Tuesday, December 8, 2009

side track

My plans changed a little since my last post. I was convinced not to notch all of the joist, but to just use the hurricane ties. I may have explained this before, but hurricane ties are little metal pieces that look like this :
They are used in deck and roof construction. I believe the name comes from their use in deck construction, in that case they are holding the cross supports down and in place in the case of strong upward/lateral winds.

I have not actually put up my joists though and they are not the subject of this post. The real subject is a pedal powered generator.

I realized last week that I am about to graduate from school, which means I am about to stop having access to the metal shop. I had thought about that before, but didn't think it was a big deal because I've been exclusively using hand tools in my back yard for the last few months. Then I remembered that I want to have a pedal powered generator for my house, and if I don't make it now, I will have to make it using hand tools in my back yard. That prospect was not appealing, so I put the house on hold and got to work.

A pedal power generator is a surprisingly simple thing. At least, to make it generate power. I have not yet hooked this thing up to charge a battery, which is what it will do eventually, and that I imagine is the more complicated part, I need to do more research because I am fuzzy on the details.

Anyway, a motor and a generator are the same thing. If you input electricity you have a motor, with a rotational output, and if you input the rotation you have a generator, with an electrical output. I am simplifying a lot, and possibly being a little bit liberal with my language, but if you have a motor and you hook it up to a voltmeter and turn the output shaft you will see that volts are happening.

For my generator I ordered an electric scooter motor off of ebay. It looks a lot like this:
Then I spent a while trying to decide what variety of pedaling device I wanted. There are about half a million plans on the internet, each with their own advantages. I decided to go with what seems like the simplest. The simplest plan (in my mind) is having a bike trainer stand that holds up a regular bike, and the tire rests on the output shaft of the motor and turns it.

The first step was building the bike stand:

The bike is held up by the nuts that hold the tire on. The pipe on the right is adjustable, the bike is put in place then the pipe is slid over and locked in, and the tire rests on the output shaft of the motor.
I hooked the motor up to a multimeter and give it a test ride. I got up to about 80 volts. To be honest I'm not sure what that will mean in terms of charging the battery, but I'll update as I know. For now I think I have a good starting point for my generator.

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Long Due Update

Since the decision not to used power tools I have not felt inclined to update the blog, perhaps because the pace slowed down to a near crawl.

Though it has been slow, a lot has happened. I got four 6" x 6" cross supports up, and today I cut all of the floor boards for the loft. They are in place, but they have not been secured yet. Some of the wood had mold growing on it from being under the tarp for so long cleaned it with a bleach solution and it needs to dry out completely before I can seal it. I'll seal it up there, but I want to be able to move the wood around and flip it over (which is why it isn't nailed or pegged in place)

Today I also hauled a full length 2" by 12" up on that platform and set it on the big beams to mark the notches that will go in each of my joists. I got that one, which is my template, cut and another joist marked before it got dark. I think that if I really work hard tomorrow I could get all of the notches done. I'll need 17 of them.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

I decided a few days ago that I am done using power tools. I was thinking at first that I would only not use power tools for the house, but actually I am just not going to use them at until the house is done.

I think that it is going to be good. if you want to know more about what lead me to that decision look at my other blog, here

This blog has been detailing the physical progress of the project, and the other is some of the accompanying thoughts and things.

Monday, October 5, 2009

house raising/beam falling

Yesterday was another wonderfully successful build day. We took all of the beams down, cut two of them, turned them around, and put them back up.

When I was planning the day I thought that the safest way to get the beams down would be to use the lift to slowly lower them, but I was a little worried about it. The reason that raising the beams with the lift was safe was because the winch could lean against the post that the beam was going to be resting on.
Until the beam was actually up on the posts there was no real danger, we just had to keep pressure on the lift so that it would not lean back. It could not fall forward because the beam was stopping it. The dangerous part of the lifting was when we got the beam up to the top and we lifted each side onto the posts. At that point the lift could have pushed on the beam and made it fall of the other side, we had to be very careful about keeping it upright.

