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Posts Tagged ‘earthbag building’

Earthbag Building Q & A

I was planning on beginning a photo series on the rock house build but a reader has prompted me in a different direction. I’ll do one last one on the earthbag build, as I still think they’re a great building method. I’ve taken Lynn’s questions from a previous post and answered them below. Great questions, Lynn, I hope I’ve answered them for you.

I know you’re not building another earthbag house, but if you were to do it again, what would you do differently? what would you plan differently? Would you do bigger pods? Second stories? more pods, less pods? Did having all your pods in a row, (in a row, east to west) facing south, work for you? or if you were to do it again, would you have them in a row north to south?

Bearing in mind that when we started it was an experiment to see if we could build an earthbag house and partway through we decided we would move into it, absolutely- there are things we’d do differently. The single biggest change that I would have made is that I would have stuck with the original floor plan, waaay back when we were considering an earthship design. Forgoing pods altogether. No circular rooms but a series of partial U’s with a wide connective space. (*Our current plan is entirely different and isn’t round or U-shaped, but I’m answering based on what I would have done with earthbags.)

The decision to go with round rooms was multi-faceted but largely owing to the fact that we’d never built an earthbag structure (outside of a simple sauna) and wanted it to be as sound as possible. Round is easy to work with and extremely sound. But (for me) that’s where the advantages ended.

The rooms were plenty big, but not well-planned given our lifestyle and different interests. Not a lot of space for a person to go off and do their own thing. That was kind of the headspace we were in at the time but not reflective our personalities. I would not put in a second story because we heat with wood, and another level would quite possibly necessitate another heat source which would be a pain in the a*s to keep fed. Having said that, I would have made the decision not to put in a second story earlier. Our ceilings are as high as they are not simply due to my partiality to cathedral ceilings but owing to the fact that we had intended a second floor and abandoned the idea only partway through the build.

I would still align East-West with the biggest windows south facing- there’s no way I would recommend North-South in our part of the world (Alberta, Canada). That would result in plenty o’wind and next to no sun here, which would’ve been a disaster.
If the north walls had not been completely bermed, do you think you would have still had the humidity problem in summer? It sounds like you did not have a humidity problem in winter, what with the wood stove to dry things out, and in fact you needed to put water on the stove to add humidity (which I think is pretty normal when you’re heating with a woodstove). Do you think berming the north side is essential for staying warm in winter? If you could go back and put ventilation on the north side, how would you have done it?

I don’t think the berming had anything to do with the humidity. The walls are solid and a foot and a half thick and there are only windows on one side of the building, making air movement pretty much nonexistent. It was humid before we had a tractor and could complete the berming.

I don’t think berming is necessary, but that’s my opinion and you’ll hear (as we did) a lot of people insist that it absolutely is. And maybe in the Arctic it is- I don’t know. But I do feel that a lot of people south of us have some pretty wild ideas about what you need to do to weather-proof a “northern” home. We erred on the side of extreme caution and took all of those knowledgeable opinions on but I think some of it, like the berming, was overkill.

If I’d any idea how humid it could get, I’d have put small- carefully placed- windows on the north side. We were warned against north-facing windows for our climate and given our lack of experience we just went with that advice but in retrospect I’d have ignored it. Not tiny little vents but small windows.
I think in one of your posts you said you put a extra sort of pod on the north side of the pods for food storage… is that correct? did that work for you, or did you find that food froze in there? Did you find yourself wanting more room for food storage? Would you have made a bigger area for that?

We dedicated an entire pod to water and food/supplies storage. Because we rely on rainwater for drinking and cooking, we need to store our water over winter. The pod was off the kitchen, almost as far away from the woodstove as you could get, and a good sized room in itself (14′). We did have some freezing issues when we left for two weeks in the winter. Other than that, it stayed cool, probably around the 12-16 C mark throughout the winter (our winter temperatures range from 0 down to -40, the average being between -15 and -20).

A dream redesign of the entire thing (see our next house) would see the water stored in a protected area outside of the house and a small containment for root vegetables.
Do you think it would have been better to use insulation, or some insulation, in the building of the earthbag house? if so, in what areas?

