A Lifesized Lego Set for Farmers and Makers

I was invited to visit the Indiana Small Farm Conference this past weekend, and was I ever glad I went. I got to reconnect with some farmer friends and make new connections. I learned about the challenges facing the people who grow our food on a small scale. And of course lunch was delicious, as well it should be with food supplied from local farms and prepared by the stellar whole-foods caterer known as The Juniper Spoon.

But the highlight was a session with a representative from Open Source Ecology. This is a group I’ve had my eye on for a while because of the radical way they are working to take back the building blocks of modern life. The goal is nothing less than a modular, low-cost, DIY “Global Village Construction Set” of 50 machines that would meet the major needs of civilization.

The best part? The plans are all open source, allowing anyone, anywhere, to try them out and make improvements.

The 50 machines, from tractor to 3D printer to wind turbine.

The 50 machines, from tractor to 3D printer to wind turbine.

OSE Construction Manager Chris Reinhart, it turns out, lives just an hour away from me. He calls himself a tinkerer and maker, and holds an architecture degree from Ball State. He is developing plans for a micro-house that could be built by a small group of people in a handful of days, using equipment from the GVCS.

He posts his plans on Facebook and logs his work online for all to see. As a writer I shudder at the prospect of having so many eyes on a work-in-progress, but transparency is the name of the game here. Reinhart says the idea is to “tap the hive mind” and constantly iterate improvements.

Another goal is to standardize workflows. Reinhart explained that a group of 16-20 people could break into smaller teams, each take a module (there’s one for plumbing, one for windows, etc.), and work separately until time to put the construction together. He likened the system to a life-sized Lego set that can be snapped together.

The above TED talk by OSE’s founder, Marcin Jakubowski, talks about how lowering the barriers to farming, building, and manufacturing can unleash human potential. An entrepreneur who wants to start a construction company can jump right in. A household can add a DIY wind turbine and sell energy back to the grid. Farmers can be less dependent on manufacturers.

Think of it: That irritating built-in limitation of purchased gadgets, planned obsolescence, would become a thing of the past as people discover how to build and fix their own machines.

“This is a different model, economically and socially,” Reinhart says. In contrast to a top-down command and control ethos, this bottom-up model empowers many people on the ground, all making and innovating and selling to each other. I love the collaborative “do-it-with-others” spirit of these guys. Go DIWO!

OSE is planning an intensive workshop series to teach people to build six of the 16 machines that have been prototyped so far. For more information, check out this Crash Course on OSE.

Correction: The original blog post indicated that six machines have been prototyped; in actual fact 16 are in prototype phase, and the workshops are being offered on the six most mature designs.

Meet the Mudgirls

I’m always intrigued by people who are able to take the more complicated aspects of modern life into their own hands. Maybe that’s because outside of your basic paring knife and garden trowel, my own hands are pretty fumbly. The realm of natural building just amazes me.

Round Cob House Built by the Mudgirls

Round cob house built by the Mudgirls

Natural building involves using materials occurring in nature (and sometimes recycled materials) to construct homes and outbuildings. For example, back in Too Many Tons I posted a video featuring a DIY builder from Indiana making bricks from mud. Materials are sourced locally—perhaps clay from a neighbor who’s digging a pond, sand from a nearby excavation, straw from a local farmer.

Recently I discovered a British Columbia-based women’s collective specializing in cob building (using a mix of clay and straw). Meet the Mudgirls.

The Mudgirls are a collective of women builders on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada

The Mudgirls are a collective of women builders on the west coast of British Columbia, Canada

For the past seven years they’ve worked together as independent builders, doing seasonal work throughout the Vancouver Island area. Though they started with only about 10 days of work in the early years, many now make their main summer income from this work.

They’ve build cob ovens, cabins, sheds, fences, and outhouses. They also take their craft into conventional homes, using earthen plaster with beautiful results.

Interior of a Mudgirl-built home.

Interior of a Mudgirl-built home.

As a consensus-run group, they are trailblazing in other ways as well, showing a more egalitarian way to operate than the dominant paradigm’s business-as-usual. And they offer workshops at the most affordable rates in North America ($200 or less).

