ON THE COVER North Coast Journal Weekly

Life at the CCAT House: How this 3-bedroom house uses just 4% of the energy used by the rest of us

Story and photos by  ARNO HOLSCHUH


[photo of sign]It's brought Humboldt State University students out of their rooms, apartments and study spots and onto all the open sunny spaces they can find to play in. Those unfortunate enough to have class this afternoon look dolefully from windows and out into the most beautiful days in a week. It's like summer, except that up here on the coast not even summer is this beautiful -- and everybody who can is enjoying it.

Except for Sean and Emelia. While their peers work in the garden, play Frisbee and generally enjoy their youth, these two are busy leading groups of engineering students around their house, showing them their toilet, TV and blender.

That's because Sean Dockery and Emelia Patrick, both from the Sierra Nevada, are live-in instructors, tour guides and mentors at HSU's Campus Center for Appropriate Technology. Along with Derrick Toups, a New Orleans native, they inhabit a house that serves as a showcase of an energy-saving, waste-reducing and self-sufficient lifestyle.

And what exactly is an appropriate lifestyle? It starts when you get up: The water for your shower has been heated by a solar collector on the roof, or in cold weather using a highly efficient natural gas "flash heater." After your shower, stumble into the kitchen and have a cup of shade-grown organic fair-trade coffee.

Take cream or sugar? Make that unbleached organic evaporated cane juice or soy milk from the "cold box," a natural cooler that vents cold air in from the outdoors to keep perishables chilled. And if you've got the time -- which the incredibly busy co-directors said they almost never do -- you could make yourself a smoothy using the pedal-powered blender. Just hop on the converted exercise bike, think Tour de France and presto: You're liquefying.

[photo of living room] [photo of Sean]

Co-director Sean Dockery leads a tour .

If you come home for lunch, you'll find the house warmed by air flowing in from its attached greenhouse. The greenhouse traps the sun's energy and holds it in, heating the air inside. That's good for the plants in the greenhouse and eventually very good for the co-directors as well, as vents allow the heated air to flow into the house proper. Result? It is almost always warm in the house, at least during sunny days. Energy consumed? Zero.

Maybe for lunch you decide to have scrambled tofu and rice. Just pop open the cold box and get out some bulk tofu, hop out into the herb garden to pick some fresh seasonings and go to it. Once your rice is boiling, there's no need to keep it simmering -- just put the whole pot in the "hotbox," a heavily insulated drawer next to the stove. The hotbox traps the heat already in the food so well that it will cook itself the rest of the way if you leave it alone.

[photo of greenhouse][photo of Emelia]

The greenhouse provides warm air and fresh plants to the co-directors.
Emelia Patrick, a co-director, in the garden.

When washing your dishes, your water won't go into the city sewer system -- it goes into the house's own "graywater" treatment system. Graywater is the wastewater from your sink or shower -- dirty but not sewage in the classic sense of the word. A series of marshlands, settling tanks and sand filters clears the graywater to a point where it is safe to use for irrigation, which the house does. There's also a rainwater catchment system which helps supply agricultural water.

With all that healthy vegetarian organic eating, you have to deal with the end product. No. 2 does not land in a porcelain toilet at the CCAT house; you deposit your solid waste into a composting toilet, which turns it into fertilizer for the flower beds. It may sound a little extreme, but it is actually almost odor-free. And as Patrick said, "It seems a little juvenile for people in our country to put their poop directly into perfectly good drinking water."

Say you decide to skip your afternoon obligations and just spend some down time watching a movie. Hope you're in shape. The house is equipped with a pedal-powered TV and VCR -- as long as you pedal the bike that runs the generator that charges the battery that powers the TV, you can, uh, relax and unwind.

When night falls, there are fluorescent lights to illuminate the house. The juice comes from a wind turbine, a bank of photovoltaic cells on the roof, and in worst-case scenarios (when the weather is calm and cloudy) from a diesel generator that runs off of vegetable-oil derived fuel manufactured on the CCAT premises.

