Archive for the ‘2016 SPRING Newsletter’ Category

eflogoA student exchange program that’s coming to Atascadero this summer will give you an opportunity for cultural expansion. The local EF Homestay program is expecting 200+ students to stay on the Central Coast. They will be coming from China, Hong Kong, Germany, France and Austria. Students stay 2 – 4 weeks arriving July 21st and departing August 16th. They will attend school Monday – Friday 8:30am to 4:30 pm. The program needs amicable hosts to provide housing for a student or two. Not only will you learn another culture, but if you are lucky enough to visit their country, you would surely be welcomed there as you welcomed them.

For more information please contact: Sherry Gong EF Program Leader

Here is more information about the EF Program


by Margie Schuler Margie (sm)

A couple of years ago my trusty, tried and true washing machine finally died and was replaced by an HE version without an agitator. Shortly after, I discovered the soapbombs in jar wasn’t dissolving, mixing properly in the wash cycle, or rinsing out thoroughly which prompted the search for new laundry soap. I found that individual soap pods work the best but every time I pick one up I wonder what makes up the pods’ exterior. Additionally I dislike using the full amount of soap when washing a less-than-full load.

Last year I discovered a bubbling, foamy river of water cascading down the embankment from my cabin. While initially puzzling, I quickly realized the washing machine drained to daylight instead of into the septic system. Not wanting to damage the pine trees, other vegetation or wildlife in the drain path I switched to an environmentally friendly laundry soap right away [which is expensive BTW!].

I probably would have never given laundry soap another thought after seeing that foamy river of bubbles if I hadn’t randomly come across this Ask Umbra article. Curious, I followed the link and learned it’s polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) film. PVA film dissolves in water, is non-toxic and approved by the FDA. In fact we’ve been ingesting this same PVA film in dietary supplements and pharmaceuticals. While that seemed reasonable to me, little did I know with solving this curiosity of mine another was about to rear its ugly head. Turns out the soap inside the pod contain detergents that are toxic not only to us but the environment and our waterways as well- thank goodness I switched to the environmentally friendly type at the cabin!

Laundry soaps contain a multitude or stew of toxic ingredients, such as fluorescent bleaches to make the laundry appear brighter and whiter but they can cause allergic reactions and bacterial mutations. Synthetic fragrances which are derived from petrochemicals aka petroleum distillates, can cause cancer, birth defects, nervous-system disorders, allergies, asthma attacks, and even concentration and/or coordination difficulties in the most sensitive. Man-made dyes are derived from petroleum by-products and are carcinogenic and damaging to the water table. Surfactants are toxic to humans, animals and ecosystems but are what makes our clothes clean because they are a multi-tasking detergent with wetting, emulsifying, foaming and anti-foaming properties that binds oily particles with water. Phenols, more petroleum by-products can cause damage to the lungs, liver and kidneys, and have even been linked to deaths.

Think about it, we wear clothes that have been stewed with toxic chemicals, and the constant contact of clothing to skin allows many of the toxic ingredients to be easily absorbed into our bloodstream via the skin. Not only are these ingredients harmful on their own but once combined they can react with each other becoming even more dangerous. Yikes!!!

Since ditching laundry is out of the question (sigh), it seemed a reasonable experiment was homemade laundry soap. There are many laundry soap recipes online but most contain washing powder, natural soap and Borax. Washing powder is a natural product and phosphate and fragrance free. Natural soap like Fel-Naptha, Dr. Bronner’s or Ivory is easily found and doesn’t contain sulfates, parabens or man-made dyes. Borax, although controversial, is another naturally occurring mineral and generally considered non-toxic although over-exposure to borax dust can cause respiratory irritation.

After perusing various recipes for liquid and powder laundry soap, I selected the “Laundry Bombs” recipe that did not include Borax, is pre-portioned but not liquid. This recipe included Epsom salts to cut down on static cling and soften clothing, hydrogen peroxide to naturally whiten, vinegar to fight stains and soften, and uses essential oil for natural scent. I’m glad I searched online for the Fels-Naptha and Arm & Hammer Washing Soda because they are hard to find in our area.

