In the end, ANY system that provides you a waterproof living space that is heavily insulated, has extensive thermal mass or other thermal storage, and a practical means to get heat into and out of the storage can provide a comfortable home.
STRUCTURE UTILITIES - ENERGY
Frankly, to survive as more than a "dirt farming peasant", you need a power source beyond human or animal muscle, which does NOT rely on fuel, or power delivered from some unseen and uncertain source. See Appropriate Technology in the appendices. Unless we suddenly leap to "STAR TREK" technology, the future energy picture will be one of greatly reduced personal energy use. Run wiring capable of handling separate a/c and d/c loads. What do you REALLY need to operate?
Electricity is the superlative form of energy in use in modern civilization, without which aspects such as long distance communications, computers, other electronics, etc. would be inoperative. When you’re planning your finances, you look at what you can do for yourself, and what you need to pay others to do or provide. When you can no longer simply plug into a seemingly limitless electrical grid, you will look closely at what NEEDS electricity.
Why would anyone NEED to generate electricity, to spin and heat an electric dryer, when hanging wet clothes in a sunlit space would also dry the clothes, and perhaps the drips water the plants?
Even refrigeration can be driven directly from a windmill or waterwheel. Ice can be made using a solar concentrator or by applying a hand-pumped vacuum to a container of water. Low levels of locally produced electricity CAN provide the power to maintain a technological, learning and developing society. A "typical" American household has access to 22 kilowatt (110 v with 200 amp service) 24/7.
Check your own bill, and see what your real time use has been. Can you reliably generate that much power? Then you must be prepared to buy the power (hoping someone else manages to generate it), or reduce your power usage to what you can generate.
The prime energy source on earth is the sun. It powers the photosynthesis process in plants, creating the energy supply for all animal life. It is readily concentrated into a limited area with simple mirrors or other reflective/convective surfaces.
If you can generate electricity beyond your needs, your spare kwh could be valuable barter currency to exchange with neighbors without power.
With technology we understand, and can produce today, we can produce electricity from the sun by:
Turning generators with moving wind, caused by the sun (natural, and artificially induced wind up what is essentially a smokestack) Such natural power is intermittent, but a viable addition. A 2007 planned “Steel Farm” project is to build 15 windmills near Kingman, Arizona at a cost of $1.5 million each. Each generates 1 megawatt, so construction cost is $1.50 per watt, or $1,500 per kilowatt. If each kilowatt is sold at $.15, ignoring interest the construction cost is recovered in 10,000 hours of productive operation. (say 420 days of operation)
Turning generators with moving water, caused by the sun (natural, and artificially induced means to move water to a higher location, or from a pressurized container.) Power can be constant and regulated. Most naturally occurring cases of water in a high gravity location have already been exploited.
Where tanks can be positioned at significant differences in altitude (i.e. 100'+) water pumped by windmill to the higher tank can bank the energy (serve as a battery) for later expenditure by turning a generator when dropped again thru a turbine. Think outside the box… Can you modify a turbocharger from a car to serve as the driving turbine in a micro-hydro generator?
1kw = 1.3 hp Water flow in cubic feet/second x height difference in feet divided by 8.8 = hp 1 cubic foot = 7.48 gallon Assume two 10,000 gallon tank, one 100' higher than the other. To generate 1kw of power 1kw = 1.3hp = flow/second x 100 / 8.8 1.3 x 8.8 = flow x 100 11.44 = flow x 100 11.44 / 100 = flow .1144 cubic feet = flow .1144 cubic feet = .856 gallon/second 10,000 gallon tank / .856 = 11,682 seconds / 60 / 60 = 3.24 kilowatthours for this "battery".
Each of the above tanks is only about the size of a modest “above ground” swimming pool. Consider a well where the water level is more than 100 feet below the surface. A small windmill could easily during the day fill the pool, providing the evenings power for light and electronics.
Turning generators with "steam" engines (water and other medium, open and closed cycle) Power can be relatively constant and regulated by using the sun to heat a storage medium, such as water in an insulated tank, which then provides power at night.
In example, since closed cycle heat engines are driven by a difference in temperature, as the outdoors cools at night, and the contents of an insulated tank remain warm, the power available may actually increase. Light concentration can DRAMATICALLY increase available power. The "steam" can also be heated by growing, collecting, and burning bio fuels.
Open cycle. The working fluid, which is heated to the boiling point, is channeled to expand and push a contained piston or turbine, then vented to the atmosphere. The typical working fluid is water, which may in some locations be too scarce a resource to "waste" as steam. This engine design also "wastes" the energy used to heat the water up to the steam point.
