Archive for the ‘natural building’ Category

This will be more of an update through photos as I’m rushing off to get some other work done. The past week has been busy as tomorrow will mark a full seven days since our last snowfall and we’re running around trying to get things sorted for our full-on season. I went to Calgary on Friday and picked up the lovely batteries you see below- Surrette CS17pS, 4 of them for a 24 Volt system. On Saturday we headed down to Lethbridge to pick up our very solidly built solar panel mounts. Thanks to Troy at Eco Diesel for building us a mount that will easily survive the winds that blow through our property daily. I took a couple of pictures of his system- ours will look just like that once in place except that we have nine panels instead of twelve and will only require two cement blocks to secure the system. And on our way home from Troy’s, we picked up a rescue dog from a woman in the area. The latest addition to our homestead, currently going by No-Name because his new owners have channeled all of their creative juices elsewhere. I will try to write or at least post photos in the next while (I have fabulous worm bins and a new tractor to tell you about) but am so ridiculously busy right now that I can’t say when. Hope everyone’s spring is off to a wonderful start! 🙂



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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. 🙂

Wear sunscreen and a hat, and a silly scarf

Gloves- good idea, sandals- not so much

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The pocket rocket is a brilliant little invention that Ianto Evans and Larry Jacobs came up with some time in the late seventies, early eighties. (Yes, I did mention to Ianto that he might have thought of copyrighting that name before another, ahem, ‘invention’ made use of it. Hindsight, eh?) We built one for use in our sauna last year, to try out both earthbag building and rocket stoves at the same time. We went out in January to test how it would stand up to colder temperatures and within under ten minutes, we had raised the temperature from -15 C to +35 C, a 50 degree difference!

It requires only a few easily scavenged materials and is a great ‘starter project’. You’ll need a 30 or 55 gallon drum- one with a detachable clamp-on lid is great for a pocket rocket. And a couple of pieces of pipe- one for the feed tube and one for the chimney. That’s it. A little mortar for around the pipe and you’re ready to roll.

Start by burning off any paint on the barrel. We just stuck ours in our firepit and let it go for a while. While you’re waiting for the drum, cut two holes in the lid- one to fit each of the pipes. (Note: if you want to use the top of your stove for heating water, you’ll need to position those holes with enough room for a kettle or pot.) We didn’t cut our holes to the exact size of the pipe- we cut them slightly smaller and then cut tabs to fold up along the pipe for a nice snug fit.

When your barrel has cooled, dust off any remaining paint. Place your rocket stove somewhere away from anything flammable. (Seriously- this thing heats up like crazy!) Put the lid back onto the barrel and position your feed tube. It should be a few inches from the bottom of the barrel. Place your chimney in the other hole. The chimney (exhaust) only needs to go into the barrel a bit, several inches should do you.

The rocket stove prefers small diameter, straight wood. Gather some up and test drive! It’ll sound like a rocket when it fires up- that’s the draw. If it’s roaring when it starts- you’re good. Wait until it cools a bit and then mortar around the pipes. If you’re not getting the draw you want, fiddle with the feed tube a bit until you get it to just the right height. It may take a bit of patience, but this is a stove you can build in a matter of hours, so it’s worth playing around with to get just right.

Have fun- and let us know how it works out for you!

NOTE: If you want to preserve some of this heat, you could easily cob around the lower half or two thirds of the barrel. Otherwise, be prepared for some incredible radiant heat!

DISCLAIMER: This isn’t something you want to be building in your traditional home, as it would be a fire hazard.

Barrel for the rocket stove

top of barrel, with holes for connecting pipe

basic pocket rocket

pocket rocket fired up

A couple of rocket stove mock-ups

A basic pocket rocket used for interior heat

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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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It seems we’re always racing time, or the weather, or some other factor completely outside of our sphere of influence. It’s a typical October in Alberta, which means we’ve had our first (second and third) snowfall. It hasn’t snowed in a few days now but we haven’t hit above freezing temperatures either and the acreage looks like a veritable winter wonderland. It’s beautiful really, but not entirely conducive to outdoor work- at least not until we’ve more fully acclimatized.

We’ve just about finished plastering the buildings for winter. A few half decent days and we should be done. And we need to get some above freezing weather (forecast for next week) to finish the last row of bags at the front entrance. Other than that, we need to finish temporarily roofing the structures and fit the windows so that we can work indoors through the winter.

