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Mark Fox

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since Apr 17, 2014
Stettler, AB Zone 3
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Recent posts by Mark Fox

Manel Horta wrote:I've been struggling with this question for years. I thought the answer would come to me as i would get more wise and engaged with a permie lifestyle, but it still didn't :p

We are in similar circumstances, Manel. I'm also from an IT background and have left the city for rural surroundings. There is call for decent IT people in my area, but more for system support ("My printer stopped working."), which I can do, but my skill-set is more towards system/network administration and programming. I had a painful experience in IT a few years ago and decided that I was done with the field. Since then, I've come to realize that A) I really enjoy solving IT problems; B) I'm good at solving IT problems; and C) there are rural organizations doing good work that desperately need skilled IT folk.

My suggestion would be to seek out organizations that are doing work that suits your ethics. Many of these will be volunteer organizations. Show up to meetings to get a feel for how they operate. Consider offering your services to them. This is what I have done for the last couple of years. I've made some important connections to other like-minded people as well as other opportunities for offering my services, some of which have involved payment. As a result of my volunteering, I have a tentative offer for a paid position that matches very closely to my ethics and my interests.

At the same time, I am making more effort to better utilize the rural property we own, in a way that fits my ethics, and yields a bit of income. It takes a great deal of time to learn how to do this. So if you can take courses or attend workshops, it will save you some time as well as helping you make connections.

Two years ago, I felt I was alone in our area. It was really hard to stay motivated. Now, I have a circle of acquaintances and friends who are mostly like-minded. Having actual people to talk to about these issues is more valuable than one might think. The Permies forums can only get one so far.
4 years ago
John, thanks for the link to the video. The featured speaker in the video is Nate Hagens. Nate's presentations are always amazing and uncomfortable because of the subject matter. If this thread is about how permaculture could become more of a success, Nate's focus is more on why permaculture should be more of a success and why it isn't. Of course, he isn't focused on permaculture, but his talks cover aspects of society and the human condition that have to be understood to be worked around if permaculture is to expand. Highly recommended.

Edit: Having watched the video, I just want to point out that it is worth watching to the end. Actually, I'd go further and say that watching the first 75% of the video and then walking away would be harmful to your mental well-being. The subject, reality, is depressing, but the finale offers some hope.

As for the focus of the thread, it is something I have been wondering about for a long time. Bringing people to your permaculture farm is, in my opinion, the only way to get them to understand why they should be paying for your product, and probably more for it, rather than just going to the grocery store. I've always imagined our farm as including a bed-and-breakfast for people looking for a way to live with less guilt. It would include a CSA that would encourage members to make trips out to see their food being produced. A yearly (at least) open house would also be an important way to get new members and strengthen the connection to existing members.

My project is just beginning and won't really get going for at least a couple of years, but it is nice to have an idea of where I'm headed.

John Weiland wrote:Kind of a long video but you can scroll through to find the good bits. About the "cost of doing business", including a discussion of 'money', from a human-powered versus fossil-fuel perspective:

4 years ago
Thanks for the reply John.

I keep thinking about ways to build the household systems to cope with the loss of electricity over night. One could freeze ice during the day to keep things cool over night. (In our climate, we don't need really need refrigeration for five months of the year as there is plenty of cold air for the taking.) A pressure tank could store enough water/pressure for tooth brushing and hand-washing. Thermal mass could keep the house comfortable over-night.

On the other hand, electric lighting allows one to work pre-dawn and into the evening. That would be a huge productivity boost, and could be the difference between making ends meet or not.
5 years ago
One of my favourite personalities is Nate Hagens. He seems to get the mix of problems and solutions (no easy solutions really exist) without going off into woo-woo. Anyways, in a recent presentation that is available on Youtube, he mentions solar systems without any kind of base-load. I've been thinking about the same thing for quite some time. (A warning, that presentation is really long and rushed. It isn't his best. This one is better, but doesn't mention the concept of storage-less solar PV.)

So my solar system has batteries which keep everything running at night and for a few cloudy days. (To be clear, I own the solar system, but the house it is going into is still being built.)The batteries are a huge expense and are relatively short-lived. Grid-tie systems use the grid as their storage, which brings a large monthly bill, even if your solar system generates more than you consume. The system I'm imagining would not be grid-tied or have batteries. Perhaps it would have a very small amount of storage, just enough to get the bare minimum load through the night and provide for burst loads (ie. an appliance starting up) during the day. But basically, electricity would only be plentiful when the sun is shining.

If the world were to fall apart, even those of us with an off-grid system would find ourselves with such a system eventually. On the other hand, removing the expense of batteries would make a solar-electric system much more affordable and allow more folk to make the leap.

Does anybody have any experience with such a system? How about just opinions? How painful is it to be without (much) electricity at night?
5 years ago

Thanks for sharing a success in a project somewhat similar to ours. To answer your question: Yes, there is extra rebar in the concrete below the masonry wood stoves. There's actually a lot of rebar everywhere, but also an extra 8'x8'@8" grid under the stoves.

