Funding Affordable Housing: Credits

Solutions To Other Problems

One of the great focuses of environmental justice and sustainable development over the last few decades has been helping companies internalize the costs they have historically allowed other people to pay. One example of this is carbon credits. This has become a popular way for companies like Google, Apple, and others to offset the impact of their operations which other people would otherwise have to pay.

A Pattern To Solve This Problem

I propose a similar instrument to allow companies to offset the impact their workforce has on housing. A housing credit would be an easy for for companies like Google, Apple, and others to purchase instruments from nonprofits to offset the impact they have on communities. Neighborhood Development Corporations exist to provide affordable housing in their communities. Selling housing credits to cities and corporations would be a simple and straightforward way to facilitate the housing that is so desperately required in our communities today.

The cost of housing credits should reflect the local price to create units, and it should scale with the relative cost of development. For example, building a single housing unit in San Francisco has a much higher unit cost than building a hundred or a thousand units. These economies of scale should be passed on to the buyer, and the locations where they are buying credits should accurately reflect the impact their workforce is having on existing communities.

San Francisco has half a billion dollars sitting in a fund allocated by a ballot measure intended to create housing for unhoused people in the city. The problem is that there is not a clear and obvious way for the city to use this money. If nonprofit institutions existed in various neighborhoods in the city and sold housing credits which funded the construction of affordable housing for impacted populations, then the city would have an easy and straightforward option for directing those funds to creating that much-needed affordable housing.

Creating housing credits and selling them to cities and companies would be a great way to fund the development of affordable housing.

The Future

In the long-term, this could form the basis for a strategy of seeking retroactive credits from organizations which have impacted housing inventories throughout history. For example, many companies are now carbon negative due to buying sufficient carbon credits to offset not only their current production but also their past production. Therefore this same strategy could be used to expand housing beyond solving merely the current crisis to also resolve past injustices.

It’s easy to see a future where cities include housing credits in impact analyses when approving development, thus requiring developers to account for their impact on the housing inventory of the communities surrounding their projects.

Now that the Earth is turning into Tatooine, how practical is moisture farming?

I wanted to work out a simple proof of concept and cost analysis for how to actually extract a meaningful amount of moisture from the air. This estimate includes the best prices I could find for each component of a reliable system which will continue to work for a period of ten years without maintenance or upgrades. It is sized for one-person. If you need to make enough water for more people, it would be more expensive and technically complex.

Let’s start with the actual moisture removal process and then talk about powering it…

Ok so this is a $43 dehumidifier which extracts 400ml per day of water from the air. This is the best price I could find.

An average person needs about a gallon of water per day minimum to survive. A gallon is 3784ml which means one person needs ten of these running nonstop to provide a constant supply of enough water for them to survive. The total cost of ten of them comes out to  $430 for the dehumidifiers.

Now let’s power our moisture farm…

This dehumidifier needs 5 amps of power at 12 volts. This comes out to 60 watts per hour. That’s 1,440 watts per day per dehumidifier. Since we will need ten of them, that’s 14,400 watts per day total. This is a lot of power.

Dividing that by the rule of thumb for five hours of average 100% sunlight per day, you get a solar panel size needed of 2,880 watts. 29 100 watt solar panels will provide that. At $82/each, that comes out to a total cost of $2,378 for the panels.

Victron

Now you need an inverter to charge the batteries from the solar panels. Victron seels a very reputable one which works perfectly for this set of specifications. It costs $1,285.

The last thing we need is the batteries. We will need to store enough power each day from the solar panels to run the humidifiers until the next day. Realistically, we would need more than that because sometimes it will be cloudy so this is a very conservative estimate.

Battle Born Battery

This is a very reputable standard current generation battery which gets thousands of charge cycles so it will last many years. It is rated at 12v and 100ah or 1,200 watts. Dividing our 14,400 daily needs by 1,200 we see that we will need 12 of these batteries. At $949/ea, that comes out to a total price of $11,388 for the batteries.

Parts List & Total Cost

TOTAL COST JUST $15,481!

(Price per person)

Data: Air Quality and Cooking

I was curious what cooking does to air quality and nuclear radiation. We know that cooking meats releases naturally occurring radioactive materials just like wildfires do.

For the curious, I was cooking bulgogi. As you can see, at 1:30 when I started cooking, there was a huge spike in the indoor air pollution in my home. In fact this level of indoor air pollution does qualify as “Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups” under the international standard.

Bulgogi

 

Now let’s look at the nuclear radiation aspect of cooking. This is less cut and dry…

My sensors measure only beta and gamma decay, not alpha. These kinds of radiation have only moderate penetrating power, and so we would expect to see a lower level indoors with less change over time. The higher outdoor level comes from both solar radiation and the norms radiated by the wildfires. This data is the hourly average for Geiger cpm readings taken every minute.

As you can see, despite a decrease in the ambient radiation levels measured outside, there was a slight increase in indoor radiation levels.

Desert Advantages

If we build an off-grid permaculture community in the desert, there would be lots of natural advantages such as access to lots of solar power.

If you want to live off-grid, you will need things to get started. Producing those things can help others get started. Producing better more sustainable alternatives to existing products makes your work an act of justice.

