Category Archives: Eco-Saturday

Small Homes

Remember when we had a friend over to take pictures of our house for possible inclusion in Lloyd Kahn’s new book, Small Homes?

We were included, and two copies of the book arrived in the mail today. Eep!

This is a cool book. We’re on pages 142-145.

It was fun to look at the pictures, which showed how the house looked in December 2015, before I redecorated four rooms, swapped out a bunch of furniture and discovered the magic of cheap IKEA shoe bins. Sometimes I forget how far we’ve come in here, and seeing old photos — accompanied by a narrative showing my thoughts at the time — gives me a nice sense of accomplishment to counterbalance all the times I walk in here, see what needs to be done and get frustrated with myself because I haven’t done it yet. (Yeah, kitchen floor, I’m lookin’ at you.)

The photos were taken near Christmas, obviously.
I’m amazed we got four whole pages. Not bad for a house we didn’t even build.

Even before all my projects last year, our house looked fairly spacious, and I’m proud to have it featured in the book, where hopefully it will inspire somebody else to experiment with minimalism and downsizing. It isn’t carved out of the side of a hill, sculpted by hand from cob, rescued from the brink of demolition or located in a picturesque forest or desert, but Kahn’s justification for its inclusion delighted me, because it sums up my reasons for sending him photos and information in the first place:

“As you may know, our building books are generally heavy on graphics and light on details. However, this meticulous rendering by Emily and Ron of their ideas for living in a small space, and the cost-conscious ways they’ve carried out their goals is rare and useful, practical information.” — LK

I hope people do find it useful and practical, and if anybody found out about this blog by way of the book, I strongly encourage you to search my Eco-Saturday and Tiny Tuesday tags to see more examples of our efforts to save space and live lightly on the planet. And, of course, if you found out about the book by way of this blog, I encourage you to support Kahn’s work by buying a copy or clicking over to The Shelter Blog to see what else he’s got up his sleeve. He’s done some great work over the last few years, and we always keep a copy of his Tiny Homes book handy to fuel our daydreams.

Oh, and mad props to our friend Laura Simon, photographer extraordinaire, who shot a bunch of the photos that ended up in the book. (We’ll be giving her the second copy of the book, of course.)



Eco-Saturday: Incense energy audit

Want to find all the spots in your house that are making your furnace work overtime? Grab a stick of incense and a lighter and spend a few minutes performing a sort of informal energy audit. Here’s how:

1. Shut off the furnace and any fans you might have running.
2. Raise all the blinds and pull back the curtains.
3. Light a stick of incense. Holding it very steady, pass it around the edges of all your windows, doors leading to unheated spaces, and electrical outlets and switches on exterior walls. Use a slow, steady motion, and pull the stick away from the burning end rather than pushing toward it. As you move, watch the smoke. It should rise smoothly from the burning end of the stick. If it shimmies, pulses, or otherwise appears to be disturbed, you have an air leak that needs to be sealed. (You’ll also want to pay attention to the burning end, taking care to keep it from touching curtains or other flammable materials, and be sure to have something handy to use as an ashtray as you work.)
4. Make a note of all the places you found leaks, and find an appropriate method to seal them.

If you find leaks around windows, the easiest solution is to seal them with plastic film; if you’re feeling ambitious, you can also insulate the panes themselves with bubble wrap or make Roman shades out of blankets to put an extra layer of warmth between the great outdoors and your living space. You can plug leaks under doors with an inexpensive DIY draft stopper made from rice and fabric remnants. You can buy insulating shields for electrical outlets and light switches, but I prefer to make my own for free out of the polystyrene trays that come with meat and some produce at the grocery store.

You won’t find every single source of wasted energy with a stick of incense, but in the absence of a professional energy audit — which can get pricey if your utility company doesn’t offer them for free — it’s a good, inexpensive jumping-off point to help you identify some of the most easily mitigated culprits. A stick of incense and an a little elbow grease can go a long way toward reining in high heating bills.


Eco-Saturday: Buy better quality

As I was sealing my Birkenstocks a couple of weeks ago, it occurred to me that I’ve been doing something positive for the environment for years without even thinking about it: When I shop for items I plan to use every day, I buy the best quality I can afford.

My everyday shoes are Birkenstocks. The clogs I wear every day are at least 16 years old; I’ve also found Doc Martens and Justin boots to be durable and comfortable for rough-and-tumble situations where clogs won’t work.

My trenchcoat is a London Fog. I bought it on sale in 1998. Every time I think it’s too stained or too dingy to go another season, the dry cleaners work another miracle on it, and I get another year out of it.

