[Back to the Wild Summit] Thomas J. Elpel Teaches Botany in a Day
An interview by Alison Ramsay with Thomas J. Elpel. Catch the podcast and audio recording here.
“We are all on one great survival trip trying to figure out how to meet our needs for shelter, fire, water and food, preferably without destroying the planet in the pro cess. That is really the bottom line. How can we sustainably meet our needs for shelter, fire, water and food without consuming all the earth’s resources, without altering the climate and without being enslaved to a meaningless job until we die?” This is a quote from my next guest’s speech, The New Era of Self Sufficiency, shared at the Alaska Bioneer’s Conference.
He is the author of a wealth of books on wilderness survival skills, sustainable living, sustainable building, botany and relating to the natural world. He founded a Green University for young adults and an Outdoor Wilderness Living School for children. And just by spending an evening indulging in his website, hollowtop. com, I became even more knowledgeable, more inspired and more impressed by this man’s passion and commitment to really living and really living in harmony with nature and with each other. Here to talk to us about botany, getting back in communication with nature and affordable ecological housing is the author, entrepreneur and eco-philosopher, Thomas J. Elpel. Thomas, thank you so much for being here to get a little wild with us today.
Thomas J. Elpel: Well, thanks Alison. I’m glad to be here and thanks for the invite.
Alison: Great. So you’ve written a lot of amazing books. But one in particular that I here to talk to us about botany, getting back in communication with nature and affordable ecological housing find on many people’s shelves and even the other speakers in the summit is Botany in a Day.
In a world where most people walk into a forest and all they see is trees, leaves and grass, how have you made botany so easy to learn and can you really learn Botany in a Day?
Thomas J. Elpel: You can certainly get a good start on it. Yeah, you know I got started learning plants when I was a kid. My father taught me my first edible plant; something he called miner’s lettuce. And then my grandmother had a deep interest in plants and so, you know – and a lot of that was like herbs for teas. So they’re going out and collecting things like red clover, blue violet, rose hips, things like that. Got them home, dried them and then made herbal tea with those. And so sort of having that introduction to plants got me interested in learning more, you know learning all the other ones out there.
And so the kid who started out, you know on a rock and brings back a flower and then just sits there and flips through the picture books and try to just match the plant to the photo to identify it that way. And that’s how I did most plant identification in junior high and high school. And then I thought that there had to be an easy way. In fact I looked at the botanical keys that were just insanely complex and all these words – I had no idea what they were and it just kind of seemed crazy. And I had this notion that I wanted to write a book called Botany in a Day.
I didn’t actually know how I was going to do that. But some years later when we had a school for teaching some of these kinds of skills, we had an herbalist here that did a plant walk. And on the walk she talked about plants in a way that I’d never heard anybody do before and that was – you know I happened to have a lot of members of the rose family in my area. And I was familiar with family names, but didn’t really see any relevance to them.
But Robin, my friend that taught this class would come to a plant and say oh, this is such-and-such of the rose family, and like other members of the rose family notice how it has five petals, lots of stamens and the vegetation is stringent.
That is if you chew on it it’s going to dry up the secretions in your mouth. It could be used internally to dry up your system or externally on wounds to tighten up tissues and things like that. And so she just kind of summarized the uses of – you know and instead of just telling us one plant in a family, summarized the whole family’s worth for their identification and the uses of a whole family group. And so that was totally new to me and that’s really what became the spark that turned into Botany in a Day.
And really it was an amazing thing because you take the mustard family and your mustard flowers have four petals and have six stamens, four tall and two short. So it’s the middle part of the flower there. Four petals, six stamens, four tall and two short. And there’s over 3,000 mustards in the world and they’re all edible. So with that much information you could be trekking across Australia or Africa – anywhere in the world – see a flower that you’ve never come across before in your life, look at it and go, oh, that’s a mustard. I can eat it.
And that’s really the powerful thing about the plant family patterns.
And once you get onto those you can just learn about botany, you know so fast. And whether you want the broad picture like that or even if you’re trying to identify something down to its individual species, knowing those family patterns just makes all the difference in the world.
