Posts Tagged ‘natural building’

As often happens on the acreage my carefully laid plans for the day went sideways this morning, a result of nature’s more urgent plans. A massive storm swept through the area last night and although there was not much damage, the beautiful sunflower patch that was only just beginning to bloom was hit hard. Had I planted the patch myself, I’d have probably just resigned myself to the fact that sh*t happens and moved on. It just so happens that I have a particular affinity for this little plot of towering flowers because it wasn’t me at all who planted it. The birds did.

I planted several sunflowers last year, a half dozen at most, to see how they’d fare in this environment. Four of them made it, growing to about eight feet tall. I planned on harvesting the seed and replanting this year but when I went to retrieve the seed there was none. Not a single seed left. I checked the garden around them but nothing. No surprise really- we have a tremendous number of birds that both live on the property and migrate through. They’re why, although I have a number of berry bushes, I never have any berries. Fair enough.

In early spring of this year, I noticed a good number of plants growing in areas where I hadn’t planted anything. Dill and borage have largely taken over the “lawn”, with patches of milk thistle and mint spread throughout. Some of this is due to moving gardens and letting things go to seed without harvesting them, some is due to wind, birds and other critters. The sunflower patch must be entirely due to the birds and because of the lovely surprise that it was to find them growing (and all in a relatively concentrated patch with the odd outlier), I feel somewhat obliged to take care of them. So I spent the first part of the day replanting and staking them. With any luck they’ll take and continue growing.

As for the building- we’ve been working on the roof almost exclusively, another unexpected change in plans. “A roof?” you might ask, “didn’t you already have a roof?” Why yes, yes we did. And do. This will be roof-part-deux. The last one was insufficient. While it kept the weather out well enough, I was not thinking about protecting the lime plaster that I spent soooo much time on last year, and the fact that the lime was on top of a clay plaster, which incidentally melts in water. My brain power returns only in the off-season when the round the clock hard labour slows, so… A roof. That’s what I’m working on and will hopefully have an update on that any day now (not likely).

A final note- I have no idea what several of the wild plants are that grow out here. If you can identify any of the plants below (apart from the obvious sunflower), would you mind letting me know what they are?


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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. 🙂

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We live on the prairie so wood is hard to come by. Not so for pallets though- it seems there are always a surplus of pallets being thrown away. We collect them wherever we go. We even have a friendly store owner who saves them out back for us.

Of the many uses we’ve found for our pallets: perfect firewood for the rocket mass heater, a temporary front landing for our new home (perfect for scraping off muddy boots), compost bins, bins for sand, and sturdy platforms for our lime and cement bags (to protect them from moisture). We’re also planning on using a few in the construction of a new dog house and recently came across a great idea for “pallet gardening” on Grow Food, Not Lawns facebook page.
Gotta love it when free stuff turns out to be so darn useful!

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Well, the updates continue to be slow to come and sparse on detail but that’s because we are still working away. I had hoped we’d be in by now, with only floors and ceiling to complete before we could start moving stuff over. Who knew floors and ceiling would be so challenging in round(ish) rooms? We were going to go with a natural feel to the floors, a lime finish, but changed our minds at last minute. Partly for the convenience of cleaning and in part for the extra buffer from the cold we decided on a dark laminate flooring (I know, I know- not very ‘natural’ but gorgeous) and it turns out I suck at cutting laminate floor boards, much as I love the power tools. 

Our ceiling took us a while to decide on. All of the aesthetically pleasing options seemed too rich for my blood and the cheaper options were not at all appealing. We finally settled on buying 3/8 inch plywood, cutting it down into ‘planks’ and staining them a cedar colour. Very pretty effect and well within budget. Since I was ‘off’ floors and able to finish insulating the place, I decided to try my hand at ceilings. I wasn’t particularly discouraged the first couple of times I had to take down an entire day’s work and replace it. I’m used to the whole trial and error thing at this point in the game and I’m nothing if not tenacious. But having viewed my latest efforts Shane demoted reassigned me to chopping firewood. 
Fine. I’m good with an axe after years of camping and I don’t mind chopping wood all day. Not as fond of the hatchet but I’m mixing up the bigger logs and smaller kindling to give my shoulders a break. But it does mean that the entire burden of finishing the house is on Shane now, and that’s slowed us down a fair bit considering he does work full-time. Nonetheless, he’s making good progress and with any luck we’ll be in some time in December. I hope. 

