Wet Basement Blues, Smart Appliance Wish Lists, Tiny Food Forests

Weekly news and views about housing-related climate and sustainability issues.

Should the Northeast Discontinue Finished Basements?

As seasonal rainfall blows past previous records, even well drained basements are failing, creating a moldy, soggy mess.

I’ve always felt somewhat skeptical of finished basements. In my experience, living most of my life in the Northeast, I’ve rarely encountered a “finished” below grade space that didn’t smell musty or require constant dehumidification. While it’s possible to create such a space, it’s easy to go wrong. And if your contractor does get it right, you’re still somewhat at the mercy of local weather, soils and time.

Unfinished basement spaces, I should add, handle a wider seasonal wetness swing. Moisture generally comes and goes, and without dryall and wood floors and furnishings, a damp unfinished basement is not a problem. You can still get into trouble if you start storing organic materials is cardboard boxes down there, but homes that are a healthy 200 years old in the Northeast have seasonally wet unfinished basements.

Now we have the latest Climate Crisis side effect. We’re getting wet, wet summers in places that used to dry out in the summer. As Maine’s Portland Press Herald reported this week, for instance, basements that never failed before are filling up, as rainfall raises groundwater to new heights.

Even in brand new homes, a dry basement is not something to be taken for granted, and that’s no fault of the builder. If the ground around the house What you’re basically trying to do is create a reverse swimming pool, a waterproof “tank” where you have no ability to access or maintain the outside layer of the tank.

In the new age of unpredictable rainfall, it might be best to simply use basements for mechanical systems only, or switch to slab-based foundations for new homes.

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Study: People Want Smart Appliances That Make Housework Less Detestable

Manufacturers may be telling the wrong story about “smart” appliances. What people really want are gadgets that do the grunt work, not comfort enhancers.

While researching how and why people adopt smart technology, I came upon a great research piece in the Journal of Design that I missed when it initially came out, but its findings are super relevant to what’s (still) happening with smart tech in the home space. The article goes into great depth about how and why people choose (or turn away from) smart products, especially appliances such as dishwashers, refrigerators and ovens.

The most important takeaway from the in-depth focus groups and surveys is that homeowners want to escape the drudgery of domestic life. That’s nothing new, of course, and it’s arguably the reason appliances became popular in the first place. Women especially, who bore the brunt of home work saw an escape hatch in machines that could do the wash more quickly, for instance, or take care of dirty dishes in a “jiffy.” They also became the sole workers in the home, as former “servants” became middle class themselves.

Keen observers will point out, that appliances only partially delivered on their promises. Women do far more loads of laundry now than they did on the one washing day in the Victorian Era. We wash our clothes after a single use, instead of nursing them along for a whole week. The tech sped things up, yes, but cultural expectations about the frequency of clothes washing changed right along with the machines. Was time saved? In most cases yes, but not as much as anticipated.

With this important caveat in mind, here are some salient observations about smart appliances from the Journal of Design report:

1. Autonomy-Drudge Work Wanted

What do people want most from smart appliances? Help. They want machines that do the things they don’t want to do. Surveys and polls over the years have identified what the most despised tasks are around the house: bathroom scrubbing, oven cleaning, vacuuming, window and dusting chores, laundry, dishwashing and yard work. Is it any wonder that self-cleaning ovens remain a mainstay of the kitchen, and robotic vacuum cleaners persist, despite their imperfect performance?

The Journal researchers write that “Participants did not want technology to interfere with these pleasurable activities while wanting future household appliances to take over the full responsibility of chores such as cleaning the house.”

2. Guidance is Welcome

Another takeaway from the focus groups. Buyers want to be instructed by their smart tech, not blindly served. They want to learn how to do things themselves.

“People who regarded themselves as lacking sufficient expertise in daily activities wanted smart household appliances to guide them by giving suggestions on the task at hand. For instance, sharing a recipe and practical hints related to cooking or suggesting a washing program by sensing the level of dirt on the dishes.”

3. Performance Motivates Change

The researchers discovered that a big factor in upgrading to smart appliances is the belief that it might improve the device’s performance. That goes along with a general disappointment in various appliances—for a number of reasons:

“A major motivation to renew a household appliance was the potential performance gains offered. At the beginning of the interviews when the participants were asked to list the things that they desire to change, 11 of them started by complaining about the performance of their existing appliances.”