The ingredients were inexpensive- $1.80 for a bar of Fels-Naptha, $4.31 each for a 55 oz. box of washing soda and a 4 lb. bag of Epsom salt, $0.99 for a 32 oz. bottle of hydrogen peroxide, $3.72 for one gallon of distilled white vinegar. I already owned the essential oil but the 10 ml. bottle costs $8.34. My cost for one recipe is $2.53 which made 21 bombs for a cost of $0.12 each. In comparison to the commercial laundry pods I’ve been using ($0.21 each) the home-made bombs offer a cost savings in addition to being better for my health and the environment. Even if using two laundry bombs, which is recommended for large loads the cost is quite comparable.

The Laundry Bomb recipe was very easy to follow and took about 15 minutes from start to finish, and the mixture smelled quite nice. After portioning about four bombs they would not pop out the tablespoon measure. A quick stir in the bowl alleviated this problem and I was able to continue on with making the laundry bombs.

After testing the laundry bombs through several loads of wash, they clean well, the scent is not overpowering and we did not notice any skin irritation. There was one problem when a shirt wrapped around the bomb preventing it from dissolving, a quick shake and rinse and it was good to go.

I plan on continuing to make and use the laundry bombs. Yes it’s a little more time consuming than purchasing pre-made laundry soap but quite frankly I’m a little frightened after learning so much about commercial laundry soap.

All-in-one Laundry Bombs from

  • Small mixing bowl
  • Grater
  • 1 1/2 cup washing soda
  • 1/2 cup Fels-Naptha
  • 2 tablespoons Epsom salts
  • 3 tablespoons hydrogen peroxide
  • 1/4 cup vinegar
  • 15-20 drops essential oil
  • Sheet pan
  • Parchment paper
  • Measuring spoons


Grate the Fels-Naptha into the mixing bowl and add the washing soda and Epsom salts.


Now add the hydrogen peroxide and give things a stir. Stir in the vinegar, then scent with several drops of your favorite essential oil.

Incorporated bowl

Once everything’s incorporated, the mixture should resemble wet sand and clump together when pressed. Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper and then use a rounded 1 tablespoon measuring spoon to scoop up the mixture, press against the side of bowl, then tap out onto the pan.

bombs on sheet

Finish with a quick spritz of equal parts vinegar and water. Let set for eight hours before using.

bombs in jar

Your laundry bombs are ready to toss in the washing machine! Use one round for small loads and two when washing lots of laundry. You’ll love how they refresh your clothing without all the extra cleaners!

Makes around 28 laundry bombs.



The CASBA Annual Conference that encompasses all things Strawbale is coming April 21-24, 2016 in the beautiful setting of the California Corrizo Plains. Click here to find out all the event information. And remember to bring your good camera!


Tom by Tom Moore

77 skil saw

A worm drive Skil-saw 77

I am a basic minimalist at heart and old school to boot. I have always believed that if several things can be done with one tool, there is no need to roll out an entire woodworking shop to complete simple tasks. I believe the root of this thinking goes back to when I chose this calling of Carpenter in the mid-seventies and drove to work in a Karmann Ghia (later traded for a ‘65 Chevy pickup). Nail-guns weren’t in vogue yet so I didn’t have to worry about that, the worm drive Skil-Saw was state of the art and everything I needed to frame a house fit in my nail bags and under the hood (“What’s under the hood?” answer: “A tire.”) And, the couple times I left the state to work in Alaska, Hawai’i or Colorado it was easier to travel with less.

This brings me to the archaic concept of actually using hand tools. I wouldn’t use hand tools to frame an entire house anymore, but whenever I would bring up a new apprentice we would hand nail the framing and I’d let them use a nail-gun to nail off the shear panels and roof sheathing. (I’m not a masochist and my left forefinger lacks meat since my first job was nailing off roofs by hand). I can tell a great framer by watching him swing a hammer once.


