Case Studies in Ecodesign: DIY Solar Oven

By Adam Brock 

The phrase “sustainable design” is often associated with things like bioplastic, solar-powered flashlights, or cradle-to-cradle office furniture. While these and other innovations continue to push the green design envelope, even the most forward-thinking ecoproducts can’t honestly be called sustainable quite yet: they’re still nowhere close to eliminating their negative impact on the planet.

The good news, though, is that actual sustainable design is entirely possible. The trick is in redefining our notion of what “design” is: just like electricity generation and food production, the most sensible approach to design from an ecological standpoint is to decentralize. Contrary to what corporations would have you believe, there’s no reason we need to rely on mass-produced stuff to meet our needs. It might take a little more work, but putting design into our own hands is cheaper and more rewarding than getting something from a store. It can often be more effective, too; after all, nobody knows the clients better than the clients themselves.

With these values in mind, me and my fellow volunteers at ROSE decided to undertake the design challenge of cooking food completely sustainably: using only recyled materials and the power of the sun. No fossil fuels, no embodied energy, no money. It was a high benchmark, and from the beginning, we knew we probably wouldn’t meet all the constraints on the first try. But we were just as interested in the process of designing and building the cooker as we were in the final product.

We based the oven’s design on one described in Aric McBay’s Peak Oil Survival: Life After Gridcrash (a great resource guide to becoming more self-sufficient, even if you don’t subscribe to the apocalyptic predictions of the peak oilers). Basically, the design consisted of an insulated wooden box with metal lining on the insides, and a glass top tilted at 30 degrees for maximum solar exposure. Around the top was a sheetmetal funnel designed to channel more of the sun’s rays into the box. Food was to be inserted through the back, which folded down like an oven door.

We sized the cooker around a sheet of old window glass that Jeevan had lying around, which we had trimmed in the Kanda market. The box itself was constructed out of sheets of used concrete formwood, and we employed ash, collected graciously by Jeevan’s wife from around the village, as an insulator. So far, so good – we had almost all the materials we needed, and still hadn’t spent a rupee (or a kilowatt hour). But we couldn’t source any used metal sheeting, which was an essential component of both the inside lining and the funnel on top. In the end, we caved and got it new at the market. It was an unfortunate compromise – metal is one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce and transport – but a necessary one nevertheless.

Constructing the oven proved to be at least as challenging as designing it. I hadn’t picked up a saw since 7th-grade stagecraft class, and the tools we had to work with weren’t exactly top quality. As is always the case, there were plenty of unexpected challenges we had to solve on the fly as the design came together: the nails kept bending, some of the boards split, the metal wouldn’t blacken in the fire, and the ash kept leaking out of the seams in the wood. But, little by little, the challenges were met, the oven took shape, and after a solid three days of sawing, cutting, nailing, trimming, grouting, and adjusting, we had a pretty decent-looking solar cooker in front of us.

To put the oven to the test, we decided to see if we could bake some challah. After collecting all the ingredients and kneading and braiding the dough (a design challenge in itself), we put the loaf in the oven on a hot afternoon and waited. After a couple hours, we opened the oven door and cautiously felt around. It was hot, alright… but not hot enough, probably only 200 degrees or so.

What went wrong? After some examination, we decided that the box hadn’t been made airtight enough – we could feel several places where the hot air was leaking out. Fixing it would’ve required temporarily dismantling the metal funnel and finding a better sealant than the cement we’d been using – certainly possible, but not in the two days we had left at Kanda.

In the end, then, our sustainable solar oven wasn’t quite sustainable, and it wasn’t much of an oven, either. But was it a failure? I don’t think so. For me, the learning process alone was enough to justify the financial and ecological costs of the project. And it’s entirely possible that another ROSE volunteer will improve the cooker in the months to come, making the design fulfill its intended purpose. For now, then, I’ll see it as a collaborative work in progress – and a valuable lesson in forest green design.


ROSE and Thorn

 By Adam Brock

Nestled in a verdant valley in the lower Himalayas, the remote Indian village of Kanda seems, at first glance, to have barely changed in centuries. The hillsides, mainly given over to terraced rice paddies, are dotted with stone farmhouses, Hindu temples and patches of forest. The glacial streams that provide the village’s water are free of pesticides, mine tailings, or contamination by pathogens. It all feels eerily dreamlike, a living incarnation of some myth of India’s rural past.

But then a Bollywood song begins to blare from a pair of tinny speakers. A closer look at the ice-blue stream reveals a trail of discarded biscuit wrappers, and as the sun sets, the valley becomes a necklace of incandescent lights, blocking out what would be a spectacular night sky. Indeed, my very ability to observe this lifestyle firsthand betrays the inevitable truth: Kanda, like everywhere else on Earth, is engaged in a dialogue with modernity. Consumer goods from the village market, pop-cultural ideals intercepted from TV and the internet – and, yes, the occasional well-intentioned western volunteer – have all worked their way into the fabric of daily life here, and there’s no turning back. The global economy, and the promise of affluence it brings, hangs in front of Kanda like the moon: mesmerizing, but astronomically distant.

For the last 25 years, Kanda resident Jeevan Verma has been working to bring that promise a little bit closer. Through his volunteer program, the Rural Organization for Social Elevation (ROSE), Verma has initiated a number of programs to guide Kanda’s development in an equitable and sustainable manner. Since it was founded in 1981, ROSE has constructed hillside roads to resist erosion, rebuilt homes for the village’s poor, and promoted permaculture techniques amongst local farmers. Currently, Verma is building a farm shop to sell tools to his neighbors at a fairer price than they can get at the market, and when that project’s finished, he aims to start a goat breeding business to give Kanda residents access to valuable sources of income and nutrition.

In many ways, Verma and his program are a model for how rural sustainable development can work in the Global South. Rather than relying on corrupt and inefficient large-scale aid programs, Kanda, thanks to ROSE, is taking the forest green route: solving local problems with local knowledge. Yet for all of ROSE’s accomplishments, it remains to be seen whether it can provide Kanda’s residents with the means for self-sustanence implied in its name. Thus far, Jeevan hasn’t been able to figure out a way to leverage outside money to produce a reliable source of income; instead, he relies on program fees and donations from volunteers to keep things running. The goat breeding program will give ROSE another shot at self-reliance, but for now, the program’s fate remains at the mercy of generous westerners.

Even if it was self-solvent, it’s unlikely that ROSE could ever solve all of Kanda’s problems. As in the rest of India, the population growth here is exponential, which means that the limited land available for cultivation is continually being divided into ever smaller portions. And for every needy family Verma is able to assist, there’s ten more that lack proper nutrition or sanitation.

Perhaps the greatest threat to Kanda’s future, though, comes from the potential consequences of its success. As its residents begin to emerge from a subsistence lifestyle towards one of increasing income, they’re afforded ever more opportunities for dialogue with the outside world – a world which, at the moment, has little to offer in the way of guidance. The challenge for Kanda, and indeed the rest of the developing world, is to take advantage of the tremendous opportunities that development can bring, while steering clear of the disastrous cycle of consumption that the overdeveloped world has become caught in.

It takes the careful guidance of a million small-town leaders like Verma, and the targeted technical and financial assistance of westerners involved in the regeneration. But when programs like ROSE succeed, they send a message that’s impossible to refute: truly sustainable development is possible. There is a middle path between the cycle of poverty and western-style reckless consumerism. If Jeevan Verma is successful in navigating that path, he might find that he won’t be seeking advice from westerners – he’ll be giving it.

 Image credit: ROSE