Here is a working list of products that I think these communities could produce with huge natural advantages.

Dehydrated Foods

Being in the desert means having low humidity. This means that dehydrating foods is a much simpler process and there is a natural advantage for producing these goods for export.

Starting here is also advantageous because it allows you to develop a sales funnel while importing foods to dehydrate, and then later growing those foods yourself.

Biltong/ Jerky

Jerky is a popular item across the nation and the world. It sells for ridiculously high prices in every grocery store and gas station. The market is huge and undercutting it would be easy. A pound of beef costs just a few dollars, but a pound of jerky costs ten times that.

Fruits and Veggies

Bananas, oranges, apples, and other fruits and vegetables are popular dried snacks. Hikers, backpackers, campers, burners, and many other groups crave these snacks and you can provide them.

Organic Recycling

There are many materials that can be recycled to produce great local value. Here are some examples. Composting is a good way to create new arable land. If you’re living on sand or rocks in the desert, adding compost lets you garden in the ground or raised beds.

Ashes

Ashes are a valuable addition to compost which increases the potassium and allows better results for your plants.

Green Waste

Composting takes time and space. If you have a few hundred acres in the desert, you are in a good position to take vegetable waste from restaurants and cafes in nearby towns and compost it.

This produces a lot of heat for up to a year. It could easily be used as a heat or power source by running pipes to collect the extra heat produced by the composting process.

When the compost is done, it can be sold as valuable soil or used to grow more plants.

Building a Travel Trailer

After many years of camping trips, I decided to build a custom travel trailer!

Must Haves

It has to be pitch black inside and very comfortable. I need my sleep and I like to stay up late. I really don’t want any windows at all. I always cover my bedroom windows with blackout fabric and sleep until noon.

It was also very important to me that it be fully off-grid. That means enough solar and batteries to heat or cool the space, cook food, and to make my own water.

Design

I went for a very simple design which is highly utilitarian. I was inspired by designs like this and this.

I went for a simple rectangular shape using this 5×8 steel trailer as a foundation. There are 4×8 trailers which are a bit cheaper, but having an extra foot of width still leaves in narrower than my car while making a lot more space inside for activities.

I decided to use exterior sheathing plywood for the base and walls, with ground contact 2x6s for the framing. This makes the structure extremely strong and resilient. Finally I covered everything in white flex-seal which is basically a bed liner to prevent any leakage or gaps.

The rear wall of the trailer opens completely. It hinges up and onto a pair of gas pistons. This is great because it also acts as a canopy to shade the entrance, while allowing a great view of the outside world.

Comfort

I purchased two folding memory foam pads which convert to either a bed or a couch. These rest on an elevated bed with about a foot of storage underneath and about two feet of floor between the bed and the door.

Above the head of the bed there is a 5,000 btu air conditioner and also a small electric heater.

I am including a microwave and coffee maker. These run easily off the lithium bank and allow hot food to be quickly prepared even in the most remote locations.

In the trunk of the car, there is a pop-up tent and a portable toilet. This comes in handy when you’re a long way from restrooms and don’t feel like digging a hole. Storing it in the trunk means there is no smell in the sleeping space.

I had planned out a complex system for filtering water and then using propane to have hot showers outside the trailer. I decided not to do this for several reasons. First, after a recent summer camping trip of several weeks in Tahoe, I learned that it’s easy to find a place to take a shower. Second, I can easily use a cheap pump sprayer to take showers just like we do at Burning Man. Third, I really don’t want to have any propane at all in the design.

Power

It was very important to me to keep everything electric so that it is completely sustainable and can run indefinitely off of the solar panels. I really don’t want to rely on propane, partly because it’s a fossil fuel and partly because it is inherently limited and means I will need to keep refilling it.

My main source of power is the solar array. As a backup and depending on the weather wherever I happen to be, there is also a 2kw generator on the tongue of the trailer. Hopefully I will not need to use this

I think this will be plenty of power, but I am considering adding a second solar array to the passenger side of the trailer which can also lift automatically into position. This would double my available power for just a few hundred dollars.

Assemble The Trailer

Ironton 5x8 1715lb Trailer

So first let me say I am glad I bought this trailer and I would buy it again. The price is great and the 5×8 profile is great. But assembling it was a nightmare. The directions that come with it are completely wrong (apparently they are for some previous version of the trailer). It’s not too hard to figure it out though. It took me about four hours working alone to get get it completely assembled with the extras I added.

I definitely recommend running a separate ground line to all the lights instead of trying to use a painted frame alone to carry the ground. Also the market lights come with these stupid vampire taps. Just splice the wires properly.

I added several things to the trailer. First this wheel jack on the tongue.

Next, this security kit. It comes with a ball lock, a trigger lock, and a receiver lock for under thirty bucks. Great value.

This trailer has a 17″ hitch height (from the ground). My car is a 2013 Honda Civic LX which has a 12 inch hitch height, so I got a 5 inch hitch lift which is sized correctly for my U-Haul receiver (1.25″),  and also the appropriate ball to connect the hitch lift to the trailer.

U-Haul charged about $300 for parts, labor, and wiring to install the receiver.

All of this is rated much higher than what I need for this project. You could probably cut some corners but I like to be sure that nothing will go wrong.

