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.
Today I awoke to blue skies. This may not seem surprising–it is August, after all–but even at this time of year, sun cannot be taken for granted here on the Oregon coast. The last week has been cloudy and a bit cool, with only a few brief stretches of good sun. As such, we’ve been a bit grumpy on the farm. It’s the middle of August and, after an unusually cold and wet spring, it feels as though we’ve earned some sun and warmth. Yet the weather hasn’t obliged of late.
Despite hanging their heads, these sunflowers no doubt appreciate the sun as much as we do.
Then, yesterday evening, the sun broke free from it’s cloudy chains. It shone gloriously over the farm, providing a distinct reprieve from the subdued state we had found ourselves in. Continuing into today, the sun has been providing warmth and Vitamin D, a distinct uplift in mood, and vast amounts of energy to be dispersed throughout the farm. It also has provided a bit of reflective thought for me, as I found myself thinking today about everything the sun provides us–about, in other words, just how momentous its appearance is.
The sun is different here. Or, to be more honest, the sun is the same here, but our attitude toward it and dependence on it is different. In Portland, where I have lived a good portion of my life, the sun’s arrival provides warmth and enjoyment, an improvement in mood, and Vitamin D for those willing to venture out into it. For many people, though, it doesn’t go much beyond that. And for some people, it doesn’t even go that far. The sun being out doesn’t much affect the life of someone who wakes up in his climate-controlled house, goes into his garage, gets in his climate-controlled car, drives to his job in a climate-controlled office, and then returns to his climate-controlled house in the evening. Perhaps he ventures out for a bit at lunch and maybe dares bar-be-que some dinner on the back porch, but he’s just as likely to stay inside and watch TV. And even if he does take those moments to go outside, it leads to limited exposure.
Our source of electricity: two solar photovoltaic panels that keep us powered through the summer.
Here on the farm, we of course work outside. That’s a difference. Your relationship with the sun is significantly changed by a constant or near-constant exposure to it. I rarely wear sun screen (I hate the feel of it, I hate how it makes me sweat and, to be honest, I think it’s about as likely to give me cancer as the sun) and so I get some maximum Vitamin D action out of the sunlight. (I’m lucky in that I’m a quarter Portugese, and after a few spring days of sunshine, my arms darken nicely and start taking the sun quite well.) Similarly, as much as the sun invigorates those of us working out in it, it invigorates our crops even more. The revealing of the sun means growth and ripening fruit. We need sun if we want sweet, ripe tomatoes. And we most definitely want sweet, ripe tomatoes.
So when the sun comes out, we notice it here. It makes all the difference in the world. We feel its warmth because we’re out working in it. We get the Vitamin D boost. We get the general invigoration and the mood elevation. Furthermore, we know our crops are growing, our fruit is ripening, our flowers are blooming, that the sunlight streaming down on the land is being converted into food and livelihood–into our very sustenance. And when the sun is out, I find I don’t need so much. I’m less likely to drink afternoon coffee. I often eat less. I know this isn’t the same for everyone, but it’s how it works for me. When the sun is shining, it’s almost as if I’m able to convert a bit of that sunlight into energy just as a plant does. It just feels easier.
These two solar hot water panels are old, inefficient beasts from the 70s, yet they still provide something like half of the farm's hot water for the year. All this despite the fact that we live in one of the least sunny areas in the country. Makes you wonder why every house doesn't have solar hot water panels on its roof.
Still, there’s more. The growing plants and ripening fruit and Vitamin D and elated moods isn’t everything. There’s also the beauty. The Oregon coast in summer is perhaps one of the most beautiful places in the world. It’s astounding out here. On the farm, we have the surrounding peaks and mountains, the forest, the creek and river, the farm’s abundant crops and flowers, and they all contain an almost incomprehensible vibrancy when the sun is out. They are beautiful always, but they become almost heartbreaking in the full spotlight of the sun’s rays. The beauty is only enhanced by the fact that sunny days on the coast tend to be near-perfect climate-wise: in the 70s with low humidity and perhaps a light breeze. The air is clear, the temperature comfortable, the warmth encompassing. It’s glorious.
And yet, there’s even more. There’s so much more that the sun gives us. Here on the farm, we’re off the grid. We are not tied into the electricity infrastructure in any way. Which means that we have to generate all our electricity, our hot water, our heat, everything right here from off the land. We do that in large part with the sun. The farm has two solar photovoltaic panels that generate electricity, as well as two solar water panels that provide us with hot water. So when the sun comes out, it’s not just that it’s boosting our mood and providing us with income and growing our crops–literally feeding us–but it also is providing us with our energy. When the sun comes out, we have abundant electricity to use. We don’t need it all, but there’s plenty there for us. We also have hot water for showers. On cloudy days, we may not have that unless we fire up the wood stove (which is set up to also heat our water via the waste heat escaping out of the flue.) That’s more work, it burns our wood, and on cloudy but otherwise warm summer days, it can be annoying to fire the wood stove and introduce that unnecessary heat into the house. When the sun’s out, we don’t need to worry about that. All we need to do is go take a luxurious shower.
The farm version of a solar array: not just solar PV panels, but a soon-to-be solar bathhouse that will use multiple solar hot water panels and recycled hot water tanks to keep us in muscle-soothing hot tubs all summer long.
The sun is everything to us. And really, that’s how it should be. It’s appropriate to live on a particular piece of land, gaining your sustenance through the proper use of that land, and gaining your energy through the harnessing of the sunlight falling upon that land. That can happen in multiple ways: in its passive heat, in the conversion of sunlight into electricity via photovoltaic panels (though even PV panels are not truly sustainable and they’re terribly inefficient when you break it down), and in the growing of food and fuel. We do all of that here and it provides a very high percentage of our energy needs. Since we live within that system and are aware of it, we have an immense appreciate for the sun and experience it on a multi-faceted level when it finally emerges from behind the clouds. It’s giving us so much–how could we ever appreciate it enough? On the other hand, living in an apartment with an electric water heater and electric wall heaters does not inspire the same kind of appreciation for the sun because the sun is not seen as providing your food, your warmth, your hot water–it’s something separate that may provide some nice weather and a bit of extra physical energy, or may just provide a sun burn and the need to turn on the air conditioner. Either way, it tends to be more peripheral. And to make the sun peripheral is a special sort of insanity.
These days, I thank the sun when it comes out because I understand just how much it is providing me. I also thank the fact that I understand that. Much of my life, the sun has been something I appreciated to a certain degree, but that tended to be peripheral. There were plenty of sunny days in which I hardly even went outside and I never, in the past, became excited about newfound electricity and previously-unavailable hot water when the sun came out. Now I do, and I like that. It feels better. It feels more connected. And it feels true, because now I understand the sun in a way I never did before–not as a shadow, but as something brilliant and bright, providing an abundance that I can never appreciate enough, that I can only glory in and hope that it returns the next day.