How to Build a Low-tech Internet

This piece was published by Low-Tech Magazine. The original article can be found here.


Tegola project low-tech internet 3

Wireless internet access is on the rise in both modern consumer societies and in the developing world.

In rich countries, however, the focus is on always-on connectivity and ever higher access speeds. In poor countries, on the other hand, connectivity is achieved through much more low-tech, often asynchronous networks.

While the high-tech approach pushes the costs and energy use of the internet higher and higher, the low-tech alternatives result in much cheaper and very energy efficient networks that combine well with renewable power production and are resistant to disruptions.

If we want the internet to keep working in circumstances where access to energy is more limited, we can learn important lessons from alternative network technologies. Best of all, there’s no need to wait for governments or companies to facilitate: we can build our own resilient communication infrastructure if we cooperate with one another. This is demonstrated by several community networks in Europe, of which the largest has more than 35,000 users already.


Picture: A node in the Scottish Tegola Network.

More than half of the global population does not have access to the “worldwide” web. Up to now, the internet is mainly an urban phenomenon, especially in “developing” countries. Telecommunication companies are usually reluctant to extend their network outside cities due to a combination of high infrastructure costs, low population density, limited ability to pay for services, and an unreliable or non-existent electricity infrastructure. Even in remote regions of “developed” countries, internet connectivity isn’t always available.

Internet companies such as Facebook and Google regularly make headlines with plans for connecting these remote regions to the internet. Facebook tries to achieve this with drones, while Google counts on high-altitude balloons. There are major technological challenges, but the main objection to these plans is their commercial character. Obviously, Google and Facebook want to connect more people to the internet because that would increase their revenues. Facebook especially receives lots of criticism because their network promotes their own site in particular, and blocks most other internet applications. [1]

Meanwhile, several research groups and network enthusiasts have developed and implemented much cheaper alternative network technologies to solve these issues. Although these low-tech networks have proven their worth, they have received much less attention. Contrary to the projects of internet companies, they are set up by small organisations or by the users themselves. This guarantees an open network that benefits the users instead of a handful of corporations. At the same time, these low-tech networks are very energy efficient.

WiFi-based Long Distance Networks

Most low-tech networks are based on WiFi, the same technology that allows mobile access to the internet in most western households. As we have seen in the previous article, sharing these devices could provide free mobile access across densely populated cities. But the technology can be equally useful in sparsely populated areas. Although the WiFi-standard was developed for short-distance data communication (with a typical range of about 30 metres), its reach can be extended through modifications of the Media Access Control (MAC) layer in the networking protocol, and through the use of range extender amplifiers and directional antennas. [2]

Although the WiFi-standard was developed for short-distance data communication, its reach can be extended to cover distances of more than 100 kilometres.

The longest unamplified WiFi link is a 384 km wireless point-to-point connection between Pico El Águila and Platillón in Venezuela, established a few years ago. [3,4] However, WiFi-based long distance networks usually consist of a combination of shorter point-to-point links, each between a few kilometres and one hundred kilometers long at most. These are combined to create larger, multihop networks. Point-to-points links, which form the backbone of a long range WiFi network, are combined with omnidirectional antennas that distribute the signal to individual households (or public institutions) of a community.

Tegola project low-tech internetPicture: A relay with three point-to-point links and three sectoral antennae. Tegola.

Long-distance WiFi links require line of sight to make a connection — in this sense, the technology resembles the 18th century optical telegraph. [5] If there’s no line of sight between two points, a third relay is required that can see both points, and the signal is sent to the intermediate relay first. Depending on the terrain and particular obstacles, more hubs may be necessary. [6]

Point-to-point links typically consist of two directional antennas, one focused on the next node and the other on the previous node in the network. Nodes can have multiple antennas with one antenna per fixed point-to-point link to each neighbour. [7] This allows mesh routing protocols that can dynamically select which links to choose for routing among the available ones. [8]

Long-distance WiFi links require line of sight to make a connection — in this sense, the technology resembles the 18th century optical telegraph.

Distribution nodes usually consist of a sectoral antenna (a small version of the things you see on mobile phone masts) or a conventional WiFi-router, together with a number of receivers in the community. [6] For short distance WiFi-communication, there is no requirement for line of sight between the transmitter and the receiver. [9]

To provide users with access to the worldwide internet, a long range WiFi network should be connected to the main backbone of the internet using at least one “backhaul” or “gateway node”. This can be a dial-up or broadband connection (DSL, fibre or satellite). If such a link is not established, users would still be able to communicate with each other and view websites set up on local servers, but they would not be able to access the internet. [10]

Advantages of Long Range WiFi

Litebeam M5Long range WiFi offers high bandwidth (up to 54 Mbps) combined with very low capital costs. Because the WiFi standard enjoys widespread acceptance and has huge production volumes, off-the-shelf antennas and wireless cards can be bought for very little money. [11] Alternatively, components can be put together from discarded materials such as old routers, satellite dish antennas and laptops. Protocols like WiLDNet run on a 266 Mhz processor with only 128 MB memory, so an old computer will do the trick. [7]

The WiFi-nodes are lightweight and don’t need expensive towers — further decreasing capital costs, and minimizing the impact of the structures to be built. [7] More recently, single units that combine antenna, wireless card and processor have become available. These are very convenient for installation. To build a relay, one simply connects such units together with ethernet cables that carry both signal and power. [6] The units can be mounted in towers or slim masts, given that they offer little windload. [3] Examples of suppliers of long range WiFi components are Ubiquity, Alvarion and MikroTik, and simpleWiFi.

Long Range WiFi makes use of unlicensed spectrum and offers high bandwidth, low capital costs, easy installation, and low power requirements.

Long range WiFi also has low operational costs due to low power requirements. A typical mast installation consisting of two long distance links and one or two wireless cards for local distribution consumes around 30 watts. [6,12] In several low-tech networks, nodes are entirely powered by solar panels and batteries. Another important advantage of long range WiFi is that it makes use of unlicensed spectrum (2.4 and 5 GHz), and thus avoids negotiations with telecom operators and government. This adds to the cost advantage and allows basically anyone to start a WiFi-based long distance network. [9]

Long Range WiFi Networks in Poor Countries

The first long range WiFi networks were set up ten to fifteen years ago. In poor countries, two main types have been built. The first is aimed at providing internet access to people in remote villages. An example is the Akshaya network in India, which covers the entire Kerala State and is one of the largest wireless networks in the world. The infrastructure is built around approximately 2,500 “computer access centers”, which are open to the local population — direct ownership of computers is minimal in the region. [13]

Another example, also in India, are the AirJaldi networks which provide internet access to approximately 20,000 users in six states, all in remote regions and on difficult terrain. Most nodes in this network are solar-powered and the distance between them can range up to 50 km or more. [14] In some African countries, local WiFi-networks distribute internet access from a satellite gateway. [15,16]


A node in the AirJaldi network. Picture: AirJaldi.