Bed!

Trailer Construction 1

The first step in constructing the bed was to pick up four sheets of pressure treated 3/4″ 4’x8′ plywood. These were very expensive and probably a lot more than is really needed but again I want to make sure this thing lasts forever.

In this photo, you can see two layers of plywood stacked on top of each other…

Since the trailer is 5×8 but wood only comes in 4×8, it takes four pieces. The bottom layer is two pieces of 4×5 which covers the entire trailer but leaves a seam in the middle. So I decided to do a second layer which you can see above. This moves the seams away from the middle, eliminating any leakage or openings in the floor.

Trailer Construction 2

Here you can see the top layer is removed, showing the first layer only. Because the bolts that hold the frame together stick out above the frame, I decided to use a hole saw to cut holes in the bottom layer to allow it to sit flush on the frame. You can also see the big seam in the middle which would potentially let air and creatures in.

Trailer Construction 3

Here you can see a close-up of the 1″ holes which fit the bolts perfectly. You can also see a closeup of the seam which needs covering up.

Trailer Construction 4

In between the two layers, I put an entire bottle of Gorilla Glue, making sure to completely surround all the holes and the seam, so that once the wood is glued together, no moisture can get in  between the layers.

Again this is overkill because pressure treated plywood is already waterproof but just to be safe I decided to go for the gold here.

Trailer Construction 5

Next I put the top layer back on, gluing it in place. You may notice I made sure to put the nice finished side down and leave the ugly side up. This was not on purpose. 😀

Trailer Construction 6

Next I put dozens of screws in to hold the boards together and let the glue set very tightly. I made sure to surround every seam and hole with several screws just to be sure it will be a good tight fit and last forever.

Trailer Construction 7

Last, I piled everything heavy I could find on top to compress the boards for the next 24 hours until the glue has set.

Frame and Walls

I decided to go with a simple geometric rectangle. I used exterior pine sheathing for the bed, walls, and roof with 2×6 deck boards for framing. Then I covered everything in flex seal which is basically bed liner. This is definitely overkill but I want to be sure I don’t have anything to worry about.

The rear wall swings up to serve as the door, and is supported by a pair of gas pistons. I used Autocad to figure out where to mount them based on the open and closed lengths to get the angle I wanted when the door is open.

I used pressure treated fir 2×6 deck boards with three inch deck screws for the framing, and then I also added steel brackets to every joint, and the same 3/4″ pressure treated plywood on the outside.

The framing is a little wonky because of the way I’m doing the mattress. In this photo you can see there is a frame around the front, and then on the front face where the front wall will go. I’m planning to add an air conditioner to the front wall, so there will be another cross member on the front.

There is also a frame around the midpoint so that the roof panels can be mounted at the seam. Then there is a third frame to support the end of the mattress platform. You can see the three cross-beams which are also mounted with both three-inch deck screws and steel brackets.

I am planning to add sheets of styrofoam to the voids between the studs and then cover the inside walls with nicer-looking plywood.

Note that there is another sheet of plywood in the bottom just for storage. It will become the back wall/door. Also that random board laying across the beams is just hanging out, not permanently placed there.

Making the front wall was a little complicated because I had a lot of extra wood and I didn’t want to buy another $60 sheet of this plywood so I did the same thing as the base and cut and glued several 3/4 sheets together to form a 1.5″ thick front wall. This is on the ground drying in the photo.

While the glue dries, I decided to apply the first coat of white flex-seal to the side and roof panels. I used a roller to coat it all over, and then used a spray can to make sure any little crevices are well sealed. I will probably end up doing a total of two coats to the entire outside.

Here you can see all three walls up, with the roof panels laying on top. The first coat of flex seal is now on.

I need to pick up some more spray-on flex seal to fill in the seams before the second coat goes on.

Lastly because I’m using a five-foot wide trailer, there is an extra foot of space on the roof next to the four-foot solar panels. This means there is room for a vent with a built-in fan! I used a jigsaw and cut out a hole, then it was a simple process to screw the vent down and seal the edges with flex seal.

Air Conditioning

I used a jigsaw to cut out a box in the front wall to fit an air conditioner. I also made sure to leave enough room underneath the AC for the toolbox. Next I will add wood at angles to make the overall shape of the front of the trailer more aerodynamic.

Back Door With Digital Lock

I wanted to have the entire back wall open as a door for several, reasons. First it’s a nice big open space for loading cargo and materials into the trailer for transit. Second it’s much cheaper than installing the typical doors people use. I cut a hole in the 3/4″ plywood to mount the lock directly onto the 2×6 frame on the inside of the door.

This slides perfectly into the frame of the trailer, with adhesive weather stripping forming a seal all around the opening. I also installed a pair of gas pistons to lift the door and hold it open. This was tricky and took a lot of trial and error to get them positioned perfectly. Overall I’m very happy with the way the door turned out.

Initial Performance Data

I drove the trailer to a campground about thirty miles from my house. As you can see it’s not yet very aerodynamic, and yet I got about 30 mpg which is barely lower than my usual 33 mpg. I was surprised it performed so well, but after reflecting on these numbers, I think a big part of it is the fact that I’m driving 55 mph with the trailer rather than my usual 75-80 mph. My car is rated for 40 mpg if you’re driving 55 mph, so actually this is probably taking away about 25% of the optimal efficiency. It will be interesting to see how it does once the shape is more aerodynamic.

