Category Archives: sustainable living

Mini Earth Bag Dome Duck House

I’ve been wanting to make an earth bag dome forever (and click that link if you want to know what the heck that is or how to do one right!)  I’ve been saving poly woven bags since my days collecting soil samples in them for work.  I finally had a project to use them for: there are too many poultry on site to shove them all back into my chicken house for the winter so I needed to make a duck house.  I have 5 Muscovies now, and even though they need less protection than chickens in general,  it’s extreme enough in Anchorage that they needed a warm place to sleep in the winter. IMG_4034 I started by shoveling off the turf and topsoil (less than 6 inches) in a circle.  I scribed the circle with a stick on a string attached to a centrally placed pole.  Then I filled bags with the gravelliest soil I could find on my lot.  The inside diameter of this first ring is a little less than 4 feet. IMG_4039 I was running low on gravelly soil, so I went to the home improvement store and bought about $40 of pea gravel (10 bags) to do the next level.  This creates a barrier to moisture wicking up into the rest of the structure. Then I had the brilliant idea of using wood chips in the rest of the bags instead of soil.  Mostly because they are lighter and easier to move and I have a ton of them.  They would be more insulating that soil…think straw bale, kind of.  They would not have the strength of soil bags though, and have a high danger of decomposition and the resulting instability.  I also had 7 bags of ready mix concrete that were getting a little solid from sitting around for a while. Maybe woodchipcrete would be a little more stable?  SO I mixed in one 50 lb sack per wheel barrow load: IMG_4048   IMG_4049   This worked for most of the layers in the dome, until I ran out of concrete mix for the last couple of layers, but everything seems pretty stable…for now. IMG_4067 Here is a selfie of me standing on the top: IMG_4069 And here is a door detail: IMG_4061 I used a big cottonwood log as a form for the door, but it wasn’t as wide as the bags so things did settle to a little smaller than I would have liked, but still big enough for a duck. Then I covered everything with 6-mil poly (builders plastic/visqueen) to hopefully keep the rotting to a minimum: IMG_4071 And threw the top soil and turf back on: IMG_4085 And lo and behold, after baiting it with some canned salmon, the ducks finally trusted it enough to go in at night! IMG_4092 So we’ll see (and I’ll let you know) how things go. There is no ventilation other than the doorway. I will have to pull the poopy bedding out with a potato fork since even a rake is too big to get through the door. If they lay eggs in there that I don’t want them to hatch, it’ll be fun trying to get them out. My moisture management could fail miserably and things could settle or collapse in catastrophic ways (which could lead to a big pot of duck stew in a worst case scenario). I will have to shovel snow out of the entry. Next year I’ll have to get some sort of stucco over the non-dirt covered part of the entry so that it doesn’t photodegrade. It really didn’t take much time, energy, money, or materials to build, so I figure the risk is low for this experiment!

And how’d the rest of the summer go?

bike parking work party

bike parking work party

One more month and we’ll be celebrating 5 years of the ecoplex! I find it funny that I find so little time to update this blog now, since in many ways my life has gotten way less busy since the beginning, but also less structured and structure helps me fit things in, I guess.

So the community garden sheet mulch beds are a raging success – they were very, very productive and beautiful (well, still are…only had one night of light frost so far).

Baby birds were finally born on-site as mama-duck hatched her first two ducklings. Sadly, one didn’t make it, but the black duckling is almost full grown and beautiful!
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I finished up the remodel of the first floor unit (#3) and moved out – it’s lovely even if I never got around to replacing the vinyl kitchen flooring or adding more natural lighting.

The finished yellow bedroom - new paint, re-plastered ceiling, new light

The finished yellow bedroom – new paint, re-plastered ceiling, new light


I finally fulfilled my dream to live in the basement apartment (#4). It’s also a 2-bedroom, but osh and I both have our beds in one room, so there was a spare room. Rented the first floor apartment and my extra room in the basement apartment to a good friend and her roommates, and I am really enjoying the community! I do have to adjust to sharing spaces and objects though. Last night I got out a drinking glass to use as a cookie cutter, then decided I had to let the dough sit a bit longer. I came back to the kitchen later and rolled out my dough. Then I turned the glass over to cut cookies and poured water all over the rolled out dough! Of course my second thought (after the inevitable swear words in my mind) was to tell this funny story of assuming no one but me was acting on the objects in my kitchen to my housemate.

