Urban homesteading

The “Urban Homestead” is a phrase that goes back to the 1970s and has become a common phrase in the US for describing a home which is aiming for self sufficiency and self reliance. It has a lot in common with the Permaculture and Transition movements, at the very least sharing some goals and techniques.

The handbook for the movement is The Urban Homestead by Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne – a very fine read it is too. They’ve got problems at the moment though, and here’s why.

The Dervaes family in Pasadena have run an urban homestead for over twenty years, and have made such a business out of it that they decided to apply for a trademark for the phrases Urban Homestead and Urban Homesteading. Remarkably they were granted them despite the mountains of prior usage. Now they’ve sent out what they consider to be polite reminders to people not to step on their trademark – unfortunately one was sent to Facebook with regard to Erik Knutzen and Kelly Coyne’s page about their book, and Facebook promptly took the page down until the dispute is resolved.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation have stepped in and are acting on behalf of Knutzen and Coyne to fight the takedown notices. There’s also a Facebook campaign to spread the word about urban homesteading and make sure the Dervaes’ family don’t succeed in co-opting it for themselves. Hence this page.

Good sources of information are Boing Boing (as ever) and the OC Weekly, the local paper in Pasadena with a charming fondness for words like “dingbats”.

Update: It took six years but the EFF finally got the trademark cancelled!

What pan should I use?

A colleague asked me yesterday if I knew the best type of pan to use to minimise ingestion of toxins – she’d just found out that stainless steel pans have nickel content and that there have been health scares associated with nickel.

Quite how problematic the amounts of nickel ingested actually are is open to debate – a plausible study (since disappeared) on nickelinstitute.org found that even in the worst case scenario of boiling acidic liquids for long periods (making chutney, since you ask), the amount of nickel leached was often below detectable levels and never anywhere near levels that would give concern.

But just because The Man says we shouldn’t be concerned doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be concerned and I didn’t really know the answer to my colleague’s question, so I thought I’d have a quick look at the options and issues.

The first thing to note is that cooking over a flame pretty much requires the use of metal in order to withstand the direct heat. There’s likely to be some release of metal into food, especially when the pan is brand new or getting older and scratched. Higher temperatures and higher acidity will exacerbate that process. So you want to make sure your exposure is to less harmful metals, hence the move away from aluminium pans.

You can coat the metal internally in another substance, but in the case of non-stick coatings the substance can in health terms be worse than the metal – out of the frying pan and into the … ummm, you know what I mean. This page has a useful summary of the different materials and their risks. Good quality enamel comes out well (good quality as you don’t want it to chip and hence expose the underlying metal) but pans that are enamelled internally are often small milk and sauce pans. However Le Creuset‘s cast iron range uses and enamelled interior so I guess there must be others as well.

Stanless steel is an alloy, and pans will almost exclusively use 18% chromium content stainless steel. Nickel is used to add even more rust protection and to make the steel harder and shinier. Typically 8% or 10% nickel is used and so you might see references to 18/8 or 18/10 stainless steel. Stainless steel without nickel content is hence 18/0. You can get 18/0 steel pans but they won’t be as shiny and might be subject to rust spotting so will need more looking after and might not last as long. But they’ll probably be quite cheap as 18/0 is considered lower grade.

Another alternative is carbon steel. Carbon steel, blue steel, and black steel are all names for steel which been alloyed only with cafrbon. Advantages are that it’s generally inert, suitable for very high temperatures and relatively inexpensive. Disadvantages are that it will be slow to heat up, have poor heat distribution and will rust if not seasoned and then looked after. It might sound like the disavantages far outweigh any other considerations, but for frying and crepe pans they don’t matter as much. DeBuyer are one of the popular brands for steel pans, and I do in fact have two of their frying pans currently unused at home. I’m just waiting for the courage (and potato peelings) to season and start using them.

Jeremy Leggett at Sunrise Celebration

Sunday at the Sunrise Celebration was dedicated to the Transition movement and there were talks around the issues of permaculture, peak oil and transition towns. Jeremy Leggett, the chairman of Solarcentury, gave a talk on peak oil (which we didn’t see) and then one on solar energy, which we did manage to catch.

There are some interesting things happening in the world of solar energy. It’s now expected that the cost of solar energy will match the cost of fossil fuel energy by 2013 and will then continue to fall. This is being driven by various factors, notably increased efficiency in the manufacture of the materials needed for panels and the panels themselves, and economies of scale as larger manufacturers come into the market. The efficiencies also mean that modern PV panels will pay back their energy (as opposed to financial) cost in less than two years.

