One of the more impressive and fascinating aspects of living here at R-evolution Gardens is watching the ways in which Brian and Ginger ingeniously piece this farm together, crafting a place of beauty, function, comfort and humanity while working on a budget somewhere between tight and nonexistent. Using permaculture-inspired design, thoughtful creativity, and thrift, they consistently work within the context of this land and climate. As such, the farm exists off the grid, with all our electricity being generated on site via solar PV panels and a micro hydro generator. Hot water comes from passive solar in the summer and waste heat from the wood stove in the winter. The wood stoves also provide heat and—in conjunction with a hot plate running off the on-site electricity and the occasional use of the outdoor cob oven and a rocket stove—cooking. The farm uses no propane and the wood for the stoves is cobbled together from multiple sources—this year, half came from off the land and the other half was salvaged from a downed tree in a nearby bay, prepped and then kayaked in to an accessible location during a high tide. In other words, Brian and Ginger have created a farm that works with the land and local energy flows, crafting a comfortable living space using a building and design model that’s much more sustainable than the typical one.
The key component of the bath house---the soaking tub. Photo courtesy of Brian, with many thanks to Leann for modeling.
While the farm is a constant collaboration between Brian, Ginger and a continuous flow of interns, WWOOFers, volunteers, friends and neighbors, Brian is the point person when it comes to building the farm’s structures and alternative energy systems. Incredibly, he does this having self-taught himself the ability to design, craft and install these systems over the last few years. His is a certain kind of energetic genius that can be a mixture of inspiring, confusing and dumbfounding to watch—but which always seems to lead to beautiful and effective structures. He calls his methods “farmitechture,” but I would simply call it appropriate (though I love his term.) He works within the land, on a budget, and he creates buildings that fit their surroundings and are built as much as possible from salvaged and local materials.
In that vein, the most recent addition to the farm is a Japanese-inspired bath house, powered by sun and wood. Brian built it over the course of this summer with a bit of help from a friend, a couple WWOOFers, Ginger and a few brief assists from me. A significant portion of the bath house is made out of salvaged and recycled materials: blown down cedar poles from a friend’s property, a downed cedar from the bay, beautiful 3x3s found washed up on the beach, old solar hot water panels from the 70s found at the dump, a soaking tub bought at a recycling center. The building fits into the land, looking like it belongs there. The hot water for the tub can be heated by the sun in the summer, by burning wood in the winter, or by a combination of the two during the shoulder seasons.
There are clever touches, such as the electric water pump that circulates the water through the solar hot water panels. While Brian’s preferred method of rigging a solar hot water system is to entirely use natural thermal siphoning (that’s how the system in the main house is rigged) that design wasn’t feasible for the bath house. So instead, the water pump is wired into a small PV panel, so as soon as the sun hits it, the pump starts up. This works perfectly, as the water only needs to be circulating through the solar hot water panels if the sun is shining on them. In another nice touch, the Chofu wood stove resides in a small room which takes up half of the bath house space. The waste heat from the Chofu is thus captured in this room, quickly warming the room to about 90 degrees in the winter. While it’s not sauna-level heat, it does provide a nice, warm space to rest in if desired. It also provides a heated dressing room.
A look at the bath house from the outside, showing off the two solar hot water panels and the solar PV powering the pump. Photo courtesy of Brian.
Of course, the draw of the bath house is not just it’s inspiring and appropriate design, but the actual comfort and relaxation it provides in the form of hot baths. A night of hot tubs has become quite the common occurrence here on the farm and the pleasure it provides is something of a revelation. Hot water does amazing things to tight and sore muscles, and the experience of soaking while exposed to the cool night air is a lesson in juxtaposition, creating a pleasant discord that only serves to heighten the sense of comfort. Furthermore, there’s a certain luxury to the bath house the effect of which is hard to overstate. It’s a luxury that isn’t always a part of this off the grid lifestyle, no matter how much I do love this lifestyle. The fact that it’s been instituted in a fairly sustainable and thrifty way is a small revelation. It’s a push back against the idea that living sustainably necessarily equals living uncomfortably. It doesn’t. While this lifestyle may not provide the sort of hermetic seal that a life on the grid can and often does, it provides something much more: connection, purpose, a life that feels humane, a sense of care and respect—and now, a significant bit of luxury to go along with all of that. That’s something to be noted and documented.
And it has been documented. Not just here, in this post, but in greater detail and with significantly more pictures at Brian’s website. I urge you to check out that link for the story of the bath house’s building in Brian’s own words and a much more detailed break down of how he built it, what materials went into it, and the philosophy behind his design. A structure as beautiful and generous as his is all too much a rarity in this mass-produced world, so I encourage all to read about what he did and use it as inspiration and as proof of what can be done in this world, even within a low-energy framework.
