The Low Road to Freedom – How Buildings Learn

This BBC-produced video showcases low cost construction and its relationship to freedom.  As a lifelong follower of Thoreau’s philosophies, this resonates with me. Freedom to build “what you need” is a principle upon which the Village on Sewanee Creek rests. 

So, we have a roughly 5,500 square foot mansion currently under construction here. It is anything but low cost. But it is what the owners decided they need. From my point of view, that’s wonderful. If you have the resources so that the building does not become a lead weight on your life, it can become such a blessing, not only to the owners, but to those they chose to share it with. In the Village, where we are collectively all about voluntary sharing, what a blessing that can be!   It’s what’s inside that counts.  I’m confident that the owners who will become the heart of this magnificent home when it is completed, will bless all of us with their generous spirit and wise hearts.

On the other extreme, we have three “Tiny Homes” that are “finished” and occupied with capacity for future expansion and creative expression as need dictates. Large or small, expensive or low cost, or somewhere in between, the range of homes in the Village expresses our core values.  One of the most important among our values is the individual freedom to build according to needs as each of us defines them. 

Out of that freedom, comes a natural diversity of expression. That diversity, or lack of sameness can be viewed in different ways.  Differences can be viewed either as low-end eyesores that depress property values or as egotistical displays of wealth on the other extreme.  As we elevate our consciousness and supress lower ego-driven impulses, these differences can be perceived as beautiful, artistic expressions of freedom.  Again, where the building is only an expression of the builder, it’s what’s inside that counts.

When our personal artistic senses are challenged by diversity, it is an opportunity to reevaluate the depth of our spirituality and the quality of our values – to dig a little deeper and discover more enlightened ways of perceiving and interacting with the world around us. 

Monday, we celebrate the 4th of July. For me, it’s a celebration of the liberated human spirit, not just freedom from political tyranny. My fondest hope is that the Village will continue to evolve and improve as a society that values freedom in its deepest, spiritual sense, thereby securing not only freedom for ourselves but fostering it for others.

Keep reading to my previous post.  You are invited to celebrate the 4th with us tomorrow, or for the rest of forever.

Voluntary

The Village on Sewanee Creek is located in rural Tennessee, the “Volunteer State”

“Voluntary” is a key word in our community. Expectations, demands or compulsory involvement are kept low in favor of personal choice and personal circumstances. We trust that the primary reason for joining our community is the desire for community. Largely due to lack of compulsion or pressure, the community has flourished with high levels of regular, voluntary, joyful involvement.

Regular traditions include:

Friday Project. Rotates weekly by homestead, as calendared on our Private Village website. Each week, a designated home owner plans and gathers materials. Everybody shows up to work about 10 am, sometimes earlier in summer. A simple meal is often provided by the home owner. Project work is usually planned to last two hours, but frequently ends up an all day project as members generously linger to volunteer time. The payback is simple and obvious. We enjoy each other’s company and we learn project, leadership, organization and social skills. We learn to trust each other in all the important dimensions of trust: reliability, competence, integrity, respect, caring. And we know that as each gives, the gift is returned in a regular rotation. It’s a virtuous spiral. Hundreds of discrete projects have been completed. A short list includes such things as help building houses (primary and guest), a chicken coop, a large hoop greenhouse, raised bed gardens, maintenance on the community amphitheater or trails, harvesting cabbage and making sauerkraut, canning green beans or venison, installing a rainwater catchment system, a goat enclosure, house painting, framing and roofing a carport, and on and on.

Monday Evening FHE: Games, discussion, lesson, problem solving, planning, followed by light refreshments.

Bi-monthly formal potluck dinner. Host rotates between families.

As the community has continued to grow in numbers, greater specialization has emerged. Members are assigned and voluntarily accept callings that include: director/coordinator of music, drama, facilities, community scheduling, security, beekeeping, Open-Source Ecology (distributed manufacturing), games, etc.

