Notes from Windward: #62

What we've done.

Even an initial review of the state of the art will show that there are a lot of exciting technologies available today, things that can enable ordinary people to do extraordinary things off-grid. From solar panels to mini-hydro, from fuel cells to wind power, there's lots of really nifty active energy systems to work with. In the next few years, we're looking forward to bring examples of all of these technologies on line here.

However, what isn't immediately obvious about active energy systems is that they're not the foundation of self-reliant living - for that you need passive techniques, so that's where we started. While renewable energy is free, in the sense that the sun shines for free, and water runs down hill naturally, these technologies still involve notable capital and operating costs. Renewable energy may be free, but getting there isn't cheap.

The bottom line is that it's always going to be cheaper to eliminate a watt of power than it ever is going to be to generate it. Savings generated by good design and the effective use of materials is the place to start, and the place where most of the savings can be achieved. In short, the energy battle is won or lost long in the planning and construction stages. After that, it's a poor game of "catch up" at best.

Heating and cooling usually account for some 40% of the energy used in a typical home, a load which can be significantly and permanently reduced through the incorporation of passive energy techniques. While there is notable cost involved in construction phase, that investment pays dividends every month from then on both in the sense of a lower energy bill, and also in the sense of less maintenance and operational costs.

Our new dining hall is a good example of what we're working toward; with it's thermal mass and earth-sheltered design, it's cool in the summer and warm in the winter. The first important thing to note about the dining hall is that it's oriented east to west on a south facing slope so that the warm southern side is open to the warmth of the sun while the north side is earth sheltered from cold of winter.

North wall of the dining hall
Note One:

The north wall of the dining hall is an eight inch thick concrete wall. The inside is finished with 1.5 inches of foam insulation between the concrete and a stud wall that's futher insulated with 4 inches of standard fiberglass batting.

The exterior of the wall is exposed and ready for installing the water barrier which will prevent water from seeping through the concrete into the living area. Once that's in place, a drain system will be installed to collect any ground water and channel it away from the upper side of the dining hall. The drain system will be covered by a foot of round rock which will allow water to move to the drain, and the round rock will in turn be covered with a fiberglass cloth which will prevent dirt from filling in the spaces created by the round rocks.

The next step will involve the installation of a gutter system to collect rain run-off from the roof, conduct it away from the north side of the building and store it in a cistern for use in the gardens and by the animals.

The final step will be to backfill the north wall to a depth of five feet, and then slope the ground to divert snow melt and rain run-off away from the dining hall.

In this picture, "Gina O" is in the final stages of stripping away the concret form from the last section of the north wall. Next they'll get a fresh coat of release, and re-installed so that we can pour the top section. This last bit of retaining wall will eventually enclose the dining hall's walk-in freezer, something that won't probably won't be online for a couple of years yet. Still, the wall needs to be put in place so that we can install the rest of the roof and the drainage system. The cement truck charges us a hefty fee to drive up here, so we try to get as much poured as we can each run, even if it's something we won't be getting to for a while.


Other key passive aspects include a series of south facing skylights which bring light and warmth into the dining hall, energy which is then stored in the concrete and tile floor.

The exterior edges of the slab are underlaid with a two foot swath of closed cell foam
Note Two:

The floor of the dining hall consists of a concrete slab which varies between 4 and 6 inches in thickness.

The outer edge of the slab is underlaid with a two foot wide run of closed cell foam to lessen heat loss to the outside.

The slab is overlaid with ceramic tile which increases the thermal mass of the floor. The color of the ceramic tile was selected with care by the "Aesthetic Committe." They chose an off-white tile which a variable beige overcoat.

The selection of this particular color and pattern is an example of a subtle form of sustainable engineering. Here at Windward, we have the usual four seasons of winter, spring, summer and fall, but you could also divide the year into the additional categories of dust and mud.

The thermal mass floor
The old dining hall had a floor of white linoleum, and it took a lot of work mopping and remopping that floor in order to get it to look clean. With the new tile, we'll be able to get the floor reasonably clean, and have it look nice too, all without having to mop it again and again.

The dining hall is divided into five bays, and the first bay is called "the mud room" for good reason. During the muddy season, we wear slip-on rubber farm boots, and we've created space in the mud room for folks to slip off their muddy boots and put on slippers and wash up all before going on into the main cooking and eating area.

By the way, the large grey thingy in the picture is a four foot long, two foot wide and 4 inch thick slab of marble. It will be mounted on a cart that will be stored under the kitchen counter, but can be rolled out to be used to make fudge. We're carefully insuring that the kitchen will qualify for certification as a licensed facility, a standing which will allow us to prepare baked goods for sale in Washington and Oregon.

Insuring that the kitchen will be able to also function as an income generator is another subtle way of advancing Windward's overall sustainability.