…there is no substitute for a sharp handsaw


a block plane

There is no substitute for a sharp handsaw; I see no purpose in rolling out a cord if the only thing you need to do is cut a couple of 2 x 4’s. And a fine handsaw is irreplaceable when cutting a set of stairs. Every good carpenter should also have sharp chisels and a sharp block plane.



a rechargeable impact driver

Don’t get me wrong, there have been many advances in the technology of tools and most are for the better. There is no finer tool than a high quality rechargeable impact driver. Skil-Saws are lighter and safer than ever and yes, I do use a nail-gun but I truly value my hand tools.

The list goes on, as does this minimalist.


by Turko Semmes


Clothes can air-dry naturally.

I have always written about big issues that relate to building and design and how to live sustainably. This time I want to share some thoughts and ideas on a more down-to-earth, everyday topic: drying clothes. We all have to deal with drying clothes. Although I am blessed with a partner dedicated to using our fine climate to assist with this, we’ve always struggled with how to do this during the California winters. (Yes, it does rain and gets cloudy and cold.) While visiting Scotland years ago where it rains and is cloudy quite often, I found an answer. Most of the laundry rooms all had a wooden rack, which is on a simple pulley and rope system. The rack can be lowered down, damp clothes can be loaded upon it, and then pulled up so you could still work under it.

Indoor Dryer-1

With a small pulley you can raise or lower your drying rack in your laundry room.

As you can see, I came home and replicated the same thing. I think the cost for parts was under $25. It helps to have a 9’-tall ceiling but you could do this with an 8’ ceiling too. With a drill and screwdriver and some wall anchors, off you go. It took a bit of work to get it balanced. Once it was, and is loaded fairly evenly, it lowers and rises quite easily. One trick is that you want to use the lightest wood elements that will work for the size rack you build. Mine is made out of standard birch dowels with some mahogany sides. I think the pictures will explain everything else. Feel free to contact me to discuss this further. I will be glad to help with your “Hi-Tek Indoor Clothes Dryer”.

Editor’s note: We found an Indoor Clothes Dryer or “Airer” called the “Sheila Maid” based on the same concepts Turko discovered in Great Britain. If you’re not up for making your own, you can buy parts or the whole set from here:  Sheila Maid Air Dryer

paul-rose by Paul Rose

As most of you know Semmes and Co. Builders has always been very involved in the community, and one of our regular programs has been to help move the building industry forward into new materials and higher standards for energy usage, healthy materials, and passive design. Along this line we have been very involved with SLO Green Build, which has recently merged with U.S. Green Building Council: California Central
image001Coast Chapter (USGBC C4), to create the Central Coast Green Building Council.

This means that our sphere of influence has grown from just being involved in this county, to involving three counties: SLO, Santa Barbara, and Ventura. Many of the programs are similar, although there are some new ones and there are ones that we have brought with us.

Some of the programs are:

The Build-Smart Trailer which moves all over the state displaying new and energy efficient technologies.




The Green Schools Program – In which volunteers provide education and incentives to develop green programs and facilities in local schools such as gardens, natural day-lighting, healthy indoor air quality, water and energy efficiency and more.

The Alliance – Which is a group of building professionals that get together once a month for a program on a building-related topic. These are open to the public and always are worth attending. If you are interested in attending, please email me and I’ll send you the date and location of the next Alliance Meeting. The topical information is exciting and worthwhile:

A recent project has been a San Luis Obispo County program development establishing conditions and education for the community to change homeowners with existing septic tanks into rainwater cisterns. The City of Los Osos recently built their first sewer plant, they’ve run all the street lines, and are nearly ready to start hooking into the new system. When this type of transition happens in other communities, normally all the existing septic tanks would be destroyed. Ultimately, the septic tanks, which cost thousands of dollars to install, would be wasted. Instead we have developed a program that offers a variety of options for their re-use: Download the .pdf here – Los Osos Septic Tank Options

And remember, by working with Semmes and Co. Builders, Inc. you are also helping to promote the growth of a sustainable community for future generations.