Because the power systems are not yet complete, I plugged the camper in at the campground. I left the AC on the entire time we were there (with the eco mode turned off) in order to test the power consumption in a typical camping situation. It averaged 175 watts per hour. It was highs of about 92 this weekend.

One really interesting takeaway was feeling the temperature of the walls inside and out. I really wish I had an infrared thermometer gun to get more precise data on this. The white walls felt cool to the touch inside and out even in direct sunlight. The unpainted wall however felt hot to the touch both inside and out. I was surprised at how significant the temperature difference was just from painting the outside white. I will definitely make sure to finish painting the remaining rear wall as soon as the paint is back in stock at the store.

After returning home, I decided to perform another experiment. I will turn the AC on only when I am sleeping for several days in order to determine power consumption under more normal circumstances. After all, in the wild, I will not be running the AC when I am not in the camper and the only time I am really in there is when I am sleeping.

 

Jacks

I had been debating whether or not to add jacks to the trailer, and as I walked around on it installing the bed, I noticed a line which I could not cross without it tipping over backwards. So I decided to add jacks.

The electric jacks I found need a 2.5 inch hole which seems fine going through a 2×6 but I decided to stack two 2x6s just to be safe. Since the trailer is five feet wide, I cut the 2x6s to six feet, meaning there will be a 6″x6″ square sticking out each side. I cut holes here to mount the jacks. I bought a set from harbor freight but these are the closest equivalent I could find online.

I cut the beams to size and wood glued them together, then deck screwed them together in eight places. I used three 120mm bolts to mount the beam to the trailer’s structural cross-member just behind the tires. This should be perfect for making sure it won’t shift around or tip over once it’s set up.

I tested the design by pushing the structure around once it was up in the air and it all seems very sturdy. Before I installed the jacks, I jumped on the ends to see if there was any give, and it was all rock solid. These jacks are each rated for more than double the weight of the trailer so I think it will work perfectly.

I used some locktite to attach a high precision bubble level to each jack’s base as well as to the trailer’s tongue. This makes it easy to level everything out. I ran power from each jack to my main 12v distribution panel. (see below) I also attached an inline breaker so the jacks don’t receive power if they don’t need it.

The trailer’s frame wiring includes a special ground line I ran to all the lights and frame segments because the manufacturer just expected the ground connection to magically travel through painted joints which obviously doesn’t work. So when I wired the jacks, I also connected the ground from the 12v distribution panel to the ground line I had run for the lights and frame. This is one of only two places where wires run through the exterior of the trailer. I drilled two tight holes for the wires, then stabled them on both sides of the wall and filled the holes with locktite. I will also add a coat of clear rubber over that once it dries. This should form a very good seal while also preventing static problems in the low voltage system that could otherwise arise. I will probably add some kind of grounding strap in the future. There are going to be a lot of mixed voltage systems with thousands of watts of batteries inside, so we want to avoid ground isolation as much as possible in order to prolong the life of the electronics.

 

 

COMING SOON

Power Systems

The biggest thing to do here is just cut the hole for the shore power and then assemble all the pieces. There is a 12 volt system and a 120 volt system. Let’s start with the 12 volt system. This system runs the jacks, actuators, and lighting.

12 Volts

I am using this 12 volt distribution panel powered off a simple cigarette lighter cord which I split in two with the distro in between. This cord plugs into the battery bank, while one of the other ports on the distribution panel goes to the other end of the original cigarette lighter cord. Other wires run from the distro panel to things like the linear actuators, jacks, ventilation, and eventually the future water pump.

120 Volts

The 120 volt power system is a little different.

The generator plugs in through a shore socket on the outside of the trailer. This means it can stay hooked up when not in use. If shore power is available, then we simply unplug the generator and plug the shore power in.

From the shore socket, power runs to a power strip which serves as a shore bus. From here, the lithium bank can be charged from either shore power or the generator. (I will add a link to the lithium bank when it becomes available for sale. I bought it on an Indiegogo and they are not currently for sale. In the mean time, something like a Bluetti 2400 would be equivalent though this doesn’t charge as fast so I would wait for the new one to come out or else buy two of them.

An automatic transfer switch defaults to shore power if available, or runs off the lithium bank. This switch powers the chassis bus which is a special kill-a-watt plugin strip allowing things like HVAC or lighting to automatically run from the most appropriate power source. Also in between the transfer switch and the chassis bus is a UPS to smooth out the transfer and prevent power loss or surges from reaching sensitive equipment.

Main power is produced by a solar array. This array contains four 100 watt panels mounted to a tilting frame on the roof. The entire trailer is leveled by using electric ground jacks. Then, a pair of linear actuators lifts the solar panels to the correct angle for the latitude.

Housing Everyone

Housing is a problem everywhere, but nowhere is it as bad as it is in San Francisco. I had an idea a few years ago which inspired me to go back to school and study this issue in depth in order to deploy this potential solution. This is why I chose to move to the city where this problem is worst in order to study this problem and this potential solution.

