What Should I Do?

Country Home - Amanda Witman

Making Do

Increasing resilience in a less-than-ideal home
Tuesday, October 16, 2012, 11:36 AM

We spent the last nine years living in a sprawling 1969 split-level ranch-style house that was clearly not designed with resilience in mind.  At the time the house was built, oil was cheap and abundant, and this fact is clear in the design of the house.  While I lived there, I learned quite a lot about what factors contribute to a house’s resilience – or not.  My husband and I were not in a position to sell the house and move to something more ideal, so I did what many people have done for centuries:  I found ways to make do.

Although my situation changed and we recently moved, I’d like to share what I did with this house to increase our resilience within its walls.  We were financially challenged to a varying extent for all of the years we lived there.  We did not have “extra” money for improvements.  Yet I found ways to increase our resilience and keep us on the right track.  Maybe this will give you some ideas.

Heating/Cooling

Our house was very large – 2400 square feet – and every foot of that had to be heated.  We guessed that the ranch-style split-level concept, perhaps even the design for this particular house, was developed in a much warmer area of the country than where our particular house was built (Vermont).  The water pipes for the downstairs bath and the laundry room were wrapped around the outside of the house, and those two rooms were the least well-heated.  Predictably, we had issues with pipes freezing, and when we opened the walls to assess and clean up the damage, it became apparent that this had been a recurring issue.  Unfortunately, the furnace-triggering thermostat was far away from that corner of the house, so in order to keep the pipes from freezing, we had to overheat other areas.  Frustratingly inefficient.

Out of financial necessity, we kept the thermostat down as low as we felt we could without freezing those pipes.  (For a couple of years, this translated to 55F during the day and 50F at night.  Bumping the thermostat up to 60F felt like a treat.)  We bought warm woolen long-johns and socks for ourselves and the kids, and I insisted that everyone layer up, drink hot tea, and learn to adapt.  The house had a fireplace, and we occasionally huddled around it to feel the warmth even though we knew that it was simultaneously sucking the warm indoor air right up the chimney.

We also stayed warm by all sharing a bedroom (parents and kids, at least when the kids were younger, to about age 7 or 8).  This evolved more from our parenting style than a need to stay warm, but it also certainly helped with the warmth.  When the kids were little, two would share a bed, and they slept foot-to-foot.  They wore woolen long johns and socks under polar fleece “footy pajamas,” and wool balaclavas or hats on the coldest nights.  We amassed wool blankets and down comforters.  We also insulated our bedroom window with a thick blanket in winter, covered windows with clear plastic film, and filled window cracks with reusable putty rope. 

We had an ice storm in 2008 where the power remained out for several days.  We huddled around the fireplace, oblivious to the fact that although the old woodstove downstairs was connected to the same flue as the oil furnace and otherwise unsafe to use, it could have been used in such an emergency when the furnace was not running.  Live and learn.  We kept somewhere between a half-cord and a cord of firewood stacked in the garage "just in case," and we went through quite a lot of it over those few days.  We were warm when we were right next to the fire.  (We drained all the pipes, and the rest of the house stayed at about 40F).  We made good use of our cast-iron cookware and developed some handy hearth-cooking skills while we kept warm.

And then the last year we lived in the house, I installed a wood stove, which we got for free from someone who was giving it away.  It was amazing how much warmer the house felt, and I spent less than expected on winter fuel that year, too.  I understand now why the word “heart” is in the word “hearth” – to me, it felt like the woodstove was the warm, pulsing heart of our home.

I have never been a fan of air-conditioning, and yet we have hot summer days when some cooling measures are necessary.  My husband installed ceiling fans in the bedrooms and the kitchen, and this helped tremendously with cooling the house on the hottest days and nights.  The lowest level of our tri-level house was by far the coolest and most comfortable, making that the logical room to work and relax in on hot days.  I also spent many hot days (including one pregnant summer) with a cool, wet cloth draped over my neck, or my feet soaking in the kiddie pool while the kids “swam,” or wrist-deep in luxuriously cool dishwater.  There was always the option of a cold shower.  When it was hot, we made do.

