A Creative Influencer’s Response to the Rest of the World

I’ll be candid with you.  Part of the attraction in doing what I do with Mud Hut Lab is that I would rather deal with plants and gadgets than people.  Interacting with people drains me whereas time alone charges me up.  But the crazy thing is there is another side of me that enjoys educating, helping, and influencing people.  It’s been quite a dilemma learning how to juggle both the desire to mind my own business and work with my hands and the desire to impact the world through relationships.  In addition, when an out-of-the-box thinker / explorer like me continually finds himself head to head and toe to toe with a traditional, narrowly focused general population, the situation can seem even more aggravating.  The temptation for me is to throw my hands up in frustration and say, “Fine, have it your way and enjoy that little box that you live in.”  But how can I influence the world like that?  How does that help anybody?  Sure I can build some glorious contraption that stands as a monument to my own grandiose creativity (and maybe even try to sell it for lots of money) but in the end nobody cares about it or understands it and it has contributed nothing of real value to the world.  Truth is, I can’t influence the world without interacting with people.  Without the often painful experience of presenting ideas and accepting criticism; of tweaking and exchanging ideas.  So, I’m learning slowly but surely, to make peace with the dilemma.  Here a some lessons I’ve learned (still learning) that might be of use to other creative, influencer-type people:

1. I need criticism from traditional, practically minded, and narrowly focused people. 

For two reasons.  First, their resistance helps me to sharpen my ideas.  As painful as it might be, criticism is good because it leads to a better idea, system, or product.  And the criticism is often valid.  I have to face that fact and work out the kinks in my ideas.  In the end a well-worked creative idea becomes truly useful and helpful to people.  On that note, we creative types also need to remember that questions don’t always mean criticism.  Sometimes it’s just a question from someone who is trying to understand your new concept or idea.  Second, pride often comes with creativity.  And criticism helps foster humility.  Often in the design world, designers with inflated egos pursue new ideas more to make a name for themselves than for offering something that’s truly beneficial to the world.  Sometimes we creative thinkers equate being different with being better.  Well, sometimes different is just different, not necessarily better.  Your great solution could actually be a bad idea.  Criticism keeps that in check.

2. I need to be reminded to extend the same freedom of thought that I cherish for myself.

I really can’t stand being labeled, grouped, categorized, and pigeon-holed.  I relish the idea that I’m unique.  I am my own person.  I don’t belong to any group.  A little of that independence can be healthy (when it comes to your mom’s famous question – “If so-and-so jumped off a bridge would you jump too?”  And your snooty teenage response – “Well, no, duh.”)  But oftentimes creative people can be tyrannical.  As much as I don’t want society / others ramrodding over my blue sky creativity, I have to extend the same courtesy to them.

Buckminster Fuller standing in front of the Montreal World's Fair Dome.  A hgihly influential architect, designer, and speaker, 'Bucky' Fuller is often referred to as the father of the geodesic dome.
Buckminster Fuller standing in front of the Montreal World’s Fair Dome.  A highly influential architect, designer, and speaker, ‘Bucky’ Fuller faced lots of criticism over his ‘new-fangled’ ideas.  Now, among other accolades, he is credited as the father of the geodesic dome.

3. I need to beware of clinging too tightly. 

One of my best friends once told me to think of my dreams as bubbles.  He said you can blow on them but you can’t grab onto them or they’ll just burst in your hand.  Mostly you can just keep an eye on them and see where they go and where they land.  It was surprisingly profound coming from my brother!  Well, I really do think that can apply to good ideas.  We creatives can’t latch onto our ideas so possessively like Gollum and his ring.  Let the precious go.  Let the ideas float.  Maybe they need to just float away.

4. Finally, I need to remember that influence requires relational investment. 

As I mentioned earlier, hiding away like a hermit in some studio or laboratory probably won’t produce the result you’re looking for.  Ideas that really help the world require interaction with lots of people.  It requires the exhausting task of teaching and explaining and demonstrating and listening and responding to questions and explaining again.  In the end, if your idea is worthwhile, it will catch on.

Courage fellow creative, influencer-type people!  Most of the world operates according to a system (cheap energy and fiat currency just to name a couple) that cannot be sustained over the long haul.  We desperately need your creative thought and new ideas.