A second type of long distance WiFi network in poor countries is aimed at providing telemedicine to remote communities. In remote regions, health care is often provided through health posts scarcely equipped and attended by health technicians who are barely trained. [17] Long-range WiFi networks can connect urban hospitals with these outlying health posts, allowing doctors to remotely support health technicians using high-resolution file transfers and real-time communication tools based on voice and video.

An example is the link between Cabo Pantoja and Iquitos in the Loreto province in Peru, which was established in 2007. The 450 km network consists of 17 towers which are 16 to 50 km apart. The line connects 15 medical outposts in remote villages with the main hospital in Iquitos and is aimed at remote diagnosis of patients. [17,18] All equipment is powered by solar panels. [18,19] Other succesful examples of long range WiFi telemedicine networks have been built in India, Malawi and Ghana. [20,21]

WiFi-Based Community Networks in Europe

The low-tech networks in poor countries are set up by NGO’s, governments, universities or businesses. In contrast, most of the WiFi-based long distance networks in remote regions of rich countries are so-called “community networks”: the users themselves build, own, power and maintain the infrastructure. Similar to the shared wireless approach in cities, reciprocal resource sharing forms the basis of these networks: participants can set up their own node and connect to the network (for free), as long as their node also allows traffic of other members. Each node acts as a WiFi routing device that provides IP forwarding services and a data link to all users and nodes connected to it. [8,22]

In a community network, the users themselves build, own, power and maintain the infrastructure.

Consequently, with each new user, the network becomes larger. There is no a-priori overall planning. A community network grows bottom-up, driven by the needs of its users, as nodes and links are added or upgraded following demand patterns. The only consideration is to connect a node from a new participant to an existing one. As a node is powered on, it discovers it neighbours, attributes itself a unique IP adress, and then establishes the most appropriate routes to the rest of the network, taking into account the quality of the links. Community networks are open to participation to everyone, sometimes according to an open peering agreement. [8,9,19,22]

Guifi in en rond barcelona

Wireless links in the Spanish Guifi network. Credit.

Despite the lack of reliable statistics, community networks seem to be rather succesful, and there are several large ones in Europe, such as (Spain), Athens Wireless Metropolitan Network (Greece), FunkFeuer (Austria), and Freifunk (Germany). [8,22,23,24] The Spanish network  is the largest WiFi-based long distance network in the world with more than 50,000 kilometres of links, although a small part is based on optic fibre links. Most of it is located in the Catalan Pyrenees, one of the least populated areas in Spain. The network was initiated in 2004 and now has close to 30,000 nodes, up from 17,000 in 2012. [8,22] provides internet access to individuals, companies, administrations and universities. In principle, the network is installed, powered and maintained by its users, although volunteer teams and even commercial installers are present to help. Some nodes and backbone upgrades have been succesfully crowdfunded by indirect beneficiaries of the network. [8,22]

Performance of Low-tech Networks

So how about the performance of low-tech networks? What can you do with them? The available bandwidth per user can vary enormously, depending on the bandwidth of the gateway node(s) and the number of users, among other factors. The long-distance WiFi networks aimed at telemedicine in poor countries have few users and a good backhaul, resulting in high bandwidth (+ 40 Mbps). This gives them a similar performance to fibre connections in the developed world. A study of (a small part of) the community network, which has dozens of gateway nodes and thousands of users, showed an average throughput of 2 Mbps, which is comparable to a relatively slow DSL connection. Actual throughput per user varies from 700 kbps to 8 Mbps. [25]

The available bandwidth per user can vary enormously, depending on the bandwidth of the gateway node(s) and the number of users, among other factors

However, the low-tech networks that distribute internet access to a large user base in developing countries can have much more limited bandwidth per user. For example, a university campus in Kerala (India) uses a 750 kbps internet connection that is shared across 3,000 faculty members and students operating from 400 machines, where during peak hours nearly every machine is being used.

Therefore, the worst-case average bandwidth available per machine is approximately 1.9 kbps, which is slow even in comparison to a dial-up connection (56 kbps). And this can be considered a really good connectivity compared to typical rural settings in poor countries. [26] To make matters worse, such networks often have to deal with an intermittent power supply.


A node in the Spanish Guifi community network.

Under these circumstances, even the most common internet applications have poor performance, or don’t work at all. The communication model of the internet is based on a set of network assumptions, called the TCP/IP protocol suite. These include the existence of a bi-directional end-to-end path between the source (for example a website’s server) and the destination (the user’s computer), short round-trip delays, and low error rates.

Many low-tech networks in poor countries do not comform to these assumptions. They are characterized by intermittent connectivity or “network partitioning” — the absence of an end-to-end path between source and destination — long and variable delays, and high error rates. [21,27,28]

Delay-Tolerant Networks

Nevertheless, even in such conditions, the internet could work perfectly fine. The technical issues can be solved by moving away from the always-on model of traditional networks, and instead design networks based upon asynchronous communication and intermittent connectivity. These so-called “delay-tolerant networks” (DTNs) have their own specialized protocols overlayed on top of the lower protocols and do not utilize TCP. They overcome the problems of intermittent connectivity and long delays by using store-and-forward message switching.

Information is forwarded from a storage place on one node to a storage place on another node, along a path that eventually reaches its destination. In contrast to traditional internet routers, which only store incoming packets for a few milliseconds on memory chips, the nodes of a delay-tolerant network have persistent storage (such as hard disks) that can hold information indefinitely. [27,28]

Delay-tolerant networks combine well with renewable energy: solar panels or wind turbines could power network nodes only when the sun shines or the wind blows, eliminating the need for energy storage.

Delay-tolerant networks don’t require an end-to-end path between source and destination. Data is simply transferred from node to node. If the next node is unavailable because of long delays or a power outage, the data is stored on the hard disk until the node becomes available again. While it might take a long time for data to travel from source to destination, a delay-tolerant network ensures that it will eventually arrive.

Delay-tolerant networks further decrease capital costs and energy use, leading to the most efficient use of scarce resources. They keep working with an intermittent energy supply and they combine well with renewable energy sources: solar panels or wind turbines could power network nodes only when the sun shines or the wind blows, eliminating the need for energy storage.

Data Mules

Delay-tolerant networking can take surprising forms, especially when they take advantage of some non-traditional means of communication, such as “data mules”. [11,29] In such networks, conventional transportation technologies — buses, cars, motorcycles, trains, boats, airplanes — are used to ferry messages from one location to another in a store-and-forward manner.

