Living off the Grid, Inside the Grid: An interview with Jared Capp “Cappie” of Pangea Design, Spearfish, South Dakota

Straw Bale construction. Photo by Jared Capp, Pangea Design Group.

Straw Bale construction. Photo by Jared Capp, Pangea Design Group.

by Jayna Watson, Spearfish, South Dakota

Jared Capp, “Cappie,” is a contractor, resident, and advocate of conserving all sorts of resources whether financial or environmental. He has recently made his mark in Spearfish with the first ever straw bale/cob home on a state-approved gray water system and composting toilet. Before reading further, erase any images of a sod house cut from the prairie soil and steaming piles of ‘stuff’ in the back yard. His home is a blend of beauty and environmental responsibility. Prior to the building of his home, Cappie also got this crazy idea to change zoning on his three acres from single family back to its original agricultural zoning to support his plan to raise and sell vegetables locally.

A 5 degree November day worked well into my plan to get him to sit with me recently (impossible for the man who goes 110 mph every day) to share his story and what’s so special about using alternative natural materials in construction to arrive at his version of the American Dream. He also offers advice on what we, as planners and code officials, can do to support these modern pioneers.

cAPPIE AT WORK. Photo by Jared Capp, Pangea Design Group.

cAPPIE AT WORK. Photo by Jared Capp, Pangea Design Group.

A: Tell us about yourself.

C: I was born in Spearfish, South Dakota in 1977, graduated from Spearfish High School in 1995, and after graduation, I was on a bus bound for San Antonio to go to Air Force basic training. I had been to over 54 countries and 49 states by the time I left the military. From there, I worked at my brother’s restaurant in Wasta, South Dakota for a bit, and then I got into event marketing, and that was a lot of fun. After that, I worked for a company called Second Nature as a wilderness instructor for troubled kids. In 2008 I needed a break, so I loaded up a veggie powered Volkswagen and went on the road for eight months and did 23,000 miles starting in southern Utah and wound up at the Arctic Circle in Alaska.

A: What is the veggie powered Volkswagen all about?

C: Any diesel can run on vegetable oil. There is no modification to the motor. It basically is a system of separate tanks and switches to heat used vegetable oil to thin it out. We did that 23,000 mile trip and spent $61 on fuel in eight months. I use recycled vegetable oil that I get from Black Hills State University’s kitchen. Biodiesel is vegetable oil cut with methanol and lye that chemically separates out the thick parts of the oil so that it can be used for fuel.

A: From the Arctic Circle, how did you return to Spearfish and become interested in the straw bale house concept?

C: In 2008, my parents asked if I wanted to come back and live on my grandfather Dallas Swisher’s three-acre place. He had passed away in 2001 and the property had sat empty since. I became interested in natural building methods based on my travels abroad where I would see people building shelters from materials they could acquire locally. In most parts of the world, there is no such thing as bringing in big cedar logs from Oregon to build a house in the desert.

A: Explain “cob” for our readers.

C: Cob is sand, clay, and straw mixed with water. You can also use native grasses, or even cow dung. Adobe, the same basic materials, is a brick form. Cob is a monolithic form where there are no individual units. You mix it together and separate it into small cobs or loaves to make it more manageable to then integrate it into the surface of the bales by pressing and working it in.

A: Explain how the straw bale house is built.

C: I have a load-bearing structure meaning the roof sits on the bales. Non-load bearing would be a pole barn frame wrapped in bales. Straw bales are like big fuzzy bricks that are anchored to the foundation by a cabling system that I designed. The cob layer is 6 inches of the sand and clay mixture applied to the straw on the inside and outside. The cob is what creates thermal mass to retain heat and cooling. For example today it is 6 degrees outside. When I left the house today, it was 72 inside. That interior temperature was heat gained from a woodstove fire that went out at 8 p.m. last night. Today I didn’t start a fire in the stove and just the sun, utilizing passive solar design, warmed the cob walls and 10-inch thick floor. The floor is clay, sand, straw, and water that is troweled on, oiled and waxed to a hard surface, and it’s very smooth and comfortable. When I pour an earthen floor, I keep the leftover mix and make these things called cookies. They dry out, and I put them in a Ziploc baggie. If you damage the floor like from dropping a kid’s skateboard or a frying pan, and a chunk gets broken out, you just break off a piece of the cookie and mix with water and now it’s back to mud and you can patch the floor.

A: What are other pros and cons of straw bale construction?

