Wednesday, June 19, 2024

Work Parties Build Sustainable Homesteads and Community

We used hyperadobe to berm an earth-sheltered geodesic dome which will be a massive aquaponic greenhouse.

Guest Blogger: Christian Sawyer

Howdy. I’m Christian Sawyer — an organizer and homesteader in the Douglas Basin of Sulphur Springs Valley in Cochise County..

In the early Fall of 2021, I went on a three-hour bike ride to a potluck. My car had broken down but I *really* wanted to be at that potluck. I was invited by a family whom I had only met once, briefly, and wasn't sure if I'd get another invite if I turned this one down.

The reason I was so dead set on attending that potluck was because I had come to the conclusion that, living rurally and somewhat remotely, building community relationships was going to be one of the most valuable investments of my time and energy. You don't get invited to potlucks every day out in the valley. So, I popped in the Google map address and rode off into the sunset.

I did get to meet some great people that night who were building their own homesteads and were deeply invested in doing it sustainably. Some new friends even offered to give me a ride home when it started to rain.

I got another message from the hosts a few months later. They wanted to start a local group to help each other build sustainable housing, a shared interest among many in our mutual friend groups. Some had already begun such projects; others had been involved in the practice professionally. This was right up my alley as a sustainability nerd and someone looking to put down roots in the area.

Our inaugural meeting, January 2022

I brought five people with me to the inaugural strategic meeting for this project. About 14 people attended in total. We sat in a circle and traded ideas. Thankfully, we didn't get bogged down with endless ideas and paralysis analysis. We decided on a simple scheduling structure. Every first and third Sunday of the month we would meet up at someone's property to help them build. The host would organize the tasks for the morning, tools needed, and make lunch for everyone.

Our process hasn't changed much since then. The only big difference is the size. We recently set our record for most attendees at a work party, 75 people - including children. (See pic on top of page.)


Our community most commonly builds with geodesic domes, hyper-adobe, and strawbale. Hyper-adobe is the most common material/technique. It's a recent variation on the "super adobe" technique made popular by CalEarth where bags or tubing are filled with dirt, compacted, and then secured to each other with barbed wire -- a kind of low-tech rammed-earth process. Hyper-adobe instead uses mesh tubing that allows the dirt in each layer to congeal with the other layers, creating monolithic earthen walls which don't require barbed wire and use less tubing. As a building material, it doesn't get much more sustainable than dirt. It's local, there's lots of it, it's cheap, and it can decompose right back into the ground if needed. Earthen walls are also highly fire-resistant; but they don't provide a high insulation value, leading local home builders to increasingly pursue submerged or "earth-sheltered" homes which are typically four to eight feet deep into the earth and capped with a geodesic dome. This greatly increases the insulation of a structure, and the surrounding earth provides passive temperature stabilization. (At twelve feet of depth, soil is typically a stable temperature year-round, which is around 67 degrees in our area.) The academic literature typically claims a roughly 75% reduction in energy demands for earth-sheltered houses. Our anecdotal evidence in the community, comparing the energy efficiencies of different homes, supports this.

Geodesic domes are popular because they're incredibly fast and relatively affordable to construct. The steel-bar frame is put up in one day, then covered with fabric and sprayed with insulating foam in one or two additional days. The basic shell of these homes is roughly $10,000-20,000 depending on the size.

earth-sheltered greenhouse addition to a tiny home

After our first couple of "work parties" (that's what we call it when we get together to build homesteads), I had heard that there was a similar group of homesteaders in the Willcox basin, the larger northern end of the Sulphur Springs Valley. At that point they were only meeting to discuss alternative homesteading at potlucks. I got myself a potluck invite, drove up, and introduced their lead organizer to the "work party" concept we had adopted in the south valley. The north group immediately began hosting their own work parties on every second and fourth Sunday.

A key factor in this story is that, over the last five years, Cochise County has begun to attract increasing numbers of people interested in sustainable home building because of our county's "Rural Residential Owner-Builder Opt Out Amendment.“ This special permit was created in 2006 when the county transitioned to the International Building Code standard and some locals petitioned the county to create an allowance for building outside of existing code in rural areas.

The key lines from the amendment read:

“The purpose of this amendment is to exempt a Rural Residential Owner-Builder with a Category D property of four acres or more from compliance with the Cochise County Building Safety Code."

By allowing owner-builders these options, this amendment is intended to encourage the use of ingenuity and personal preferences of the owner-builder in allowing and facilitating the use of alternative building materials and methods.

As the lead "political guy" in an area that is often skeptical of political activism, and in a world where politics are so broken, I find respite in my work party community. It's a group of people from all walks of life, various political attitudes, social issue positions, religious backgrounds, and lifestyles. People avoid talking about contentious issues and focus on what we have in common: a desire to build and live in beautiful ways, in a beautiful place, with beautiful neighbors. These people give me hope that we can heal the cultural wounds and afflictions which seem to only grow more severe every year. I hope to see more such communities popping up around the country. That may depend, of course, upon securing the liberties to build alternatively and sustainably, such as we have down in Cochise County.