As a student at SFSU majoring in Urban Studies with minors in Racial Resistance and Queer Ethnic Studies, I learned from leaders in both the non-profit and for-profit housing development sectors as well as the the financial side of the issue, the public policy stream, and the advocacy stream. Together these forces try to improve conditions and ameliorate the housing crisis, with limited success.

Lots of housing is being built; luxury condos. This displaces the people who already lived in the neighborhood and drives cost of living up. Combined with busing rich people into this new neighborhood, this can mean the theft of entire communities by wealthy people who pave over the existing culture and erase generations of history. This forces marginalized people into denser living situations and further depresses the remaining affordable neighborhoods. We call this social problem gentrification.

Gentrification is different from development. Gentrification is development which displaces marginalized people from existing communities and replaces them with privileged people. Development can sometimes be good, but gentrification is always bad.

“Affordable” vs “affordable”

It’s not possible to build affordable housing that is a good investment. Therefore there are two ways that affordable housing may exist.

There are several different ways the word affordable works with regard to housing. What does it mean for housing to be affordable? It means that the monthly price of the unit is less than 30% of the median income in the same community. Let’s say the median income is $1,000/month. An affordable unit of housing would have to cost less than $300/month.

The problem with the standard definition of affordable housing should be obvious. Even if there is “affordable” housing available, it’s only affordable for the top-half of the income percentiles.

Now let’s talk about the two types of affordable housing.

Capital-A affordable generally means housing that is subsidized by government programs. If I am living in the example community I just gave, and I’m only earning $500/month, then a unit that’s affordable for me would be $150/month. Therefore government programs will pay the difference. If I find a unit that costs $2200/month then the government will pay the remaining $2,050 each month so I can afford the unit. I hope this looks like a ridiculous solution to this problem, because it is.

Little-A affordable means housing whose price is already affordable. Typically this is going to be in depressed communities with a history of redlining and systemic racism. The effect of these low prices is that rich people will take these units and drive the prices in the community up. Thus eliminating any affordable units through gentrification.

The solution seems obvious to me. We need a lot more units, and we need them everywhere.

Why is this still a problem?

As I see it, there are two major fundamental problems — especially in San Francisco — which contribute to gentrification. Officially, we have fines for luxury condo developers who neglect to include affordable units in new construction. These fines are typically about 10% of the cost of building those affordable units. Therefore, almost no one builds affordable units. When they do, residents are often excluded from the building’s amenities and given a separate “poor door” around the corner which accesses the affordable units.

In other cities like Portland, developers of large projects can be required to provide identical units to residents with rents based on their income rather than market prices. This means developers do not have the opportunity to pay tiny fines and skip the affordable units; all the units must be affordable based on the income of the residents.

The second major fundamental problem is the cost per unit to construct affordable housing. Like most cities, the developer industry in San Francisco is an oligopoly with a small number of firms controlling the market and openly colluding to artificially inflate prices and prevent competition. This means the cost per unit to construct affordable housing is now up to a million dollars. This makes those tiny in lieu fees look very attractive to developers who have no rational reason to build affordable units which can never break even.

What would be better?

Everyone deserves dignity and housing. Currently, cities in California are required to investigate the progress they’re making in addressing the unmet need for housing. Unfortunately there is no requirement that they actually do anything about the problem or that they actually meet their housing needs. Consequently, some cities are officially projecting they will meet their current needs in about eight-hundred years.

Solving social problems is hard. It takes a lot of work from a lot of angles, and it takes proposed solutions. I am planning to approach this problem from three angles.

First, we need to build an activist organization devoted to building as much housing as possible.

Second, we need new solutions to dramatically reduce the cost of building housing.

Third, we need powerful and ethically-constrained corporate interests fighting both the market and the political system to accomplish the goal of housing everyone.

What would it look like?

I propose a radical shift to a completely different strategy from what has been tried before. There are several firms attempting to develop modular construction techniques. None of them sells a single unit which is ready to live in. They often sell sections of framing which still need siding, plumbing, and electrical installed.

I propose to manufacture complete units ready to live in.

By building these units inside shipping containers, they can then be dropped in place and even stacked ten stories high. This is what they are designed for; on ships crossing the high seas.

These units would have a front-door and a rear balcony or porch. Simple plumbing and electrical connections allow easy installation of a single unit in a back yard or in a drop-in mid-rise residential tower.

Imagine if Tesla or Solar City were selling apartments instead of cars. You call or go online and make an order, then a team comes to install it. Everything from financing to electrical and plumbing is built in to the process. You have a single point of contact and everything is taken care of.

This allows us to take advantage of dramatic recent progress in ADU deregulation.  This policy change allows us to pit NIMBY against NIMBY; every back yard becomes a rental unit which helps bring the prices down.

Another huge opportunity is disaster response. A single cargo ship can hold ten thousand shipping containers. Imagine sending ten thousand homes to the site of a disaster. From ships to trains to trucks, the infrastructure is already in place to cheaply ship these units anywhere in the world.

Lastly, I advocate for a nonprofit community-owned model. Rather than having everyone owning units separately, have the residents own the entire development together. The project could be structured as a land trust or other similar permanent entity, giving full power and control over the building to those who actually live there. This would integrate with a set of responsibilities the residents adopt under a consensus model of resident stewardship.