C: Materials are very inexpensive, literally dirt cheap. But, the input of labor costs more. Conventional building is streamlined; all materials are in standard sizes to make it easy to build. In straw bale, there is more thought and craftsmanship. Upfront construction costs for conventional buildings here is $130 to $135 per square foot. I start at $150 per square foot because there is more labor. But this is an apples and elephants comparison. It’s completely different from a two-by-four wall with pink insulation that is going to cost you $300 a month to heat. Yes, it’s more to build a straw bale/cob home initially, but if your heating bill is $7, isn’t that a benefit?

A: How does the building code address these alternate methods?

C: There is a provision for alternative means and methods in the International Codes, and it is at the discretion of the building department to accept the design or idea. This house was designed by me and a structural engineer who did the calculations to verify the design.

A: If an organization wants to allow this, is it best to put that technical stuff on the structural engineering types who can put their seal and stamp on this thing to say it’s going to withstand ordinary forces?

C: Yes. When I told friends I was going to do a code compliant straw bale structure inside city limits, they laughed at me and said: “You’ll never get it done. There’s too much red tape and B.S.” That is because these people come into a building department office with something sketched on a cocktail napkin, and wonder why they’re denied. They’re hurting the rest of us. Alternative materials builders must bring some legitimacy and seriousness to what they are doing. It was important that this structure could exist safely, in city limits, and play by all the rules.

A: What do you recommend to code officials and planners who are unfamiliar with this method?

C: Lots of information is out there. There are many builders doing amazing stuff, and people are working on straw bale amendments to the building code in California. The information is there; it’s just a matter of whether or not you’re willing to go get it.

A: Your advice to agencies is don’t stick your head in the sand, reach out to others, try to find answers, and don’t just slam the code book shut.

C: Yes, a lot of credit is due to those that have approved these. A lot of people are unsure of this and are thinking, “what?” It’s becoming more mainstream in all aspects. Wells Fargo will give construction loans for straw bale houses. The information is out there, and I will share my designs and information that I have with anyone who is interested. My information is all open source.

A: Let’s talk about your gray water and composting toilet system. Your property can tap into city sewer right now. Why didn’t you want to connect?

C: Some of it was that the entire project is off-grid. I define that as off the water, sewer and electric grid. So, I wanted to show people that you can have a comfortable modern and efficient house in city limits but not necessarily hook to the grid. It was not a big deal to connect, but I wanted to serve as an example.

A: Explain how your wastewater system is designed.

C: There are two major components. The first part is the composting toilet that is a commercially available toilet. Sunmar is the one that I have and it’s an NFS-listed fixture. It’s a really expensive bucket (big Cappie-style smile breaks out). It sits on the concrete slab, no holes to connect it to anything. No flushing, no water line. You use the toilet like you normally would. Then you sprinkle either sawdust or finished compost on top. Once that chamber is full, you hand crank it, and it rotates around and a new empty fresh chamber takes its place. Liquid drains out, and any liquid that has not evaporated is exhausted with a 12-volt fan like normal plumbing is. There is an overflow drain that goes into the gray water system that is permitted. Two to three people can go a month without having to empty it and when you do it looks like an ashtray from a wood stove. On the very bottom, there’s a little drawer that pulls out and its dry, fluffy compost. If I didn’t tell you what this was, you’d never know.

A: What are the myths about composting toilets?

C: Most people think these are pit toilets like you see at rest areas. These are not like those. Composting toilets have no odor, no mess. It’s just a funny looking toilet. It’s not a chemical toilet with the blue liquid either.

A: Moving on to the gray water. If I had just finished doing the dishes at your house what happens next?

C: It’s similar to septic, just no tank. One of the struggles we had to get the system approved for the kitchen sink to be on the gray water system was to deal with grease and particulates since they jam up a drain field. My system has a grease trap and particulate filter so this is like pre-treatment. We spent six months working with the South Dakota Department of Environment and Natural Resources getting this approved, and it is the first gray water system approved in the United States that allows kitchen sink water - legally.

A: How much space for composting is needed?

C: I have four composting bins with different functions: grass, leaves, and everything else. My bins are 4 feet square and 3 feet tall; not a lot of area. Toilet and kitchen scraps from an average household will not fill those bins in a year.

A: In many people’s minds, they envision huge piles of this stuff breaking down. They don’t consider that soil is in a constant state of decomposition and volume disappears.

C: When you add finished compost to the grass clippings, you introduce microbes, and it decomposes even faster. The finished volume is like 1/3 of the original size of the pile. There is plenty of space in a normal average residential lot. Townhouses could do this system. In some parts of Europe, you’re not allowed to install a flush toilet due to antiquated sewers and they made the choice to not dig up antique cobblestone streets to replace the 12-inch pipe with 36-inch pipe.

A: Let’s talk about your irrigation pump. How do you move water from a free flowing ditch without a pump?

