A DJ Show… Powered By Dance?

It’s a quieter task reserved for the months when the sun hangs low in the sky; I’m beginning to sense that Vertecology will have yearly seasons just like any earthbound venture. That seasonality will leave the coldest month of the year, when Oregonians spend evenings about their wood stoves and even Angelinos, Portlandians and San Franciscans slow from sprints to heady gallops, to put together one or more audacious permaculture-times-Bucky proposals for next year’s festivals, to explore and finalize concepts that evolve over the course of months and years.

That said, I recently and unexpectedly got to spend the weekend at Eugene’s Kaleidoscope Music Festival with VIP bracelet, big name headliners and old bromance partner in mad-scientist crime Dustin Feider of O2 Treehouse. With a new fire in the belly I remembered that it’s never too early to do some sketches to sleep on during the hustle of waning summer.

Some of you might remember the solar updraft concept I blogged about a couple of years back (the image below might remind..,). The concept is simple – build a conical structure with a high chimney on dark earth, cover it in greenhouse fabric and use the rising heat generated inside to run a turbine with no other moving parts in the whole assembly. Those of you who’ve watched Zeitgiest might also remember Jaque Fresco’s discussion of of conical structures as a prime way of resisting high winds – a high priority in his hurricane-prone burb of Venus, Florida.

Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits
Solar Updraft tower diagram, inspired by the Botswana Solar Updraft Test Facility, a fuel-less passive energy genesis system with more potential ecological benefits

Like geodesic domes, conical structures have uniquely amazing properties and represent another, less known class of that great library of Buckminster Fullerine applications. I suspect they’re able to do a lot of things that geodesic domes and spheres can – and can’t – especially with regard to circulating air and heat on both the insides and outsides of their surfaces. Not to mention that like geodesic domes in their time, they can offer a whole new aesthetic language. Wind-resistant, modular renditions of Angkor Wat that can go up in two days at a festival and turn turbines in their rafters with no moving parts, powered through the night by the body heat of sweaty ecstatic dancers and all the while pumping airborne seeds of native aromatics and edibles into the night sky? Yup. That’s the idea.

Angkor Wat

There’s a fair amount of math between here and there, a lot of that probably best saved for the coldest month of the year, as well as a fair amount of prototyping and hiding thermometers around the room next time I go to my beloved ecstatic dance night here in Eugene – all just to see if the idea is feasible . For now though, it was great to get back from the festival, and in the face of exhaustion, get the wheels turning by inventing a simple method in SketchUP to explore various strut skeletons for public/festival scale conical structures.

When the geometry works, it’s like the first in a trail of breadcrumbs into the future, the first in a series of incredible hints at what’s possible. Starting with a Fibonacci spiral, then rotating it 60 degrees again and again to get the look of a spiral galaxy, then flipping the “galaxy” the other way to get a dream weaver-like pattern, I projected that shape onto a cone whose height curvature is shaped by the Fibonacci sequence too (here’s a whole treatment on the Fibonacci sequence for you fellow nerds out there, or 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34 and so on for the rest of you), and voila, I got a 3-D pattern that would be self-supporting if built.

Using the Fibonacci sequence to generate a self-supporting conical shape

Next I connected all the vertices with straight lines which with the real build would become struts, maybe simple conduit, maybe elegantly carved wood or anything in between, all connected with universal hub like the one I used for the Illumi-Geo. A cover can be sewn out of whatever fabric is desired.  Next it’s about figuring the inflows and outflows of air using the principle of inflow volume = outflow volume, and wow, we may just have a powerful Venturi engine. Drop the turbine in place, hook up the flywheel, do the numbers and if we’re lucky, hire the DJ’s and fire up the sweaty-ass BOOM.

 

Conical Concept Build Out

 

For those of you who want to play along with this design, you can download the SketchUp file here. You’ll need SketchUp 3D of course, a great, free 3D design and modeling program… while I’ve worked in far more complex professional wares these years, I’ve got to give props to SketchUp for open-sourcing the whole 3D design process for pretty much all practical DIY applications.

And for further enjoyment while you wait for more on the topic, here’s an image of the fanciful concept I call the “Tensegrity Deck,” loosely inspired by Angkor Wat, and created in SketchUp using the above mentioned “Fibonacci” file. Believe it or not, I believe this is entirely buildable with some serious anchoring of the three supporting pylons and the correct balancing of cable-workloads and materials. The cables are triangulated, allowing the conical form to rest in the balance with no supporting walls. 

Floating Deck Small

Waterfalls in Chinatown?

With the whole world talking green, that the word ecology breaks down into the Greek roots eco and ology, or “home science” may not be news to you. But humor me as I take the moment of launching my Rainwater Harvesting Construction Guide to consider the outer potential of rainwater harvesting as part of an all-inclusive home-science strategy. Even if the scenarios explored here never happen I’ll ask you to let them stir your imagination, move you anyway. With that alone as MLK and JFK can attest, we’re already halfway free and halfway to the moon. The journey of a thousand miles begins right where we’re standing and its imagination that collects the compass, chooses the road, guides the first step and calls the muses in.