Examples are DakNet and KioskNet, which use buses as data mules. [30-34] In many developing regions, rural bus routes regularly visit villages and towns that have no network connectivity. By equipping each vehicle with a computer, a storage device and a mobile WiFi-node on the one hand, and by installing a stationary WiFi-node in each village on the other hand, the local transport infrastructure can substitute for a wireless internet link. [11]

Airjaldi epostmanPicture: AirJaldi.

Outgoing data (such as sent emails or requests for webpages) is stored on local computers in the village until the bus comes withing range. At this point, the fixed WiFi-node of the local computer automatically transmits the data to the mobile WiFi-node of the bus. Later, when the bus arrives at a hub that is connected to the internet, the outgoing data is transmitted from the mobile WiFi-node to the gateway node, and then to the internet. Data sent to the village takes the opposite route. The bus — or data — driver doesn’t require any special skills and is completely oblivious to the data transfers taking place. He or she does not need to do anything other than come in range of the nodes. [30,31]

In a data mules network, the local transport infrastructure substitutes for a wireless internet link.

The use of data mules offers some extra advantages over more “sophisticated” delay-tolerant networks. A “drive-by” WiFi network allows for small, low-cost and low-power radio devices to be used, which don’t require line of sight and consequently no towers — further lowering capital costs and energy use compared to other low-tech networks. [30,31,32]

The use of short-distance WiFi-links also results in a higher bandwidth compared to long-distance WiFi-links, which makes data mules better suited to transfer larger files. On average, 20 MB of data can be moved in each direction when a bus passes a fixed WiFi-node. [30,32] On the other hand, latency (the time interval between sending and receiving data) is usually higher than on long-range WiFi-links. A single bus passing by a village once a day gives a latency of 24 hours.

Delay-Tolerant Software

Obviously, a delay-tolerant network (DTN) — whatever its form — also requires new software: applications that function without a connected end-to-end networking path. [11] Such custom applications are also useful for synchronous, low bandwidth networks. Email is relatively easy to adapt to intermittent connectivity, because it’s an asynchronous communication method by itself. A DTN-enabled email client stores outgoing messages until a connection is available. Although emails may take longer to reach their destination, the user experience doesn’t really change.

Freifunk berlijn

A Freifunk WiFi-node is installed in Berlin, Germany. Picture: Wikipedia Commons.

Browsing and searching the web requires more adaptations. For example, most search engines optimize for speed, assuming that a user can quickly look through the returned links and immediately run a second modified search if the first result is inadequate. However, in intermittent networks, multiple rounds of interactive search would be impractical. [26,35] Asynchronous search engines optimize for bandwith rather than response time. [26,30,31,35,36] For example, RuralCafe desynchronizes the search process by performing many search tasks in an offline manner, refining the search request based on a database of similar searches. The actual retrieval of information using the network is only done when absolutely necessary.

Many internet applications could be adapted to intermittent networks, such as webbrowsing, email, electronic form filling, interaction with e-commerce sites, blogsoftware, large file downloads, or social media.

Some DTN-enabled browsers download not only the explicitly requested webpages but also the pages that are linked to by the requested pages. [30] Others are optimized to return low-bandwidth results, which are achieved by filtering, analysis, and compression on the server site. A similar effect can be achieved through the use of a service like Loband, which strips webpages of images, video, advertisements, social media buttons, and so on, merely presenting the textual content. [26]

Browsing and searching on intermittent networks can also be improved by local caching (storing already downloaded pages) and prefetching (downloading pages that might be retrieved in the future). [206] Many other internet applications could also be adapted to intermittent networks, such as electronic form filling, interaction with e-commerce sites, blogsoftware, large file downloads, social media, and so on. [11,30] All these applications would remain possible, though at lower speeds.


Obviously, real-time applications such as internet telephony, media streaming, chatting or videoconferencing are impossible to adapt to intermittent networks, which provide only asynchronous communication. These applications are also difficult to run on synchronous networks that have limited bandwidth. Because these are the applications that are in large part responsible for the growing energy use of the internet, one could argue that their incompatibility with low-tech networks is actually a good thing (see the previous article).

Furthermore, many of these applications could be organized in different ways. While real-time voice or video conversations won’t work, it’s perfectly possible to send and receive voice or video messages. And while streaming media can’t happen, downloading music albums and video remains possible. Moreover, these files could be “transmitted” by the most low-tech internet technology available: a sneakernet. In a sneakernet, digital data is “wirelessly” transmitted using a storage medium such as a hard disk, a USB-key, a flash card, or a CD or DVD. Before the arrival of the internet, all computer files were exchanged via a sneakernet, using tape or floppy disks as a storage medium.

Freight train

Stuffing a cargo train full of digital storage media would beat any digital network in terms of speed, cost and energy efficiency. Picture: Wikipedia Commons.

Just like a data mules network, a sneakernet involves a vehicle, a messenger on foot, or an animal (such as a carrier pigeon). However, in a sneakernet there is no automatic data transfer between the mobile node (for instance, a vehicle) and the stationary nodes (sender and recipient). Instead, the data first have to be transferred from the sender’s computer to a portable storage medium. Then, upon arrival, the data have to be transferred from the portable storage medium to the receiver’s computer. [30] A sneakernet thus requires manual intervention and this makes it less convenient for many internet applications.

There are exceptions, though. For example, a movie doesn’t have to be transferred to the hard disk of your computer in order to watch it. You play it straight from a portable hard disk or slide a disc into the DVD-player. Moreover, a sneakernet also offers an important advantage: of all low-tech networks, it has the most bandwidth available. This makes it perfectly suited for the distribution of large files such as movies or computer games. In fact, when very large files are involved, a sneakernet even beats the fastest fibre internet connection. At lower internet speeds, sneakernets can be advantageous for much smaller files.

Technological progress will not lower the advantage of a sneakernet. Digital storage media evolve at least as fast as internet connections and they both improve communication in an equal way.

Resilient Networks

While most low-tech networks are aimed at regions where the alternative is often no internet connection at all, their usefulness for well-connected areas cannot be overlooked. The internet as we know it in the industrialized world is a product of an abundant energy supply, a robust electricity infrastructure, and sustained economic growth. This “high-tech” internet might offer some fancy advantages over the low-tech networks, but it cannot survive if these conditions change. This makes it extremely vulnerable.

The internet as we know it in the industrialized world is a product of an abundant energy supply, a robust electricity infrastructure, and sustained economic growth. It cannot survive if these conditions change.