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rock wall & garden


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Once again woefully behind on my updates but the good news is- we’re finished! At least the structure itself. We laid the last earthbag in early August, finished the cob office by September and I just finished the interior base plaster on October 2nd. (We’ll finish with a tinted final plaster next spring, and tadelakt finish the floor, but it’ll do for now.)

Last night we fired up the mass heater and spent hours enjoying the fruits of our labour. The living room is quite spacious and we’ve decided to leave it that way. It’s nice having room enough for a dance floor right in the middle of our living space and the acoustics in the building are wicked! And I love how multifunctional our new couch is! Heats up our bums, throws enough radiant heat to heat a good portion of the room, boils our tea and even makes toast. (I’m actually really looking forward to finding out just how much food I can prepare on the mass heater alone.)
We’re not quite done yet. We still have to put the insulation and rafters up. We’re working on a low rock wall that surrounds the south side of the building and moving several (more) tons of earth for the garden it will support. We’re a long (long) way off having our solar panels mounted and our electrical system in place. But our house is up, the berming is pretty much complete for this year, the mass heater is working nicely, and our wood stove is in place so what’s left on the list seems like nothing compared to the work that’s reached completion.

Toasty couch 🙂

Entrance to office

A couch that makes tea!

Pioneer Maid

**My apologies to the many people I’ve neglected to respond to in the last while- I’m working my way through your messages this morning and will do my best to get back to you before heading out. Still lots to finish up and I am really aiming for completion before the snow flies after which I’ll have more detailed updates and try to stay more on top of correspondence.**

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Just a quick update… We haven’t commenced building yet as winter drags on until the bitter end. We’re still hitting lows of -10 at night and have been hit pretty hard by blizzards a few times in recent weeks. Still, the weather has been nice enough (relatively speaking) to get some things started outside.

With four cats it was difficult to keep the gardens free of cat shit last year- and we’ve since added a dog- so fencing seemed appropriate. We fenced off one large area to which I added a good bit of garden space and started fencing another with preexisting gardens. Hopefully those will help. I’ve started a bunch of seeds in anticipation that are coming up nicely.

We also decided to add a pond, to take advantage of a naturally low spot on the property and divert some of the run off. It’s working out nicely so far. The last heavy snow fall we had melted to fill the pond nicely rather than leaving behind a more general flood plain as it has in past.

Say what you will about scavenging- we picked up a nifty couch and chair set with matching foot stool that I’m pretty happy about. A little cleaning up and voila– good as new. The especially nice thing is the narrowness of the couch. I think I mentioned that we accidentally built some of our doorways on the narrow side and I was beginning to think we wouldn’t get anything through there, when lo and behold we came across the perfect size furniture at the dump. We also grabbed a decent heavy wood coffee table that I may refinish to match things and loads of rain gutters for future projects.

Speaking of rain- we picked up four 55 gallon rain barrels on the cheap in Calgary. Much better deal buying used soap drums (fully cleaned and outfitted with taps) than had we bought “rain barrels” sold as such at the hardware store. I’m quite looking forward to installing them out front.

We also finalized our building plans after much discussion and consideration. A bit of a departure from our last plans but we’ll stick with one large, bi-level room at the back of the house to keep things as tight as possible. That’s a little more in keeping with our original plan to distribute heat as evenly as possible and keep electric and water distribution to a very simple plan. A small wood storage alcove off the living room will finish things off nicely.

That’s about it for now- busy, busy. Can’t wait to start building but in the meantime we’ve got plenty o’ work to keep us going.

living rm set

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I was asked the other day whether I had any advice or tips for earthbag building. I’ve copied some items from a previous article I’d written and added to it. These are some of the (often hard earned) lessons we’ve learned and suggestions based on our experience:

*Build a ‘trial’ structure first if at all possible. It can be a shed, a sauna- just something small that you can get some practice in on. The time it will take to build something small will undoubtedly pay off in time saved (and lessons learned) on your future home.

*Nail down the barbed wire to keep it from moving, fence staples work really well. There’s a tip for holding down wire using twine and bricks in Doni and Kaki’s “Earthbag Building” book that’ll work if you’re really trying to keep costs to a minimum but our own experience is that the staples are worth the cost.

*Rinse the cement mixer immediately after use, and at least once during the day, for easier cleaning. Don’t own a cement mixer? Seriously consider buying a small one- the time you’ll save is more than worth the couple hundred dollars you’ll spend. It’s my favourite tool.