My new housemates and I formed a work party and finally made bike parking! Well, the roof isn’t on yet, but we have the 4×4 and 4×6 corner posts for a shed roof (salvaged from a fence I am tearing down and other sources) and 5 inverted ‘U’ shaped racks made from 1.5″ galvanized steel pipe and 90degree elbows. The U’s (or n’s) are 5′ long but 2′ is buried in concrete in the ground with 3′ sticking up. They are 1′ wide and spaced 3′ from each other (I’ll get a picture up someday!) A bike can be locked to each side of each inverted U, for an easy 10 bikes, with plenty of space in between to avoid locking peddles and handlebars. Total cost ~$300 so far – mostly for pipe and ready-mix concrete. Will probably spend more on polycarbonate clear roof panels.

Also, last week I figured out my roof had been leaking for a while, as rain water came in around the fan in my dad’s unit (#2). Turns out whoever put on the metal roof years ago never flashed or cricketed around the chimney, they just gooped up the gap with roofing tar stuff. I figured it out pretty fast, but my fix is only temporary – I used some aluminum tape as weak flashing and Henry’s to re-goop. It should last through til spring and I had the materials on hand. It will give me time to figure out if I can do repairs myself, if I should hire it done, or if I should replace the boiler with a high-efficiency condensing unit and rip out the chimney all together (I should, but I don’t have the $ on hand and am reluctant to take out a loan for this).

That’s the big stuff, here’s a summary by category of other summer happenings:

Efficiency and funtional improvements to the ‘plex:
-efficient Panasonic whisper wall fan installed in #3 on a motion sensor switch
-range hood fan in #3 routed to outside (instead of going only to a filter in the hood).
-afore-mentioned bike parking
-storm door mounted on North side door.
-broken dishwasher in #3 replaced with energy star model
-fan in #4 bath put on humidity sensor
-triple pane insulated-frame (U=.13) fiberglass windows ordered from Greatland in Fairbanks to replace the broken and old wood-framed windows in upstairs bath’s (#1 and #2)

A visit to Greatland Window in Fairbanks!

A visit to Greatland Window in Fairbanks!


-3 more Panasonic fans (whisper-green 50cfms) ordered for other 3 baths
-while cleaning water from roof leak out of attic, air sealing attic floor better.

Local food things:
-went dipnetting at Chitina again, tried to make Botargo from salmon roes – smells nasty, but tastes ok, haven’t really done anything with it yet

Rolling salted sockeye roe to make botargo

Rolling salted sockeye roe to make botargo


-collected bountiful poppy seed harvest and made hammentaschen:
making hammentaschen with homegrown poppy seeds

making hammentaschen with homegrown poppy seeds


-grew lots of turnips as usual
-another great fruit year! All the cherries died back so much they didn’t produce, but have 5 apple pies in the freezer and ate countless berries.
-Also a great mushroom year – found some edible agaricus in the front yard that were delish. Decided that hawk’s wings (shingled hedgehog) not worth any effort to parboil out bitterness – yuck! Dried plenty of boletus.

Lifestyle:
I am working both of my jobs from home now. I have mostly settled in to that, although having 2 different things to do on two different work computers can be a challenge. I manage my website most mornings for about 3 hours before my son gets really up and about, and fit the other in when I need to or can. Osh is homeschooling this year, but he is in a program that includes core classes taught for 4 hours on tues and thurs with a ton of homework. The homework is painful. But it is nice to not have to get up early every weekday and rush off to school. He gets a ride to class, and it doesn’t start until 10am. SO generally life is, or should be, pretty relaxed. With getting work done early or taking computers with me we have been able to visit my mom in Oregon for a week, go to Salmonstock music fest, camp and travel the state in the middle of the week, etc. On the other hand, I often work a bit 7 days of the week. So each day is chill, but no day is totally relaxing. Also, while not too bad, the lack of imposed structure can paradoxically make it harder for me to fit in errands or other routines like posting to this blog. And just when I think I’m going to get a break from working on the ‘plex, the roof leaks (for example). But generally I’m done with aesthetic building remodeling, and plan to just catch up on and do functional repairs as needed, which should make for a less stressful existence. My current housemates are a great community, and I look forward to other joint, mutually beneficial, projects. Having my friend move in to my spare room means that I can (and have had to) get rid of some of my stuff-accumulation (we only need one tea kettle, and why did I have four 1/3 C measuring cups?) I enjoy the extra company, the help with cleaning, and all the other benefits.

SO that’s the update! I’m looking forward to a quiet winter, so maybe I’ll have time for more in depth posts on some things – like bike parking specifics.

Overview of Garden Progress – Spring/Summer 2012

OK, I have not posted since March. I must be busy. or lazy. Or both. I will try to get up to date with a couple of photo essays of the time in between my March postings and now. This first one is of the melting snow and the garden, from above. Next time I’ll post a photo essay of some more specific happenings and progress in the garden/food forest. Enjoy.

