Aug 3, 2022
Hello, and welcome back to the Sharing Insights Podcast. My name is Jason Thomas, and the adventure continues. If you’ve been following the first year of the podcast, you’ll have noticed that I disappeared for a while. The last couple of months of 2021 handed me some massive life changes, and these first few months of 2022 have not only been about getting back on my feet, but have invited me into a co-creative collective that's giving my life here new purpose.
The long and short of it is that I just left my farm and home of 12 years. I was pushing to make things happen in a way my land partners just weren’t available for, and I wasn’t able to go any further without their support. As difficult a decision as it was, I’ve packed my things and moved on to a more co-creative environment. In the end, I’ve welcomed the change and have already begun enjoying the fruits of being able to expand my spheres of influence in the region.
I’m happy to say, although the podcast might have faded, it hasn’t gone out!
This episode is all about physical infrastructure.
It’s an exploration of some of the unique techniques we saw in our first season of interviews. It’ll be a shorter episode, given that there’s only so much I can tell you in audio format to describe what you’ll be much better off watching on our YouTube channel. All the same, I’ll go over some highlights to help entice you in that direction.
I’ll start off with our visit to Brave Earth. In the farm tour that Aly Kahn gave me, we saw an array of different building techniques they’ve been working with, from cob to bamboo, to earthen floors to copper-edged fibrolite, aircrete domes, faux-palm-thatched rooves, and more. I enjoyed seeing how each iteration of each construction method they’ve experimented with, grows with successive adaptations.
An interesting note is that, while they began with using quite a bit of cob & bamboo combinations in their earlier structures, they’ve been choosing to use cob less as time's gone on. For those who aren’t familiar with the word “cob”, it refers to a construction style that uses a mix of clay and sand, similar to what’s used to make adobe bricks.
As beautiful as cob is, and as abundantly available the clay is, in most parts of Costa Rica, the reason they’ve been more selective about their use of it is that they quickly learned how much time and labor cob construction can take, as compared with most other materials choices. One fascinating material that we got to see was aircrete.
As described on https://diyaircrete.com:
“AirCrete is a lightweight cement-based material that contains stable air cells uniformly distributed throughout the mixture. It utilizes a stable air cell rather than a traditional aggregate. It is a minimum of 20% (per volume) foam entrained. It’s also known as cellular concrete, foam concrete, foam-crete, lightweight concrete, aerated concrete.”
Brave Earth had built 5 of these domes by the time of my visit. They connected with an organization called Dome Gaia that came out and organized several workshops. Those who attended the dome-making workshops learned the methods while working with them. Dome Gaia designed their own unique machines for mixing cement with biodegradable soap to create a kind of cement foam. This lightweight solid material has a surprisingly high compression strength.
The structures are made in layers. Each layer is wrapped in an industrial-grade felt material, called geotextile, which is dipped in cement and wrapped over each aircrete layer to add tensile strength. This combination of techniques makes the structure nearly indestructible. Once the dome is shaped, a final layer of stucco is applied for aesthetics and water resistance. Aly Kahn recommends that the domes do best when they get a fresh coat of plaster every few years to protect them from leaks.
Another building style they’re using is an A-frame, which they call the “Jungle Hut”, made primarily out of bamboo, with some choice inclusions of synthetic materials for aesthetics and longevity.
The first element of this that I noticed was the roofs. The A-frames, at first glance, look like they’re made with palm thatch, which is beautiful but requires a lot of palm leaves to create and can require quite a bit of maintenance. It’s generally advised to regularly burn a fire under thatched roofs so that bugs don’t live in and eat them. Otherwise, you’ll be replacing all that thatch every handful of years. The polycarbonate material looks just like palm leaves; offers the cooling and noise reduction benefits of not using metal, but can last several decades with little to no maintenance!
Over the front porch of these A-frame cabins, they used some
high-quality translucent polycarbonate roof panels to bring some
light to it. The contrast of plastic against the natural look
of the bamboo and thatch didn’t quite look right, though. To modify
it, they used a natural material called caña brava, which can be
found abundantly down here. They strung them together into simple
panels and placed them beneath the polycarbonate to add an organic
feel to it.
Very well done!
The floors of the A-frames showed another simple innovation that impressed me. They chose to use sheetrock for the flooring, as the structures are all constructed on stilt-built platforms to avoid having to carve up the land, digging flat foundations. Sheetrock floors are relatively inexpensive to install but are usually pretty unattractive. The team at Brave Earth fixed this by cutting the sheetrock into angular pieces that formed a mandala shape, adding some thin pieces of wood where they meet, giving it an elegant and intentional look at a relatively low price.
Brave Earth is designing art into its cabin sculptures at every opportunity. When you check out the video tour we did of their place, you’ll see how designing irregularity into your structures can be a great way to enhance their beauty. Wait ‘till you see their kitchen!