Today you can find many popular YouTube channels of alternative builders in Cochise County. The most well-known is probably Tiny Shiny Home by the Longnecker family. Although my friends Mark and Heather might be up and coming YouTube favorites as their most recent video garnered over 1 million views in just a few days.

Find out more information by joining a Facebook group, like Cochise County Alternative Home Building, Supporters of the Cochise County Opt-Out Permit, and Cochise County Homesteaders.

I've recently begun publishing a newsletter for the alternative/sustainable homesteading community called The Ground Party Papers, covering groundwater issues, local politics, and, of course, alternative building. groundparty.beehiiv.com

You can contact me at: groundparty@mail.beehiiv.com

Saturday, June 8, 2024

What to do with all those dried poppies

A few days ago I noticed a bunch of dried poppy plants in a neighbor's yard. We were already using our dried poppies for mulch since most of our woodchip and horse purslane mulch had broken down into soil or was taken away by some productive ants. We love to keep as much organic matter as we can in our basin. This time of year it helps to protect the soil from the harsh sun. And the birds and native bees appreciate it too. Also notice the dried native grasses that we keep for food for birds and bunnies. 


So the next day I ambled up to the front door and asked if I could grab their dead poppies to use for mulch in our basin. I had a nice chat with our new neighbor. I found out that she had been leaving them there for the birds, but thought that some other neighbors didn't appreciate it, so they were planning on doing some yard work on Saturday. She said I was welcome to take them before then. So I was out this morning at 7 a.m. (before it got crazy hot) gathering dried poppies. After the first load I put on my straw shade hat and got a drink of water. I was quiet as a mouse so I wouldn't disturb them. Well...until I sat down on a rock covered with ants! But I dusted the ants off and went back to work.  I gathered six plastic buckets full! And pulled some other weeds for them for good measure. I made sure not to include any foxtail seeds in my buckets. 

I broke the poppy stems into smaller pieces and spread them in our basin.


When I got back to my computer I noticed that there was a warning of strong wind today at 2! Doh! My timing! I didn't want them to fly away in the wind so I wet them down to make them heavier. (I figured it would be good for the soil underneath anyway.) 


I hope that will keep them from flying away in the wind. But if you see few straw-like stems in your yard, consider leaving them. It's good for the soil. Your plants will appreciate it.

While I was out there, I went ahead and put some more water out for the critters. It's hot out there! 

After seeing a baby bunny in our yard yesterday, I put this watering bowl in the ground
by the Habitat at Home sign. 


#lovemyrainbasin

Helpful Hint: You can also put dried poppies in your compost pile or use them as mulch in your garden.

More information:


The life cycle of a Mexican poppy

Thursday, June 6, 2024

Appreciating our Cisterns During this Dry Spell

It is no secret that my favorite rainwater harvesting feature is catchment basins. They can sink in more water than our largest cistern can hold while nourishing the soil and providing food and shelter for birds and other desert critters. But I have to admit that during this long dry patch, (our last wet day was the hail storm on April 1st) I am extremely grateful to have several cisterns to keep my new plants and moringa alive in this extreme heat. (As I write this, there is a heat warning in effect.) 

Every morning before the temperature reaches 80 degrees (the temperature when plants stop taking in water), I am outside watering my baby plants with my watering can filled with rainwater from our cisterns. I have already emptied one slimline cistern and the other one is nearly empty.

Fortunately, I still have water in our biggest cistern in the backyard, but that requires me carrying it through the house. (See pic at the top of the page.)

I get water from the big cistern to daily water the newly planted hibiscus in the greywater basin and to deep water our heritage, desert adapted pomegranate tree, the hibiscus and two curry plants. We're excited that the pomegranate finally grew big enough to support some fruit this year! 

5 gallon buckets with 2 holes in them deep water pomegranate and hibiscus 

We also have a medium cistern by the garden that gets water off of our kind neighbor's huge roof. The few plants I have in my veggie garden only require one watering can a day to keep them going. (I usually have more planted there but I didn't get around to it with my broken wrist.) 

A few years ago, I asked someone at Watershed Management Group if there was any point in putting in rainwater harvesting cisterns when we are getting less and less rain. They replied that you need even more cisterns to get you through the dry months. I have to say I am absolutely a convert now. We are so grateful to have gutters that direct the water from our roof into our rainwater harvesting cisterns to get us through this dry spell and heat wave. Thanks to the cisterns, we haven't had to use any city water in our yard so far this year. 

If you want to try out rainwater harvesting you can start with a little 55 gallon water barrel for a reasonable price.  Here is our first one that we used to water a few veggies. Dan directed a downspout from the gutter into the blue barrel below.

To find out how much water you can harvest at home, try out this simple water budget calculator from Watershed Management Group.

Learn more at Watershed Management Group's Rainwater Harvesting Rebate Classes: 

https://watershedmg.org/learn/classes

Read another cistern story:

Racing to get our cisterns installed before the monsoon storms