Monthly Archives: January 2011

Operation One Less (degree)

Two degrees less, actually. Sometimes more.

I’m talking, of course, about the thermostat. We finally had one of those handy programmable types installed when we replaced our ancient oil furnace with a newfangled gas one.

The previous thermostat (not to mention the furnace itself) was old and unreliable. It was set to 70 degrees most of the time, but the internal temperature always read two degrees lower… and I’m willing to bet that was less of an accurate reading and more of a guesstimate on the part of the thermostat. And since it wasn’t programmable, there were plenty of times I forgot to turn it down when I left the house and before I climbed into bed at night.

Now, with a new furnace, new fuel type, and a new thermostat, we’re set to 68 degrees most of the time; 65 degrees when we’re gone or asleep. I’d love to tell you that the transition has been an easy one, but it hasn’t.

Someone once told me that oil burns hotter than gas, which gives the resulting heat more staying power. I have no idea if there’s any validity whatsoever to that claim, but I’ve lived in three houses with oil heat and they all felt cozier than the houses I’ve lived in with gas heat. This highly unscientific comparison is, I’m sure, due to the differences in the houses themselves, rather than the fuel type: square footage, insulation, etc. would all play a role in the perception of heat’s “staying power.” Having experienced both types of heat in this house, however, I’m prepared to say that the oil heat felt cozier. (Though, in fairness, the GIANT oil furnace resided in our partially/shoddily finished basement and gave off a low – but constant – ambient heat. The much smaller gas furnace does no such thing.)

Regardless of the relative hotness of the heat, it’s been a bit chilly around here. Our single thermostat is upstairs in an internal hallway, shielded from the cold air sneaking past the single-pane windows in every other room in the house. So, while the hallway might be a cozy 68 degrees, it’s doubtful that the rest of the house is – particularly during our mostly sunless Seattle winter. And the basement – location of our family room and my office space – is decidedly cooler. Knee-socks, slippers, hoodies, and a hot mug of tea have become my constant companions. But after several months of practice, I’m finally getting acclimated to the slightly lower temperatures.

Sadly, I don’t have any good data to show the effects of our efforts. Comparing usage to the same period last year is apples to oranges, thanks to the change in fuel sources (plus, they way my oil was delivered and billed makes it impossible to know how much was used in any given month). Comparing monthly usage since September (when the new thermostat went in) is also apples to oranges, since the temperature outside has changed dramatically over those months. But popular wisdom says that for every degree you turn down your thermostat, you’ll save 1% – 3% on your heating bill. I can’t find any popular wisdom discussing how much fuel you’ll save, but then I didn’t try very hard (crying baby – you understand). If anyone has any averages or estimates to share, please leave them in the comments.

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Operation One Less (flush)

Throughout 2011, I am identifying one thing each week that I can do less of. The “thing” need not be huge; in fact, the point is to suggest that even the little things can make a big difference over time. Call it a resolution if you like. I call it Operation One Less.

When I was a kid, my dad owned a small farm out in the middle of nowhere. The house was on well water, and the well occasionally would run dry in the summer months. On a farm, there are a lot of outdoor uses for water – we had a large garden to water and many animals that needed to stay hydrated – so most of our water conservation efforts focused on inside the house, with the toilet being the primary source of hand-wringing and brow furrowing.

It was an old house with an old toilet – the kind that swallows many gallons of water with each flush and then runs until its handle it jiggled furiously. Nearly every flush required a hand thrust into the icy tank waters to fiddle with a this or to yank on a that. We were all – even the children – expert plumbers by the end of our farm days. And we all knew to let it mellow if it was yellow and to flush it down if it was brown. Living with a finite water source was an early (and effective) lesson in conservation.

According to the EPA, the average American family of four can use up to 400 gallons of water per day. Of those 400 gallons, about 70% are used inside the home. Toilets account for about 27% of indoor household water use. So, if I’m doing the math correctly (please correct me if I’m not), that’s about 76 gallons of water every day being literally flushed down the drain. I have no idea how closely my family’s water usage mirrors this average (though it would be a fun little experiment to examine my water bills to find out), but I’m sure it’s more water than I’d like. So this week’s “one less” is flushing.

We sort of unofficially adopted skipping the pee flush when we had some sewer issues a year or so ago (and even more unofficially tried to time our poos to occur during work hours, but maybe that’s over-sharing), so everyone’s already more or less in the habit. The only negative side-effect is that Bug is a little too in the habit and sometimes forgets to flush even when it’s brown.

There are exceptions, of course. We go back to regular flushing when company is over. And we’re allowed to pee flush on asparagus nights. But there I go, over-sharing again.

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Meatless Monday! (on a Tuesday)

We’re going meatless! (At least on Mondays.) I was a vegetarian for many years, as was Mr. Legume, so this is not an entirely new thing for us. And it’s only one day each week, which we pretty much did anyway, unofficially.

So why the sudden meatless proclamation?

