Aiming for Sustainability

Dawn from my front deck after a "male" rain (an intense but brief thundershower).

Dawn from my front deck after a “male” rain (an intense but brief thundershower). Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Sustainable. adj. 1. Able to be maintained at a certain rate or level. Conserving an ecological balance by avoiding depletion of natural resources. 2. Able to be upheld or defended.

No matter how overused it may be, I find the idea of sustainability meaningful, especially at the personal level: What does it mean to live a sustainable life? To find a balance that can be maintained in the long-term? A life that can be “upheld”?

Creek House, my small house, on a clear evening. Those reflective dark panels on the roof are a 3.0 kw photovoltaic array.

Creek House, my small house, on a clear evening. Those reflective dark panels on the roof are a 3.0 kw photovoltaic array. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

For the past 15 months, I’ve been engaged in building and finishing my new small house and garage/studio, an activity that might not seem particularly sustainable (new house, new materials, filling yet another bit of urban habitat with a building).

I can’t argue about that aspect: I did use some new materials, in particular concrete, which requires a great deal of energy in manufacturing, and new wood, steel and the rare earths that go into photovoltaic panels. I also can’t argue about the fact that my house and studio, small as they are, displace other species.

In that sense, it’s not a sustainable project. In other ways, it is. (Sustainability, like so many things in life, is not a simple concept.)

Digging footer trenches for the house in my post-industrial slope.

Digging footer trenches for the house in my post-industrial slope. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The parcel I built on was the last un-reclaimed slice of what Richard called our “decaying industrial empire.” This long, wedge-shaped chunk seems to have been an informal dump–its post-industrial “soil” yields abundant scraps of metal, railroad rails, and chunks of concrete, coal and broken glass, among other things.

A mule deer doe grazing my native grassland about four feet from my living room window.

A mule deer doe grazing my native grassland about four feet from my living room window. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Before we began excavation in April of 2013, the place was a vacant lot that sprouted a healthy population of invasive weeds. In replanting the native high-desert grassland community around my buildings instead of a lawn, I’m restoring habitat and mitigating my impact. (The deer and hummingbirds certainly approve!)

Rufous Hummingbird perched on the deck railings.

Rufous Hummingbird perched on the deck railings. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The native plant community also acts as a living sponge, cleaning the soil and the water that runs off into Ditch Creek. That’s definitely “conserving an ecological balance.”

In designing the house, I aimed for small and efficient (thanks to Tom Pokorny at Natural Habitats). The house is 725 square feet; the studio atop the garage for guests and Terraphilia residents is 384.

Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House last fall, still under construction. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Treehouse (the garage/studio) and Creek House last fall, still under construction. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Both structures are passive solar, using our abundant winter sunshine for heat and summer’s down-valley breezes for cooling. They consume so little electricity and natural gas that the payments from the electric utility for the excess my photovoltaic panels produce cover my natural gas bills.

I was also deliberate about fitting into the neighborhood. The two buildings are designed to look like railroad sheds that grew over the years. The exterior finishes are durable, long-lasting ones appropriate to both the industrial character and this harsh high-desert climate.

Creek house kitchen, at the east end of it's tiny "great room."

Creek house kitchen, at the east end of its tiny “great room.” Photo: Susan J. Tweit

I also used recycled and scrap materials wherever possible (my builder, Dan Thomas, also of Natural Habitats, made that easier). For instance, those kitchen cabinets are made from leftover ash from the cabinets Richard built for Terraphilia, my old house; the corrugated metal island facing is a scrap from his studio; the countertops are also made of laminate left from Terraphilia as well.

Steel grate ramp leading from the front deck to the side garage door.

Steel grate ramp leading from the front deck to the side garage door. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

The house is also designed to be accommodating to people of differing mobility, including me as I age, hence touches like the ramps built into the front deck.

I did my best to be thoughtful throughout the process and to consider sustainability in each decision—this is my last house and I want be proud of it. I think that honors the spirit of sustainability.