The cost of household water:

  • At least in LA, has doubled in the last 12 years with no end in sight and has skyrocketed since 2002 when claims on the Colorado River began to exceed the river’s entire flow.
  • Will likely increase as rainfall becomes more erratic with climate change and cities and their vendors trying to cover the risk.
  • And is currently kept artificially low by government subsidies that may not last as the US dollar and political system face the road ahead. Consider that residents in Guatemala City would pay $1,700 for the water people in Washington DC pay $350 for.

Water Trends: The Price of City-Supplied Water 1994-2014

So a multi-barrel system built on the ultra-cheap might buy you a few extra nights out over the long haul with more nights every year, but I’m guessing it’s not the nickels that have got you reading this far, and dimes don’t really inspire journeys to the moon.

The real question I suspect many of us would really love to answer is “What difference can DIY rainwater harvesting make,” and the answer involves a different set of numbers and the big D-word – it “depends.” That said, even dropping a $20 craigslist-score barrel under a downspout and using it to water an existing steroid-pumped lawn would mean importing a few hundred less gallons of water every year and cutting municipal infrastructure a tiny bit of slack.

But I for one love to play big too. So, hearkening back to my days working on the Los Angeles Integrated Regional Water Management Plan, I dared myself to take it all the way. I asked myself, “Could the city that inspired Chinatown meet its needs just from what falls on it from the sky?” Even if the answer comes back as a definitive no, we might learn big.

Dome over Los Angeles

That’s what we call a thought experiment, and as with any experiment, there are rules to the game:

  • For the moment we’d set aside considerations like social inertia, political drama, red-tape, building and social conventions, hours spent in traffic and busy, busy lives. To simplify the game, we’d just look at the goal as a design problem. Show hope of solving the design problem and it becomes worth looking at the much stickier, all-too-human rest of it.
  • The teeming semi-desert Megacity of Angels would have to solve the problem through distributed DIY possibilities within the existing built environment. No gutting neighborhoods or $20-billion canals.
  • We’d only look at households. Yes, agriculture uses most of the water and commercial properties use water too, but if we’re resourceful enough to become aquatically solvent in the household, we’d be one step closer to resourcefulness and solvency at work and on the farm.
  • The City of Angels would have to become water solvent without sacrificing its material standard of living. No living like Third World refugees and no spin-the-bottle to see who gets to shower.
  • For now, we’d just look at the yearly numbers. The seasonal timing of things makes a critical difference, but we’ll look at the low-res now to see if it’s worth going high-res later.
  • And for now, we’ll just look at the average rainfall year. Even if we don’t cover the nut for low rainfall years, we’ve come a very long way and can perhaps begin to think bigger than the next bottleneck.

Next in the spirit of gaming, come the variables that establish the field of play:

The thought experiment begins in the flat Mid-Wilshire 90019 zip-code with an average yearly rainfall of 15 inches and zooms in on a hypothetical 7,500 square foot lot, say 100 feet wide and 75 feet deep. There’s a house on the lot with 1,000 square feet of rooftop and a family of four living inside.

Standard-Lot

Why these numbers? Well, the LA Department of Water and Power uses zip-code, lot size and family size to determine water prices. The Shortage Year Tier 1 allotment for our imaginary friends would be 26.35 Hundred Cubic Feet (HCF, 1 HCF = 748 gallons) per two months in Low Season (May to October) and 20.4 HCF for two months in High Season (November to April). This adds up to about 105,000 gallons per year and 287 gallons per day. In 2012, the family would have paid $3.70 per HCF for their allotment and $5.92 per HCF for anything more. If they’re an average American family, they fit squarely in Tier 1, using 73,000 gallons of their 105,000 and paying $361 for the water.

Knowing what those 73,000 gallons are used for then gives us the goods on solving the design problem…. In Permaculture parlance, we say “observe” and also “the problem is the solution” and it doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that the two ideas go hand-in-hand. Below are national averages reported by the National Academies Water Information Center (click here). The outdoor use varies by region and season, but we’ll go low-res with the yearly national averages here.

Our Water Use

Right away, rainwater harvesting wouldn’t cover the current total household use even if we could somehow catch and store everything that fell on the whole lot. With 15 inches of rain, the property only gets 70,000 gallons in an average year. We’re already 3,000 gallons shy.

A whole systems approach to the rescue then, and first goes the toilet. The toilet uses 10.9% or 7,972 gallons a year. Convert that to a composting toilet and get extra goodies like carbon-sinking black earth for the gardens, and if enough people converted, way less pressure on the decaying channelized streams-cum sewer lines like the LA River, filtration plants and the ever stressed water quality budget. Maybe enough pressure-release to de-pave the river, turn it into a park and turn the park into the backbone of a food forestry network with all the black earth we’ve got in 6 months, while ending algae plumes and itchy surfers off the Santa Monica Pier. The family’s yearly water score drops to about 65,000 gallons.

