Life, Faith and Urban Farming

The life and happenings of an unconventional pastor and urban farmer living in the city with a family of five.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Urban Homesteading Part 1 (New House Luck)

My family and I were not very excited to move from our 1860 Victorian farmhouse last summer. We especially miss the half-acre of land and all the fun we had in that big flat yard. But, that move has allowed us to become much more self sufficient and more ecologically responsible with the smaller house and small amount of land that we can currently call our own. Over the next few weeks I’m planning to outline some of the simple steps we’ve taken to create a green urban homestead in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Stanton Heights. Our approach to creating a “green” home has been extremely low budget and simple, it has taken work and creativity, but not a lot of money. We want what we do to be repeatable by anybody, regardless of income. Most of the green building practices that get press these days are the ones that cost lots of money; active solar panels, wind turbines and the like. Most of our steps to creating a green urban home have cost less than $50, and actually have saved way more money than they cost. I’ll highlight what we’re doing, what we’re growing, and how it’s all making a more simple, livable, self-sufficient lifestyle for my family and me.

My hope is that these posts will encourage you to take steps to create your own energy, grow your own food, harvest your own rain water, and build your own healthy soil for your gardens. And my hope is that your home will become an example of how individuals within small communities can change the planet, curb global warming, and teach others how to grow the most nutritious food available.

Passive Solar and Insulated (We Got a Little Lucky)

Ok, so my dream is to someday build a passive solar straw bale home on a 100-acre farm about an hour outside the city. We thought that the Orchard House was going to be our dream home which we would stay in for ever and ever. Upon realizing that the old Orchard House was going to sell we had to find the right smaller home with a decent yard, and we had to do it quickly. We weren’t looking for another forever dream home, but a realistic and financially responsible home that would work out for at least a few years. We searched our corner of the city over, we were in and out of many houses in our price range, but weren’t finding what we wanted. It seemed every house we saw either needed a year of rehab work to make it livable or was priced for someone other than us. It began to look like we would be moving in with our parents or friends when we found a potential house. We were the first family to take a look at it. Apparently it had been on the market for some time and didn’t sell, was taken off the market and was now about to go back up for sale. There were some problems with the house that kept it from selling. One of those “problems” would be a major bonus for us, I’ll talk about that later. In reality we went with this house because it had a decent yard for our Great Dane, German Shepherd and two kids, and because it was move-in ready. While this house is not our dream house built of all natural materials and off the electrical grid, it actually has some characteristics that are pretty amazing – in reality, we got pretty lucky with this place.

Our little homestead is located on a corner lot, a for sure bonus when you’re looking for an urban home with a slightly larger yard than the neighborhood average. Being on this particular corner lot also allows us direct southern exposure all day long. While our northern side is only a few feet from our neighbors, we have plenty of yard and sunlight on the side of the house that counts. The southern side of the house is also the long side, with lots of windows, even a large bay window in the dinning room. Surely this was not an intentional design, but in essence our house is passive solar. The windows allow enough sunlight to drench most of the rooms to raise the temperature at least five degrees on a sunny day. In a true passive solar house that’s nothing, but come on, this is passive solar by luck.

The second and most important aspect of this house is that it’s insulated. That actually did play an important role in our purchase of the house. The Orchard House was anything but insulated. At some point in the past ten years or so the former owners had cellulose blown into all the walls and ceilings here at the new home. Most houses in this neighborhood and in the city of Pittsburgh are not insulated, which is the single most important improvement to make on a home to save lots of money and carbon in the atmosphere.

My advise here is to be more intentional than we were about buying a house that gets very good sunlight, is insulated and has a yard that you can garden in. While we chose this house for the yard, we didn’t think too much about the passive solar attributes or the insulation. Well, we really liked the fact that it was insulated, but we also probably would have bought it either way. We really just got lucky. Some of what I’ll talk about over the next few weeks is really built upon these characteristics of our house. If you want a "green" house that costs little money to live in, it needs to be insulated. The pseudo-passive solar attributes of some homes are a bonus and helps save money, and the yard makes more gardening possible.

Anyone can become more self/communally reliant without spending much money. Maybe these posts will encourage you to take steps to create your own energy, grow your own food, harvest your own rain water, and build your own healthy soil for your gardens.


megan said...

You guys are awesome! I look forward to reading and learning more.

Kyle said...

I'm glad you found such a great home. are you able to heat with firewood? I saw a sign on my way back to pittsburgh the other night that said "GOT FAR WOOD." Maybe you could buy heat from them.