Justin Dolan is another guest who’s given a lot of thought, planning, and experimentation to his building approach. St Michael’s Permaculture Country Club has an array of different structures built, ranging from a double-decker shipping container home to bamboo framed greenhouses. Shipping containers are a popular upcycled shell of steel that many people are experimenting with to frame their homes. Justin mentioned that, while they do offer some cost savings from buying new steel, many of the containers available are in poor condition and need a lot of improvements to create a suitable end product. He also didn’t like the limitations that it places on design. Depending on your needs they still might be a good solution for you, though.
While building with steel can inherently leave you with a structure that can get quite hot, Justin has been using plant-based solutions that have proven to be impressively effective. Two of the adaptations he’s applied are the use of living rooftops and growing vines along the walls. By covering these structures with soil, grass, flowers, and other lovely plant matter, the temperature in these structures is significantly reduced. He even has greywater from the house piped out to feed the vines that he has growing on the outside of the walls. Building structures partially into a hillside is another way to keep the temperature low.
Another cooling feature that Justin’s used is the tactic of putting a swimming pool in front of the house! He says that when the wind passes over the pool and toward the house, the water's surface reduces the wind temperature as it approaches and enters the home, cooling it by several degrees. It’s also pretty epic to have a swimming pool out the front door, if I may say so.
Of course, swimming pools generally need a lot of water. For that reason, Justin has a storage shed next to the house and pool, whose roof he uses to collect water into a large storage tank below the shed. What a great design! Once the tank is full, Justin has enough water to freshen up the pool.
Like many of our guests, Justin is a big fan of bamboo, as well. He recommends, to any landowner, to plant several varieties and plant early! Building with bamboo enhances the quality of the environment. It’s an ideal tropical building material.
He also encourages us to choose insect-resistant woods to reduce the need to treat them. However, he also acknowledges the importance of treating the wood that needs it, to keep from having to replace it sooner than necessary.
Nico Botefur and Ed Bernhardt are another couple of guests who use a lot of bamboo in their structures. Nico has a series of old canvas tents that he bought from the Salvation Army and put them over some bamboo frames to make his popular glamping rentals. Nico, for the most part, chooses not to treat his bamboo. He just makes sure that he has plenty of it planted all around. He prefers to build his structures in ways that make it easy for him to change the poles out when they begin to decay or get eaten by beetles.
At the end of Ed’s farm tour video, he mentioned a design for a solar food dryer made out of bamboo in a gothic-arch style. Well, he’s finished it, and it is impressive! What’s most impressive about it is how simple it was to build, and how hot it gets in there. He’s invited me over to create a mini-course to show you how you can make one, too! Subscribe to the YouTube channel to catch the video when it comes out.
Ed showed us another exciting innovation in his farm tour video worth mentioning here. He created a biosand filter just outside of his house to filter his drinking water, and it’s SO simple! It’s made with a 16” concrete culvert (or “canteria” in Costa Rica,) filled with rock dust (polvo piedra) up to about 16” from the top of the cylinder. He has an output tube that comes up only 12” from the top, so the sand remains covered in water at all times. Once a day, he fills the culvert with fresh water from his well, and it filters down through the rock dust and up through the exit tube, leaving it clean and fresh.
Ed’s neighbor Suzanna Leff also uses bamboo regularly but in very crafty ways, primarily for garden projects. One example is found in her greenhouse, where she hangs lengths of bamboo culms vertically, strung one under the other, with holes cut in the top to make horizontal growing space!
Another one of her structures that we see in her farm Tour video, that actually caught me by surprise, was her drying house. I was impressed with how hot and dry it got in there, even during the rainy season. It’s built with transparent roof panels but only has screen walls. Even without any humidity control, it seems to be very effective.
(A veteran tip I’ll slip in here is that Susanna recommends drying your roots with some dirt still on them. She says it helps preserve them for storage).
Terry Lillian Newton dropped a clever word of wisdom for anyone who keeps livestock. She warns us not to use cement floors for horses or other hooved animals, as it can damage their feet. (I wish we knew this when we poured a cement floor for our goats, for easy cleaning.) She recommends using a dirt floor covered with wood chips. You can change them out regularly, and even use the enriched wood chips for garden mulch.
Our last stop on our Season 1 tour was Lynx Guimond, and boy do I like his style! Lynx has a background in building tree platforms that appear to be minimalistic but are very well made, look fantastic, and are cozy to hang out in. It brings a lot of fun to the environment;, as well as style and function to the project.
In the video tour of Sailcargo’s homestead, we also got a glimpse of the sizable but simple greenhouse they built with a scrap wood frame, a transparent plastic roof, and shade cloth for walls.
That’s what I’ve got for you in this episode. Our next episode will be the completion of this recap series, where we’ll explore some insights gathered around cultivating an impactful belief system. I’ll also be making a long-awaited announcement regarding the future of the podcast. Be sure to stay tuned.
Keep it sustainable!
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Special thanks to Peter Mukuru for editing this episode!