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A Winter Storm (written 2/29/12)

It is Leap Year Day, February 29th of 2012, and heavy snow has been falling here at the Shire (Scott's and Shannon's new home and land.) 

I'm here alone.  Everyone else made it in to work, probably leaving before the snow started, although I don't know that for sure.  Since I woke and saw the heavy snowfall, I've been going out every 30 to 60 minutes to knock and scrape snow off of the rabbit canopy and the smithy tent.  I've been successful in keeping the snow loads down so far, and don't expect any problems there. 

In between my outdoor snow chores, I've come inside the shop and built and tended a fire in the woodstove and turned on the crockpot, adding to the stew therein.  The power has gone off and immediately come on again twice so far, necessitating re-setting the dehumidifier, among other things, but so far that's pretty good.  Tea keeps warm and bread toasts pretty well atop the hot woodstove. 

I cannot get online; our wireless modem was iffy in this area at best, and has now quit working altogether.  Driving is not a good idea -- there's 4" of snow in the driveway, and I'm needed here anyway.  Our cell phones mostly don't work inside the shop, so since I must go outside into the storm to use my phone, there will be few calls made today.  I did call our friends Ross and Diane to ask if they would be willing to put Lee up overnight (they live much closer to where he is working), and I called Lee to let him know he has that option.  And I called Scott and Shannon to report the status of things here. 

But with limited calls, no internet or email, and no driving, I cannot do many of the important tasks I've been working on. That's ok.  I have a very long list of important tasks to do, well more than I've been able to get to.  As long as the power holds out here, I can work on two important tasks that I've had to postpone too long:  photographing more of my jewelry for listing on Etsy, and writing another Seeking Haven blog entry.  I won't be able to post either photos or blog until later, when I have internet access, but that's ok. 

A good part of me likes having the performance of the "have-to's" of our lives interrupted by the forces of nature.  It's a good reminder.  A more reasonable and realistic perspective is gained when the oh-so-important-business-and- absolutely-gotta-gotta-Gotta-DO!-tasks in our lives just... can't be done.  There are, after all, a lot bigger, more important, more powerful and lasting aspects to life than the things on our lists -- even when the things on our lists are important.

Lee and I are living at the Shire, sharing Scott's and Shannon's land, shop, and home until we have a dwelling of our own at Haven.  I am looking for a second job with which to pay for the grading and engineering that has been done, and the work that remains to do.  I will also continue to seek financing to pay for these things, but hold out little hope for financing through any of the usual channels. 

Since we sold Berkana House, we no longer own a home to secure a home equity loan (the usual way such work is paid for, I'm told.) 

Almost no financing agency offers loans for bare land anymore.  (A corollary of this is that bare land is almost impossible to sell now, even if we wanted to give up and sell Haven, which we don't.) 

I'm told that no bank, mortgage company, credit union, or similar source will finance any "alternative" building such as a cob or strawbale house.  They demand that there be a general contractor who meets their approval, and plans for a mainstream (think stick-built or brick) building which also meets their approval before they will consider funding a construction loan.  Such a building would, of course, be far more costly and far less sustainable and environmentally sound than the properly designed and built cob home we have in mind.

Further, even if we were to give up and try for a construction loan to build a mainstream stick-built home, we own too much acreage to meet the required ratio of dwelling size to lot size that loan companies are willing to fund.

In short, the system of financing homes in this country is set up to force building of big, costly, unsustainable homes, and since we don't want that, we're probably out of luck when it comes to getting a loan to finance Haven -- unless we can get creative, and go outside the mainstream financing system.  (More on setting up one's own "shoebox bank" later, as I learn more about this creative people-empowering option.)

Further, the mainstream system of financial agencies is now a system that forces all but those rich in money out of the option of building one's own home  ...unless one can find a way to build a far, far less expensive home on a pay-as-you-go basis. 

Ways to reduce expense:

1. Use your own labor as much as possible -- skilled labor costs are a huge proportion of the cost of construction.  The more construction skills the owners have themselves, and the fewer the project requires, the less expensive it will be.

