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PDC Blog: Day 9

Jump to: Creating a living house, Housing design practical, Filling up the swales, Biodynamics, and the Biodynamics practical.

I woke up to a ominously overcast sky, and admired the olives surrounded in mist on my way to breakfast.

Wild olives surrounded by mist

The day’s lecture began with a discussion on how the design of houses could be improved to make them more energy-efficient.

From increasing natural light to redesigning building structures and shapes, from using technology to improving air quality, it was clear that the house design of our era could do with a lot of work.

We discussed how, before starting design, you need to take the following aspects into account:

Materials, water needs, insulation, fuel, equipment/tools, light, airflow, location, shape/architecture, energy, water catchments and waste water, shade, habitat, wind protection, heat, sun reflection, protection and vertical space.

So, just how do you go about creating a living house?

Firstly, you need to design according to your climate. A house in a desert or tropical region would require a different design to one in a Mediterranean or temperate climate. Windows should be south-facing in northern hemisphere, north-facing in southern hemisphere.

Thus, in Southern Africa, it’s better to have a north-facing house, with a passive energy system to moderate climate. Ross Mars, in the Basics of Permaculture design, defines a passive solar house as one which effectively uses the sun’s energy to keep it warm or cool and to moderate the adverse effects of climate on the house.

Keeping the house cool during the day and warm at night

A house in desert or tropical climates would benefit from design that keeps it cool in the day and warm at night. Strategies to ensure this include:

  • Using sash windows to create air circulation
  • Painting surfaces white to reflect light
  • Shutters to keep direct sunlight out but allow air in
  • Planting deciduous vines or trees to allow for winter sun and summer shade
  • Building a veranda
  • Directing cool winds towards the house using breezeways
  • Building an underground or earth covered house, which keeps temperature constant
  • Using convection or fans to draw cool air into rooms
  • Insulating the roof and walls to keep cold air out at night
  • Minimal windows on the sun-facing side
  • A ventilation tower (like a tall chimney) will enable cool air to be drawn through the house

Keeping your house warm in colder climates

Meanwhile, to keep a house warm with minimal use of fuel, you can try the following design strategies:

  • Reduce heat loss through insulation
  • Use double glazing (especially in sun shaded side and in direction of cold winds)
  • Increase the thermal mass of your house (brick walls, dark slate on floor), which absorbs excess heat and releases it slowly during the night
  • Increase the percentage of glass on the sun-facing side
  • Seal gaps under doors and under windows
  • Plant on your roof to moderate climate
  • Use thick curtains with pelmets - Find out more
  • Use a Trombe wall
    • A Trombe wall is a very thick sun-facing wall, which is painted black and made of a material that absorbs excess heat such as stone, concrete or adobe. A pane of glass or plastic glazing, installed a few inches in front of the wall, helps hold in the heat. The wall heats up slowly during the day. Then as it cools gradually during the night, it gives off its heat inside the building.

Learn more about Trombe walls here

Practical: housing design

We then split into groups, to design a house. Avice gave us the following questions to address in our design:

1. Weather – how to use warmth of day and cool of night to our advantage

2. Location - where to place the house

3. Materials – what materials to use

4. Light – early morning and hot afternoon sun

5. Air – where are the winds coming from?

6. Water flows: catchment

7. Family – how many people require living space? In our case it was 5 adults, 2 kids and an old lady

8. Water –fresh water storage and waste water

9. Height – double story

10. Energy - want to go off the grid but have temporary power

I was placed in a group with Leon, Paul and Ervart. Taking shelter under a tree as it began drizzling, we surveyed the plot of land we’d been allocated. Set on a gradual slope facing the river, we were threatened by floods during rainy season. We determined that we receive sun from the north, and sometimes experienced strong westerly winds.

Overlooking goukou river

So we decided to place our house on a level plain, high enough to be safe from flooding, while maximising views from the river. Taking advantage of the materials nature provided, we would build with rocks and use clay from termite mounds. Our roof would be thatched with clay over to keep it cool in the hot afternoon summer sun.

With lots of windows and skylights, we’d maximise available sun. A double story design to accommodate our large family, the house will be built rounded and underground. A ventilation or wind tower cools the interior, while our chimney is painted black, which sucks heat up if the window is open. A fireplace in the centre of the house would keep it warm in winter.

We’d catch water by digging swales next to the house on each side to grow our veg. A secondary catchment area would be created further down our slope, where we’d create our food forest. Our waste water would be piped to our septic tank, while we’d have a freshwater tank to catch rainwater.

