Blog Archives

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!

Advertisements

The Amusing Muse Exploring Possibilities for the Hanging Garden

One of the things I’ve discovered in dropping Hanging Gardens in some different locations around town is that there are a whole lot of different ceiling situations to deal with. Some are more difficult than others, and the hope is that I can come up with a few standardized approaches that fit most, as in say 95% of mounting situations. Honestly, I’m excited about the challenge, as solving the mounting challenges is beginning to reveal other opportunities that will help flush out the full potential of the Hanging Garden and will enhance its potential as a kit system usable to anyone who wants to turn that dead corner, porch or balcony into an ecological garden.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Here’s the latest. I had the good fortune of a temporary install at the Hummingbird Nest Ranch in Simi Valley over Winter Solstice evening, when Evonne Heyning, Tirza Hollenhorst and friends put together a fabulous Dance to Freedom event. Already exhausted from the two week treehouse adventure, I had about six hours before the party started to figure out how to mount the Hanging Garden under a huge beam to which I could not attach any screws, except along the hidden top, and over which it was impossible to run any ropes or cables. I had to “side mount,” and wasn’t sure how to pull it off.

When I finally did pull it off, managing to keep the bad and the ugly from view, I joined the party, spread the biz cards and then as often happens, got the better, cleaner, more elegant and not to mention cheaper, design solution in meditation a few days after it was all over and at the most inconvenient hour… 🙂

The exciting point is that in this solution however is the beginning of an idea of how to quietly integrate water/nutrient delivery that can be flushed out as needed with future installations. The exploration contines and stay tuned, and I must say thanks to Evo, Brent, Pardox, Ed, Lance, Geisty, Tea Faerie, Fuzzy and a lot of others (pardon me if I didn’t include your name…) for sharing yourselves and an amazing evening under the stars and in the cushest horse stables this side of Appalachia…

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!

Sugar Shack’s Rain Collection System Captures Beautifully in its First Rain

Well it’s always a little nerve-wracking when finally cutting the ribbon on a new project, no matter how much you’ve tested it. Even though I dropped a few 15 gallon buckets of water down the chute from the Sugar Shack’s rooftop to test the rainwater catchment system after I finished the build, and even though I added an extra bead of silicone caulk to those pesky corner-rounding spots in the rain gutters, there was still that nagging sense of… what if?

No more. We got our first storm in the neighborhood yesterday, a few solid hours of rain in the afternoon, and I couldn’t wait until the sun popped out to find out how the system was doing. The inflows were dropping a heavy flow into the barrels and doing just fine. After the rains had passed our four barrels were about half full, about 110 gallons caught.

Now I can  get a more accurate idea of how much water we can catch: I went to www.noaa.gov and typed in our zip code. The nearest weather station to us is on the USC campus, which is a few miles away, but it’s close enough to give an idea of how much rain we got. The USC station got about 0.16 inches of rain during the storm; an average LA rain year of 15 inches would fill our barrels almost 50 times, though most of that will occur over the course of an entire six month “wet” season, and anything over 0.3 inches at once will be lost to the overflow.

It’s a good thing then that I actually improved the garden drainage by shunting the overflow directly into the drainage pipe, and there’s ample opportunity (and barrels around the garden) to do a rooftop catchment as well.

Refinement to the Hanging Garden for Fast & Easy Installation

Today I proved a refinement concept to the Hanging Garden, and was so excited to see a five-level prototype (ceiling to floor, baby!) that I was tempted to drop all the other stuff I have to do this weekend in favor of a fat dinner and a movie, lol! The main change, the knot-&-keyhole connector system means that anyone can now assemble a Hanging Garden in just a couple of hours and will need only a decent drill to put the ceiling mount in place. These photos show the simplified version made out of reclaimed MDF I put together just to test the improvements.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

There’s more to come as I will soon be installing two of these beauties, one in an urban loft for an in-house herb-garden, and one outdoors in a Venice community garden.

