Off the Grid – small steps

As I sit inside, warm against the weather, I can hear the winter rain falling lightly outside. At the farm, the fields are green, but it has not been that wet. I can monitor how wet it has been by the level of the Kragga-Kamma lake I drive past on the way to the farm.

Pebblespring Farm has no municipal water. It has no electrical connection. It has no sewer connection. This is of course not a major problem yet, because no one is living there full time. But we will.

In the meantime, the cattle need water and the trees we have potted need water and for this we have installed two water tanks. First a 1 kl tank and then a 5 kl tank. From these tanks I run draglines (very strong, flexible 25 mm diameter black plastic pipe) to the cattle feeding troughs that I have made by cutting in half a 200l barrel.

We installed this 1 kl tank first last year sometime. (I remember posting a video)

5 kl tank. Best price from PennyPinchers

This has been relatively easy to achieve. For now at least all the pasture that I have accessed is at a lower level than the water tank, so I can gravity feed the water. No pumping required. The pasture that is furthest away (and where the cattle are grazing this week) cant be reached by the 100m dragline. For now, until I get around to buying more dragline, I bring water to this pasture in the wheelbarrow carrying a 25l container. I suppose it depends which way you look at it. Some of us will think its a real pain in the ass to trudge up and down in the biting winter wind pushing a reluctant wheelbarrow across lumpy pasture. But those same number among us, find it quite normal, acceptable and pleasurable to drive clear across town to pay for the privileged of battling against sweaty gym equipment designed to give just the correct amount of resistance and strain to mimic pushing a heavy wheel barrow across lumpy pasture. Like with most things its the story I tell myself about what’s going on that is more powerful to me than the actual circumstance. Its the meaning I give to what I do that makes it pleasurable or painful. Even pain is not that  bad, when I am able to develop a story that makes the pain appropriate.US Marines have a saying “Pain is the sensation caused by weakness leaving the body”. Absolute bullshit of course, no hard science at work here, but I marvel at the hundreds of thousands of Marines that would have found push-ups that much more bearable because of that “story”. The story I give myself about the wheelbarrow is that I am giving myself a perfect cardiovascular workout with just the right proportion of weight training.

Wheelbarrow Pilates

Anyway, I really did not want to let you to sidetrack me with the wheelbarrow. I wanted to talk about rainwater and “Off The Grid” stuff. Because, I really can see how we have become caught in the idea that supplying our homes with running water is an incredibly complicated thing that we can only achieve at the mercy of a massive bloated Municipality, with teams of clever engineers and armies of unionised workers. If running water intimidates some of us, then electricity send the rest of us running for the hills. Surely the only possible way to get light into our living room, heat the bathwater, roast the chicken and play “Days of Our Lives” on the TV, is to build massive multi billion dollar coal powered fire stations thousands of kilometres away in Limpopo province?

You see, I have got a sneaky suspicion that is just not that complicated to go “off the grid”. Of course those that make a living out of selling electricity and piped water continue to work very hard to convince us that “Off the Grid”, is the domain of hippies, homeless and hillbillies. Perhaps all the propaganda is completely spot on. Perhaps there is no other way than for us to trek to the office day after day, to earn the salary to pay the taxes to fund the massive infrastructure that will be able to sell to us, at inflated rates, the water and electricity we need to carry on our civilised existence. Yes, they may be right, but there is a small possibility, a minute chance, that the experiment that I am slowly getting going with, can show that I can set up reasonably easily off the grid water and power system that can keep me and my family comfortable enough for us to continue in the experiment.
My promise is to take you along with me. Let you in to all the steps, all the mistakes. Maybe we will learn together that we are not quite ready for this, or maybe we will learn that many others can easily copy me. This experiment is not trying to establish whether the technology exists to go off the grid. The technology has been available since the sixties. This we know. My experiment is a personal one and a family one. It has to do with my budget, my family’s consumption patterns, our climate’s demands on heating and cooling. The experiment is also very specific to the site. I have the advantage of not having any existing services connection to the site. So I am able to compare the cost of bringing these connections to the site to the cost of rainwater systems and Photo Voltaic in and wind turbines. Even the fact that we will be starting a house from scratch means that we can make choices that reduce our electrical load. We can orient a new house to harvest daylight. We can manipulate geometry to shade the house in the summer months but to gain the warmth of the winter sun. We can manipulate building materials to keep the warmth in in winter and out in summer. We are able to make choices like cooking and heating with the wood that is plentiful on the farm or heating bathwater with a solar geyser. All of the these choices may not be immediately available to many of you reading this because you are living in a house built when people did not really think about this kind of stuff, where the idea of ripping out an expensive (inefficient) piece of equipment, to be replaced with another (less inefficient) expensive piece of equipment is a lot more difficult than mine would be where I am starting from scratch. But you are welcome to come along with me an follow our progress.
In the meantime, tonight, the rain is filling my water tanks free of charge and free of fluoride : )

Who Built a Crooked House?