Whitestem evening-primrose re-claiming my industrial site.

Whitestem evening-primrose re-claiming my industrial site. Photo: Susan J. Tweit

Dirtwork: Not-So-Dry Stream Drainage

Last Tuesday afternoon, thunder rumbled ominously, cold gusts whipped up dust-dry soil, and the light went all storm-gray. I stood on the front deck watching streamers of rain approach and debated about whether or not to set out on my usual walk to the Post Office.

A hailstone about the size of a mothball that broke on impact.

A hailstone that broke on impact.

Until I felt the first cold drop. It was hard. It bounced, white and rounded.

What? Then I heard the clatter: hail.

I ducked back inside. The cloud opened up and all hail broke loose. (Sorry, I couldn’t resist the pun!) Over the next 25 minutes, more precipitation poured from the sky than we had received in the last two months–six-tenths of an inch.

Rain on my metal roof makes an audible drumming I enjoy. Hail produces an alarming cacophony of clanging, clattering, and crashing.

Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm.

Rain barrel overflows at the height of the storm.

I dashed out at the height of the storm to open the drain on my overflowing rain barrel and to check on the studio and garage. All was well.

Except for the dry stream drainage I designed to carry runoff from just this sort of downpour down the slope between the two buildings without eroding or flooding the creek with sediment.

The side of the dry stream that drains Creek House was working just as planned. The “tributary” that drained the runoff from Treehouse’s shed roof overflowed and cut a new channel down one side of the steps.

My "dry" stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry.

My “dry” stream drainage in a moment of not-so-dry hail.

Not good.

So yesterday morning, I did a little fluvial engineering, otherwise known as dirtwork. I started by digging a small retention basin where the roof drainage from Treehouse overflowed.

Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front.

Retention basin beyond the downspout, the beginning of the tributary channel in front.

That was the easy part—I was digging in relatively loose construction road base, not the compacted layers of post-industrial-dump over river cobbles that make up the natural “soil.”

From that small retention basin—which I will line with river rock—I used my trusty mattock to hack a channel aiming downhill to the existing dry stream drainage, cutting deep to keep it from overflowing again.

The tributary crossing the middle of the photo, aiming for the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the ramp coming off the Creek House deck, allowing wheeled access from the house to the garage.

The tributary crossing the middle of the photo toward the main stem of the drainage in the background. The black grating is the end of the ramp coming off the Creek House deck.

And I do mean hack. I chipped my way through layers of cemented fly ash, fused glass and coal-dust, and pried out cobbles as big as one twice the size of my head that weighed 50 pounds. (Good thing Richard taught me about fulcrums and levers.)

The steps, slope, and main dry creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp.

The steps, slope, and main creek channel; the new tributary comes in from the left of the wheelchair ramp. (Yet to come are a flagstone patio on the left side of the photo and more high-desert plants.)

It took me three sweaty hours to connect the new tributary to the main stem of the dry stream, stopping now and again to guzzle water and rest.

When I finished, I cleaned off my tools, tested the new channel by running water down it, and shot a few photos.

The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse

The drainage from the second-story deck of Treehouse

And then I went inside to soak my aching muscles in a hot bath. As I soaked, I thought about how good it feels to be able to design a solution to my drainage problem, and build it myself. Despite working right to the edge of exhaustion doing it.

Richard was so much larger and stronger than me (6 feet tall and 180 pounds of nicely toned muscle to my 5-foot-six and 115 pounds of skinny) it was natural for him to do all of the heavy work. That never bothered me.

Now that it’s just me, solo, it’s surprisingly satisfying to discover all I can do.

I’d rather have my love back beside me. Since that’s not an option (dammit), I’m having fun exploring my inner dirt-worker. Seeing muscles appear on my middle-aged frame is pretty cool too.

Yeah, I'm solo and I'm strong!

Yeah, I’m solo and I’m strong!