Lowering the beam that way was seemed a lot more dangerous because the lift started off unsupported
(sorry this one is facing the wrong way...technical issues)
So the lift and beam in this position both want to move toward each other. The beam wants to swing back into the lift and the lift wants to lean over. When I planned to do it this in this way I thought we would just have to brace the lift to the post and hope for the best.

I was still worried about it during the build day and I was talking with my friend Daniel, and he thought we should just go ahead and pull the beam down. We thought about it, and decided that even if it made the whole house fall down we could position our selves outside the danger zone and that it would definitely be easier, and probably safer too. So we took all of the brackets off of the first beam (that was an ordeal), then we tied some rope to the beam, got up on the neighbor's shed and gave it a tug.

The falling beam was shockingly anticlimactic. It gently rolled off the posts and hit the ground with hardly a thud. After the first one was so easy we decided it was safe to pull the rest down even though we would have to stand on the ground and be closer to the action. They came down without an issue.

Once we had the beams on the ground we cut five feet off of them, then hoisted them back up on the posts with the overhang facing the house.

I was proud of the team. There were just six of us for most of the time and we got everything done in about four hours.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

The plan

I went out back today and looked down the alley and saw that as it appeared in the picture I saw in the zoning office, all of the nieghbors' fences and the immediate neighbor's shed are in a nice line. I didn't bother measuring from the front of the house, I think it is safe to assume that that is the property line. Unfortunately that line is about 2 1/2 feet closer in then I thought. Fortunately, my new back posts (the old middle ones), are about six and a half feet from that line. That means that I cannot do what I originally planned and put all of the posts inside of the wall, but it is also not a huge problem. Here is an arial view with just the walls and posts:
My front two posts will exist inside of the bale wall and the back two will exist outside of it. That is not my ideal situation, because now my cross supports will intersect the bale wall, but I think that is going to be fine.

My next two steps are fairly straight forward. First I need to move my trench, and by move I mean I need to dig a new trench, shovel all of the gravel out of the old trench, then fill the new trench with gravel and the old trench with dirt. Then I need to take down the left most set of posts and the beam. Then for the other two beams, I need to take them down, cut off about five feet, flip them the other way and put them back up. Since I am not centering the beam on the posts I don't need to cut new notches. I just need to have the over hang on the other side. Carlton also recommended getting more substantial brace plates for the beam. The ones I have area a little dinky.

Once the beams are in their new position it it time for the cross bracing. I was thinking that I wanted to do this timber frame style with notches and things because it is really beautiful and also strong, but I think that it might be more work then it is worth. Actually I am not convinced that I think that. I am going to do some research on timber frame construction tomorrow and see what I find out. If I do it that way I think that the bracing will need to be done before the top beam is put back on. I cannot imagine how I would get the braces in place without the posts having some wiggle room.

Either way, my plan is to have another work party this weekend to move some beams and possibly notch some posts. I have some prep work to do before then, both with the trench and with planning.

Also, with my new plan I am actually under the 150 sq ft that allows me to build without a permit. That is exciting.

Monday, September 28, 2009

Information update

After my first bout of information gathering, I was moving forward, but got to a point that I didn't totally know what to do next. I had the verbal description of the property, but no way to translate that into a real world physical description of the property. I studied the strange document I was given at the court house, and then showed it to Carlton. He explained to me that even if I were to pay for a survey (they are very expensive) I would not have a legally recognized property line. To have a legal property line I would have to take that survey to the city, then the city would get the survey approved by my neighbors, and then it would be a legal document. For that reason he recommended that I go down to the zoning office, show them what I have and tell them what I want to do and then see what happens. So I did that.