I should be nearly finished laying down the bottom layer of styrofoam by the end of today. There is another six-inch layer around the perimeter of the main slab. Then I get to lay down the PEX and begin rebar work. I should be well into rebar by the end of next week.

I've been wondering whether I should post my progress somewhere. Honestly, I didn't think Permies was the right place. But maybe I'm wrong.

Ann Torrence wrote:Mark,

Our neighbors did exactly what you propose, mostly with their own four hands. Solar radiant floors, masonry heater from a kit. They also did a rammed earth floor in part of the house, straw bale walls and lived to tell about it. Now they've moved in and are thrilled with their home. Especially its minimal energy costs.

You said one or two masonry heaters - is the plan for the floor reinforced in those areas?

I hope you will start a project thread about your building process.

5 years ago
I solicited for advice on the "how-to" of installing PEX tubes in-slab, not arguments for or against in-floor heating. Ashley's post was exactly the response I was looking for, Karen's contribution was very helpful too. However, my expectation was that the discussion might take on a life of its own. Frankly, I found most of that discussion interesting. Unfortunately, my path is largely set and I can't change much of it for exactly the reasons Terry has stated, the engineering has been done. (Terry, I can't post the engineering for the project because of copyright, but suffice it to say that I am following the engineering as closely as possible and involve the engineers whenever we consider a deviation.)

There seems to be a need for a discussion, or at least an understanding, of just how hard building an unconventional home is compared to a cookie-cutter home. If you can find a builder with experience in the techniques you want to use, you might be able to avoid a great deal of trouble (and pay for the service, of course). If what you want to do scares off builders, everything changes. We actually went much more conventional than I would have liked in order to keep our options with builders open, but it was still too far from the beaten path. So it's mostly on us. But I'll digress because this discussion is probably best had in its own thread.

Terry Ruth wrote:I'm a little confused you say you have had the engineering done for several years but you are soliciting for arguments against it or to validate it? Please post the Engineering for the HR system so I can review the analysis? There are CFD models that should have been created, or hand calculations? Then I would have spec'ed out every detail that you should not deviate from. Can you post the HR drawing too, to fully understand the entire system we need to know the wall and roof structure as well. You just cannot put a slab configuration out here and expect to get the proper advice on heat transfers/capacities, etc, especially. I think Jay gave you sound chemical advice you take or leave. There is no isolating, the dynamics in a home are many and act as a system....really no different than other dynamic structures (aircraft, auto, watercraft, etc....)

5 years ago
No harm or foul, Jay. Honestly, I value your opinions and have read many of your posts with interest. But at this point and on this project, my path is set. To put it in perspective, today, I put down about two-thirds of the styrofoam that the concrete will sit on. It is far too late to change to a different building paradigm. If I lived in a county that didn't care, had limitless money, and had a less conservative wife, I'd be doing something very different, probably something partially underground.

Once the house is livable I can and will go hog wild with natural building projects. Heck, we've already started an earth oven, are working on a system to make one of the ponds swimmable, and my sons' sandbox now contains a prototype rocket stove core. But on the house, I'm stuck using fairly conventional techniques.
5 years ago
Ashley, thanks for succinctly and accurately summarizing the situation. I fully expected that my post would trigger an argument's the Internet. But I can filter just fine.

I think the in-floor heating issue (ie. my confidence) is resolved. The tubing was confirmed to have an oxygen barrier and I'm comfortable with laying it out. Still looking for a means to hold it down. For the time being I've got a bunch of fist-sized rocks at the building site.

On the larger issue of ethical issues when choosing building materials and methods: 10 years ago, I had my heart set on a straw-bale house with a earthen floor and green roof. We hunted around for an architect that had experience with that sort of thing. We ended up finding the team best equipped to do that sort of design-work. They lived in a house of their design just a hope-skip-and-a-jump away from this. We toured their house, met with them, and they quickly expressed concerns about our direction. We also toured a home designed by this architectural team that had an earthen floor and strawbale walls. That tour confirmed much of what the architect was saying. You can guess what the big issue was: code. There was also the issue of cost and time. Resale value also plays a factor.

Am I bothered that we are using styrofoam, rebar, and concrete under our home? Yes. I mean, I'm doing as much of the work by hand (ie. leveling the ground beneath the slab, trenching for the plumbing, etc.) because I like to avoid fossil fuel use wherever possible. But at the end of the day, I have struggled with the authorities enough just to get approval for the project. That, all alone, was draining. And that was well before ground-breaking. In a nut-shell, if this house is to be built before my boys reach adulthood, I have to make some concessions. I'm sorry if you don't like the way that I'm building, but I can certainly empathize. I don't really like it either. Then again, I'm not speaking from the cheap seat. Far from it.

Ashley Reyson wrote:This is a lovely discussion!

Karen, thanks for extending my list of gotchas and suggestions with a few that didn't occur to me to mention. I agree, especially about it being a three person job! The challenge of offering such suggestions is that once you learn to do a thing it's easy to become unconscious of where the potential challenges are.