April 9 – the garden is covered with snow!


April 13 – still under snow!


April 18 – Melting…


April 27 – Melted!

May 24 – Finally greening up.

July 13 – not the same view, but getting almost Jungle-like

Minimalist living – tiny houses, owning 15 things – how low can you go?

I read grist.org almost daily, where normal article topics run the gamut from local food and climate change to green building and sustainable urbanism. There is a facination in this community (my online community) for tiny houses and people who own less than 15 items. I am cautiously inspired by both of these thing. They are, arguably, valid proxies for living lightly, sustainably, and more carbon-neutral. Certainly they present a happy fantasy of a life less like mine – house cluttered, dirty, overwhelming! I’ve often wanted to throw 15 things in a backpack and leave it all behind. I feel perfectly comfortable living, short term at least, in 10×10 cabins, even sharing with other people. So these things do inspire me, and some of it is good – I have paired down my moderately useful, mostly sentimental stuff a bit.

A tiny house (shipping container!) in Alakanuk


But, perhaps just defensively, I can see problems too, some of which I’ve brought up before. If you don’t own tools or have a place to store tools (doesn’t have to be heated – and a lot of tiny house owners seem to have even larger out buildings!), you might have a hard time keeping your necessary infrastructure up and running so that you maximize its useful life and don’t have to chuck it for new. If I had lots of money I could ditch the sewing kit and take all my clothing repairs to the corner alterations shop, but a quick and easy, almost costless patch job would end up costing over $10. I could take my bike in for all repairs, tune-ups and adjustments. I could hire repair people for anything that goes wrong with my building or stuff. And if I did make lots of money that might not be so bad – rent everything possible instead of owning (perhaps even my space), hiring professionals to do all repairs so that they have the tools, not me. That is actually a much more efficient allocation of resources, than everyone having their own. But my bike has the pesky habit of breaking at 10pm when I have to get to a friends house, it seems crazy to call a repair person to replace a single screw in a hinge, I’m not made of money, and I enjoy doing things myself. Another good option is having a tool library or rental pool or some such, and that is the joy of intentional communities and groups where you can live in close proximity to the tools you need to borrow and have 24/7 access. Like in college, where I had the key to the bike shop and could go in at 2am to tune up my bike, as could anyone else on campus checked out on it. A lot of people who don’t own much seem to be in situations, like school or traveling the world, where there is this infrastructure to support not having to own everything you use.

As far as tiny houses, in my climate it is a little silly. For thermal efficiency, which is very important in this cold climate, it makes sense to share walls. Indigenous people tended to build houses, that while small, were built big enough to house several nuclear families. I’m all for small personal floor spaces, but shared common areas and multiple units within one shell seems a given to me here. Again, I see a need for enough space, perhaps unheated, for tools (shared at least) and some ‘junk’. If I didn’t have a scrap dimensional lumber pile (say, due to lack of storage room I just burned it all or gave it away), I would have had to find or buy new to build my chicken coop – more resources needed in the way of wood and transport fuel to get it to me.

And just because you live in less than 300 sf or own only 5 things at a time doesn’t mean that you don’t jet all over the world or drive a gas-guzzler, though I’m sure generally a full set of sustainable behaviors would go together (and I’m certainly not perfect on any of these things). But I’m considering a better measure of sustainability in living than how much floor space you have or how much you own – amount of money you live on. Again it is not perfect, somethings in our world are artificially cheap (fossil fuels), some worse options are cheaper than better options (fast food burger vs. organic, grass-fed beef burger), but a lot of these distinctions break down if you follow through to even better choices – biking everywhere is cheaper than driving, cooking whole vegetarian foods at home is cheaper than eating fast food. I’m currently doing online research on this – it goes back to the roots of minimalism – the simple living movement of a couple of decades ago (Your Money or Your Life and all). I’ll let you know what I find out!

Meanwhile, we finally hit breakup last week and the temperatures are over freezing during the day (40′s F the last couple of days!) and the huge piles of ice and snow are slowly but surely shrinking! No bare ground, but some bare streets and sidewalks.