There is a wood-burning stove to provide that extra push of heat for nights so cold that the greenhouse isn't enough. Of course, it's no ordinary stove: It's a highly efficient model with a special screen on the exhaust to catch unburnt particles and return them to the fire. The heat it throws off is hoarded like a miser's gold: The walls are heavily insulated and there are special thermal curtains over all the windows to keep the warmth from escaping.

Here's the good news: According to all three of the co-directors, it is amazingly easy to get used to living with these technologies. Toups said that "living in the house, with the electrical system and that kind of stuff, it's really not that hard."

Dockery said his lifestyle "hasn't really been affected that much. We have to run the generator once in a while. Once a week we have to clean the graywater system and turn the composting toilet, but it's not hard."

Of course, some of the projects in the house -- like the pedal-powered TV, for instance -- are really more innovative than practical. Dockery and Patrick both said their exercise bike/entertainment center had great value as a demonstration of how much electricity it takes to power a television, but they wouldn't want to watch any epics on the thing.

Some individual ideas might be outlandish, but the combined result of all the alternative technologies is very practical: The house uses just 4 percent of the energy a "normal" house of its size and number of occupants would.

The house still has to conform to the same safety codes as other houses, a fact brought home recently. One of the employee's stepfather is a contractor and offered to do an audit of the house, and the co-directors agreed. He found some infractions of the building code, and when the university's administration found out about those discrepancies, they demanded the repairs be made. The two biggest changes will be the addition of a concrete structural support wall in the basement and the upgrading of the old electrical work.

That electrical upgrade will happen as part of a bigger shift for CCAT. After 10 years off the grid -- separated from the electrical utility system -- they are going back on with an "intertie" system. Such a system will allow them to pull energy off the grid if they need it, but sell it back to PG&E during those times when they are producing more than they need.

[photo of Derrick][photo of living room]

Co-director Derrick Tuops.
The sun shines into the CCAT living room. Heavy thermal curtains roll down over the windows to retain heat at night.


A family with three very dedicated parents

The light coming through the picture window in the living room was fading, putting the meeting of CCAT employees into twilight. In addition to the three co-directors who live at the house, there are about 20 students who work at CCAT for money through work-study programs. That night they were holding of their weekly meetings to discuss projects and events in the near future.

But even as the light left the room, no one got up to turn on the lights, though as Patrick said, being involved with CCAT has made everyone aware "when a single amp leaves this house."

And the darkness really didn't affect the lively nature of the meeting. When an issue was brought up, ideas -- for running a plant sale, reaching out to high school kids or relocating a shed -- were asked for by Dockery and sincerely considered by all. No one put anybody else down and there wasn't any infighting between different groups; perhaps it's because most attendees seemed to have genuinely good ideas that engendered respect from their peers.

After the meeting adjourned (a mere five minutes late), Emelia said that the meetings generally run this smoothly. "Maybe it's because of the family orientation of this group," she said.

The meeting showcases the unique nature of the program: The house, first taken over by students in 1978, is still administered entirely by students with funds from the student government. The community of employees and their volunteer helpers tend the organic garden, curate the library, maintain the electrical systems and constantly improve and build on to the existing center. The workers, planners, dreamers and leaders are all students, and their $20,000 operating budget comes from students. And it works.

"This is the ideal job for me at this point," said Matt Rhode, an interdisciplinary studies senior and CCAT employee.

Rhode is a "student engineer," a kind of alternative/appropriate handyman. Like most CCAT employees, he became involved by first volunteering on a project he found especially interesting -- for Rhode it was building an electric bicycle.

Two and a half years later, he gets paid minimum wage to "fix what's broken" in the mechanical and electrical systems, he said. During the interview he was trying to rehabilitate the "CCAT Meow": a very funky-looking homemade recumbent tricycle made from recycled bicycle parts that had been out of commission.

