I was flipping through one of our notebooks yesterday and came across a list that Shane and I compiled while building our first earthbag structure, the sauna, in 2009. Some of it is obvious, and other ‘tips’ were decided only after repeated injury or mistakes along the way. I had to laugh at our total disregard for some of the warnings that we failed to heed this year as well, in an effort to ‘do more’. Anyway, here it is, our lessons learned. Maybe it’ll save someone some trouble.
*Nail down the barbed wire to keep it from moving, fence staples work really well.
*Rinse the cement mixer immediately after use, and at least once during the day, for easier cleaning.
*Mix gravel and cement first, dry, and then add clay- so that the clay doesn’t just stick to itself.
*Tamp the sides of tubes/bags, not just the top.
*Lift with your knees.
*Always feel the mix with your bare hands, soil-clay and gravel may differ slightly from mix to mix. Wear gloves in between to avoid rubbing the skin right off your hands.
*Trust your instincts and communicate (e.g if the mix feels wrong, even if you’re not the one mixing, mention it).
*Cut tubes a little long.
*Fill tubes straight, and twist along arc. Don’t try to fill them ‘on a curve’.
*Don’t start late in season. We started the sauna in September, had plans to leave town for a couple of weeks, and ended up working straight into snow.
*Use good weather and daylight for building, bad weather and evenings for prep and planning.
*Don’t make plans/commitments during the building season and be prepared to be a weather watcher.
*Keep duct tape handy for rips or punctures.
*Don’t pretend all things are equal- if it’s too heavy (Brandee!) don’t lift it, if you’re better at something else- do that.
* Gravel piles look like giant litter boxes- keep cats off site.
*Have lots of buckets on hand for transporting mix.
*Scavenge throughout the year- start now.
*Prepare meals ahead of time.
*Get in shape prior to the build.
*Mix up tasks to work different muscles.
*If it’s really hot and you’re working in your underwear, listen for approaching vehicles.
*When working with cob- work wet to dry.
*Wet the cob and then roll it out a few times before stomping.
*A good cob mix that we found was 1.5 sand, 1 clay, .5 manure, and straw.
*Don’t try to mix too much cob at once- it will not save time.
*And finally- if you’re not both committed to the project, don’t even bother.
Not a bad list. If you can stick to it, you can avoid a fair amount of frustration and injury. I didn’t, even though the lessons were hard won. I almost always carry more than I’m comfortable with. Shane works off the property so during the week it’s just me and I’ve gone with the argument that I can get more done if I just suck it up. It’s true- I get a lot done. But I’ve injured myself a lot and sometimes quite seriously.
On that note, if you’re bleeding- take a break. Honestly, I felt like superwoman some days- working through the pain and the blood- but if you injure yourself seriously enough without breaking, you’ll probably injure yourself again. And while we’re on the subject of breaks, a person can only work seven days a week for so many months before you’re ready to bite the heads off kittens. Or maybe that’s just me…
I also didn’t get a lot of meal prep done ahead of time. There’s nothing quite like working your ass off for 10 hours straight just to come inside and start preparing a meal to make you feel bitter. At least that was my experience. This year, I’ll start freezing meals for the building season in February.
The tip on scavenging- seriously a good idea. You never know what you’re going to need. One really good find for us were grader blades. They make excellent supports for above windows if you’re going with a straight line instead of arches. We had no idea what we were going to use them for when we brought them home but they’ve been beautiful to work with.
And one that didn’t make the list but has got to be the funniest lesson learned this year- measure your doors carefully! We took into account our own builds, and what we thought was ‘reasonable’, and totally didn’t factor in things we might want to move into the house- like a couch. The only way any larger furniture is getting in there is if we drop it in from the top before the roof is on. Ya- not going to be happen. Luckily we’d planned on building most of our furniture into the house but good to know…
There we go- lessons learned. Or lessons accumulated. We’ll see. 🙂