Building Composting Toilets for a Wedding

by Eli

On the eve of an exciting adventure (building composting toilets for my brother’s wedding), I sit here at Mapps Coffee & Tea off Cedar Ave S in Minneapolis, messing around on the internet, waiting to take the train to Wisconsin tomorrow morning. The train will take me to La Crosse, WI, where Ingrid’s parents will pick me up. It is then that the adventure will truly begin.

I’ve never actually built composting toilets before, but I’ve spent enough time around tools and lumber and intentional communities to know that it’s not as hard as you’d think. You dig a whole, you built a few seats, and ba da boom ba da bing!

I plan on taking a lot of pictures and video (and writing everyday in my Green Brain), but I’m not so sure about the whole “internet” thing in Gays Mills, WI. I’m gonna try and post as often as I can; hopefully I can document this thing as it goes. I’ll simply update this post with the most current info and I’ll add a list of the dates below, so be sure to check the list down there to get the last and greatest. You can also check my twitter feed or simply take a peek at the sidebar widget over there.

June 18th

Today was the first full day of work, and it felt great. I got up around 7am, had breakfast with Gregg & Sylvia (I had Muslei and some homemade Kombucha), and then we went over some preliminary plans regarding the composting toilets: how big, how long, how deep, how far, etc.

After we’d taken that as far as it could go, Gregg and I went over to the Pfitsch’s to dismantle their chain-link dog kennel: it’s going to contain the solar showers! We brought all the pieces back over to the Attleson’s and put it back together, then strung up a tarp around 2 sides to give some privacy. All done!

Just as we were finishing up with that, the rain started and we went inside. I helped Sylvia prepare strawberries for the Wedding [Strawberry Shortcake] Cake and then it was salad time! I love salad time.

After lunch, the rain gave way to some beautiful afternoon sunshine. Gregg and I began sanding the front door of the house, the door to the milk house, and the east wall of the milk house, prepping them for painting. We busted out the red scarlet paint and got that shit rolling. In no time we had 2 orange doors and 1 orange wall.

Orange? Woops.

I think we determined that everything just needs a few more coats. I’ll let you know how that all turns out. Hopefully it won’t be a repeat of “the pink wall” at the Dukelsons. While the paint dried, Gregg and I strung up some twine for the runner beans, and then it was time for dinner: fried rice with garden broccoli and pickled beets.

After dinner we tested the Wacky Cake (with strawberries on top) outside on the picnic table. The fireflies and lightning were in full swing, it was beautiful. Just as we were finishing our cake, the rain started sprinkling. Then, from a ways away, we heard a strange noise approaching. It got louder and louder, and then we realized it was a massive wave of rain coming directly toward us, the tin roofs warning it’s approach. We jumped up and ran inside, the drops were huge and crashed into the roof over our heads, and then it stopped not more than 10 seconds later. Then it came again, and harder than ever.

As the rain petered off, I retired to the shed for bed. I lied awake for hours, watching one of the most impressive lightning storms I’d ever seen: sky-filling flashes that didn’t stop for hours. At one point I just had to go to sleep, but I didn’t want to.

June 19th

Today was a rainy day. Today was a lazy day.

Gregg and I spent most of the day drawing up plans of the toilets. First we started with pencil & paper and eventually ended up on the computer. We started with one idea, dropped that in favor of a different one, and then ended up going back to the original one by the end. I think we’ve got a really solid thing going. Now we just need to get the lumber.

Other than that we hung out and enjoyed the humidity and the cats. A few hours after lunch the sun came out for a bit so we finished up the painting on the doors and the wall. Everything seems to be rounding the corner from orange to red.

After a delicious whole wheat pasta dinner (with garden fresh asparagus), it was off the movies with Gregg & Sylvia. We saw the new Star Trek (at the Blaine Theater in Boscobel), which I really enjoyed, but I did have a few problems with it:

  • The fight scenes were too close, confusing, and dizzying.
  • There were about 1000 too many lens flares and other moments when a large portion of the screen was obscured by a very bright light. I mean, it’s a cool affect, but I think Abrams just went a little overboard with it.
  • Spock’s mind meld with Kirk and the resulting narration that ensued was just plain-old bad story telling. I mean, what actually happened to Spock with the time traveling all that was really cool, but the way he just up and narrated for like 2 minutes felt very out of place and forced.
  • And what was up with Pike’s wheelchair at the end? Isn’t this the future? Couldn’t they have just stuck him with one of those crazy needles and called it a day. At the very least the wheelchair shouldn’t have had any spokes or axles.

Other than that, it was great!

June 20th

After 3 days of clouds and rain and humidity and storms (which I loved), when I woke up this morning I was so glad. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the breeze blowing through the shed was nice and cool. Ahhh!

I had some rhubarb on toast for breakfast, and then Gregg and I went to run a few errands. We dropped off some trash and recycling at “the dump,” and then went over to Red Maple Farms to see Kevin about getting some lumber for the toilets. He’d just recently built a beautiful straw bale house using wood from his land, and he had some extra Poplar lying around. We checked it out, poked it, looked at it, and said we’d get back him.

