Saturday, October 8, 2016

House Beautiful?

After my dry run with Sheilagh putting the tiny house through its paces and living in it I realized I needed to address seating. Not just seating for dining, but for lounging around and entertaining. In my planning stage I was thinking hanging chairs and hammocks for their versatility. But now that I had been showing the house to visitors who were curious about my tiny house I acquired a desire to make the house more conventional in the sense that strangers looking in the door could see that it was a home and not a fishing shack. Something that would read "house" in the sense of cultural icons that represented what people could identify as a home in a magazine spread. This was the first time in my life that I had had so conventional a thought process. 

My conception of interior space and decor had run through more bohemian territory with witty references to convention. I had at one time lived with a housemate who brought with him an iron bathtub set up on pieces of lumber that we filled with cushions and used as a place to lie in and read. It was the most comfortable piece of furniture any of us had experienced. When he moved into his own house taking his "couch" with him, I recreated the bathtub couch and being unable to find claw feet set it up on galvanized plumbing pipe connectors which I painted to look like elephant feet.

Our house in Thailand had a wide bench with Danish modern legs. Upholstered in turquoise Chiangmai cotton and furnished with throw pillows it had been my mother's idea of seating. When I took possession of it I just had to replace the worn out cushions. In the same house we also had one of those hanging rattan basket chairs popular in the '60s. My father designed built-in counter height cabinets that ran along one wall and served as a workspace while my mother had another cabinet that served as a sewing table. These were built by the carpentry shop on the corner and made up in teak. There was also a bar with two swiveling teak wood stools. Along with the marble coffee table on tapered legs that matched the couch this was our hip mid-century modern living room. The apple does not fall far from the tree in this arena of house decor I realized.

A couch would offer a place to lie down that would not entail climbing up to the loft or crawling into a hammock. And of course it would be good if whatever I built would serve more than one function. I had already decided that the cooler would sit against the wall opposite of the kitchen and serve as seating. This led me to design a bench to slide over the cooler paired with another one for storage for my sewing machine. I made cushions from the leftover memory foam I had cut off the topper of my minimalist mattress and bought good quality upholstery fabric to go with the blue green of the kitchen. Frugal style is knowing where to spend your money.

As for a dining room table, there were plenty of drop down tables built in tiny houses and that Ikea roll around table with two folding leaves and drawers in the center was also popular with tiny house people. The engineering of the drop down table was quite complex. I could do it given the wall space I had, but the legs were a problem with benches. After much drawing and research I realized that I already had a table I liked perfectly well. It had been a utility table for a computer printer that I had rescued from an office move. The polished blond wood and chrome legs were pleasing to the eye. The legs had wheels and a storage shelf at the bottom. I'd been using it for my sewing table. I could add fold down leaves to it and make it into a dining room table. And it would roll into the space under the stairs where I had originally planned to put the cooler. I could postpone adding the drop down leaves since it would not be a built in so I would not have to build it before moving the house.

With the bench and cushion covers in the works I turned my attention to shelving. I wanted as much footage as I could fit for my book collection. I was not a minimalist Kindle person. I had amassed a book collection in preparation for a collapse of the electrical grid. I had books to help me homestead an off grid life, build shelter and grow food. Books for home maintenance and fixing things for clients. Plus all my shamanic books and autobiographies of interesting lives that I hadn't read yet. I was after all a writer. I needed books. 

It was easy enough to make shelving from doors, but what to use for shelf supports? I could make wood farmer style supports, but that was too much work. Shelf supports were a decorative fashion thing I noted, but also a bonafide piece of hardware. I could indulge in buying shelf supports. I chose some plain iron ones that looked like a blacksmith might have hewn them. There were also some inexpensive hyper modern ones I'd never seen before that functioned like the hinge on a fold out desk holding the shelves at both ends. These were clever and minimalist with the added feature of serving as book ends. They came in white and the shelves were white which picked up the white of the window frames. When I installed all the shelves things finally began to look like a house. It was not just a couch then that makes it a house. Shelves and the ownership of things to put on them added significantly to the iconography that says here is a house.

On the kitchen side I had long planned to make shelves out of the strip of desktop I had cut off when I made my kitchen counter. I made two shelves of different lengths to accommodate my Berkey Filter that would serve as my water dispenser for drinking water. The rounded edges of the shelves matched the kitchen counter top in a very satisfying way. When adorned with my gold rimmed cocktail glasses I had saved from a client this definitely said house beautiful.

Speaking of client gifts, I had a number of such gifts from clients who were eager to contribute to my tiny house. I now had a rather butch quilt made by a client's grandmother from mens shirts and pants in a plain pattern of simple squares. The client had gone to the trouble of washing it several times to rid it of its musty smell just so she could offer it for my use. I was touched by this. I'd also been given a folding travel iron, a mirror, silverware, bachelor casserole dishes and most interesting a velvet curtain that had gone over the door of a client's therapist's office to muffle sound.

After discussion with Sheilagh over matters of privacy in the tiny house we decided that the loo needed a privacy curtain, but the shower did not since such an act of bathing would not be shared with guests in the house unless a lover in which case the act of bathing would be willingly shared. And since I would not be spraying water over me I would not have to contain shower spray with a curtain. Pouring water was a much more controlled use of water. Thus the burgundy curtain became the privacy curtain for the loo adding a luxurious touch of class. Fishing shacks most definitely did not have velvet curtains.

Satisfied that I had firmly established that this was a house with all the functions of a house I was ready to move.

