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.

Self-Reliant Living: Alternative Energy

We keep pushing the envelope, learning how to live independently.  I love the sense of freedom and peace of mind that gives me.  Water and food were our first focus.  That foundation is feeling pretty solid now.

Our next focus has been energy.  We have been seriously researching lots of alternatives for reliable, low cost electricity generation.  Most people think of solar PV, wind and, to a lesser extent, micro-hydro for green power. But there are problems with each.

Solar Photo Voltaics are expensive.  The costs are beginning to come down, but aren’t there yet.  Probably won’t be for some time.  I want to power my house without bankrupting the occupants.  And I don’t want to have to sacrifice so much on consumption that I give up all the conveniences.  Then there are the cloudy days, requiring big battery backup.  PV cost per KWh is just way too high.

Wind is nice.  Lots of new innovations, especially with vertical axis turbines.  They are primarily designed to make wind power acceptable in an urban environment by putting the turbine close to the ground.  But that’s where there isn’t much wind.  Oh, well.  We’re rural, so that’s no advantage.  Wind’s disadvantage for me?  You need really strong, consistent wind to produce a lot of electricity – like on the plains of Nebraska.  We are on a plateau at 2,000 feet with nice breezes, but not gale force winds.  We could still do it, but would need multiple windmills to make enough electricity for our needs.  Again, the costs become too high relative to the output.  Plus, you only get electricity when the wind blows.

Then there’s hydro power.  It’s the lowest cost per KWh alternative, but you need either a big river or a perennial creek with lots of head (drop in elevation). We have the latter, but flow varies a lot depending on recent rainfall.  Summer flow isn’t enough.

It all comes down to cost and continuous reliability.

We discovered a little-known, low-cost, low-tech and proven alternative.  It’s called wood gasification.  Surprisingly, over a million cars in Europe were powered with wood during World War II when gas was short.  Unlike the other green power sources, we have an abundance of fast growing, renewable, free wood here.  So, we are installing a system that converts wood into a gas that can run an internal combustion engine with plenty of horse power to drive a generator.  We can run it any time, in any season, independent of the weather.  And, best news of all, the cost is competitive with the big utilities on a cost per KWh basis.

The founder of the company that has brought this technology into the 21st century will be here a week from next Saturday installing our new system.    Give me a call if you would like to see it or any of our other self-sufficiency systems in action.

Sustainable Living Progress Report

Progress Update

OK, so I have been really bad about posting updates lately. That’s because I’ve been working hard on projects and I’m dog-tired at the end of each day.  The good news is that we’re moving forward with lots of cool stuff here.

Thanks to my wife, the greenhouse is planted and lots of little sprouts are poking their heads up. The weather has gotten warm enough to shut down the greenhouse furnace for now. Daytime temps are in the 70’s and greenhouse temp’s are in the 80’s and 90’s. We still need to install the shade cloth for the summer. Should be arriving this week.

We have engaged a land company on several projects. A huge track-hoe is now sitting on the property ready to begin work this week expanding the retention pond where we plan to raise cattails to be distilled for alcohol fuel and retain water for irrigation.

Chuck is making good progress on the wood gasifier that will also make fuel for the stationary generator installation. This green electricity generating system will also become an economic mainstay for producing a valuable product in the Village.  Chuck is part of the larger community web of folks dedicated to being self-sufficient. When you visit, you should make time to meet him. He’s an amazing resource and an amazing guy!

We have finished grading a large pad for a workshop / storage building. I’m excited about this prototype project because we will be using 40′ X 8′ shipping containers as the green building blocks. These large steel containers are built for ocean shipping conditions. Therefore, strong enough to handle hurricanes but inexpensive because there are millions of these things piled up at sea ports needing to be salvaged. I plan to face the sides of them with oak slab paneling – a FREE byproduct of local saw mills and insulate them with recycled insulation from the many commercial chicken houses that have closed near here. We will install roof trusses with a pitched steel roof and, once again install tanks to collect rainwater for irrigation. The shop will be heated in winter from the same outdoor wood furnace that will heat the greenhouse and two other homes. So, when we’re done, we’ll have a state-of-the-art green facility that costs not a lot more than our sweat equity and has an attractive, rustic look to boot.

Now for the part that really gets my creative juices going. We have purchased three of these containers – two for the shop and a third one that will be used to hosue the screen and backstage at the amphitheater. By this year’s third annual July 4th event we hope the amphitheater will be fully and permanently functional. The stage container will also house electronic sound equipment, a small kitchen and serve as a multipurpose community center.

My brother has been here for the past month working on his house and helping with all these projects. It’s great to have like-minded people who you love focused together on the same goals and having fun at it.

It seems that the worse the economy gets the better it is for the people in the Village.

We look forward to seeing all of you soon.

Optimist’s view of Peak Oil – The new oil end game

One of the great advantages of living in an intentional community like the village is that you join with can-do people who, instead of just wringing their hands about world conditions, are actively engaged in solving problems. That’s a good feeling, you learn a lot and it’s fun.

1. This summer, we lived about 80% on the food we grew in our garden and are planning to extend that winning streak through the winter with a green house.
2. We’re working on a green energy system that utilizes our unique local resources to power our home in the woods where wind and solar aren’t good options.
3. Our rain water collection system now gives us the option of living independent of public water. Our water is soft, pure without chemicals and free.