Back at the homestead, Sylvia could not seem to stop picking strawberries. It seems like every time I see her she’s got a bucket full of fresh-picked strawberries under her arm. So, as usual, I had a handful. I really can’t ever get sick of garden fresh strawberries. Mmm mmm.

I fixed up some guacamole & bean dip (with Red Hot Blues) for lunch, and then we rolled out to La Farge for the Chautauqua! What is a Chautauqua, you ask? Well, the Wikipedia article on Chautauqua says that it is:

an adult education movement in the United States, highly popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Chautauqua assemblies expanded and spread throughout rural America until the mid-1920s. The Chautauqua brought entertainment and culture for the whole community, with speakers, teachers, musicians, entertainers, preachers and specialists of the day. Former U.S. President Theodore Roosevelt was quoted as saying that Chautauqua is “the most American thing in America.”

In actually this wasn’t technically a Chautauqua, but it was a bunch of people on a stage singing, telling stories, playing banjos, playing the spoons, doing ventriloquism, and all kinds of other crazy shit. It was actually really cool, but I’d say it was a bit more for the kids than anyone else.

But the coolest part was that the event was held at the Kickapoo Valley Reserve, which was spawned from the failed La Farge Dam Project. It’s really crazy. You should click on that link back there and do a quick read, but if you don’t want to I’ll sum it up for you real quick like:

They wanted to build a dam and create a reservoir, so they forced a lot of people to leave. They started building the dam. Then realized it was bad for the environment so they stopped, but they’d already kicked all those people out of their homes. Twenty years went by and no one did anything with the land or the unfinished dam: mother nature reclaimed what was rightfully hers. Now all that land is a reserve.

We drove back to the house around 5pm and then went back over to Kevin’s to get the lumber. He helped us load it up in his truck. I rode back with him to the Attleson Farm and on the way we talked about his life and mine. We might hang out some time in the next couple weeks. Kevin’s pretty cool.

For dinner we had a delicious Robin & Eli specialty: brown rice (with Braggs and Sesame Oil), peanuts, and spinach. Mmm mmm. We followed it up with some Vegan Shortcake (with strawberries, of course) for dessert. It’s so hard to decide between that and the Wacky Cake… I guess we’ll just have to make both of them again.

June 23rd

After sleeping in a bit (8am) I spent my morning on the phone with American Express. All I wanted to do was hang up wet clothes on the line and finishing digging the hole, but I had to straighten some shit out.

Anyhoo, I got that all straightened away by about 10:30 and went back out to The Hole. I spent almost the entire day yesterday in that hole: digging and sweating and digging and sweating. The Humidity (with a capital H) has really set in around here, so it’s kinda hard to be outside and not be sweating. The good news, though, is that I did about 75% of the digging yesterday, so I only had to dig out one more layer before lunch. And, I did it. The Hole is done, all 80 cubic feet of it.

Attleson Farm: Diggin a Grave

While sitting at the table eating lunch, Sylvia noticed a hummingbird that kept flying back and forth to the same point on this one branch of a tree just outside the window. Gregg busted out the binoculars and, sure enough, that hummingbird was sitting on a nest. The exciting thing was that the branch hung down relatively low, so we know that we’d be able to get a ladder and do a bit of spying.

They are like the cutest things in the whole world. Keep in mind that the opening to that nest is about the size of a quarter. Seriously. Cute as cute can be. And it looks so awesome, covered in moss or lichen or something with that soft fluffy interior. A freaking hummingbird built that thing with it’s mouth and it’s feet. When was the last time you built something completely out of materials found in nature using only your mouth and your feet?

Anyhoo, I spent the second half of the day in the Shed with Gregg. I got pretty zapped by the sun and humidity in the morning, so it was a nice to chill in the Shed because it’s significantly cooler in there. We’re doing a bit of re-wiring to put 2 power outlets on each end of the barn (as well as a flood light on the east end) for Wedding (and future) uses.

After dinner I helped Sylvia with some gardening. A storm was rolling through to the south and brought a bunch of cold air to the farm, so I was more than happy to hang out outside. I was responsible for snipping off the garlic scapes (flower pod): it makes the garlic more better because the plant puts more into the garlic and less into the flower.

Attleson Farm: Garlic Scapes

They are beautiful little twirly tendrils, and it was a real shame to cut them off.

We also had a great sunset tonight, once the sun got clear of the clouds.

Attleson Farm: Sunset Walkabout

June 28th

Yesterday was a very exciting day: we actually got started setting the foundation for the Popple House (poop shed). We already had the floor frame stitched together, so we used that as a guide for level. We found 6 sturdy rocks and started digging holes, pounding the dirt, and setting the stones.

Attleson Farm: Popple House Foundation

Once we had the 3 stones in front set, we laid the frame back down and checked the level. Surprisingly enough, we got the front of the thing perfectly level on the first try. Boom diggity!

Attleson Farm: Popple House Foundation

Everything was going really well, but then the Trench Goblin showed up and demanded some poop. Unfortunately I didn’t have to poop, and neither did Gregg, so the poor guy went hungry. If only he knew of the shit storm that is coming his way.