*Mix gravel and cement first, dry, and then add clay- so that the clay doesn’t just stick to itself. Presift the clay into wheelbarrows so that there’s lots on hand.

*Be careful with moisture content. You want the mix damp enough that it will form a brick once tamped, but not wet enough that water leaks from the bag when tamped, or wet enough that the bag changes shape under pressure.

*Tamp the sides of tubes/bags, not just the top. This will eliminate that wavy look that you see on some buildings and drastically cut your plaster.

*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 if using tubing. If you’re using bags- turn them inside out and stack them ahead of time.

*Fill tubes straight, and twist along arc. Don’t try to fill them ‘on a curve’.

*Use good weather and daylight for building, bad weather and evenings for prep and planning. Have a well formulated “to-do-list” and check it often.

*Don’t make plans/commitments during the building season and be prepared to be a weather watcher. No matter what amount of time you’ve ‘reserved’ for building- it will probably take longer than that.

*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. Seriously a good tip.

*Have lots of buckets on hand for transporting mix.

*Scavenge throughout the year- start now. Instead of strictly looking for things that you know you need, ask yourself “what could this be?” about the materials you come across. You may be surprised.

*Prepare meals ahead of time. There is nothing quite like putting in 12 hour days on the site only to have to come inside and prepare dinner instead of collapsing in front of an already made meal.

*Get in shape prior to the build. Unless you’re one of the lucky ones, with a team of six or more people- this is going to hurt. Better to be prepared for it.

*Mix up tasks to work different muscles. Prepare mixes for a while, tamp for a while, sift clay for a while- even watering the garden occasionally will help keep your body as strong as possible for the work day.

*Lower levels can be worked by a single person but the higher you go, the more likely it is that you need a partner.

*Remember the importance of compression. Do not tamp 2 or 3 bags at a time because you’ll lose some of that tension. I did that once I got up fairly high on the wall because it was easier to manage alone but the rows did not come out as strong and sections had to be replaced. Also- if you have to leave a row unfinished- tamp a puzzle like shape into the end of the bag where you’re leaving off. This will give your next bag something to key into when you come back to it.

*If you get summers like ours, you’ll be tempted to wear sandals instead of a heavier shoe. My experience with this is that sandals can get stuck on barbed wire and come right off on the wall, leaving you barefoot and navigating a barbed wire wall, quite possibly while carrying heavy loads. Equally fun and considerably more painful- accidentally tamping bare toes.

*Round is sound- round rooms are the strongest you can build, but make sure to use a centre pole. Check and recheck your measurements on a regular basis. If you are doing straight walls, make sure to check they are actually straight as you continue adding rows and build in buttressing to support the walls. Don’t attempt irregularly shaped rooms. We haven’t tried them ourselves but from what we’ve seen of others’ experience, it rarely works out well.

*Stagger (offset) bags from row to row to add strength to your walls.

*Plaster as you go, every few rows or so. You need to protect your bags from UV damage but you also don’t want to be trying to plaster extremely large areas in one shot, because again- it’ll take more time than you’ve estimated.

*Chances are you will have some sections that are a little low, or a little high. It happens. If you’re a bit low overstuff the bag that lies above it, tamping the mix into the bag as you go, so that it tamps down a little less than a ‘regular’ bag once you lay it. Conversely, pack the bag a little looser for a thinner bag.

*Bear in mind that the window and door forms are going to have a lot of pressure (from tamping) coming in on them. Put supports inside the forms to keep them from warping. Also- build your doorways wide enough to fit any furniture or appliances through (oops!).

*If you are at all lacking confidence in producing your own building plans along with all of the accompanying calculations, there are some very good and extremely reasonably priced plans on the Earthbag Building site, available either in PDF format or AutoCAD files.

*If you are producing your own plans- plan for everything. You want to consider everything from sun angle (for solar gain), to predominant winds (for passive cooling and ventilation), venting for batteries if you’re going off-grid, building in nooks for storage of aesthetic purposes, views from windows, water capture, proximity to other structures on the property… There is a lot to take into consideration, from site selection to the actual building. Take your time and review your plans several times.

