MAKE Visits the Open Source Ecology Project

Energy & Sustainability
MAKE Visits the Open Source Ecology Project
OSE founder Marcin Jakuboski inside the fabrication facility

Maysville, Missouri. As I drove through Dekalb County an hour north of Kansas City, I heard a lot of country music and preachers on the radio. Stopping for breakfast in a small cafe, I picked up the local newspaper and noticed a front page banner declaring “395 Days Left in the Obama Regime.” And yet, in the midst of such bible belt sensibilities, something very radical is happening in northwest Missouri’s corn and soybean country: the Open Source Ecology project.

On the 30 acre Factor e Farm, located about a mile from the small town of Maysville, 39 year-old Marcin Jakubowski lives in what the locals refer to as “the mud hut.” The funky dwelling is made of mud, sandbags, and cords of wood, but Jakubowski, who earned a PhD. in physics after writing a doctoral thesis about velocity turbulence and zonal flow detection, has a pretty sophisticated tech operation at the farm. He’s building tractors and other industrial machinery from scratch.

The mud hut that serves as Marcin's current residence and office at the Factor e Farm

And Jakubowski efforts are getting noticed. Last year, he was named a TED Fellow by the non-profit foundation that gathers “world changing innovators” in the fields of technology, entertainment, and design. The Open Source Ecology project received a $100,000 grant from the Ewing Marion Kaufman Foundation to develop six prototypes of industrial and agricultural hardware, and Jakubowski has been awarded a Shuttleworth Fellowship worth $360,000. A $40,000 Kickstarter campaign brought in $63,000.

And yet, despite all this, Jakubowski’s parents back in New Jersey are still giving him grief about getting a job with his physics degree.

Actually, Jakubowski does have a job of sorts.

“We’re trying to re-invent civilization,” he tells me during an interview inside his mud hut bedroom/office, which has a gravel floor partially covered by a rug and a mattress that appears to be suspended by rope from the ceiling. I am sitting at his feet on the floor pointing a shotgun mic at him for an NPR story. And I am not the only one in recent months to be sitting at the feet of this “farmer/technologist” who’s driven– obsessed really– with building what he calls the open source economy. Kindred spirits from as far away as Texas and California have come to Marysville to build prototypes of various machines. After the beta versions of the prototypes are completed, detailed plans on how to build them, including schematics and step-by-step assembly videos, are posted online. [Editor: Some here on Make: Projects!]

Before I went to Maysville, the farm was described to me as an “off-the-grid living situation.” I’ll say. The compound’s composting toilet is in the sawed-off top of a metal grain silo. Jakubowski chops firewood right outside his mud hut as chickens scramble about. During my visit, a college student from San Diego was staying in a small trailer and a little shack that’s less than 100 square feet was home to a cat with no name and an 18 year-old robotics wiz from Canada. He’s working on an open source CNC milling machine that will be used for printed circuit boards.

Known as the Hab Lab, the living space will accommodate 10 people

But a major expansion is underway. A dormitory for 10 people known as the hab lab and a 4,000 square foot fabrication facility are going up. Both are being made out of compressed earth bricks produced onsite by the Open Source Ecology compressed earth brick press (CEB). Some 10,000 of these DIY blocks were made for the residential structure. In early January, Jakubowski estimated that both would be finished before April 1st.

4,000 square foot fabrication facility

Floyd Hagerman, a Latherp, MO home builder who was hired to help with the construction, bought a commercially manufactured CEB press for $18,000 from Powell & Sons Inc., a New Mexico manufacturer. As a builder who was “trying to do the green thing long before the green thing was popular,” Hagerman is keen on earth brick construction.

“It doesn’t off-gas. It won’t burn. You don’t have to worry about termites. It’s soundproof. And it’s a very heavy wall, so it will take a lot of wind load,” he tells me. A lot of wind load as in tornado strength winds.

“These [compressed earth brick] homes that I’ve done won’t ever freeze,” Hagerman adds. “They get down to 45 degrees. That’s the lowest they get with no heat.”

A pile of compressed earth bricks inside of the fabrication facility

Hagerman has been impressed with the various characters who come and go at Factor e Farm.

“It seems there’s a lot of, I’ll say, real smart people with degrees working on projects around here and not only that, they actually have the skills to build this stuff,” he notes while mixing up a slurry to coat the tops of a row of earth bricks before putting another row on top of them.

Hagerman was explaining the process to 20 year-old Briana Kufa, who may not have a degree but sure can build stuff. A certified welder who rebuilt her Mercedes 300D, Kufa came to the farm on a previous visit and built four CEB presses using 1/8th inch steel for the body of the hopper and rebar for the grate over the opening. When she’s not in class at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo studying architectural engineering, Kufa is in her family’s machine shop in San Diego building aluminum bookshelves, which she sells. Like many of the others drawn to the Open Source Ecology Project, Kufa first heard about it via Jakubowski’s TED Talk after seeing a link to the video on a friend’s Facebook page. TED Talk videos are quite popular on the web and subtitles for Jakubowski’s have been translated into 41 languages, everything from Albanian to Vietnamese.

When I met Kufa in the fabrication facility on a mild winter afternoon, it had a roof, frame, concrete floor, but far from all the walls. I stood alongside her examining one of the CEB presses she made and was surprised to hear her say that building it was no big deal.