We were also very lucky to qualify for free weatherization under our state’s income-based program.  Many states still have such programs in place, and if you think you may qualify, do not delay in applying.  My state currently has a one-year waiting list even to receive an application.  When our house was weatherized, we received blown-in insulation, extension of our kitchen and bathroom vents to the outside, sealing and weather-stripping of walls and doorways, spray foam insulation in wall/ceiling junctures in the basement, and a supplemental solar heating system. 

Growing Our Food

When we first moved into our “country” home – one nearly private acre bordering 1500 acres of undeveloped land – I envisioned large, abundant garden crops.  I tilled an area on the edge of the yard and planted what I could.  I discovered that (free) fall leaves and (free) summer grass clippings make fantastic mulch.  I acquired a very long hose with a sprayer for watering, and I found it helpful to have tomato cages, and some chicken wire to keep most of the garden nibblers out.  But otherwise I didn’t do anything special except choose hardy, easy-to-grow seeds and turn my compost under with the soil once a year. 

By some miracle, the east- and south-facing windowsills on the lower level of the house were exceptionally wide – wide enough, in fact, to fit seedling trays.  I was able to easily start my seedlings in my windows for several years in a row, and greatly enjoyed this convenience.  This was one of the things I thought of fondly as evidence that my house was capable of a resilient future.

We also had the good fortune to have a south-facing concrete patio.  One year I obtained five large plastic storage drums and sawed them all in half to make planters.  I drilled some holes in the bottoms of each, set them on the patio against the brick foundation, filled them with a homemade concoction of compost, potting soil, mulch, and dirt, and took advantage of the heat-retaining benefits of the concrete to grow early tomatoes, eggplant, peppers, lettuce, kale, and herbs.

When we first moved in, I splurged on some raspberry canes, blueberry bushes, and elderberry shoots.  Those plants are now well-established and producing abundant berries.  I also discovered a tangle of wild black raspberries, which I was able to help thrive by simply clearing the area of competitive weeds once or twice a year.  The house came with four apple trees and one plum tree, which I am sad to say did not produce well most years, but I got some great pruning practice, and we did get some plum sauce and applesauce.

The house also had an in-ground swimming pool with a chain-link fence.  I planted my climbinb sugar-snap peas along three sides of the fence, which made a great trellis (and a great remedy for a chain-link eyesore).  I purchased a few irrigation hoses, the black kind that just ooze out the water, and positioned them to water my peas and blueberries simply by turning on the faucet at the house. 

Creative Food Storage

The house had a very large attached garage, and I successfully stored grains, beans, rice, flours, and other pantry staples in both five-gallon buckets and 18-gallon Rubbermaid tubs.  The cats did a great job of keeping rodents at bay, and although it was a risk, we never had trouble with vermin in our food stores.  I didn’t have the money for oxygen absorbers, Mylar bags, or other helpful preservation aids, so I made do without because that was the only option.  I purchased some extra-large ziplock bags and bought my grains and beans in conveniently sized 25-lb bags, which fit almost perfectly in a 5-gallon container with the bulk bag inside the ziplock.  I didn’t have locking covers for my buckets, so I stacked them three-high and heavy, and put rocks or bricks on the top covers.  During the winter, they froze in our cold garage, and in my experience, grains and beans can last a very long time if they are frozen for part of the year.  A freeze-thaw-freeze-thaw cycle also has the added benefit of killing grain pests before you even see them.

I was very excited about the prospect of root cellaring, and read all I could get my hands on about the topic.  Unfortunately, we had no bulkhead (a popular easy cool storage spot), and our entire basement was warm all winter from the furnace.  We also had no attic to speak of.  The entire house was heated with baseboard heat.  It was a challenge.  Early in the season, I stored apples and root vegetables in the garage, but I had to relocate them as soon as there was a hard freeze or they’d turn to ice.  I purchased a digital thermometer/hygrometer so I could stay in touch with the conditions in the areas where perishable food was stored, and it was so helpful that I bought a second one to test the conditions in other areas of the house.  I just had to keep a close eye on the weather report to be sure I moved the remaining food before the first hard freeze.

