E.P.I.C. Article

Greywater Gardens

by Kristina Munroe
May/June 2018

Greywater is the water flowing from tubs, showers, sinks, and the washing machine drain. It comprises all the wastewater from the house excluding what comes out of a flush toilet. It is especially important when using greywater to be mindful of what goes down the drain. Use only natural soaps and eliminate harsh chemicals and cleaners. Greywater is not recommended for watering edible root vegetables.

It’s difficult to imagine that the wonderfully sudsy and lightly soap-scented water flowing down the drain could be considered sewer water, but there is a good reason why some officials frown on residents pouring this water freely over their properties. After exiting the drain and sitting for a short time, this water begins to smell a lot like sewer water. However, greywater treated with an appropriate amount of respect is better thought of as a resource than a waste product.

In most of the developed world, greywater is considered waste and is whisked away from our senses as soon as possible, allowing us to remain wholly disconnected from this unpleasant yet natural product we generate in our homes. With a fresh perspective, greywater becomes a valuable resource that will aid in reducing the consumption of potable water. Utilizing this nutrient-rich liquid can turn a struggling garden into an oasis or make it possible to grow abundant plants in an arid or drought-ridden area.

Greywater may not be pleasant to us, but in all natural ecosystems, one organism’s waste is another’s food. Plants thrive on the nutrients in greywater, and a garden plumbed to receive this resource may require very little fresh water or fertilizer to urge plants to grow to an enormous size, giving off oxygen and moisture to the ordinarily dry air while cleaning the greywater. 

Setting up a system may be as simple as bailing the water from a kitchen sink or tub to irrigate and feed container plants. Plumbing incorporated into a new home or remodel will more efficiently distribute greywater by delivering the flow from sinks and showers directly to gravel-bed gardens. These planting beds are beautiful and useful indoors, outdoors, or designed in both locations. 

The key to successful greywater management is to use gravity to drain the water through a particle filter to strain out large pieces of debris then feed it directly into a deep garden bed layered with one to three feet of gravel, three inches of sand, and topped with a foot of soil. An indoor planter requires a pond liner, but an outdoor garden can be left unlined to accommodate plants needing free-draining soil. A diverter valve installed between an indoor planting bed and an outdoor garden will maximize the use of this liquid resource. During the winter months, the indoor planter will receive the greywater. During the summer growing season, the diverter valve will send the flow to the exterior garden. Indoor greywater gardens nourish lush tropical plants, while the outdoor gardens support abundant seasonal plants in areas where water is scarce.  

* Please check with your local officials before installing a greywater system.



Green Livin' is the Life for She

Durango Telegraph Article by Joy Martin

Joy Martin - 04/19/2018

Starved for green after a brown winter, I melted when I walked into Kristina Munroe’s indoor jungle garden at her home 5 miles west of Durango. A rubber tree stretched massive leaves toward the sun, red flowers poked through vines, and the air felt fresh and balmy. A cat lounged on the sill of a south-facing window. Paradise found. In a living room.

I’d written about Twisted Oak, Munroe’s off-the-grid, solar-powered, rain-harvesting, organically inspired abode, last year for a solar home tour article. Chatting with her then, I could hear in her voice the breadth of what it took to build this oasis-in-the-pines from the ground up.

My first question during that interview was asking her what motivated her to take on the mammoth-sized task of building a self-sustaining house. She laughed, saying it would take a whole book for that story. “A book I hope you’re writing,” I playfully challenged, before moving on to more manageable newspaper-article-sized questions.

I’d forgotten that exchange, but Munroe reminded me the other day after handing me a copy of her newly released memoir, Twisted Oak: A Journey to Create a Self-Sustaining Life and Home. The woman is a superhero: she built a house and wrote a whole book, replete with tips on how to tame thermodynamics, create an indoor greywater garden and embrace the humanure composting system.

The book is as approachable as Munroe, offering a glimpse into her humble journey that begins, as all brave tales do, “on a dark and stormy night.”

A mix between a narrative and reference book, Twisted Oak empowers both architects and idealistic pioneers alike to keep seeking a more sustainable way of life.