(I wrote this piece 7 Years ago today for the Urban Circle Blog – but I can see now  how its relevant this site as well)



Architects are living through fantastic times in this city and South Africa generally. Not only is there an abundance of work, but a heightened awareness of the value that Architects are able to add to the built environment. There is such a lot of “cool” stuff to do, that I am worried that we try to do too much and loose out on the enjoyment of doing one thing well. I believe though that it is better to take action than to worry! 

…So I have taken action. 

I love beautiful buildings. Big buildings, small buildings. I love being inside them. The light, the sound, the way people use them. The way they sit in the city or landscape. I love the way these buildings are put together. 

There is magic in that; and I am starting to reconnect with this magic.. What surprises me is that I have felt that reconnection not in the billion rand, high visibility, world beating projects running through our office, but rather in something a little more modest….

You see,.. my semi- retired father and I are building a wooden cottage in the Outeniqua indigenous forest. It is a very modest cottage built for family needs; rectangular in plan, with a double pitch corrugated iron roof. When I say we are building the house I don’t mean it as a metaphor for designing and drawing plans for, or a metaphor for sitting around watching the contractor’s progress. No; I mean we are physically, digging, measuring, cutting and fitting (and sometimes knocking down) 


It has been great on two significant levels. Let me list them:

Firstly: 

When physically building you are compelled to focus on one task. You are compelled to be present. Not to think about the next meeting or the previous phone call. How often do we get a chance to be focussed on the present? Especially those of us in management positions can lead a very fragmented and frantic existence. Many of us have powerful and creative minds but have created a reality for ourselves where we spread our input (and out impact) so thin as not to add the value that we could.

Secondly:

Building in the forest has helped me see the potential of my own hands and energy. I can actually build a house. WOW!
The real truth is that Murray and Roberts could probably build it a little neater. (OK,… a lot neater.) But it is not a competition. We are building the house because that is what we need to do to meet our needs and aspirations right now. We are not building the house to try to compete with Murray and Roberts! But what I am talking about here is something more widespread! A phenomenon that spreads across our lives and effectively limits what we believe we are able to do. We are intimidated by the corporate and media dominated world through which we move every day. We slowly begin to believe that we are not good enough to take action.

We cannot sing as well as Mariah Carey, so we will never dare to sing at a family dinner or in the pub.

We cannot tell stories as well as Stephen King, so why even bother trying.

Mom cannot make clothes as neatly as Edgars, so we’ll rather stay at home than be seen dressed in her homemade tracksuits.

We cannot build as well as Murray and Roberts, so lets not let people laugh at our crooked house!

The net result is that we become intimidated into inaction allowing big corporate and media giants to do for us what we used to do for ourselves, and it only takes a little time before we have lost our skills and our dignity forever.

I have in the forest found the joy and freedom of taking back that which I thought I had been robbed of. Cutting planks, laying boards, nailing trusses.

There is magic in that!





“Fullness of Health”, for me, my family and for the Land.

I am quite sure I have more people popping in to the farm over the weekend “just driving past” that I have at my house in Walmer. I think its fantastic. I think its curious. Its definitely something about the rural setting that reminds us about being civilised, about being friendly, about being helpful, about being neighbourly. This interests me.

I spent this morning with the chainsaw again. This time working along the stream, from the dam wall toward the Oak tree. Most of what I was cutting though was Ink Berry. I cuts very easily. The Idea is to cut a path so that I can run the temporary electric fence through as I have done elsewhere. Slowly, slowly, I am beginning to make the land accessible. Beginning to make it manageable, beginning to put myself into a position where I am able to help the land achieve the “fullness of it health”.

