Saturday, February 4, 2012

urban permaculture

Somewhere in the early summer I headed off to a permaculture workshop in Albany NY (also good excuse to see my friends in the quaker community).

The workshop was being lead by Dave Jacke and Keith Zaltzberg, well known permaculturalists, with assistance from Skott Kellogg, co-founder of the former Rhizome Collective in Austin Texas. The mission of the weekend gathering was to transform the household and yard of my friend Alice, whom I had met at the Rhizome’s Albany RUST training the year prior.

Pretty interesting weekend, lots of brainstorming, demos, work crews, and presentations. All three of the workshop leaders are incredibly knowledgeable and accomplished; they great job of putting together an engaging program based on instruction and action.

I contacted Alice in advance of the workshop and asked if i could bring up a pump i had made since back in the states. She said she thought it would be fine, and so i did. This was a mistake. First off, this thing was ridiculously overbuilt and clunky, and getting it from Philly to Albany was a little cumbersome. Secondly, i can see pretty clearly, in hindsight, that it was fairly opportunistic of me to drag this thing along. I was definitely enthusiastic about what i had learned, and was looking anywhere and everywhere to try to create more opportunities to make more machines and promote Maya Pedal. But, to be entirely frank, it was a little inappropriate of me to try to interject my agenda into someone else's program.

I'm sure Dave and Keith saw through my ruse, but they were nice about it and carved out 15 mins for me to show the thing off and talk about Maya Pedal.

I was really pleased to get an email after the workshop from a fellow attendee asking to collaborate in the albany area, unfortunately, timing didn't quite line up- i would be on a west coast road trip. A road trip, that unbeknownst to me, was my moving to Oregon.

A rocket-stove heated compost-tea maker (i think). The big barrel in the foreground sits atop the bricks and is heated by small kindling.

Sharon, one of the attendees and a neighbor of Alice, had an awesome terrarium collection. I was really into it.

Monday, January 30, 2012

The Human Powered Home

After leaving Maya Pedal, i knew that i wanted to continue learning about, and building, pedal powered machines. I had a ton of questions about basic physics, gear ratios, efficiency, drive systems, welding, jigs, etc. but with no straightforward or simple way to answer them. I remember thinking out loud to myself "i wish there was a book that was all about this stuff, full of everything that i want to know. " And as fortune would have it, there is such a book- Tamara Dean's "The Human Powered Home."

Dean's book covers all of the basics, and answered almost all of my questions, in an approachable and concise way. She employs the use of graphs and illustrations to make clear any number of concepts from the science of muscle activity to the comparative advantages of different drive systems. The book is full of, not only explorations into human powered projects, but also easy to follow DIY instructions on several machines. Dean does a terrific job of weaving together the history of human power, its current uses, the physics behind it, and a how-to manual all into one.

I highly recommend this book to anyone who is interested in human powered machines, especially those who don't have a science background, and definitely anyone who wants to start building machines. It was the perfect follow up to three months at Maya Pedal.

The Human Powered Home can be purchased online at all the normal places, or on Dean's website (which is worth checking out anyway) at:

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Lathes For Africa

While I was kicking around Philadelphia an old high school classmate, Josh Raizman, contacted me about a human powered project he was working on. He and a team of engineers were designing lathes to be built in Tanzania, the project was part of his engineering studies at Drexel University.

A professor, not in the engineering department, had a connection with Tanzania. He identified that a human powered lathe could be an important tool to help Tanzanian craftsmen develop low-overhead micro-enterprise. This professor enlisted the help of several highly interested engineering students to help him design a lathe.

At one point there was a website dedicated solely to the project, but I believe it has since been taken down. However, Alex Moseson, one of the graduate students working on the team, has reposted all of the information on his own site here.

Their work was very impressive, aside from the challenge of building a human powered lathe, they also had to design it with limited resources in mind. This is one of the greatest challenges of appropriate technology, making something that is highly functional, easily reparable, and made from locally available materials. I think they did a pretty good job with it. I was also impressed by their flexible power supply- one version they built could be run by bike, could be hooked up to a motor, run by treadle, or you could use the spinning wheels of a jacked up car to operate the lathe. This was a higher order of functionality and versatility then anything I had experienced thus far.

I got a chance to visit Josh, and see one of the lathes that was currently under construction in Drexel’s lab. This lathe project was the work of a, mostly, different group of engineering students. Josh said he was really impressed by their work and the improvements they'd made on the designs.