Saturday, October 1, 2016

The Afterlife Of Poop: Behind the Scenes on Composting Toilets

Apart from my tribe of lesbian brothers (who are off-grid cabin enthusiasts) I was not surprised that few of my circle have experienced a composting toilet. When I show pictures of my homemade toilet only then have people wondered how they work. There is a high tech expectation that a composting toilet has some internal ability to disappear what is put in it. And while there are sophisticated ones that reduce the solids to a decomposed form through the use of a hand crank, fan and heater, the collection chamber must still be emptied. 

In a large house the chamber can be under the floor with an access door to the outside. There is no need to address the after life of poop for a year or so at which point it is no longer poop. But in a tiny house on wheels the process is much more intimate. In a homemade bucket toilet such as mine, my poop (and all my friends' should they gift me with a deposit) is with me for a week to a month lying quietly in a bed of sawdust and toilet paper. I admit that even I had some qualms about this fact. It felt like hoarding of the most extreme variety. And I must quickly avert my mind to the value of engaging in this cycle of nature that turns digested waste into soil and in turn to food again. And the comforting thought that humans carry all the essential minerals in bodily excreta to create soil to grow food that then provides us with essential minerals. This means we carry with us the ability to bring back fertility to a depleted planet. (This life saving factor aptly demonstrated in the movie The Martian.) How wondrous is that? What a complete package we humans are.

Thankfully the poop removal job has been made virtually odorless by the separation of solids from liquids. Modern composting toilets have caught on to this factor. So there are two containers to empty and process, one for liquids and one for solids. The urine being enclosed in a container with a screw top is easily carried out. Some toilets even divert the urine to a container outside for ease of emptying. 

Urine being rich in nitrogen and phosphorous and having the benefit of being sterile is immediately useful for fertilizing plants. It must first be diluted with water at least 3 to 1 or it will burn the plant. From my workshop at an eco farm I learned that if mixed with a cup of sugar or molasses, diluted urine is made more accessible to plants. Urine can also be added to the compost pile which would help to keep it moist while the nitrogen and phosphorous is preserved in the resulting compost. Seen here is a urine toilet I visited recently at an eco village that used sawdust to absorb the liquid which was then dumped into a compost heap.

Then there is the removal of solids. In a homemade toilet this consists of removing the bucket inside the toilet and taking it to a dedicated compost container in your backyard. (You can also line the bucket with a plastic bag and pitch it, bag and all, in your garbage can as people do everyday with dog poop.) Commercial composting toilets can be more difficult to empty if they have no removable bucket. The one seen on Tiny House Nation called Nature's Head ($960) requires that the whole toilet be unscrewed from the base and taken outside. Granted the hand crank prompts more decomposition and drying and shrinkage before it needs to be emptied so not quite as vivid an experience (but the toilet paper may still be visible). Such details of compost removal is never demonstrated or even mentioned on the show I've noticed. I suspect it would disturb the viewer and scare off advertisers.

A dedicated compost pile or container for humanure composting is the rule. Rest assured that such a compost pile when done correctly will heat up to the high temperatures required to kill off pathogens. It is the size of the pile that determines if it heats up enough. About a cubic yard will do it. Leaving it for a year will also allow for the digestion of any pathogens by microbes, bacteria and earth worms. The weak link of this system is the rinsing out of the bucket. This must be done over the compost pile warns the Humanure Handbook whose author is amusingly verbose in the history and science of humanure composting. (A boiled down 12 page manual is available here.) Lining the bucket with a compostable bag which is then deposited in the compost pile could work too. I was also intrigued by this research paper by the Natural Resources Conservation Service on composting dog poop on a large scale that describes the process in a few pages of concise instruction.

If you cannot face this poop removal lifestyle there are other tiny house toilet systems to consider. For the complete overkill experience there is a toilet called the incinolet for $1849 that zaps the poop to ash with a jolt of high wattage electricity. Or if you like neat packages another toilet called the DryFlush Laveo for $590 plus disposable liners uses diaper pail technology to wrap each deposit in plastic after all the air is squeezed out. Needless to say both these options fall short for the eco minded and frugal.

Humanure composting has entranced me since I first learned about it in the '90s. It made using clean drinking water as a vehicle for transporting poop to a giant central processing plant seem absurd especially considering the difficulty of getting that clean drinking water drinkable in the first place. Plus all the chemicals added to the sewage sludge to render it "safe" before it is trucked out to farms to be laid on fields as fertilizer under the banner of organic matter. (The nerve.) This chemical interference which includes all manner of poisons thrown into sewers (informative blog devoted to the topic here) and rendering our soil ever more harmful and our food less nutritious. The nitrogen leaching out into our waterways has also caused algae blooms that have rendered beautiful lakes and ponds green and dead. A complete fiasco especially considering that depletion of phosphorous in soil is now a world crisis.

And when I learned from my construction technology class how our sewage is processed locally in huge open tanks which can overflow into the bay after a heavy rainfall, the yuck factor made a composting toilet seem much the simpler safer alternative. (Additional tanks can be built to take care of this overflow from processing plants, but I doubt if this has been a priority in our municipality.)

The flush toilet is so much a part of our society that to contemplate using anything but water to flush our poop off site far away seems heretical. When people balk at composting toilets I see how our modern technologies have so obfuscated natural processes that we no longer understand what is actually safe and what our elaborate centralized systems have done to throw nature out of balance. 

Composting was a way to take myself off this land intensive, water wasteful, chemical system and return to a basic, localized mellow process that would improve the very soil around me. In fact my fondness for compost is such that it may have been one of the reasons I have so eagerly embraced the tiny house lifestyle.