We maintain shared, online virtual libraries of books and movies and a private website for sharing of ideas and general communication. These don’t require a leader or curator, just the initiative of someone to create the format for a shared online database and the generous trust of friends volunteering to share their resources in an open, organized fashion. We have no need to build a physical library, only information about what resources are voluntarily available and stored by each member in their homes. It has been said that the millennial generation cares little about ownership; it’s all about access. Older generations, on the other hand, care about personal ownership and care of things. The bridge is TRUST. We do not own many things in common, but we actively cultivate trust. As trust develops, open sharing is a natural consequence. Where there is no need to replicate assets, personal costs decline; abundance increases. This isn’t a new idea. It’s the way communities functioned before they became fractured.

As you can see from our Friday Project tradition, this concept is applied to the sharing of skills and services as well as things like books or tools.

The community is composed of active, accomplished individuals with diverse skills and backgrounds that include:
PhD’s in plant genetics, Psychology, Counseling & Philosophy.
Masters in Engineering, Bio-Chemistry, Business, Computer Engineering.
BA’s / other certifications in mathematics, elementary and secondary teaching, textiles, registered nursing, and more.

Equally if not more important and respected are our member’s practical skills in construction, plumbing, electrical, landscaping and excavation, military and police, bee-keeping, water purification and management, horticulture (organic & greenhouse gardening, orchards), animal husbandry and the performing arts (singer/songwriters, instrumental music, live theater, film directing and editing)

Each year community strength grows. 2014 has been a watershed year, as our active population and skills sets virtually doubled. Over the years, more lots have been sold with the promise that, as homes are built, transitions made, new trusting relationships created, the Village will only grow in strength and stability. It’s a pretty nice place to live for a volunteer.

Interesting People – Rich Life

From the outset, I have made it a point to target interesting people who will become not only Village neighbors, but the fabric of a lifestyle that makes life interesting and rewarding. There are many prepper communities emerging these days. They typically aim to fill their ranks with a comprehensive list of survival skills. Welder, blacksmith, gunsmith, military tactician, plumber, electrician, mechanic, hunter/trapper, tanner represent just a few of hundreds of basic skills. Important as these may be, they address only survival. For Villagers, life is about much more than survival.

I believe we have been successful in attracting a certain type of individual who is a cut above the mundane, normal, or average. So far, our small community boasts interesting people with distinguished accomplishments from diverse backgrounds.

  • Some have advanced degrees, like Tom who has a PhD in plant genetics or George who is a bio-chemist with deep experience in water quality systems management, mycology and toxic environmental clean-up.

But intellectual capacity doesn’t always require a high level degree or formal education. Street smarts are just as valuable and interesting.

  • Jeff J. humbly acknowledges a lack of formal training, while his accomplishments as a highly sought-after Hollywood film editor are impressive. Having worked on such famous films as Star Wars and Hunger Games among many others, his experiences, instincts and observations on life have brought great pleasure and growth to me and other Villagers. Knowing my interest in movies, a residual from my days at Blockbuster, he even contributed a huge library of DVD’s to the Village to enhance our movie nights, whether at our large screen home theater or the bigger one at the amphitheater.
  • Mike and Barb are accomplished singer/songwriters who infuse their art with the values we embrace as a community. Their music strengthens both the moral and social fabric of the Village.
  • Fred is our inventor / engineer / communications expert extraordinaire. I affectionately nicknamed him Mr. Inscrutable because his intellectual and scientific prowess often makes me stretch to grasp a point he is making. Those who attend a lecture he is giving at the University of the South on Open Source Ecology this Wednesday will likewise be stretched and enriched.
  • Jim has a deep, practical history with self-sufficient living. Now retired, he is an effective investor who loves tending his garden and chickens while experimenting with all kinds of projects from alternative energy to alternative construction. Jim donated many years of Mother Earth News to the online Village Library. His soft, engaging nature makes him a natural in group dynamics where he instantly puts people at ease.
  • Jeff P. and his three sons are all Eagle Scouts.  Jeff is CFO for his company and has been a scout leader for years.  His practical knowledge of outdoor life and appreciation for nature derived from scouting contribute to our mission in many ways.
  • Micah stopped just short of completing a PhD in philosophy, and deploys his prodigious intellect and work ethic in his highly successful internet business, helping America’s best and brightest choose colleges best suited to them. In his spare time, he raises goats, cattle and chickens for home consumption and has purchased several hundred acres nearby to build a cattle ranch with his brother.