Not really. We insulated the ceiling- I mean seriously insulated it- and I would highly recommend that. But I think insulating foot and half thick walls is overkill. There will be people who disagree but I’ve lived in the house, over winter, so my opinion is based on my experience. It takes for.ev.er. for heat or cold to move through those walls.
If you could do the roof any way you wanted, pretending that you have enough time to do it, how would you have done it? What way do you think is actually best?

I like the look of reciprocal roofs, but the standard gable is easy (relatively speaking). We took in a lot of opinions at the time and the general consensus from experienced builders was gable. Not as pretty but easier to work with (surprisingly, to us, given the rooms are round), easier to leak-proof, and to protect the walls.
You recommend not going with a natural plaster unless a person likes replastering every year. Do you think you would have had as much trouble with the plastering as you did, if you hadn’t put an initial coat on that had clay in it?

I’m not sure I quite understand this question. Had we gone with lime at the onset? Maybe. But lime is tricky to work with too. It’s not ideally suited for our dry, windy climate. Maybe on the interior but still… It’s a good amount of work and tending.

And I should say again, this is entirely subjective. I’ve met people who really love to plaster. They enjoy the process, some even find it meditative, they don’t mind tending it… I just don’t. I like to do things quickly and efficiently and then never do it again- that’s just my personality. And I’ve had mild arthritis in my hands since I was a teenager so I really don’t like tasks that require me to hold my hands and wrists in a particular way for hours on end, never mind repeat the whole process.

If I was doing it over, I’d have gone with cement. At the time we were trying to be as environmentally responsible as possible and weren’t even considering cement as an option. But cement- all the way. A good cement mix sticks to the bags really well, seals, dries nicely, isn’t finicky, doesn’t require patching… That would have been a better fit for me.

That’s my best shot at answering those questions and my last post on earthbag building. I hope that combined with my many other posts, I’ve covered off our experience adequately. The next posts will be on building with rock. Thanks, Lynn, for the questions and thanks to all of you for following and contributing along the way.

house_2

 

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I have a ridiculously short attention span. I’ve probably mentioned that before. I’ve done, what I consider, well with maintaining this blog over a three year period but I’m finding it increasingly difficult to come back to with all of my other interests taking priority. Anyway, it occurred to me that I have not updated this page since our mass heater fiasco and the ensuing mad dash to replace it with a working stove.

After all of the effort required to take this project this far though, I do intend to finish it with our experiences actually living in the off-grid home we worked so hard to complete. So you can expect, sporadic (as usual) updates over the winter and into the spring and we’ll see how I feel about writing anything more (on this subject) at that point.

We’re doing fine- I’ll start with that as I keep getting asked. We’re not freezing. Quite the opposite- there are times when I have to strip down because it’s so hot in here, but I am absolutely not complaining. The humidity that some of my readers were wondering about is pretty much non-existent, with the wood stove drying things out enough that I have to keep a pot of water on the stove to add humidity.

Our solar power is serving us quite nicely, but we don’t have the loads that we did at the other house. More on this in another blog. Suffice to say that I don’t worry about having lights on, or running my computer (and Shane’s five computers), or the speakers, or the fridge and freezer. (Though I will say that Shane’s constant hovering is enough reminder to conserve energy, in addition to being annoying.) We do, however, have generators just in case, or to equalize the batteries during the long, dark winter.

I’m still adjusting to using a wood stove for all of my cooking. My breads turn out beautifully, as do pizzas, stews, stir fries. More precise cooking (like my delicate cookies, or yoghurt) will take a while to perfect. Sometimes I am beyond impressed with my newfound abilities and other times I can be found swearing a blue streak in front of the stove. It’s alright though- I have been swearing a blue streak over something since I was yea high; if it weren’t the stove it’d be something else. “Hot little pistol with a potty mouth,” is how Shane sometimes describes me, which simultaneously makes me laugh and creeps me out (who uses the expression “potty mouth”??).