“I want to break the stigma of the image of homesteading as hauling water and chopping firewood,” she says. “You can still be connected to the community and live a comfortable lifestyle with all of the conveniences of a modern home.”

She’s not just a hippy rolling doobies in a patch of patchouli either. A fifth-generation Durangoan, Munroe graduated valedictorian of the DHS Class of ‘83 before earning a civil engineering degree with emphasis in structural design

and analysis from Boston’s Northeastern University. She went on to work with the Navy as an architect and, later, with Boeing Co. on the design of the 777. Other “smaller” projects, like building bridges and marine structures, pack the gaps of her resume.

In 1999, she turned her focus to residential projects, namely building “Mac-mansions” in Seattle. A decade later, she’d lost steam designing houses filled with so much wasted space. She dreamed of living in a home that reflected form and function, and a life that worked with nature, syncing with the rhythms of the seasons and climate (which might also include the perks of no mortgage or utility bills).

Though she’d spent the majority of her life pursuing “tangible, calculable things,” Munroe knew that the most amazing experiences happened by taking a leap of faith. So, in 2010, the single mom of two moved back to Southwest Colorado to turn a pipe dream into reality.

“It was easy to proclaim following the heart, but going through with it is something not readily accepted in our culture,” she writes. “Heartfelt decisions work well in love affairs and choosing a new kitten, but utilizing feelings and intuition in a decision that would ultimately uproot my family, my home, my finances and my entire way of life was something entirely different.”

First things first. She acquired 36 acres, the amount required by the county to qualify for a well, and hired an excavator to clear a plot of land framed by ponderosas and a cluster of twisted oaks. She drew up plans for a 1,400-square-foot home and then solicited the moral support and savvy of builder/carpenter Mike Muir, owner of Muir Construction.

During the 18-month construction process, Munroe homeschooled her nine-and 11-year-old sons, Andy and Austin, embracing the opportunity as “a really cool school project.” The boys would help out in the piecing together of their future home, something few Americans, much less kids, have any idea about.

And, while most people couldn’t describe the materials shaping their homes, Munroe and her boys could tell you exactly what Twisted Oak’s walls are made of, considering they personally helped stack 13 rows of recycled tire, tallying nearly 800 tires. The tire wall contours the home, the ends merging with the ground, forming soft curves and making the structure seem like something grown straight from the earth.

Within each of the tires stacked, the family placed tiny cornerstones found around the property. Using magic markers, they scribbled words and symbols they thought should define their lives: earth, air, fire, water, memories, joy, love and other less fluffy sentiments, like inside jokes and spontaneous doodles.

Intentional details, like the cornerstones, define Munroe’s meticulous approach to Twisted Oak. A hobbit door, for instance, serves as the entry, but it also opens perfectly to cross-ventilating breezes on hot, summer days. For more on these kind of technical aspects, like the water catchment and passive solar systems and inner workings of the “throne room,” you’ll have to check out the book. In short, she’s basically built the ultimate sofa-cushion, living-room fort that’ll withstand harsh winter winds, pouring rain and blazing heat.

For the whimsical side of Twisted Oak, you have to see it for yourself: gorgeous aspen ceilings, knotty-pine cabinets found at a garage sale painted in Seussical colors, natural wood countertops and adobe bricks forming castle crenellations above the claw-foot bathtub. There’s even a wall off the east end of the house framed from empty cans, including Ska Pinstripe, Munroe’s personal favorite.

There are no fans or mechanical systems shutting on and off, so the quiet hangs like a cozy blanket, a calming sense enhanced by diffused light introduced through bottle art scattered throughout the house. Munroe became quite the glass-bottle connoisseur in the process, acquiring a deep appreciation for glittering Sapphire Gin bottles, green square-shaped olive oil bottles, a stunning mandarin orange vodka bottle and crystal-clear Mike’s Hard Lemonade bottles, her go-to refreshment after arduous days building the tire wall. “Now when I see bottles, I look at them in a completely different way,” says Munroe. “I look to see what they look like from the bottom and wonder if they would make a unique bottle brick.”

For folks intrigued by quirky bottle art projects or those who want to incorporate any or all aspects of Twisted Oak’s pro-foundly simple logic, Munroe founded Twisted Oak Consulting, an engineering practice that offers expertise in building, buying or modifying homes to celebrate sustainable awareness.

