*Repost from 2017*
One of our residents is a keen upholsterer and last year, after using some beautiful fabrics, many of them already sourced from ends of rolls, she started to wonder what to do with the small offcuts.
By happy coincidence a friend introduced her to the idea of Furoshiki and gave her a copy of ‘How to be a craftivist‘ in the same week she read about the problems that glitter and metallic paper cause for recycling centres, and an idea bubbled up for some craftivism.
Metallic and glittered papers may add a sparkle under the tree but pose a challenge for recycling. Metallic paper has to be picked out of the conveyor belts, adding to the costs of handling the waste. Glittery paper is more likely to be missed by the pickers, and ends up reducing the quality of the output, and with it the options for its use. Ultimately this adds to the cost of recycling or to the costs of the products that are made from recycled paper.
With all this in mind, a small group of volunteers made fabric wrapping to gift in our communities. We made and gave out wraps and fabric pouches made from off-cuts of fabric to 50 households in Hockerton and to the congregation of the Methodist Church in Southwell, our local market town. These gifts were given along with a letter explaining why, and a guide to their use from the Japanese Ministry of the Environment (see below). This is the essence of ‘craftivism’, that messages can be enclosed with useful and hopefully beautiful hand-made gifts, to remove the idea of criticism and instead surprise and hopefully bring a smile to faces whilst delivering a meaningful message.
Fabric wraps are not the only way to reduce the challenge to the recycling centres this Christmas. We can also use paper that is both recycled and recyclable; use ribbon that can be used year after year; and of course reuse paper. Surely it’s not just me whose only memory of my father with an iron is when he used to save and iron the wrapping paper on Christmas Day?!
Hockerton Housing Project in Nottinghamshire is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year. To mark the occasion it welcomed the Chairman of Newark and Sherwood District Council, Councillor Keith Walker, to unveil a plaque commemorating the legacy of the three parties. The Project would not have got out of the ground without an enlightened landowner, pioneering architects and a visionary local authority, and it is their legacy that Hockerton Housing Project is celebrating this week with representatives from local business and the local authority.
The homes at Hockerton Housing Project (HHP) use 20% of the energy used by a similar-sized house built at the same time, for the same price. There is no loss of comfort. Instead of fossil-fuelled central heating the homes are built to absorb heat from the sun over the Summer and early Autumn, which is then released over the winter. This keeps the homes cool in summer and warm in winter. Air quality is maintained through the use of heat-recovery ventilation and water heating costs are reduced through the use of a thermal store.
By reducing the energy demands of the homes, the Project is then able to meet much of its remaining energy demand through onsite wind turbines and solar PV. This idea caught on in its wider community. In 2009, the parish of Hockerton invited the trading arm of HHP to manage the installation and management of a community-owned wind turbine. This now generates power equivalent to that used by the village and raises funds for the sustainable development in the community. As a pioneer of community energy HHP has since run a range of courses and support services for communities and land-owners installing and maintaining community-scale systems.
These ongoing and expanding benefits would not have happened without support from the original landowner, pioneering architects and a supportive local authority.
Roy and Eileen Martin were the original landowners of the land on which the Project is sited. On purchase, it had little environmental benefit. It was a monoculture of grass, mainly used for grazing due to frost pockets, boggy areas and exposure to wind. When their son, Nick, proposed a sustainable development incorporating organic land management alongside eco-housing they gave their support. Over time this formalised into a governance framework of a 999 year lease with a peppercorn rent, provided the Project continues to meet its social, environmental and economic obligations.
Professor Brenda Vale and Doctor Robert Vale are architects, and now world-renowned experts, in the field of sustainable housing. Their design framework for eco housing is a simple and cost-effective combination of high thermal mass, to store and release heat; super-insulation, to retain that heat in the structure of the home until it is needed; and designing for the environment. Whilst working at University of Nottingham they built a zero carbon autonomous town house fitting to the historic town of Southwell. Serendipitously they had used local builder Nick Martin who was looking for architects to help him and a group of friends with their ideas for Hockerton. They used the same design framework, but adapted it to the greenfield setting. By covering the main structure of the homes in a hill, the Vales were able to limit the loss of land from nature; by orientating the homes to face South, the Vales were able to maximise the solar gain used to heat the homes; and with the Vales’ design requirement to use rainwater harvesting to meet all water needs, water reservoirs were introduced that improve the habitat for a range of flora and fauna.