We have plans for a rocket mass heater in the living room, as well as a greenhouse sunspace, and have cabinets to build, a bathtub to form, and pipes for greywater reuse to lay out. We’ll also need a part wall in the kitchen. I’m sure there’s more that I’m forgetting. One of these days I’ll get around to writing out a handy ‘to-do’ list but in the meantime…

We also have plenty of outdoor work to complete, including moving tons of earth (quite literally) to build up the garden around the kitchen and living room areas. Because of the sheer mass of the buildings, and the materials we’re using (primarily the earth beneath our feet), the zone immediately around the building on the south side will be different than elsewhere on the property and we hope to be able to grow plants that would not otherwise do well on the property. The ‘surround garden’ will also further shelter the building from some of our more extreme temperatures.

Add to which there are the day to day tasks and preparing for winter- clean up (long overdue), preparing the garage and shop for indoor work, reorganizing materials, covering the last of the raised bed gardens, and so on. (And this doesn’t even speak to the commitments that we have off the property…) It could be overwhelming but strangely it’s not. I think I’ve finally found my ground in this pioneer lifestyle and have come to appreciate the work, even the sheer amount of it. Maybe it’s because I can’t think of another time in my life when the work that I was doing felt so right. And maybe it’s partly due to the fact that my body has had time to heal from the abuse heaped upon it during the building season. Either way, I’m feeling good about it.

Section of kitchen still to be plastered

West side view

Southwest view

Southeast view, from front

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Some of you may be wondering where we’ve been these last few weeks. We’ve decided to abandon the earthbag building in favour of digging a hole in the side of a hill. Holes are notoriously cozy, animals have favoured them for years as comfortable living spaces, and we think this will get us into a natural building that much sooner. So we’ve been busy dig, dig, digging.

Okay, I jest. We’ve been hard at work getting the kitchen and living room domes to level so that we can put in the second floors and cover them for winter. That done, we’re working on the front entrance which I expect we’ll be done by end of weekend. Then we can work on the floors.

We’ll be using lengths of the telephone poles that we were fortunate enough to have donated as centre columns and we’ve purchased some inexpensive round wood that will converge at the centre, something like a wheel configuration. From there we’ll nail down our floor and then tarp the whole thing for winter, while we work inside.

I’ll post photos of the building once the floor is up, with any luck in the next week or so.

We’re also working on the plaster and it’s coming along, if not “nicely” well enough. And we’ve continued to collect materials, the best find of which was a woodstove for $75. It’s in beautiful condition and I can’t wait to try it out.

Well friends, thanks to those of who’ve been kind enough to search us out and ask where we’re at. As always, we appreciate the support and community! And on that note, I’m off to plaster…


Ready for plaster & second floor installation



Front entrance should be up to level this wknd

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It’s been a while since an update. Honestly, I’d been hoping for more news to report but again we’ve been at the weather’s mercy and progress has been dreadfully slow. We had our killing frost late last week, so that’s it for the growing season. Thankfully we did manage to harvest most if not all of the vegetables prior to freezing. Not what we’d call a banner year but we did enjoy fresh produce all summer long and have quite a few potatoes, onions, carrots and squash to put away and dip into as fall progresses. Not to mention many lessons learned to carry forward into next year.

And, of course, we’re still building. We were counting on being further along, but with torrential rains and freezing the season isn’t exactly building-friendly. Nonetheless we were out in layers of winter clothing this weekend and did manage to get some work done prior to, once again, getting rained out.

The plan is to get the two main domes up to the second floor level and close them off for the winter. One is done and we’re busting our asses to get the second done before first snowfall, hoping against hope that the prediction of snow for tomorrow is off by about two weeks. We also have to complete several rows at the front entrance in order to seal it off for the season.

I had planned to be working on the front entrance stairs today but… You guessed it- rain. On a more positive note, if we do manage to get a couple of weeks of decent weather I suspect that’s all it will take to meet our (adjusted) goal. And we have some really neat ideas that we’re moving ahead with for the second floor in the living room and what would amount to a wraparound storage shelf for the kitchen.

In the meantime, here are a few pictures of our home in progress. With any luck (and a whole bunch of work) we’ll have many more in the near future!

Stairs have since been started but not yet completed

Several more rows required before entrance can be capped for season

Only 3 more rows needed on the living room

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It’s been a while since an update and still I feel there’s not much “new” to report. (“What do you want to do today?” is kind of an ongoing joke around here- the answer being “how about we build some more?”) The weather is getting interesting again, being August and the end of our (altogether too short Canadian) summer. One day I was out working in a t-shirt and finding that entirely too much clothing for the +35 C temperature and the next it dropped to a high of 15 C. It’s been holding steady about there since.

