Special to Mustang News
He pisses on his passion fruit trees.
“It works,” physics professor Peter Schwartz said as he reached and grabbed a wrinkled, bright pink fruit and handed it to me. “There are a number of plants I started peeing on, and they just started growing more and more and more.”
Schwartz values the nourishing properties of nitrogen in urine and cannot fathom wasting a drop, he said. In fact, it troubles Schwartz to waste anything.
In the midst of what deceivingly resembles an unkempt yard, sits an old toilet he ripped out of his house with a tree stemming from the bowl.
“I’m not sure what it is,” he said. “I just plugged something into it. I saw it growing outside of the house.”
The plant grows with help of a unique fertilizer — his family’s composted feces.
Inspired by his desire to leave the smallest carbon footprint, he decided to make the most of the resources available to him. With his knowledge of physics and horticulture, he renovated his house by using permaculture methods — the use of natural energy flows that work with nature instead of against it.
His zeal grew with each addition, and he began to realize he was more passionate about his work on his house than research in nanotechnology. He changed his focus of study and hopes to inspire others to adapt his holistic techniques.
Living gracefully means more to Schwartz than making changes to his house — it means living an austere life.
“People think sustainability is getting a solar panel and then maybe, if they’re more enlightened, they’ll say ‘ah,’ then insulating your house,” Schwartz said. “But it’s not. It’s all about readjusting your life and your choices; it’s about not being a consumer.”
More than minimal changes
After purchasing his house in 2003, Schwartz faced a dilemma.
“I bought the house and all of the sudden I realized for the first time I was in a position to make these (energy-efficient) choices, whereas before I was always renting,” Schwartz said. “I decided to change the direction of my house, which changed the direction of my life.”
After installing solar panels, insulation, natural lighting and the usual fixes, the physics professor rerouted his sewer system so all the grey water used in the house flows into his yard — flushing water, urine and soap into the surrounding vegetation.
And it works. Citrus, pineapple guava, apples and pear trees populate his backyard.
Most of his plants don’t need extra watering and they all serve a purpose beyond aesthetics — such as producing food or providing shade to cool the house without air conditioning or fans. Pear vines drape the sides of the roof. His goal is to have the entire roof blanketed in vines, to ensure cool temperatures during the summer.
Schwartz and his family shower outside in an open structure built with equipment from SLO MakerSpace. They don’t use soap and shower no more than three minutes. The solar panels on top of the adjacent shed heat the water in seconds, and the water hydrates the vegetation surrounding the outhouse.
“It makes taking a shower something you always look forward to because it’s fun,” he said.
His most radical innovation is the compostable toilet system, which redirects urine into his yard and fills a bucket with the poop.
“The urine smells bad, so it goes down in the urine trap and out with the grey water,” he said. “But the poop really doesn’t smell. I just throw a little sawdust on it.”
Every two weeks, he takes out the bucket and empties it into his backyard.
“Can you smell it?” he said, unearthing his two-week compost in the ground. “It doesn’t smell like poop. It smells like really great compost.”
“Look, look — the black soldier fly larva,” he said, his voice raising. “See all the insects in there, rolling around. You should get a closeup right there.”
More than technical difficulties
Though most of his designs went smoothly, not all his ideas improved his house.
He installed sunlights for natural lighting, which he soon learned was a bad idea. The sunlights heated the house during the summer and made it cooler in the winter. He fixed this by making coverings for the light fixtures, but still, it’s a mistake he regrets, he said.
It’s the social aspect, however, that’s the most difficult, he said. Some people who visit, including his daughter’s friends, never come back.
“I always wonder,” he said, glancing down at his crocs, “is it because I’m a weirdo, you know? Is it because of the composting toilets? You never know. It was a deal breaker for some dates.”
When people are interested in his habits, it makes it easier to deal with the social consequences, but he goes through waves of excitement, he says.
“I had a pretty tough year last year. I got denied promotion,” Schwartz said. “I came home one day and said, ‘Yeah, I’m going to put the regular toilet back in,’ and I thought my daughter would be like, ‘Oh, finally.’”
Instead, his daughter and his wife, Robin Oswald, showed their support and reminded him why he was doing this — for his students, to test his ideas for third-world countries, to stay true to his code of ethics.
People have also speculated on his child-rearing habits. Schwartz only buys food and equipment necessary to maintain his simple lifestyle, but he doesn’t buy stuff.
He faces a moral dilemma when “people give (his) kids shit.” He tries to donate the toys to charities, but it becomes uncomfortable at times when his children’s grandparents are simply trying to be … grandparents.
“People told me that my daughter would hate me if I didn’t buy her stuff for Christmas,” he said. “And I asked her and she said, ‘You know, Dad, some people are consumers, some people aren’t.’”
More than basic tenants
Schwartz shares his land with people who have similar ideals. Living on his property are his wife and two kids, a single mother with two more kids and a woman who asked to pitch her tiki in his backyard. The kids get along perfectly, he said, and he enjoys the community his sustainable house attracted.
He didn’t always have a large support system, however. Oswald and Schwartz got married two years ago, but there was a five-year gap between his divorce and his new marriage. The demise of his previous marriage was the saddest thing he’s gone through, he said.
Schwartz and Oswald bonded over their passion for bicycling and their love for their children. She moved into his back house before they dated, and took naturally to Schwartz’s lifestyle.
“My father was in the Sierra Club and I was raised without much of a consumer background,” she said, “So it wasn’t all that different.”
Kylie Mendonca, who lives in Pete’s backyard in her tiki, said living on Schwartz’s property makes it easy to live a green lifestyle through composting and saving water.
She has lived in communities for the past 10 years, but they are usually comprise of single adults, and nights are often centered around drinking and crazy parties.
“I think one of the ways it’s different is these adults have kids,” she said, “Which means after they’re done with jobs and adult responsibilities, they still have to deal with all of their other stuff. There’s not a lot of drama. There’s not a lot of bullshit. I just don’t think people have time for it.”
When Mendonca met Pete, she was impressed by the sight of his 3-year-old daughter, Tekuru, pedaling on a bike attached to his.
“She’s been brought up with this real can-do attitude,” she said.
Schwartz and his wife instilled a robust attitude in their son as well. Neil has biked to school every day since he was 3, Schwartz said.
The benefits of living with a father-figure were made apparent the first time Neil saw his adoptive father pee on his passion fruit trees.
“His jaw dropped, and he was completely awestruck because he didn’t know guys peed standing up,” Schwartz said.