Monday, March 19, 2007

Concrete Countertops Revisited

The concrete countertop is done and installed on the kitchen island. Transporting the 220 pound slab was not easy, but encased in a framework of 2x4s, and moved in a vertical position to minimize the chance of cracking, the countertop was just fine. It was a pretty big project, but I wouldn’t hesitate to try it again, even to go so far as pouring countertops for an entire kitchen. I'd look into pouring the counters in-place to avoid transport. And I'd try to get a smoother finish without so much sanding. My skills at floating and troweling wet concrete could use some improvement, to get a smoother surface from the beginning. But the look and feel of the finished product are worth the labor required. And materials don't have to be expensive.

The Concrete Countertop Institute, based in Raleigh, is a source of information for anyone who wants to get serious about making these things on a regular basis.

Concrete is important, also, to the Full Belly Project. According to their website, it’s a non-profit organization that designs and delivers simple agricultural machines to people in developing countries around the world. This project teaches people how to build hand-operated machines with common materials. The material of choice for nut sheller parts is concrete because it is inexpensive, widely available, easy to work with and has a very long service life.

There’s a remarkable story behind this. [Full story here.]

In 2002, Jock Brandis visited Mali, Africa and saw that villagers were starting to raise cotton as cash crop, even though it robs the soil of fertility. Peanuts were a more sustainable crop, but shelling the nuts by hand was too slow to be practical.

When Brandis came home to Wilmington, NC, he intended to purchase a hand-operated peanut sheller and send it back to his friends in Africa. After a futile search, Brandis was informed by a peanut researcher that "such a machine was one of the as-yet unattained goals of sustainable agricultural development. Many had tried but all had failed to create such a machine."

Brandis himself took on the task. Following several months of study, design and experimentation, Brandis succeeded in creating an inexpensive, durable, hand-operated sheller that is 40 times faster than shelling nuts by hand. By packaging the metal parts along with molds for pouring the other sheller parts on-site, the technology is very transportable. And they’re now being used in Mali, the Philippines, Ghana, Zambia, and other countries.

The story is one of brilliant simplicity, ingenuity, generosity, harmony, sustainability, and at least one ironic twist: Jock Brandis says that he’s allergic to peanuts.

The vision of the Full Belly Project is "that the residents of rural communities in developing countries live lives of abundance - that they awake each morning to days of economic possibility and go to sleep each night with bellies that are full." This video shows how a simple machine can change the lives of as many as a half billion people throughout the world. Admirable work indeed.

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