It was a great pleasure to see their work in person, ask lots of questions, and delve into some of the issues surrounding appropriate technology and working abroad.

building a blender at Alfred

Next on the tour was Alfred University, specifically the New York State College of Ceramics. I had contacted one of my favorite professors, Diane Cox, who just so happened to be teaching a course on the intersection between art making and sustainability. She loved the idea of having me out and, especially, of having the class build a blender together.

The trip from Albany to Alfred was actually a very familiar one, I’d done it dozens of times. But I’d become so used to being crammed onto crowded buses in Central America for 3 months that riding a greyhound was, by contrast, kind of bizarre. What with its (relatively) luxurious seating, a bathroom on board, and almost no one riding. It was confounding, how could this be profitable?

I came in late, stayed with some good friends in town, and then met up for breakfast with Diane and one of her seniors, a friend of mine, Sam Newman. Diane snagged Sam to help her get everything rolling, and together they did a fantastic job of gathering materials, and of setting up and promoting a small talk that I gave about the trip.

The talk went off well. A nice small crowd came out to hear about Maya Pedal, including some of my former professors. Good to see them, and to get them on the bike.

Diane’s class seemed pretty interested in building the blender and in the machines in general. We only had a few days to build it, but with everyone involved we got it done pretty quick.

(Unfortunately, I misplaced most of the process shots. So we’ll jump forward a bit.) Below is the rough skeleton of the frame sans components. We had several bikes at our disposal, and my memory is that some didn’t work so we had to find more.

This first mock-up, though, was a little too big. So one of the students, Matt Fendya, cut the downtube in half, moved the seat post closer in, welded in a top tube, and then made a clever adjustable seat. This was great for increasing the user accessibility of the machine. The seat, however, leans so far back, that an additional rear brace had to be put on the back.

One of my favorite touches was the appropriation of walmart shopping cart handle bars.

And also the tassles.

And here it is in its final state

And when all was said and done, we had a party at one of the students’ places. Margaritas, were in order. Unfortunately the blender wasn’t so great at chopping ice, so they were a little… chunky. Also, we were somehow missing the top of the blender, so we used some tinfoil, which worked. More or less.

There was some talk of getting the blender into the Moka Joka (the little coffee shop in the art building), I suspect it didn’t make it there though. The question of commercial kitchen quality came up, and uh yeah, this thing was not commercial kitchen quality.

After my departure, Sondra Perry, one of the students put together this video:

blender bike from Sondra R. Perry on Vimeo.

I’m really glad that this trip got put together, that I was able to talk to as many people as I was and able to get the word out about Maya Pedal. I was also really pleased that the learning was going both directions. Not having had any metal working experience prior to Maya Pedal it was great to work with students who had several years of experience. I definitely picked up some tricks I still use to this day.

Another piece that was interesting and instructive was having to relate to a group how to put one of these things together. And furthermore how to break up the tasks into roughly equal parts to keep everyone as engaged as possible. It was definitely a challenge in terms of gauging each persons skill level, speed, and motivation.

At the time I felt strongly that this was something that I would continue doing, or at least attempt to, perhaps even as a vocation. It was from the success of these few visits that I would eventually be convinced to try my luck on the west coast.

*I'd like to give a special thanks to the NYSCC Sculpture Department, Diane Cox, Sam Newman and the students of Art & Ecology for making this trip possible. I'd also like to thank the Alumni Association and Devin Henry for their photo-documentation.


After my trip through new york I came right back to philly. The pressing question was, what now? How can I continue this work? How can I build more machines?

The vision in my head was to find a collective metal shop, somewhere that already had all the tools and resources that I could somehow join. With that in the back of my mind, I started looking into bike resources in the city.

I identified Philadelphia’s Neighborhood Bike Works as a potentially interested party for doing a workshop. I met briefly with some of the staff there and we agreed to set something up. (NBW does excellent programs for youth, specifically bicycle assembly and repair, as well as safety demos and organized rides).

Ultimately, we decided to try to have each kid build their own rear rack blender. It proved to be too difficult, working with what was available we just couldn’t make it, not with every kid, not in the time frame we had. So I set about to make a stationary blender that the kids would put the final touches on (as doing all of the welding and cutting wouldn’t be covered in their insurance). Again, unfortunately, I only got so far before other things got in the way. I also mismanaged my time, using their shop resources to build something else, and not leaving enough time for the blender. It was a poor choice I feel badly about. I think they were fairly displeased. I later went on to make an instructional video for NBW so that they could finish up the blender in my absence. Not sure what came of it.

The rest of my efforts in philly didn’t amount to much, I wasn’t as reliable as I would have needed to be. I didn’t have easy access to facilities, nor did I really have the time to dedicate to doing the work. But it was still burning inside me, I had to figure out some way to make this work.