Bearing in mind that this entire thing was one grand experiment for us, a couple of ‘city folk’ trying to see just how far we could take an off-grid lifestyle, we’re doing quite well overall. I haven’t taken photographs of the entire interior yet but I’ll leave you with a view of our living room. It’s not finished (since our rocket mass heater demolition) but it’s as finished as it will be until spring.

LRoom
LRoom2

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Do you remember how glowingly I spoke of rocket mass heaters? How excited I was to have one as the primary heating system in our home? And it wasn’t just me- Shane was equally enthusiastic about the technology, possibly even more so. The potential to build our own heating system, for relatively little money, the possibility of storing heat in mass- that would in turn provide a cozy sitting area, the efficiency of the burn, our very positive experiences with rocket stoves– all of these qualities made rocket mass heaters extremely attractive to us. Add to that the fanfare, oh the fanfare

Well I can’t stand rocket mass heaters. I would never build another one, unless I had an immense amount of time on my hands with absolutely nothing better to do and wanted an outdoor bench as a novelty item to be used periodically in the cooler fall months. And I’ll tell you why…

They are extremely finicky. It can be exciting during the build: getting the measurements just right, reshaping the bell chamber, getting the length of run perfect for maximum efficiency. Sure, it wears on a person after a while, but there is immense satisfaction in finally getting the bloody thing just right. That rocket sound when everything is working perfectly- WOW! But don’t get too excited- just because it’s perfect, doesn’t mean that it will work all the time.

If there is a strong wind, or say very cold temperatures (hello Canadian prairie!) all bets are off. Now you’ll have to fight a down-draft, or a nice column of very heavy cold air. Good luck getting that thing started. Oh sure, you can open a window to rebalance the air pressure, install a fan in the pipe to try and combat the problem- and if you’re persistent (like Shane) you may even get it started. This time. But try again the next morning when your wife has already moved out in frustration and you’re feeling blue- and very cold.

And then there’s the fact that you must not have any other occupation. This is perhaps appealing to some- say monks, or hobbits- who might have all day to contemplate life and feed the fire. But the average person cannot sit by the feed tube all day long, feeding the endlessly hungry beast little pieces of wood lovingly chopped down to (again) just the right size. I can only imagine what was going through Shane’s head (because again- I wasn’t here) but I’m betting it wasn’t, “man am I glad to have all of this time away from all of the other tasks on my list. I hope that I can do this every day.”

And then there are the marvellous fumes. You can’t actually close the top of the stove, for very long anyway, because you need to keep feeding it (remember?) and it needs a bit of air. This is no sealed unit you’re dealing with. So if you have breathing problems to start with, or allergies, you’ll enjoy hours of feeling like someone has your lungs in an iron grip and is slowly squeezing the air out.

There are positives. The mass does actually retain the heat for a good while. And since you can’t leave the heater during your waking hours you will get to enjoy that cozy warmth under your bum, periodically, when you’re not up and feeding the thing more sticks. But that mass does relatively little to add heat to a cold room. And it is indeed efficient- there is hardly any ash left over after burning piles and piles of expertly chopped sticks. And you can shape it to look like a dinosaur, or a mermaid, if that’s your thing.

Unfortunately the negatives far outweighed the positives for me. We tore the f*cking thing out and replaced it with a Blaze King Princess (thank you Analogman, for the very helpful advice and support). Guess what? The house is perfectly comfortable now, and it’s only been in two days. Last night, in fact, I was broiling while we watched movies in our new home and had to strip off the layers of clothing I was convinced would become my new second skin. The fire was still going this morning and kept the temperature of the house comfortable enough that I don’t even require layers. Shane didn’t even need to add wood right away- he just increased the temperature and the fire burst back into life. Yes Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

There’s been no fumes, no leaks, no fighting down-drafts, no fighting air pressure, no swearing and threatening to leave the country for warmer climes (though I could use a vacation after all of our troubles)… Imagine that. Just warmth and comfort.

