plants which would get planted later in the spring further north can take the couple of frosts we might get this season. If all goes well, we should start to see little green leaves popping up in about a week or so.

And this is a great opportunity to explore what the Hanging Garden can do best. For while we grow these herbs here, as other installs go up, Hanging Garden clients can begin to share notes – I hope to have a forum for this on Vertecology as  more installs go up and things come together.

And finally, a bit of cross pollination – it’s great to be watering the Hanging Garden with water from the rain harvesting system in the downstairs garden. Already watering the Hanging Garden on the rooftop, I’ve taken on watering the whole roof garden; prior to building the water harvesting system, I knew simply that our rooftop garden needed water. The water messily came out of a hose when I turned on the spigot, and that’s about all I knew.

The Sugar Roof Garden takes about 4 gallons of water per day in winter.

I always felt a pinge of guilt in watering the American Way, having no idea of how much water I was actually using, and only knowing that the water was coming from places like Mono Lake and the Sacramento Delta. By watering with buckets from the harvesting system, I’ve learned that the rooftop garden requires about four gallons per day in the winter time. Sure the watering is a bit more laborious but the information gained while exercising – climbing stairs with bucket in hand, has named the unnamed and means that I can now realistically design for how much water a design-build-permaculture install will actually need and yield.

Thank you Norma Bonilla for the soil mix formula and Baza Novic for the seeds and planting direction. I’ll keep y’all posted, and of course I welcome feedback. Thanks!

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 Rainwater Collection System for the Sugar Shack

Here are some shots of the gravity-fed rainwater catchment system I just finished for the Sugar Shack, the 14-person urban intentional community in the heart of Mid-City LA where I have been residing the last few months. It has been an incredible learning and growing experience, one that has begun to fulfill my vision of “permaculture structures” that are amazingly beautiful and amazingly multi-functional, and I hope this system will serve the community for decades to come.

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This is a 220-gallon system composed of the four 55-gallon drums you see in the photos, all acquired by one of our housemates from a TV shoot he worked on a couple of months ago. The system has two collection sources, on the left a roughly 80 square foot sloped second-story roof area, and on the right the roof deck over the community room. On that side I think we’ll get about 200 square feet of collection area, based on how the roof up there slopes.

In an average LA rain-year, with about 15 inches of rain and about 85% efficiency in the system (we’ll lose a bit of water to some gutter leaks even as I’ve improved them extensively), we can potentially catch up to 2,200 gallons, assuming we cycle the water into the garden between the usual run of winter and spring storms.

For every foot you raise the rain barrels, you get about one pound per square inch (PSI) of pressure, so I built the table to raise the barrels about 2-1/2 feet off the ground and stabilized it with concrete pier footings on a bed of sand. When the barrels are full, the added height will yield a pressure of about 5 or 6 PSI, enough to run a hose around the garden (and maybe better than our showers, I might add :)). Plus a double coat of eco-friendly Penofin oil finish on reclaimed wood otherwise headed for the garbage is amazingly beautiful, waterproof, easily restored, and will last for years.

Learning about rain catchment in the last couple of years, I was compelled to take the project on as a gift to the community; like any well-designed permaculture system, a good rainwater catchment system as part of a larger ecological strategy can provide multiple “yields” or benefits to residents and communities. Some of these are hidden until you look a little closer at a good system and what it can do. Catching water for garden use is actually just the beginning, and more than it seems to be at first glance. A well-functioning system

  • Keeps local moisture local. Instead of shunting rainwater uselessly and often toxically down storm drains, captured rainwater cycles through your garden, then percolates through the soil and back down to the local aquifer or evaporates from the leaves of plants. Either way the water gets naturally cleaned in the process and eventually becomes available to plants, animals and people in the watershed to use again either via rain or wells. Even just putting filters made of old window-screen on the inflow points of your system can cleanse the inflow more thoroughly than many municipalities now do, even if some of that inflow just ends up in storm drains as excess.
  • Converts dollars into ecosystems – the system costs some money to build, but then increases your self reliance as opposed to dollar reliance. You spend a little money only once, rather than continuously for costly municipal water unsustainably imported from somewhere else, and the captured water supports your food forest.
  • Can save lives in a disaster. In LA, like much of the world, fires are a fact of life and when the municipal water supply is taxed, 220 gallons to wet the ground can mean the house is still standing. Even non-potable water can be boiled and drank in an emergency as well; 220 gallons for the Sugar Shack can mean a 6-day emergency supply for the house’s 14 residents.
  • Can take the pressure off aging infrastructure. In the US, much of our water infrastructure is approaching the limits of its design-life. Considering the condition of our institutions and economic system here in the US, we can’t count on these systems getting redesigned or even restored to original functionality any time soon. “We the people” must now shoulder the burden of building a decentralized infrastructure, but this can be an opportunity.
  • Can include structural elements that can become trellising for vertical gardens. The truss beams on our table will make nice supports for tomato vines.
  • Can act as thermal mass, dampening temperature fluctuations around the garden and even part of the house.
  • And can give you more water than you might expect. Depending on your location, you can perhaps expect to see your system fill several times during a season. The system I built here in Los Angeles for instance is a 220 gallon system; during an average winter, I expect that it will get filled three or four times based on the square footage. To see how much water you can collect from a system, click here.

