Archive for January, 2012


Climate Progress is a blog I follow to keep informed about what is being said and done regarding global climate disruption, and in the past several days, I have read two interesting articles there that are both accompanied by maps.

My older daughter got her bachelor’s degree in social geography, and through her I learned how much power there can be in a map.  Sometimes there is no better way to tell the story of what’s going on in the world than with a map.

Let me call your attention to these two.

The first map is an animated visualization created by NASA

Click here and you will see a dramatic visualization of how global temperatures have risen since 1880. The red areas are where temperatures are higher than the average during a baseline period of 1951-1980, and the blues are where temperatures are lower than that baseline.  As the timeline progresses, it takes your breath away to watch a blue world turn red.  You can chart where the hot spots are forming.

The second map accompanies a story on renewable energy and charts which states currently have laws that require utilities to purchase a percentage of their power from renewable sources and which states have voluntary renewable energy goals and which states (those are gray) are not promoting renewable energy.


Promoting renewable energy in this way, the article points out has compelling benefits.

  1. The Center for Health and the Global Environment at Harvard Medical School estimates coal powered generation costs us $500 billion annually in health, economic, and environmental impacts.
  2. While the broader economy continued to shed jobs, U.S. employment in the solar industry grew by almost 7% from August of 2010 to August of 2011.


We often turn to maps when we want to know where to go.  I think these two provide a very clear direction.



January 31, 2012 at 12:27 am Leave a comment


Last night I ventured out for the first public event I’ve attended since my surgery — Blue Mounds Area Project’s  presentation in Mount Horeb, A Geologic Romp through the Driftless Area by Dr. Richard Slaughter, UW Geology Museum Director.

I’m always ready to learn more about the geology of the Driftless Area in southwestern Wisconsin.  The gathering was held at the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Research Collection and Education Center.

All these very strong shelves are holding Wisconsin's library of rock.

Before the very engaging talk by Dr. Slaughter, we heard from Patrick McLaughlin, geologist for the Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Survey, who told us about the facility where we were meeting.

I was blown away!

I had no idea such a collection existed or that I had been driving a block away from it for years.   

Here’s what is sitting silently in a very large, very anonymous building:

Rock cores (most about an inch in diameter)

  • Cores from more than 2,000 drill holes throughout the state are cataloged and available for study.
  • These cores comprise more than 600,000 linear feet of subsurface rock samples from mineral, engineering, and geologic investigations.

Close up of boxes of carefully labeled drilling cores

Water-well cuttings

  • Cuttings from more than 11,000 individual water-wells throughout the state are available.
  • These cuttings include 570,000 individual samples, each covering a 5-foot interval, collectively representing approximately 2.7 million linear feet of drilling

Individual rock samples

  • More than 51,000 hand-size rock samples are labeled and stored.

McLaughlin said that when the Wisconsin Geological Survey acquired this warehouse and office building about five years ago, it took 20 semi truck loads to transfer this subsurface collection.  He calls it a kind of library and estimates the present-day replacement cost of the collection is conservatively estimated to be $120-140 million.

The reddish cores on the right were once mined for paint pigment.

These samples represent hundreds of investigations of the geology of Wisconsin, and many of these samples are irreplaceable.  For example, some come from a project in the 1980’s when Milwaukee was designing a deep tunnel project under the city to handle rain water overflow.  It would be impossible to recollect these cores now.

Many of the cores come from mining operations in northern Wisconsin.  The deepest cores come from oil exploration.  There is one core that pierced almost 5,000 feet into the earth.

Collecting cores today costs about $60 a foot, so a 1,000 foot costs $60,000.  Sometimes these can be funded by the  U.S. Geological Survey grant, but as most of them have been donated by industry, it’s an amazing bargain.

Wisconsin has one of the largest collections in the Midwest, but the state with the biggest collection is Texas due to the extensive oil and gas drilling activity there.

This collection represents a record of what is under our feet, and it is used for many studies, primarily ground water flow.

As it explains in the website, protecting these materials is vital because

  • geologists frequently re-analyze existing samples whenever new environmental issues come to the forefront
  • advances in technology and equipment allow for different types of analyses
  • geologic theory evolves

The Wisconsin Geological and Natural History Research Collection and Education Center seems almost as underground as the source of its collection.  You could walk by it every day and not know it is there.  But it is, and we are lucky it is.  Who knows what vital knowledge is waiting quietly in those shelves and shelves of carefully stored cylinders of rock?

