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Sustainability do-it-your-selfers raise the roof as well as fish and vegetables

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, June 13, 2012 - Most folks have fixed a leaky faucet or put up a towel rack.

But for those who want a real do-it-yourself project, sometimes only the challenge of changing your roof to a garden, recycling dumpster waste into furniture or raising fish in your garage will fill the bill.

“One of the things I feel passionate about is that the fun comes through the process of doing it,” said Hector Caiazza, who converted his 1974 Volkswagen into an electric vehicle. “I enjoy trying to solve the problem, asking the questions, finding out who I can turn to to help me.”

“The fun is in the journey,” he said.

Caiazza’s journey, and those of five other presenters, were the focus of an event Tuesday staged by the U.S. Green Building Council-Missouri Gateway Chapter in partnership with St. Louis Green and St. Louis Earth Day. Sponsored by Pizzo & Associates and hosted at the ultra-modern Sheet Metal Workers Local 36 facility on Chouteau, the late afternoon showcase was meant to display the concept of DIY sustainability within the St. Louis community.

The talks were put together in pecha kucha format, a fast-paced Japanese style of presentation in which speakers complete their presentation over the course of showing 20 photos for 20 seconds each.

Caiazza told the crowd of his inspirations and adventures in gathering friends to participate in his reengineering of an old automobile. He could have bought a new hybrid or even an all-electric model off the showroom floor but that just wasn’t his style.

“It’s always been my philosophy that if I can see it done, I can do it. I’m not afraid of asking questions," he said, adding that he just needed to find people "smart enough" to provide the answers to his questions.  

Josh Davis, head of the Green Finned Hippy, a company that raises tilapia, had an even more unusual DIY tale. He talked about the science of aquaponics, an odd blend of aquaculture and hydroponics where one can raise fish in a tank set beneath a lush garden of live, growing greenery. The waste from the fish act in place of the chemical-based nutrients that feed the plants. The system he built in his garage raises fish as well as basil, tomatoes and peppers.

“In aquaponics, you can grow lettuce in a four-week period, which is astronomically fast,” he said. “It’s great because you can get so much production out of it.”

He showed pictures of one system that was 97 percent efficient with its water usage.

“In areas of the world that lack resources like water and fertile soil, this could be a great solution,” he said.

Home furnishings from dumpster

Speaker Jenny Murphy regaled the audience with tales of dumpster diving. As executive director of her nonprofit Perennial, the south St. Louisan regularly wades through what others throw away to provide raw materials to make furniture and other creations. She advised listeners on everything from avoiding moldy finds to staying off private property.

“Definitely bring a pair of tough gloves with you,” she said.

There’s also a personal and interactive aspect to the work.

“That’s one of the points I like to pass on to people,” she said. “Talk to folks. When you are out there going through their trash and they are at their house, talk to them. You might find something interesting out about the thing you are looking at, about its history.”

Tim Dolan, director of field operations for the Urban League of Metro St. Louis, told the group how best to do a home energy audit.

“You’ve got to set goals and get to know your home from an energy perspective,” he said. “Get into your attic. Get into your basement. Get into your crawlspace and all those other places you don’t want to go into.”

He said a DIY audit would save money, improve indoor air quality and reduce a household’s carbon footprint by defining a “thermal boundary,” a continuous air barrier around the home.

“Your house is a system,” he said. “All the parts interact. Homes that are under insulated and have great HVAC systems don’t work as well.”

Presenter Richard Reilly talked about repurposing old items like fenceposts and typing tables into useable furniture and crafts projects. He said his wife had an old rocking chair from a thrift store reupholstered and stained.

“We rocked our kids to sleep in it,” he said. “It’s a nice memory when we walk by.”

The green roof

Hunter Beckham told how he created a “green roof” on top of his garage. The project helps him save rainwater while making the property more attractive. 

He noted that the plants really brighten up the environment as well.

“With the lavender, it’s like a little taste of Tuscany in St. Louis,” he said.

Program chair Mary Osteafi, a sustainability consultant with architecture firm HOK, acted as emcee for the evening.

“Our mission is all about spreading sustainability in the built environment and this is a great way to talk about that,” she said.

She said the event was designed to encourage St. Louisans to become more involved in such efforts themselves.

“It was really wonderful to hear about all these do-it-yourself initiatives that are happening around St. Louis,” she said. “It’s inspiring to know that if they can do it, any of us can do it.”

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