Mudgirl Rose Dickson, one of the founding members, was drawn to the collective because of her outlook as a feminist/environmentalist/artist. From the photos,* it’s clear that the Mudgirls’ work offers a creative outlet.

Cob Oven Made by Mudgirls

Cob oven made by Mudgirls

And these round structures are built to last, as witnessed by many such homes in England, still standing hundreds of years after their construction.

Not too long ago, a four-ton tree fell on a Mudgirl-built cob house—crashing through a bump-up of windows and earthen plaster and stopping at the cob wall. Rose reports, “No cracks in the wall from impact, and the guy who came to clear it off said a wooden house would have been crushed by the tree.”

A four-ton tree fell on this Mudgirl-built cob home, stopping at the cob wall

A tree fell on this Mudgirl-built cob home, stopping at the cob wall

Cob building is physically demanding and sometimes uncomfortable work (imagine a chilly spring day when you’re working in cold mud from sunup to sundown). But Rose relishes the chance to be outside, away from a desk, making something with her hands in the company of her dearest friends.

Mudgirls at work

Mudgirls at work

“If the weather’s cold, it can be kind of miserable,” she admits. “But if you’ve got a couple friends there who you’ve known for years and you’re joking and laughing, it makes it. That’s actually one key with natural building is the community. It takes more time, so the labor is a factor. But that’s part of why people do it together.”

This strikes me as the ultimate in do-it-with-others (DIWO). Has anyone out there had experience with communal natural building? I’d love to hear about it.

*Photos provided by Mudgirls.

Too Many Tons

There’s a moment in Barbara Kingsolver’s devastating new novel, Flight Behavior, where the protagonist realizes the craziness built into our globalized economy. Dellarobia and her husband are in the dollar store, trying to buy a “real Christmas” for their children on $50. Every toy is Chinese-made, plastic, and depressingly cheesy. She tries to find something, anything, that won’t fall apart immediately, and muses:

“There had to be armies of factory workers making this slapdash stuff, underpaid people cranking out things for underpaid people to buy and use up, living their lives mostly to cancel each other out.”

I recently learned something horrifying from this video featuring Society for Organizational Learning founder Peter Senge: It takes a ton of raw materials each day to sustain the American lifestyle. Per person.


© David Coleman | Dreamstime Stock Photos

I don’t know about you, but it guts me to envision a ton of earthly extraction happening on my behalf—today, tomorrow, and the next day and the next, until the whole house of cards collapses. Or until we demand something different.

Do we really need to buy into this waste?

All that energy that goes into making money to be able to buy stuff? If we could divert a fraction of that into work that sustains us, we might see the merry-go-round start to slow.

I met a young mother recently who had made some changes after asking herself, “Why am I spending money to buy food when I could grow my own? Money doesn’t grow on trees, but food does.” Visionary Charles Eisenstein, Radical Homemaker Shannon Hayes, and countless others have said it: It’s time to rethink, regroup, relocalize.

My partner is cutting her workplace hours this year to spend more time gardening and making things. These projects enrich her life and leave something tangible, and they mean—yes!—fewer trips to the store to buy goods made or grown by someone else.

Sure, we still do our share of purchasing. We’re not immune to the consumer culture. I just got my very first smartphone, after all, with much gnashing of teeth. But we are coming to see ourselves less as consumers and more as small-scale producers, or self-provisioners, or urban farmers. The more we make, produce, grow, and repair with our own hands, the less money we require to live.

One group is working in a big way to break the cycle. Open Source Ecology was started by a young farmer who was frustrated by repeated tractor breakdowns. It bothered him that corporations keep their designs secret and build obsolescence into their products. So he decided to take matters into his own hands.

Now he’s working with others to develop 50 industrial machines to cover every need of a local-level sustainable economy. The open source part is revolutionary: Their designs are available for anyone to use and adapt.

Here’s a three-minute video showing how it all works. There’s a builder from Indiana using one of the machines to make bricks. I love this!

Build yourself. | Tristan Copley Smith from Focus Forward Films on Vimeo.

What about you—how are you slowing the merry-go-round?