“The goal isn’t to duplicate Twisted Oak but to define what’s most important to you and do whatever part of this you’d want to do,” she says.

Because, at the end of it all, Munroe isn’t advocating for the Prius or attacking plastic fork users. Rather, she’s a regular, brilliant Joe, living life by her rules with her partner, her sons, a couple of cats, an old golden retriever and a puppy mutt to keep everyone humble. Her childlike story of Twisted Oak doesn’t judge or preach but, rather, sparks the “what-if” conversation, inviting you to dream big about what’s possible.

“It’s always a journey to create a self-sustaining life,” says Munroe. “You can make yourself crazy. Just do the best you can. Besides, I look ridiculous on a soap box.”



Living a Sustainable Lifestyle Made More Approachable Thanks to New Book

New Book “Twisted Oak” Demonstrates How Sustainable Living Can Improve Your Life While Helping the Environment

The desire for sustainability is increasingly common in our fast-paced, consumerist culture. Who wouldn’t want to step back from the modern world and regain some independence and self-reliance? Utilities are always going up. Gas prices fluctuate. New homes are becoming more expensive while at the same time becoming more toxic with the use of cheap materials and questionable chemicals. Many people assume that it is too difficult, complicated, or expensive to live in a truly sustainable way, or that living off the grid means isolation and a lack of technology, but author Kristina Munroe thought differently. She designed and built her own self-sustaining home, demonstrating that is possible to live a “contemporary life complete with community, family, and technology while still respecting the earth and leaving smaller ecological footprints on our precious planet.”

After the death of her ex-husband left her solely responsible for her young children, Munroe moved back to her hometown of Durango, Colorado to find a home for her family. But her dream home was not a giant castle, wasting energy with excessive space, or a new mass-produced home in the suburban sprawl. She soon discovered that to get what she wanted in a home, she would have to make it herself. As an engineer, Munroe was well equipped to design a house, but a self-sustaining house was a daunting new challenge. With lots of research and support from her family, Munroe began a project that would achieve her personal goals of reducing energy consumption and waste.

“I had started down a path that I already knew I had no choice but to follow,” Munroe says of the process that seemed impossible at the beginning. The first step was finding the right people to help Munroe’s vision become reality. Teaming with a builder who shared her values of reducing ecological impact, Munroe drafted plans that used strategically placed windows, insulation, and thermal mass to regulate heating and cooling. Munroe insisted upon using recycled and repurposed materials as much as possible. “I wanted to believe that not only this home but every building has the capacity to make a contribution to the environment. Most people think of vehicles and industry as the most prevalent polluters, but our homes and buildings are significant consumers of energy and materials that cause greenhouse gases,” says Munroe. Walls were built with used tires. Colored glass bottles decorate interior spaces. The utilities were designed to be self-sufficient. Large cisterns capture snow melt and rain while solar panels provide enough electricity to run all the usual appliances. Household waste water from sinks and tubs, known as greywater, is reused to water lush indoor and outdoor gardens. Most impressively, Munroe managed to make the home stunningly beautiful and modern-feeling while incorporating these unusual features.

As with any major undertaking, things go awry, but Munroe learned from mistakes and overcame numerous obstacles to make her dream come true. She knew that the knowledge gained throughout the process would be useful for others trying to achieve similar goals, so she set out to write a book that shares her experience and inspires others to follow their dreams of sustainability.

“Twisted Oak” offers the motivational story of how Munroe’s home came to be as well as technical advice about how to live and build more sustainably, including practical tips on passive solar design, greywater, thermal mass, insulation, recycled and repurposed materials, and many more topics. Helpful color illustrations and photos are also included to show the process from design to completion.  The book is a valuable resource for anyone interested in sustainable living, homebuilding, or raising a family in the modern world. The book also includes further reading recommendations for those wishing to learn more.

“Twisted Oak:  A Journey to Create a Self-Sustaining Life and Home” is published by eBookit.com and is available in e-book and print formats from Amazon.com, BN.com, and other online retailers.

Author Kristina Munroe is available for interviews and presentations. Book reviewers may request a review copy of the e-book by contacting the author at [email protected]


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