So- what we have done is switched focus to one of the domes. They’re getting quite high and the corbel is progressing so better to put all our energies into one at a time and get these puppies up. The kitchen walls are now above door height, by a fair amount- I can’t recall the measurement offhand. We now have some experience with fan bags and keystones. Interesting process, but did slow us down a bit as they take longer to place and shape. A couple more rows and we’ll put in the loft space and remove the door forms- which’ll be fantastic as we weren’t thinking when we built them in three pieces and have had to crouch every time we move through.

The walls are officially too high for me to build on my own anymore. Shane has built some makeshift scaffolding but I don’t have the upper body strength to carry the amount of weight that’s in the buckets while climbing and then balance on the walls with them. (My fear of heights has kicked in as these are the same walls I had no trouble “balancing” on when they were several feet shorter. Of course, I have already fallen off a wall so the fear’s not entirely baseless.) So I’m relegated to plastering for now.

I’ve covered the bags with a very rough base coat, just enough to prevent UV damage, and I’ll focus on chinking this week. Not the easiest job (though I’m hard pressed to say what is) and I now see the value in paying as much attention to tamping the exterior of the building as the interior. We’re going to go through way more plaster as a result of inattention in the early stages.

That’s about it. Walls continue to climb, weather is a new kind of sucky, several new injuries, and we’re still trying to beat the clock… If we’re lucky we have about a month and a half before first frost. No pressure.

Coming along- soon we'll begin work on the loft

Front view- looks shorter than it is because of the sunken floor

Shane's scaffolding- not for the faint of heart

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The building has gotten quite difficult in the last while. I’m not sure that my ninja skills are entirely up to this task but I know there’s not much choice at this stage of the game. The combination of the height of the domes and the door and window frames being “in the way” have made for some tricky maneuvering and lots of climbing up and down (and up and down and up…). Not so long ago it was easy enough to just put the buckets of mix next to us on the ground, or along the wall, and heft them into the bags. But now the walls are so high that we’re having to climb with the buckets, and because of the frames we can’t simply line the buckets up on the wall. I did try leaping over a frame yesterday, unmindful to the fact that I was wearing sandals, and managed to stab myself in the foot with barbed wire as I came down on the other side and lost a shoe. The amount of blood was impressive. Alas, it won’t leave a sexy scar like the barbed wire that caught my neck and jaw the other week so I’m stuck with just the pain of walking on it right now.

Anyway, so the progress has become painfully slow. And it’s late in the season- I’m f*cking tired. And wondering why I didn’t just lie to Shane at the outset of our relationship and pretend to be one of those fluffy women, the kind who likes to lunch and get pedicures and sit sipping ice tea under the shelter of a big umbrella? That’s the problem when you marry your best friend- too late to lie. And then- this is the kicker- I’m the one who suggested that we could build our own house out of mud. “Why not? We can do it!” What the hell was I thinking? I don’t even get the satisfaction of asking, “who the heck came up with this bright idea?” Of course Shane is always suggesting that I “take a day off” and the thought is appealing, but I’m afraid that a day off would entail catching up on the housework I’ve put off for several months now. Ya, no thanks- I’ll keep working the site.

Technically, I’m breaking right now. We were ridiculously low on baked goods so I have cinnamon rolls baking in the oven and I get to rest for another fifteen minutes or so. But it’s at a price as I watch the temperature on the thermometer rising by the minute and dread how hot it’ll be on the site by the time these are done. What a scorching summer it’s been. So you get the picture- complain, complain, complain- breathe- complain some more. That sums up my attitude over the last few weeks. Don’t even get me started on how my body feels- our house currently weighs about 75 tons and that weight has been moved several times, from the gravel pit, to the cement mixer, to buckets, and into bags. I’m 5’7 and small boned (okay, whatever, ‘medium’ boned) for goodness sake- I’m not built for this shit.

For all my complaining, I was reminded yesterday of why I am doing all of this. As I stood on top of the dome wall in my underwear watching the blood drip off my foot and onto the bags below I heard a familiar shrill call and looked up to see two eagles circling. I stopped and took a deep breath in. Clean air. Eagles soaring above me. The sound of coyotes in the distance. Our garden overflowing with abundance next to the house we’re building. The house we’re building. On land that we’re giving back to instead of just taking from. Incredible. Such a long way from the city life we led not so long ago. And once we have this thing established we’ll be able to simply maintain it, and it will provide for all our needs- rather than going to work and having someone decide how much our time is “worth” only to turn around and spend said allotment on our needs… And I’ll get to spend all of my time with the coolest guy I’ve ever known- hanging out, tending the garden, keeping bees, learning…

Yeah- I guess it’s worth the blood, sweat and tears put into it now when you look at it that way.

Graceful like a ninja, or dancing bear

Man with the iron jaw

Almost over the frames

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