One of the bedrooms had an unheated walk-in closet on an outside wall, where the winter temperature in the back corner usually remained below 55F and sometimes got down into the low 40s.  We also had an outside door that was very drafty, and its corner of the house was also in the 40s and 50s midwinter.  I stored bushel baskets of root veggie and apples stacked in front of that door, and the temperature there also went down to the low 40s at times.  I successfully stored apples, onions, potatoes, and carrots in both places for a few winters.  I kept them in bushel baskets covered with burlap bags.  I layered the carrots with sawdust.  I had to periodically cull the baskets for spoilage, and there was some, but overall the result was pretty successful.  I usually found myself making stir-fry in the spring with the onion shoots and apple pie in early summer with the last of the apples.

We also had an extra fridge and freezer, which we kept in the garage against an interior wall.  I made use of various produce-saver bags (Debbie Meyer and Ziploc both make good ones) to help garden produce stay fresh and edible for as long as possible -- or at least long enough for me to find the time to freeze or can.  Storing food and eating primarily out of our pantry and garden was also a great budget stretcher.  Under the circumstances, I think we did pretty well at storing food in all seasons.

Water

Our water was drawn from a well, and the well pump was electrically powered.  So when the power went out, as it does sometimes, we had no water.  When I had the opportunity to buy juice in gallon-sized glass bottles (on sale or at the discount store), I did, and then I cleaned and sanitized the bottles and used them to store water for emergencies.  I also used plastic jugs and carboys as a second-best option, and we used the plastic-jug water for washing and the glass-jug water for drinking.  I kept the jugs in milk crates stacked in the laundry room where the contents would not freeze (as they would have in the garage) and the surfaces would not get covered with mold (as they would have in the basement).  We eventually got a Berkey filter to filter the stored water before drinking.

Our hot water heater was oil-fired, which was expensive and not on board with my plan to find a way to do without oil when/if it became necessary.  I came up with a couple of creative alternatives one summer that allowed us to shut the furnace off completely.  First, I bought a smallish (20-gallon) black trash container with a lid.  Then I ran a hose into it from the outside spigot, filled it, and kept it on our hot, south-facing concrete patio.  The sun warmed that water reasonably well for hand washing water or dishwater.  An insulated drink dispenser with a spigot makes a good storage tank and dispenser for pre-warmed hand washing water. 

I also found that a very long, dark garden hose with a garden ‘shower’ nozzle, furled in the sunny grass, contained enough water for one or two quick, hot, outdoor showers.  We reprised this “solar shower” setup for two more summers by fastening the nozzle up in a yew bush at shower-height over a corner of our concrete patio, for privacy and convenience.  This is not something we would have been able to do in a less rural setting, but it worked for us in that particular backyard.  If you try this, I highly recommend getting the hot-water-safe garden hoses, as the others will burst if the water inside them gets too hot.  One thing I came to enjoy about our hot outdoor showers was the brisk cold finish when the hot water ran out.

Just over the summer when we turned off the hot water heater, I calculated that we saved between $600-700 that year, as oil prices were up over $4/gallon.  We resumed using the hot water when prices went down, but it was empowering to know we could fairly easily do without, at least for part of the year.

Sanitation

With a power outage rendering the well pump useless, we were not able to flush the toilet.  I tried one year to flush using water carried from the swimming pool in five-gallon buckets, but this was tedious and exhausting.  Then I learned about sawdust humanure composting and set up an emergency toilet using an old toilet seat on top of a five-gallon bucket containing wood shavings for “sawdust.”  I bought a bale of wood shavings at the local feed store and kept it on hand for such emergencies, though I have since learned that sawdust is free for the taking at a few local businesses if you bring your own container. 

During the 2008 multi-day ice storm, this sawdust toilet setup was absolutely essential.  Many people in our area left their homes and made use of Red Cross shelters, but we were able to shelter in place.  I built a separate “emergency compost” bin in a far corner of our yard, and with six people in the family, we filled and emptied about a bucket a day.  I used stored water to clean the bucket; luckily, we had plenty of stored water on hand.  We used this system for a number of outages and eventually got a Luggable Loo snap-on cover for the toilet bucket.

Unfortunately, the septic system on our property began to show signs of aging, and as we could not afford to replace it, our best option was to significantly decrease the amount of waste water we were putting into it and make do for as long as we might need to.  Our house also had an outdated drywell for graywater use only, which was poorly designed and insufficient for our needs, but in this case it helped to temporarily ease the load on the septic.  The drywell was connected with the washing machine and the downstairs shower, and it could handle 1-2 loads of laundry and a couple of showers a day before it filled up and needed the rest of the day to drain. 

