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.

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