Archive for November, 2010

I was going to write on mass heaters today, it being at the forefront of my mind. I picked up the book “Rocket Mass Heaters: Super -efficient Woodstoves YOU can Build” and leafed through it, thought back to our stay at Cob Cottage last year. What an experience. If you ever get a chance to visit Oregon… We learned about rocket mass heaters, and stoves, and fireplaces, and natural plasters and building with cob, and so many things. We also made friends, and shared experiences and stories about our lives.

“Everyone here has a story about fire,” Ianto (the author of Rocket Mass Heaters and cofounder of Cob Cottage) smiled, all of us gathered together in the courtyard one evening. And we all did. Some frightening, some poignant, some comical- all of them moving in their importance to us as individuals. We went around the circle sharing our memories, alternately nodding, smiling, and laughing lowly with each other. So I’ll save my account on mass heaters for the next time, and share instead my own memory of fire and what it meant to me.

I took up camping straight away when I moved to Alberta from Quebec. I was blown away by the mountains and simply thrilled that a short drive from Calgary could find me so deep in the wilderness. It was not at all what I was used to but in no time, I was an avid camper and outdoor enthusiast. Several years into living in the west, I’d still only been camping as part of a group though. Never on my own.

I’m doing it, I decided and proceeded to pack amidst warnings from my friends. It seemed rather suddenly that all of my strong willed, independent girlfriends were afraid that I would starve to death or be eaten by a bear if I didn’t bring along a man. Which, of course, only made me more determined to go- alone.

I’m sure I’ve mentioned before that I’m a fly by the seat of my pants kind of gal and it just so happens that I made this decision in April (of who knows what year, long ago) so I packed up my car and hit the road. Well it was decent weather in Calgary anyway. As I drove further down gravel roads towards my destination, the appearance of snow on the ground triggered a bit of concern. I turned the radio up a little louder to drown out my thumping heart as I hydroplaned over sections of icy road and then dipped into patches of heavy slush. And when I got to the closed site, I took heart in the fact that the chain was easily moved and I had the entire place to myself. I was giddy with excitement by the time I chose my site.

Thankfully I’ve always packed enough tarps to cover a small village, as I found myself needing to lay them underneath where the tent would stand when I finally got it up. Even the driest of the sites was covered in heavy, wet snow. Still, my enthusiasm was intact.

I’d bought firewood from an old fellow I’d met the previous year and had plenty to last me for days and soon found a stump down the path to use as a chopping block. I chopped tiny pieces for kindling, slightly larger pieces to get the fire going, pieces larger than that to sustain the fire, and left a few logs aside in case I really got it going. I emptied the fire pit of snow and placed my kindling and small pieces of wood. Several tries later, I was still without fire. The pit was just too wet and the wood not quite dry enough either. So I emptied out the pit again and dug a little deeper until I reached ground that was only slightly less damp and started again.

I’m not sure how long that went on. Long enough that I couldn’t feel my toes anymore, my fingers and cheeks were freezing, it was getting dark, and I was questioning my own good sense, or lack thereof. I contemplated going home, or at least checking into an inn. Well I’d have sooner frozen to death than admit defeat and was beginning to reconcile myself with the fact that might just be my fate when the flames took off. I quickly loaded in more kindling and, I’m embarrassed to say, toilet paper having run out of newspaper hours earlier and the flames continued to leap from the pit. A short time later, I was sitting on the chopping block stump in front of a beautiful roaring fire.

My toes did eventually thaw, if not before my shoes were smoking, and I felt my whole body relax in spite of the cold. I would be okay. I remember that thought as clearly as if I had been there yesterday. I would be okay. I had proven to myself that I could indeed take care of myself with just a few basic items, a bit of determination, and a stubborn streak to rival a mule. And fire- wonderful, life saving fire.