We stopped taking baths in favor of short showers.  We showered outdoors in the summer so the water would run into the grass instead of the septic system.  We limited toilet flushing to “absolutely necessary” flushing only, and because of our private rural location, we “availed ourselves” of the woods whenever reasonably possible.  We conserved water when cooking and washing dishes – not because water was limited, but because our septic capacity was.  We dumped “clean-enough” graywater on houseplants and in the yard.  And it worked.  I had a septic professional informally inspect our system after a number of months of beginning these measures, and he could see that the leach field had receded significantly due to our change in habits. 

Neighbors and Community

Very importantly, I made strong connections with my neighbors.  We did not see eye-to-eye politically, religiously, or in many other ways.  But in most cases we began with basic respect for each other and built on that foundation; we gathered once or twice a year to catch up with each other and share food, and I knew them all well enough to be able to ask for help or borrow tools or offer support of my own when needed.  In some cases it took awhile to get to a comfortable place in those relationships, but it was worth the patience and effort. 

Ours wasn’t a very cohesive neighborhood community on its own, but it had potential, and had I stayed, I would have made a greater effort to host regular gatherings at my house to get the neighbors talking with each other.  They were good people, like most people are.  And although as far as I know most of them were not specifically trying to increase their resilience, they were all struggling with the economy and baby-boomer retirement issues and other things that made neighborly support a winning prospect in any case. 

Do Only What You Can

I share my story especially to inspire those who are feeling pessimistic about their home’s potential for resilience in a post-Peak-Oil world.  The vast majority of Americans, for example, are deep in debt and do not have the financial ability to retrofit their homes with more energy-efficient systems.  Many existing homes, especially modern homes built in the latter half of the last century, simply do not have resilience written into their design.  But if your house is one of those, do not give up on the prospect of increasing your resilience where you are.  Most people are in the same boat, or were until we found some workable solutions, and this includes many of us here at Peak Prosperity. 

So do the best you can with what you have, and allow yourself to feel satisfied when you’ve done your best.  The point of preparedness is not to come up with unlimited funding for unlimited cutting-edge improvements.  It’s to make some changes that reinforce your ability to be self-sufficient, less dependent on oil, and better able to cope with an array of possible changes in the coming years.

Comment below, or in our discussion groups and forums, for suggestions on making the most of the home you are in right now.  There are no perfect solutions, so do not be afraid to try.  Something can always be improved to increase your resilience, empowerment, and self-sufficiency as we move toward a new future where “getting ahead” will be old news and “making do” will be what it’s all about.

I invite you to share your own stories about how you have “made do” to increase your resilience in your current imperfect situation.  Please post comments below, and let’s celebrate the ways in which we are collectively growing our resilience.

~ Amanda Witman

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3 Comments

n2uad's picture
n2uad
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Jan 26 2010
Posts: 1
Great Job

I grew up in a house like yours here in NJ. When these houses were designed and built there was no consideration for energy consumption. Unfortunately there is a huge percentage(like close to 100%) of extisting houses like this. And I don't see any hope for them, It's just too costly to retrofit to be energy efficient.

What you did was the best option. Don't put any money into such a house. Just do the best you can and then get out.

But there are still some new houses going up here in NJ. As I drive by from day to day I see how they are being made. Still the same energy and resource inefficient mentality. For me it's like an episode from the Twilight Zone - driving by and seeing the horror right in front of me.

Amanda Witman's picture
Amanda Witman
Status: Peak Prosperity Team (Offline)
Joined: Mar 17 2008
Posts: 409
Thanks, n2uad.  The sad thing

Thanks, n2uad.  The sad thing is, most people aren't going to be able to "get out" -- they are just going to have to make do where they are.  I consider myself very lucky that I was able to move to a different home on my own terms.  I wonder if there is a market about to open up, advising people who live in unsustainably-built homes how to least expensively retrofit them for the changing energy situation.  But that will still only be available to people who can afford it.