I put myself in the zoning office with the deed paper and I explained to the man behind the counter that I want to build a shed and that I want to place it in the yard legally. I told him that I was told that i needed a five foot set back on all sides, and that I didn't know how to figure out where the property line in the back is. He said that there is not a way to be one hundred percent sure with out a survey, but he said that he would do a little bit of research, and see if we could get a reasonable idea of where the property line is. He pulled up the information for my address and it said that the plot was 125 ft deep, there was no more or less. That made me feel better. He also pulled up a map of my street and all of the properties are exactly the same depth. One of the maps we looked at had an aerial view of the street with green property lines over top. In that view the the property line ran exactly over top of the back fence of all of my neighbors, and was even with the back wall of my immediate neighbor's shed. That is a good reference point. What the zoning guy recommended that I do is to mark where the fence line is, then measure back from the front fence 125 ft and see if these are the same. Assuming that they are, or that they are pretty close, then he recommended that I build six feet back from that line and not hire a surveyor.

I think that sounds like a good plan. I am worried that my middle post that I want to become the back post is still too close to the line. I am just going to keep my fingers crossed until I get home and can do some measurements.

I nearly forgot, the zoning man also told me that I only need a 3ft setback from the side and that my shed can be up to 20ft tall.

Information Adventures

This morning I began my search for the plot survey of the yard where I am building. I thought that it would be a pretty simple process, but I seem to have begun a big mission. I went down to the John C Marshal courthouse, found my way into the records office and asked if they had a survey for my house. The woman behind the counter typed the address into her computer and pulled up the deed for the house, then flipped through the PDF and made a sort of disappointed noise. She pointed to the screen and said that if a survey had happened that it should have been referenced there. Then she said she could check one more place and she pulled up another deed for the property and it was basically the same screen. I peeked at her computer to try and understand what she was looking at, and she told me that I could have a print out of that digital paper, and that I would need to hire a surveyor for the property.

The print out she gave me is fascinating:
I am pretty sure that this is the legal document describing what land is owned and by whom, and it is so fuzzy. The depth of the plot is "125 ft, more or less". I had no idea that deeds were such silly documents, this one is so vague.

While I appreciate this strange discovery, it is a bit of a problem for me. Unless a survey happened prior to this document, I think I need to hire a surveyor to come out and declare where exactly the property line is. That is another interesting thing. This legal document's soft description of the property line maybe the only description of the property line that exists, and that can only be turned into a hard line by a surveyor.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Headed in the right direction

After months of bumbling about, and doing things the dumbest way possible, I think I am starting in a direct path toward the finish. This project has been marked by me doing incompletely research and not fully understanding what I am doing, but moving forward as best I can, both hoping that everything will work, and expecting for a lot of it to fail.

Today two of my instructors, Liz and Carlton, along with a friend of theirs came over for what was planned as a work day, but ended up being a consultation. Carlton has a lot of experience both building houses and dealing with bueracracy related to building structures, and he gave me an outline of an action plan.

Firstly, I need to really be sure that I am inside of the property by five feet. To do that I need to know exactly where the property line is. To find that out I need a survey. This information may be easy to obtain. Surveys should be on file at the courthouse downtown, so tomorrow I will head down there and see if I can talk the people working there into helping me find the survey of the property where I am building. If this information is not there I am in some trouble. Not big trouble, but I will need to hire someone to survey the property and tell me where the line is, or move the structure to the middle of the yard, or just build it and hope for the best. Seeing where that has put me before, I think my best plan is to find out exactly where the line is.

Once I have the exact location of the line, I can figure out what kind of situation I am in. I feel pretty confident that the side yard fence is on or within a foot of the property line there, but the back of the yard is a mystery. The fence sticks out further then all of the other fences on our street by about two feet, so the property line might be two feet closer then I thought. I don't even have a good guess. When I know, I will be able to evaluate my remodel plan.

Here is how the building looks right now:
If you where looking from above it would look like this:

I plan to keep the four innermost posts where they are, and move their beams forward, centering them over those four posts:
So I will be ditching the left beam, and the five outside posts. Once I have done that, I will put up the joists and the rest of the roofing as I had planned before:
My big concern here is the distance from my back overhang to the property line. When I know where the property line is I am going to have to figure out if my overhang crosses the five foot rule, and then go down to the permit office and ask if that is a violation or not.

My other concern is about the amount of cantilever of the beams and joists and if that is going to be ok. I talked to Carlton about that and he said that he has some books detailing the method of doing those calculations, so I am going to sit down with him this week and see if we cannot work it out.