I guess that’s all I’m really doing now, but on a bigger scale. I want to be able to take care of myself. This year alone I have learned to use a pick axe, moved a small hill (no, really), dug a rubble trench, started building a house using mainly clay and gravel, learned about soil building and developed several garden plots, shoveled too many tons of earth and gravel to even guess at- repeatedly, and learned how to fire a gun. I’m a natural- with a gun that is. I suspected I would be.

We’re still not there. There’s so much left to do. But I’m left with that same almost eerily calm feeling I had that day in the woods. For all of my concern about the uncertainty of the future (or certainty I suppose, that it won’t be what it is today, that it’ll probably be worse than the most cynical of us imagines at this rate) I am left with the unshakeable feeling that we will be okay. There’s something spiritual in that.

So, next time- rocket mass heaters. I promise. In the meantime, maybe you’ll be lost off in your own thoughts of fire, and what it means to you.

my favourite camping ground, in nicer weather 🙂

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One of our favourite finds on the property this year? Rosehips. The property, and the whole province really, is wild with roses- hence the “wild rose country” moniker. In the bit of spare time we managed to squeeze in, we went out picking rosehips and managed to fill a couple of large mason jars. I was surprised at how much I enjoyed the tea. Honestly, it sounded like some kind of “hippy drink”. No offense to hippies but… let’s just say I still haven’t forgotten eating with them for a week. I’ve never been so desperate to get to a diner.

The tea tastes quite a bit like strawberries. I really enjoy the fruity fragrance and taste. Next year we’ll have to make a point of taking the time to pick more. I’d like to try my hand at syrup too.

There’s so much to learn about what grows wild all around us. I’m definitely focused on gardening, and will be expanding my soil building efforts next year, but I’m anxious to find out more about the plants that already grow in our region that only require a little knowledge and harvesting. One more project to take on and presumably several more books to read.

What are some of your favourite wild finds?

delicious wild rosehips


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Winter is officially here. We had freezing rain all through the night, topped off with about 6 inches of snow this morning. Fortunately we did finish the plaster, complete our temporary roof, put in a couple of windows for light and boarded up the others, and stuffed grain bags full of grass underneath the roof for a bit of insulation from the driving winds. It may not be entirely warm inside (though we intend to fire up the wood burning stove some time soon to try it out) but it’ll be dry.

With colder weather here, we’ll switch our efforts to work inside of the structure as well as finishing plans for next year. It should be interesting, having enough time to plan… This year was kind of a “well, we have about 10 hours to get ‘er done before the rain hits again so let’s move” deal. Given that it’s also our first earthbag structure of this size, it made for some challenging days.

Topping our list of things to do inside the building are: place the rocket mass heater and make the necessary adjustments prior to making it a permanent structure, frame the greenhouse/sunspace, frame the kitchen cabinets, and figure out the plumbing layout. Bear in mind that our plan was to build a house for under $5,000. That goal is still intact- thanks to scavenging, reuse of on-hand materials, and a whole lotta ingenuity- but it definitely adds a degree of difficulty to the project. But the sense of accomplishment… whew! I’m of the mind that there’s nothing we can’t do. Really.

chicken wire around windows & arched doorways gives plaster something to grip to

temporary roof going up

west view of temporary roof

front entranceway

tarps (free at lumber yards) going up

snow is here but thankfully not indoors 🙂

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Long cold winters are a major consideration when building on the bald ass Alberta prairie, where we live. It is not at all unusual to hit temperatures as low as -40 C for extended periods of time, sometimes even colder. Even a slight wind at temperatures that low can bite, but we don’t get slight winds– we get strong, sustained winds and sometimes dangerous gusts. A calm day around here sees winds of less than 20 km/hr, but not much less than that. Warmth in our new home during the long cold season is paramount.

Thermal mass has its benefits but is not the obvious choice for an extreme climate such as our own. It was suggested that we might choose a different building method for our home, straw-cob and straw bale being the favourites, but we were determined to go with earthbags for several reasons- ease of construction for first time builders and (very) low cost topping that list.