Alison: Great. And I saw a really great video of you playing a card game on YouTube that you made. And you also did a botany book for children. Can you tell us a little bit more about this?
Thomas J. Elpel: Sure. You know Botany in a Day was my first plant identification book and I was working out of that. You know I would take people on walks and I guess what I like to do is I like to teach people the patterns. And then when we come to a plant instead of me telling them what it is, it’s like I ask them what it is.
You know once they learn these simple patterns and then can recognize those and tell me what this new plant is that they’ve never seen before. And so what I did with the children’s book, Shanleya’s Quest: A Botany Adventure for Kids Ages 9 to 99, is to introduce some of those plant family patterns into a fun story for kids in sort of a metaphorical format.
And you know make it accessible to kids in that way. And so I did that first and then from there I did the card game, the patterns and plants card game. And I guess each time that I’ve done this I sort of shortened the ways of presenting some of this really basic information. And I think that as a species we don’t really learn that well by lectures, even though that’s sort of a predominant way that we teach through our educational system.
I think it’s probably our worst way of learning things and so with the card game it goes through the patterns for eight major families of plants. And I found that over time that the more I shortened the talk – less talk and more just really getting into it, that people can pick it up at an intuitive level first and then build on it later with the greater details. And so in its sort of shortest form I can run through the eight families that are in the deck in about two minutes and then start playing these games and people recognize these patterns that we do.
You know for example start out with something like Memory or Concentration where you’re just turning up cards looking for a match. And so you start to recognize – you’re getting hands-on experience, pattern matching for each of these families and you know when you have a match you pull it off and you get to go again. And so we have a number of games like that.
We have Memory, we have Slap Flower, we have Crazy Flowers, Wild Flower Rummy and then Shanleya’s Harvest is based on the story in the book.
And the interesting thing about all this that I’ve noticed is that we can be playing these card games and kids will come up but completely miss the introduction and they’ll just watch what we’re doing and in no time at all they’ll be in there playing the game.
You know, recognizing and saying the family names even though I didn’t introduce them to them at all. And so that’s really just a very powerful way of learning for people. And so even though it’s like a kid’s book and a kid’s card game but I really use it in all my adult programs as well.
Alison: Yeah. Well even when I was watching the video I got really into it and I was learning more about the plant families just from watching you do it on your YouTube video.
Thomas J. Elpel: Good.
Alison: Yeah. So I think that – yeah, definitely that’s a really effective way to learn about the plant families, and you’ve really found a way to teach it and make it very simple. But some of our listeners may be thinking well, you know why is this information still relevant? Why is it useful for us to learn plant identification – wild plant identification when we can just go to the store and get our food in a package?
Thomas J. Elpel: Sure. Yeah, it’s such a big disconnect from nature these days. It’s really quite shocking. You know some people like have apple trees growing in their yards, but they would rather buy them from the store and I don’t even know how to process that. But yeah, I think we’ve been seeing a trend toward, you know a greater disconnect. And it’s not just from nature as a whole; it’s really just from physical reality. So one example of this – my neighbor had an Army veteran visiting at her house and she was headed out in the winter.
She asked him to light the fire and so he put this big log in the fireplace and then he tried to light it with a match. And he just hadn’t ever really done campfires before or any kind of fire starting, so he didn’t know that he can’t light a big log with a little match. He didn’t, you know have a concept of tinder and kindling. And so I think that that’s really dangerous that as a society that we’re getting that detached from physical reality. You know you start seeing things like coffee cups that say – you know have these warnings – caution, contents may be hot. You know something that should be pretty obvious.
And, you know my sister used to work as a tour guide in Yellowstone Park. It’s not far from my home here. And she said people ask questions like where do you put all the animals at night? You know? They’ve got several million acres of wild lands and they want to know where the animals are put away at night, like somebody has to take care of them.