What I Learned With My First Vertical Planter

I always appreciate the advice and counsel of others.  One of my goals in creating a blog was to try to offer in every post some little nugget that might be helpful to someone.  I watched a couple of instructional videos on YouTube during the winter about making vertical planters out of a shipping pallets.  I also saw plenty of pictures on Pinterest and I thought they looked clever and cool so I thought I’d give it a try this Spring.  I repaired and “up-cycled” a discarded pallet from County Market, wrapped the bottom and back side of the pallet in weed cloth, filled it with soil (Mel’s square foot gardening mix), following the directions from the videos.  I planted small strawberry plants (I bought them in zip lock bags not in flats) and planted them in the bottom two rows.  Then I decided to try to grow herbs from seed in the rows above so I planted Cilantro, Basil, and Parsley.

Complements of Pinterest

Here’s what I learned from my experience – some things that worked, some things I would do differently, and my overall opinion of each so far.

1. Things that worked.

The weed fabric works to keep soil contained along the bottom and back of the pallet and it’s easy to staple to the pallet with a staple gun.  The pallets themselves are super sturdy and I can only imagine will last a long time since they’re built for high abuse and high mileage.  I really like using re-purposed material.

2. Things I would do differently.

Soil Composition – I tried to use the ratio that Mel Bartholomew (founder of the Square Foot Gardening method) recommends – 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss, and 1/3 compost.  The soil mix is wonderful, nice and fluffy.  It’s great for horizontal beds and pockets, but not for vertical planters.  The soil just fell right out of the slats!  I changed my original ratio to six parts compost, one part peat moss, and one part vermiculite to make the soil more packable.

Weed Barrier “Pockets” – All of the instructions I read and watched said that you’re supposed to wrap the pallet with weed fabric.  But there was no mention of the need for pockets to help contain the soil. If you do try to create pockets it will take some ingenuity because it’s difficult to get your staple gun into tight spaces.  I’m gonna keep working on this to see how to simplify the process.

Planting Seedlings Only – All of the examples show planting seedlings from flats.  I assume the root ball and plant help hold in the soil so that it won’t fall out.  I tried planting seeds directly but you dare not tip the pallet up or you’ll lose all the soil.  That means that, by all practical purposes, you’ve just created another horizontal bed (which isn’t going to help you save space which I’m assuming is why you would create a vertical planter to begin with).  Small seedlings in four-pack flats, cost about $3 a piece on average.  Each slat space on the pallet holds about twelve plants (depending on their size).  On my pallet I have seven slats total (including the open top).  So that’s 84 plants.  At $3 each that’s $252!  Definitely not a cheap project.

Pallet Planter
My personal pallet planter in the early stages

 3. My Overall Conclusion

The pallet doesn’t end up being very cost-effective if you’re trying to be fast and frugal.  In this case, the two don’t coexist.  The compromise, if you have the time, is to raise the seedlings yourself from seed, transplant them and harden them off in a raised bed or container, then when they’re big and established enough, transplant them again to your pallet planter.  Or, if you have the time and the space to let your planter sit on the patio or deck, you can plant you seed directly and just let it grow and fill out.  The pallet planter looks cute on Pinterest but it’s not very practical.  Especially if you’re trying to be frugal.  I’ll keep experimenting, but right now I think there are better options out there.  Have you tried a pallet planter?  What was your experience?  I’d love to hear from you.

Complements of Pinterest

What is Mud Hut Lab? The MHL Story

I don’t consider myself an “apocalypse prepper” or an environmentalist, or a hard-core minimalist for that matter (although my wife and I might differ slightly on the definition of minimalist).  I’m just an ordinary industrial designer who lived for a few years (with my wife and two children) at a self-made bush camp on the banks of the Zambezi River and in the small “city” of Livingstone in Zambia, Africa.  I’ve also traveled quite a bit and have experienced a variety of cultures.  So while spending time in other countries (like China, Guatemala, Romania and others) and living in Zambia, I learned some big lessons about what’s really essential for life.  I came back to the states with a passion to take what I had learned and practiced and put it to use, not only here in the U.S., but elsewhere as well – to what I can to to make the world better.

That’s why I formed Mud Hut Lab.  I wanted to set up a design / testing / consulting business to help ordinary, like-minded people create and establish more sustainable and interdependent lifestyles.  I wanted to explore and combine technologies – both new and ancient – that are the best fit for a client’s environment and situation.  Generally, I see my business offer appealing more to those with a definite interest but no time, knowledge, or confidence to brave a venture like this on their own.  By sustainable I mean “the ability to maintain a certain healthy lifestyle no matter what.”  And by interdependent I mean “the healthy exchange that happens within a community of people.”  Neither dependence nor independence is very smart.  Neither is conducive for a sustainable life.  The truth is, I just don’t like our general over-dependence on centralized, corporate or government-controlled food and public utilities (water, gas, electricity, sewer).  It makes me uncomfortable to be at the mercy of an unsustainable system.  What happens when there’s a hiccup in that system, even for a short time?  And I don’t like the idea of complete independence either.  A miserly hoarding mentality will never work.  Community cooperation is where it’s at.  I know this from experience.