Attleson Farm: The Trench Goblin

In the end the Trench Goblin didn’t disturb us too much and we were able to set all 6 foundation stones. The frame sits pretty damn near to perfect level, so we’re all ready to start setting posts and screwing shit together. This is starting to get exciting.

We also had another opportunity to visit with our nesting friends.

And we got a sweet view of the moon from Gregg’s telescope.

Attleson Farm: Waxing Crescent

June 29th

Today was an awesome day. With most of the annoying stuff behind us (digging the hole, preparing the lumber, setting the foundation, assembling the floor frame and bents [vertical sections], etc), we got to spent the whole day putting everything together! It’s the fun stuff, it’s the exciting stuff, it’s the stuff that makes you feel like you’re getting stuff done.

Attleson Farm: the Popple House

So, that’s what we started with this morning. You can see the floor frame in the background and all 3 bents in the foreground. Our design called for about 4 inches of clearance from the very bottom of the floor frame to the ground. So our first step was to jack up the floor frame 4 inches so we could set the bents in place and screw them in.

Attleson Farm: the Popple House

With the floor jacked up and as level as possible (on uneven ground), we set in each bent one at a time: leveled it (vertically), braced it (diagonally), and screwed it in place along the floor frame. One at a time…

Attleson Farm: the Popple HouseAttleson Farm: the Popple HouseAttleson Farm: the Popple House

With all three bents in place, we added the overhead crossbeams on the front and back, once again double checking that everything was plum square. At that point the only thing left to do was sit back and admire the beauty. It sure was quite the shit shack.

Attleson Farm: the Popple House

That, and take pictures of Monarch Caterpillers.

Attleson Farm: Monarch Caterpiller

Oh, and baby Hummingbirds.

Attleson Farm: Baby Hummingbirds

And then… FIRE CLOUDS!!

Attleson Farm: Fire Clouds

And on top of all that, Sylvia made some fantastically delicious homemade strawberry sorbet for dessert. So tangy, so tart, so sweet. Mmm mmm.

June 30th

Today we put the roof frame on the Popple House.

Need I say more?

July 7th

First and foremost we need to wish Ingrid a Happy 29th Birthday. We got up super early (8am) and the Attleson’s had some crazy foreign pancakes, but luckily I made American Pancakes to even it all out. They were delicious. And then tonight for Ingrid’s Birthday treat we had watermelon cake with blueberries on top (it’s really just half of a watermelon with some candles in it, but it was still delicious).

Attleson Farm: Ingrid's Birthday

But we also have to wish ME (that’s right, me) a Happy 3rd Twitter Anniversary. Uh huh. Three years ago yesterday I tweeted my very first tweet. It’s pretty unbelievable that it’s already been 3 years, and I’ve already tweeted 3,400 tweets as of this blog post. Crazy.

But what I really need to do is catch up on what’s been going on around here. It’s been a busy week since I last posted, but this’ll be quick, don’t worry.


The past 2 years I have celebrated the 4th of July Seattle-style at Gasworks (here and here). I’ve grown very accustom to that tradition, but I still had a wonderful time this year with the Attlesons.

We went to the local community party at The Regnery’s house. They throw a big potluck party bash every year (with their own fireworks), and it was actually quite a bit of fun. I was surprised to see how many people I actually knew at the party. There were people there that I didn’t know were gonna be there, and they recognized me and called me over to chat. I actually felt like I was a local. Weird.

Here’s what I did most of the time. If you watch closely, you can see me chattin-it-up on the right-hand side of the frame.

Then I went to see what the small-time fireworks crew was up to. They let me hold them, it was pretty sweet.

The Regnerys: 4th of July

And I wrapped it all up with this beauty.

The Regnerys: 4th of July

The next day the baby hummingbirds died, so I mowed.

Gregg and I have continued to be very busy with the Popple House. Everyday we shave off a few more items from the list. Everyday we are reminded that no matter how much you plan, you’re never going to think of it from every angle until you’re standing there actually looking at from every angle. It is only then that you realize (oops!) you hadn’t thought of it from that angle.

But things are going really well. Yesterday (after putting the tin on the roof, back, and west side the few days prior) we started working on the thrones. It isn’t a big job (size wise), but it is a detailed job, and it involves lots of placing and replacing of the pieces. This is what I did all day.

And here’s what I ended up with.

Attleson Farm: The Popple House

Today we finished the rest of the thrones. At this point you can actually sit down on a toilet seat and poop into a hole, with all the comforts of your flushaway. We’ve got a few more finishing touches to put on the Popple House: sanding, staining, and stringing up some “shower curtain” style doors. We should be wrapping up the entire project in the next couple days.

Attleson Farm: The Popple House

July 13th

It’s amazing to think back to the beginning, to imagine a time when there wasn’t an outhouse: when I wasn’t digging a hole, when we weren’t setting the foundation, when we weren’t measuring and cutting and drilling. It’s amazing to think back to that first day when Buddy and Cassie wouldn’t get out of the 6-inch-deep hole.

Attleson Farm: Diggin a Grave

And now, 28 days later, it’s all done and we’re free to poop in it as much as we want.

The Popple House

Attleson Farm: The Popple House