And so, yeah, there’s this huge disconnect from the natural world. And so I think that the more that we can start reconnecting, you know is good really on many levels just from a self-sufficiency level. You know something as simple as picking the apples off your own tree or picking them in a park or something is sort of a – you know you’re staking your independence in a way that you’re not dependent on the whole machine or the system or whatever you want to call it. That you can take care of yourself to a degree.
And the more that you can do that the better.
And you know really taking a stake in the world that way. And I think that ultimately what it does is it empowers, you know it’s like at first it’s really just empowering a person on the self-sufficiency level. But ultimately it’s sort of empowering a person to be responsible in the world. And you know it’s like if we’re going to make sound policy choices, like you know how do we manage our wild lands or what is our energy policy, that sort of thing. People have to be connected to physical reality, otherwise we’re in big trouble.
Alison: Yeah. And that was exactly my next question. Because that’s something that I’m really passionate about. And that’s getting people not just to look at nature or admire it from a distance, but to get people touching it and using it and eating from it and sleeping outside and co-existing with it. Because there’s a harmonious co-dependent relationship there that we’ve lost touch with. And yeah, I’d love to go deeper into that because I know in your book, Participating in Nature, you go deep into that.
So in your opinion why has nature become something that we fear or admire from a distance instead of something that is part of us and our daily lives as much as we are part of it as well? Like what has caused this disconnect?
Thomas J. Elpel: Yeah. Certainly, you know I mean I think it’s been an ongoing trend for a long time that – it’s really connected, you know with all the time that people spend indoors. And of course, you know first it was television, then it was video games and now it’s Internet. And you know people are sort of living in this, you know cerebral existence and not really getting outside and in touch with nature or reality. And so you know that is a concern. And that’s been one of my great interests in working with the local public schools is take the kids out on either day trips – you know sometimes day trips and sometimes overnight or several nights trips.
And yeah, a lot of times, you know – I mean I live in a very rural place. My town has a 125 people in it. The next town over where the school is has a few more than that. You know we’re an hour from the movie theater, you know an hour away from big towns.
And yet there’s, you know people here that are growing up in these small towns that really haven’t been camping before; they haven’t hiked up into our mountains to explore the lakes that are just a few miles away. And so, you know we take the kids out and we do some pretty serious skills with these kids.
I mean we’ve put kids out in the woods without sleeping bags or tents and stuffing them in a big pile of grass for the night making what we call a mouse shelter. They, you know, stay warm like the mice do. And so building a big ball of grass to climb into. And, you know the kids, they’ll rub sticks together to start doing fires. They do their own cooking. We do a lot of cooking without pans. So for example we have like on a slab of bark you can do a stir-fry using – cut up all your vegetables and stir some hot rocks into that to cook the food. And then so the kids will do that and they’ll make plates out of bark. We have them even make their own bowls burning out a bowl-shaped depression so that they can have soup and that sort of thing. And, you know so we go pretty deep with these skills.
So, let me just read you a quote here from one of the kids that we had out this year. She said “I used to think that birds were annoying, trees were a waste of space and nature was just ridiculous. After our four-day campout I have a new perspective. I’ve realized that all those plants have a purpose and that nature does too. You can use the plants to make a bow, string and a bow. You can also use plants to make tea and to make kindling for a newly made fire that’s started from the hands of friends and a branch of a willow. You see plants have many uses and I have a new perspective on nature and plants.”
So, yeah, just getting these kids out there and doing these things is hugely empowering to them to really connect with the world around them. That, you know most of the time they’re just walking by and they don’t know what the plants are, they don’t pay any attention to them. And now we get them out there and we do these skills and they find out what an amazing world, what an amazing planet we live on.
Alison: And that is the connection that fosters them to want to make choices sustainably and want to protect it as well.
Thomas J. Elpel: I think that can make a huge difference down the road and that’s really been, you know an interest to me is how can we connect with these kids, not just once, but over and over again so that they really go deep.
Alison: And I think – and it’s something that I’ve mentioned in some of my other interviews is that, you know we are a part of nature, nature’s inside of us.