Paired with a conversion to eco-friendly household products in the shower, bath, kitchen and laundry, the next move is to run the used, grey water from faucets, shower, bath, laundry, dishwasher and the mysterious “other” through the garden. Now that water, all 18,000 gallons of it, 24.3% of the family’s total use gets used twice before leaving the property but counts only once for the new score for the year, 47,000 gallons. Outdoor use is down from 42,000 gallons to 24,000. Assuming the grey water system is well designed and doesn’t require a bank of levers to operate, there’s no loss in quality of life – and most of the worst household waste has been tamed before it hits the pipes. Any algae plumes still hanging off the coast are done for.

Then it’s down with the leaks. Nearly 6% of water lost through leaks? Some leaks are unavoidable. Pipes age, foundations move, kids happen and with all the proverbial leaks in life, busting out the plumber’s wrench for a weekend ends up low on the totem pole. But say the family goes for it and cuts the 6% to 3%. So much for 2,000 gallons lost per year. Average yearly use: 45,000 gallons.

2-What-Could-Be

Now with a much lower bar to hit, let’s see what sort of dent rainwater harvesting can make.

First we’ll look at two types of rainwater harvesting that we might distinguish as “hard” and “soft.” The hard variety refers to the tank, barrel or tub kind of rainwater harvesting, and we could say that the soft variety refers to that which can be theoretically started, if not always finished, with a shovel. The two varieties work best in tandem starting with a hard system that blends via an overflow or “spillway” into a soft system integrated throughout the whole property.

The imaginary property has a 1,000 square foot peaked roof. With a 220-gallon system on either side of the pitched roof and the right gutter arrangement, the whole roof can be collected from. With 15 inches a year we get the potential harvest of about 7,500 gallons with 440 gallons of rainwater able to be stored at once. In the ideal world, 15 little one-inch storms would fill the tanks during the wet season with enough time between to empty the tanks out completely every time for a steady flow. That’s unlikely of course, and that’s where integration with soft harvesting comes in.

Land contouring forms the essence of soft rainwater harvesting, and within well designed land contours, opportunities arise that we… and nature when we’re not around… can put to great use. The name of the game is to keep water on the property and keep it moving slowly, to think of the whole rainwater harvesting system, hard and soft, as a watershed, and doing so can inspire a whole host of possibilities.

Arizona-Road-Diagram

It’s worth noting that standard American landscaping flows to a different drum: get water off the property as fast as possible. Hence we’ve all been trained to believe that gardening means running the sprinklers incessantly and still expecting parched soil by June, while the downspouts from the roof generally give the roof runoff a one-way concrete-lined ticket to the ocean. It may seem surprising that just flipping the landscape lens from convex to concave in key spots, that thinking in terms of bowls instead of hills can change everything until you actually see the results with your own eyes.

Since that perfect series of storms is unlikely, we’ll link the hard system’s overflow into a soft system on the property, essentially running its overflow into bowls, swales and other uses so we still get good and more gently distributed use of the 7,500 gallons the hard rainwater harvesting system nets us. Now with the hard rainwater harvesting and the grey water outputs we’re only taking 16,500 gallons from city mains for outdoor use – remember we started out demanding 42,000. Even taking the seasons into account, we’re doing well, since the grey water output isn’t going to change much month to month. Total demand from the city is now down to about 35,000 gallons, half the original 73,000.

RWH-as-River-Complex

At least in theory, the soft rainwater harvesting can take the numbers down a lot further. Bowls don’t accumulate just water. One year of leaves from deciduous trees can form mulch mats that hold water underneath and keep soil processes unfolding for months, even in the hottest weather. Add a 6 inch layer of straw and the ground’s wet all summer. Gardens flourish in the dips and perennial water sinks develop virtuous hydration cycles with increasing mulch, fungal mats, plant diversity, birds and happiness all around.  Shape the concrete driveways and patios to direct water into the bowls or replace these hardscapes with permeable inlays and we could argue for hard and soft systems keeping 80% of rainfall in productive use on the property for much of the year. That’s 56,000 gallons of water. On a relatively flat lot sculpted for soft rainwater harvesting and productive soils, we’ve got a 14,000 gallon outdoor surplus for the year.

3-With-80-harvesting

We’re still pulling 18,000 gallons from the city main for potable indoor uses and the occasional car wash, so I’m not calling the game won just yet, and for many of us, this would be a great stopping point. Extrapolated over the whole city, the low-res joyride has cut water imports and bills by three quarters with no loss of quality of life, a good part of the difference made with hard and soft rainwater harvesting in tandem. Even if in real life we got only a third of that result, we might still win the consolation prize – whitewater rafting for everyone down the Colorado River like in days of old.

And for those of you who really want to finish the job and take the score down to zero, I say start with the Rainwater Harvesting Construction Guide, Power to the Makers! and don’t stop there. The answers are out there. Clay cisterns were such the rage in Biblical Jerusalem that they were a favorite metaphor in parables and Jeremiah even did a jail sentence in one. Here too is a pic of the adobe Earthship that shared our space at Grassroots United in Haiti. The entire roof is a rainwater harvesting system and the water harvested gets used for 3-5 purposes before leaving the surrounding grounds.