*I’ve found that my work day passes a lot more quickly when I have my MP3 player loaded up with a mix of interesting podcasts and good music. A bit of a side-note, if you’re going to work in your underwear and wear headphones it’s a good idea to look up every now and then to make sure you’re still alone. Then again, you’ll get your road graded a lot more often if you disregard this tip.

* Also, the Wonderwoman (or Superman) complex that you will inevitably develop after a really good period of building is a little dangerous to entertain for extended periods of time. My new rules include: if there’s blood involved it’s a good time to break, and if it really hurts try not to do it more than three times in a row.

I think that’s about all that I have. The earlier in the season that you start building, the better obviously. Things like rain-days and days when the temperature is above 35 degrees will definitely impact your plans, as will unexpected injuries. Leave yourself as much room as possible.

Oh, and don’t forget to congratulate yourself on a regular basis. You’re doing something a lot of people will never experience- you rock! Happy building!

Our roof is double anchored because we're in a high wind area

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When we first embarked on our investigative journey into natural building and sustainable living, we were amazed by the diversity of people involved in the lifestyle. I suppose I went in with a lot of the preconceptions that we encounter ourselves today. I was somewhat surprised to find that there are as many ‘types’ of people involved in sustainable building and living practices as there are in any other field, or belief system.

The one common refrain seems to be concern for the planet. Whether they came to it by necessity, passion, practicality, or concern, everyone we have met has claimed a deep concern for the planet, for our environment and our impact on it. Similarly, many claim an equal concern for the planet’s inhabitants.

That all sounds very good but it didn’t take long to realize that self-concern rates higher for a lot of this group than many would like to admit. I would argue at least as high as that of our consumer-minded brethren that many would like to distance themselves from, and are happy to point out the differences between.

I understand the need to make a living. Everybody has to get by, though the means may differ. But then don’t hold yourself up as a paragon of virtue, wandering around chanting in breathy tones about saving the planet and concern for your brother-man whilst your hand is in his pocket.

I could go on to list the number of individuals, organizations, cooperatives, and ‘movements’ that exploit their money making potential to the extreme- to the point that they exclude not only the poorest among us, but those below the upper-middle class. All the while wearing “save the planet” t-shirts and hemp friendship bracelets and tsk-tsk-tsk’ing after those mainstream sorts who are “all-about-the-money”. Puh-leaze, they’re just begging for an article all their own. But instead I’ll focus on those individuals who really walk the talk and make a real difference in the world, without requiring payment in advance…

Topping my list of oh-so-awesome world changers are Dr. Owen Geiger and Kelly Hart. These guys are amazing! With a wealth of natural building experience between them, they host several extremely informative sites (the Earthbag Building Blog is one of several) that answer pretty near any question you may have about building. And if you don’t see the answer to your question on one of their sites, ask away. They will actually answer you rather than directing you to “buy the book” or “take the course”.

Both Kelly and Owen show a real concern for the environment and for people and it shows in everything they do. Their hard won experience and wealth of knowledge is readily shared and easily accessed. Now that, to me, is integrity.

Ianto at work on a fireplace

Another, more elusive but no less altruistic individual, who immediately comes to mind is Ianto Evans. Ianto is a natural builder (with a definite preference for cob), landscape architect, ecologist, wild inventor and just plain all around great guy. You won’t find him online but you can take courses with him at Cob Cottage. Right, so this sounds like a contradiction, “I have to pay to talk to him??” Yes, yes you do. Unless you can’t. In which case you’re free to tag along on courses in exchange for work trade.

We went down to Oregon a few years ago to take a (very reasonably priced) course and it remains one of my most cherished experiences. We came away with more than simply new skills- it was a new way of looking at the world and our place in it. And while there were quite a few other ‘paid participants’, I was amazed at the number of people who dropped in for a day, or six, and simply pitched in with work. Time spent with Ianto is rich with information about not only the subject at hand, but his experience in building communities, alternative heating, permaculture gardening, and much more.

In connection with Cob Cottage, we met Kirk Mobert (aka Donkey), another natural builder and rocket stove enthusiast. While Donkey’s building experience is extensive, what he is at least as well known for is his experience with and passion for rocket stoves and heaters. You can often find him at Cob Cottage teaching or assisting in the Rocket Mass Heater course, he also has a forum online. Here you’ll find a wealth of information, questions and answers, based on his own experience and that of others all available *free of charge*.