In the near term, I’ll be posting some video on Youtube showcasing the Sugar Shack system and releasing a short e-book on how to build your own rainwater catchment system. For now, enjoy the photos while your party is reached and stay tuned.

Oh, and let it rain, let it rain, let it rain!

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.

Prototype “Truss Table” and “Octet” Make an Appearance at the California Gift Show

Well there’s nothing growing on them (yet… stay tuned…) but this table and octahedron, built of entirely reclaimed materials made an appearance this weekend at the California Gift Show as part of the booth for Looptworks, a Portland, Oregon based startup that has recently been featured in Fast Company and Entrepreneur magazines (Click on the links for the articles). Looptworks specializes in limited runs of stylish clothing and other accessories such as iPad and laptop bags made from “upcycled” materials – scrap fabrics that would otherwise be thrown away by textile manufacturers.

As the photos attest we also included displays for their presentation that were entirely improvised from scrap palettes and plywood dumped in a Midtown LA parking lot – it’s amazing what a bit of paint and style can do. After a hump-day all-nighter building the table I met up with Scott Hamlin and Kiana Neal, who commissioned the design and flew down to represent Looptworks at the Gift Show. We then spent most of a tired but fun Thursday installing at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

The table and octahedron are entirely modular. The table is constructed from a single repeating wooden form that can be modified slightly with each iteration and positioned either to become part of the top or one of the side supports, and that when put together form a solid truss.

The frame was made from reclaimed Douglas Fir 2×4’s that were originally used by a photographer friend for another display, and we decided to leave a few traces of the text she painted on the wood for a little taste of the materials’ history and a stylish flair further enhanced by artful cuts and gaps on the plywood and scrap corrugated plastic tabletop.

The octahedron, also of reclaimed Douglas Fir mostly purchased from Jose Nunez & Son scrap yard in East LA (2×4’s for $1 a piece if you’re willing to pull the nails), is also part of a repeating system, one that can be adapted as a multifunctional garden system – individual octahedron/tetrahedron elements such as this one can be stacked, bolted together, individual units being left open, partially or wholly enclosed, with each unit taking on one or more ecological x structural x happy-people functions, pretty much limited only by imagination. Check the photo below.

All in all a great weekend and I look forward to working with Looptworks again in the near future; we are already planning on another show in October

You can see more photos including process shots on my facebook profile photo album. And do, if you get the chance, click on the link above for Douglas Fir – it helps us all to know where the materials originally originated. These trees can grow to 393 feet. I was quite amazed to learn 🙂

Ants, Grasshoppers, a New Kind of Economy and the Vision Behind Vertecology

Good morning beautiful world. Here’s a bit of a story for you. There was once an ant and a grasshopper. The grasshopper hopped about all summer, enjoying the fruits and the grains all around him. He looked down on the ant, who spent her summer gathering and harvesting for the winter, industriously taking the bounty into the ground every day… working away.

The grasshopper said to the ant, why do you worry so?

The ant, not understanding the meaning of the word “worry,” asked, what do you mean? I’m just ensuring that our people have plenty through the winter when it comes, that we have abundance then, as now.

The grasshopper replied, “Winter? What is winter?”

This is perhaps the tale now unfolding in America, and not in the way you would expect. We’re now hearing stories in the media about the pending default on US debt, and yes, it is indeed pending. It may not happen on August 2, maybe an emergency deal will be struck, maybe again and again until 2012 or 2015 or even 2040 but it is coming, and through no fault of our own.

It is not a matter of our stupidity, or policies favoring labor or management, or our overspending or our failure to “create jobs.” In fact it is an old story, one that some people might have seen as stupidly and painfully obvious sometime around 1600 AD, when Europeans started coming in droves to the so called new world.

So what is winter then? Do we mean here the inevitable collapse of civilization? Not exactly. There are seasons to all things; many cultures honor and acknowledge this. If you look at a human life, or the emergence of an idea, or the growth of a tree, you could say that there are seasons, periods of progression, each with its own rules, its own appropriate behaviors.