GRU Earthship

With all due respect to Chinatown, I for one will risk my hat over yonder barrel and say that at least as a pure design problem, zero’s a winnable game. Just figure it’s 1962 and I’m asking, can we get to the moon? Only this time, we’ve got the hive mind of the internet too and I’d love to hear all your bright comments for making up the difference.

Thanks again and take a peek while you’re here…

BYO-RWH-6

 

A Living Design for Doing Living Design

At the risk of being called a nerd (and I screwed the pooch on that one 25 years ago) here’s some sideways sharing that comes as the result of the proposal I’m making on Vertecology LLC’s (yes, it’s an LLC!) first large scale permaculture design for an eight acre community to be, just south of Ashland Oregon.

In the act of preparing the bid for the client, which ostensibly would price out a site plan and a relatively fixed final landscape design which would then be carved into an unwilling earth, not because the client demands it but because we don’t even have the language or the software for doing otherwise, I realized said Standard Way of Going About It that I learned in Architecture School is entirely insufficient.

Permaculture after all is about working with living systems, adapting flows midstream, integrating far more than the topography of dirt and the arrangement of neat rows of pretty flowers and pretty houses. We are guiding living systems with an intelligence all their own and being guided in kind by endless feedback loops that yield vision as much as they yield blackberries and soils and unpredictable opportunities and muscles as you roll that wheelbarrow out one more time. Yes, sometimes this tree just gets moved over there. But sometimes you introduce chickens to control the flies. Sometimes you replace the septic with composting toilets and the resultant soil changes the pH where you drop it, sometimes the recommendations are tiny but with huge impacts, and at the end of the day, discovering an opportunity here and taking advantage of it changes the balance over there.

How can a simple, complicated as $!*& CAD drawing, which I can do quite easily and well with my years of training reflect all of that, reflect human, plant, animal, mechanical and invisible factors? CAD is after all, as static as it is precise and it makes our heads more static as we layer our drawings with ever deeper precision and detail. How can CAD bend to reflect seasons and systems theory, succession of evolution and changes that come about on the land as we interlope and guide our systems to optimum? How can we describe the relevant opportunities on the land without involving and locking ourselves into a thousand layers and a thousand hours of ever expanding irrelevant detail? How can CAD describe a river, an unfolding?

Thus in the process I have come to realize that a wider view must be taken. CAD is a part of the solution, but so is an elegant and interactive display where client and designer alike can track ideas, visions and observations. So are books, whiteboards, a growing capacity in the client to read the land, mission statements and meditation in the various microclimates of the place. Perhaps the site map can begin and end with construction paper and crayons… Observing, visioning and implementing blend and blur and cycle back into one another with ever increasing resolution and clarity and ecosystems and income systems take and change shape. Ah, The Brain shall live in the Barn and work while I’m away.

Here’s version 1.0 of the design process diagram… one that may just live on Vertecology for quite some time.

Large Scale Permaculture Design Process

Succession of Evolution and Oregon, a Land of Seasons

Hello once again beautiful world.

It is as always an end, and a new beginning. As I mentioned in the last post I am dealing what seem to be growing pains. I’ll paint a metaphor appropriate to my residence for the next two months: a seven acre parcel of gambel oak forest and grassland in the countryside a couple miles north of Central Point, Oregon.

Observations on the land in Central Point, Oregon

Land Observation Photos Clockwise from Top Left: 1) A look west and slightly northward from the house, showing the bird feeders and the westward view. The gambel oaks thin out into grassland and ranchland in the valley below. 2) A towering gambel oak at the end of our driveway. A westward look from the house, showing the thinning wood and grassland below. 3) An eastward look up the lightly wooded hill behind the house. Gambel oaks dominate. 4) The gambel oaks lose their leaves, dropping a cushion of mulch as much as 6 inches deep, keeping the soil moist and cool even on hot days. 5) A northward look from the house, showing the hill slope. The rebar in the foreground contains the former veggie garden and a chickenwire fence that kept out the deer. 6) The drive and the house, a mobile home, a bit run down but quite cozy, sitting on the eastern slope and getting the moring sun.

There is a permaculture principle that goes something like “Accelerate the natural evolutionary succession of the ecosystem you are building.”

The essence of the idea is to use your own as well as general observations of the succession of species mixtures that naturally occurs in the wild to fast-track your ecosystem to its climax and maximum diversity and yield.

In natural succession, one species mixture creates the conditions necessary for the next. For example, pioneer plants like grasses may arrive by wind in barren and damaged lands, fix nitrogen, loosen compacted soils, reduce salts or stabilize steep slopes and thus create a more favorable environment for low shrubs.

These in turn create in turn a more favorable environment for small trees, all the while attracting animals, insects and birds and the seeds and pollen they bring from other places. The small trees will hold moisture, contribute to the formation of clouds, keep the soil moist under all the leaves they drop and make it ripe for mycelial networks that will in time drive the emergent forest to new heights and new heights of fertility.

While on the land here, I am largely working the day job that brought me here, working on building the “infrastructure” that will enable Vertecology to function as a “real business” that embraces both the permaculture principles and the tactics necessary for function in and eventually transformation of the current economic system, and of course getting a bit of exploration in too.