“It’s a lot of cutting, a lot of welding, a lot of torching and that’s basically all the skills you would need to make one of these,” she told me. “I could probably teach someone how to do those things in a day.”

Kufa has taken a two-year academic leave to work on the Open Source Ecology project. She plans to build the prototype for the ironworker, a machine for stamping holes and shearing metal, at her family’s fabrication shop in San Diego.

Her “anyone can do this stuff” attitude is shared by Jakubowski, who says, “If you can use a drill press, if you can pick up a welder and start welding, and if you can torch with an acetylene torch, you can build a tractor, you can build a CEB press, you can build just about anything we’ve built so far.”

Get Jakubowski to talk about his own technical proficiency immediately after grad school and he chuckles at the man who had almost no practical skills. In his TED Talk, he tells a story about the tractor he bought for the farm failing, shelling out thousands of dollars for a transmission repair job and the tractor failing again. This, he says, is was what prompted him to build his own tractor.

“A tractor is basically a solid box with wheels,” he told me, “each with a hydraulic motor. So, conceptually, it’s actually very simple. And when I first did it, it was, like, ‘Wow, a tractor, it’s impossible.’ I was amazed when it actually worked.”

The open source tractor can be produced, according to Jakubowski, in about four days with $6,000 in parts. There are a minimal number of welds needed because many of the parts, including the square steel tubing used for the frame, are largely bolted together.

And here’s where this is headed: Jakubowski says that by the end of 2012 he’ll demonstrate that someone with the coming open source induction furnace will be able to build the entire tractor using melted down scrap metal for a mere $500.

“If you have the induction furnace and 200 kilowatts of electric power, you can be melting the metal and then rolling it into the steel sections that are the raw steel for the devices that you are building,” he told me. “We hope to demonstrate that this year.”

A wall of the fabrication facility being made with compressed earth bricks

Jakubowski says the experience of making the tractor transformed him. He set about designing and building affordable alternatives to other agricultural and industrial machines. In addition to the Lifetrac tractor, which is designed for small-scale agricultural use as well as construction, prototypes have been completed for the CEB press, a soil pulverizer, and a hydraulic power unit, which is used in high-torque applications. Work is under way on prototypes for a drill press, a torch table, a CNC milling machine and the ironworker. At this point there are 50 machines in what Jakubowski calls the Global Village Construction Set, the tools and technology needed for modern civilization. The set includes a wind turbine, cement mixer and sawmill.

Prototyping work on the power cube, an internal combustion engine combined with a hydraulic pump, and a torch table is going on in Texas.

Jakubowaki says three CEB presses have been sold so far for $8,000 a unit. He says two people will use them to build homes in Texas and Oklahoma and a third person is planning to use one to make an apartment complex in LA. And he says two tractors were sold for $15,000 a piece. One is being used in Indiana but added that there have been “issues.”

The first “replication” of the CEB press was completed at a small community outside Austin, Texas this fall. A group in Cedar Creek, Texas called Creation Flame led by James Slade, a self-described software guy, put it together. Slade, too, was attracted to the Open Source Ecology project after watching the TED Talk video.

“It was like, finally, for the first time in my life I knew what I had to do,” Slade told me. “It was like, I have to do this.”

Slade says he didn’t know how to weld and he hadn’t had much machining experience, so it took weeks to make the parts for the CEB press and assemble them, though Jakubowski estimates that without the learning curve, it can be done in as little as four days.

“You know, it took some learning. We made some errors. But if I can do it, just about anybody can do it,” Slade tells me during a phone interview.

He was impressed that the CEB press worked from the get go and as the first bricks rolled off the machine he and his compatriots were ecstatic.

“It was kind of like giving birth. It was like, ‘Oh, my gosh. We built this, we did this and here’s the result.’”

Slade says that with 1500 homes in the area destroyed by recent fires, his CEB press, which he plans to rent out to home builders, can play a role in the rebuilding effort. He also plans to use it to construct a new shop and living spaces on Creation Flame’s three and a half acre spread. Now that he has one replication under his belt, Slade says he plans to make more CEB presses and sell them for around $8,000 or $9,000. He’s also planning to make the Open Source Ecology earth pulverizer and tractor.

Slade spent time at the farm in Missouri helping and learning. He’s one of a steady stream of people who have made the trek. Jakubowski is getting ready to start hiring the first of what will hopefully be an on-site permanent staff, he has indicated that a community with as many as 200 people could eventually settle at the farm. In a video for his application to the Shuttleworth Fellowship program, Jakubowski says Open Source Ecology will be hiring four full-time fabricators at Factor e Farm who will receive a share of the profits of machinery made there. He also expects to hire a full-time farmer and full-time production manager this spring. In the meantime individuals with expertise in specific disciplines who embrace the open source credo will continue to make dedicated project visits lasting two weeks to a month to the farm.

“We’re trying to skim skilled people from the real world we can pay for their travel and accommodations here to have them work with us,” Jakubowski says. Especially retired people.

Jakubowski predicts that within a year or two they’ll be smelting aluminum from clay and silicon from sand on the farm. Also on the agenda is building a prototype of a power cube that runs on steam power produced from pelletized biomass.

“Production can happen on an unprecedented small scale,” Jakuboski insists. “I believe that any community can be producing its own energy, technology and machinery.”


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Jon Kalish is a Manhattan-based radio reporter, podcast producer and newspaper writer. He's reported for NPR for more than 30 years.

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