2. Minimize use of paid contractors. See above.  Use paid contractors only for those things you cannot reasonably do yourself, either for lack of skill, lack of needed equipment, or considerations such as safety. 

3. Minimize use of costly professional consultants such as engineers -- but consult them when they are truly needed.  It is a false economy to build a roof that collapses under the snow load of the first winter.  On the other hand, avoid over-engineering if possible!  For millennia, human beings have been building sound, sustainable homes that have lasted for generations without the aid of engineers -- and with their own hands.  Only in very recent times have we come to assume that home-building is "for the experts", not for us. 

4. Go for smaller, simpler buildings.  Generally, bigger, more complex buildings cost more.

5.  Use sound but inexpensive materials.  Local materials will, in general, be less costly since shipping costs are reduced or eliminated.  Cob and strawbales, roundwood from one's own woodland, are all examples of sound, inexpensive, locally sourced materials. 


Unfortunately, the above-listed strategies for reducing the expense of building a home are often made more difficult or sabotaged outright by the land use and building departments, codes, and regulations in the area where one wishes to build.  Simply having to apply for and (hopefully) obtain a permit to build adds an enormous layer of complexity, delay, and cost to the project.  The codes, regulations, and judgements of the land use and building officials seldom actually serve such laudable goals as environmental protection, health and safety, because they are based largely beliefs, assumptions, processes and technologies that are familiar rather than actually beneficial. 

As an example, onsite septic systems are assumed to be the best mode of sanitation in areas where sewer systems are not available, simply because they are familiar.  In fact, they (and sewer systems) are two of the biggest sources of water pollution in our nation.  Far better systems (graywater reuse and collecting and composting our human excretions) are treated as far more suspect, and too often regulated out of possibility.   

As another example, building department officials most often don't even know what cob is. Buildings have been successfully made of cob for millennia, perhaps more often than any other material, and have not only lasted but still been in use centuries later, in areas that are very wet, very dry, seismically active, seismically inactive, urban, rural, subject to high winds, still, etc.  They endure far better than mainstream stick-built homes, cost much less to make, heat, and cool, and are better for our health and the health of the Earth. They feel better.  Despite these facts and their extensive history, building officials will treat a building proposed to be made of cob as far more "experimental" and suspect, and will be far less likely to permit it than a standard stickbuilt building made of poorer quality materials, that is far less environmentally sound and energy efficient, and is expected to last only a few decades.  If they do permit a cob home, they are likely to require that it be both over-engineered  and outright poorly constructed in ways that result from blindly applying technologies and standards that apply to stick-builts, and can actually reduce the benefits of cob in terms of durability, energy efficiency, and safety.

Am I ranting?  Maybe...

Certainly I have been dismayed and appalled as I have learned more about what actually happens when one tries to build an environmentally sound, sustainable homestead that promotes self-sufficiency and strong community in this country.

Based on our experience so far, both in remodeling Berkana House for sale, and working on Haven, I cannot say that the permitting  and inspections process accrues to the benefit of the people of this country, either in terms of safety, or health, or energy efficiency, or environmental protection.  Rather, the opposite.  We have certainly seen that certain inspectors as individuals care about safety.  Others are little Hitlers, and still others incompetent, arbitrary, and/or misinformed. 

It's enough to make one discouraged, and inclined to avoid the system as much as possible.

Given Haven's original lack of a driveway, and the special process of Marginal Lands designation that allowed it to be approved by the county for a single family dwelling, we have been forced into involvement in the permitting process.  And that process has forced us into far more unnecessary expenses than we would otherwise have had. 

Done is done, but I don't want to be bent over and raped like that again.  Nor do I believe that a home should be so horrendously costly in terms of money, emotional stress, adverse community impact and environmental harm as has become the case in this country.

Its about time to do some reclaiming...


The snow has started to thaw outside.  We'll have soggy messy slush for a while.  Then it will be spring.

'xcuse me.  Gotta go dump slush out of the bunnies.

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