Endless Options

Part of what’s so exciting about this idea is the fact that there are several different options. The various shapes and sizes of these containers are designed to lock together into large structures. This means we can easily build an extremely strong tower containing lots of different sizes and types of units. These towers are designed to tilt back and forth to extreme angles on a constant basis on cargo ships. This means these structures will be extremely resistant to earth quakes and other environmental problems associated with the ongoing collapse of the biosphere.

We can cheaply build affordable units, and we can also cheaply build luxury units. Combining these in interesting ways lets us create integrated communities consistent with the design principles of new urbanism.

Perhaps most significant is the opportunity to integrate self-contained, closed-loop, off-grid systems. We can easily make these units solar powered. We can easily make these units filter their own drinking water from wells or creeks and integrate septic systems to cleanly and safely dispose of the waste. Creating this integrated housing solution with an eye on permaculture and designing for closed-loop systems-thinking means anyone can live anywhere and get their needs met whether they’re in a desert or a rainforest.

Philanthropic Arm

Equally important to the idea of manufacturing these units is the idea of having a nonprofit arm which builds lots of affordable housing units and then manages them. This will allow us to have a widespread impact on the housing crisis while also being our own biggest customer.

One of the most exciting parts of the business model is the idea of “housing credits.” I want to create a new tool for those who want to help solve the housing crisis. Most large companies buy carbon offsets which fund the offsetting of their carbon impact. I want to create housing credits which offset the effects of companies contributing to demographic shifts in communities where their employees displace existing residents.

Data: $30 DIY Air Filters Are Excellent

I recently did a post about an experimental filter design which should provide excellent protection for just $30, probably exceeding the effectiveness of even the most expensive filters on the market.

Well the data is in, and I was right.

A Very Smokey Week

Due to the most extreme wildfire conditions in history, California was exposed to a week of unbelievably bad air quality. I had set up sensors ahead of time to test a filtration method I had come up with through collaboration with a friend over several years.

You can get the full details here, but basically there is a certain kind of very cheap filter which is extremely effective at removing smoke from the air. It’s possible to get one which fits perfectly over a 20×20 box fan. Several of these working together can effectively clean a large indoor area.

DIY Filter

Here are the results.

These three charts show the data collected for each day. I checked the values once a minute, all week long. Here you can see the daily averages compared to the daily maximums.

Air quality index is an international standard method of calculating an average value for the level of pollution in the air. Typically during wildfires, PM 2.5 or PM 10 is going to be what is reported as the AQI. PM stands for particulate matter. The numbers stand for the micron size of the particulate matter. So in this experiment I am measuring PM 1.0, 2.5, and 10.

The values in these graphs are the same units as the AQI numbers you see reported in the news. It’s a measure of micrograms per cubic meter or per liter of air. So for example if the PM 2.5 is 100, then that means there are 100 micrograms of particulate matter with a size of 2.5 microns per liter of air. The AQI number is a daily average of the measurements taken that day.

Controversial Methodology: I have chosen to also include the maximum values recorded each day because as you can see, it’s often more than double the average. I personally feel reporting only the averages is not helpful in making informed health decisions. As you can see for example on September 13, the average outdoor PM2.5 value was 300, and yet there were moments where it was over 800.

PM 2.5

PM 1.0

PM 10

As you can see, there is a major outlier for indoor air quality on the 13th. This was a control group. On the thirteenth, I decided to turn off the filters to see what would happen. As you can see, the air quality in the house that day was even worse than the extreme conditions outside. This is a normal and expected result. Indoor air quality is typically much worse than outdoor air quality. This is a big part of why it’s so dangerous when these conditions exist.

A Closer Look At The Control Group

To confirm the effectiveness of the filter, I turned it off for several hours on the thirteenth to see what would happen. See for yourself;

Control Group

Within about an hour of turning off the filter, the indoor pollution levels jumped by over eight-hundred percent, reaching about double the outdoor levels from the same moment. This is perhaps the most compelling evidence I’ve seen for the urgent need to filter indoor air, especially during wildfires.

I don’t recall it ever seeming particularly smokey or difficult to breathe during this period. I did not expect such a huge jump in such a short time. I was just sitting there for several hours breathing double the “hazardous” level of air pollution and being none the wiser until I checked the sensors.

In Conclusion

Buy a fan and filter.

Desert Farming Is Better

This title may sound contradictory but I’d like to persuade you that it actually makes more sense. Desertification is spreading around the world. Additionally, high deserts like those present in Nevada will be less susceptible to the effects of climate change such as wildfires and sea level rise.

Climate collapse is already driving migration in the United States and around the world. This trend will continue to accelerate and grow as conditions worsen. The biosphere is already collapsing. Even if we suddenly change course 180 degrees and get serious about fundamentally changing everything about society and the economy; it’s too late to avert the next few decades of disasters which will themselves speed up the process. Desertification is perhaps the least terrible of the disasters that’s coming, and one of the easiest to embrace now.

Xericulture is not going to make you a rich farmer. It’s not about capitalist profit motives. Instead, it’s about learning to conserve rather than consume and produce enough to thrive and share.