The Women in the Village contribute to the richness of daily life just as much if not more than the men.

  • My dear wife, Becky, is known for her home-making skills that range from amazingly artistic quilts to the best home-made bread ever, made from home-ground flour, to fresh veggies and eggs from her greenhouse and mini-farm.
  • Judy cans, sprouts, sews, gardens, bakes and cooks some of the finest food you will find anywhere and tutors neighborhood children in math.
  • Stephanie brings her personal brand of wisdom to the Village. She is a counselor who listens attentively and serves up help to University students, meanwhile raising her two little boys with patience and love.
  • Linnette is an accomplished artist who excels with ceramics.  She created the beautiful tile work and fired the individual tiles in her large kiln for the sign at the entrance to the Village.  Her sons include a doctor, an architect and a business man.
  • Linda is a natural organizer-leader.  She runs the Meetup group, “Provident Living and Self Reliance” out of Nashville. She was instrumental in organizing Preparedness Fairs here in the Village and many other group meetings for Villagers as well as hundreds of other Self-Reliance oriented people throughout Middle and Eastern Tennessee.

I could go on. For the sake of brevity, I will limit the list, but you get the point. Beyond specific skills and accomplishments, most Villagers are well traveled, intellectually open and, as a result, qualify as interesting people who contribute at many levels. Because they are all focused on self-sufficient living, each one also contributes to the list of survival skills and the general resilience of the Village.

The work I do to attract and woo interesting people results in tangible value to people who move here. And the longer I do it the more valuable the Village becomes. That is why the value of the product Villagers buy into is less and less about the beautiful land and more and more about a rich lifestyle built on relationships with extraordinary people. For fans of Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged, you might recognize the Village as a kinder and gentler Galt’s Gulch.

It isn’t enough that we have many interesting people here. It is just as important that those interesting people each desire to share their knowledge, insights, skills and talents or we are just like any other upper-income neighborhood, filled with people who are busy, successful, and isolated in social silos. So we try to select people who love people. It’s implied in our motto, in harmony with nature AND PEOPLE. I believe we have also been successful in developing a culture of sharing.

And, while attracting interesting people who want to share is the essential foundation, it is only the beginning. As we continue to weave and expand this fabric of many colors and textures into a culture of interesting people with an interesting, rich life, I think it is not enough to simply have them here. We must continuously draw people out in interesting venues and situations where all can naturally benefit from such rich natural resources. We must enhance our natural human resources through activities, processes, customs and traditions that we all embrace.

  • Our weekly “Village Project” is one such tradition that puts talents and skills to practical work while creating an atmosphere for mutual, service, positive social interaction and sharing.
  • Our Monday “Family Home Evening” gatherings are a regular place for sharing on a more intimate, sometimes more intellectual level. We teach, share stories, play games, discuss world events, books, and movies, share treats, and plan together.
  • Our Monthly potluck is a time for reaching out to Village land owners who have not yet built and relocated here. It’s less frequent and allows them to travel from Nashville or sometimes more distant locations. It’s also a time to enjoy great food and casual conversation in an unstructured environment.
  • Since I have joined the staff at the University of the South, I am much more tuned in and do a better job of sharing the abundance of culturally enriching, and mostly free activities there. Lectures, discussions, plays, concerts are plentiful to overwhelming in their availability. We try to get Villagers together to share in many of these experiences too.
  • At less frequent intervals, we have made field trips to Nashville or other outlying towns, like the trip we made to see Les Miserable or recently to Athens to learn about earth-bermed housing.

As more interesting, sharing people join us, the opportunities grow exponentially along with the need for careful tending. I take seriously the responsibility of creating value for Villagers. But, I think everybody knows that it’s a group project, not wholly dependent on me.