Closed cycle. The working fluid, which is heated to the boiling point, is channeled to expand and push a contained piston or turbine, then routed to a condenser for cooling below the boiling point, and then pumped back into the heating chamber. In theory (Carnot) the efficiency of a heat engine is limited to nc = T1(hot gas temp) T2(cool gas temp) / T1.
Historically, low temperature solar engines are operated using freon or butane, in with temperatures of 80 C. In a low technology situation though, it may be necessary to use only "natural" mediums. (Perhaps water in a closed system that operates partially in a vacuum, so that water boils at a lower temperature.)
Food for thought. As shown by the closed cycle engine, the useable work is done by the change of state from liquid to gas, not the rise in temperature to the boiling state. Open cycle engines (think of the old steam engines) lose ALL of this initial heating energy. Closed cycle engines retain a significant portion, but must still clearly cool the medium before re-injection to the vaporization chamber. Rather than directly using steam to turn a generator, I've wondered about using steam to pressurize a tank of water (insulated from the water some way?) then using the water to spin a micro hydro system.
Solar photo-voltaic. Direct conversion of light to electricity. The present silicon crystal panels remain a "high tech" item to produce, are fragile, and essentially impossible to repair in a low-tech environment. Power is ONLY supplied when light shines directly on the panel. Light concentration is likely to overheat the panel, and cause it to "burn out". Estimating a 1/4 acre homestead of around 10,000 sq. ft., at around 1 kw per sq. yd, while in full sun the entire lot receives just over 1,000 kw of power. If covered with 10% efficient solar panels, you'd have 100 kw available during sun hours. (But, no space to grow plants.) Set aside 8,000 sq. ft. for your garden, and using 2,000 sq. ft. for power, with the 10% panels you have available the same 22 kw you do now, but only during sunny days.
For a small scale example, the above photo is an electric mower, 50 watt solar panel, and 150 watt inverter set up as a push about power supply.
Remember the sun's changing path, combined with the panel putting out the greatest power when perpendicular to the sunlight, means you will probably want a "tracking" mount.
Solar collecter spacing. An east / west swing from sunrise to sunset of only 120 degrees appears to require side to side spacing between each device, at each extreme of arm swing, of at least the width of the collector surface. To track, the device pivot has got to compensate for the latitude of the site, then the tracker must be adjustable on the pivot to compensate for the slow change of the seasons...
If each device was just fixed re seasons, say at 30 degrees, there is still a minimum of 1/2 of the collector panel width between each device on the north/south axis to avoid shading. So to be able to optimize panel exposure, each 1 square yard panel needs a ground footprint of 9' x 9' or 81 square feet. For your homestead, the good news would be that your plants can grow around the tracking mount.
Keep in mind though the cost of 222 panels, at 100 watt each, necessary to generate this much daytime power. At this writing, p/v panels cost in general $5.00 for each watt generated. Therefore, you're looking at a cost of somewhat over $100,000.00 Do you think you might settle for say 2 kilowatt of electricity, at a little over $10,000.00?
Bio fuels can be burned in internal combustion engines, for propulsion or generation. This is not however an efficient means of providing a conversion from sunlight to motion or electricity. Bio fuels can also be burned to produce heat. But remember that to produce around 60 gallons of biodiesel, you need to shift an acre of cropland from producing food to fuel.
Biodigester. Animal excreta, food and crop scraps, etc. are placed in a sealed tank (can be as simple as one drum upside down inside another slightly larger drum) for controlled environment rotting. Most of the gas produced, primarily methane accumulates in the upper upside down drum, where it can be lead off in hoses for use as a fuel. Using human excreta only the "minimum" for a practical useable produce would be input from 15 people. For a practical "village built" system the upper limit appears to be 300 people.
Should you find yourself with large quantities of refined metals, guidance for creating large expedient batteries is found in "How to Recycle Scrap Metal into Electricity", by John Hait.
AETHER / ZERO POINT RADIATION / SCIENCE FICTION
There are ongoing experiments on theories whereby at least heat, if not electrical energy itself, can be obtained from "sub atomic" activity, that may or may not be "radioactive" in nature.
There are numerous "conspiracy theories" floating around that there are already successful devices in operation. A particular example is retired Colonel Beardon, who has been issued a patent for an electrical generator, that has no outside input, or internal moving parts. Lacking evidence, or the ability to buy a device, or "guaranteed" construction plans, this remains entertaining reading, but not a proposal on which to bet your life.