I have set myself the objective of achieving the “fullest possible health” for this land. What does that even mean? Perhaps my objective for the land is the same as my objective for me and for my family. The fullest possible personal health. The fullest possible family health. “Health” is the correct term to use when setting an “Holistic Goal” for the land (as Alan Savory would suggest we do). “Health” instead of efficiency, or productivity, instead of profitability. “Health” because the land is a living system. It’s an organism, really, and if it healthy it is much more likely to be to us, efficient, profitable and productive.

I did some work on the dam yesterday. Introducing a “collar”
I have posted a video here:

The basic idea is to draw the water into the overflow from a little bit below the surface so as not to drain the dam of its most oxegenated, warmed water. (or its duckweed) This simple device will make the dam healthier!

Time to knuckle down to work and have a braai

(This column first appeared in the Weekend Post n 24 May 2014

I was planning to write this column on Workers Day, but I was too busy working. Make no mistake, I took the public holiday. Like everybody else, I was out of the office, but I was physically working with my gumboots and my chainsaw, clearing alien vegetation that has come to clog up the dam and the stream. Call me crazy, but I love to do physical work. I love the feeling of using my muscles, my arms and my legs. I love the rhythm of thinking and doing. I love the feeling of physical exhaustion in the evening.  I love the supper time retelling of the achievements of the day and I Iove the deep satisfied sleep that follows it. It seems strange to me therefore, that I have put so much time and effort in my life to ensure that I don’t have to do any physical work at all. My twelve years of schooling in maths, literature, history and science required no “doing”, no lifting or pushing. It did though; prepare me for another five years of study at University which would eventually deliver to me the degrees I required to become an Architect and be guaranteed of never having to push a wheel barrow, thrust a spade into the ground or cut firewood.
On leaving University, life as a young professional was clear, nobody ever handed out a rulebook, but the understanding was that we must put in time at the office to earn our money, but if we put in too much time we will break down, so we must take some of that money to buy “leisure”. That leisure must not involve doing anything productive or meaningful.  We may choose from a vast array on mindless sporting or cultural pursuits. We may participate or spectate. If the mindlessness of the leisure becomes unbearable, we may numb ourselves with alcohol, sugar or nicotine. This is just how it is.
I can see how in the headlong rush to get to the ‘top of my game” I have moved further and further in my career, away from actually doing any work. Like lifting a pencil, to sketch a chimney detail or calculating the fall and cover of a drainage installation. All of that is “outsourced”, because that is the law of competition and the law of competition says that, if I am an expert at running an architectural practice, I can’t be “wasting” my time actually being an Architect. I must spend my time delegating , checking what others have done, motivating, admonishing, fighting with debtors, apologising to creditors because that’s what we do when we get to the top of our game.
Does any of this ring true for you in your life? Perhaps, what each of us needs to do is sit back and look at the route we have walked to get where we are in our careers. Each of us needs to get down and do the dirty work of thinking through how we have been conditioned to look down on anyone doing physical work. Even in our homes, when we can’t resist the instinct to get our hands in the soil that we are married to, we make every attempt to dress up our gardening activities as “leisure”. We call gardening a “hobby”; we don’t call it “work”. When we can absolutely not resist the instinct to grow fruit and vegetables, a productive pursuit, we hide these away in the back yard.
So, what I am doing in my life about my dysfunctional relationship with work? I suppose, I am slowly beginning to participate, wherever I can, in actually doing stuff. I am also looking for family traditions and practices that involve real work, even if it just taking the time to cook the mother’s day meal.  Some families in our region are fortunate to belong to a tradition where work is still honoured. If you drive through the streets of New Brighton or NU 7, on any given Saturday you will find clan groups participating in “Imisibenzi” (literally translated as “works”). These traditional functions mark a range of special occasions, but what is interesting, is that everybody attending the function, works. From the slaughtering of the beast, to the processing of the meat to the brewing of the beer and the peeling of the carrots. Hosts and guests work together. Honouring tradition and honouring the idea of work and how it is in fact not separate from leisure. To a lesser degree, but not entirely dissimilar, on any given Sunday in the suburban backyards of Summerstrand and Sherwood we find  family groups around the braai, spicing the meat, turning it on the flames. The hosts and the guests working together, some in the kitchen with the potato salad and toasted sandwiches and others outside with the chops and the wors. These are important traditions to hold onto, where the tendency is toward the American situation where 43% of all meals are no longer prepared at home and where work is generally regarded as something you sell in exchange for cash.
So more and more I come to see that any activity that helps me understand that work is not separate from leisure and that work is more than just a commodity for sale, is where I want to be spending my time.
In fact, I think I am going to braai tonight. It’s the least I can do!

