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.

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.

I like liberals

despite the fact that I am not one.  

I know I’m venturing into dangerous territory, the no-mans-land between opposing trenches.

I am conservative, and cautious, sometimes fearful, repressed, yet sometimes driven.  People like me keep the world from spinning out of control or at least we like to think we do.  We live within our means.  We save for the future.  We plan for the worst.  We are captivated by a steep moral code that puts boundaries around our lives.  Boundaries make us and others around us feel safer.  We’re fairly predictable.  Politically, we demand fiscal sanity; recognition of what is real.  We analyze the data, find trends and, unless we anticipate something huge happening to reverse the momentum, we generally expect trends to continue.

But there’s another side, buried deep inside of me, that cries out to be creative.  It is an irrepressible force that bursts out of its cave from time to time with a defiant roar.  That creative urge demands that I sheer off the constraints, think unthinkable thoughts, and believe the unbelievable, that insoluble problems can be solved simply, damn the data.  A liberal thought might be something like there is plenty of money to go around to feed the hungry, clothe and house the poor from government coffers that can somehow be magically filled simply by printing more money or redistributing it from the rich.  It is an urge that tells me mankind is basically good, that despite the endless trail of failed utopian societies that depended on people to be unselfish, love others more than themselves and share without restraint, utopia is possible and deserves to be attempted yet again.

Fortunately, my primary self reasserts and I usually come to my senses.  I realize that communes where all property is held in common never survive long, not in a pure form.  Almost nobody loves others better than or even equal to themselves even if there have been one or even a few exceptions.  And though I try to be otherwise, that includes me almost all the time.  That’s why I recognize that personal ownership of property is essential.  Without personal ownership, we typically slide into sloth and “poor greed”.  That is, the back side of the greed coin most people attribute only to the wealthy, which is “driven greed”.  In the end, greed is a problem everywhere.  It is not limited by class.

Consider two unlikely questions together.  “Why do I like liberals?” and “How often do arch-conservatives excoriate liberals as the cause of moral corruption and America’s destruction?”  “Rome is falling because of the damned liberals.”  If you hang around Republicans the refrain is familiar.  These two questions together remind me of another odd couplet.  “Why do I love my wife?”  And “How many jokes are there about men who can’t ask for directions, won’t put the toilet seat down and women who refuse to think logically.”  Why do I love my wife even if she drives me nuts?  Maybe it’s because I need her so desperately.  In the balance between the yin and the yang of our profound but natural differences, something magical happens.  Two halves make a whole.  Take away either half and you have . . . a hole.

If we were a culture made up only of conservative accountants, who would plant the beans to be harvested, much less counted?  (That is NOT to say that only liberals are productive, LOL.)  Or, more accurately, who would dream the big dreams, take the leaps of faith, think outside the steep walls, invest their life savings on an impulse that has less than a 1% chance of success, yet ends up surprising everyone with cold fusion?  Those are liberal, throw caution to the wind, faith-driven impulses.  When I was young, my avowed liberal private sax teacher often said I must play with abandon to be any good as a jazz musician.  There is something liberating in being liberal that allows people to abandon reason, take illogical leaps of faith, and come up with something totally unexpected, fresh, new and good.  It is the ultimate expression of faith.

Isn’t it a bit ironic then, that faith in God, is generally thought of as more natural to the politically conservative side of the aisle while atheism is associated with the educated liberal elite?

Of course, the argument favoring the flip side of the yin/yang equation is equally important and, if you are basically conservative, I don’t need to elaborate.  If you’re not, well, you just don’t get it, do you?

That conservative/liberal dichotomy helps explain to me why the art community seems to be disproportionately full of liberals.  I love art.  There is nothing that validates me more than when I feel creative.  I love creativity, whether I observe it in the scientific laboratory, in the tinkerer’s back yard, the artist’s easel or an inspired jazz improvisational performance. 

If I love creativity, how can I help but love and need creative people?  Many if not most happen to have a wide liberal streak running through them.  There’s an old cliché that I think applies equally in love, politics and life.  “Can’t live with ‘em and can’t live without ‘em. 

And so it is; I like liberals.

Mechanical Art of Self-Sufficient living at the Village on Sewanee Creek

My father was the kind of artist who regularly built amazing things out of discarded trash. If he didn’t have the right tool he didn’t go to harbor freight to buy it, he just built it. He grew up on a farm, dreaming of becoming an aviator, building working scale model airplanes, whittling balanced propellers from sticks. During World War II, he became a mechanical flight engineer on bombers in South Africa and Italy. After the war, he built helicopters for the military as a civilian in San Diego.

He built both houses that my brother, sister and I grew up in. One of my fondest memories was when he took Spring Break off of work to help me build a dune buggy from an old ’49 Chrysler sedan. It wasn’t the best choice to start from, but one we had sitting in the back yard. Another treasured memory was building a canoe from scratch that we took down the Colorado River together during another spring break. He was also a skilled oil painter, wood worker, mechanic, welder, electrician, stone mason, worm farmer, dabbler in solar energy, and the list goes on. You name it, he could do it. If he didn’t know how, he tinkered with it till he figured it out.

My parents never owed anyone a dime for either of the houses they built or the land they were built on. When my father passed away, my brother and I went to his workshop to divvy up the tools. We were shocked to find how little was there. His creative ingenuity was amazing. He was an artist in every sense of the word and my ideal model of a Mechanical Artist.

In my career I took a very different path from my father. I was white collar all the way, never developing the skills he spent a lifetime refining. Yet I continuously longed to express myself artistically as he did. I have a dream that some day the Village will be filled with people who have the same desires. These will be men and women with varied experience and talents. None of them will be afraid to get their hands dirty. All will be driven with a desire to create and share wonderful things that make our lives easier, more beautiful, more fun and more practically sustainable.

Please share your ideas on things we can build – together.