Here’s just a brief description of my background.  I am an industrial designer by trade.  For those of you who don’t know what that is, it means that I’m a 3D designer; more akin I suppose to an architect than a graphic designer.  An industrial designer’s job is to create useful, engaging, and beautiful experiences with any product, packaging, exhibit, stage set, furniture, lighting, etc.  Besides my early love for thoughtful, balanced design, I think I was first  awakened to sustainable living when I visited The Land Pavilion at Disney EPCOT just after high school.


During design school days I developed a further interest in the whole “green living” genre – things like appropriate technology, permaculture, organic gardening, natural building.  I traveled to many different workshops covering various topics like solar design and installation, building with cob, building with clay slip / straw, building with earthbags, building adobe ovens, and so on.  But once I moved to Zambia, these interests really came to the forefront.  My brother and I had to figure out how to design and develop a bush camp on thirteen acres of land on the bank of the Zambezi River.  We sat on that rocky hilltop looking out on the beauty of the blue water below (and I do mean blue!) and started at square one evaluating what we needed to carve out a home on a small scale in the bush.  Other ex-pat friends of ours had done the same thing before we ever arrived.  One family who operates a safari lodge just up the river had been there fifteen years before we ever showed up.  Another couple lived about three hours further north and had lived there for seven years.  All of them continue to be an inspiration to me and their insight at the time was critical.  So, back on our land, I had to evaluate and create a list of necessities in order of importance.  I looked at the lay of the land and took stock of what it had to offer, and then developed a comprehensive plan to maximize and manage it responsibly.  Without really realizing it, I was practicing what Australian, Bill Mollison, in the early 70s, dubbed “permaculture” (a process of designing and establishing a permanent culture).

Bush Camp 001

After our work was finished, I came back from Zambia with a more focused, informed interest.  Now I want to apply that same mindset that I was forced to use to set up a self-sustaining bush camp on the banks of the Zambezi River to dwelling places anywhere in the world; whether the context be urban, suburban or rural; in a developed country or developing country; and in every climate possible.  Do I have a dream challenge?  You bet.  It’s to be dropped anywhere in the world (in true British SAS, Bear Grylls fashion of course – just kidding) and over the period of a few weeks, follow the same exact steps for designing and securing the essentials for a sustainable and interdependent lifestyle as I did in urban and rural Africa.  These essential components that I’m talking about are so basic they’re primal.  Water, food, shelter, fire / power (the ability to cook, warm yourself, and power basic machines) are foundational to even the most basic form of civilization.  It wouldn’t matter if we were talking about a highly developed metropolis, a collapsed urban environment, an undeveloped rural area, or a wilderness area – the essentials for life remain the same.

Lastly, living sustainably shouldn’t be a haphazard, junky-looking thing.  It should be beautiful and well-ordered.  It’s good for the soul (and good for the neighbors who have to look at it).  A compound system that helps provide your basic life essentials that’s also aesthetically delightful requires a tremendous amount of research, planning, and creativity.  I believe that’s what I have to offer.  There are plenty of others out there doing what I do.  But, hey, the world is a big place full of a lot of people that need help and inspiration to live sustainably in an interdependent community.  Nobody shares my exact combination of experience, perspective, and creative ability.  That package was a gift to me – I can’t waste it.  That’s why I created Mud Hut Lab and that’s what makes this company unique.

2014-05-20 18.20.32

#mudhutlabbeginnings, #smallbusiness, #startup, #biography, #mhlstory

Compost – An Absolute Essential

As I started this very first post I thought it’d be good to talk about something foundational; and you just can’t get any more foundational than soil, right?  What’s more, you can’t get any more foundational than a discussion about what makes for good soil – and that’s compost.  Maybe some of you have heard the term but you don’t really even know what compost is.  That’s okay.  Compost is really just natural fertilizer.  It’s the soil that develops naturally, for instance, on the forest floor.  It’s created by the decomposition of vegetation.  Most people in gardening and homesteading circles refer to compost as “black gold” because it’s so good and nutritious for your plants.