Look after what we have got.

(I wrote this Column for the 9 April 2014 edition of Port Elizabeth’s daily newspaper, “THE HERALD”)
It was a windy, wet Wednesday. The sound of the angry sea crashing over the rocks was not even audible over the noise of the lone excavator as it crushed and smashed the last remains of what was the Seaview Hotel. Like a deranged beast, like an angry elephant, swinging left and right with its devastating mechanical trunk. The once gracious and manicured Minhetti was no more.
My son sat in the car, dry from the rain, as I stood by the gate, by the sign “Dangerous – Demolition in Progress”. I was not sad nor sentimental, not angry nor frustrated. I did not really even like the Seaview Hotel all that much the once or twice that I had been there. But I was filled with and uneasiness that stirred somewhere deep inside my innards. Over the course of my short life I have not yet been able to figure out what these deep feelings of uneasiness mean, or even whether they are of any significance. I have learned though, that it is normally I sign that I should step back and ponder. So here I sit, this morning, pondering over a fine Cappuccino in an average mall café.
I ponder over how we commit large amounts of energy into showing how frustrated “we” are that “they” demolished “our” hotel, or made potholes in “our” roads. Or how “they” built Greenacres, killing “our” beloved, historical Main Street. We know that it is too late, but still we commit the energy to raise our voice. Like the English complaining about the weather. Is this not a form of insanity? (Knowing nothing can come of our whinging, yet whinging anyhow!) But then I ask myself: ”If it is too late to save the Seaview Hotel, then what is it not too late for?”
I am sure each and every one of us has a best building or favourite neighbourhood, about which we are sentimental. But not each of us has a newspaper column in which to talk about it!
I do.
So, without any shame, I tell you: “Now is the time to take action to save Central, Port Elizabeth.” Framed by Govan Mbeki Avenue, the Baakens Valley, Rink Street and Russell Road, Central is home to the most extraordinary collection of rich and poor, young and old, sinner and saint. All framed in beautiful avenues, delightful squares, quaint lanes and irreplaceable buildings. How long will those of us that find meaning in Central wait before we find the energy to stand up, make a noise and take action? Will we wait for the last heritage cottage to be burned by damp and freezing vagrants? Will we wait for the last antique shop to flee to Walmer? Will we wait for the last coffee shop to tire of hastily hosing vagrant urine of its veranda every morning before the first customers arrive? Will we wait for the last office dweller to driven to Newton Park by the grime, dirt and continuous harassment by street people, drug dealers and petty thieves? When the last housewife, loses her last child in the hip high grass in any number of once perfect parks and playgrounds? Will it be after the bulldozers come, to clear the land, to flatten the monuments? Will it be then that we say “But how could “they” do this to “us”? How can “they” rob “us” of this enduring example of how city living can be tolerable, bearable and even enriching. How can “they” rob “us” of this model of authentic living that was our only contribution to the country’s emerging thinking on the future of the city?
I am sorry my friends, but I must offer to you that we are all delusional. Sadly we have come under the spell of a compelling lie, a myth that there exists such a thing as an “us” and a “them”. We can understand why the politically powerful may find it useful to perpetuate this myth, but it serves no purpose when we are needing to get things done. Right now, the thing that I am motivating, needs to get done, is that we save Central. If you are with me, then let us agree on one action we can take right now, as you put down this newspaper. Go find out more about the excellent initiative underway right now to establish a Special Rating Area (SRA) for Central (basically you pay a bit more rates to get better cleansing, security maintenance etc.)  It’s a “no brainer. SRA’s have been set up all over South Africa and the world.  Jo’burg’s got them. Richmond Hill has just set up an SRA, proving it can be done in our region.
If you do not live, work or invest in Central, all is not lost. Make a point of having a coffee in Parliament Street once a week. Make a point of buying an antique in Lawrence Street once a month, make a point of taking your kids to the Donkin Reserve once a term, make a point on attending a church service once a year in any one of the most beautiful Gothic revival churches. The point I make is, that our energy can be much better spent by expending it before the demolition than after the demolition.
Now that you are clear about what needs to be done: get out and do it! (Please)