While that isn’t leaving much time, it is leaving me enough time to do some observation on the land, and even the hour or so I am able to devote daily is proving incredibly fruitful. I am able to glean much already about the history and possible futures of this beautiful landscape, and spot opportunities to accelerate the ecosystem to its climax.

Here are a couple of videos.

And strictly for the hardcore, an online mind-map of my observations of the land and its opportunities for ecological acceleration:

Observation and exploration of how to maximize the ecosystem yield at the land I'm renting in Central Point, Oregon

The notion of succession of evolution can be applied just as easily in the business and spiritual realms, and in such places it hints at the very zen notion of “letting go,” so easy once its done and so hard until it’s been done. As a twentysomething soaring visionary, the idea of letting go to me was synonymous with killing, destroying, leaving something I loved by the side of the road. And so I held on until I pretty much destroyed whatever it was I was holding on to.

Now with a little more wisdom under my belt and a growing ability to trust the intelligence of life/universe/unfolding whatever you call it, I’m just beginning to entertain the radical idea that letting go is actually more of a move in a dance that you repeat and repeat. When you pick your foot up off the floor you are in a way letting go. And letting go, and letting go, and letting go, and at some point you realize you’re delivering a staggering performance, telling a story, building a legacy and have only an instant to notice before its time to move again.

In ecosystem building, it could be said that holding on is the equivalent of mowing the lawn week after week, making sure that grass stays perfectly green with no patches and nary a dandelion, making sure the sprinklers work through the summer no matter how hot it is, and yelling at the neighbors to make sure their dogs don’t poop on the lawn. Yes, you have a beautiful lawn, dear sir, but it is ecologically dead, dead to opportunity and a drain on all around it including you.

And by contrast, it could be said that letting go is letting the weeds, shrubs and mushrooms in. Even dog poop is a nutrient reservoir. You let the grass go so everything else can come in. And you may find that at the end of it, on the floor of your towering forest, you still have some patches of very fertile grass that ask nothing of you at all and play a vital role.

Such it is with the towering forest Vertecology wishes to become in days to come. I pioneered the realm with this blog, telling of some early projects and explorations; if the blog is the pioneer species, then what are the shrubs and the trees? A year ago, I had only ideas. Now…

  • The patent pending Hanging Gardens and the fundraise to complete the prototyping process , develop market ready product and finance further experiments and initiatives.
  • Water Harvesting Systems and educational media about how to build them.
  • Maximizing the opportunity that two months on the Central Point Land offers to make myself a far more capable permaculturist, designer, consultant, writer and educator
  • Further development of festival concept structures which began with the Geo and integration of these into the greater permaculture driven vision
  • Other educational media around economics and permaculture
  • And more ambitious initiatives to come

With some of this coming to fruition and demanding time to develop further, and with more of it now becoming feasible with greater financial, spiritual and social capital coming into my realm and greater experience and skill in my hands, I am seeing that focus of Vertecology itself crying to change. It’s not about the grass anymore; it’s now about the shrubs and trees. I’m not shutting down the blog, but I am seeing that its role is destabilizing as an ecosystem emerges around it.

For a time the blog may become a little more erratic. For now I don’t know exactly if that means more or less blogging, or a new form taken; I’m just giving myself permission to be erratic and unpredictable so that a new rhythm can take shape. I would have in the past called this a death and would have been deathly afraid. Now I am seeing that it is only the natural succession of evolution. It is in fact, a birth.

I have thus far been trying to update the blog weekly, and have been struggling to do that the last couple of months, and couldn’t let myself see why as the last of my fear has held on. Now it is clear and in fact has been clear for some time. It is because for now, in this stage of the emergence of Vertecology, I need the time and energy to build the rest of the ecosystem.

Geodesic Sphere Diagram

It’s time to begin upgrading the web site, creating videos for the upcoming fundraise, finalizing prototype designs for the Hanging Gardens, and half a million other tasks, hiring out when I can’t do them myself and doing the research regarding even how to that in a way that will best serve the vision.

And of course I will keep you all posted in whatever form is most appropriate. Here’s to the next stage of evolution!

Thanks!

Building for a Million Years of Bounty: The Yin Before the Yang

Hello beautiful world,

Wow it’s been quiet on the blog scene for a bit… I’ve been gearing up with Vertecology for some time, laying the foundation for what looks to be an expansion. There’s talk of a Kickstarter fundraise, hints from peeps around town that orders for Hanging Gardens may be on the wings, some money for R&D to come from other work I will be doing in Oregon over May and June, an ad for a marketing intern soon to go live. And yet in the process of gearing up, of expansion, sometimes there is quiet gestation.

I’ve been thinking about this blog entry in some dark room of my mind for some time. What to say? Well, am I going to bring out the horns and declare with 10 white horses coming down the cobbled path that (wah, wah, wah!) I have a provisional patent on the Hanging Garden? Yes that is true as of about 48 hours ago, and I am thankful to all those who believed in me and helped me with emotional and even a bit of financial support to get the vision of what Vertecology can be to this milestone.