In many places the soil is too far gone to be amended (made better).  Well, let’s just say, it’s too far gone if you want to grow food any time soon.  The only way to get to the business of producing food in a timely manner is to create your own soil – perfect from the start.  Not everybody lives in the same context.  In many locations around the world the ground is toxic (not an overstatement) and it would be hazardous to grow anything in it.  I’m thinking of the people I met who lived around the city dump in Guatemala City.  In those cases, it’s absolutely critical to create new soil.  Still others, like urban dwellers, they may not even have access to the ground.  So that leads us back to compost.  Here in the good ol’ US of A I use Mel Bartholomew’s formula (Mel is the founder of Square Foot Gardening method) which consists of three equal parts: compost, vermiculite, and peat moss.  But this can get expensive.  For example, it took three bags of vermiculite (at about $15 per bag), one big bail of peat moss (about $10), and about six smaller bags of various compost (each about $4) to fill one of my 4 x 4 beds.  When you do five beds or more, that’s a lot of money!  Interestingly, Mel says that in a developing country you may have no choice but to just use compost.  Which just confirms my thinking that besides sun, water, and seed, compost is the most essential building block to food production.

3-bin composting operation made from discarded shipping pallets.
3-bin composting operation made from discarded shipping pallets.

The problem is that many people that I know pursue compost almost as an afterthought.  It’s treated as that smelly, ugly pile in the corner of the backyard that gets very little attention, is often overrun with weeds, and is a great hangout for snakes.  If you’re starting a good-sized raised bed garden then you’re going to need to have good compost at your disposal quickly, and that means you need to get serious about making it – lots of it.  Now, there a lot of opinions floating around out there about the best way to make compost.  In my opinion, many methods are just too small and too slow.  I’m just going to tell you about the method that worked well for me.  It’s the method that Foundations for Farming in Harare, Zimbabwe teaches their farmers.  According to their teachers, you should build a compost pile no smaller than 2 meters cubed, or 6.5 feet cubed.  That’s a lot of compost!  The reason they say to build a pile that big is so that it generates the level of heat inside necessary to break down the material quickly.  The fancy word for this is aerobic decomposition.  To build this serious pile you’ll need lots of water, lots of mass, lots of air, and lots of heat.  Take a look at some of these photos of when I worked with a group of Lozi farmers in Zambia to build a 6.5-foot cubed compost pile.

Working with Lozi farmers to make a compost pile
Working with Lozi farmers to make a compost pile
Plunging every handful in water.
Plunging every handful in water.
Pile about 50 cm high.
Pile about 50 cm high.


Foundations for Farming says that you can have finished compost in 7-8 weeks.  Follow these fairly easy steps:

Step 1 – Gather material.  Your compost pile should be made up of three kinds of materials: 40% green material (green when it’s cut), 40% woody or dry material, and 20% high nitrogen manure and legumes (like beans, peas, or clover).

Step 2 – Lay the material down in layers, like the seven-layer salad your auntie makes.  And the material needs to be wet the first time you build the pile.  Do the squeeze test.  Take a handful of wet compost and squeeze it.  No water should drip out but it should also hold its shape when you open your hand.

Note: Your pile shouldn’t look unsightly.  If done correctly, it will look orderly.  But if aesthetics is a particular concern, I recommend that you wrap around the four posts of your pile with a lightweight bamboo or reed fence which can be removed and put back into place easily.

Available from http://www.mastergardenproducts.com
Available from http://www.mastergardenproducts.com

Step 3 – Take a long piece of steel re-bar (about 4 feet will do) and insert it into the very center of the pile.  It acts as a probe.  After 1-2 days feel the probe.  If it’s too hot to hold onto then it’s time to turn the pile.  Turning the pile is the only way to cool it down.

Step 4 – You must consciously build the pile inside out and upside down (the inside moves to the outside and the bottom moves to the top).  This will ensure that the whole pile is being exposed to the proper amount of heat.  Turning also supplies oxygen to the pile which is a necessary part of the decomposition process.  And any moisture that’s been lost due to steam or evaporation can be replaced.  Do the squeeze test again to see what’s necessary.

Step 5 – Keep turning the pile every few days (it may be once each week) and you will have a very large mound of useful compost in about two months time.

One final thought… obviously you need some yard space to make a 6.5 ft. cubed compost pile.  If you don’t have yard space, don’t worry, there’s another way to create great compost on the smallest scale.  It’s called vermicomposting, or composting with worms.  But that’s a topic for another post!

#mudhutlabbeginnings, #compost, #homestead