And there is that innate wisdom that’s in us and that we’ve completely lost touch with and we sort of exist in these passive lives where we’re passively engaging with the world around us. We’re not – like technology is not really an active thing, it’s a passive thing where we sit back and watch or we sit back and experience something.
So getting kids and adults back into nature is really awakening that wisdom or that feeling inside. And getting sort of something active happening and something engaging and something where there’s a relationship happening. And I think it’s really beautiful that you’re doing that. And so important because technology is fascinating and it’s just everywhere and ever present and, you know it’s hard to get your eyes off of when you’ve got this amazing machine and then, you know a tree.
Well, you know it’s a matter of opinion which you think is more amazing. I would pick the tree.
Thomas J. Elpel: That’s true, but –
Alison: Until we learn about what a tree is. Just like that quote from one of your students, it’s like there’s an amazing system of communication happening with a tree, inside a tree and between the other trees in the forest that, you know could be similar to an Internet. So tell us a little bit more about the things that you offer? Because you have your Green University, you have OWLS for Kids, you have books, you have a website, you have articles, you have a YouTube channel. So before we go into the eco-building side of things, just because we’re on the topic, tell us a little bit more about the amazing programs that you offer.
Thomas J. Elpel: Okay. Sure. The Outdoor Wilderness Living School, or OWLS, that’s our program for working with the kids and most of that is done with the public schools here in Montana. And so yeah, that’s definitely some of my most rewarding work. I just love working with the kids, getting them out in nature and really seeing them come alive with those experiences. And then Green University is our adult program that we have people that come and stay with us over the – you know they’ll stay usually on a month-by-month basis or, you know up to a year and we cover all kinds of skills. Heavy emphasis on the stone-age skills, wilderness survival type skills, and they always help out with our kids’ programs.
And then we usually have, you know some house building type projects going as well and really just cover a lot of different bases through the adult internship program. And otherwise, yeah, my main thing is – you know my career has been as a writer and so I have six books out. You know we’ve already talked Botany in a Day, Shanleya’s Quest and Participating in Nature. Living Homes focuses on the house building, you know on how to build the house of your dreams and make it green and make it affordable. And then I have a book Direct Pointing to Real Wealth that’s sort of a green economics, basically how to make your way in the world, you know with the interest of making the world a better place. And then Roadmap to Reality on consciousness and worldviews.
So kind of my topics are all over the map and that’s just whatever interests me – whatever my passion is and then turning it into a book. And then I have seven DVDs out now. Two of those are on house building, I have one on stone masonry construction and one on building the masonry fireplaces – the efficient masonry fireplaces. And then I have a video on – I work with public schools called Classroom in the Woods. And four videos in the Art of Nothing Wilderness Survival Video Series. And those are kind of fun because
Those are kind of fun because in each one we go out, it’s like a different place and different, you know circumstances. And we spend like three days and two nights sort of living and demonstrating the skills.
So for example on the first video in the series I went out with my daughter when she was 12 and we spent three days at the river. So we went out and camped near the river for three days and two nights and we had no knife, no matches, no – you know.
We had the clothes that we were wearing and the video camera and we documented, you know for three days and two nights everything that we did to meet our needs for shelter and starting a fire and treating our drinking water and foraging for food. All those different skills. So yeah, it’s kind of a fun bunch of videos to do.
Alison: And if people want to get hold of you and find out more they can just visit your website, hollowtop.com.
Thomas J. Elpel: Yeah. That’s correct. Yeah, that’s a mountain just a few miles from my house that has the hollow top. It looks like an old volcano, but it’s not. It’s more of like a circular glacier configuration up there. But yeah, a mountain with a hollow top up here, that’s where the name came from for the original website and there’s about ten – I’ve got about ten websites all connected together there at that address.
Alison: Yeah. And it’s an awesome website. There’s so many resources on there and articles to read, so I encourage people to check it out. So what I’d really love to talk with you about is your experience with eco-building. And I read that you built your first home ecologically for about the price of a new car. And I recently watched a friend build a small – very small home, about the size of a large shed – with standard building materials, the cheapest and probably the most toxic options.