Perhaps the most important reason desert farming is the right place to learn about living sustainably is the fact that being away from readily consumable resources means being forced to consider the inputs and outputs of your community and to use your resources carefully, conserving rather than consuming.

Blue Gold: Water Capture and Reuse

In Taos New Mexico, The Eathship Academy builds permaculture homesteads from recycled materials. In a region that gets just a few inches of rain per year, these homesteads are sometimes constructed like funnels to catch and store that rainwater…

Taos rain catcher roof

The community’s members have developed techniques to safely store, use, and reuse this limited water supply over and over.

Greenhouse aquaculture allows the earthship residents to grow fish in their homes, using the liquid waste products from fish and humans to feed their food crops. This technique (called aquaponics) also allows bacteria, plants, and fungi to continuously clean and recycle the limited water supply.

Desert Food Crops

There are many food crops that thrive in deserts. One example is Indian Rice Grass, a historical staple food of the high deserts of the Americas.

Less Water + More Food

According to research from Cal Poly, this kind of closed-loop aquaponics system conserves 99.75% of the water. This means it uses 90% less water compared to conventional farming techniques while actually growing more food and allowing all of it to happen anywhere, even in a greenhouse in the desert.

Simple filtration systems allow the water in the fish tanks to be reused as potable once again for showers or drinking water. Using staged mesh filters as described here makes most of the filters permanent and eliminates the need to replace disposable filters. Sediments collected by the mesh fitlers goes into the compost process.

Black Gold: Composting

There are three main inputs for the compost loop. First, human solid wastes. Second, fish solid waste which is automatically filtered using simple techniques. Third, green waste from food crops. Together these three inputs form the next generation of compost. This compost allows future food crops as well as serving as a product to be sold or donated to neighbors and other communities.

Regenerativity Is Built-In

I hope a theme is evolving in your mind while you read this. See how each form of waste becomes useful and is leveraged as a valuable asset rather than something to be discarded? See how these simple techniques and systems manage themselves with very little work from the community members? This is the thesis of closed-loop regenerative design in intentional communities. More than just being a sustainable process, the wastes actually create new value for the community; this means that the community can actually be regenerated rather than burdened by its outputs.

Born of Necessity

Desertification is spreading to cover the globe. The biosphere is collapsing, and it’s going to take with it the economy we rely on to provide for our needs. Even America is seeing the effects, and it’s likely to get a lot worse in short order.

Embracing these techniques and methods now gives us an advantage once society begins to realize it is collapsing along with the biosphere. People say we should be the change we want to see; but beyond that, we can be the survivors we want to see. We can model how to minimize personal impact while also modeling how to survive the collapse of capitalism and the biosphere.

Embracing desert permaculture now will put us in a much better position as things continue to get worse around the world and at home.

Desolation

I recently spent several weeks of solitude in the desolation wilderness writing about an idea I’ve been working on. Here are my notes from that trip.

Shared foundational assumptions

  1. First let’s assume David Harvey’s argument that communities are an urban process, not just a place. That process becomes an argument for how communities should be. If we leave communities alone and don’t plan them, then they become deeply unjust. We must therefore carefully articulate arguments about what kind of communities we want, or else we can not possibly get there.
  2. Let’s further assume Kate Raworth’s arguments about doughnut economics. Planetary boundaries exist; natural resources have limits. People should not be forced to live below a certain quality of life. Infinite unlimited growth is not possible and as a goal it creates harm while ignoring suffering and injustice. Focusing on improving quality of life and sustainability are better goals.
  3. First let’s start with a bit of context for this one. Capitalism is different from mercantilism. There is nothing inherently wrong with people buying and selling things; mercantilism is good. Capitalism is the hoarding of wealth by the rich based on exploiting the poor. Capitalism is an engine that creates inequality and harms. Capitalism is the reason for the lack of affordable housing, a problem it is not able to address.  Neoliberalism is the argument that capitalism is somehow a cure for social problems rather than the cause of social problems. Modern capitalism and neoliberalism are inseparable because of neoclassical economics which forms the foundation of both philosophies. Neoclassical economics does not work. So let’s further assume we reject neoliberalism, capitalism, and neoclassical economics which are three ways of saying the same thing in this context.
  4. Systems thinking: a community is not just the community or even just the process. It is also its inputs and outputs. Close these loops! Within every challenge lies an opportunity. Turn waste into compost. Turn roofs into rainwater collectors. Turn solutions into tools for others to use to liberate themselves like we have.

What are the major problems we face in our communities today?

The lack of sufficient affordable housing is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that there are plenty of homes to house everyone. Affordable housing does not exist for most people, and can not exist under capitalism.

Poverty is widespread and pervasive and forms the foundation for most social problems because of strain and lack of access to vital resources like food, clean water, healthcare and education. Poverty is the result of a flawed system which combines two unjust circumstances: pay-to-live and lack-of-opportunity.

Hunger is widespread and pervasive despite the fact that we grow plenty of food to feed everyone and most food that is grown goes to waste rather than to feeding hungry people.

Along with hunger goes access to clean water; most people around the world and many people across America have no access to clean water, despite the fact that there is more than enough clean water for everyone. Instead of building pipelines to bring that water to those who need it, we build pipelines to bring oil from those same areas in order to further pollute the world instead of providing for the basic needs of the people.