This week, confidence in our financial systems took a major hit with the Lehman Brothers bankruptcy, AIG bailout, stock market roller coaster ride, etc.

Here is a TED talk that gives us lots of reasons for optimism about the potential for future world stability on many levels, including financial, ecological, social, and geo-political.
Take a look at this video for an injection of optimism.

PS: For those of you who don’t have the capital to tackle the world’s large-scale problems, but are not satisfied with sitting at the sidelines, join us in the village. We’re working on personal sustainability with some very encouraging results.

Amphitheater, Community & Movie Reviews

As some of you know, I’m an unabashed movie lover. I got my start when I worked for Blockbuster Video years ago doing international development in places like Japan, Brazil and Thailand.

Since then I have built several home theaters, one with a small stage. From that experience I learned the power of having an active venue that brings people together for expression, entertainment and education. We regularly invited friends with their families to enjoy a movie and some light refreshments or a barbecue. It frequently amazed and delighted me when, as the adults enjoyed some light conversation and prepared the food, the kids would disappear into the basement only to reappear an hour or so later. They would announce that they had put together a skit and wanted us all to come down to the theater to watch them perform. What a joy that was! That experience brought us all so much closer together.

We began to actively plan our social visits by choosing a short play in advance and doing reader’s theater with our friends. It was easy, required no memorization, but brought out new sides of our friends that we hadn’t seen and it brought us closer together. Similarly, enjoying a stimulating movie together followed by some discussion created links of mutual understanding.

That’s why, as we work to build a close-knit community at the Village, the first thing we built is the landscaping for the amphitheater and a simple stage.

When we have enough people resident on the property to assure some oversight, we will install the large movie screen that we have already acquired and set it up with low power FM broadcast, a projector and media player. Meanwhile, we will temporarily use our smaller 12′ screen on an as-needed basis at the amphitheater and in our home, that now boasts a comfortable home theater. We have a standing offer for Movie night at the Millers pending RSVP.

As for content, like just about everything else in our lives, we enjoy being a bit eclectic. Recently I have felt a sense of responsibility to share and educate others about the need to live a sustainable life.

Here are a couple of recommendations for documentaries I have recently viewed that I think do an excellent job of speaking to two of the four important elements of sustainability that are part of our mission, renewable energy and food. You can rent these from Netflix (my current favorite source).

They are:

* The Future of Food: a sobering look at the industrialization and control of our food chain. This one will make you want to start your own garden – soon.

* Car of the Future: A humorous approach hosted by Click and Clack, the tappet brothers of NPR “Car Talk” fame with an optimistic view of what is achievable and already achieved.

The Bluff Lots are Ready

Today, I am announcing the pre-sale of seven additional lots in a new phase (1B) at the Village.

Each of these bluff lots is truly spectacular.  Deep woods, old growth trees, bluff views.  Two of them feature waterfalls and one-of-a-kind Indian Rock houses.  They range in size from 5 to 8.5 acres.  All have direct access to the 500-acre wild, private preserve in Sewanee Creek Canyon.

Several of you have said you were waiting for the bluff property to come on the market.  Well, it is here.

A recent acquisition of land adjacent to Browns Hollow Road makes it possible to reconfigure the plat and immediately offer these large beautiful estate lots.  The new phase 1B lots are located at the western end of the development.

You can view an overlay of the village in 3 dimensions on actual satellite photos using Google Earth.  You will be able to see any lot from space or from a low angle deep in the canyon, explore the bluff line or zoom in on the amphitheater.  Email me for the Village GoogleEarth Map and if you need help installing the Google Earth viewer.  I will be happy to walk you through the installation.

PS:  Any of you who do not yet have and would like access to my private website, filled with additional photos, downloadable files and interactive discussions may request a password by email.  The private site is for people who are seriously interested in learning more and participating with the Villagers who are actively shaping our community.  You will find there the most recent pdf file plat (too huge to email).  You will also find a virtual community of people who are interested in living in harmony with people and nature and a self-sufficient lifestyle.

High Tech in the Woods-Work in your Tennessee Mountain Paradise

I met today with an executive from Ben Lomand Telephone Co-op.  The Village already has high speed DSL, so a minimally tech-familiar executive can easily set up a home office and begin tele-commuting from his Tennessee Mountain paradise.

In an earlier life, overseeing people in over 60 countries, I’ve done just that for about fifteen years now, using the internet for real time video conferencing and desktop sharing in a virtual office environment, so I know it works and I know how to do it.  It was an invaluable tool that helped reduce costs, local commute time and international flights while I worked, sometimes strange hours, in my bathrobe.  It played a valuable role in keeping my communications fresh and current across long distances and time zones.

I chose the location of the Village partially because I knew it had DSL, but more because of its proximity to Nashville, Chattanooga and Huntsville, all about an hour away from major airports.  The combination of high speed internet and good airports makes it possible for most executives to work from paradise if you know how – and I’m happy to coach anybody who is ready to make the leap from insanity.

But TODAY, I was blown away.  We’re looking at getting direct-to-the-house fiber optics.  That’s like plugging directly to the internet trunk line with not only SUPER high band-width internet, but also high def TV and video-on-demand delivered over fiber optics, not cable.  This is state of the art stuff in the middle of the woods.

WOW, pack your bags!