At the same time, companies such as Shell and BP are pulling out of the renewables arena and in the UK, EDF and E.On are recommending a nuclear strategy to the government. Expect to see their PR departments aiming their guns at solar and other renewable technologies. There’s an illuminating Financial Times article by Jeremy on this.

The UK government is also planning to introduce a feed-in tariff scheme, whereby surplus renewable energy is sold back to the grid at a premium thereby encouraging uptake and helping to offset the initial cost. The exact details of the scheme will dictate its success and Jeremy has some strong ideas, as you’d expect from somebody in the industry that stands to benefit. But they do seem like sensible and sustainable ideas, and he came across as an approachable and committed man at the head of a company that’s trying to do the right thing.

Easter road trip: Tir Penrhos Isaf

After leaving Cae Mabon, we headed across (well, around) Snowdonia to Chris and Lyn Dixon’s permaculture smallholding Tir Penrhos Isaf, where we’d arranged a guided tour. This was the part of the trip I think we were most looking forward to, and it did not disappoint. The photos I took, however, aren’t that great. Hey ho.


Chris and Lyn bought the farm in 1986 and the permaculture design started then. At the time it was seven acres of tired sheep pasture with a derelict barn in a valley clearing in the woods. Their first planning application to create a sustainable residence and establish a permaculture smallholding was made in 1989, a time when “sustainable” and “permaculture” weren’t part of planning language – arguably permaculture still isn’t.

They were keen to establish a precedent for permaculture so persevered, while living on site in a caravan with a series of three year temporary permissions, for over fifteen years until finally having to accept planning permission for a barn conversion in 2006. They were understandably disappointed to have to accept a compromise and not establish the precedent, but Lyn had suffered two bouts of cancer and they needed to get on with their lives without the threat of eviction.


And along the way, Chris has exposed a lot of planning officers and councillors to his ideas, and established a library of planning documents on his website for others to refer to. He used to post copies out to people so the web has definitely transformed that part of his life. :)

Chris gave us a fascinating tour of the property, I think it was supposed to last two hours but we ended up being there for over four. We started in the wooded area which he originally fenced off from the sheep in 1986 and then, as is the principle of permaculture gardening, observed before making minimal interventions. One of the stages it went through was heavy gorse cover and, as a result, Chris has developed something of a fascination with the plant.


We then went through the core gardens area and looked at how that had developed over the years before finishing with some of the water management techniques he’s currently experimenting with.

All this was put in the context of permaculture principles and Chris really expanded our idea of what permaculture is, specifically the idea of multiple primary income streams with secondary ‘hobby’ income streams which have the potential to become primary when required or if particularly successful.

One of the income streams at Tir Penrhos Isaf is Lyn’s horse training business – they have stables and a large horse pen so they can house and train horses (and their owners, one suspects). The idea of multiple income streams is actually best expressed in Lyn’s Permaculture Design and Horses document which she prepared for one of the planning applications.


The farm was featured in the recent BBC Natural World documentary A Farm For The Future in which wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future. The whole programme is available in a very blurry copy on Youtube.

Apparently the BBC crew were at the farm for three days to get the three minutes of footage that was used. Chris was keen to point out that the farm has never been completely self sufficent in food as was suggested.

At their highest production, they were probably theoretically self sufficient for ten months of the year. Currently due to the amount of time and energy being put into the conversion of the barn which Chris is doing himself, the figure is a lot lower than that.


So that was Tir Penrhos Isaf. A real inspiration and we hope to run into Chris again at the permaculture design course run by Sector39 at Llanfyllin Workhouse.

I’m sure there’s a lot more fascinating detail to add to this but I’ll leave that as a challenge for Theo since she took the notes.

Easter road trip: Cae Mabon

Our Easter road trip was intended to draw some inspirations for how and where we may want to live. One of the main destinations was Cae Mabon where we planned to help for a day of their Easter working party, and also to find out just what Cae Mabon is.


The tale starts in the early 1980s when storyteller Eric Maddern, an Australian by birth who spent the latter years of his childhood in the UK, returned from travels to California, Alice Springs and beyond to settle in North Wales.

Twice he saw the cottage in the woods above Lake Padarn but failed to secure it: the third time he made it his. And in the more than twenty years since then, he has transformed the site into a retreat and education centre – but so much more.

The site itself is very lovely, that of course is why he was drawn to it so strongly. The small cottage is at the top of the plot which then falls steeply away down to the lake (which technically it doesn’t front on to being separated from it by the Llanberis lake railway). A fast flowing stream rushes down one side of the property and there are plentiful trees.

