August 18, 2012

Gimmie Shelter!

As I my old Uncle Mick used to sing - "Gimme, gimme shelter, or I'm gonna fade away".
We all need shelter in some form or another, from the approaching storm, from the cold, from the judgemental appraisal of others (call it privacy if you like, I don't mind). It is one of our basic fundamental needs and it needs to be appropriate for each person or group of people and it needs to be appropriate for each specific set of circumstances.

We don't need castles or mansions to rattle around in like lost souls. We need to feel safe, secure and comfortable. Living sustainably is about addressing our needs in the best way we can, using the materials we can collect (or purchase) to achieve the best possible outcome we can, without causing damage to others or the natural world.

In recent times, financial problems have seen many people  in the USA forced to  find some form of alternative shelter or housing, due to foreclosures and loss of income. Some people rely on an economic recovery occurring and hope that when it does, their lives will return to normal. Other people of a more creative mind-set are finding all sorts of interesting ways to fill this basic need for shelter with ingenious and appropriate building technologies and other strategies that suit their needs, even if only on a temporary basis.

The Tiny House Movement


I first became aware of the Tiny House philosophy a couple of years ago and I found it fascinating. The most common application is a small dwelling built on a trailer frame for mobility. These homes can be towed from site to site or placed in a landscape or on a
block of land for extended periods. The best are self-contained, with a loft sleeping platform, a small contained toilet/bathroom and a small cooking area. They can be solar powered, collect their own rainwater and include room for relaxing and study.


Small living isn't for everyone, especially large families, it meets a basic need in a way that can be suitable, comfortable and be aesthetically pleasing as well.  A tiny house can be used as a guest house or a spare bedroom. I have even read of young people building their own designs at home as a way to house themselves and avoid a lifetime of mortgages. You can read more in this news article:
McMansions Make Way For Mini-Houses.

If you feel inspired to learn more about tiny houses I highly recommend theTiny House blog for further reading and fun. That's the most important point I want to make here. These people are having fun exploring different lifestyles and the financial pressures are greatly reduced in the process. Let's have a look at some other ideas and technologies in brief.

William's Floating Teepee


You have to admire some people, just for the inventiveness they display. Huck Finn, eat your heart out. Learn more about William's floating teepee here: Williams floating teepee

In the past I have been fortunate enough to have had the oppurtunity to help a young couple buid a raft/houseboat on the Murray River, under the guidance of an older couple who had built a number of rafts and lived the life of river explorers for quite a few years. 

The raft we built had a hardwood frame and aged pine deck with a timber cabin and corrugated iron roof. Almost all the materials used were second-hand and we did some demolition work to obtain the bulk of them for under $250 (aus)(we were very lucky). The raft floated on 200 litre (44 gallon) drums that had good bungs sealed with silicone gel. We used 10 drums on each side for a total length of around  10m (~32') and the width was around 4m (~12' -14').  The cabin, while small, was adequate and the deck space was still plentiful, with a verandah on the front for shade.

There are certain things required by law, such as a contained toilet and registration as a river vessel. A portable toilet was adequate for the legislative requirement and registration was not a problem. Most cooking was done on the bank and the people in question were responsible enviromental stewards, so no waste ended up in the water and all campsites were tidied and left in a good state. Using steel drums was the cheapest option at $5 each and although they will rust  and eventually start to leak, they can be replaced, the old drums being holed with a pickaxe or similar and new drums installed (one at a time - or you risk tipping over!). The old drums will eventually provide shelter for fish to breed and grow until they break down completely. Plastic drums may be a better option now, as they are more widely used and available.

If you use standard 44 gallon drums, keep in mind this number - 27" is the gap between the rails on the frame that the drums rest in. 4" is the minimum vertical space inside the rails. This, combined with the weight of the frame, deck and cabin, will give secure, tight fit for the drums, minimising further fixings (still required for safety) to secure the drums. I wish I still had some pictures to share with you now but many years have passed and they were lost somewhere in the past, as have my good friends Paul and Theresa and David and Sue. I wish them well, wherever they are.

The Yurta




This is a modern take on a traditional shelter, the yurt. It was available in kit form a couple of years ago from the Baker Group of Canada. The traditional yurt as employed by the Mongol herders was made of felted wool and this has heat retention properties far greater than canvas. Although they may look small, a yurt can be suprisingly spacious inside. There are more images and information here: Yurta - Tiny House blog.
A traditional yurt in a panoramic landscape

Teepee Living


The teepee, or lodge is a traditional North American dwelling that can be spacious, comfortable and warm. Did you notice the pole and flap? These are smoke flaps that can be adjusted to catch the breeze and draw smoke from the lodge, so a fire can bit lit in the middle. An inner lining at the base helps to water-proof the interior but still allows air to enter and draw smoke up and out. Kits and plans should be available if you search online. (This lodge could use slightly longer poles to get rid of the wrinkles and increase water-resistance.) Large lodges can be set up as semi-permanent accomodation with wooden floors and brick or stone fire surrounds. The space inside and opening in the roof keep a teepee cool in summer, even on a very hot day - no airconditioning required.

The Hobbit House


This is me, this is close to how I would choose to live, if I could. It's not for everyone but you have to admire the beautiful and natural simplicity of the structure and the way it fits into the landscape, rather than imposing itself upon it. I do. You can read more about this home at the link above. This family home was built by Simon Dale and his father-in-law in Wales, with some help from friends and visitors, for around 3,000 pounds in four months. It incorporates many energy saving strategies and it's beautiful, as these interior shots show:


















My Humble Old Camper Van

You will have to forgive the quality of these last few images. They were taken many years ago with a film camera. This is my old Commer camper-van. It was old when I bought it and was in pretty ordinary condition when I bought it. Even so, it became my travelling home for the next eight years or so and we explored Australia together at a sedate pace.

Great Wall of China, Flinders Ranges, South Australia

The roof could be raised, giving plenty of headroom, there was a double battery system with an isolator switch between them, so one battery could be used for 12v appliances and lighting and the other would stay charged for cranking power. It also had a small gas cooker, a good stereo, a comfortable bed and built-in cupboards and a small robe. I added to the van over the years, repairing what needed repairing and adding or adjusting things as I went.

Eventually, I added a 12v cycling refridgerator, window tinting and blinds, deep cycle, heavy duty taxi batteries, a carry rack and  an 80cc step-thru motorbike. I loved my old Commer van, for all it's flaws. We went to some amazing places together and no matter where I was, I always had shelter and a bed (and a lot more besides). Call it an RV if you like but this was my home. It may have been humble, rough and ready, with many small flaws but it also had a big personality and character. I always made use of outdoor space for cooking on an open fire, sitting and relaxing and finding something to pass the time, such as a walk or a swim. Days of continual rain could dampen the spirits a little and cramp the legs a bit, but that was just a minor inconvenience to me at that time. Sometimes, we can get lost in a big house and forget the outdoors even exists it seems.


Queen's Beach, Bowen, Far North Queensland

Shelter can take many forms. You can make a temporary shelter from plastic sheets or tarpaulins if needs be. Long-term shelter needs to be somewhere comfortable, water and wind- proof, able to meet the needs of the people it is intended for and it needs room for storing things like food, clothing, linen and cooking equipment. Leisure items are always nice to have as well. I had a television, a stereo, books and magazines to keep me entertained and as I have said already, the whole outdoors was mine to explore. I wouldn't change anything, looking back. It suited my needs.

Finding shelter can be difficult at times and when our choices seem limited, we feel restricted and stressed. I hope some of these images give you some food for thought about ways to meet this fundamental need, in alternative and sustainable ways.






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