Frankly, I’m not satisfied with the type and quality of activities we do now. We can do more and be more. I need all of your help.
Please share your ideas and your energy to bring them to life.

Saving the World one person at a time … starting with me

“Teach them Correct Principles and they Govern Themselves”.  This is the foundation for a sustainable world.  This is my message to the world.
I was asked to give a talk to the Economics club at Sewanee, the University of the South on our independent local currency initiative, the Sewanee Dollar.  But when the sponsor, a student representing the Economics Club read my BLOG, he decided there is more to the story.

He admitted to being a closet Libertarian, an unpopular position at liberal Sewanee U.  But, he said he was having a hard time reconciling “sustainability” with some of the libertarian views I had written of on this blog.  In his mind, these were polar opposites.  To which I responded,

“I can’t imagine anything sustainable unless founded on true principles, including the freedom to act on them”.  

That led to a broader discussion of sustainability.  Sustainable extends into eternity.  It’s not just about restraining ourselves from destroying natural Eco-systems, although that is part of it.  It includes spiritual, moral, physical and economic sustainability.   It’s about being wise, good stewards.  It’s about being the change we want to see.

In other words, Saving the World one person at a time. . . starting with me.

PS:  For a list of some of the community projects referred to in the above video, see my post, Socialism Fails as Free Markets Flourish In the Village.

Please move the deer crossing

People like this are voting . . . for both parties.  That’s why they’re called parties, right?  Because life is a party.  Everybody should vote for a big, popular one.

If this is the product of our school systems, what can we do about it?

Some progressive legislation ideas:

  1. Move the signs to locations where there are fewer deer (as proposed above)
  2. More laws with stiffer penalties on lawbreaking deer.
  3. Increase deer crossing signs in high traffic areas to attract more deer.  Facilitate the early demise of the terminally stupid. Eugenics via natural selection.
  4. Reenact the “trail of Deers”.  Put them all in FEMA camps.  The deer, that is. . .  or not.
    And my favorite for practicality:
  5. Move the remaining smart people out of high traffic cities to the country where there are very few deer crossing signs.  Get beefy bumpers. Road-kill makes good venison.  Proposed relocation center for smart people, the Village on Sewanee Creek.

So many possibilities.  Go ahead.  Add your best suggestions.  It’s a legislator’s dream world.

Build a great house for under $10,000

I was needing to build a guest house. Inexpensive, but strong, well insulated, attractive and off-grid ready.  There is a series of YouTube videos featuring Bob Vila building houses with Steel Shipping Containers, sometimes called CONEX boxes.  When finished, they make attractive houses, indistinguishable from others in the tract.  But the cost per square foot is about on par with standard construction at $150 to $200 per square foot.  Other than the appeal to save-the-earth recyclers, I have a hard time seeing the point.  There has to be a better way.

Done, for less than one tenth the cost.

A little over a  year ago, I bought two CONEX boxes to build a guest house.  They cost $2k each, delivered in rural Tennessee from Atlanta.
I put them on six steel reinforced concrete piers next to the main house.   I purchased good quality used double pane windows and doors from a local salvage place for about three bars of a song.  It was handy to already have plenty of dry storage with the containers already in place.  The old saying “time is money” turns out applies not only to the cost of labor and capital, but to one’s ability to buy materials at a discount.  A dry, secure place to store materials while you take the time necessary to buy frugally and build is an important feature of CONEX boxes that saves lots of money.  Over months, that dry storage was put to good use to accumulate inexpensive surplus or used components like sinks, toilets, cabinets, counters, carpet, tile and a wood burning stove from CraigsList, eBay and other local salvage sources.