Depending on their level of resilience, low-tech networks can remain in operation when the supply of fossil fuels is interrupted, when the electricity infrastructure deteriorates, when the economy grinds to a halt, or if other calamities should hit. Such a low-tech internet would allow us to surf the web, send and receive e-mails, shop online, share content, and so on. Meanwhile, data mules and sneakernets could serve to handle the distribution of large files such as videos. Stuffing a cargo vessel or a train full of digital storage media would beat any digital network in terms of speed, cost and energy efficiency. And if such a transport infrastructure would no longer be available, we could still rely on messengers on foot, cargo bikes and sailing vessels.

Such a hybrid system of online and offline applications would remain a very powerful communication network — unlike anything we had even in the late twentieth century. Even if we envision a doom scenario in which the wider internet infrastructure would disintegrate, isolated low-tech networks would still be very useful local and regional communication technologies. Furthermore, they could obtain content from other remote networks through the exchange of portable storage media. The internet, it appears, can be as low-tech or high-tech as we can afford it to be.

Kris De Decker (edited by Jenna Collett)

How to Make Everything Ourselves: Open Modular Hardware

This post was written by Kris de Decker of Low Tech Magazine. The original article can be found here.

Open source consumer goods

Reverting to traditional handicrafts is one way to sabotage the throwaway society. In this article, we discuss another possibility: the design of modular consumer products, whose parts and components could be re-used for the design of other products.

Initiatives like OpenStructures, Grid Beam, and Contraptor combine the modularity of systems like LEGO, Meccano and Erector with the collaborative power of digital success stories like Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress.

An economy based on the concept of re-use would not only bring important advantages in terms of sustainability, but would also save consumers money, speed up innovation, and take manufacturing out of the hands of multinationals.

A modular system unites the advantages of standardisation (as parts can be produced cheaply in large amounts) with the advantages of customisation (since a large diversity of unique objects can be made with relatively few parts). Modularity can be found to a greater or lesser extent in many products (like bicycles and computers) and systems (like trains and logistics), but the best examples of modular systems are toys: LEGOMeccano, and Erector (which is now the brand name of Meccano in the US).

LEGO, Meccano and Erector are composed of relatively few elementary building blocks, which can be used to build various objects. The parts can then be disassembled and re-used to build something completely different. Apart from the elementary buildings blocks, these manufacturers have produced many more specific building blocks, which are less versatile, but further increase customisation possibilities.

Afmetingen lego bouwstenen

All the building blocks in a set of LEGO, Meccano or Erector fit together because they are designed according to a set of specific rules. The holes (Meccano and Erector) or studs (LEGO) have a precise diameter and are spaced apart at specific distances. In addition, the dimensions of the building blocks are precisely matched to each other. The long lasting success of LEGO, Meccano and Erector (which appeared on the market in 1947, 1902 and 1911 respectively) is based on the fact that those rules have never changed. All new buildings blocks that were added in the course of the years are compatible with the existing ones. Today, kids can expand their collection of these toys with that of their parents or grandparents, and they are worth as much on the second hand market as they are worth new.

Grid Beam, Bit Beam, Open Beam, Maker Beam and Contraptor

The same principle could be applied to everyday objects, from coffeemakers to furniture, gadgets, cars and renewable energy systems. All you need is a standardisation in design. The design rules can be very simple, as is the case with Grid Beam. This modular construction system, which was developed in 1976, is based on beams with a simple geometry and a repetitive hole-pattern. The beams can be made of wood, aluminium, steel, or any other material.

Grid beam high sleeper

In spite of the simplicity of the design, a great variety of objects can be constructed. Grid Beam has been used to make all kinds of furniture, greenhouses, constructions for workshops and industrial processes, windmills, wheelbarrows, agricultural machinery, vehicles, sheds and buildings (a book about the system was published in 2009, and can be found online). Grid Beam was inspired by a system envisioned by Ken Isaacs in the 1950s, Living Structures, which used similar beams but contained only a few holes.

Grid beam wheelbarrow
In recent years, several systems have appeared that use a very similar set of rules, based on a repetitive hole pattern. Bit Beam is basically a scaled-down version of Grid Beam, aimed at building smaller structures in balsa-wood, like a laptop stand or a prototype device. Contraptor uses a similar approach, but is aimed at providing structural metal frames for DIY 3D-printers, milling machines, or robotics. OpenBeam and MakerBeam are also modular construction systems based on very simple rules. These are not based on a hole-pattern, but use T-slot aluminium profiles. Makeblock combines both approaches and includes electronic modules.

Most of these construction systems are limited to the design of frameworks. There is one system, however, that offers much more possibilities, because it is based on a more sophisticated set of rules: OpenStructures. The project was kicked off in Brussels in 2007. Unlike all the projects above, OpenStructures is still in an experimental phase. However, it is interesting enough to look at in more detail, because it best shows where modular construction systems may be headed in the future.


The first basic rule of OpenStructures is shared with Grid Beam and similar systems: all parts are connected to each other in such a way that they can be easily disassembled, using bolts and screws rather than nails or glue. However, the OpenStructures design “language” is different: it is based on the OS Grid, which is built around a square of 4×4 cm and is scalable. The squares can be further subdivided or put together to form larger squares, without losing inter-compatibility. The illustration below shows nine complete squares of each 4×4 cm put together.

OS grid
The borders of the squares mark the cutting lines (which define the dimensions of square parts),  the diagonals determine the assembly points, and the circles define the common diameters. As is the case with LEGO, any modular part has to comply with at least one of these conditions in order to be compatible with other parts. Either the dimensions have to correspond with the horizontal and vertical lines, or the assembly points should be spaced according to the grid, or the diameters should be similar. Below is a part that fulfills two of three conditions.

Compatibel onderdeel
While this set of rules is more sophisticated than that of the Grid Beam system, complicated it is not. Nevertheless, it allows for the design of a much larger variety of objects, not just square or rectangular frames. Over the course of five years, OpenStructures has yielded objects ranging from household devices to cargo bicycles, suitcases and furniture.

Open versus Closed Modular Systems

In spite of the similarities, there is one fundamental difference between modular construction systems such as OpenStructures, Grid Beam and Contraptor, and modular toys such as LEGO, Meccano and Erector. The first group consists of “open” modular systems, where everyone is free to design and produce parts, while the second consists of “closed” modular systems, where all parts are designed and produced by one manufacturer. Closed modular systems produce uniform parts. For instance, all LEGO building blocks are made of plastic. LEGO does not produce building blocks made of wood, aluminium, glass or ceramics. There is a limited range of colours. And because LEGO is a closed system, nobody else is allowed to produce LEGO pieces.

Closed modular systemOpen modular system

There exist modular construction systems that operate according to the same principles, like the T-profiles made by 80/20 inc. However, in the modular construction systems that we have introduced above, everyone is allowed to design and produce parts, as long as these parts are compatible with the basic set of rules. We find the same approach with open software, like Linux (an operating system), OpenOffice (office software) or WordPress (a blogging platform). The computer code for these systems is being written by a large amount of people, who all build a part of something larger. Because all participants stick to a basic set of rules, a great amount of people can, independently of one another,  add parts that are inter-compatible.


Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials


An open modular system has many advantages over a closed modular system. Since anyone can design parts in an open system, it generates a much larger diversity of parts: they can be made in different colours and materials, and none of the producers can set a fixed price for all consumers. And because many designers constantly review, adapt and improve each others’ work, innovation is accelerated. All open software systems described above are arguably better than their closed counterparts, and some of them have become more successful. A closed modular system only has one advantage: the one who holds the copyright makes a lot of money.

Sustainable Consumer Goods

Modular construction systems encourage the re-use of physical parts, and thus form a sustainable alternative to our present-day system of producing consumer items. Most products that we buy end up in landfills or incinerators within a couple of years, at most. This is because the majority of manufacturers encourages consumers to replace their products as quickly as possible, either by designing objects that break down easily, or by introducing new generations of products which make the former generation of products obsolete. This approach not only generates a massive pile of waste, it squanders an equally massive amount of energy and raw materials.

Part of OS grid

Consumer products based on an open modular system can foster rapid innovation, without the drawback of wasting energy and materials. The parts of an obsolete generation of products can be used to design the next generation, or something completely different. Furthermore, modular objects have built-in repairability.

Open modular construction systems could greatly speed up the diffusion of low-technologies, such as pedal-powered machinessolar thermal collectorsvelomobiles or cargo cycles. Building a windmill or a cargo bike goes much faster when using modular parts than when using carpentry or welding, and there is no need for expensive tools or special skills. Mistakes can be easily corrected — just unscrew the bolts and start again. It would also be interesting to see modular parts combined with an open hardware project such as the Global Village Construction Set, which generates many interesting designs but makes limited use of modularity.

Circulation of Parts

“While eBay provides a circulation of objects, and cradle-to-cradle provides a circulation of materials, modular construction systems provide a circulation of parts and components”, says Thomas Lommée, the creator of OpenStructures. “Our ambition is to create puzzles instead of static objects. The system should generate objects of which it is not entirely clear anymore who designed them. An object evolves as it is taken in hands by more designers.”

Kitchen appliances openstructures

The kitchen appliances that were designed in the context of the project are good examples. A couple of parts were initially made for a coffee grinder, were then used, together with new parts, by another designer to build a coffeemaker. This appliance was then further developed into a water purification device by a third designer. The plastic bottle that served as a water container was replaced by a cut through glass bottle containing a clay filter. Thomas Lommée: “By adding or removing components, or by using them in a different manner, what you get is a family of objects”.

Cargo Cycle

Another prototype that originated from the project, is a cargo cycle. The rear is a sawed through frame of a standard bicycle, the end of which is compatible with the OS Grid. This means that the front of the cycle can be built up in a modular way. Designer Jo Van Bostraeten used this opportunity to design both a cargo bicycle and a cargo tricycle (the latter is carrying a 3D-printer), and it doesn’t end there. Together with Lommée, he also constructed a modular motor block. The unit consists of an electric motor and wheels, on top of which a similar unit can be placed that holds a battery. Since the units are compatible with the OS Grid, they can be coupled to the front of the cargo cycle, resulting in a completely modular motorised cargo vehicle.

Openstructures cargo vehicles

The latest “family” of objects to come out of the project is aimed at children. It is noteworthy that this collection arose from one component of the cargo cycle — the container.  It is built up from modular parts that can be bolted together, and can thus be combined in different ways. A couple of designers got started with those parts, resulting in (among other things) a sled, a seat, a toy excavator, and a swing. When the child becomes an adolescent, the parts can be used to make a suitcase or a tool box, or become part of a cargo cycle that could make him or her some pocket money.

Open source objects

More interesting than the objects themselves, is their user support system. Grid Beam is obviously a product from the pre-internet age. Those who want to copy a design are encouraged to look at a picture of someone else’s creation and “count the holes”. OpenStructures, on the other hand, leans heavily on online user support. The re-use of parts is being facilitated by an online database that can be used in three ways.

A Modular Database

First, you can request an overview of all objects that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each object then shows you the parts and components from which it is made. Second, you can request an overview of all parts that were designed based on the OS grid. The webpage for each of these shows you which components and objects they could serve. Third, you can request an overview of all components. The webpage for each component shows you their parts and the objects they can be used for.


Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products


The webpage for each part, component and object also gives additional information: the dimensions, the materials, the designer’s name, the licence and the order information. To add to this, all parts and components receive a serial number. This means that after a modular object is taken apart, the serial number of each part and component can be entered into the database to see what else can be made with it. Missing parts can be obtained via the database: either by ordering them online, by finding the address of a shop where they sell them, or by downloading the digital design and making them.

Not Everyone is a Designer

Open modular construction does not mean that everyone should make their own consumer products. An object like a coffee maker or a workbench could be obtained in at least three ways. Firstly, the consumer can download the digital design and then assemble the object with parts that he or she buys, re-uses, or makes using a 3D-printer or laser cutter, whether at home or at a fab lab or tech shop. It can also happen in a more low-tech fashion, as is the case with Grid Beam: the consumer buys wood or metal beams, and drills the holes himself.

Modular parts water boiler

A second option is that a company buys the license of the design (if it is not free) and converts it into a building kit, comparable to a kit from LEGO, Meccano or Erector. In this case, the consumer would not have to search for the parts himself, but he still assembles the product himself, just like he would assemble a piece of furniture by IKEA. Similarly, a company could offer a more general building kit, which can be used to make whatever one would like, similar to a box of basic LEGO bricks. Bit Beam, Contraptor, Open Beam, Maker Beam and, recently, Grid Beam offer one or both of these options.

The third possibility is that a manufacturer places the object on the market as a finished, assembled product. The coffee maker or the workbench would then be sold and bought just as any other product today, but it can be disassembled after use, and its parts can be re-used for other objects.

Economic Model: who Produces the Parts?

While the design process behind OpenStructures and other open modular construction systems is identical to that of digital products such as Wikipedia, Linux or WordPress, there is also a fundamental difference. Computer code and digital text accumulate without any material costs. This is not the case with objects. This makes open modular hardware less easy, but it also creates  economic opportunities. It’s hard to make money with open software or online writing. However, in the case of an open modular system for objects, someone has to provide the materials.

It is also important that the parts are produced by as many manufacturers as possible, so that they are available worldwide. Otherwhise, the shipping costs can be so high that a modular object becomes too expensive.