24" sky tunnels gather and transmit sunlight to the back of the room, skylights brighten the main work area and garden windows add a airy touch of spring to the interior while providing the cooks with fresh herbs.

From top to bottom: sky tunnel, skylight and garden window
Note Three:

In order for a situation to be sustainable over the long run, there's a number of considerations that have to be addressed. Some, such as energy efficiency, are fairly obvious and relatively straight forward. Others, like the relationship between structure and psychology are anything but straight forward. A building isn't just about the function it performs, it's also about how it makes you feel when you're in it.

Most of us here are of northern European extraction, and one consequence of that is what's known as "Seasonally Affected Depression." There's lots of different thoughts out there about what can be done to minimize the impact of SAD; one of the best remedies is lots of natural light.

Consequently, we've gone out of our way to insure that the kitchen area is well lit. Even the florescent tubes that illuminate the back alcove are full spectrum "daylights," which in addition to providing a rough equivalent of natural light, also offer the added benefit of making food look more attractive than it does when seen under the start blue-white of a standard flourescent bulb.



The main cooking and dining area features a 10' high "ship's ceiling" which allows hot air to rise and be exhausted by a 12 volt fan powered by a small photovoltaic panel, a nifty example of another key principle - whenever possible, go for "real time" use.

Then, in winter when you want to retain and enjoy that warm air, a ceiling fan keeps the air circulating evening out the temperature throughout the room.

Interior view of the "ship's ceiling" and one of the Sky Tunnels in action.
Note Four:

Back when ships were made from wood and their useful life was over, they were often sold, diassembled and then reassembled upside down as buildings. By way of example, even the venerable Mayflower of Pilgrim fame ended up as a barn in rural England.

The upside down ship structure created a room with an arched ceiling, which worked nicely in a number of ways. First of all, it's naturally cool since the hot air rises away from the cooking area. Also, there's an uplifting quality to a high ceiling that, especially in winter, helps less one's feeling of being trapped inside.

A Sky Tunnel involves a flexible tube that's coated with a shinny material on the inside. Light is gathered through a round skylight on the roof, reflexs down the tube until it exits through the lens at the bottom. While it doesn't deliver enough light to read by, it does provide quite adequate illumination to the back part of the room. And since it's natural sunlight, it's a very pleasing form of passive illumination.



Energy can be stored for later use, but that's inefficient. Sometimes you have no choice but to utilize storage, as with using solar energy to provide electricity for lighting at night, but whenever possible, it's best to use the energy input you have in real time. In this case, we use a bit of the sun's power to draw off the excess heat caused by the sun's power, a modest but elegant example of real time use.

A larger example of that principle will be the use of solar energy to operate our walk-in freezer. That's an efficient way to go since you need the greatest cooling capacity in the summer, which is when you have the greatest energy production. While the solar powered freezer won't be online for another year or two, we're currently pouring the last of the concrete retaining wall as we finish up the work on the last bay of the dining hall.

Another example of the way we've incorporated passive designs into Windward involves our water system. Our potable water comes from a drilled well on the back of our property and is stored in a 3,000 gallon tank located on the highest point of our property. Operation of the well pump is controlled by a timer that we adjust seasonally to insure that the storage tank is kept full. In fact, we want it to run over a bit just to keep the water circulating through the storage tank.

Our 3,000 gallon primary storage tank
From there, gravity distributes the water to points of use without any additional pumps or controls - nothing to pay for, nothing to maintain. Sustainability in a nutshell. Indeed, often the primary problem we have with the water system is that it's so automatic that folks tend to take it for granted, and forget what valve does what. Mike and Bob1 did a lot of the work on that system, and since both of them have died since then, we're confronted with the need to do a better job documenting what we're doing. Record keeping may not be very sexy, but it too is a key part of sustainability.

Another key part of passive, sustainable energy practice that we've been incorporating as we go along involves fencing. Food is a form of energy too, and we either produce it ourselves, or pay someone else for it. While there are lots of new and exciting solar collectors on the market, we can't forget that plants are solar collectors too.

We can use animals such as goats and ducks to convert that energy into nutritious products such as milk and eggs, but critters aren't very good at knowing when and where to graze in order to optimize the land's sustainable yield. That task falls to us, and fencing is the key tool we use to control the growing and harvesting of that resource.

Every year we add to our fencing options, and this year we've made some substantial progress in creating a three acre, three section pen for the sheep. It's centered around the hay barn, and when complete, will allow us to do the winter feeding directly from the barn - no more hauling the hay to the sheep. Reducing the work load through integrated design is another key principle of sustainability since the more work a task is, the less sustainable it is.

Well, that's a quick overview of some of the work we've been doing to make Windward sustainable. In the next article, I'll take you on a tour of what we're currently doing.

What we're doing now

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