While human powered generators are a poor choice for other than short term use, human muscle, the legs in particular, can meet many needs. The book, Pedal Power in Work and Leisure, James C. McCullagh, relates many human powered devices, including a pedal powered winch used to pull a plow. A reasonably healthy person should be able to pedal and generate 75 watt for an extended period, perhaps 200 watt for a short period, and 750 watt for a few seconds.
Fossil fuels are merely stored ancient solar power. We can manufacture fuels (biofuels) that would allow modern engines to operate, but not at a rate anywhere near the present annual usage. Per the CIA factbook, the world has in land: 148.94 million sq km, of which humans have planted in permanent crops: 4.71%, or 7,015,074 million sq. km. This is an area 2,648 km on a side, or 1,645 miles on a side, or 2,707,299 sq. mile.
Expect best biofuel yield per year to be 50 gallon per acre. Expect each person needs 1/4 acre for food. Expect each person needs 10 acre for wood and other long-term durable materials.
Recent U.S. use of just oil was 10 billion barrels per year (420 billion gallons), divided by say a population of 270 million, we get 1,555 gallons per year per person. In biofuels this requires 31 acre per person. Add the rest in, and each person in a U.S. lifestyle needs 45 acres.
A square mile is 640 acres, divided by 45 = 14 people provided resources per square mile.
If there is currently 2,707,299 sq. mile planted in crops, to NOT further dig up nature, a current U.S. lifestyle using biofuels could allow a GLOBAL population of 37,902,186.
6,600,000,000 - 37,902,186 = 6.5 billion or so must die in the time remaining for fossil fuels, AND in the same time we must re-work a global infrastructure into one that can be operated with less than 40 million people.
As of 2007, a large portion of the global population is 20 or younger. At current consumption globally of 30 billion barrels per year, and the largest daydream of 1,200 billion barrels of oil, we have 40 years until depletion... MUCH LESS until demand permanently exceeds possible supply, and anyone not self-sufficient crashes.
It's not that biofuels do not have a place, it's that they cannot power an infrastructure like the "first world" of today.
Present technology to electrolyze hydrogen from water "loses" more than half of the electricity.
The INEFFICIENCY of hydrogen as a battery was borne out in the 2005 Department of Energy "Solar Decathlon" competition, where the New York Institute of Technology found their hydrogen fuel cell power storage approach didn't reach the 25% efficiency they hoped, vs 80% for lead-acid batteries.
There are however experiments with high temperature catalysts (see Fuel from Water, Michael A. Peavey) which may prove concentrated sunlight for heat can replace a significant portion of the electrical current. As I show later in this treatise though, no known technology can provide a “hydrogen economy” using fuel at our recent rates.
Certain natural and man-made materials have the property of absorbing light and releasing it in the form of a moderate, essentially heat-free glow visible in darkened conditions. (Try the trade-name "Alien Skin") At the present, none commercially available provide what would be considered as sufficient work-light, but a large panel can light a room sufficiently as to permit occupancy, moving about, and work on tasks which do not require visual details. My theory (untested) is that a glowing panel at the large end of a Winston cone should produce a small area of work/reading light at the apex of the cone.
HOME CONSTRUCTION OPTIONS
Any appropriate means to produce sufficiently strong walls and roof could be considered a success. In many places, the construction material can be the earth itself. Even if you are not yet building on site, you may want a secure, concealed on site location. Consider a "septic tank", or "fresh water tank" as your first construction. Neither should raise suspicion, and either can provide water tight, underground storage space. It will probably cost more to have a tank installed, than to buy either in a heavy gauge plastic.
Soil doesn't stack well, a significant consideration when mounding or berming you structure, and ESPECIALLY if you're digging. For safety, set your slopes such that the slope retreats horizontally at least 1 1/2 foot for every 1 foot of vertical rise. I will try to use a 2 foot per 1 foot rise in the appendices to this treatise where such concerns are applicable in calculations.
Engineer in four dimensions, height, width, depth, and time. Plan so that dividers, furnishings, utilities, etc. can be adjusted to change the primary use of a space. Your actual structure depends on your personal resources and design preferences.
It can be a hut. It can be a detached house, or an apartment building. It can be a mansion. It can be one room, or provide separate space for everyone. It can be underground, or super insulated with an active thermal exchange. It does not matter.What matters is your ability to provide for the ongoing (present and future) life-support needs of your family.