There are lots of things that can be done inexpensively.  They are not perfect solutions, and many are not even halfway solutions, but they help to improve the situation.  Some people say it's not worth it to shut unused lights off to save a few pennies.  But my thinking is, a lot of pennies add up, and when times are tight, $10 or $30 or $100 can make a difference.

It's disappointing to hear that such homes are still being built in your area.  I wonder when that model will shift, or if it will.

eastcats's picture
eastcats
Status: Member (Offline)
Joined: Aug 20 2011
Posts: 3
Inspiration

Thanks, Amanda, for the excellent article.  You are an inspiration to anyone who must make do with what they have.  

As Hurricane Sandy approaches, I am reminded that all of us need to think in terms of preparedness for unpredictable events.  Nature has a way of reminding us that we are not above natural systems.

We live in a 60 year old single story house of 970 square feet in Northern New York (similar to your climate).  In spite of its small size, we've had to do a number of things to make it more energy efficient.  Three years ago we took advantage of tax credits to upgrade to new energy efficient windows and to fill our small attic with insulation.  It doesn't keep it much cooler on hot days, but it does make a difference in the warmth in winter.  Our heating system is at least 60 years old and will probably need replacing in a year or two.  Again, I'm looking for rebates from our local utility before upgrading.  We did add a ceiling fan in the bedroom which really helps us to sleep on hot nights as we have no air conditioning.

As we have little storage capacity in the house we built a large garage many years ago.  Like you I move our stored crops (potatoes, garlic and squashes) from the garage into the basement when the weather gets too cold.  Our basement is warm but we have a small space between an inside door and the steps leading to an outside door that is big enough to store a few root crops and apples.  These will generally last until February.

We also have a freezer and have taken advantage of locally raised pigs and beef to put meat in it, as well as soups and stews that I store for days when we are either exhausted by gardening or for a possible power outage when we can simply warm things up on a Coleman stove.  We grow an extensive garden in our back yard, which as we get older has changed to more and more raised beds.  Once the beds are set up it is simply a matter of adding compost each year to enrich the soil.  We get horse manure from a friend in the country and build a large compost bed each fall with chopped leaves (gathered from our trees and bags set out along the street up and down our block).  All of our vegetable scraps go into our composter all summer which we dump into the pile in the late Fall.  Our lot is longer than wide so even though we are in town, we can make a compost pile in the far back and this bothers no one.  We feed it scraps all winter.  In recent years we've planted a peach tree, a northern variety, and two pear trees.  We have established a raspberry bed along the garage and raise strawberries.  I freeze and can excess produce throughout the season.

Even though we are the only folks on our block that raise a garden, we do it in the back of the lot and our neighbors have been quite tolerant.  I haven't yet approached raising chickens!  Our neighbors are friendly, but with few exceptions we are not interdependent.  It is primarily a neighborhood of professionals, who are busy working or are at their cottages in the summer.

When we redid the windows we created a small front porch, maybe five by eight feet.  This faces south and gives me the perfect space to set up a small greenhouse (available very inexpensively from our local pharmacy) to start seeds in the spring.

We, too, store water in the basement, in large two gallon plastic juice containers.  There is a local spring available to get water cheaply and we have filtered water (Pur and Britta) that we use daily because I don't like the taste of our tap water.

As I've been reading Chris's blog it has occurred to me that skill enhancement is high up on my list of things I can do to help myself.  I invested in a good sewing machine and am relearning to sew.  Also, in the past I've learned to spin wool and could, if needed, spin enough to make sweaters and socks. I've been practicing my knitting skills and have given several items as gifts.  My husband has slowly added to his tool supply, often buying good used tools at house sales.  He also hunts and from time to time we've had venison and turkey in the freezer.

Right now I think my main concern is energy sufficiency.  I'd love to add solar panels to our south facing garage roof, but it is out of the question economically.  We have no back up heating system, except a small generator, which we need to upgrade.  Right now we have no place for a wood stove, but have a kerosene heater.  I like your suggestion for a back up toilet and am looking around for sawdust.  We have been though a major snowstorm, a microburst and an ice storm since I've lived here.  Live without adequate heat is very difficult.  We've toughed it down to 40 degrees in the house, but when the power is out for several days, or even weeks, that's impossible to maintain.  Our only blessing is a gas fired hot water system, which reminds me that diversity of energy sources is essential.

Thanks again for your post.

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