And it cost him around $50,000 just for the building without the wiring and the – you know the trenches you have to dig to get all the wiring to the house and power and stuff. And when a bird or a mouse can build a beautiful and toasty warm little dwelling and you mentioned the grass mounds that your students are sleeping in, from the materials they find around them, well we can do the same. And we can still create beautiful homes. Like when I say straw and mud people are probably going to think like what kind of house is going to last made of the straw and mud and what’s it going to look like?
But it actually makes a beautiful well – very well insulated dwelling. And I actually lived in an adobe mud brick and straw bale cottage and it was my favorite home. It was really lovely like energetically and it was esthetically very lovely. So share with some of your wealth of knowledge on green building and maybe tell us the story of your first home and some types of homes that somebody can build and the ways that they can make the most cost efficient and earth friendly.
Thomas J. Elpel: Okay. Sure. You know when I got started it was really – and you know I think I was too young to know any better and that can be a really good thing. Because I think a lot of people, you know expect the way you’ve got to, you know you’ve got to get a job and, you know you’ve got to go to college, you’ve got to get a degree so you can get a job so you can save up some money so you can build a house. And then, you know you’re probably too busy so you’re going to contract it out and it’s going to cost a fortune. And for me it’s like I never really wanted a job and I’ve only been employed 11 months of my life for other people.
Thomas J. Elpel: And so you know I was very interested in – you know like I said the no job path to success. So I really focused on how can I eliminate expenses. And so the work that I did was primarily working with troubled teenagers in wilderness therapy. And so going out, you know working where you’d take kids out on these three-week walkabouts and so I had no expenses while I was in the field, and then, you know of course I was a young adult living at home.
And when we bought land here, we were first living in a tent. And so I guess a lot of people spend 95 percent of their income just sort of surviving and put like five percent away for their dreams. And you know what myself and my wife had done was the opposite of that.
Is that we lived on five percent and we put 95 percent away, you know towards our dreams. And so bought land here and then started building a house. And didn’t, you know didn’t necessarily have a lot of skills in that area, so nothing happened particularly efficiently. But what we built is a passive solar stone and log house.
And I’d done a lot of research on it even back in high school. I was reading like all the back issues of Mother Earth News magazine so I was learning about construction and design principles. And you know I’d already drew these house plans over and over and over again. And so – because the planning is just so important. That’s where your cost is really happening in how you go about building a house. So anyway, what we built was a passive solar, stone and log house and really using as many local materials as we could. So all the stones for example were just picked up off the road here.
We live in the Rocky Mountains, there’s lots of rocks here. And so you know it was easy to gather those and build. And this is like a 2.7 billion year-old metamorphic rock and you know beautiful rock to work with. And I figured if it’s been around for 2.7 billion years, it might be worth building a house with. Alison: Good point. Awesome.
Thomas J. Elpel: Yeah. And I love this, you know just dearly love this house. I really can’t imagine like living in a tract home that’s built out of sticks and drywall or whatever it is. It just has no heart and soul to it. And so for me, you know this house is just totally nurturing and sustaining with all the natural textures from the stones on the wall, you know to the handmade tiles on the floor and all the woodwork and everything. You know it’s a very personable house. Alison: Yeah. And you don’t have power bills.
Thomas J. Elpel: We don’t have much of a power bill. We are grid connected, so we have a service charge – a monthly service charge of $5.00 a month. And that’s it. The house itself doesn’t use a whole lot of power, you know I made it efficient to begin with. And so you know our power requirements were low enough that we later put in solar panels, and so we’re able to generate electricity, run the meter backwards and over the balance of a year, usually come out about even to where we, you know we’re producing as much power as we use in the course of a year. And so that’s – it’s always a thrill for me to get the power bill and see that our usage was zero for the month.
Alison: Yeah. That’s great. And so – because it gets quite cold in Montana
Thomas J. Elpel: It definitely gets cold here.
Alison: – so how did you insulate your home?