Assume a multi generational, stable population family homestead of 8 people. If your food production is at the "best" biointensive level, than 8,000 sq. ft. (approximately 1/4 acre) would be the minimum area for a homsestead, based on the food limit. If you home is underground, or has a roof garden, the only loss for the structure is skylights.
Per the Tucson MEC - Thermal Mass. Designs utilizing thermal mass should have suggested heat capacity between 18 to 30 Btu/cu.ft. Walls without external insulation need 12 inches minimum thickness or 8 hours time lag. External insulation can be used (R-9 to R-11) to reduce thickness of thermal mass to no less than 4". Surface area of uncovered thermal mass (in the direct sun zone) should be minimum 9 times the area of south glass, with 1ft2 of additional south glass for every 40 ft2 of mass located outside the direct sun zone (a simplified method of calculating thermal mass and south glass areas).
Summer Ventilation. Thermal-mass buildings shall be provided with a means of venting to the outside at night during the months of May through October to avoid overheating. Operable windows totaling at least 20 percent of the total glazing area, located for effective cross-ventilation or ceiling fans or a whole-house fan sized to provide 10 air changes per hour may be used.
Glazing. All glazing facing between 20 - 165 degrees or 195 - 340 degrees shall have a minimum summer shading coefficient of 0.39. All glazing facing between 165-195 degrees shall have a minimum summer shading coefficient of 0.5 or less. This may be accomplished by the use of overhangs, covered porches, tinted glazing, or other approved methods.
EARTH SHELTER TECHNIQUES
One approach is well presented in the "Earthship" series of books by Michael Reynolds, ranging from single room pods to luxury homes. It's not that earth is a good insulator, rather the advantage comes from that fact that earth is NOT a good insulator, and it takes a lot of heat, or cold, to make a large mass of earth change temperature.
While Mr. Reynolds emphasizes use of tires, cans, etc. in his structures, the functional aspects are relevant regardless of the construction material. In his third earthship book, Mr. Reynolds has valuable suggestions on a "retrofit" for a typical suburban home. See John Hait's book "Passive Annual Heat Storage" for scientific details of the thermal buffering system.
Surface coated stacked concrete block is advocated by architect Bruce Beer at his website www.thenaturalhome.com. Blocks are stacked without mortar, then filled and coated with cement.
Mike Oehler, in "The $50 & Up Underground House Book" presents his PSP system (post/shoring/Polyethylene), basically an underground pole building. Regarding wood in contact with the soil, in most soils, the area of decay is just below ground level, where soil microbiological activity is greatest. Often a post can be almost completely rotted out at this level, while the wood several feet deeper in the ground is still solid. So it's possible that a post, buried two feet or more into the ground, in an excavation already as much as six feet or more in the ground, will last a very long time. In addition, Oehler points out the old time observation that charred wood doesn't rot. He chars the bottom two feet or so, by roasting them over a campfire, propane torch, etc. For additional insurance, wrap the post bottom in several plastic garbage bags secured with duct tape.
Conventional thinking involves digging a hole into a hillside and plopping a structure there with a bank of windows facing downhill. This makes the uphill side a solid blank wall, with the roof probably pitched back into the hill, so drainage from the roof runs into drainage from the hillside. Leaks are almost inevitable. Mike suggests an uphill patio, basically a terraced garden area, with its bottom at any desired height from the floor of the house, and its top blending into the adjacent ground level. It not only solves problems of drainage and lateral thrust (the pressure of the earth on buried walls), but it can function as an emergency exit or a second entrance. It can also serve as a built in greenhouse. Naturally, it admits light and air, even from the uphill side of the house which would otherwise be a dark blank wall.
The Monolithic Concrete Dome is a single large dome, presented as energy efficient due to the reduced outside surface area relative to the inside volume. But it is difficult to build, and bury if you're incorporating earth berming. An extremely thin dome gets its strength from the curve shape. The larger the dome, the closer any given area of the dome approaches flat, losing strength.
A dome on the scale of a room is a much less daunting project than a home sized or larger monolithic dome. A home can be built one room at a time, as labor, materials, and need are presented. Greater curvature per area gives greater strength.
I lean toward a clustering of room sized domes, or a torus (donut) shape. In late 2005 I noted the Monolithic Dome commercial web page had torus designs. There is POTENTIAL that multiple thin shells, with soil sealed between have a greater strength to thickness that a single shell of the same total concrete thickness.
In addition, concrete "beams" in a catenary curve can be produced by suspending a chain from appropriately selected points such that it attains the desired curve. Progressively coat the chain with concrete and allow to cure. If properly done and turned over, you have a load-bearing curved beam constructed of concrete.
