Tuesday, June 23, 2009

On Living Modestly and Simply

My partner John Corcoran and I recently built a small light-filled adobe home near Santa Fe, New Mexico. The home was designed to be beautiful, efficient and easy to run. Ironically, many visitors to our home announce that they don't have the skills to live the life we live. To this I say, " Wow, what skills?"  By making everything simple we somehow have communicated a complicated household. To live in our house the skills needed are:  the ability to wash dishes by hand(a treat in the desert where any contact with water is a pleasure); the ability to bring wood inside, light a fire in a woodstove and to sit still in front of a fireplace  with a book or a game on long winter nights;  the ability to hang clothes on the line to dry; the ability to once or twice a year add water to the batteries that store our solar energy; the ability to start a generator on rare cloud filled weeks (for us,this has happened once.) That's it, no furnace and air conditioner filters to change,  no waiting for countless repairmen. No dark smelly basement to clean and bait with  mouse poison. The life we have made for ourselves off the grid is like the life we lived on the grid, only its easier and cheaper. I will grant that learning to live a simpler life did take a lot of homework, research and independent thinking. As a thank you, I thank all the human ingenuity that has come before us, that solved centuries ago what we see as today's problems. A great little book with countless solutions concerning energy efficiency and efficiency in general: John S. Taylor A Shelter Sketchbook: Timeless Building Solutions.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

In Praise of Walnut Oil as a Finish for Earthen Adobe Floors

Last January, after laying down an earthen floor in the adobe home we were living in, the question of what to finish the floor with arose.  In New Mexico adobe floors were traditionally sealed with ox blood. Today, the  choice both here in New Mexico and in contemporary cob building in England, is to seal the floors with  several coats of boiled linseed oil diluted with a thinner such as turpentine or, the more natural alternative, citrus solvent. To this is added a final waterproofing coat, a polish made from a mixture of beeswax and linseed oil.

Linseed oil is a gummy derivative of the flax plant which must be thinned to help it penetrate the earthen floor it is being applied to as well as to speed up its drying time. At the time of year that we needed to seal our floors, the freezing temperatures outdoors prevented us from being able to adequately ventilate the room we were working in, making the choice of linseed oil unattractive because of the strong and long-lasting fumes the oil gives off while drying. While researching alternatives to linseed oil  both milk and blood meal were named as alternatives,  but as neither fully answered our requirements for a beautiful, long-lasting finish that we could mop, we began to consider walnut oil. In our research we had found no reference to walnut oil as a finish for an earthen floor,  but we had recently finished our kitchen cabinets and counters with the oil on the suggestion of a friend, colorist and inventor Stephen Auger. Having used it on wood with great results, we thought it might work well on an earthen floor. For our cabinets we had applied food grade walnut oil which we purchased at the local food co-op. We puit it on with a paint brush, let it soak in for  a couple minutes and rubbed any puddled areas dry with a clean cotton rag. The oil gave the wood a warm oiled glow and  served also as a stain and water repellent. Although walnut oil is said to polymerize(fully dry and harden) over several months it was dry to the touch  almost immediately and left no sticky or smelly residue. Relying on  this experience with walnut oil, Auger's experience, and with previous experience oiling floors with thinned linseed oil we decided to take the leap of faith with the unknown and ordered 5 gallons of food grade walnut oil online. www.libertynatural.com. 

The area we were working on was about 300 square feet. We applied the oil generously with a paint  brush, allowing it to soak into the earthen floor, occasionally going back and wiping up the puddled areas. The next day we gave it another coat, not noticing any difference in the floor's willingness to take the oil. On the third day we moved  ourselves and furniture back into the room which is both our kitchen and living room. With the walnut oil finish the floor  had taken  on a luscious chocolate brown color and though not dry ( we tracked oily footprints onto the hallway saltillo tiles, which we simply wiped clean) we were pleased.
Ideally at that time we would have liked to have applied another coat to achive a richer and more protective finsh. A coat we did apply the following summer. Today,a year and half later the floor has gone through weekly moppings with water and a little castile soap and still looks great, thus negating the need for the beeswax polish. As a footnote, we are a household that rarely takes our shoes off when coming in from outdoors, something we do frequently throughout the day.