Mr. Legume asked me recently if I would be surprised if he became a vegetarian again. Though he’s a dedicated meat-eater these days, I know he hasn’t always been, so the answer was “no.” But I was curious as to why he might return. It seems he was reading a bit of Albert Schweitzer, and a bit of Schweitzer will do that to a person. And then I read something on Grist.org that pointed to MeatlessMonday.com and implored me to join in all the fun. (And I kind of have a crush on Grist, so there you go.)

Aware (and concerned) about the amount of water and fuel that goes into producing meat (an estimated 1800-2500 gallons of water for a single pound of beef, according to the Meatless Monday site), I was already considering cutting back. But I hadn’t thought Mr. Legume would go for it. And, as it turns out, when I made my “we’re doing Meatless Mondays!” announcement, he had more of a skeptical oh-we-are-are-we? look than a yay! look, much to Schweitzer’s dismay. But it’s only one day a week. And I control only dinner – he can eat whatever he wants for breakfast and lunch. But I, along with Bug, will be going meatless for the entire day every Monday.

Or Tuesday, as is the case this week. (The dinner I planned to make on Sunday had to be pushed to Monday, and it happened to include ham. But it also happened to include spinach that wasn’t going to stay edible for another day. So my meatless meal got pushed to tonight. I’m sure the Meatless Monday folks won’t mind.)

Tonight’s meal was a white bean, butternut squash, kale and olive stew. It was… thick. Yes. I think that’s the best way to describe it. But tasty, I thought. Mr. Legume thought it could’ve used more kale. I can’t argue, especially since I put in less kale than the recipe called for (I was out of room in my soup pot). I also put in fewer beans and onions, and maybe a little less squash (based on recommendations gathered from the reviews). And my red pepper got a little overcooked while waiting for the squash to cook through, so next time I’ll either add it later or cut the squash into smaller pieces so it cooks more quickly. We paired it with bread and some cheeses (it’s meatless Monday, not vegan Monday). Though this was a very simple recipe that cooked up in just over a half hour, there was a lot of chopping required up front (including the relatively labor-intensive squash prep) so it might be better suited for a weekend meal, depending on how hectic your evenings tend to be during the week.

Think you might be interested in going meatless one day a week? Check out meatlessmonday.com and consider taking the pledge.

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Operation One Less (tea bag)

Throughout 2011, I am identifying one thing each week that I can do less of. The “thing” need not be huge; in fact, the point is to suggest that even the little things can make a big difference over time. Call it a resolution if you like. I call it Operation One Less.

I drink a lot of tea. I haven’t always. In the past, I’ve purchased a lot of tea… and then put a lot of tea in the pantry… and then failed to drink much tea. But the tins are always so pretty and the flavors always so exotic and delicious sounding that I just kept buying. But since I lost my job in November, I’ve been spending much more time at home with a pantry full of tea, which calls to me on these chilly winter days. I pretty much drink tea all day long now. Not only does it keep my insides warm, it also ensures that I’m drinking enough water every day to produce plenty of milk for Jupiter. And it’s giving me an excuse to use up some of the 200+ remaining sugar cubes from one of Bug’s school projects.

I’d say I drink, on average, 6-8 cups of tea daily during the week; probably closer to 3 on the weekends. That’s 36-46 cups of tea each week, which translates to 1872 – 2392 over the course of the year. (Wow. That’s a lot, isn’t it? I’ve never counted it up before. Explains why Mr. Legume asked me if drinking tea was one of my New Years resolutions.) Presumably, I’ll cut back once the weather gets warmer, but who knows… there’s always iced tea. But let’s just go ahead and work with these numbers for the sake of this exercise, and let’s just round to 2000 cups of tea each year for a nice even number.

Two-thousand cups of tea is also 2000 tea bags… unless you reuse your tea bags.

I find that I can use the same bag to brew two large cups of tea before losing flavor. You can go for a third, but by then the tea will be weak enough that you might as well be drinking a cup of hot water with sugar or honey. I always make sure I have some sort of receptacle handy to hold my once-used bag while it waits for its second cup, and I usually use the same small “bag holder” for a week to cut down on dirty dishes. And when it’s brewed all that it can brew, remember that tea bags are compostable.

In my case, brewing two cups of tea instead of one with each tea bag will use 1000 (give or take) fewer tea bags each year. And it will save me $250 over the same period of time (based on 36 tea bags in the canisters I usually buy, at $9/canister).

I just shared this delightful news with Mr. Legume. He is not at all impressed. But you and I know that every little bit helps, right?

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Good things. Small packages.

When I was a kid, my favorite part about traveling was staying in a hotel room. It didn’t happen often (our “traveling” usually meant driving west to the ocean or east to the mountains, and camping for a week) and so the novelty of it was fun for me.  I liked pretending that the unfamiliar room was my house. And not just part of my house, but my whole house. I was intrigued by the idea of furniture from traditionally different parts of a home – the beds, the dining table, the television – all cohabiting in one room. I would spend my downtime imagining how I would arrange the furniture to accommodate all my needs; how I would organize things to keep from getting cluttered; what it would be like to come “home” to this space every evening. It’s probably odd that I was so interested in such things when I was 6, but we moved around a lot (and lived in some unusual spaces) and I always enjoyed trying on new places to see how they fit – the smaller and more unusual, the better.