The fact that so many people’s basic needs are not met by the system prevents those people from self-actualizing and reaching their full potential. The cost of this failure to society and individuals is incalculable.

What would be a better way of doing communities?

A good community is one that continuously develops itself as a sustainable city which meets the basic needs of all its members and provides them with the tools and resources they need to self-actualize and go on to do whatever they want to do with their lives. (Food, water, housing, electricity, internet access, healthcare)

A sustainable community meets the needs of the present without compromising the needs of the future. (Brundtland)

A good community is just by design, providing additional help to those who need it.

A good community is resilient, planning to survive the coming disasters in an uncertain future with a collapsing biosphere.

A good community is one where everyone strives to work fewer hours and consume less resources (electricity, water, food, etc). Well-being and quality of life become the objectives rather than infinitely-increasing productivity (GPD, fiscal growth, etc). Raworth and others call this concept de-growth.

A good community is one where the community owns the land together and makes careful decisions about its use, rather than giving land to capitalists who displace the poor and members of minority groups.

A good community is one where decision making is transparent and inclusive, requiring the consent of the people in the community.

A good community is one where community goals and priorities align closely with things like the sustainable development goals, the doughnut economics model, planned resiliency, arcology, and permaculture.

A good community uses domes, greenhouses, aquaculture, and other methods for producing the maximum amount of nutrient-dense food with the minimum amount of labor.

A good community works to spread its ideas by starting new communities elsewhere and sharing lessons learned.

What advantages would such a community have?

A community such as I have outlined would have many natural advantages. Perhaps the most significant is resiliency; the community would be able to survive unexpected disasters and stressors.

Such a community would be able to devote a significant portion of its time and resources to fulfilling its own needs and the needs of its neighbors.

One easy way to bring money in is by doing what Taos, Arcosanti, and Biosphere 2 have done; bring people to visit and learn about the results of the argument we are making. Have camping and events, bus people in from major cities, give tours and talks, and take other steps to spread the ideas that will change and improve communities everywhere.

Additionally there are a huge number of natural advantages and opportunities for producing goods and services which allow others to adopt similar positive change in their own communities. For example food, water, reusable containers, low-impact soaps and sustainable cleaning products, etc.

Closing loops for things like water and compost allows waste products to become valuable resources. Check out this longer post about that topic.

Another example of an opportunity is to sell the subsistence products such as vegetables and fruits which the community grows. This would also be a great way to connect and network with neighbors by hosting a farmers market or taking produce to external farmers markets.

What are some examples of similar communities that already exist?

Oneida was a utopian socialist commune which made a fortune producing and selling flatware for decades. You can still buy their flatware in most any department store.

Arcosanti is a proof of concept community from visionary architect Paolo Soleri whose goal was to fuse architecture with ecology, creating communities with integrated planning for their inputs, outputs, and fulfilling the needs of citizens. Arcosanti also famously makes unique, one-of-a-kind bronze wind bells which they sell both online and in-person.

Biosphere 2 is a long-term closed experiment in ecological systems research. It contains seven enclosed biomes full of plants, animals, and people working together to learn about how to be a good community in concert with its local ecology.

Taos Earthship Academy is a community of permaculture homesteads constructed from recycled materials with the intent of living sustainably and teaching others to duplicate their amazing results.

Faerie sanctuaries are the modern implementation of the radical faerie philosophy of queer ancom. There are countless examples spread all over the world of shared houses and small or large communities working on queer intentional communities which host events, produce their own food, and try to live sustainably.

Freedom Georgia Initiative is a community currently being built by a group of black families who wanted to create a safe place for black people. Together, 19 families purchased an entire town! They are building on a long history of black cooperatives doing similar work.

Farming communities in Bangladesh are turning the impacts of rising water and invasive species into an advantage. By collecting invasive floating plants like water hyacinth and lashing them together, they are able to build floating garden beds like their ancestors used. Crops are planted into the beds and then able to access the water below, all without any soil.

How do we get there?

The early steps for this kind of development might include the purchase of a large piece of semi-remote land. This land should get lots of sunlight and be at a high enough altitude to avoid rising sea levels and the smoke of burning forests. At the time of this writing, 400 acres in Nevada can be had for $30k-50k. High deserts are sort of perfect. It’s too easy to consume resources that are readily available. Choosing to locate away from flammable forests where closed systems or resource recycling become mandatory is a good step in the right direction.

Next, a nonprofit or similar entity should be created to allow the community to act together. The organizational structure should include as voting members everyone in community with provisions for incorporating new members as the population grows.

A land trust or similar legal framework should be created to ensure the ownership of the land remains with the community rather than any private entity. The entity constructed in the previous step should have the exclusive right to make decisions about the land through democratic processes.

I would highly recommend making every effort to insulate the overall legal entity from inevitable factionalism and internal political conflict by creating sub-units for different groups throughout the community. One useful model might be the way camps are assigned sections of land at black rock city by the larger organization. Decisions about which groups get to use the land go to the community and the larger organization while decisions about the way the land is used fall to the smaller organizations, with annual review by the larger community. This insulates the political issues of smaller camps from the decisions about placement by the larger community. It also prevents anyone from excluding anyone else from the city.