Thursday, September 27, 2007

Latest on the House

I thought I'd give an update on the house progress before talking about the garden.

I've been steadily building the foundation walls of my house. I'm reusing concrete for my foundation so that I can reduce the amount of cement I have to use and thus lessen my impact on the planet. I heard about a pile of "urbanite" at the local airport and inquired about it. Urbanite is a funny name for broken pieces of concrete from the pulling up of a road or sidewalk. In my case it was the removal of a runway. Many of the pieces were cut out with a saw so fortunately they have some smooth sides, making them better for making a smooth-sided wall. I decided to use mortar to bind the urbanite together in the foundation. I could have dry stacked the pieces, but I wanted a stronger wall and wanted it to be animal proof. Mice can find their way through the tiniest of holes.

I also scavenged some concrete block from a house that was being demolished in the small town about a half mile away. This was a boon because I was thinking of buying block for the one side of my house that will be framed with wood instead of strawbale. This was also a good thing because the urbanite is very heavy and had to be hauled from a town 45 miles away (about $70 for the trip in the vehicle co-op). I cleaned the old mortar off the block and was able to use them just like new block.

I had a plumber dig the foundation trench for me and ground was broken on August 30th. They dug a 3 and a half foot trench so that I wouldn't have to do it by hand (some people here have dug theirs by hand). The idea is that you fill the trench with gravel and line the bottom with drainage tile. You build your foundation on top of the gravel trench to keep it from sitting on soil or clay where the frost heaving action of freezing and thawing can cause your foundation to become unstable in time. The gravel trench also drains any runoff after rain. In our clay soil the rain runs right off.

Then I had a load of gravel dropped off and I raked it out and tamped it down to fill in the trench.

After that I could level off one side and begin to build the foundation. I laid out the corners and sides of the building and figured out how high I wanted to build the foundation wall. It's a good idea to build the top of the wall at least 12 inches above grade. This meant the south wall would be much higher than the north because of the slope the house is sitting on. Fortunately that was the one that I was using block on. Block is easier to lay than urbanite.

This is the block wall after I'd laid two courses. Below is the cement mortar I used.

I laid four courses of the block to reach the final height of the south wall. I wrapped the block around so that I could tie it into the adjacent walls.

Then I started on the urbanite and right now this is as far as I am. I think it's looking pretty good. At first I wasn't sure I'd have enough urbanite to make all the walls, but now it's looking like I might.

This is the urbanite up close. It looks like stone more or less. I'm trying to lay it so that from the outside it looks good. The inside of the foundation will be filled with mostly clay up to about 8 inches below the top of the foundation wall. I plan to make a natural earthen floor and that will be where the floor will lie.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Dan's New DR Blog

Well, I've been talking about making a blog since I came here and here it is. It is now late in the season, but I can bring you all up to date on what I've been up to since coming here.

It's taken a little longer than expected to get started on my house. I had to wait to become a member to be able to have access to a warren of my own. A warren here is the same thing as a lot in other places. I had to wait three months to be eligible to become a member. Being a member means I can vote in decisions for the whole community and pay membership dues, which are $5 a month. I've been living in this house for most of the time I've been here. Before that I was living in a large tent. The walls of this house are made of strawbales. I would not advertise this as the model strawbale house. The person who built it was in a rush to get it done before winter and did not have much attention to detail. There are major problems with it and as many people here say, "It looks wonky". Despite the fact that there have been many times I've wondered when it was going to fall over, it is a nice little house. It stays cool inside on hot days and it has a very earthy feel. I'm building a strawbale house right now, but I want it to be different from this house.

Maybe I should explain a little bit about Dancing Rabbit Ecovillage. I know it is a weird name and I'm not exactly crazy about it, because I think the name doesn't sum up at all what's happening here. The goal of the community is to build a village sustainably from the ground up. It is very difficult to retrofit an existing community to make it more sustainable. There are zoning laws in most places that prohibit doing things outside the norm, and to change these laws can take a lot of time and energy. Here in the middle of nowhere in MO there are really no zoning laws for residential housing. There is no building code, so we can build houses out of natural materials using methods that aren't allowed in most cities today (though we hope that our example will lead to their acceptance elsewhere). Many of these materials and methods of building have been used by humanity for thousands of years. The problem with many modern building methods is that they use materials that are manufactured from fossil fuels, they require the destruction of natural habitat, and their manufacture pollutes the environment and requires the burning of large amounts of fossil fuel. Cement, for instance, has a high "embodied energy". Its manufacture requires a massive input of fossil fuel compared to natural materials, which require little if any input of fossil fuel.

Some alternative building materials here at DR are cob which is a mixture of sand, clay, and straw and is often used to build walls of houses. And strawbale, which is used to build a thick wall that insulates from the cold and heat. Foundations may be built of earthbags or gravel bags, which are reused plastic mesh bags filled with earth or gravel and laid in overlapping courses much like rows of bricks. I'm building my foundation out of reclaimed concrete blocks and urbanite, broken concrete chunks that are the byproduct of road demolition. Here at DR, one of the main rules, or covenants as we call them, requires us to use reclaimed lumber or local sustainably-harvested wood when we build. With so many old houses and barns falling into ruin in this economically depressed part of the country, it's not hard to find lumber to scavenge.

Cob has been used for hundreds of years in places like Ireland. This is a cob cottage with a thatched roof and is likely hundreds of years old. This is another difference between conventional and natural building methods--often natural buildings are built to last, and if they aren't, they can be easily composted at the end of their life. This is a kitchen being built by a group of people here who share income. It incorporates many different natural building methods.
Tony and Alyssa are building a cob wall that later looked like the lower picture. Although cob takes a long time, it is very malleable, allowing you to mold it like clay into just about any shape--something you cannot do with any modern building material. These bottles allow light to come in during the day and shine out at night creating a lantern effect. As I said earlier, an advantage of cob is that it will last forever if well maintained. This wall still needs finishing plaster, which will make it smooth and protect it from the elements.

Another building method involves using strawbales to build the walls of a structure. Strawbales are a waste product of grain harvest. Because they have a uniform rectangular shape they can be stacked in courses much like bricks. After the walls are formed they are strengthened by a coating of earth plaster, which is made of basically the same materials as cob--clay, sand, and straw. Skyhouse, DR's biggest building, has strawbale walls that have been inlaid in wood framing.

The second photo shows the interior of Skyhouse with its thick bale walls covered with a smooth, durable finish plaster. Notice the rounded walls around the windows and the built in shelves in the corner. Although they are thicker than conventional wood framed walls strawbale walls can insulate up to three times better. If you are wondering about fire hazards, strawbale walls are less flammable than you might think. Covered in earthen plaster (which is not flammable) strawbale structures do not catch fire as easily and burn more slowly than conventionally built homes. It is fairly difficult to burn a tightly bound strawbale because there is little oxygen within the bale to feed the fire.

If you'd like to watch some videos to learn more about DR, check out DR TV. One of the latest videos talks about the house Tony and Alyssa built over the last year using reclaimed lumber and light clay-straw insulation, another natural way of insulating a home.

Next time I'll talk about the garden I've started here and show some pictures of the house progress.