Carlton also told me that my building is going to need some cross bracing, so I am going to do some research on timber frame construction and come up with some good drawings of my frame with proper support.

I am feeling very good about this. I think I am finally going about things in the right order and maybe the physical progress that is made from here on out will actually be progress instead of work that has to be redone.

Monday, September 21, 2009


If you are thinking about building a shed, or any building, you should check out zoning laws. Even if you think you don't need a building permit, you should look at zoning laws and find out where you are allowed to build. In my neighborhood you cannot put any structure within 5 ft of your property line.

Last Thursday my roommate called me and said, There are a bunch of building inspector men in the back yard, and I don't know what to tell them. I called her back and she explained that the inspectors came by and gave a work stop order and left a number where I could call. I called them the next morning and the man was incredibly nice. He explained that my structure was in fact too big to build with out a permit, and that I would need to come down town and get one. He also said that I was doing a good job building and that everything he saw looked great. I was happy to hear that, but then he said that I was probably too close to the property and that when I went down town they would tell me the zoning laws.

So I went down town, and had another really good encounter. The building permit man explained everything I would need and gave me the application. He told me that since I am only building a shed that all I need to do is have some drawings that show the size of the building and the size of all the materials and fill out the application. That was great, and then he checked on the zoning laws, and told me about the 5 ft rule.

Right now my posts are pretty much on the property line, which means I have a couple of options. I can take everything down, dig the concrete piers out of the ground, find a way to get them out of the hole, dig new holes and move them in, then re-erect the structure. I could try and brace the structure to itself and move it as a single unit, and do the same thing with the piers. I could also re-design the building to try and use as much of the existing structure as possible.

I have elected to redesign. For one thing, the owner of the house where I am building does not want this shed right in the middle of his yard. He has quietly expressed concern about it encroaching on the rest of his space. For another thing it will be an amazing amount of work to move everything. Moving the wood would definitely be a big job considering the work it took to get it up, but moving the concrete is the part that I think would be truly miserable. Each pier weighs at least 200lbs and getting that big heavy cylinder out of one hole and into another is a feat of engineering that I am not willing to undertake. Out of everything I am probably most upset about the wasted concrete. It is a terribly energy intensive (fossil fuel energy, not mine) material, and I have wasted a lot of it. In the redesigned shed I intend to use four of the nine posts and piers. That means that I have wasted 5 of them, which is at least 1000 lbs of concrete. That is pretty bad. I feel fairly guilty. The extra wood is not a worry. I'll use that for something else, and it was already saved from a mulch destiny.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Great Success

This past weekend was the house raising take two, and it was wildly successful. I owe this in no small part to the contributions of a very talented and generous man named Blake Huff. I believe that it might have been near disaster take two had he not been there.

By the end of the day we had up the main support for the roof which consists of nine posts, and three stupidly huge beams.

Erecting this monster was no simple task. After the failures of the last attempt I was very concerned with doing this safely. I spoke with many of my friends and colleagues and we decided that the first attempt was not totally misguided, we just went about it the wrong way. Here is what we did the first time:

We put the beam up on the three posts then started pushing it up while walking up the legs. At about the point illustrated in the diagram the weight of the beam end was much heavier then the other side of the post so it started to tip back behind us. As you may know everyone baled at this moment and the whole thing came crashing to the ground.

The revised version is actually quite similar except that we use physics to our advantage:In this plan we are pushing on the beam itself so there isn't a big cantilevered weight, and we have ropes pulling from the other side. The pushing for the beam is done with what are essentially notched battering rams. In this plan even if it does crash no one is in the danger zone. At least, no one is directly under the beam like last time.

This was my plan until the day before the house raising when my dad emailed me with this wonderful invention that he found on the internet. I don't know if I am allowed to publish this image because it is from someone's patent, but all of the patent information is on the page and the whole thing can be found here

So this patented device is a wall lift.
It is like a little elevator with a pivot at the bottom. It starts with the elevator down and the wall lying on the ground. On side of the wall is resting on the lip of the elevator car Then the elevator starts raising and the elevator shaft starts to tilt forward, as shown in the image bellow. Eventually the elevator reaches the top at which point the wall is vertical and the elevator shaft is leaning over supporting the wall like a brace.