It hasn’t worn off, this silly fascination. In fact, I’ve only become more intrigued as my desire to live a smaller footprint kind of life has grown. Lucky for me, the swelling “tiny house” trend provides lots of images for me to get lost in, imagining a very different sort of life from the one I’m currently living. Here are just of a few that have caught my attention recently.

Natural Home Magazine’s article “In Quietude: A Simple Healing Mountain Cottage” features a 280 square foot cottage in British Columbia. It was designed and built by architect Henry Yorke Man, whose homes are designed to “enhance the human soul.” According to the owner, Denise Franklin, the home does just that. It includes everything you’d expect in a larger home: kitchen, living and dining areas, bathroom, and even a separate sleeping area tucked into a loft space above the front door. There’s a 10’x10′ root cellar under the house where Denise stores the preserved bounty of her home garden, and other storage has been built creatively into the home’s frame (think boat and trailer storage techniques). Though Denise expected to outgrow the space within a couple of years, she’s now been a happy resident for over 11 (as of the article’s writing) and has no need to move on or expand. In the article, she’s quoted as saying “I still don’t want anymore space. I don’t need a bedroom. I just don’t need.” This is one of the things I like about the tiny house movement: it forces a reevaluation of what is actually needed to live a comfortable life. (See more photos of Diane’s little house.)

Photo by Stuart Bish

Another home designed by Mann is this 450 square foot cabin owned by Keith and Judy Scott (also in British Columbia). Originally commissioned to be a vacation retreat, the owners found it so comfortable that they moved in and made it their permanent residence. Their previous home was 5000 square feet. That’s some serious downsizing! (More photos.)

Photo by Stuart Bish

Another man who’s made quite a name for himself in micro houses is Jay Shafer, owner of Tumbleweed Tiny House Company. The first home Jay built for himself was a petite 84 square feet – to small qualify as a house per building code. So he put it on wheels and called it a trailer. Way to stick it to the man, Jay! His company designs and sells plans to build your own tiny (65-140 square feet) or small (a bit larger in order to meet universal building codes) house. See more photos of the many available models at Tubleweed’s Flickr photostream.

Photo by Tumbleweed House Company

And then there’s the littlest house in Toronto, rumored to have inspired Disney-Pixar’s movie, “Up.” This home is 300 square feet. It’s single bedroom includes a built-in murphy bed, which must be put away in order to access the back door to the patio. (See interior photos at Angela Allen’s Wicked Blog.)

These 275 square foot homes are renovated railway sleeping quarters in Reno. Paul Haberman and Kelly Rae purchased the four buildings and completely refurbished them, building in sleeping lofts to leave the main floor open for living space. They used salvaged materials as much as possible and refurbished the buildings’ original 100-year-old fir floors, which had been buried under six layers of linoleum and carpet. (Additional photo.)

Photo by HabeRae.

Then there are the purely ingenious (or desperate?) creations of people forced into tiny homes in expensive cities. Take, for example, the incredible egg house built by a 24-year-old architect who couldn’t afford the rent required to live in Beijing. He parked his egg on the sidewalk and took up residence until he was eventually “evicted.” This is my favorite photo because I initially thought he had to scramble through that hole to get in and out of the egg. Turns out, one of the sides flips down to create a more user-friendly door. (See more photos on Flickr.)

Photo taken from mnn.com.

Or how about this transforming tenement in Hong Kong?

This is another from Hong Kong. Though I wouldn’t hold this out as an example to emulate, the photos are fascinating nonetheless. Photographer Michael Wolf took photos of  100 apartments in Hong Kong, each only 100 square feet, and called the project 100×100.  (See the entire photo essay.)

Photo by Michael Wolf

And of course, we can’t have a discussion about small homes without considering alternative building materials, like shipping containers. This “All Terrain Cabin” from Canada’s Bark Design Collective folds up when not in use, returning to its original shipping container visage.

Photo by Bark Design Collective

And, finally, check out this refurbished Airstream trailer, featured in Dwell Magazine. My mom and I lived in one of these for a year when I was growing up, and I loved it! Ours was smaller and not at all refurbished. But it was quaint and cozy, and there were always real pickles in the fridge from the real cucumbers grown outside in the real garden. This airstream is owned by Andreas Stavropoulos in Berkley, who refurbished the whole thing himself. (Take the photo tour.)

Photo by Mark Compton

The first home I owned was 690 square feet, and housed two adults, a baby, and a large dog. The current house Is either 1000 or 2000 square feet (depending on whether or not you consider the basement living space), houses two adults and two full-time kids, and will need to find a way to accommodate two additional kids when Mr. Legume’s daughters visit. According to many people’s standards, we’re already living in a small home. Could we get by with even less space? It would certainly require some adjustments and a different way of thinking about “stuff.” I think I could get rid of a fair amount of my current belongings without too much heartache. But what of my beloved books?

What do you think? Would you consider a drastic downsize for your family home? What belongings would you have the hardest time letting go?

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