Thomas J. Elpel: You know, the funny thing is this house really isn’t that well insulated. What it is however is it’s built into the hill. You know we’re pretty high in elevation here in the mountains, and of course our seasons are opposite of yours there. But the trees here don’t leaf out until the middle of May and, you know our summer season ends, you know in September and then we can have snow in any month of the year, let’s put it that way.
Snow is possible any month of the year. So yeah, it’s a cold place here. But what we did was the house was built into the hill and so there’s a concrete retaining wall against the earth bank here. So there’s ten feet of dirt on the north side of the house and eight feet on the east side. And so the house is snuggled into the hill pretty well. And then it’s protected on the south side by the greenhouse that we can separate – you know just shut the door and close the windows and separate that off from the house.
And then, you know the west side has the insulation in it where the wall is exposed to the outside there. So I mean overall the house doesn’t have – it definitely doesn’t have great insulation. And you know what I find is that I really walk away from the house in the middle of winter – could probably leave it all winter and I wouldn’t have to worry about the pipes freezing or the plants dying. But what it does is it drops down kind of to ground temperature and so it really takes quite a bit of firewood to heat it back up to house temperature.
So I think that could be improved upon like by insulating the roof better for example. I think we could make the house more solar than it is. And you know to me there’s always – no matter what you have, there’s always ways that you can tinker with it and increase the efficiency. The one thing that I’ve done on this house since building it originally is to put air locks on all of the doors. So you know like our greenhouse was the first one that – the very front of the house – you step into the greenhouse and it’s eight-feet wide and then you go outside.
So the greenhouse is providing this buffer against the winter cold. And what I later did is on the other doors on the house I just installed a double door. So that in each case, you know like two of those insulated doors and then they each have a window, so it’s like four panes of glass instead of just, you know two panes of glass it’s two doors and four panes of glass.
And little things like that can just do so much for increasing the efficiency of a house. And then it’s kind of ridiculous actually to pour a whole bunch of money into, you know insulating the house really good and then to have just like a single door on there, you know a two-inch thick door that the weather stripping’s going to go bad on and it’s going to let in all the cold air. So if you do simple things like adding in a double door you can vastly improve the efficiency of the house.
Alison: So say some of our listeners out there would be really interested in, you know learning – like if they want to build a house and they don’t know anything, like what would be a good starting place? What are some of the types of homes they can build or some resources for our listeners if they want to build an affordable ecological house? Where would they begin?
Thomas J. Elpel: Okay. You know reading is a good place to go because, you know like anything you sort of have to have some background to start from. And you know one of the things in my book, Living Homes, it sort of focuses on stone masonry, log and strawbuilt construction. But it has a good emphasis on integrated design processes, how do you think about designing a house that’s going to be efficient and use your materials well and, you know be budget friendly. So I think reading is a good place to start. And I also think that, you know little projects are always great too.
That, you know building a greenhouse or an outhouse or a shed or a garage or something. And there are – I mean there are so many ways that you can approach those things working, you know just with second-hand materials. And most of my work is done more with natural materials like the stone and log, but there’s also things like free pallets that you can get.
And I mean people have built houses out of pallets. And so really, you know building a scavenging skill is a good thing to work on there too. And I guess that’s one thing I used to do a lot of when I was just driving around, is I just notice, like you know going by a farm field. I say well, look at all those piles of rocks that somebody went to a lot of effort to pull those out of the field. And it’s like I bet if I stopped there and asked they would let me take all of those rocks for free and I can, you know build a house out of it. Or seeing, you know trees that have been cut down and not utilized. And a lot of times I get my firewood at the dump because, you know people will cut down a tree and they’ll cut it up into manageable pieces, which are like firewood size and then they’ll, you know they’ll dispose of them at the dump.
Alison: Oh my goodness.
Thomas J. Elpel: And maybe they don’t like cottonwoods and they want to – you know they can go up in the mountains and they’ll cut down some pine or fir, but leave all this, you know perfectly good firewood behind. And so, you know just from learning some of those scavenging skills is good. There’s always piles of lumber that you can inquire about and, you know put things to use. And, you know people have built houses out of tires and I mean you name it, you can build a house out of it.