Immediately on delivery, the boxes are dry and secure.  But they aren’t insulated and that’s a big deal on a house.  Without it, these steel boxes become ice boxes in winter and ovens in summer.  We are fortunate to live in an area where Tyson has forced the closure of all the older chicken houses.  That’s good in several ways.  First, the toxic stench is gone.  Second, the neighboring chicken farmers are no longer subject to Tyson’s vassal labor conditions.  Third, the chicken houses are slowly being disassembled and sold for scrap metal and the 1 to 2 inch thick foam insulation panels are often discarded.  I acquired two kinds of insulation for less than a song (about the chorus of Yankee Doodle Dixie), almost nothing.  The spun glass type went over the container tops and under the low-pitch steel roof.   Because each container is built to handle the weight of ten or fifteen more containers stacked on it, each loaded with tons of cargo in hurricane force winds on a tossing ocean, there’s no worry about having a higher pitched roof to carry a snow load, especially in mild southern winters.

With a plasma cutter, a friend cut holes in the sides of the CONEX for doors and windows and a gaping hole between them to open up a large space for a living area.   It was a fairly simple task to frame the holes with standard 2X4’s and install doors and windows.  Using standard framing and drywall, it was easy to add interior walls for a storage room, bathroom, bedroom, kitchen, living/dining area and laundry room.  Needing more space in the main house, the laundry was immediately moved into the end of one of the CONEX boxes, installing plumbing and electrical in the process.  A huge chest freezer was added.   In short order, parts of the new house were functional even before it was insulated. The thick marine plywood floors could be easily drilled for plumbing.  Used cabinets and the electrical panel (also bought used) were easily mounted to the steel walls in the new laundry room and hooked up by a licensed electrician.

Then I installed more vertical studs on the exterior walls, screwing them flat, directly to the steel walls from the inside.  The two-inch depth of the studs is perfect to frame the 2 inch thick insulation panels.  Next, I ripped some treated deck boards and screwed them horizontally into the vertically oriented studs. I nestled another 1 inch layer of insulation panels between the deck boards and on top of the 2 inch ones.  That makes three inches of solid foam insulation on the walls, almost what you would have in a commercial walk-in freezer.   With the insulation in place the difference was immediately gratifying.  The space, while not yet aesthetically pleasing, was comfortable and livable.  People interested in sustainable housing often speak of the relative advantages of insulation vs. thermal mass.  With the container house, you get both!  By putting the insulation on the outside, tons of steel are on the interior where the mass absorbs, retains and radiates heat or cold from AC, wood burning stove or other heating system.  This thermal mass helps keep interior temperatures relatively even.  Meanwhile, the insulation on the exterior keeps the extreme temperatures outside.  Another benefit of putting the insulation on the outside is that it doesn’t eat up precious interior space.  Finally, top off the insulation with exterior siding, and Wa-La, it’s beginning to look pretty nice.  Eventually, as time permits, I am thinking of cladding the exterior with cord-wood harvested from the property to give it a rustic feel.

A trip to Dalton, Georgia, just across the Tennessee border was well worth it.  Dalton is the carpet and flooring capital of America.  I found a great deal on commercial quality carpet squares that stay in place without glue or tacking.  You can easily replace just the soiled or worn ones.  Granite tiles go under the wood stove and vinyl for the kitchen and bath.  I love the look of the corrugated steel walls.  Granted, they aren’t the smooth drywall look most people are accustomed to, but something a little different is nice.  So, keep the variation in the walls.  Simply paint them with some lively colors and accent the larger reinforcing members and doors with a contrasting color.  It wouldn’t be hard to overlay the steel walls with drywall or paneling, but if you enjoy a different look and like saving the time and money, paint works just fine.  I especially like the back-splash wall behind the kitchen sink.  Blending several vibrant colors, you can create a rainbow effect that gives life to the kitchen.  The deep corrugation in the steel is perfect for up or down lights that wash the wall and intensify the colors.  “Inexpensive”, “innovative” and “attractive”.

CONEX guest house kitchen

As you work with these big steel boxes, there are endless outlets for creative innovation to be discovered.  Once set on the level, you have already conquered the carpenter’s primary challenge – plumb, level and square.  After that, it’s just a matter of hanging stuff on them.  Rather than try to make the finished product look and act just like the surrounding cracker-box tract houses, it’s fun to  tease out the unique benefits of building with them.  From thermal mass/insulation qualities to the unique undulating aesthetics of corrugated walls, to very serious economic benefits, there is  a lot to be learned and achieved with steel shipping container construction.