Provisional Patent Drawing Sheet for the Hanging Garden

But there is a deeper story, and to that I wish to speak. Because in the permaculture sensibility, its not about the straight line to the destination, but about the system, the garden, that was built over time that allows the destination to be at last grasped and quietly reached and owned, that allows the bounty found at the destination to be both harvested and sustained.

That is the deeper story. I’ve been a bit quiet on the blogging front because even though I’ve been spending long hours at work on building Vertecology, R&D, developing proposals, as well as on building my financial resources by other means for the long road ahead and putting a little time on some very interesting projects by other people in this field, I’ve also been looking closely at the spiritual underpinnings to why I started this venture at all.

Knowing this is not my first attempt at entrepreneurship, and knowing that I have always in the past gotten results I didn’t expect with no idea why with all my dogged effort, I have learned at my wise young age that the quality of the fruit and flowers in your garden are just a reflection of the quality of the soil.

So it’s not about the flowers as much as it is about the soil. I care too much about this garden… about what Vertecology can become and what I can offer through it to ignore the soil this time, and though the payoff is making itself known slowly and steadily, I am beginning to recognize what it means with a faith I have never experienced before.

The slow building of soil is why I’ve gotten to the point of having something to patent at all. Building soil can’t be rushed, it can’t be forced. Try and force it and you get half the Midwest ripe for the next dust bowl. Let it run at its proper pace and you may get a bit impatient yes, but you also have a shot at a million years of bounty so vast it’s impossible to keep secret.

Confronting the need to build at the soil’s pace and not at that of my frantic and ever twirling mind has not been easy. My ever twirling mind fantasizes that Vertecology will “explode” at the first signpost and has promised to remain the irrational taskmaster it has been in the past. I’ve been down that road before and it wasn’t pretty, for me or for what I was trying to create. But attending to the spiritual soil of late has meant that the taskmaster has begun to let go his whip, and to let be. To allow things to grow at their proper pace and grow well. As a result of my inner work of late I no longer have to justify my existence to anyone, and that is the kind of soil to begin expansion with.

And once I noticed that it was never really about “exploding” I began to recognize that I have already, despite myself, been attempting to execute a real business plan with a little higher resolution than simply exploding. Though it has yet to be written on paper, just knowing that that business plan is being spoken by that quiet voice that comes when you are very still has given me enough pause to stop and listen, and on more and more frequent occasion, to act upon its recommendations.

I don’t “need” Vertecology to be anything. And in the silence, I begin to hear the music of its promise, calling me to joyous action, day by day. I begin to see the real road and how to drive upon it, when to floor it, and when to brake. It’s not that I’m stopping; it’s that for what seems like the first time, I am starting.

Cutting Bamboo at the Venice Community Garden

So in anticipation and yet in keeping with the true timing of things, I will leave you all with this: part of the business plan behind Vertecology, part of the functioning ecosystem it will become is a continuum of raw ideas being prototyped to fruition. I am truly happiest when I am creating with reckless abandon, without a care in the world and sharing the creating through my writing and media. Sort of like a 10 year old… “look ma, what I just made!” Except I’m now 38, have an idea of what it means to be a “crewman on Spaceship Earth” and know my way around design science, the permaculture principles, CNC milling machines, timelapse photography, dramatic prose, videography, social networking and some of the baddest creative software around. I know I’m in the flow when I’m so excited I just cut my finger and don’t care, “First blood!” and just keep on going.

The rest of it is support. So for now I have to play the entrepreneur, to handle the numbers, to make the calls, work out the marketing strategy, meet with potential investors, get the site organized for taking orders. But that’s all just the support, a setup so that ideally, I can keep creating, prototyping and testing ideas, enjoying the enjoying of those who just got served, make a lasting difference for the planet and feed myself in the process.

And so yesterday, in the midst of preparing for Oregon, writing a posting for a student intern, looking at the finances and getting the provisional patent filed, I rolled out to the Westside and met up with Norma Bonilla at the Venice Community Garden to harvest some bamboo poles. And I realized as I broke out the Japanese pull-saw, what I was actually building.

Bamboo hexagonal skeleton

I realized halfway through harvesting, what I’m building with these poles and why against all logic and with all the sobriety and sanity of an Old Testament prophet I’ll be packing them all the way to Oregon.

Long before ever dreaming up the word Vertecology and doing the dot-com search, long before SCI-Arc was an intriguing name I heard on the lips of an old girlfriend years ago, I read somewhere about the floating islands built by the Aztecs which became the ground upon which Tenochtitlan and later Mexico City were built. The vision has stayed with me, and as I learned about permaculture, I realized that such madness might be worth pursuing. Realized that one could build floating islands on bamboo skeletons and local materials to reclaim wetlands from sea level rise and build edible coastlines, geometric wildlands and engines of turbocharged biodiversity and oxygen production. The process would be entirely organic (except maybe a few well placed LEDs, hint, hint), naturally paced and the artistry of it all could be truly stunning. And the bamboo for the skeletons of course could be grown right there on site, harvested, over and over and over, forever while it makes great shade for birds and cleans the tidal waters too.