And before any rocket mass heater fans (I know you’re out there- and fanatical) write me about how we should have stuck it out, or tried a few more things- save it. The reason we embarked on this experiment was because- between a technologist and scientist- we’re game to try out just about any neat sounding idea. And we understand that no experiment goes right the first time, or the second time, and sometimes not the twelfth, or the twentieth time. We’re perfectly comfortable with reworking a project dozens of times to get the predicted results. We’re very accustomed to making adjustments, and careful measurements counting. The build was perfect but this idea does not deliver. Not in our climate and not, in my opinion, as a safe and effective indoor option. And no- I wouldn’t use it in a greenhouse either (as we at one time planned on doing) because I don’t expect to want to sit in a greenhouse long enough to get the mass up to the right temperature to be helpful.

I have a lot of cleaning to do now. Taking out a huge section of the mass heater made quite the mess and there’s dust everywhere. But I can comfortably do that now- in my underwear if I so choose. 🙂

shane

*I’d be remiss if I didn’t say a special thanks to Chad at Fireplace Stove World, in Edmonton, who was immensely helpful and patient with me, even though the road conditions (and lack of heat in days, feelings of total hopelessness, etc) had me in a terrible state by the time I got there. Thank you.

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I have never struggled with knowing the right thing to say. Quite the contrary, I believe I’d have been a wonderful speech writer or political strategist. Someone behind the curtain as it were. And that is because though I know what to say, how to spin something, I have terrible difficulty actually getting the words out of my mouth. I get much more credit for speaking plainly.

So. We moved into the new house this week. Three long, hard years of building and at last we’re in. This is where I should say that I am so grateful that all of our hard work has paid off and I absolutely love the new digs. Especially as compared to Mouse-House (named for the plentiful rodents that keep making their way indoors) where we’ve made due during the construction phase.

“I’m enjoying not only the fruits of our labour but the pioneering aspects of our new life, such as hauling wood and starting a fire in the morning to cut through the chilly air.” But that would remind me of the time a good fellow in Oregon told me that we would “fall in love with the healthy and abundant vegetarian fare served during the course of the weeklong workshop.” A special way of describing the pots of beige and of green mush served for every meal, all week long. I have (almost) never been so desperate for a steak or something- anything- that I could chew in my life.

The fact is- I am not happy, yet. I’m f*cking cold to be brutally honest. And I cannot stand to be cold. Many (many) years ago I spent a period of time on the streets, homeless. Not a lot of people know that about me and I don’t spend much time thinking about it, but I did make myself two promises all those years ago. That when I finally made my way out of that situation I would never go hungry or cold again. (I’ve since added I will never again live with rodents to the list.)

The rocket mass heater that worked so beautifully last year is completely useless at the moment. And it was our main source of heat for the living room, which borders our bedroom. It is brutal in there. My shoulders are sore by mid-morning from crunching them up to my ears. I’ve taken to warming bricks on the wood stove and packing them inside of rice sacks so that I can at least keep my feet warm in living room. But I hate it. Hate, hate, hate it.

Now I’m pretty rough and tumble as a general rule. I can work like nobody’s business, I’m fine with injuries, long hours, the sight of my blood has never bothered me- or slowed me down for that matter. I’m who you want around if there is a serious crisis, or if you’ve suffered a severe injury. Unless you’re looking for a nursemaid, or require coddling- then I’m definitely not your girl. But if it falls into the category of “hungry” or “cold” (and now “mouse-infested”) I am one of the most vocal, whiniest b*tches you ever want to meet.

I don’t know how many times a person can say, “I can’t live like this” in four days but I’m sure I’ve already hit a record and the day’s not done yet. This morning I actually said to Shane that, “I guess my new retirement plan is just to die young because I’m sure I’ll be completely crippled and useless by 50 at this rate.” It was a struggle to get the words out without my own mouth dropping open from the absurdity and overblown nature of the statement but I kept a straight face- because it’s important to me to look earnest when I’m in full-on whining mode.

You might wonder how Shane is holding up to all of this. Remarkably well, but he is the strongest person I have ever met- and I say that having very high standards of what rates. He has a higher tolerance for cold than I do, by a long shot. And he’s very easy going, so he’s sure that we will solve this problem. I’m probably wearing on him more quickly than any other hardship will. And if I’m being honest- I’m only partly bothered by that, because I need him to fix this and now. There’s not a lot that I need help with, or will admit to, but by the time I get to seeking Shane’s help it’s because I want it done yesterday.