My work jacket is a Walls farm coat I bought for $40 at a hardware store in Vega, Texas, when I went out there to work on a historic preservation project in 2006 and discovered the jacket I’d brought along was too thin to stand up to chilly November winds in the Panhandle. It’s showing its age now — the corduroy collar is worn down, and the canvas is starting to fray a bit at the cuffs — but for a jacket that’s had a decade of hard use, it’s in remarkably good shape and still keeps me warm when I’m working outdoors.

In the kitchen, I have stainless-steel pans that date to 1981 and cast-iron skillets I’ve owned since 1997. Cast iron lasts forever, and you can buy skillets for next to nothing at antique stores and estate sales. Don’t be afraid of a little surface rust; if you scrub them down and season them properly, your grandkids will still be using them 50 years from now.

The advantage of buying good quality products is similar to the advantage of buying used: You’re avoiding the environmental impact of making something new. Opt for classic styles, perform routine maintenance as appropriate, and you’ll minimize your environmental footprint and save money at the same time.

What products have you found durable over the years? Feel free to share your recommendations in the comments. As always, my recommendations are based on personal experience; I wasn’t compensated for this post; your mileage may vary, etc.


Eco-Saturday: Buy used furniture

Used furniture is one of my favorite forms of recycling. While I purchased a couple of new pieces during my big redecorating project last year, much of the furniture in my house was used when I got it.

My coffee table and end tables came from the Herrin City Library, which sold off or threw out much of its original furniture during an expansion many years ago. The clock in my bedroom came from the same source, and I think that might be where Mom picked up those great lamps that grace the end tables, too.

This cute mid-century bookshelf came from an antique shop on Main Street here in Cape. I expect it will hold up considerably better than the 3-year-old particle-board shelves it replaced:


I went looking for mid-century dining furniture at Annie Laurie’s but wound up falling in love with this uber-’70s table and chairs, which came with an extra leaf:


The set was too cool to pass up, so I bought it and declared the dining room a ’70s zone — a look I punctuated with a metal faux-woodgrain shelf I found hiding under a layer of unfortunate contact paper at a little shop on Spanish Street:


A can of WD-40 and a little patience yielded a nice nostalgia trip, as Mom displayed her houseplants on similar shelves when I was little. Mine serve as a sort of holding pen for stuff that lands on the dining table and for whatever reason can’t be put away yet. About once a month, I look over the contents of the shelf and determine which items are ready to go to more permanent locations.

To my way of thinking, used furniture has three big advantages over new:

1. It’s already here; nobody has to cut down another tree or pull another barrel of oil out of the ground to produce it.

2. With the exception of valuable antiques, used furniture tends to be cheaper than comparable new items. I gave $85 for my dining table and chairs — about $400 less than the IKEA set I was considering, and probably more durable.

3. The antique stores here in Cape are all mom-and-pop operations located in historic buildings, which means when I shop there, I’m not only keeping more of my money in my community, but I’m also contributing to the upkeep of a historic property. WIN.


Eco-Saturday: Clean your refrigerator coils

Several weeks ago, I picked up a special brush designed to clean the coils on a refrigerator.

I don’t know how big a difference this really makes — I’ve read articles saying it’s a miracle move that will increase your refrigerator’s efficiency by umpteen percent and/or keep it from burning your house down and killing you, and I’ve read articles saying it’s a total waste of time that won’t make any difference at all. The EPA says it’s a good idea, at least for older models, so I gave it a shot.

Couldn’t hurt. Might help. Either way, it was a good excuse to buy a pointy brush suitable for retrieving the wayward cat toys and dog biscuits that seem to find their way into otherwise unreachable locations.

Pointy brush. If I'd had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we  wouldn't have lost so many kibbles under the stove.
Pointy brush. If I’d had one of these when Scout was a puppy, we wouldn’t have lost so many kibbles under the stove.

The hardest part of the whole project was cleaning off the top of the fridge so I could pull it out from the wall without knocking anything off. (You probably don’t want to know what’s up there.)

I couldn’t remember whether the coils were on the back or the bottom of our refrigerator, so I started by running the brush underneath it just to be sure. No coils, but I extracted an impressive quantity of dust, dog hair, and cat kibbles. Bleah.

Once I’d cleaned underneath, I pulled the refrigerator out from the wall, got on a stepstool, and ran the brush down the back to clean both sides of the coils.

Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.
Not the greatest shot, because I was working at an awkward angle, but here are the coils.