January 27, 2012 at 6:18 pm Leave a comment


I did not post last week because I am recovering from abdominal surgery.   The colonoscopist spied something he did not like the looks of, so my appendix and about a fist-sized portion of colon have been removed before they could make trouble.  After surgery, I was released without the hospitalization that had been predicted, and I am very happy to report steady recovery.

Too much information! This is one of many photos my surgeon gave me after my operation. I mean - yikes.

This whole interface with the medical/industrial complex has really made me think about health and the environment.  Going to the hospital is not a very green activity.  What is the carbon footprint of all these large buildings and tests.  Treatment involves countless one-time-only disposable products.  It your need them, you don’t get too picky at the moment your are there, but why do we need so much “care”?

According to the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, health care is the largest industry in the American economy.  Shouldn’t that make us a really healthy country?  Apparently not. My most recent reading on this topic, Forks over Knives: The Plant-based Way to Health, most Americans are sick an inevitably on their way to the hospital.  This book is a companion to the film of the same name.  It’s an excellent introduction to the way food affects our health.

The book states that in the U.S.:

  • One person is killed by heart disease every minute.
  • 1,500 people die from cancer every day.
  • The Centers for Disease Control estimate 7 out of 10 deaths are from chronic diseases.

And chronic diseases are on the rise.  Between 1996 and 2005, the number of Americans with three or more chronic diseases increased by 86 percent, and in the past decade the incidence of diabetes has grown 90 percent.

Sometimes we have to go to the hospital and take advantage of the miracles of modern medicine.  I am very grateful for the technology that has saved me from a more dire diagnosis down the road.

I understand this is a baconator combo with what appears to be a pretzel salad. (photo credit:

Most of our hospital trips are for conditions that we can control. Look at photos and films from about the time of World War 2 and before.  How much thinner everyone was then!    We can buck the trend to sedentary existence and sickening, processed food.

Just imagine a country full of people with the vigor that comes from a fit body AND the aforementioned “miracles of modern medicine”!  We understand a lot more about nutrition and biology than we did just decades ago.  If we apply this knowledge to our daily lives and make healthy choices, we will be vastly better for it — and so will the environment.

I’m sure you can think of at least a dozen ways of the top of your head in which being fit would lower your carbon footprint – improve your experience of life and make for a more sustainable human population on the planet.  It’s win-win.

Having a brush with a serious health threat has inspired me to redouble my efforts to be as vital as I can be, and I hope my experience will give you the opportunity to re-evaluate your daily patterns.  Small changes can have significant impact on your life and those around you.

Here is a simple graphic from Harvard School of Public Health that covers everything we need to maximize our health and minimize our time in hospitals.

Is there some aspect of your life that you know you ought to change for better health, but you haven’t gotten around to it?  Start today!  None of us know how much time we have.  How much of your life do you want to spend less vital than you could be?

Please comment and share what’s holding you back and what you can do about it.

January 25, 2012 at 12:36 pm 10 comments


Guest post by Doug Hansmann

In our new house, we intend to maximize our use of solar energy with both a comprehensive passive solar design and an array of four solar hot water panels installed in the back yard.  A couple of months ago we migrated away from a deep sand bed design under the house, even though that would be one possible way to store every BTU of solar energy collected, (see Denise’s post Why We Are Not Using a Sand Bed to Store Thermal Heat )   because such a  system is not easy to control. We are now learning that this lack of fine-tuned heating control in radiant floor heat will still be problematic with the 2- and 4-inch thick concrete slabs we will have in our new house.

Comfortably and efficiently capturing the heat of the sun within four walls takes careful planning. (photo credit:

In our Wisconsin winters it’s not cost effective to use solar energy to do the entire job of heating a house.  I supposed you could design for the depths of winter using a huge array of collectors and a massive storage tank, but what would you do with all that heat the rest of the year?  Like most installed systems, we are going to design for the shoulder seasons and supplement (in our case with propane) as needed.

With the goal of making the best use of our solar collectors, we now have a revised plan which has brought us to a new choice between two fundamentally different approaches to solar-based hydronic heating systems.

It can be tricky to make the most of your solar panels.

  1. a slow response system that  provides relatively even heat 24/7.
  2. a rapid response system that allows you to dial back the temperature when you are not using certain rooms.

Heat that is provided only through the slab will be a slow response system.  That means that you will be heating rooms when you don’t need to.  If you want your bathroom to be warm while you use it in the morning – no can do.  You will have to chose between a cool room while you take your morning  shower or an unnecessarily-warm room for many hours a day.