David Pickles OBE was chief architect and energy manager for Newark and Sherwood District Council in the 1990s and 2000s, whose work with others generated a national reputation for innovative energy work in the East Midlands . He understood the vision and the need for research and development of zero carbon homes. He worked with Hockerton Housing Project to develop a framework that ensured the greenfield development would benefit rather than harm the green environment. The resultant section 106 agreement remains a cornerstone of the Project’s activities 20 years on. In particular the requirement to generate employment instigated the trading cooperative that today provides a range of educational and advisory services to a range of individuals and organisations, along with an income for residents .
Councillor Walker has visited the Project over the years – during their initial build and when they were first occupied and was interested to see how it was continuing the original vision set out with Newark and Sherwood District Council in a section 106 agreement. He congratulated the residents, past and present on what they had achieved. Guests also heard from Stormsaver, Tarmac and Nottingham University about their interest in the Project’s approach to sustainable housing and water systems, with many questions about why such an affordable approach wasn’t being taken up by developers.
Around 2000 people a year visit the Project each year; it has featured in thousands of green building and energy publications and informed millions more through broadcast media; and is studied by architectural and engineering students across the UK and beyond. But the Project remains, primarily, home to 5 families and their shared interest in continuing the legacy of an exemplar sustainable development that could, and should, shape the design of housing fit for the 21st century.
We have now been running our aquaponics system for a year. It was installed as part of a PhD project emerging from Sheffield Hallam University, exploring how a lay-person would take to soil-free gardening, and capturing lessons that may prove of use if the approach is to be taken up more widely.
Last September we posted our lessons from the initial design and cycling of the aquaponics system, and here is the experience gained from using it in earnest.
- Temperature: we are still waiting for the live temperature monitoring system planned by the University, but temperatures in the tank got down to 5C in this uncharacteristically long, cold winter. We keep carp in our system in part due to their ability to cope in a range of temperatures, and whilst their activity seemed to slow, there was no significant problem.
- Temperature time-lag: the salads planted in the spring were a lot faster growing in the soil than aquaponics. Without monitoring data it is hard to specify the cause but it is likely that problems with the auto-siphon (see 8) slower supply of feed and oxygen, and we suspect that the temperature of the water was slower to rise than that of the soil.
- Over-winter plants: our main problem over winter was vermin rather than temperatures. The kohlrabi were eaten in one night. But other plants thrived, and we had a supply of green leaves from Mizuna, chard and spinach plants through til Spring.
- Thermal mass: Another success were the tomatoes which survived 6 weeks longer than those a meter away that were planted in soil. This may be due to their later planting, but their close proximity to heat-storing thermal mass may also play a part. The mass is in the clay balls in which they are planted, the water, and the dense concrete blocks that support our growing beds – against which the tomatoes were trailed.
- Minerals: We share the produce grown between our five households, and concern was raised about whether they were as healthy as soil-grown plants due to a lack of minerals. This prompted some further reading but we were on the right track:
- Maxicrop to add micronutrients in our initial cycling
- Rocks from our carp pond helped introduce naturally-occuring bacteria
- To this we added, after three months, composting worms which seem to be surviving well, and there is no sign of mineral deficiency in the leaves or crops.
- Sowing medium: some seeds have self-sown (tomatoes), and some peas and beans have successfully grown from seed scattered in the beds, but vermin were a significant problem – perhaps due to the long winter. To get round this we started seedlings off in an Ikea hydroponics kit in a conservatory, made more sustainable by using our own sheeps’ wool to form the sowing medium, instead of mineral wool.
- Evaporation: again, we are yet to receive the monitoring equipment but it seems more water is evaporating than we would expect, with the system requiring approximately 300 litres top-up every 2-3 weeks in growing season.
- Cleaning: it took a long time to select fish food and it’s not clear we made the right choice. A lot of it is either not properly digested or dissolved and so occasionally blocks the pipes or is spewed out in to the last growing bed in the system. This bed is now protected to some degree by a sieve under the inlet pipe, but we would advise others to experiment with different feeds before buying a 25kg bag! The outcome of this was that the inlet water slowed to the point it was insufficient to trigger the auto-siphons, the growing beds did not drain once flooded (unless triggered manually) and so plants were starved of oxygen for much of the day.
The plants we are now testing for the first time (for us, at least) are French beans, squash, kale and spring onions. The French beans are densely planted, and are producing many more although much smaller, finer beans than those planted in neighbouring soil; the squash and courgette are slower to take off than those planted in soil, as is the kale, so it is still early days; but it is a delight to finally grow some spring onions which have never taken off in our soil beds.
You can follow more of our food-growing ventures on Instagram.