To me this seemed like a wonderful invention that would save a lot of potential heartache and injury, so after receiving the plan, I went about making a quick and dirty version of this device.

I got some 16ft 2x6's and chopped up some scrape 2x4s from the wood shop at school to make the elevator shaft, then I secured some pulleys to a steel plate on the top. Then I realized that I needed some kind of guide to keep the elevator car from popping out of the front, so I ripped some more scrap wood into 1" strips and screwed them onto the front. Then I went about making the elevator "car" out of scrap wood and scrap steel. I worked until about three in the morning on this thing. Then I got up at six in the morning to finish it. By the time I left to meet everyone to raise the roof, I had a functioning lift, but no base for it. I figured that I could enlist some help and finish it on site.

As it turned out, the amount I finished was exactly what we needed. I mentioned earlier that Blake saved the day. I explained the lifting contraption to him, then showed him what I had built, he laughed and said "that thing is as over built as these beams". He meant, I assume, that as with the roof, I made it far beefier then it needed to be. After a few minutes of thinking he told me that he thought it would be easier and safer to put the posts up first, then set my winching mechanism up right and raise the beam. I told him that I trusted his judgment far more then my own.

So we started.
Blake taught us how to get the posts in place and secured with braces.

Then he instructed us to lift the first beam onto some scrap 6x6's which were both about four feet tall. This was to take some of the work off of the lift.

Once the beam was secured in place we went about setting up the lift.

We got the lift into position, then tried to lift the beam with the "elevator car" that I had built. That did not work because it got bound up in the shaft, so we tossed aside my sleepless night and more intelligently tied the ropes directly to the beam.

To my shock, it worked. The ropes that tied to the beam were looped over pulleys at the top of the lift, then tied on the other end to a cable winch. A ratcheting device that looked a lot like this:
I was able to just crank on the winch, and the beam went up in the air. It was kind of magical.

After we got the beam in the air, Blake and my father got up on ladders and shimmied the beam into place, then nailed it down with some gusset plates.

We used the same method for the rest of the posts and beams with great success until the very end. All of the beams are notches to fit over the posts and these notches are of varying depth due to the fact that the concrete piers are not level. For the first two beams the notches were at exactly the right depth for each post, but on the last one, the end post was a little short. The beam was floating about two inches above the post.

Blake looked at that, then said "get a rope". We were then instructed to hang on the rope to pull the end of the beam down, while blake draped himself over the top of it and my friend Micheal nailed it into place.
It was a spectacle, but it worked. All of the posts and beams are in place. Now I just need to organize another little party to get the joists in the air.

Sunday, August 30, 2009

backwards update

Prior to the house raising I had not updated in a while and a lot of work happened. I am finally honestly, completely, done with the digging related to the foundation (I think I am going to have to dig up some more clay, but that is a story for a later post). The bale foundation trench is finished and the dry well is more then deep enough. The concrete piers have also been poured and set so there is no digging left!

What a glorious thing, to be done with something. All of the digging I did taught me a lot about planning. I've talked about this a few times, but it took me making the same mistake again and again to finally get it. I think that the most critical step to do right in a foundation is the lay out and marking of the site. If you are like me and you rush through that part you will pay for it again and again with all of the digging you have to redo. If I were starting this project over right now I would do a lot of things differently. First I would have some one help me mark out the site. Digging I can do on my own, but you need at least two sets of hands to mark out a site. You cannot hold both ends of a tape measure all by your lonesome. Next I would not do a single bit of digging, or marking until I had completely cleared my site of problems like fence posts, tree roots, ect. Once it was clear I would mark and dig ONLY the pier holes. If I were redoing this project I would not do anything with the bale foundation until I put up the roof framing. Right now One of the big obsticles I am dealing with in trying to figure out how to get my beam up in there air is the fact that I have a big gravel filled trench in the middle of my site.