Modular toaster

There are many opportunities to make money with an open modular construction model. A manufacturer can choose to produce a part in which they sees economic potential. Another manufacturer can choose to sell a building kit or a finished product of a design they think will sell. A designer can make money by uploading a design that might be free to download for personal use, but not for commercial use. A manufacturer that wants to commercialise this design, can then buy the licence from the designer.

Craftsmen can focus on the design of exclusive, handmade parts in special materials, which are compatible with popular mass produced items. Others can start a fab lab or a tech shop where people can build their own modular objects for a monthly fee. In short, an open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody.

Collaborative Economy

“It is not our ambition to build a gigantic factory that produces all possible parts”, Lommée notes. “OpenStructures should not become a modular IKEA. Our ambition is the creation of a collective economic system, where one producer benefits from the production of another producer. Because parts which are made by one, can be used by another. What we would like to see, are streets full of little shops where everybody generates their own little part of a larger system, a collaborative economy where small, self-employed producers have their place. Not one big player that makes everything. The social dimension is very important.”

Contraptor parts

“If IKEA wants to sell a product that is compatible with our system, then that’s fine with me. But the system can only work if it remains open. The larger it becomes, the easier it is for a small company or a craftsman to be a part of it. The ambition is to start a universal, collaborative puzzle that allows the widest possible range of people — from craftsmen to multinationals — to design, build and exchange the widest possible range of modular parts and components.”

Organising Re-use

Apart from a design language (the OS grid) and an online database, OpenStructures also has set up a prototype of a warehouse in Brussels. This kind of place should become the hub for the organisation of the re-use of parts and components. Think a fab lab or tech shop, but then combined with the storage of modular parts. If a modular product is no longer needed, and the owner does not feel like using the parts to build something new, he or she brings it to one of these places, where it is taken apart, and its parts are stored.


An open modular construction system offers economic opportunities for everybody


Other people could come to this place to buy parts or to use them on site to build something new. As Lommée says: “Not everyone has to make their own products, but after its useful life, a modular product always comes into the hands of a group of people who like to make things.”

Compatibility between Open Modular Systems

While it is still in an experimental phase, OpenStructures is by far the most ambitious and complete open modular system designed to date. However, being a European project, it follows the international metric system, while the much older Grid Beam follows the imperial system. The systems are not compatible. With more and more open modular systems appearing, would it not be important to provide inter-compatibility between them?


Lommée doesn’t think so: “Most of these systems are designed for different applications. For instance, Contraptor aims at precision, because the parts are used to build robots and other sophisticated machines. Esthetics are clearly not important. I am a designer, so what interests me especially is whether or not a modular system can generate beautiful objects, things you would want to put in your interior. There is also Wikispeed, for instance, which concentrates on the development of a modular car. Arduino is aimed at electronics. I don’t think that all of these modular systems have to be compatible with each other because the applications are very different.”

Open beam

He goes on to explain why he chose the metric system. “I have been doubting a lot about this. But in the end I decided that the metric system is easier to work with. And I think the world is big enough for two systems — just look at the variety of energy standards which are in use. Somebody has developed a European version of Contraptor, based on the metric system and compatible with the OS grid. And it is always possible to design a coupling between two systems, so that they can be used together. On the other hand, we live in a networked world where everything is connected and copied. This often means that when standards compete, only one survives. And this is not necessarily the best one. I’ll keep my fingers crossed.”

Kris De Decker (edited by Deva Lee). This article is also available in Spanish.


This post was compiled by the Lexicon Sustainability for their Food List, a weekly bulletin of talking points to fix the food system. Farm Hack was a contributor to this edition of the List. Original post can be found here.



Ever since Nixon’s Secretary of Agriculture, Earl Butz, proclaimed “get big or get out,” farms and farmers in the United States have followed the logic of corporate capitalism – bigger farms, bigger tractors, and more complex and expensive technology. A new corn harvester bought today costs about $400,000 and comes decked out with proprietary computer systems and GPS monitoring – the tractors can literally drive themselves, collecting scads of production data that happen to go right back to the large corporations manufacturing these machines. This technology makes combining a thousand acre field much easier, but it often puts farmers deep into debt and rests control of their own farming systems and production information from their hands.

For smaller scale sustainable producers, the modern form of mainstream agricultural technology does not fit our function. The appropriate tools for our agriculture put biology before steel and diesel, are modular, adaptable, and designed for disassembly. We engineer systems instead of software, finding local solutions to local problems. Appropriate tools should not make a farmer obsolete – they empower the user to modify and improve upon age-old tools and ideas, or build something new using whatever resources they have available.

Appropriate technology for sustainable farming is economically appropriate because it means retrofitting and using what you already have close at hand or getting it from your neighbor or local fabricator, rather than putting profit into the pockets of global corporations. It is environmentally appropriate because it harnesses the utility of our ecological systems while preserving and enriching them. It is intellectually appropriate because it reduces barriers to knowledge exchange, putting the best solutions in the hands of farmers. In this new paradigm, every farm is a research and development node in a distributed network of farmers, engineers, and technologists building a new economy from the ground up enabling independence through interdependence .

Instead of homogenizing, privatizing and commodifying our farm technologies, we must support the time-tested tradition of on-farm innovation, and promote economically, ecologically, and socially resilient solutions. We must leverage technology appropriately as a tool to reduce barriers to information transfer and foster collaboration. On the outskirts of our conventional system of top-down manufacturing and proprietary tools is emerging a new community and a new paradigm – farmers, fabricators, engineers, and designers working together to build resilient, regionalized manufacturing economies. This is the movement we all must continue building together, for strong communities, healthy ecological systems, and good food. The future is open-source!

FarmHack logo

Farm Hack is an open-source community for resilient agriculture; it is a community to support user generated content and knowledge exchange. The community builds tools that supports sustainable farming and sustainable farmers, creates a culture of collaboration, and strives to identify shared values and engage in open exchange. Farm Hack exists to support the users, and as an organization, Farm Hack seeks to discern from users web-development and organizational objectives, making Farm Hack a content-driven and community powered platform. Read more about the Community Principles of Farm Hack


In the age of technology, one with a very deep history in agriculture, there are many models and methods to apply and experiment with. In this week’s Food List, we explore the different ways in which small-scale farms are adapting technology to fit their modes.

Most research and development in agriculture focuses on mass crop production, often forcing small farmers to “make it work.” They use technologies new and old. Farmers are collaborating with engineers across the country, like at Stone Barn Center, to develop slow tools for smaller operations. This is a solution for many food producers . As one small producer, Doug Mosel says, “the closer we get to using the last remaining “ancient sunlight,” the smaller and simpler technology will become.” By filling these technology gaps, smaller farmers have a better opportunity to focus on various other challenges.