As I mentioned in my last post about the Hanging Garden, I’m taking orders in California. I’ll build you a five-level hanging garden with integrated planter boxes on each level as shown in the original post for $500 and the right to capture some photos over the next few years. For a different number of levels and for customization, the price varies. Until I have a Vertecology online store up and running, just call me at 818.538.6586 or send me an email at markscottlavin-at-gmail-dot-com with “Hanging Garden” in the subject line. Thanks & happy Halloween everybody!

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.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

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!

Lighting Up! – The Geo Rocks LA Decompression

Last weekend the Geo made its first public appearance with sequenced LED lighting by Lumen Nature. The Los Angeles Decom crowd was pretty amazed, and kudos to Tom Bolton for dropping something like 100 hours building the lighting system on his living room floor. The pics speak for themselves and give a little sense of how bright the future just might be for these super-bright, programmable, endlessly interactive, and yet very low wattage little diodes.

This is also Vertecology’s first real foray into the festival circuit and is giving me a glimpse of just how far this game can go. To say that the crowd was amazed was an understatement, considering that at every instant throughout the night there were at least 3 cameras on the structure and we literally had to guard it all night to prevent climbers from damaging the wiring (we’re working on how to protect the wiring now, so that y’all can climb away!).

This has indeed been quite the experiment, and I am now developing design proposals for next year blending permaculture principles and the best of DIY, open-source tech, to educate, inspire and incite the world that is possible.

And I want to give a shout out to Athena Demos, friend and LA Burning Man/Decom organizer – I just sent you a text message asking where we could drop the geo for some good photos, and the rest was history. Keep it up girl!

Here’s the link to the music score as well, a beautiful remix of Handel’s Xerxes -Largo by Kowalski & Minimalist. Gorgeous.

To have the Geo at your event, have a look at the Modular Portable Structures page. Thanks!

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.

The First Residential Install

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

Well, I spent the last week and a half building a pergola for Vertecology’s first private residential client. This was an exciting milestone personally and for Vertecology, the name inspired by “Vertical Ecology,” though going with the “e” instead of the “i,” has turned out to be quite the creative inspiration.

Through Vertecology I am committed to the permaculture principles and one of those principles is “stacking functions.” That means making each element you design produce lots of abundance for the whole – the ecosystem, people, the community and the planet. For example a tree provides shade, habitat for lots of plants and animals, mulch and building materials. It fertilizes and stabilizes the soil, raises the water table, creates diverse microclimates supporting biodiversity, and keeps moisture in the locale (the trees are responsible for as much as 50% of the rain that forest regions receive).

A pergola or patio structure like this if well designed, placed, and planted can aspire to that level of multi-dimensional function. At the very least it can do lots more than look pretty, and that said, I still look forward to photos of this one in a year or two.

First and foremost in the client’s mind was beauty, and shade and enjoyment in the warm months. The lady of the house is looking forward to warm-weather entertaining.

And yet this pergola will mean more than 300 new square feet of growable surface area for oxygen-producing, flowering vines. Structures like this and some much wilder ones in the works are one way to make small urban and suburban yards, nooks and crannies unique, compelling and ecologically productive.

Covered with vines that leaf in the warm months, this pergola will shade the west (back) wall of the house in the afternoon, helping to keep the house cool with less air conditioning. In winter the afternoon sun will shine through much thinner foliage from a lower angle, warming the rear wall and therefore the rest of the house with less electric heating.

The client is considering a flowering, climbing vine such as wisteria which while inedible to people, is a big attractor for moths and butterflies who will pollinate gardens throughout the neighborhood as they make rounds and attract birds as they do. The birds will control bug populations, fertilize a bit of ground themselves and possibly bring seeds from other locales.

And finally, this project was built entirely with Forest Stewardship Council certified wood from Anawalt Lumber. While I prefer to work with reclaimed wood, the finer detailing and longer dimensional lengths desired here meant taking another approach. So the pergola also helped finance a supply chain that takes ecology into account and even me a happy ending after an hour on hold: asking the local Home Depot buyer if they carry FSC lumber, he responded “No… but, you’re the second to ask this month, I’m going to make some phone calls to make it happen.”

Build it and they will come…