Life on our planet has evolved to work with the seasons, and more than merely to survive them. The evolutionary impulse driving each and every one of us is infinitely opportunistic. It goes beyond “surviving” and makes opportunity of seasons, uses them to maximize the effect of its own energies. The bear hibernates in winter so he can be virile in the spring and strong in the summer. Life uses the seasons as springboards, the way a surfer uses a wave.

So then, perhaps winter is not a thing to be afraid of, though it is a thing to be prepared for. And just like the waves, if we learn to use them, we can capture their energy and catapult ourselves to shore. If we’re impatient with them, they crush us and at the end of being crushed we still have to figure out how to get to shore.

If we try to force a tree to grow out of season we kill it. If we force a child to fill bubbles in a form to make him economically competitive before he can read, we stunt him. If we try to force a truly transformative innovation into a money machine for ourselves or our investors before the next quarterly report, we kill its spirit and lose the true opportunity.

In fact it could be said that the great innovations of our civilization have happened not because of our monetary system but despite it, but that is another story for another day, for now just google the internet and after that, google “Google.”

For now, imagine the street where you live. Imagine it, get into the feel of it. Listen to the sounds, smell the smells, imagine the time of day.

Now imagine there’s just one thing different. Imagine that within a five-minute walk of where you’re standing, in any direction, there is a completely organic forest of food. There are towering trees dripping with fruit. Apples, pears, avocadoes. Maybe there are greenhouses filled with tropical plenty. Beneath the trees are shrubs full of berries and vines growing up around the trees. In the shadows and clearings there are vegetables growing up in plentiful beds.

There are vertical walls and towers bursting with fruiting vines. Perhaps there are pathways and running streams and fish filed ponds stoked with waters captured in the recent rains.

Perhaps there are chickens or goats roaming about in open pens; the chickens are pecking the worms out of the ground before they can become flies. The goats are clearing the brush and dead grass before they can choke the veggies or burn. There are however no fences for keeping people out.

And somebody in the neighborhood has figured out how to make cheese of the goat milk. On the way across their land every once in awhile, you stop by the artful little stand they’ve set up, where the cheese is offered in exchange for a friendly “hello.” They probably demand you eat their cheese. Saying no, well, it just isn’t polite.

The forests near your street have been worked into the available land. Maybe it’s a narrow strip running across the front of every front yard. Or maybe it is a big central park or squeezed between apartment blocks, rising vertically. Maybe it was organized through long, arduous meetings at City Hall, or maybe it was just a bunch of neighbors jumping in on a good idea.

Or maybe it was started some years back when the local hippies just kept insisting on painting up the intersection and seed-bombing the vacant lot the next block over. Maybe it was legislated at the state or even the national level. Maybe you volunteered, maybe you figured out how you could get paid to help, and getting all the exercise you needed you realized you could quit the gym and save the $50 a month. Maybe it was some combination of all the above.

Maybe it doesn’t really matter how it was started.

Now, this is what it looks like. For the most part the food forest now takes care of itself with just a bit of tending, nudging and guiding here and there. The bees pollinate the citrus, and maybe kids from the local school tend some aspects of it, learning invaluable lessons about ecology and natural law and the usefulness of seasons they could never learn in a flurry of classrooms, building forts in the trees after hours and so getting a bit of algebra, geometry, phys-ed and leadership for free before their time, and on and on it goes.

The fruit of the trees and the vegetables and all the bounty is free.

In fact you have to enjoy it. If you don’t there just aren’t enough birds to eat all the fruit, they can only saturate the food forests on other blocks and in other towns with so many seeds, and rotting piles of fruit attract rodents. Of course rodents aren’t so much of a problem since they keep the cats and hawks coming around and the cats and hawks bring more nutrients to the soils, and with the humans offering so much plenty, they’re actually beginning to respond to our training, or maybe guidance is the better word.

Shit here, not here.

So this is what your street looks like. Now expand your view; the whole town looks like this. Zoom out in the Google Map of your mind, and notice that it looks like this for fifty miles in every direction. In fact the whole state looks like this!

The big cities jammed with trellises and wild structures for increasing growable surface areas (some of the designs were pioneered by Vertecology 😉 😉 Yee-haw!) The small towns too and the vast rural areas, each in their own way, are bursting appropriate to how they use the land.

And so the songbirds, nature’s agents of plant biodiversity spread seeds from town to town. A drought or a fire or an invasive species here or there does wreak havoc occasionally, but it looks like this everywhere, and with nature’s vast diversity and reserves and people’s vast resourcefulness, the healing happens quickly.

With your street looking like this, how important is the US default to you? How much does it affect you? You know you will always have food, and will always have neighbors. Can anyone control you now? Can anyone force you into a job you hate, that you know doesn’t make a difference? How much do the battles in Washington effect you now? How much control do they have over your future? How much does your home value in next year’s dollars matter?