The beauty of this appropriate technology movement is the open source knowledge driving it. And so, when the latest sustainable design, such as the culticycle, becomes available, the technology can be found for free on sources like Farm Hack.

Appropriate technology is not only about developing new technological adaptations for small farms. It’s also about using what you have around you as well. Draft animal power is still a widely used practice on farms. In fact, horse power is the symbolic standard for measurements of labor, especially on farms.

Appropriate technology is about recycling the resources that you have around you. One story from Cleveland tells us of how appropriate technology extended the growing season into the winter. Fresh produce all year round in the four season states? And if you think that’s extreme, Low-Tech Magazine shares with us a dirty secretof the past that could be the “key” to sustainable farming.

In this week’s Food List, we learn that farm technology is a greater quest for whatever works. It’s a matter of applying what makes sense, in the past, present, and future. How can you make appropriate technology work for you?




“A holistic approach to human problem solving. It involves working with nature–of which we are a part–to develop and sustain systems beneficial to the health of the whole.” — Ian Snider, Yates Family Farm


“Also known as ‘draft animal power,’ this is the use of horses, mules, or oxen to do productive work in farms, forests, and other settings. Traditionally, horses, mules, and oxen did all the work that tractors do today.” – Donn Hewes, Draft Animal Power Network


“Small Plot Intensive. A low-cost, easy-to-learn system that produces ample high value produce on less than one acre, making it possible for first-generation farms to get started without a lot of land or capital investment” – Kevin Grove, Quarter Branch Farm


Human excrement, most prominently used as fertilizer in earlier cultures, is reappearing as a soil amendment.


The use of greenhouses to prolong the growing season. Seeds are planted earlier and the last harvest of the year comes later, allowing consumers to continue eating local foods longer than would otherwise be possible.




7990As a result of the industrial revolution and the subsequent development of “big agriculture,” small-scale farming tools have become almost obsolete. In order to fulfill the demand created by a burgeoning community of small-scale farmers, Stone Barns Center has partnered with Barry Griffin, a design engineer, to develop farming equipment and tools. Called the Slow Tools Project, this partnership brings together leading engineers and farmers to design and build appropriately scaled tools that are lightweight, affordable and open-source. Jill Isenbarger, executive director of Stone Barns Center, points out that this will greatly help small scale farmers: “The challenges [farmers] deal with are significant: high land prices and connection to markets, for instance. Tools shouldn’t be one of them.”

8006Small farms need tools scaled to the size of their operations and specific to the tasks to be accomplished. The availability of ideal tools, priced affordably, would greatly aid the efficiency and competitiveness of local food production. Our group, Slow Tools, is focused on improving tool access for a rapidly growing group of small farmers — commercial intensive organic vegetable growers on 5 acres and less. This is a scale of production that has been ignored by tool manufacturers despite its impressive performance in yield and quality. The many successful Slow Tool type implements that have been developed to date are presently available from the Johnny’s Selected Seeds catalog. These include the Tilther, numerous Broadfork designs, a complete Soil Block system, a Roller/hole-maker for transplants, the Six Row Seeder, the Quick Cut Harvester, and the Quick Hoops Bender. More are needed.

In the summer of 2015, The Slow Tools Project will focus on the development of A Bed-Former/Shaper powered by a BCS walking tractor; a hug-wheel driven, walken behind electric tool carrier; a two-layer clear plastic blanket for field-scale soil solarizing; and a 30-inch wide stripper/header to harvest grain for poultry.

Local Book CoverTitle: Appropriate Technology
Location: Peter + Mimi Buckley’s Front Porch Farm, Healdsburg, CA
Featuring: Doug Mosel
Found on Page 146 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaAs farmers reintroduce wheat to strengthen their local food systems, they discover an alarming face: it’s hard to find equipment suited to small farms. Doug Morsel says that with wheat primarily farmed on an industrial scale, the local infrastructure to support the production of wheat has largely disappeared. The resulting scarcity of affordable, appropriately-sized equipment is the greatest challenge facing local grain production. This technology gap also applies to used cleaning and separating equipment as well as access to facilities that clean small quantities of grain. Doug and his combine lend a hand on his friends’ farm.Appropriate technology is environmentally sound technology designed to meet the social and economic conditions of a specific geographic area while ideally promoting greater self-sufficiency. Front Porch Farm’s “Tamalpais” barley; “Our idea is to harvest and malt it, then either distill it ourselves into whiskey or sell it to local breweries as a locally grown malted barley.” The HEDE 140 Combine is a “small plot” combine and is expensive, highly specialized, and manufactures in relatively small numbers. It’s usually used by universities or seed developers to harvest very small test plots that are not intended for production use.

Doug Mosel says, “The closer we get to using the last remaining “ancient sunlight” (petroleum), the smaller and simpler technology will become”



Don’t know where to start when it comes to finding the right tools for cultivating your small garden plot? Dig into this webinar, produced by National Center for Appropriate Technology’s ATTRA project and delivered NCAT’s Andy Pressmen, to find a comprehensive guide of tools for small scale crop production.

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.07.26Andy Pressman is a Sustainable Agriculture Specialist with the National Center for Appropriate Technology (NCAT), a non-profit organization that promotes and demonstrates small-scale, local, and sustainable solutions to energy and agriculture.  Andy received a MS degree from Slippery Rock University in Sustainable Systems Design and has a passion for tools and equipment for small-scale agriculture.  Through NCAT’s ATTRA Project – the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service – Andy provides technical assistance and education to farmers and ranchers in the fields of organic crop production, season extension, urban agriculture, and farm energy.  He and his family also operate Foggy Hill Farm, a small diversified family farm located in Jaffrey, New Hampshire.

FarmHack logo


[Two weeks ago], an ace team of farmers, fabricators, engineers, and pedal-powered truckers gathered at Metro Pedal Power in Somerville, MA for a weekend build event. What project would bring such an intriguing group of individuals together? Only the culticycle, a pedal-powered cultivating tractor designed by Tim Cooke, that uses human brawn and bicycle brains to replace fossil fuel powered tractors for lightweight field cultivation.