This project is only the beginning.  The goal is to make this little house sustainable and off-grid with the same kinds of economic savings.   Use Solar PV (photo-voltaic), but spend $10k or less to do it.  Use hydro-electric from the 50′ waterfall nearby and wind.  Integrate and balance these complementary renewable power sources for both the house and transportation.  Use the battery pack on a golf cart to flexibly store and supply energy to the house, the cart and portable applications like running an electric chain saw or MIG welder somewhere out on the 750 acres that make up the Village.  Folks in the Village on Sewanee Creek are looking for the freedom that intelligent, frugal, debt-free design can afford.  We’re experimenting with these and other abundant lifestyle solutions.  Thankfully, we share and help one another in our common goals, so I don’t have to do it all myself.

If this appeals to you, contact me for more info or a tour here

More shots of the completed guest house are in my talk on sustainability at the University of the South

10/16/17 read about, see new photos of this updated house, now available to experience for yourself at Stay in our Amazing CONEX Tiny Home

 

Why We Tip

Some time ago, Fred posted a somewhat inscrutable comment that said something like the things we are embarrassed about can be the glue of like-mindedness.  Fred’s comments are usually thought-provoking and I have thought about it frequently since then.  Apologies in advance if I misinterpret embarrassment as guilt, but it’s a good segue, so I’m going for it.

I received a link to this NPR piece on Why We Tip from an old food-service website subscription.  It piqued my interest.  Its conclusion is that most people tip out of generalized guilt.

Despite that I spent my entire career in food service, with the accompanying social tipping pressures, I am an inconsistent tipper at best.  I have been told that I’m just plain cheap.  I choose to call it frugal, but that’s not the real reason or the point.

I believe deeply in the effectiveness and goodness of clear rewards and consequences for behavior.  If there is anything in my life that was successful and I am proud of, it is my children.  My approach to fathering was to let natural consequences be the primary teacher.  I chose to be a poor buffer and a good mirror.  It worked fabulously.  My kids were and are wonderful, exceeding me and my expectations in every way.

Apply that philosophy to tipping.  It is nothing less than a metaphor for life.  Early in my food service career, I was taught and completely bought into the story that tipping began in medieval rough-and-tumble road houses as an incentive for good service.  Simple and straight forward.  Get the food to me from the cook before it gets cold or spoils.  I will pay you for your extra trouble.

When I get poor, inattentive, surly service I often respond with either no tip or a penny to send a clear message.  I feel no guilt because I have done the right thing.  My intentional action has the potential to result in a positive change that could make the world a little nicer place, at least  for the next patron…. Or not…  At that point it’s out of my hands and rests firmly with the server who will either change the behavior for better tips or become more surly and angry at me.  Their move, but at least I have provoked a conscious choice.

On the other hand, when I get really good service, I take genuine pleasure in rewarding the server with a generous tip.  I often go out of my way to clarify the message by commenting to them and/or the on-duty manager what a pleasure it was for our paths to have crossed.  I don’t need one of those impersonal, anonymous comment cards.

I was once told that what we are building here at the Village is an “intentional community”.  It occurs to me that I have been trying to live all my life out of intention.  That is, I think, the opposite of living out of unthinking, guilt-based, or unexplored and poorly understood traditions.

To be clear, I am no saint and no stranger to feelings of guilt.  But as I look back on my life, I find that the things I did that worked and I am proud of, almost always came from a positive, intentional motive.  Actions starting from guilt often lead nowhere but to more guilt with unintended results.  As a motive for quitting a bad or ineffective behavior, I like natural consequences a lot better than nagging, amorphous, brooding guilt.

I am consciously working to build a culture at the Village  on Sewanee Creek  that is intentional and therefore positive.  A place of continuous learning, endless creativity, openness to exploring and recognizing the beauties of this world in their stark, truthful and sometimes harsh natural reality.  Nature is a great teacher.  I guess a certain amount of guilt is sometimes useful, but I hope that the glue of our like-mindedness will be made mostly of intention.