"I just finished welding the seat," he said. "It'll just take a little tweaking here on the steering."

It's projects like this that make the job ideal for Rhode. "I get to learn, and then I get to teach, and most of all I get to bring my ideas to fruition," he said.

[photo of pedal TV][photo of bio-diesel lab]

Want to watch TV? Start pedaling! The living room of CCAT
Bio-diesel is made from vegetable oil in this backyard lab.

For head gardener Rachel Navarro, CCAT has also been a great chance to learn and then use her knowledge. Digging her hands into a mess of compost and weeds that will soon become CCAT's potato bed, the social ecology senior starts reeling off the names of the exotic taters she'll be planting there: "Reds, Peruvian Blues, and we're thinking about some Yukon Golds as well.

"I really want to know how to grow food," she said, wiping her brow with the back of her muddied hand. "I think it is really important that people become educated about where their food comes from.

"Plus," she said with a smile, "you get an excuse to be dirty all the time."

She loves the garden and she loves the house, but Navarro said she would not necessarily consider being a co-director. "I thought about it," she said, "until I saw their crazy times these past few months."

Life for the co-directors has gotten more hectic since the beginning of the energy crisis last fall. Suddenly, everyone is very interested in how they can free themselves from dependence on PG&E -- the Journal is at least the 15th media outlet to have done a story on CCAT since last October.

"You have to fully embrace that you have no rights to your life" if you want to be a co-director, Patrick said. She said there was an "absolute lack of privacy," and having had the experience of walking into the house -- alone -- and finding the doors to all three co-directors' rooms wide open, I agree. The house isn't just a residence; it's a learning facility with regular hours of operation, 9 a.m to 5 p.m., Monday through Saturday.

And it's not limited to the regular hours. "We have people coming through our house seven days a week," Patrick said. "Some days it's a flood and some days it's just one person," but it's never nobody. She estimated the co-directors work 30 to 70 hours a week on CCAT business in addition to being full-time students.

Patrick said that it can be exasperating to live in a building considered to be a public space. She recounted how one night she fell asleep in the living room in order to be closer to the wood-burning stove.

"The little sign on our door says pretty clearly that we're open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. At 8:30 a.m., some guy walked in and saw me on the couch. He looks at me and said: `The place is open and no one's awake.' I looked back at him and said `I'm awake and we're not yet open.' He didn't even get the hint." Patrick proceeded to answer his questions about the house and send him on his way.

But as hard as it may be, it's part of the deal, Patrick said. After all, CCAT's mission is to educate people by showing them that the technology in question works. "You walk into this knowing that's how it's going to be," she said.

All three co-directors are dedicated to the preservation of the earth's ecosystems, as shown by their majors. Dockery is studying environmental science; Patrick is involved in a major program too complex for definition but centered on botany; Toups is studying sustainable systems technology.

And students really do respect and learn from the house, said Gregg Strand, an engineering junior. Strand was in the house's library trying to find a precise definition of the electrical grid. "I figured they'd have a more straightforward definition" than the main library, he said.

The house works well as a learning resource because the knowledge you gain about appropriate technology while at CCAT "really sticks," Strand said. The examples of appropriate technology "aren't huge, but they're a lot of compact versions of really good ideas. And there's not a crazy budget ... They're not saying `whatever the cost,' because it's not appropriate technology if it costs $2 million."

"These are the kinds of things you could actually apply in your own house."

Strand said he wouldn't really want to be a co-director, but he respects the people who do for their hard work and education. "And when you come up here and there's somebody living here -- I think they respect the fact that people come in. I don't think they're annoyed that you're here because it just gives more legitimacy to what they're doing." n


For more information on including appropriate technology in your own home, call the Redwood Alliance at 822-7884 or go to www.humboldt.edu/~ccat/main.html. Stop by the CCAT house and see for yourself how things work.


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