It’s a lot of pressure to put on one guy. Before you send me comments, you should know that I’m aware of that. And I do- somewhat- feel badly about that. I have bursts of, “oh we can do this- we’ve handled tougher” and other sunshiney bullsh*t moments. And those are strictly for his benefit. So I’m trying as best as I can. There are some things that I’ve even enjoyed about the new house- and once I’m in better spirits I’ll share those with you. But in the meantime, I’m cold. (Well, not at this very moment because I’m back at Mouse House, with the heat cranked so high that I could easily walk around naked.)

So- not exactly a ringing endorsement for this pioneering lifestyle that we’ve embarked on. As I started with- I could tell a different, and still true, story that might make you want to join us on this quest for a more simple, environmentally friendly life. And I’m sure over time that I will. But it doesn’t happen to be what I’m feeling in this moment, so you’re left with the harsher side of reality for today.

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It’s true. Or at least that’s how it feels. I work ungodly hours on a daily basis, ramping up- not down- on weekends, and yet it seems nothing ever reaches completion. The farmers around here laugh and quip, “welcome to the neighbourhood”. I don’t find that particularly funny so I can only assume they’re laughing at, and not with, me.

Well, today that came to an end. I actually completed a project, and what felt like a monumental one at that. I placed the last of the shingles on the roof today. I shingled the whole thing by myself, having had no experience going in. I have to admit a feeling of immense self-satisfaction.

The satisfaction is amplified by the amount of work it took to even get to shingling. We began with three round rooms of varying heights, sloped for drainage, and built two gable roofs that come together at the bedroom. No easy task. In fact, I can in all honesty say that blood, sweat and tears went into the building.

Some of you will note that this is no longer an entirely ‘green building’. True enough. While we continued to salvage and reuse what we could find at various transfer sites, those are indeed new shingles (made only in part of recycled materials) and we did of course need to purchase a certain amount of new wood. A lack of viable and timely options (and a mouse issue, which I may share at a later date but am entirely too happy to right now) necessitated deviating from the plan. I’m okay with it. There’s been next to zero waste which compares extremely well next to traditional construction and what few scraps I have left over are in the shop waiting to be used on other projects.

I have lots of other news that I’ll probably (maybe?) get to at a later date but I’m rewarding myself today with a partial day off. I think I’ll read a chapter or two of a book, or maybe just lie flat on my back on the living floor for an hour or so. Tomorrow we’ll be back to work again.

before

me

ridge+

house

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Once again, it’s been a while. I’ve been busy making considerable changes/additions to my life and have been somewhat on the fence about sharing those in a blog. Not because of any privacy issues but because this is, after all, primarily a blog about natural building and sustainable living, though my political views occasionally figure. Suffice to say I’ve been distracted by my other pursuits and made the decision to let Canadian Dirtbags slide for a while.

 

So what are we planning for the building season? Well, a greenhouse addition for starters. Someone had asked a little bit back whether we intended to go ahead with original plans to add a greenhouse and I believe I hemmed and hawed over the decision. I am getting somewhat tired of building all the time and wasn’t sure whether “more building” was something I was entirely into. I also have an extensive garden to tend that I haven’t had much time for, and plans to incorporate bees, and perhaps ducks and geese, maybe even a goat or two, plus- ooh la la- some time for me perhaps. So much to do, so little time! At least in Canada where all of the seasons but winter are short.

 

Having said that, we decided that food production was too critical a matter to slack off on. Especially since some of the changes I’ve made in the last while mean that we’re no longer purchasing any refined or processed foods and are instead going with Michael Pollan’s suggestion to, “eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants.” (If any of you have read “In Defense of Food”, let me know what it was like- I haven’t read it.) And since we are juicing as well as eating, we are going through a lot of produce.*

 

We have pretty much settled on, but not yet purchased, the Rion sunroom. It is not (in my books anyway) cheap but it will save considerable time scavenging and framing to just buy the thing new. We are leaning towards the 14’ model, since our summers are scorching and winters are lengthy. Anything larger than that could be an utter waste of space.