Jay, I don't feel unduly poked by your comments. As I said, the home I built 20 years ago wasn't nearly as unconventional as I'd build today... and most of the changes relate to my desire to try more natural methods and materials. If I'm ready for the next building project in a couple years as I plan, I'll probably chat with you further about integrating wonderful things like hydronic heating (and cooling) with traditional techniques.

Now, I'm going to expand the topic away from materials and techniques, to how we actually help the OP. In doing so, I'm going to reference the Wheaton Eco Scale.

Mark came here looking for confidence and tips on his first hydronic install. He indicated that he has a plan ready to go and approved by the local department of making you do things their way. He has some DIY experience, but is neither a full time builder nor a natural building expert. It sounds like he's surfing the edge between rapid learning and overwhelm... not necessarily looking for a pile of additional things to learn ASAP unless they're essential. If I were Mark in this situation, I'd probably be looking for help with my specific question rather than looking for recommendations to scrap the design. (And I'm not Mark, so I might be totally off.)

So how do we help Mark?

Help is only help if it's within someone's ability to receive it. I suspect, Jay, that you're a couple notches ahead of me on the Wheaton Eco Scale with respect to natural building. That means I think I can learn tons from you and would love to hang out and pick your brain. I suspect that you're quite a few notches ahead of Mark, which Paul suggests guarantees he'll see you as insane. Hey, great minds suffer than challenge often.

Then again, perhaps Mark is right there with you Jay. Perhaps you just saved him from implementing a design he'll regret, and gave him confidence to take a step farther ahead even though he's already pushing the limits of his local building community. It takes courage to be first to do something strange in your locale, especially when your funding it with a house sized budget.

So how do we help Mark? We invite Mark to tell us how far he wants to push the envelope, then we answer within his ability to use the information.
Go ahead Mark, tell us how we can help. Jay has far more knowledge of natural building than I do and more important, he actually has experience with it. If you want to go there, he's a far better source than me.

Until Mark replies with clarity on whether we're pushing his limits on the Wheaton Eco Scale, I suspect that our disagreements about the rest of the issues would be better served in another thread or two. A couple subjects come to mind: a) "In-mass hydronic heating with natural building techniques", b) "Modern and Natural Solutions to Ecological Problems of Concrete". I don't know that I have tons to contribute to those threads, but I'd love to read them and I'll sure bring questions!

Best regards, and thanks for bringing your passion!

5 years ago
Ashley, I hear you on builders being scared away by anything unconventional. After we had the architectural and engineering complete and paid for, we asked local builders for quotes. More than half plainly stated that they didn't want to touch the project. The two that gave us a number quoted absurdly high. I was devastated. To be honest, what I said earlier about doing much of the work myself to keep costs down is only half the story. It's more that we don't really have any choice.

You are correct that confidence is the thing I'm lacking. At every step of this project, I'm treading in unfamiliar ground. It takes a lot of energy to familiarize oneself with a problem, examine possible solutions, pick the best approach, learn that approach, then execute it, all in addition to "normal life". We built a conventional house in the city years ago. Two meetings with the bank and two with the builder. Three-and-a-half months later, we had a house. The hardest part was moving in.

I'll double-check on the oxygen barrier with the PEX tubing. I asked for it at the plumbing supply store, but didn't check the labelling to confirm that what arrived actually had it. The price makes me think it has it.

Good points. Pinning the tubing down had not occurred to me. Since our slab sits on 6" of styrofoam, I'm not sure how to best do that. I'll have to look into options.

Thanks for taking the time to write down your thoughts. It constantly amazes me that folk are willing to take the time to do that. Maybe there's hope yet.
5 years ago
This seems about as close a forum to ask my question as any. Apologies if there is a better place.

The very quick back-story is that we have had the architectural and engineering on a off-grid home done for several years, the land is bought and paid for, and we have finally begun to make real progress on the building process. In order to keep costs down, I am doing much of the work myself. I enjoy DIY work, but am struggling with all of the skills necessary to build a far-from-conventional house. This week, and probably next, I'm getting everything ready for the concrete. We have a simple 6" thick slab that sits on top of 6" of styrofoam. The slab has PEX tubing runnng through it. Hot water is pumped through the tubing to heat the slab. The water is heated by a solar hot water system. The system is intended only to keep the house above freezing if we are ever away during the heating system. While we are home, the system will provide for some of our hot water needs and a masonry wood stove (or two) will be used to keep the household comfortable and heat water.

All I am struggling with at the moment is the PEX tubing that will end up encased in concrete. Everyone (the concrete fellows we got quotes from, our plumber neighbour, etc.) tells us that this is a piece of cake, but I really don't want to screw this up as repairing it will be incredibly expensive. So I'm looking to avoid any gotchas. For example, I just learned that I will need to use PEX tubing with an oxygen barrier. Our runs are 200 to 300 feet long. Rather than buy 100-foot lengths of tubing and connect them, I'm going to buy a single 1000-foot roll. Also, our plans call for 3/4" tubing, which seems really excessive, but is what the engineer asked for, so I guess I'm stuck with it.

Any advice from someone with a bit of experience would be very valuable to us.
5 years ago