Many of the participants in the Journal study gave examples of how smart tech could be more useful:

“The participants envisioned two scenarios in which a high degree of smartness could provide a tangible value. Seven mentioned that they often had to throw away food left inside the fridge. They reported that wasting food often made them feel guilty, because food is a valuable resource; a fridge knowing the expiry date of food and informing the user when this date is approaching would show both a high degree of smartness and provide a tangible value for them.

“Moreover, fourteen participants emphasized that they found washing machine cycles highly confusing in linking them to laundry type. They reported that selecting the wrong program often made them feel frustrated because it could deform the clothes. The considered that a washing machine that could detect the type of textile inside and decide on the most appropriate washing setting would be.”

The matrixes below demonstrate further how opinions changed based on the number of smart devices in the home. Note that appliance makers seem to have taken to heart some of this study’s findings, whether by serendipity or design. You can find refrigerators that keep food crisp longer, dishwashers with easier controls and other slight shifts in the “smart” aspects of smart appliances:

Homeowner Preferences with NO LIMIT on the number of Smart Items in the Home

Homeowner Preferences with NO LIMIT on the number of Smart Items in the Home

Homeowner Preference when limited to ONE APPLIANCE only

Homeowner Preference when limited to ONE APPLIANCE only

You can read the original report here.

Tiny Forests Are Cool, but Food Forests Bring Abundance to the Table

A New York Times report suggests that planting “micro” forests has becoming a global trend, and they have some nice benefits. But food forests can be created more affordably, and feed humans as well as butterflies and birds.

About five years ago, I left my position on the Board of “The Resilience Hub,” a Permaculture-based group in Portland, Maine. During my long association with that group, we undertook what we called “Permablitz” events, often planned around the concept of starting a “food forest” in someone’s back yard.

What’s a food forest? In simplest terms, it’s a multi-level landscape of food-producing trees (fruit, nuts and more), shrubs, perennials, and landscape. Like tiny forests, you can create these micro-ecologies in spaces of a quarter acre up to several acres.

It was surprisingly effective, and we got better at it as time went on. In just a day or two we would transform a half or quarter acre lot into a multi-faceted living landscape, including young trees, perennial berries, plants and room to expand into many other food-producing and pollinator plant species. Experts on so called “food forests” such as my friend David Homa of Post Carbon Designs began to talk about trees and other perennials as part of sophisticated “guilds” of plantings. His food forests are every bit as complex and multi-layered as tiny forests that don’t produce food for people.

Both types of “rewilding” are great, of course, but my personal preference would be to lean toward food foresting, as a way to not only bring nature back into suburban landscapes, but also to feed people. Be prepared, however, one of the uglier “pushbacks” I’ve heard from neighbors is that they’re afraid homeless people might congregate around a free food source. Seriously? Is this the kind of (selfish) community value we want to support? How about an exchange with the unhoused instead? They take on some of the labor or maintaining the food forest, and reap some of the harvests?

Here’s a quick comparison between Tiny Forests and Food Forests. You make the call:

Tiny Forest Similarities with Permaculture Food Forests

  1. Ecological Focus: Both aim to create a self-sustaining ecosystem.
  2. Carbon Sequestration: Both types of forests absorb carbon dioxide and help in climate change mitigation.
  3. Small Scale: Both can be implemented on a small scale, such as the size of a basketball court for tiny forests.
  4. Cost: Tiny forests can be expensive due to the need for enriched soil and native plants. For example, the Danehy Park forest cost $18,000 for plants and soil amendments, according the The New York Times. Food forests can incur similar costs, but they don’t have to. You can “raise” the forests gradually, creating a tree canopy one year, a secondary level of plantings the next, and so on.

Tiny Forest Differences from Permaculture Food Forests

  1. Purpose: Tiny forests are primarily aimed at ecological restoration and carbon sequestration, while permaculture food forests focus on food production.
  2. Plant Volume: Both forest types use native plants to promote local biodiversity, although food forests, in my experience, do not nearly the 1,400 native species typical of tiny forests to thrive. With even a third of that many plant species, food forests can provide low-maintenance food production.
  3. Maintenance: Tiny forests require minimal maintenance after the first three years, whereas permaculture food forests may require some degree ongoing care. That being said, some of that care is in the form of harvesting food, so it’s well rewarded.
  4. Speed of Growth: Tiny forests can grow as quickly as ten times the speed of conventional tree plantations. Food forests also grow quickly, but typically take about three years to start producing significant food crops.

Tiny Forests Are Cool, but Food Forests Bring Abundance to the Table AdobeStock_615765103