Monday, February 5, 2007

I miss my Mini, but I've found a new love

I miss a lot of things about Germany, but one thing I miss almost more then the people, beer, food, atmosphere, beer, architecture, fests, beer and the beer is my Mini. And let's not forget the beer.

I'm not talking about the Frankenstein version that BMW put out, I'm talking about the original Mini that Mr. Bean drove. Except mine was a nice dark blue with the 2 white stripes on the hood.

Before I left Germany my job had me running between the communities of Heidelberg, Mannheim, Kaiserslautern and Darmstadt which meant I did a lot of driving. I was given the option of the company car and having my gas paid for, but instead I chose to drive my own car, and who could blame me.

That little car could scream up and down the autobahns at between 95-100 miles per hour (yes, miles, not kilometers) and this was with the standard engine, not the souped up one. Zipping in and out of the traffic and pretty much always finding parking was great, but taking the car on family day or overnight trips was even better.

My kids at the time were 4 and 6 so going for trips in the car was pretty comfortable space wise and they loved being able to see out the windows. What they loved even more was hitting a patch of bumpy road because then that car turned into a little roller coaster that was all their own. Slow down to a respectable speed, weave the car side to side a little and you get 2 screaming giggling kids asking if we could go back and do it again.

Coming back to the states was a bit rough because of the drastically reduced speed limits and using cruise control whenever available was pretty much mandatory for me. Now after a bit more then a year I have tamed down a bit. Not because of excessive speeding tickets (knock on wood) or anything, but mostly because of fear. We Americans as a rule do not drive together very well.

Here's a tip. If you are driving in the fast lane and you are not fast, get out of it. Pull over to the right. I couldn't (and still can't) believe how inconsiderate people are driving over here. Driving on the autobahns, people generally work together. And they better because those lights coming up in your rear view mirror likely aren't going to slow down just because you are in front of them.

I've seen studies that show per capita, there are more fatalities in the US then in Germany that are driving related, and this is with average speeds over there being much higher then here. That is because we have so many people swerving between 3 or 4 lanes trying to get around all you slow people.

So keep up or keep right.

Since coming back to the states and working from home, I don't drive near as much. We have our family car which my wife uses to get back and forth to work and we use for our distance driving, but I have now found our next car. It has even been approved by my wife who claimed to hate my Mini (even though she chose it over her larger car for our trips).

The car is a funny looking little triangular thing called a Zap car. With this little electric car you can go around 40 miles per hour and up to 25 miles per charge (they say 40 with opportunity charging) which is great for in town daily driving.

With my wife working, we spend about $30 every week or so for gas, and she could use this car for the daily commute dropping our fuel expense to next to nothing. We would still have our family car for extended drives or major shopping, however I know from personal experience driving my Mini, you can certainly do a bit of shopping with this size of car. It is actually even roomier then my Mini was.

We would save on fuel, wear and tear of our family car and help lower our impact on the environment. Combine this with using solar energy to charge it, and you have a very clean driving experience. Not only that, but these cars are pretty inexpensive so you could just about pay your car payments with the savings in gas. You can also save on insurance because it is 3 wheeled and classified as a motorcycle, but since it is 3 wheeled, you do not need a motorcycle license to drive it (at least here in Oregon).

Do you work from home or have a small business you are trying to advertise for? What could be better then slapping some signs on this little car to draw attention to what you have to offer? Heck, you could probably partner with a local business and have half your car paid for that way too.

So that wraps up yet another way average people like us can help the environment around us. We definitely can't wait for our government to do it through programs, laws and resolutions.

Thursday, February 1, 2007

When I win the Lottery I'm gonna....

Whenever that sort of conversation comes up, the one where someone asks "what would you do if you won?" of course I usually give the old standby. You know the one. Get a nice house, a new car, college for the kids and invest a chunk to live comfortably while traveling and giving to charities.

But whenever I envisioned the house late at night before falling asleep, it was always in a remote area, surrounded by trees, preferably in a cave or something where no one can bother me and I'd be relatively safe in event of some natural disaster. Of course it would need all the comforts too.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not a hermit type or a survival nut (I mean that in the nicest of ways, so stop sharpening your bungee stick's and get back to setting your snares), I just like my privacy and would rather not have any neighbors in the area if at all possible.

Little did I know, these types of houses already exist and are being lived in by thousands of families in the US. What I found, along with some very interesting energy saving homes and ideas were some homes referred to as Berm Homes, or Earth Sheltered Homes.
They are basically homes that are either partially or almost completely covered in earth. Anywhere from one side, to all sides except the entrance and usually the roof(which is covered with 8" to 3 ft earth).

They range from looking like your average home with grass on the roof, to homes you can't even see unless you are right in front of them, which is the kind I lean towards.

The benefits of these types of homes are many, but include things such as 50-80% energy savings over an average home, low maintenance (little exterior issues due to earth coverage), long lasting (100+ years ) and very durable. Not to mention, they have great sound proofing from exterior noise and a bit more privacy due to their typical low profile.

One of the things I like best is that some of these houses, aside from being completely normal inside, have the added advantage to giving you your own mini park or wilderness, completely around your home.

For my own home, I see it being anywhere from 2,500-3,500 square ft, 3 bedroom, large open living room and kitchen, 2 1/2 bath, office and family room with connected garage and plenty of storage. Much like your normal house, except it is completely underground (with at least 6 ft earth on top) and the outside is only seen from one side.

It would also need to be built in such a way that trees and brush are still all around it with shrubbery and small trees growing on top. I also see it having its own water well and running on solar power primarily (obviously ). It will be almost completely unnoticeable from the outside, but have enough space and light inside as possible to make it comfortable, possibly using this type of Hybrid Solar Lighting.

What I find amazing, is that after all this time just sort of imagining it is that people are already doing it. So now I ask, if anyone ever takes the time to read this far into the things I write, is for you to let me know of your personal experiences with this type of home. What do you like about it? Anything you regret or wish you had done differently? And for those of you who may be considering it, what is the main draw for you?

I'd also be interested in finding an online community of sorts. A discussion forum, or more detailed locations on this type of lifestyle, so feel free to comment, or if you prefer, just tell me I'm nuts and go on your merry way.

EDIT: After I wrote this, I went back and found the site of Phil and Lisa Malone where I spent an hour or so late the other night looking through their gallery of construction pictures. Looking at it now, more or less awake, I see they also have a forum where I will be spending some time in the very near future.

I encourage you to take a look at what they have done. Although the house isn't as covered as I would like, it is a beautiful home that deserves to be seen.

Photography by Uffe Nielsen