Alison: Yeah. I know. I’ve seen a house built out of like stacks of magazines before.
Thomas J. Elpel: Nice.
Alison: Yeah. Yeah, the standard building protocol is really – it’s pretty inefficient and it’s pretty expensive, isn’t it?
Thomas J. Elpel: It is, yeah. If you’re buying all the materials, then yeah, they’re going to be expensive.
Alison: And they’re not even that good often.
Thomas J. Elpel: No. They’re really not. I mean when I look around – you know it’s sort of an historic town here, historic, you know by our standards – late 1800s. And you know you’ve got some old brick buildings that are still in great shape and then you have some wood buildings that were built with, you know high quality lumber, really good construction. Most of them are gone, but there’s still a few that are hanging on. And then you look at the new houses that you know they’re mostly just empty space and they’re using the most flimsy wood.
It’s like cardboard and toothpicks that we build houses out of. And it’s a wonder they last long enough for people to pay off the mortgage, you know.
It’s like I look around, it’s like, wow, everything we’ve built in our country could just blow away.
And we really have to, you know – eventually I mean everything has to be rebuilt because it wasn’t done right the first time.
Alison: And the bathrooms rot away. You need to do your kitchens over again.
Thomas J. Elpel: Right.
Alison: So if somebody who already has a house maybe wants to make it a bit more green and more efficient, is there anything that they can do to add to their existing homes to improve them?
Thomas J. Elpel: You know there’s always a way. And I think that’s, you know kind of I guess a fascination of mine is, you know what can you do to structures to improve them. I actually gave an audit up there to Alaska Pacific University when I was up in Anchorage Alaska on the University campus there.
And I went around and it was just sort of ridiculous the heat going out. So yeah, you know there’s of course the basic things, like you know you start with your weather stripping and you can, you know always use a can of foam and spray in little holes and gaps and that sort of thing. And you can put in, you know like the double doors I was talking about or better windows, that kind of thing. And it’s really a matter of sort of assessing the structure and just saying well, where can I get the most efficiency for the least investment and sort of doing that first. You know it might be wrapping the water heater and then you can kind of go down the line. And I guess to me it’s a great sport. It’s like how can you make a house more efficient this month or this year than it was last year inside? And so then you know you can add like a solar water heater. I do not have an electric water heater or a gas water heater in this house. What I have is a solar water heater in the yard and then I cook on a wood cook stove because my grandmother was a huge influence in my life. And she cooked on a wood cook stove and I grew up around that. And I just wouldn’t have anything else. So I cook on a wood cook stove and there’s water pipes running through the firebox.
And so you know in the wintertime we’re using the stove more, in the summer we’re using the solar more, but we pretty much always have hot water, you know ready to go. And so you know if you say have a wood stove, you can look at well, you know can we route some pipes through here and a tank and heat up water when we’re heating the house with wood. You know can you add a solar water heater?
Can you put a little bit of insulation on the outside of the house and give it, you know fatten the walls out a little bit, you know taking it out that way. And of course add insulation up in the attic. All of those things. And I think that, you know making it more efficient and also trying to make it more durable.
Because you know time does fly so fast and it’s like your carpets and linoleum and things that you put them in new and then you walk on them a few times and it seems like in no time at all people are ripping them out and hauling them off to the dump and putting in new ones. And so you know can you put in tile floors, have a lifetime floor for example. Something that’s going to last and it’s going to be also, you know more resistant to fires and that sort of thing. And so really going for the long-term view is what I do in building with how can you make a house that’ll last dang near forever.
Alison: Yeah. Great. Thank you for that. And just share again with us your resources on building? You’ve got Living Homes, you’ve also got some videos?
