Dryland Homestead Hacks
Kirsten Dirksen travels around the world documenting examples of sustainable living and her Dryland Homestead Hacks with Brad Lancaster is one of her best videos yet! It is just shy of an hour long but at no point was I bored, every second is filled with great information and ideas for any dryland climate. Brad Lancaster is a genius when it comes to rainwater harvesting watch the video and see for yourself.
Dryland Homestead Hacks
When Brad Lancaster and his brother bought their home in downtown Tucson, the streetscape was a dusty place, devoid of trees or any vegetation. In 1998, Lancaster took a handsaw and cut away part of his curb to divert rainwater into the neglected space. When the sidewalk in front of his home sprouted with life- mesquite and palo verde trees- many of his neighbors wanted to cut their curbs as well. Lancaster approached the city to convince them to make his water harvesting technique legal. It took three years for the city to change the rules. Today, three quarters of the neighbors on his block are harvesting rainwater.
Tucson receives just 12 inches of rainwater per year, but Brad argues this is enough. “Tuscan has over a 4,000 year history of continuous farming despite this being a drylands desert community. People thrive creating crops, domesticating crops that are uniquely adapted to this climate, but in less than 100 years we almost wiped it out by becoming reliant on very extractive pumps, extracting the groundwater, diverting the river to the extent that we actually killed our river, we dropped our groundwater table over 300 feet so we didn’t want to plug into that paradigm.”
Today, Lancaster’s downtown Tucson neighborhood (Dunbar Springs) is alive with drought-tolerant, food-bearing trees and residents harvest from the barrel cactus (chutneys, hair conditioner from fruit), the prickly pear (juice, syrup & natural sweeteners from fruit), the ironwood tree (peanut-flavored nuts, processed like edamame), jojoba (oil, coffee substitute), mesquite (“native carob”, flour) and sweets from the “iconic Saguaro cactus”.
Lancaster’s experimentation continues on his property: he calls the eighth of an acre site that he shares with his brother’s family, his “living laboratory”. Here he plants around the greywater from his outdoor shower, bathtub and washing machine. He captures 100,000 gallons of rainwater per year from his and his brother’s roof. He cooks with a solar oven and heats his water using a 2 salvaged, conventional gas heaters hacked (stripped of insulation and painted black) to collect the sun’s rays.
Lancaster converted the old garage on the property into his 200-square-foot “garottage” (garage + cottage) or “shondo” (shed + condo). Nearly all the wood and materials are salvaged. The garage’s original cinder block walls weren’t insulated so he added 2 inches of foam insulation on the exterior to create “ex-sulation”. Lancaster relies mostly on passive solar to heat and cool his home, though he uses an evaporative cooler (swamp cooler) on hotter evenings.
His kitchen is outside: a rainwater-plumbed sink, a hacked chest-freezer-turned-refrigerator and a propane camping stove.
His toilet is another experiment. “You can currently get a compost toilet that is manufactured and NSF approved, but it costs $3000 or more. So we wanted to try some models that only cost $300.” His models include a urine-diverting barrel compost toilet (the urine is diluted to water plants and the fecal matter sits for a year or more before being used as fertilizer) and a water-less standing urinal.
“We’re trying to use our property, our yard and everything as kind of an experimental lab, a playground and then we’re trying to share our successes with the community at large,” explains Lancaster. “When we started doing this we were the only folks doing this now 75% of folks living on our block are harvesting water for street trees. And you can go to just about any neighborhood in Tucson and you will see at least one person doing it and once that one person starts other people will see, interact and they’ll start doing it. You plant that seed and it spreads.”
To share more details of his experience for people in other cities and countries, Lancaster has written a how-to style book “Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond”
“If we’re going to bring back our Santa Cruz River, a river that used to flow year round through downtown Tucson for thousands of years, I think we can bring it back by every yard is a contributing sub-watershed to the larger watershed and the more critical mass we get the greater the success of the overall endeavor.”