These are NOT the radiators you struggled with in your first apartment.

We are opting for rapid response, wall-mounted, low-mass  radiant wall panels in rooms where heating needs are intermittent.  (See the Select line of Myson radiators.)   These will be powered by a propane boiler rather than the sun and will primarily be used on cloudy days in areas of the house the wood stove won’t heat effectively.

We’ll put all of the solar heat into the concrete slabs, but won’t supplement the slabs with any propane at all.

Yes, the low mass radiators will be fueled by non-renewable propane, but even with the slab-only heating option, propane would typically supplement solar to keep the floors warm when the sun isn’t shining. We expect our rapid-response radiators will sip propane moment by moment and room by room, rather than gulping propane to continually heat the entire slab.

Each radiator will have a simple dial control and will provide heat within ten minutes of turning them on.  Our plan is to walk into the room, turn on the light, turn on the radiator.  When we leave -  turn off the radiator and turn off the lights.  It will be a visceral reminder of our use of non-renewable energy, and will give us the opportunity to minimize the minutes of propane usage.

Yes, this tank is ugly -- as it ought to be.

We got the idea for high efficiency radiators from project engineer Andy DeRocher at Full Spectrum Solar,  who is designing our solar hot water system. We like this approach better than the relatively constant warm temperatures that would inevitably be chosen if the slab were our only heat source – temperatures that would exceed what is really necessary in the parts of the house we are not using.

It seems intuitively right to be able to manage our non-renewable energy use closely.  To have the tangible reminder through our fingertips when we are burning propane, and the satisfaction of stopping that use whenever and wherever we can.  We will still be soaking up every last BTU from the sun into our concrete floors and other thermal storage (more on those later), but we won’t be wasting propane to heat empty rooms.

January 17, 2012 at 10:46 am 4 comments


Whole Tree Architecture and Construction, the organization that is designing and building our house, received a major honor last November. They participated in a competition called Cleantech Open.

Because our world runs on business, Clean Tech is looking for those businesses where creativity is being applied to the standard business model with an eye to addressing urgent energy, environmental and economic challenges we are facing.  The Clean Tech Open works to select and support businesses that are trying to make a difference as well as a profit.

I suspect there is a certain amount of hot air and hoopla in any organization such as this, but it is good to see corporations joining together to promote environmental awareness.  They hold a competition every year since since 2006 and provide mentoring, business training and other services to growing green businesses.

Anything that gives green business a leg up sounds good to me.

Whole Treesplaced first in the green building category “for a business model that incentivizes proper and profitable forest management.”  That’s a mouthful that basically means using whole tree timbers culled from the woods that create both a green building and a healthier woodlot in the process.

whole Tree house, Tussen Tak, under construction

According to World Architecture  Roald Gundersen has “developed a new use for managed forest thinnings as an affordable, renewable building material for agricultural, residential and commercial applications. For the past 16 years, Roald has been empirically testing the feasibility of using whole tree technology to construct beautiful, strong, economical and extremely green buildings.”

When asked what is the biggest thing an architect can do to stabilize the environment, Roald said, “We should be designing buildings which produce more renewable energy than they consume, recycle their own wastes, and sequester more CO2 than they produce. They should also enhance the local community, economy and environment in their production and operation. That’s a tall order. We know that biologically active buildings, like the solar greenhouses we build, and whole tree structures offer some real solutions to these challenges.

Interior of Kara Woods, a Whole Tree house.

“Whole trees require less than a 10% the energy of milling and 2% that of recycled steel to produce and transport. Our whole tree buildings sequester over ten metric ton of CO2 for every hundred square meters of building (more than what four Americans produce in a year).

“If you look at a project’s resulting forest management stimulated by the building, the long-term effects could be twenty or even thirty tons of CO2 per ten square meters. If you displace the use of imported steel and/or concrete that number could double again. Our reliance on industrial-age materials relies heavily on material and energy mining from around the globe making it vulnerable to fluctuating global commodity prices, and all the political, social and environmental problems mining brings.

Roald Gundersen

“As with food, by localizing and using highly abundant and renewable materials for the primary stuff of our buildings we can overdesign the structures, create high-mass solar passive interiors requiring little heating or cooling while sequestering billions of tons of CO2. We invest in local jobs in forest gardening and whole tree bio-facturing and construction. Our projects recycle 70-80% of project dollars back into local paychecks, which is nearly twice the industry standard.”

It’s not too hard to see how Whole Trees snagged first place in its category at the Cleantech Open last November.