What Eric has done to it has only added to the magic. To support its use as a retreat centre, various accommodations have been built. And what buildings they are: an Iron Age style roundhouse; a small existing barn which has been extended and converted into the kitchen and meeting/eating area; a cob (earth) cottage started as part of an onsite course in cob building techniques run by Ianto Evans and Linda Smiley of the Cob Cottage Company ; and dwellings for visitors to stay in – a hobbit house with a round door, a Swiss chalet, a straw bale hogan, and a cedar cabin.


Several of the buildings incorporate interesting energy saving techniques: a rocket stove built into an internal bench so the smoke heats it up rather than venting wastefully straight up a chimney; a cob storage radiator behind a full length south facing window so that it absorbs heat during the day and gives it out during the night; and turf roofs of course.

The sustainable living ethos doesn’t end there. The cottage and studio barn are fed by mains electric but the rest of the buildings are lit solely by solar-powered LED lighting. I think Eric was probably driven to fit this after the shock of the first roundhouse burning down due to a stray candle.

The toilets are composting. The kitchen waste water is filtered and fed back into the stream and lake. There’s a vegetable garden and chickens on the site (as we would find out when we came to the work party). There are creature comforts as well, notably a wood-fired hot tub next to the stream.


We arrived there on Good Friday evening and were sorted out with accommodation by Alison, who was doing a fantastic job of fitting people in. I guess at this stage there were two dozen people on site although this would swell to closer to three dozen by Saturday night. Eric holds a working party for two weeks over Easter to get the site ready for the summer and hopefully progress a few projects as well.

Some people were travelling or volunteering their way around the country or world, some were working party regulars or friends of Eric (the distinction blurs over time of course), and some were curious newbies like ourselves. All were friendly. Dinner was simple but tasty – there’s a £5 per day contribution towards food.

After dinner, Theo took advantage of the hot tub while a fire was being stoked up in the roundhouse. Everybody gathered, some songs were sung by Eric and then a couple of the volunteers talked about the permaculture course they’d attended at Findhorn, a longstanding community in the north of Scotland. When they’d finished we slipped away to bed.


After breakfast, the morning meeting took place in the studio barn where Eric went through all the jobs that needed doing and people bagsed what they fancied. We decided to help out in the garden. I tidied up the shed while Kestrel and The Fairy helped with weeding, planting seedlings and harvesting some greenery for lunch.

The Fairy and I then settled into our main task, levelling out an area for a polytunnel to sit on. This involved wheelbarrowing a pile of small rocks (sieved out of the soil which had been used for the vegetable beds) and using them to build up the lower edge of the patch against a retaining stone wall – the area used to be full of slate quarries so stone is not in short supply. It didn’t seem like a big pile but it kept us busy until lunchtime.


After lunch, we took advantage of the sunshine and had the catch up meeting in the outdoor circle. Being a storyteller, Eric has a fondness for extravagant gestures, although I have no idea why the subject of aeroplanes appears to have come up during the meeting.

Anyway, the net result as far as we were concerned was that Kestrel and I would continue levelling the area for the polytunnel. Meanwhile The Fairy would help with some decorative painting in the Longhouse, a bunkhouse which had just had a fresh coat of paint inside.

After we’d finished the levelling, I wandered down to the Longhouse to find The Fairy, Mandy and Kevin carefully filling in the swirls they’d pencilled on the ceiling and walls – especially carefully since normal house paint isn’t the best material for detail work! But it looked fantastic and even by association, it felt very satisfying to leave such a permanent mark on Cae Mabon.


From there, we helped cook dinner for ever growing number of people – throw some more vegetables into the sauce and put more pasta on! – before a quiet night chatting and reading in the studio barn. We had to be away early the next morning.

Cae Mabon is a hybrid. It isn’t a fully fledged community, it’s essentially Eric, Keith and various helpers running a centre. But for the period of the work party it does function like a permanent community and it was really interesting to see how that can happen. Understanding the dynamics of group living and working is an important part of permaculture.


Cae Mabon really flourishes due to the goodwill people feel towards Eric and the place he’s created. One of the volunteers is a permanent resident at the Centre for Alternative Technology and he’d cycled over to spend his Easter weekend helping Eric, and this wasn’t the first time. And he wasn’t the only skilled and talented person making a similar commitment. That speaks volumes for what people think of the place.

We were similarly charmed by Cae Mabon the place and Eric the person. I’ve no doubt we’ll be back at some point.