With that in mind, we’ve tailored our plans to accommodate the weather. The first consideration was to keep the rooms small. That in itself is an interesting concept given our propensity for big, open spaces. For big, open spaces we’ll have to go outdoors; a new habit that- to me- meshes well with our new way of life. I like the idea of spending more time outdoors and good thing, because we won’t have the power capacity to sit in front of the computer or television what with going off-grid.

Windows are an important aspect of our plan. The bulk of the windows are south facing and low in the building, to best maximize our winter solar gain. They are regular glass, as opposed to the ever popular low e variety, in order to make the most of solar heat. (And here’s one area thermal mass has the advantage, absorbing and storing the heat for slow release later.) The couple of windows (in the bedrooms) that are not south facing are low e, however, and very small. As we wouldn’t be getting much solar heat gain from either of these windows, it’s important that we minimize heat loss.

Landscape features further protect our building. The backside (north side) of the building will be bermed to near roof level, and we have plans for a surround-garden on the south side to window level. (The house itself is also sunken into the ground several feet.) The south facing garden has the additional advantage of being a slightly different zone than the rest of the property- because it wraps around so much mass- and we’re quite excited to see what we can grow.

A section of the living room has been dedicated to a greenhouse/sunspace and will be double glassed (i.e. we will have sliding glass windows on the inside of the building to access the garden). This will add to the natural warmth of the living space quite nicely, as well as extend our short growing season.

Also in the living room, we will build a rocket mass heater to wrap around the entire north wall. If you haven’t heard of these entirely efficient stoves and heaters I highly recommend you read Ianto Evans book (Rocket Mass Heaters: Super Efficient Wood Stoves You Can Build), or better yet- head to Oregon and take a course with the man himself as we did (visit http://www.cobcottage.com/ for information on courses, or to order the book). The mass heater will serve as a toasty and comfortable sitting area. If you live in a standard construction home, as we currently do, you can quite possibly imagine how nice it would be to heat your body rather than the air around you and this is one of the advantages of a mass heater. I’m always amazed at how often our heat kicks in and how cold it remains in the house- one of the (many) disadvantages of a forced air heating system.

The kitchen will house a wood stove. Not nearly as efficient as a rocket stove, but it throws a lot of heat. We are considering putting in a small rocket stove in that room as well, for days when we don’t want to use the wood stove. The plan that most interests us for the kitchen can be seen at http://cato-projects.org/ArLivre/EN/RocketStove3.htm .

Finally, there’s the roof. Admittedly, we’re fly by the seat of our pants kind of people and this whole thing has been a great big experiment- on us. So some things we’ve come to late in the game. Originally we had planned on building earthbag domes. There’s easy, cheap and require absolutely no construction experience. Roofing a structure requires a little more skill. But at this stage of the game, we are leaning towards roofing at least the larger (18’) rooms. Primarily because so little of the building is actually exposed to the elements that should we add a highly insulated roof, there really is nowhere for the heat to go during the winter. Sure, it will bleed slowly through the walls- but it’s a bleed so slow that it’s negligible. If we continue on with the dome plan, there will be considerably more space to heat and more room for heat loss.

That’s not to say that we won’t change our minds- again. We do have all winter to consider our options. If we do revisit the idea of domes though, it will be with a plan of having a second floor in each of the main domes and plenty of insulation. Another option that we’ve all but ruled out is scoria filled bags. If you live in an area where scoria is cheap or reasonably priced (we don’t), scoria is excellent bag fill for providing that little bit of extra insulation without changing your building plans.

So that’s the plan as it stands and how we intend to deal with our extreme climate. Build small rooms, sink the house into the ground and berm as much as possible, maximize solar heat gain by keeping windows on the south side plentiful, place only two windows that aren’t south facing and keep them small and low emissivity, have a sun space for additional heat gain and a nice garden area, build a rocket mass heater for the living room, use a traditional wood stove in the kitchen, and keep the roof low and well insulated. Ah, and we’ll tint the finish lime plaster a darker shade, in order to further enhance heat absorption. Our house is not simply a shelter, but a system that needs to consider and work with all components.

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