January 13, 2012 at 12:27 am Leave a comment


As Doug and I start to build our house, I find myself thinking about my parents first building project.  When my parents married, my father built their first house out of two Sears pre-fab garage kits.

My dad laying a simple, but amazingly lasting foundation for his first house -that is still occupied, though now in the middle, rather than the edge of Monticello IL.

His father and uncle helped him, and they did every bit of the work themselves.

That's my grandpa with the pipe. The smell of his cheap, cherry tobacco smoke is blended into all my childhood memories of his farm.

Doug and I are not building our new home by ourselves.  We are working with many different specialists: architects, cement shapers, timber framers, carpenters, straw-balers, plasterers, stone masons, excavationists, electricians, plumbers, people who sell wood burning stoves, and solar heating systems, people who etch concrete and make cabinets and millers.

Many of these people are willing to let us work with them as enthusiastic assistants.  That’s what feels right to us.  We will hopefully end up in a house that, while we didn’t do everything ourselves, we will understand every step and have a hand in as many of the building processes as possible.

We started the project with some elm that the timberframer who built the barn left for us, but it wasn't enough.

This fall and winter, our major job has been completing the floor in the loft of the barn so that we can move most of the things that have made their home on the barn floor up and out of the way.  The barn floor will become the timber framers’ workshop.  Our builder wants to start shaping timber frames this January.

Flooring the loft, which looked reasonably simple before starting, turned out to be a complex and labor intensive project, (see my post Salvaging Old timbers for a New Barn Floor

We finished securing the last batch of 2-inch thick planks into place on New Year’s Eve day.

The next step was to get a railing up.  I don’t want anyone to tumble from our newly completed loft to the concrete below.  My imagination is too vivid for my own good.  All the king’s horses and all the king’s men couldn’t put Humpty ….

Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall....

Originally we were planning to make the railing out of some interesting saplings we have been collecting, but that would have taken a lot of time – and time is in short supply at the moment.  So we settled for a more conventional  railing design.

We treated the fresh pine with a linseed oil and minteral spirits solution, using up some old cans from our paint supplies. That made it feel less raw than all the weathered wood around it.

We were able to get pine “2×4”s for the railing from the Ridgeway Lumber Company, in the little town of 660 souls a mile north of our land.  It isn’t locally sourced wood, like the wood in the house will be, but we did support a local business that is run by very friendly and helpful people.

How much does all this stuff weigh? I'll soon find out.

I wish I could end this with a photo of our clean, and empty barn floor, but it doesn’t exist yet.

Our next task is to pick a major fight with gravity, and lug all the stuff that has accumulated on the main floor up to the new loft for the duration of the building project.

Shaping the timber frame can then begin!

It was so exciting to walk among the timbers in late December with our architect and builder and decide which forked timbers will be used where in the house.  (See my post Turning Trees into Unmilled Timbers. ) I’m going to be following my favorite trees all the way through the process.

January 10, 2012 at 12:55 pm 5 comments


When ever I drive past the new building on the edge of every town, I wonder — why aren’t they building straw bale?

But the word is spreading, and staw bale buildings are becoming a more common sight around the world.  What to take a little tour?

Learn about a straw bale building has been incorporated into the Slow Living movement in Japan at this blog, then check out the blog of Kyle Holzhueter who works as a straw bale builder and translator in Japan.  He has a PhD in Bioresource Sciences from Nihon University where he researched the hygrothermal environment of straw bale walls in Japan

Photo courtesy of David Fortin


Learn how David Fortin, architecture professor at Montana state University, and his student Michael Spencer researched solutions to a housing shortage in Kenya for three years.  This past summer, they worked on building straw bale structures in the east-African country.

“Straw-bale construction in Kenya is sustainable and makes economic and sociologic sense,” Spencer said. “There is already a long waiting list of people interested in straw-bale structures.”


Straw bale building really seems to be taking off in England, and a lot of them look like something out of a fairy tale.  But not all of them..

Here is an interesting design by Brian Waite, an engineer who is focused on low cost, low energy building with a minimal carbon foot print and a lot of style.

University of Bath project.

Here is house with an ultra modern look built by researchers from the BRE Centre for Innovative Construction materials at the Univeristy of Bath built of prefabricated straw and hemp panels.

This straw bale building is part of a research project in collaboration with Modcell and several other industrial partners to develop commercial methods of adapting renewable building materials  for homes of the future.