Floating Island Comic

In that twirling mind, it all seemed so far away, but as I harvested the bamboo, which will probably have grown back by the time I get back from Oregon, I realized a test could set up in a matter of days, in fact, in about 3 hours, I had a lot to show.

Then I went back to the pad and started prepping to write the budget for the Hanging Garden Kickstarter fundraise, but with a new twinkle in my eye. This is going to explode! Shhhh… don’t tell anyone.

Thank you for walking with me, in patience. Let us build together.

Hanging Garden with Echinacea going to seed, overlooking Pico Blvd in Los Angeles

Growing Freedom and Blooming in a Hundred Dimensions: A Harvest in the Hanging Garden

Greetings again, beautiful world! I have a confession to make, but no worries, it turns out better than I imagined in the end. For all this talk about permaculture, I must confess I’ve felt more comfortable until now with the “Design :: Build” part of the Vertecology equation. The “Permaculture” part of course is all about a design science that applies just as well outside the context of gardening as within it and I have certainly been putting that to work.

But at the end of the day I wondered how much of a permaculturist I could be if I (supposedly) had a brown thumb. As if there was a body of proprietary knowledge needed for planting and growing stuff. As if human beings didn’t have generations and in fact thousands, if not a couple of million years working closely with the natural world; as if the beings of other species… that is plants, animals, fungi, don’t want to grow just like we do, and don’t do so to the best of their abilities on their own using the resources available to them.

Echinacea has taken root, planted from seed in the Vertecology Hanging Garden

So much for the myth of the brown thumb. The truth is that until I got that permaculture was pretty much the answer to our global yearning for a culture of abundance and a future worth fighting for, I didn’t see much reason to try to grow anything.

Now with the onset of Spring, many of the little Echinacea Purpea and a few of the Yarrow seeds I popped into the Hanging Garden at the Sugar Shack have grown into robust little plants on all five levels, and some of the little guys are even flowering. That with only sporadic watering of these drought-tolerant species and a soil mixture taken on faith from my friend and partner in permaculture crime, Norma Bonilla.

While I’ve been posting about the Hanging Garden for a while now, I couldn’t really say the  “1.0” version was complete until seeds had successfully taken root. After all, as a work of art, my vision of it was never just the hanging boxes themselves. That was just the foundation. Even though I will soon be manufacturing the structure, each installation will be unique based on what comes to inhabit it.

So now with this success, it’s on to fine tuning. Here are my thoughts on an even better soil mix considering aeration and improved drainage within the planter-box; as you can see from the diagram below, I’m thinking now of a gravel layer with a breathable sheet of fabric for future installations. Of course this will vary also with the sorts of plantings you want to do and I welcome suggestions. I’m also thinking a larger version of the Hanging Garden in the months to come for larger plantings.

 

Optimal soil mix in the Vertecology Hanging Garden for drought-tolerant plants

And thus humbly begins a new leg of the adventure. Growing a garden is an act of patience, and as I’m learning in my endless unfolding, so is growing a business, or anything of value. You can’t plant the seeds and then cut the first shoot and expect a grand forest to envelop your digs. Perhaps that is even a great lesson for our entire quarterly earnings and test-scores culture, and one that when we have learned, we will begin to see our world self-heal largely with little more than a bit of multi-dimensional thinking, guiding and letting ourselves be guided. Just sayin,’ but that’s a rant for another day.

Fibonacci Trees

Now it’s only great to see nature at work, and to know that this experiment is blossoming and promising fertile weeks, months and years to come. Thanks for tuning in!

Hanging Gardens Coming Up Green All Over

Here are some new photos from the Hanging Garden at Philip Horvath’s – now fully stocked with a veritable encyclopedia of baby herbs and veggies (click on the links to learn more about the plants and their benefits on Wikipedia).

The Vertecology Hanging Garden planted with herbs and vegetables

At the very least the Brewery’s first vertical garden is going to make for an oxygen-blasting, aromatic, culinary and visual symphony with medicinal benefits, and I can’t wait until the dinner parties where all these delights get served up with delicious dishes! Even if a few of the plants get crowded out, it will provide a learning experience to all of us who are paying attention.

Meanwhile we’ve got some baby greens popping up from seed in the Sugar Shack’s outdoor Hanging Garden – a few tiny leaves sprouting up, too tiny to get with the camera just yet.

And on a business note I’m setting up some basic online infrastructure for taking orders. The email address mark@vertecology.com and the Paypal business account able to accept credit cards should be coming online within the next few hours. The whole venture of course continues to be a lesson in patience; I like the oddly perfect analogy of a growing plant – you can’t rush it, and when you care for it, trust the process, and allow it to unfold at its proper pace, the rewards for everyone are rich indeed.

Five New Square Feet of Urban Economic Liberation: Planting the Hanging Garden

I’m pleased to announce that the next phase of Hanging Garden R&D is underway. Starting with a 1-1-1 mix of sand, homemade compost and potting soil, I’ve seeded all five levels of a Hanging Garden now swinging from the rafters at the Sugar Shack with small herbs that will help prepare its soil for later planting, attract birds and beneficial, predatory insects like ladybugs, long-term test the Hanging Garden’s performance in outdoor conditions and offer the intentional community here another baby step toward urban economic liberation.