Never have you seen a more satisfied group of people than our cohousing residents yesterday after a day of working together to regroup after the summer and prepare for winter.
Last week we walked around our 8.5 acre site together and prepared a list of jobs. Some are urgent, some not so, and some will continue to bounce along in and out of the long grass. With this list in mind, yesterday people put their different skills into action…
- Barley straw added in to treat non-potable water reservoir
- Chicken shed moved
- Angle grinding of an old axle to prepare for recycling
- Hotbox composter emptied and refilled
- Pallets in place ready to construct into new compost bins
- Donkey manure ready to mulch
- Digging of beds (couch grass means no-dig methods are no go so far)
- Sheep sorted into different paddocks, ready for the ram later in the year
- Hay moved to winter storage
Shared space means shared responsibility
The definition of cohousing is that there is an element of shared space. At Hockerton Housing Project each household owns its own house and garden, but with that comes the benefit of shared access to 8.5 acres land, income from the onsite business and the use of facilities including renewable energy systems and various ponds and lakes. Not forgetting the zip wire, treehouse and pizza oven! To manage all this, each house has a commitment, set out in the original planning permission and bound in a 999 year lease, to undertake a certain amount of hours work on the Project. Visitors on our tours are often taken aback by the idea of such a formal commitment but, as the work is flexible in terms of content and timing, it quickly becomes a way of life.
Some of the work is paid, where undertaken for our trading business, and the rest is compensated by a supply of fruit, vegetables, eggs, meat and access to the land. All of it is tracked so we all do our fair share. Those working full-time elsewhere may take on the weekend jobs of public tours or evening jobs of managing the website and tour administration. Others may have ideas that they can develop as part of the business: our current projects include R&D for a new form of renewable energy generation with a local university, building performance monitoring on behalf of a housing association, asset management of wind turbines for community energy groups and farmers, and our ongoing range of tours and workshops to develop sustainability knowledge and skills.
Such flexibility, and a decent pay rate, means it can work well for people of all ages, including those who want to cut back on full-time work. The activities suit a range of interests and personalities, and stages of life such as those in the early days of retirement or people who want to continue working whilst also caring for young children, and for those looking to develop new skills, or apply existing ones, in the field of sustainability.
Where there is a will…
The need to cooperate underpins this cohousing approach to managing shared land and a shared business. Plans need to reflect shared needs and values, whilst also taking into account individuals’ skills, time and interests. If people had neither the time nor the inclination to act, the business or use of the land would not develop as intended. But where there’s a will, there’s a way. And there’s definitely a Hockerton will, and way, to develop… sustainably of course.
Last year we embarked on a trial of aquaponics in a domestic setting, as part of a PhD undertaken by John Grant of Sheffield Hallam University. Our related blogs are not a guide in themselves, but perhaps help fill some of the gaps we found in existing literature. If you want an introductory guide we recommend Sylvia Bernstein’s Aquaponic Gardening.
This blog follows up on our previous post with a review of our first 6 weeks of hosting fish, and the snags we had with our initial build. There was a gap of some months as having built the physical system we were nervous of the temperatures that could be reached in our polytunnel and so waited until the summer so we could monitor temperatures before introducing fish to the system.
Our first visit to the polytunnel after the winter break was a bit of a shock, as the foundations for the water tank had subsided. This meant we had to empty the water tank and dig out the earth around the sump tank to the extent that we could embed boards to stop the earth from collapsing against the tank.
Lesson learnt: if placing the fish tank over an IBC sump tank, box in the sump tank – however firm you think the ground is. We’d also suggest that the top water tank is filled some time before adding fish, if you are not building on a very firm base. The fix for our problem would have been a lot harder if we had already put fish into the top tank, and very disheartening if cycling had already started.
Having plumbed the growing beds’ inlets and outlets we added water to check the autosipons worked. It is worth doing this without the clay balls in place. We also discovered a leak in one of the tanks at this point.
Lesson learnt: It is much easier to fix these things before the clay balls are added.
Down the track we have realised that it will be difficult for us to alter the height of the outlet pipe that sits up in the tank. Ours is a single piece of pipe down to the junction with the outlet pipe that returns to the sump tank.
Lesson learnt: Plumb the system so that the pipe within the tank can be removed.
We have also realised that whilst we take water from close to the top of the fish tank, this can still carry a fair amount of gunk (technical term). It is likely that this affects the water flow.
Lesson learnt: Install a settling tank in the plumbing immediately after the fish tank.