THE DIRT ITSELF
Soil can though be formed into bricks, and baked (even in the sun). It can also be "rammed" into wall molds to form monolithic walls. Neither is waterproof though absent a stabilization materials, such as added concrete.
Clay can be "fired" to make it waterproof. Clays vary considerably in chemistry but most require about 1800 2000 F to develop a glassy ceramic bond. The glassy bond is developed by melting the silica in the clay and allowing the resulting glass to freeze the remaining grains in place. 2000F can be achieved using natural gas, coal, charcoal etc. and air pressure. Too much heat and the glass becomes too fluid and the shape becomes brittle. Once heated the ceramics must be slow cooled because they will crack if cooled too quickly.
Assets, time, and limited labor may not at least initially permit large new structures, but small does not have to mean primitive and uncomfortable. Consider motor homes and boats, where individuals and families live comfortably in facilities the size of the living room in a typical American home. I suggest you tour travel trailers, motor homes, power or sail boats, etc., for ideas. Aspects to plan for in your home include:
Glass block along the top of all walls that are exposed to the outside air provides daylighting, as do other higher tech approaches (solartube, and fiber optics). Beyond daylighting, similar physical methods would permit one light source in a home to provide controllable “nightlight” for the entire structure. (Note, external reaching systems such as the solartubes easily provide light to maneuver inside to approximately the same extent you could outside (i.e. in a full moon, you can move about easily).
Where there is sufficient growth, stacked bales, stucco covered, make viable, high insulation walls (with the added benefit of stopping most pistol, and low power rifle bullets), or additional insulation to an existing structure.
Your home can be surrounded by artificial mounds, to provide visual and audio separation, while not excessively impeding airflow, foot traffic (all species...) as well as defining and controlling where private property rainfall flows.
Do you have the time and assets to custom build? Most will have to retrofit. If your intent is to join or remain in an existing community, it's probably your only option. It may even be the best option.
For example, I'd love to take on a project such as turning a parking building into a city homestead. Who wants to park on the roof anyway? Cover it with your solar panels and garden. Your homestead needs to have sufficient solar exposure for your power, heat, skylights, and garden. What are you going to put under yours?
If you find an appropriate location, but the residents are not yet ready to accept and act on peak oil & long term sustainability, start anyway.
Years ago, as the mine shut down, and the primary source of income disappeared, the town of Bisbee was dying. As the story goes, essentially "hippies" moved in for the low cost, and put out art for sale hoping for some income. Word got around, the the location has become a tourist destination and art centered community.
Get involved. Contact community leaders in all areas. Contact the media. Join groups that may have part of the picture (i.e. global warming, biking, gardening, solar power) and starting from appropriate common ground guide others to the greater awareness you see.
WHAT ROOMS DO YOU NEED
How many rooms and their extent and outfitting, is based on your needs and resources. How many people live at the home? Absent easy energy to move and travel, expect to see a return to most families remaining in the same place generation after generation. After all, where are you going to go? Once you realize we are living on a "spacestation", with no "away" to move to, a stable population is essential.
At the individual homestead level, this means each adult can only parent their personal eventual replacement, whether their biological child, or adoptive. Given the bisexual nature of the human species, at the family level this means on the average no more than 2 children per couple as the biological replacement for the parents. While the same individual (male or female) can parent 2 children with 2 different individuals of the opposing sex, it shows in later discussions on genetic matches in a minimum population, multiple parent-partners creates half-related children, complicating the genetic mix in following generations.
For an animal, once physical prowess has passed, with no mind or knowledge to remain of value to the community, or a community that recalls and rewards earlier contributions, the creature is typically left on it's own to die. Something similar is frequently seen in nomadic human societies or human society where the population is beyond sustainability, as the old are pushed-out when they can no longer physically contribute to the community.
A stable stationary society allows the development and ongoing possession of tools and knowledge, passed on and used generation to generation, with knowledge and experience transforming a weak toothless grandma/grandpa into a venerable sage. Make your life count, and pass it on.
Depending on the average age of childbirth, and lifespan, we could then see families of 3 to perhaps 5 generations, for a population at each homestead of 6 to 10 people.
Some arrangements may need to be made to adjust financial equity for marriages, where one of the two siblings moves to the homestead of the new spouse, vs bringing the new spouse to home.
Remember, in a situation where we have already reached the maximum sustainable population, whether it is the number of homes in a remote secure valley, within city limits, or the world, there is no new space to build a new home and expand out.