One of my husband’s favourite sites is OtherPower, a site dedicated to informing people about alternative energy, primarily wind turbines. Taken directly from their home page, this says it all: “We could never have made it to our current level of electrification up here without the help of friends, neighbors–and folks we’ve never met, thanks to the internet. Our goal is to share our information about experimental successes and failures alike, free of charge, with anyone who is interested.”

These guys bring together an abundance of knowledge and experience that they readily share with the public. They’re informative, enthusiastic and friendly. Everything you’d expect of people trying to make a difference in the world. In fact- that’s true of everyone I’ve mentioned in this article.

Now, as I’ve alluded to, all of these people have books, services, courses and/or DVDs on offer for sale. Among the many offerings are Kelly Hart’s DVD Building with Bags: How We Made Our Experimental Earthbag/Papercrete House, Owen Geiger’s Earthbag Building Guide and accompanying DVD, as well as many (many!) building plans, Ianto Evans has the Hand Sculpted House and Rocket Mass Heaters: Super Efficient Woodstoves, Homebrew Windpower is available by Dan Bartmann and Dan Fink (the “OtherPower guys”), along with hands-on courses… and much, much more.

There are too many things to list here, all to help you in the course of becoming self-sufficient and sustaining. However, if you are unable to afford products and/or services offered- all of these people have made their assistance publicly available in the interest of serving the community. How absolutely fan-frickin-tabulous are they? So guess who’s stuff I’m willing to pay for? I hope that you will too.

Feel free to list your favourite people who offer services and/or support for *free* (or close to it) in the comments section. Let’s support the people who support the people.

Donkey & a rocket water heater

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Okay- it’s been a while. Long time friends and readers are patient with me and don’t seem to think much of the delay between articles and I appreciate that, immensely. I’m introverted. I sometimes take long periods of ‘alone-time’ to recover my energy. Let’s just say I think it’s time to reconsider holiday commitments as they’re taking longer and longer to recover from.

I haven’t been unproductive though. Planning continues for the build and I think we’re pretty close to finalizing our drawings. The extension will include workspaces for both Shane and myself, an ‘expandable’ spare bedroom, the main entrance, and the battery room. We got an amazing deal of windows at Gienow ($4,200 dollars worth of windows for $300) and one window will cover the entire workspace area nicely. We’ll save the other window for a separate library that I plan to build down the road.

1 of 2 fabulous windows

My ‘water layout’ is pretty much complete with one major component left to deal with- how to pump greywater to our filtering pond. Apart from that, we’ve settled on a 1,000 gallon rainwater holding tank and two 250 gallon well water holding tanks that will be housed in the (still to be built) room attached to the back of the kitchen. Water heating will be ‘rustic’ for the first year in, using the soon-to-be-ordered Pioneer Princess. While future plans include solar hot water heating, it’s simply not feasible at this stage of the game.

Ben & me

Other building plans remain on target with an alcove to be finished at the back of the living room that will house our woodpile. Neither of us has any idea how much wood we’ll go through in a winter but we’ve agreed it would be nice to have a pile inside, easily accessible during the worst of the weather. The only ‘surprise’ addition to plans is that we will need to build a dog house, having recently adopted a puppy. I tend to go a little overboard- our farm cats have a double insulated house to sleep in but also a large indoor carpeted area so that they don’t frost-burn their little feet in the winter. Hopefully the dog doesn’t need anything larger than a studio apartment.

I’m not sure if I mentioned that we already bought solar panels and a power system. We have nine REC 230 Watt panels and the Outback Flexpower One system. We’re currently leaning towards HUP Solar One batteries for a 24 Volt system. I like the Surrettes too, especially being a Canadian product, but the HUPs have an impressive warranty (7 year full replacement plus 3 years prorated) at 2100 cycles to 80% DOD. We’ll have to make a final decision pretty quick here as delivery time can be pretty lengthy from time of order.

Outback Flexpower One

Ma new table saw

Ah, and in other news Shane bought me a table saw for my latest foray. Our rooms being round it is rather difficult to fit things while making the best possible use of space so I’ve decided to learn enough about wood working to make our own cabinets. I’ll be starting with a very basic shaker style. We milled our own wood on the weekend and I’m pretty excited by the results. Having never done any woodworking before I’m sure my initial attempts will be a little rough but I’m confident that determination will win the day and at any rate we’ll have cabinets that are exactly the specs that I want without wasting any space.

So yep, lots of stuff on the go. I have a really good feeling about this year. 🙂

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