For our energy requirements, we’d harvest energy from the sun using solar panels which power our geyser and meet our electricity needs. This is supplemented by hot water from our compost heap, a windmill and a wind-powered pump. We also have a hydro-electric dam to harvest the water power.

To create a natural windbreak, we decided to plant Jackwood and Milkwood trees.

With visionaries such as Leon and Ervert in our team, we also had fish reservoirs which recirculated water through wind power (rotary pump hooked to wind system) allowing us to earn a substantial income, oyster tanks and more, ensuring our family’s long-term income.

Then we broke for lunch which was hummus wrapped in spinach leaves, salad and a delicious red cabbage and raisin salad.

Filling up the swales

We met up again at the swales for some seriously hard manual labour, filling them with straw, manure and topsoil.

We met up again at the swales for some seriously hard manual labour, filling them with straw, manure and topsoil.

Getting the thatch from A to B proved to be quite an effort, but we all pitched in using our hands to get it in the back of the truck or wheelbarrows, bringing it directly to the swales.

I envied Hazel's gloves as the thatch was pretty dirty and somewhat wet from recent rain.

Filling up swales


However, it was rewarding work as I could envision the area thriving with life in the future and would one day return and know I had a small part in that.

Loading thatch to go into swales

PDC group hard at work

Backbreaking though it was, this only gets done once. On your own smallholding or plot of land it would be easy to get people to help out, simply by offering training in exchange!

Filling swale with topsoil

After placing thatch and straw in the swales we then stomp them down to ensure greater water retention when the rains come.

Stamping down mulch for swales

Finally it was time for a tea break and we started with our first Biodynamic exercise.


We stood in a circle around a large bucket, discussing what biodynamics is. The term biodynamics is derived from the Greek words ‘bio’ (life) and ‘dynamics’ (energy). Much of biodynamics is based on the theories of the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner some 80 years ago.

The Biodynamics and Gardening Association defines biodynamics as a unified approach to agriculture that relates the ecology of the earth-organism to that of the entire cosmos.

Essentially, biodynamic farming and gardening looks upon the soil and the farm as living organisms. It regards maintenance and furtherance of soil life as a basic necessity if the soil is to be preserved for generations, and the ideal farm being self-contained with the animals providing the manure for fertility, and the crops produced feeding the animals.

I’m not going to go into too much detail on biodynamics here, as that’s another course on its own! To sum it up, biodynamics is a holistic approach that includes spiritual and cosmic forces along with the use of preparations to improve growing conditions and soil fertility.

Biodynamics Practical

Nizreen and Irshaad had recently completed a biodynamics course in India, thus Nizreen took us through how to make a BD500 Prep, which is field spray used to enhance growing conditions.

The prep is created by stuffing cow manure into a cow horn, burying it over winter, and then taking a small amount of the fermented manure and stirring it into fresh water for an hour.

Biodynamics, BD 500 demonstration


Creating a vortex

Avice explained that the stirring method is important to attract cosmic influences into the liquid. Hazel went first, demonstrating how you can use a stick to stir the water in one direction until a vortex forms in the bottom of the bucket, and then reverse the direction, creating chaos.

Stirring the BD 500 prep

Creating a vortex in the BD 500 prep

We all took turns with the stick but then tried with our hands (which I felt worked better as your energy is transferred to the water) to stir the water.

We did this for an entire hour, taking turns as each person got tired, and ensuring our entire group’s energy went into the prep. As our group member's tired out, we gave them a group massage, ensuring even more positive energy!
Irshaad gets a massage while stirring BD 500

Once the preparation was made, Avice took a sprig of rosemary and demonstrated how to spray each powerful droplet all over the farm. She explained that the best time to spray is in the afternoon, when the soil is warmer and thus it has more of an impact.

Spraying the BD 500 prep with a sprig of rosemary

Leon and I were assigned the wild olive trees, and using a sprig of lavender we sprayed it everywhere. With loads to spare, we then visited the swales. It was really an uplifting experience, we all felt connected on a deep level, and connected to the soil itself.

The day’s work finished, we had another fantastic meal of roasted veggies and a spinach and macadamia nut salad.

PDC group enjoys roasted veggies for dinner

For those who still had energy, the documentary WATER, featuring Dr Masuru Emoto (What the bleep do we know) and other prominent scientists, was screened.

We watched Dr Emoto as he presented music, written and spoken words (both positive and negative) at water droplets before they are frozen, and documented how images of the water crystals change accordingly.


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