They weren’t terribly dirty, but cleaning them wasn’t terribly hard, either, so I’ll file this one under “probably worth the effort.” Our refrigerator is less than three years old, but if yours is an older model, I’d upgrade that assessment from “probably” to “definitely.” At worst, you’ll have a cleaner kitchen.


Eco-Saturday: Grow your own sprouts

I love sprouts. They’re higher in protein and nutrients than lettuce and taste good in salads and sandwiches.

What I don’t love are the plastic containers in which they’re packed. Those clamshell boxes are usually recyclable, but the little humidifier pads at the bottom aren’t, and avoiding plastic altogether is generally better for the environment than using it once and then recycling it.

That brings me to one of my favorite winter projects: growing my own sprouts.

In this planting zone, December gardening is a no-go unless you have a heated greenhouse or a hydroponic operation. Sprouts, however, grow just fine on a shelf in the dining room, where I keep a sprouter going most of the winter.

Theoretically, you can grow sprouts in a canning jar with a piece of cheesecloth stretched across the top, but I’ve never had good luck with this approach. Small sprouters are available for about $20 apiece (I use this one, but any similar model will do), and they tend to work much better than the canning-jar approach.

Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You'll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.
Alfalfa seeds, left, and lentils, right, are good for sprouting. You’ll probably have to hit the health-food store for alfalfa seeds.

Sprouting is easy, but like any other kind of gardening, it requires a little time and attention. Here’s the general upshot:

1. Change the water frequently. My sprouter is designed with stackable trays that have small drainage holes in the bottom. You run water in the top tray, and it percolates down, watering the sprouts at each level before collecting in a solid tray at the bottom. At least twice a day, I dump out the water, rotate the trays, and water the top one. (Don’t reuse the old water.)

2. Keep an eye on the drainage holes. As the roots grow, some may extend down into the holes and clog them up. If you notice water doesn’t seem to be draining right, sterilize a needle and use it to unclog the holes.

3. Don’t let your sprouts dry out. If your indoor air is really dry, you may need to cover the top to help keep moisture in for the first day or two. When the sprouts are about a quarter-inch long, remove the cover and start rotating the trays each time you water so the same tray isn’t constantly on top, where it’s more likely to dry out.

4. Stagger your plantings. Most varieties will go from seed to salad in three or four days. If you start new seeds every couple of days, you’ll have a constant supply of fresh greens. (Be sure to wash the trays in between harvests.)

You should be able to find sprouting seeds at any health-food store. You can also sprout brown lentils, which are available by the pound at pretty much any grocery store.


Eco-Saturday: Reusable produce bags

I read an article the other day that said reusable shopping bags are harder on the environment than their disposable cousins, mostly because they take a lot more resources to produce and would have to be used anywhere from 26 to 327 times, depending on the material involved, to make up the difference. That’s unfortunate, given that most people use them a couple of times and then forget about them.

Case in point: A couple of weeks ago, I bought a shopping bag that was supposed to be unforgettable because it’s designed so you can turn it inside out, cram it back into its little built-in pocket, and stick it in your purse or use the attached carabiner to clip it to your keyring.

I bought it, used it, poked it back into its little pocket, stuck it in my purse, and walked out of the local health-food store today with a disposable plastic bag full of groceries because I forgot I had my “unforgettable” bag.

Even though I had to move said bag out of the way to get to my credit card.

While standing there thinking what a shame it was I didn’t have any bags with me because I’d made a spur-of-the-moment decision to stop at the health-food store on my way to the lumberyard.

File that one under Midvale School for the Gifted, I guess.

With all that in mind, I certainly wouldn’t have spent money on reusable nylon-mesh produce bags, but I got a set free when I bought the Mother Earth News archive a couple of weeks ago, so I figured I might as well use them.

Action shot of one of the bags.
Action shot of one of the bags.

They’re a nice product — well designed, with a little drawstring at the top — and I like the fact they’re made of a fine mesh that lets air circulate around whatever’s in them, meaning leafy greens are less likely to turn into slime overnight.

This is a lousy picture, but you can see the approximate size: Four of the five bags in my set are big enough to hold standard-sized bunches of cilantro, parsley and green onions.
This is a lousy picture, but you can see the approximate size: Four of the five bags in my set are big enough to hold standard-sized bunches of cilantro, parsley and green onions.

That said, even if you’re much better at remembering your bags than I am (which is likely), I’m not convinced they’re worth $4 for a set of five. Especially not when those awesome little Clementine oranges are in season right now, and they almost always come in plastic mesh bags you can save and use in place of disposables. I’d recommend doing that. I’d rather have $4 worth of oranges than $4 worth of bags I’ll probably forget and leave in the car, y’know?