 

We will be building the back (north) side of the structure with earthbags for ease of construction and to provide some good solid mass. We haven’t finalized the plan yet but will be building with the intention of integrating an aquaponics/hydroponics system at a later date. Shane is quite interested in those things and I’m happy to leave him to it. I have seen the results of growing produce hydroponically, as opposed to traditionally, and they do seem to outperform.

 

If you have seen the pictures of the house, the completed structure will look just like that but with a greenhouse extending 14 feet on the east side of the building, connected by a central foyer. The entire back of the building(s) will be bermed and the long stretch along the south will have an extended garden. I’m excited to see the plan complete this year!

 

riongreenhousekit.com photo

riongreenhousekit.com photo

*I will write a post later about how to use veg pulp from juicing. We’ve found so many uses already!

 

 

On a totally unrelated note: I hope that many of our readers will be joining in the One Billion Rising movement today. When one in three women on the planet will be beaten and/or raped in her lifetime, this is a global issue- not a ‘female’ one. There have been actions all over the world today- including in Manila where 15 blocks were shut down for the mass of women and men dancing in solidarity! If you have not heard of this revolution, I encourage you to visit the One Billion Rising website.

 

 

 

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Well, having taken the time to post a rant I figure it is probably high time to update our friends about the actual building progress. Long story short- we’re not in and won’t be until spring. Short story long, see below…

As of mid-November we were still planning on moving into the new place this winter. And then I hit a wall. Upon heading outside in the mornings I started to feel like if I had to spend one more freaking day toiling I was going to break down in tears. I was kicking at the snow and muttering clever things like, “stupid house!” From April until November the schedule had been: get up, go to work (house and garden), come home, make supper, pass out, repeat. Which might not have been so bad except that I determined (in my infinite wisdom) to work seven days a week at the beginning of the year. Previous years I’d taken time to dirt bike, read, visit with friends- what a difference a little down time makes.
Anyway, add to that my inability to complete floors and ceilings on my own and the decision was made to postpone the move. Having had a month off physical labour, I’m ready for spring and excited to go again but hey… The decision was made.
I’ve had a lot of questions about what the temperature in the new house is like and don’t feel qualified to answer at this time. Because we haven’t moved in, we’re not heating it regularly. Shane fires up the stove and heater (sometimes) when he goes out but there have been weeks when we haven’t even gone inside. The wood stove in the kitchen does heat things up quite a bit (and quickly). The mass heater takes longer to heat things up but stays warm quite a bit longer. And the passive solar in the living room does add a good amount of heat to the room.
We will finish up berming in the spring. Our intention is to berm at least 3/4 of the way up the buildings on the north, east and west sides leaving only the south side exposed. We didn’t have time to berm very high this year before the snow fell but you can already tell the difference in temperature between what’s exposed and what’s ‘underground’. I suspect that because we didn’t insulate, the berming will be critical to the liveability of the house. We’re actually considering buying a small tractor (wheeeeee!!!) and, if we do, that should move things along nicely compared to our manual shovel-work.
Of my “lessons learned” from the year, I would say that the importance of berming in a northern climate ranks near the top. (And don’t work seven days a week for seven months straight.) The other two big ones: we should have gone with larger (or more) windows in the kitchen and maybe the bedroom (solar gain in the living room is drastically better and does add a good deal of ‘natural’ heat); and deciding to put a room on the north side at last minute, in spite of advice, was not the best idea. It’s very cold in there. We will insulate the room come spring (from the outside) in addition to berming and that should save it.  I also think that building lower would not only have saved time but also been more efficient insofar as heating. Granted, we hadn’t intended cathedral ceilings so much as belatedly changed our minds about a second story and decided to throw a roof up… In any case, it looks fabulous but a shorter building would have done.
Like every other year, the experience wouldn’t be complete without a few lessons learned. 🙂
snowy-house

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