Check out Ausbale, a website that promotes the art and science of straw bale building.  They have a wonderful collection of photos that show the breadth of styles and basic beauty that building with straw bale can create.


Straw bales of waste rice straw are being used in northern China to build houses and public buildings where there is a desperate need for adequate housing.  Evidently straw bale works wonderfully there.  It’s earth quake country, and the straw bale structures  have withstood quake damage while providing great insulation.  Win win!

WASHINGTON D.C.  (Doesn’t it seem like a foreign country sometimes?)

Check out an interesting video about a demo straw bale house that was built in our capital.

Built for the eath quakes of Argentina


Learn about a straw bale house in South America.  This house was built of straw to address the extremely cold winters and hot summers.  Straw was the cheapest way to get the insulation needed.  It’s also earth quake country.  In a recent quake, a little plaster cracked.

SIBERIA   Here is a report about straw bale building in Siberia where the inexpensive material with super insulating qualities is perfect for a place with long, cold winters like the Altai mountains in Siberia.

January 6, 2012 at 12:04 am Leave a comment


I do!

I just learned about the Bioneers, and realized that is what I have been trying to be for many years.

My grandparents were my pioneer role models.   In middle age, a country school teacher and a rural mailman moved from their house in town to an abandoned farm that took every penny they could command.  My grandparents used a spur of the moment yard sale to scrape together the last dollars for the down payment. They had to jetison much of what they owned to get to their destination.  How reminiscent of the posessions that pioneers had to jetison from their wagons to keep moving forward.

My grandpa and my dad with their horses. I remember riding Tony, his last horse.

Then my grandpa took the horses he had used to deliver the mail and hitched them to a plow to become a farmer.

They entered a new world when they took stewardship of 80 Illinois acres in the Sangamon River valley – half  fields and half woods bisected by a muddy creek.

They started out hard scrabble and lived sustainably.  There was no other way for small farmers in the 1930s.  They pinched every penny and wasted nothing.  As the world began to change around them, they stayed frugal and believed that small was beautiful.

I know my grandparents weren’t actual pioneers – it was their grandparents who moved to Illinois in a covered wagon.  My grandparents traveled to their land in one of Henry Ford’s early offerings. But I felt their pioneering spirit as I helped my grandma in the garden and rode with my grandpa on his John Deere tractor.

The horses were traded for horsepower. I know my grandpa and dad were excited and proud of their John Deere my dad is driving here, but was this progress?

I’ve always wanted to be a pioneer.

But now I have a new goal.  I want to be bioneer.

Bioneers don’t necessarily have to move out of town to take care of nature.

I learned about this concept while researching an article about the Health Equity Team of Madison/Dane County’s Public Health Department.  Two of its nurses, Kim Neuschel and Jessica Leclair,  were named Badger Bioneers by Sustain Dane, an organization in Dane County, Wisconsin that promotes sustainable choices.  They were selected because of their work in making a low-income, high-crime neighborhood of Madison more sustainable.

The term Bioneer  was coined by Kenny Ausubel in 1990 to describe what he called social and scientific innovators from all walks of life who are guided by natural principles such as kinship, cooperation, diversity, symbiosis and the cyclic pattern of natural processes.

Often Bioneers use these principles as general guides for organizing society.  I am also interested in their more literal application.  The Bioneer organization is a nonprofit educational organization that shines a light on individual efforts that are innovating more sustainable ways to live.

Their annual conference in San Rafael CA draws thousands of enthusiasts.  And many areas have formed local programs  like the Badger Bioneer program I stumbled upon.   You can listen to their award-winning, 13-part series of half-hour radio shows here.


My grandparents and their extended family are gathered here to press and share cider from the apple orchard filled with tasty unnamed apples every year. Doesn't that incorporate kinship, cooperation, diversity, symbiosis and the cyclic pattern of natural processes nicely?

I want to find my way to a more sustainable life. I’m not even sure I or anyone else can define sustainable yet.  It’s a widely used, and often abused term today, but that is my quest.

Like the pioneers, whose fortitude and stamina I admire, I want to explore the world that we are moving into in this new year of 2012.  With the environment and economy both bumping up against limits and entering new territory, the future is as uncharted as the wild west that our ancestors confronted.

I want to be a bioneer.  I want to move forward with my eyes open, scouting for ways to not only survive but to help the environment around me maintain or regain some balance.

Out on the edge of Business As Usual, the wagons are being packed and setting off.

How are you planning to travel through 2012?

January 3, 2012 at 9:40 am 4 comments

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