DAPnet logo 2


Farming with draft animals has been Donn Hewes life passion for the last 16 years. As Donn explains, time measurement is a major element to consider when using draft animals; “the first technologies came from labor saving.” However, one of the many reason why Donn looked to using draft animals was in reflection of the continual use of nonrenewable resources in farm machinery. In this video, Donn provides a comprehensive outline of how to integrate horses into your farming practices. From their wide variety of farm application to their ability to give back to the land in the form of manure, Donn emphasizes how farmers have the potential to maintain ecological integrity of their lands and create mutually respectful relationships with their draft animals.
“Horses were not replaced by tractors on our farms because of how much they eat or how many acres is required to keep them. Every farm has a few acres lesser pasture where you keep your horses. They never eat the hay reserved for the milking cows or pregnant animals. Horses and mules were replaced by tractors to reduce human labor, just exactly like machines were added to factories. Human labor is what cost the most and that is what was cut. We need to consider returning to more human labor on our farms not less.” – Donn Hewes

Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 17.14.59

Donn Hewes and Maryrose Livingston own the Northland Sheep Dairy in Marathon, NY, where they milk 100% grass fed ewes and make farmstead cheese.  Donn does all the farm work with horses and mules, and also teaches teamster skills to aspiring horse farmers.   Donn is an active member of the Draft Animal Power Network, a not for profit organization promoting the use of horses, mules, and oxen in today’s farms and forests.  DAPNet will host the 2015 Draft Animal Power Field Days in Cummington, Mass.  Sept 24th to 27th.


Local Book CoverTitle: Horse Powered
Location: Yates Family Farm, Fleetwood, NC
Featuring: Ian and Kelly Snider, and Frank the horse
Found on Page 148 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaSustainability for Ian means the ability to meet current needs without compromising those of future generations. Think about the Rio Declaration of 1992. Working with horses is one way Ian and Kelly try to keep that promise. They feel trends and benefit from the greater society like everyone else, but aren’t enslaved by the gas pump. Having horses insulate Ian from the inevitable fluctuations in the global economy.Horse powered means working with equines in a symbiotic agricultural relationship. They complete tasks which require great effort while sustaining themselves and us from the land.

The Suffolk is one of the few popular draft breeds in North America that was developed by farmers for farming. Originally from England’s Suffolk county, these draft animals have especially short cannon bones (the bones just below the knees), meaning only minimal anatomical effort is required for them to take a step. This makes them efficient walkers capable of greater stamina. Plus, their level-headed attitude is founded on a sincere willingness to please. Aside from these exceptional qualities, they are the only draft breed which is always chestnut red in color. As a redhead himself, Ian finds them a wonderful choice functionally and aesthetically. Horses are solar-fueled, self-renewing, and somewhat self-repairing.

I ask Ian, “Why horses?” He says, “This choice is not a nostalgic one, or one motivated by obstinate anti-establishment sentiments. For us, personally, it is not a requirement of our religion. It is however a fiercely spiritual decision, one motivated by deep obligation and a sense of responsibility for those who will come after us. By utilizing the culture of the past, we can find the most hopeful path for the future. Despite centuries of mechanical innovation, horsepower is still the symbolic standard against which all labors are measured.”



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.36.42“Meet the urban cousin of a traditional barn raising” says Yes! Magazine. Here is a story of a marginalized community in Cleveland taking urban farming to the next level. By incorporating a greenhouse design in their neighborhood, growing season can be dramatically extended. In collaboration with Fair Food Network, residents of the Cleveland neighborhood team up to build hoop houses, simple greenhouse designs that protect plants from the seasons and maintain a temperature at least 10 degrees warmer than outside temperatures. Here is an example of how growing in all four seasons is possible! Even in a city!

Learn more from these Cleveland farmers!



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 16.57.43Low-Tech Magazine, an appropriate technology publication, proposes that the “key” to sustainable farming is recycling animal and human manure. Decker explains how the use of water closets, while convenient, breaks a cycle that could be returning essential nutrients to the soil, and instead pollutes our waterways, consumes large amounts of fresh water, and leaves an agricultural system that is dependent on synthetic fertilizer application, all while consuming large amounts of energy.

Human excrement has not been ubiquitously regarded as “waste” — for thousands of years, China, Korea, and Japan treated it as a valuable trade product and fertilizer. Meanwhile, animal manure or food waste — even absent the taboo associated with humanure — is still wasted, often polluting our environment rather than healing our soil. To reintegrate food scraps and animal and human manure back into our agricultural system presents a huge logistical challenge. However, it is a challenge that can be overcome, but only if we begin to seriously address the issue.

There are a variety of appropriate technologies that have been developed to compost human waste, from the DIY home scale to industrial scale technologies. Perhaps the most well known is Joe Jenkin’s open source Humanure Handbook. SOIL (Sustainable Organic Integrated Livelihoods) works in Haiti to provide access to low-cost ecological sanitation systems while simultaneously transforming human waste into compost that can help repair degraded soils. The Dutch company Orgaworld, meanwhile, creates compost from diapers and other organic waste on an industrial scale.

Local Book CoverTitle: Egg Mobile
Location: Polyface Farm, Swoope, VA
Featuring: Joel Salatin
Found on Page 176 in Local: The New Face of Food and Farming in AmericaPastures don’t just happen. They are like all biological systems, always in a state of flux between either degeneration or regeneration. Chickens are extremely hard on forage and dump hot manure with a carbon:nitrogen ratio of 7 to 1. As a result, stationary hen houses soon develop bare spots where the forage is tilled out and killed. The soil is overloaded with nitrogen toxicity which leaches into the groundwater and over stimulates grass clumps with bitter forage repugnant to the chickens. If you want a regenerating pasture, you have to manage it for that improvement or it will deteriorate.Egg mobiles are portable hen houses moved every one or two days, preferably behind herbivores, with chickens having access to unimpeded pasturage. Chickens are biological pasture sanitizers. They scratch through cow patties and spread them out, reducing the overload of nutrients in one spot and destroying the incubation environment conducive to parasite development; they eat fly larvae out of cow patties, thus reducing the irritation to the herd, increasing their comfort, health, and performance; chickens eat the newly exposed grasshoppers, crickets, and other herbivorous critters that compete that compete with the cows for the available forage; and chicken scratching pulls up duff and moldy leaves, aerating the soil and freshening the plant structure.



Screen Shot 2015-04-10 at 21.40.21Farms come in all shapes and sizes, and apply a variety of different principles and philosophies. As Nathanael Johnson writes, “there are farms that use all sorts of high technology to stay in sync with natural cycles, and even the best low-tech organic farmers find themselves fighting nature every year.”  There is no such thing as one size fits all when it comes to farming strategies. Instead, it’s a matter of what makes sense — As Johnson points out, “[farmers] want the tools and techniques that will give them the best chance of success”.


Have you been known as someone who “tinkers”? Do you like to “do it yourself”? Often times, we don’t even realize we’re participating in appropriate technology. It’s all about making the tools fit and work for you.

  1. Build your sustainable life! Sometimes it’s just easier to build it yourself. Take the project into your own hands! It’s all within arms reach with open source platforms, like Appropedia.
  2. Support another form of economic development. Support resourceful practices.
  3. Find a space to create. More and more “fab labs” are popping up to facilitate space for the inquisitive and investive to collaborate and share resources and knowledge.