Originally we had hoped to stock Tilapia or trout, but were concerned about the need to heat or cool the tanks. Having reviewed various guides it became clear that carp were one of the most robust fish when it comes to temperature range and fluctuations. And, as we have a lake full of carp on our doorstep, carp it was. We don’t normally eat carp because it is very muddy when fished from the lake, but we realised that keeping it in the aquaponics fish tank offers a way of cleaning out their systems,and perhaps make them more appetising.
We spent a significant amount of time trying to source organic fish food but it seems to be available solely to large scale fish farms. The first batch was a floating feed from a local ‘World of Water‘, which we have followed up with a slow sinking feed for coarse fish from Skretting. We are also considering how we can farm duckfeed as a high-protein green for them.
Lesson learnt: We recommend a floating feed. Whilst carp are, naturally, bottom-feeders, they were happy eating from the surface after 1-2 days, and this gives you a chance to check on them.
Whilst considering the animal kingdom, it is worth noting that we found a frog in the sump tank one day. It is worth ensuring that the tank is sealed, and/or providing a route out for anything that decides to go for a swim.
Cycling the system
We used the Murray- Hallam cycling technique to start the system off. This means adding liquid seaweed and adding plants, and then waiting for 2 weeks before adding fish. There was concern about the pH of the water, which was higher than the ‘ideal’ range given in the literature. However, having tested the pH of the lake from which the fish would be taken, we realised they were the same, so no action was taken on its acidity. This has dropped over time.
We were also able to introduce some rocks from the lake into the growing beds. They carry ‘healthy bacteria’ that would help speed up the cycling process.
3 solar powered oxygenators were used over the summer, which are now powered by the mains as daylight hours start to reduce. We cannot currently monitor oxygen levels in the water, but hope to get a more efficient approach to the energy consumption in future.
The rationale for this approach was that the water would be prepared for the fish. However, 2 weeks into their residence we found a number dead. This hit us hard as the whole idea of this approach had been to avoid stressing the fish. It appears to have happened because the stocking levels were too high, and they received more food than necessary due to some enthusiastic helpers. We reduced the fish levels to a quarter of that suggested in the literature, and their feed is also given at a lower rate than suggested. A month on the pH, Ammonia, Nitrite and Nitrate levels remain spot on.
Lesson learnt: Use the Murray-Hallam method but introduce the fish very gradually, and give a single person responsibility for feeding. It is better to lose some early plants than put the fish through stress.
We are yet to start the formal monitoring of the system but readings were taken daily during cycling and the first two weeks of the fish residency. Now the system is up to speed we are testing pH, ammonia, nitrite and nitrate levels on a weekly basis. We found (but don’t know if this is the norm) that the Nitrite level rose and fell very quickly, and the Nitrate level rose to 80ppm on the day after the fish were introduced and haven’t fallen much since.
We also visually check the water levels and flow rates in the tanks and from the outlets into the grow beds. We have found that we have to add around 300 litres of water on a fortnightly basis over the summer, suggesting that evaporation is more of an issue than we expected.
Our greatest concern is the temperature, as this is very difficult to control, and there is no data available on this for our particular site (a polytunnel in the UK). The good news is that the water appears to limit temperature swings with its highest temperatures on the hottest days reaching 5 degrees less than the outside air, and staying 5 degrees warmer than the outside air overnight. It is likely that the water will provide a similar cushioning effect over winter, and it is hoped we will have full temperature monitoring to provide more information to protect our fish, and help others with their aquaponics plans.
First plants go in, and visibly struggle to find nutrients
The planting of the grow beds was circumstantial rather than planned. A tomato cutting or two have taken hold surprisingly quickly and are now fruiting. Some supermarket coriander plants thrived for around 6 weeks but didn’t survive the first cold night of the autumn, whilst some strawberry plants surprisingly fruited within weeks. Spare pea seedlings grew, but failed to fruit. And of the greens, the lettuces have taken well but various brassicas have been eaten by unseen bugs (or slugs?).
At this point it seems that the output is different to that achieved in soil. Some leaves, like spinach and mizuna, are growing well and deliver on taste and texture; but other lettuces are just too limp. Next year we will need to more consciously trial what works and what doesn’t.
And finally, perhaps most exciting for a beginner, that thing where people just scatter seeds into the grow beds – it works! In early August, in a rush before going on holiday, I sprinkled a handful of dwarf peas into the bed and covered it with a single layer of clay balls. Those plants are now growing nicely and producing flowers. Light levels may now be too low to deliver many peas this year, but they may well survive the winter ready to grow on in the Spring.