A major storm hit us today, dropping multiple inches of rain–including one particularly insane stretch of a downpour–and sweeping heavy winds across the farm. Facing such inclement weather, Brian decided to fire up the hot tub, which sits under a roof as part of the farm’s solar bath house but is otherwise exposed to the outdoors, making it a particularly alluring experience on a night such as tonight. The extreme comfort and relaxation of soaking in hot water contrasts nicely with torrential rain and driving wind–the discomforts of a particularly cutting storm.
While the rain had tapered off by the time I was soaking, the south wind had kicked into high gear. Occasional, loud gusts would swirl around me, the air cool and insistent and charged with an uncommon power. As the gusts hit, I found myself sitting up in the hot tub, exposing more of my upper body so I could feel the air–that energy, that coolness–and revel in the juxtaposition between it and the hot water that otherwise engulfed me. This juxtaposition of sensations reminded me of the often-noted idea that to appreciate something, you have to experience its opposite. The comfort of that hot water was, in a certain way, offset by the blustery cold of the wind. By raising my body from the hot water to feel the cold wind, I better appreciated and experienced both sensations–either one heightened by the contrast with the other.
The way the hot tub is heated, at least in the winter, is via a wood-fired stove. Water siphons through an intake pipe near the bottom of the hot tub, heats as it circulates through a pipe in the stove, then streams out of an opening above the intake. The water continually circulates, slowly heating the entire tub. The water coming out of the stove eventually becomes extremely hot and, as you sit in the tub, a layer of that very hot water forms at the top of the tub if you’re not circulating the water yourself. This layer makes itself particularly apparent when you sit up, as your upper body passes through that hot layer, creating–for me at least–a tightening of the chest and a brief moment of discomfort and shortness of breath. It’s not so extreme as to feel dangerous, but it provides a juxtaposition between the hot and the very hot, the comfortable and the uncomfortable.
As I experienced these contrasting sensations–the differing levels of hot water, the hot water and cold wind–I couldn’t help but again think of the ducks. The storm-heightened comfort of the hot tub seemed another version of my musings on the ducks. Their seeming ability to stay comfortable in the storm (and based on my observations today, they were plenty enjoying the storm) spoke, I imagined, to their enjoyment of it. Similarly, I spent the rainiest stretch of the day in my yurt reading, with the wood stove going, luxuriating in the warmth and the deafening sound of rain pounding upon my little home. This was the height of comfort for me: another good book, a dry wood-burning heat to contrast the drenching rain outside, and the understanding that the deafening roar around me was cold, nasty, driving rain that I did not have to be in. I had my warmth, I had my shelter, and I had my comfort even as all the opposites raged outside.
This, then, is part of the beauty of living simply, even of living in what can be defined as poverty. By living in a yurt–a very simple structure–I stay connected to what is happening outside. I hear the wind and the rain, I feel the cold and damp if I don’t have my wood stove cranking and I can very easily bring in a warm summer’s night breeze by opening the door and cracking the dome on the roof. Outside activity is accessible to me. In most houses, that isn’t the case at all. Rain often cannot be heard at all, unless it’s particularly heavy, and it’s the same for wind. What’s happening outside can easily be a mystery. Climate control, as well, can negate the impacts of the heat and the cold, keeping an even temperature at all times. In fact, the act of heating or cooling a space is often not an act at all, but an automation, maintained by machines with only the barest of provocation of humans: the turn of a thermostat. I can certainly heat my yurt, but it involves me actually building and maintaining a fire, and is thus a conscious act rather than an automation. As such, it helps to keep me in tune to what is happening around me. It makes me think about my comfort and to take responsibility for creating it.
I think this is good. And I think climate control is in many ways bad. In attempting to automate comfort, we lose sight of it. In living in environments in which comfort is a constant, we forget what comfort is. When it’s always 72, you cease to appreciate it. When it’s always warm inside while cold outside and always cool inside when hot outside–and you never play a direct role in making it so–then you often cease to even understand what hot and cold is. You become a slave to constant, moderate temperatures and your body loses much of its ability to adjust to anything else.
We’ve built, purchased, engineered and automated comfort to such an extent in our society, I think we’ve lost sight of what comfort is. We need the contrasts–the juxtaposition of comfort and discomfort–to keep us attuned to the reality of comfort and to allow us to appreciate it. We need cold mornings so we can burrow into–and fall in love with–our warm beds. We need the sound of rain on the roof–not to mention an occasional, or perhaps regular, drenching–to appreciate being warm and dry. We need, too, the actual act of creating our comfort so that we can understand it as something we do for ourselves, rather than something that just occurs, automated, always. Comfort is special and resonant and it can only remain that way if we don’t normalize it, don’t automate it, and allow ourselves to be uncomfortable at times. We need that juxtaposition so as not to slip into a life of sleepwalking, divorced from sensation and severed from true contentment.