If you lost your job, would you starve? And if you knew that starvation was off the table, forever, for you, for your family; if even homelessness meant just ending up in another bountiful neighborhood like yours where the neighbors took you in till you earned your keep, how much would you fear it?

What would you do, that you are now afraid of doing?

And now the logical conclusion of this vision. If it looks like this everywhere, then starvation and homelessness are off the table for everyone. Everywhere. Everywhere where everyone has prepared, like the ant, for winter.

How much longer are the neighbors on your street going to slam their doors to you, staring bug-eyed at the TV because they have to recover from yet another day of life wasted at the office, hoping they can someday sell the house for a cool mil and get the hell out of here?

How demanding is the doctor that you pay up front when you’ve broken your leg, when he knows he will never starve? How much longer is the whistleblower in the oil company going to hold his tongue? How long are the foot-soldiers of that oil company going to keep enforcing the internal memos to crush the guy on your block who’s figured out how to power his car on the rainwater he’s catching on his roof or the lettuce he’s gathering down the street?

That’s right, game over for the conspiracy in the sky.

Free energy and open source medicine are already at hand. And there are people among us who are figuring out how to build powertools in their garages with CNC lathes made of scrap. They too can walk away from the crappy job at the parking violations bureau where they’ve been trained to make you miserable. With easing financial pressures, they can begin to become fathers to their children again and show junior how it’s done.

This is the power of preparing for winter. This is the promise of permaculture.

And to those of you who say this is a wild fantasy, consider this: The kind of food/energy forest imagined here is just an ecosystem like nature builds anyway. This is how the natural world already works, we just haven’t been paying attention. If it didn’t work this way there would have been no human beings. We’ve just been too worried about the stock market and welfare-state socialism to notice, and while we’ve been distracted, some of those “kooks” out there have been proving food forestry is possible.

When we find complex alien life on other worlds, we will find in every case that it was born and now participates in some kind of ecosystem, in every case anywhere in the universe, period. And even with human beings in the mix, there is evidence it really looked this way on some parts of the planet for very long periods of time before the arrival of armed colonists who brought plagues from their unsanitary cities and told the locals to forget their languages.

There is a reason why the English named so many places something-“field” in the lands the Haudenosaunee left behind. Deerfield, Bloomfield, Fairfield, Oakfield, Redfield. There is evidence that the Amazon was, shall we say, enhanced by human hands over tens of thousands of years.

It starts, quite literally, with planting a seed and giving it good environment for growing. In a field, in a windowbox, in a planter in a treehouse, on a rooftop. If this vision speaks to you, do it now. Start saving seeds, start the food forest wherever you can, however you know how. If you’re the social kind, involve the neighbors.

If you’re the reading kind, pick up Gaia’s Garden or One-Straw Revolution, or one of the other countless books starting to hit the shelves. Look up Bill Mollison, check out videos on Youtube. Don’t stop because others don’t start. If you’re the political kind, go to City Hall.

And for God’s own sake lets not make a dogma of it; it’s more like science even when it gets spiritual. Experiment, test, see what works and what doesn’t and share the results. This is our world, not the Illuminati’s and it’s ours because we were born here. Of course that means it’s everyone else’s too – well, okay, even those pesky Illuminati – but they have to get along with the rest of us, and like Bucky Fuller said, we’re the crew of this spaceship so sooner or later we’re going to have to learn to fly it straight.

We’re even finding that organic agriculture can diffuse the population bomb.

Perhaps winter in this case, in the evolution of human culture, is that season brought about by a particular money-fearing culture going against the natural order of things and getting away with it for awhile, sort of like the grasshopper in summer. Going against a natural order that does not bind us, as we have imagined in our tortured nightmares, but one that is designed to offer and seize endless opportunity, and after winter, there is always spring.

And this vision by the way, is the reason for Vertecology. I am more of an architect and hammer-swinging builder than a farmer or horticulturist myself, but I am learning that there’s power in the crossover, what permies like to call the “edge condition,” and there is endless opportunity for radical innovation in design and architecture as those vocations take their rightful, meaningful and essential place in a permaculture economy.

I hope to spend many days of the coming years creating such innovations, to share many of them with you on these pages here, and to use a business model that helps lead us from constraint and secrecy to a world that says to you DIYers out there in big capital letters, “GOD DAMN IT, RUN WITH IT AND DON’T WORRY IF YOU LOSE YOUR PANTS ON THE WAY!” In the meantime, maybe some of you will become clients, and no matter what, thank you again for taking the time to read what’s here.

Let’s do our best to make this the world of our dreams, and we don’t have to blow up the Earth to get Heaven too. Nature really is on our side, even if sometimes, she’s a brutal coach indeed.