Attempts at winter sustainability/sanity


This winter is hard, man! I mean, like really hard. It was below 0 F all January. It’s snowed early and often – we’re edging on toward a record snowy winter. I feel like I’ve turned into a bear. Having a child broke my illusion that I was a mellow, happy go lucky person, but this winter seems to have intensified my moody, loner crotchetiness. I’m turning into a bitter old man, despite being female and not even 40. OK, there’ve been plenty of good days too, and sun and exercise and winter beauty and feasting get me through. Here’s a rundown at my (fairly typical) attempts to live lightly in the dark times:

Transport: I still don’t own a car. My son is now catching a car pool ride to school in the morning. I bike or walk to work. I bike to pick my son up at school on my days to do that, and then we take the bus home together, except the time I forgot my wallet (see above sketch). When I’m with James we drive most places, except nearby restaurants…that’s generally only on the weekends. Luckily even then we don’t get out much. But if I did get out to the mountains/woods more I might have a slightly better attitude… I’ve flown once since last May, to Fort Yukon to teach energy efficiency. I’ll be heading to a green building conference in Portland this May as well, and back out to the villages to teach this month. So more flying than I feel comfortable with.

Food: I didn’t freeze many greens last summer, so I’ve been buying a bit more non-local veg than normal, but still mostly subsisting on local root veg. My frozen backyard fruit gave out a couple of months ago, so buying lots of shipped in fruit. Still plenty of local meat in the fridge, especially salmon. My dad does a lot of cooking for us, and I’ve fallen on the ease of store bought bread to make a quick meal (pbj, etc), so convenience dictates what I eat a lot. Most mornings my son and I start the day with eggs from our chickens though, and that I feel really good about. My meat freezer is in the back shed to save energy for freezing, but that may be hard on the workings of it – we’ll see. I haven’t unplugged my fridge this year like last winter, but this year I have an energy star fridge, so not so much incentive.

Heat: Still finding some air leaks to seal, like one around the porch attachment that lets cold air in to freeze a heat pipe when it is really cold. Once I seal that, I won’t have to keep it above 65F inside when it is below 0 outside. I’m fine tuning my setback temps on the thermostat to save big at night and when we are out of the house, while still feeling cozy when home. Someday I’ll get a wood stove installed! And solar thermal, and…

Soon enough spring will catch up with us, even here in the icy north, and I can worry about summer efficiency – which mostly involves the food garden and maybe some community outreach/advocacy!

Cold climate egg production!

One of these days I’m going to write about my building/energy efficiency and community building projects again, but for now it is eggs that are exciting me. I arrived back from an overnight trip to Ft Yukon (where there is some interest in chicken raising due to the high cost of AC store eggs) to find 5 blue-green eggs in the nest!! So it seems at least 3 of the girls are laying. And here is breakfast this morning:

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The lighter yolk, bigger egg is a local egg but not from my hens. My hen egg is the one with the bright orange, firm yolk! Delish! Shells are strong as well, and the chickens seem healthy.

So, as I commented on in the last post, my local, energy efficient coop management seems to be working: a 40 watt equivalent 8 watt led bulb on a timer to give 14 hours of supplemented light, in an insulated but unheated coop. Alaskan grown grain (oats, barley, and or wheat) available from an automatic feeder in the coop. Unfrozen water supplied once a day. Scraps are brought with the water including crushed egg shells, table scraps including greens frozen for them in the fall, and salmon scraps (guts, backbones, skin, heads, roe, etc – about a pint to a quart a week). All for 5 hens and 4 ducks.

Little blue frozen egg!!

One of my hens laid a little blue-green egg in the nest box this morning! It was 10 F in the coop, so it froze before I got to it, but I’ll cook it today. I don’t heat my insulated coop, and the little door to their yard is always open unless it is double digits below zero F.

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So cold doesn’t seem to be a deterrent to laying! Neither does my tough-love, low energy treatment: to have as sustainable an operation as possible I only feed local grain (wheat, barley and/or oats – always available) and bring them salmon and table scraps and warm water once a day. We’ll see if that egg tastes fishy since most of their protein and calcium comes from salmon!

The key is light. I got them as new hatched chicks June 15, so they are about 31 weeks old. A couple of weeks ago I installed a compact fluorescent bulb on a timer in the coop and have generally been giving them an additional hour of light a day until today. Today they will have artificial light from 4:30am to 9:30am (dawn) then from 4:30pm (dusk) to 6:30pm – 14 hours as my sources tell me they need. Yesterday they only had 13.5 hours, so that was enough for one girl! I will slowly adjust the hours to start later so the eggs don’t have so much time to freeze.

It certainly seems like a miracle that they are starting to lay! Here is the flock:
The black Easter-egger type (blue/green egg layers):

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One of the three grey Easter-eggers:

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Probably the lone brown egg layer – the barred rock mutt:

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And, of course, the duck family:

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3pm update: another little blue egg in the nest – this one not cracked from freezing!! And I ate the first egg and it was delish – no fishy at all!