Thomas J. Elpel: Yeah. So Living Homes is stone masonry, log and straw-built construction, really going into the integrated design process of how do you, you know think and design a house with the resources at hand on a budget. And then the videos are like back-up to that. They’re complementary to the book. The Slipform Stone Masonry video shows the process that’s talked about in the book of building with slipforms. Basically what we’re using is that – you know if you’re a novice and you don’t have stone masonry experience, then how do you make solid straight walls?
Well you can put up these forms on both sides of the wall and you take and you put in your stone against the formwork and then put in – you’ve got reinforcing bar in there in the wall. And then you’re pouring in your concrete in behind these rocks. And so since you’ve got that nice wooden face there, you’re just putting the rock in against it and pouring concrete behind it.
It makes it super easy for a novice to, you know build nice straight beautiful walls. And it’s also what the stone masonry video goes into. And then the Build Your Own Masonry Fireplace goes through all the steps of building an efficient masonry heater. So these are the ones, you know instead of having like a chimney that goes straight up and out, it has a series of baffles that extract heat from the wood smoke exhaust there. And so, you know you have this – in this case horizontal ones that go back and forth through the brickwork that extract the heat and increase the efficiency of the fireplace. And so it’s kind of an interesting system.
Ours definitely does not crank out the heat. You know it doesn’t like drive you out of the room – you know the house is cold, you light the fire and then it’s too hot – that sort of thing. This fireplace I actually get it going and you can throw some wood in there and it actually burns fairly slowly and then it heats up this big mass and once it’s hot, it will radiate warmth out for the next three days. And so, you know three days after the fire’s out, you can still feel warmth coming off the rocks. And that’s really what the masonry fireplace video’s about.
Alison: Awesome. I want one. In New Zealand primarily houses are heated with fireplaces, although in the cities they’re starting to stop that because of the air pollution – the smoke pollution. But the houses here are generally pretty flimsy. Because it’s such a young country and it’s that pioneering spirit is still really alive here, which I love, but definitely in the housing it’s – and it does get chilly here in the winter. So your temperature outside is pretty on par to the temperature inside. And the houses are heated with fireplaces and electric heaters. So I love the idea of having something that gives off heat for three days.
Thomas J. Elpel: Well I think the most important part is insulating well and if you have something that puts out gentle warmth for three days, it’ll – I mean we can actually go a week here without lighting the fire. And so I’ll often like light it on the weekends and heat it up and then, you know let it radiate heat out and then towards the end of the week, you know if it’s feeling cool just start putting on a long-sleeve shirt because it’s getting a little cool and then on the weekend we’ll light it again.
Alison: And I think that’s so amazing because as I said before Montana does get quite cold and it certainly gets a lot colder than New Zealand. So as you said building a house with good insulation is key. Great. Thank you so much for all that information. Is there anything else that you’d like to share in particular before we wrap up?
Thomas J. Elpel: Well, nothing’s coming to mind. Alison: Okay. Great. Well, I think we covered a lot of good information. And if people, as we said, want to learn more about you and your books and your schools and all the amazing things that you offer, they can go to hollowtop.com. And then I just have one last question for you before I can let you go.
Thomas J. Elpel: Sure.
Alison: And that is, what is your wild wish for the people listening to this call?
Thomas J. Elpel: Oh, wild wish.
Alison: Your wild wish.
Thomas J. Elpel: Okay. Well, you know I’m going to be taking off pretty soon on about a seven-day walkabout in the mountains. And I’m going to go out and pick some huckleberries and, you know I just would wish for every person to be able to get out and, you know get out and see a lot of good back country and get in contact with the natural world. You know it might not seem like a particularly productive thing to do, to just go hang out in the woods. But I find that it’s so rejuvenating and, you know that it’s just so much more than just the experience of doing it that you sort of come back empowered, you know to do great things at home and to make a difference at home. So I think getting out and spending time in nature is one of the best things you can do to make the world a better place.
Alison: Beautiful. And I totally agree with you, Thomas. So thank you so much for sharing your time and all this amazing information and resources with us today. We really appreciate it.
Thomas J. Elpel: Well, thank you, Alison. I really appreciate you inviting me.
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