Part of the fun is getting to experiment with five separate “test tubes” if you will. The bottom three levels got dusted with seeds of the yarrow plant, which according to legend was carried into battle by Achilles because of its effectiveness in treating battle wounds, and whose tendency to accumulate minerals means rich soil will be left in its wake. The fourth level up is planted with both yarrow and echinacea purpea seeds to get an idea of how the two behave together. The top level is seeded with echinacea alone, and echinacea is the go-to plant for easing a cold out of your body (something the house could use right about now).

For both herbs the winning planting formula appears to include spreading the seeds no more than ¼ inch deep. The yarrow seeds are little bigger than fine grains of sand and get spread liberally. The larger echinacea seeds get dropped individually about 2 inches apart. Then on all levels, I overlaid some exhausted coffee grinds from the house coffee maker.

The setup will get lots of sun on the rooftop, just like these plants love. It is winter here of course, but it is Southern California and these plants which would get planted later in the spring further north can take the couple of frosts we might get this season. If all goes well, we should start to see little green leaves popping up in about a week or so.

And this is a great opportunity to explore what the Hanging Garden can do best. For while we grow these herbs here, as other installs go up, Hanging Garden clients can begin to share notes – I hope to have a forum for this on Vertecology as  more installs go up and things come together.

And finally, a bit of cross pollination – it’s great to be watering the Hanging Garden with water from the rain harvesting system in the downstairs garden. Already watering the Hanging Garden on the rooftop, I’ve taken on watering the whole roof garden; prior to building the water harvesting system, I knew simply that our rooftop garden needed water. The water messily came out of a hose when I turned on the spigot, and that’s about all I knew.

The Sugar Roof Garden takes about 4 gallons of water per day in winter.

I always felt a pinge of guilt in watering the American Way, having no idea of how much water I was actually using, and only knowing that the water was coming from places like Mono Lake and the Sacramento Delta. By watering with buckets from the harvesting system, I’ve learned that the rooftop garden requires about four gallons per day in the winter time. Sure the watering is a bit more laborious but the information gained while exercising – climbing stairs with bucket in hand, has named the unnamed and means that I can now realistically design for how much water a design-build-permaculture install will actually need and yield.

Thank you Norma Bonilla for the soil mix formula and Baza Novic for the seeds and planting direction. I’ll keep y’all posted, and of course I welcome feedback. Thanks!

Sugar Shack’s Rain Collection System Captures Beautifully in its First Rain

Well it’s always a little nerve-wracking when finally cutting the ribbon on a new project, no matter how much you’ve tested it. Even though I dropped a few 15 gallon buckets of water down the chute from the Sugar Shack’s rooftop to test the rainwater catchment system after I finished the build, and even though I added an extra bead of silicone caulk to those pesky corner-rounding spots in the rain gutters, there was still that nagging sense of… what if?

No more. We got our first storm in the neighborhood yesterday, a few solid hours of rain in the afternoon, and I couldn’t wait until the sun popped out to find out how the system was doing. The inflows were dropping a heavy flow into the barrels and doing just fine. After the rains had passed our four barrels were about half full, about 110 gallons caught.

Now I can  get a more accurate idea of how much water we can catch: I went to www.noaa.gov and typed in our zip code. The nearest weather station to us is on the USC campus, which is a few miles away, but it’s close enough to give an idea of how much rain we got. The USC station got about 0.16 inches of rain during the storm; an average LA rain year of 15 inches would fill our barrels almost 50 times, though most of that will occur over the course of an entire six month “wet” season, and anything over 0.3 inches at once will be lost to the overflow.

It’s a good thing then that I actually improved the garden drainage by shunting the overflow directly into the drainage pipe, and there’s ample opportunity (and barrels around the garden) to do a rooftop catchment as well.

Refinement to the Hanging Garden for Fast & Easy Installation

Today I proved a refinement concept to the Hanging Garden, and was so excited to see a five-level prototype (ceiling to floor, baby!) that I was tempted to drop all the other stuff I have to do this weekend in favor of a fat dinner and a movie, lol! The main change, the knot-&-keyhole connector system means that anyone can now assemble a Hanging Garden in just a couple of hours and will need only a decent drill to put the ceiling mount in place. These photos show the simplified version made out of reclaimed MDF I put together just to test the improvements.

There’s more to come as I will soon be installing two of these beauties, one in an urban loft for an in-house herb-garden, and one outdoors in a Venice community garden.

As I mentioned in my last post about the Hanging Garden, I’m taking orders in California. I’ll build you a five-level hanging garden with integrated planter boxes on each level as shown in the original post for $500 and the right to capture some photos over the next few years. For a different number of levels and for customization, the price varies. Until I have a Vertecology online store up and running, just call me at 818.538.6586 or send me an email at markscottlavin-at-gmail-dot-com with “Hanging Garden” in the subject line. Thanks & happy Halloween everybody!