C: Years ago I saw a photo of a paddlewheel. Mine is 4 feet across and 5 feet in diameter. It spans the ditch and has a scoop attached to it. So as the creek flows, every time the scoop comes around and through the water, it forces it into 100 feet of 1-inch irrigation line that is coiled and laid flat on the side of the wheel. This is called a screw pump, developed in the 1700s. My pump takes water from the creek to a 500 gallon tank, 21 feet in the air directly above the wheel.

A: Because the irrigation ditch flows without ceasing (except in winter), there is constant pressure of the water in the tube, and the constant input of more scoops of water adds even more pressure in the tube that forces the water up to the tank. Is that correct?

C: Yes, it’s really that simple. From that tank, I get 20 pounds per square inch (psi), and that is enough pressure to move water across three acres of property.

A: You’ve talked about wind generation and photovoltaics. How does that figure in your plans?

C: I have the PV (photovoltaic) panels; hopefully the weather will allow us to get on the roof soon. Wind generation is something I would like to add because a hybrid type system in our climate is beneficial. It was sunny earlier this week but today, windy and cloudy. It’s smart to have both. I’m a belt and suspenders kind of guy.

A: A few years ago, you changed your residentially zoned property back to its original agriculture zoning to grow local vegetables for your own use and commercial distribution. How can planners minimize the intimidation of the public hearing process?

C: Educate the applicant – ask if they have ever been to a public hearing. Ask them to think of answers to questions that will come up. Show them the meeting room. Invite the applicant to come to a meeting ahead of time, maybe a couple ahead of time to get familiar with everything.

A: Outside of straw bale, what are your other favorite types of projects?

C: I like unique things; working with metal, blacksmithing, and lapidary are some favorites. I once built a fire pit from a 4,600 pound boulder that I cut a dish form into it, and also a 12-inch diameter hole in the side for a beer cooler. I make things that you can’t buy at the hardware store or things that, by their nature, are challenging. I would rather build a house with you than for you. We are so used to just paying someone to do it, or the bank gives Jayna ¼ million to give to Pangea Design and nine months later she’s got a house but she has no idea of the energy, environmental and physical things that had to go into it. This is why I want to educate my clients. They can sift clay, or cut straw. Anyone can do what I do. It just depends on if they are interested in doing it. I have a lot of clients that don’t want to do any of it and that is fine, but there are a lot of people that don’t have a ton of money and want to be part of the building process.

A: Wrapping up here, regarding sustainability what should we strive for as planners?

C: Ask yourself ‘why are you a planner?’ Was it the best-paying job or are you really invested in your community and the world for your kids or grandkids? Sustainable is a tough word – sustainable, green, whatever - there’s a lot of bull around those words. Planners need to think about the benefits of these systems. Less effluent means that less funding is needed to run a waste water treatment plant. Promote these technologies and make it easier is a huge part that public officials can play. Where the log jam starts with natural building, is that some inspectors will say, “I’ve never seen this before and I don’t know what to do, but I want you to engineer the heck out of this thing.” That can cost $40,000 so you, as a homeowner, say, “that is the entire kitchen budget,” and then you go back to the two-by-fours. If staff will explore these other avenues and see that other agencies have done it, they can gain confidence to try it also. We need to use our heads. We can run three miles of 24 inch sewer line and pay $3 million for it, or we can look at other technologies. We have choices.


Did you know?

The fire proof properties of cob are just ridiculous.
A plastered or cob wall exceeds a commercial stairwell fire rating that is two hours with a direct flame source with no issues. To pass fire code, a conventional wall must withstand an 1,800 degree torch on one side of the wall, and the other side can raise 140 degrees Fahrenheit and pass. That means the wall is 200 degrees, and you cannot touch it. This same test on a plastered wall of a straw bale raises the other side only 2 degrees.

Heating the entire house costs about $50 a year.
To heat the house for the entire year is ¼ of a cord of wood, basically $50 for the entire year to heat.


For more information on how you or your community can explore these same ideas, you can reach Cappie via email at: cappie@pangeadesigngroup.com or 605-639-9041.


Jayna Watson is the City Planner for the City of Spearfish, South Dakota. She is the president of South Dakota Planners Association and serves on The Western Planner Editorial Board.


References

  1. A Modern Look at Straw Bale Construction by Andrew Morrison and www.strawbale.com
  2. Earthen Floors: A Modern Approach to an Ancient Practice by Sukita Reay Crimmel and James Thomson
  3. For more information on the composting toilet used in Mr. Capp’s Home: www.sun-mar.com
  4. Create an Oasis with Greywater by Art Ludwig

Published in February/March 2015

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