A side note about tools related to the gravel. I discovered yet another situation where the right tool is really critical. To dig a hole with a shovel, you want a spade. It is shaped like a spade, all pointy on the end. To shovel gravel you do not want a spade, you will be miserable. You want a flat shovel. The first time I shoveled gravel I used a spade and it was difficult miserable work. I got a flat shovel and proceeded to unload four truck loads of gravel, and it wasn't even bad.

The house raising

Today I learned how not to raise a roof. It is a bad idea to attach a monster beam to the end of 12 foot posts then try to erect the thing by getting underneath and pushing. It is a really bad idea to put your close friends under there with you.

A house raising party lead to this revelation. I invited a bunch of people to come help me put up the roof framing. It was like a barn raising. I assumed that if I had enough man power I could do anything. Unfortunately I learned that I was missing a key ingredient found at a barn raising, experience. No one on the site had any experience working on a project of this scale, and it quite nearly lead to a disaster.

The wood for my frame is truly massive. I was worried about the roof being able to support the weight of the sod which is usually rated around 100 lbs/ft, so I may have gone over board. My posts are 6"x6"s, and my beams are 4"x12".

I think this picture conveys the size, but to try to but it into perspective, it took five people to move the beams and it was still a struggle. The things were really heavy. Because the beams were so heavy we decided that the safest way to lift them would be to attach the beam to the posts on the ground then to push the whole thing up right. It seemed like a good idea; it seemed safe. It turns out that it was neither. The team lifted the beam then started walking forward lifting the posts and once it got to about 45 degrees it started to become unsteady. The bottoms of the posts were slipping forward and the beam wanted to go down. I think that everyone panicked at the same moment and just baled, so it fell, and luckily no one was seriously hurt. A few people got scratches and bruises, but no one took a direct blow. We were incredibly lucky. This is were experience would have been useful. In hindsight it is clear that our methods were not sound. We basically made a big lever that was working against us. At the time though, it seemed like a very good, and pretty safe plan.

Since I have learned that the materials I am working with are potentially very dangerous, I've decided to consult some experts. I imagine that there is some machine that I can rent for relatively little money that will take the danger out of this project. I'm going to talk to my uncle, and some faculty at school and find out a safe way to get that massive beam up in the air, and in the mean time, I'll work on some aspects of the house that I can tackle with out endangering anyone.

On the up side, a lot of work was accomplished the day of the failed house raising. All of the wood I bought was rough cut and untreated, and the team got all of the posts and beams cut to length and painted with some sealant. We also got all of the brackets squared up and attached to the concrete piers, and I think the most impressive undertaking was the amount of brush cleared from the area in between my future house and the neighbor's shed. Since we escaped major injury, I would call the day on the whole, a success.

Wednesday, August 19, 2009


I definitely had more digging. I forgot about the piers. The wooden posts that hold up the frame are supported by concrete piers that go down below the frost line. I found some excellent instructions on concrete piers here.

So far I have marked out all of the piers, then I recruited a few of my friends to help me dig. We got everything done except one corner. This particular corner has been giving me trouble since day one. There is a metal post from the chain-link fence, a 4x4 post from the privacy fence, and a huge ivy root system all tangled together. Here is the trouble spot before the fences were taken down.: I've removed both of the fence panels, but the posts and root system is still stuck. The roots have grown around the concrete foundations for the posts. Since it is so tangled, I need to dig deep and cut the roots so I can get everything out.

I have one week and two days to get the piers poured and cured. The saturday after next I am having a house raising party to erect the frame. The wood will be delivered next tuesday, then I have a few days to prep everything.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Still Digging

Hopefully today was the last day of trench digging. After the original dig I thought that I would only have a couple of hours of clean up, but getting the trenches to the right dimentions was a huge undertaking. First I needed to widen the trench by about six inches all the way around. I had made the trench the exact width of the concrete support beam that will hold up the bales, and I needed some extra room on the out side. After that I needed to adjust the depth so that water would flow out of the trench and into the dry well. Here is the trench, the dry well is in the foreground.
Below is a water flow diagram. The floors of each part of the trench are angled so that water will run down hill in to the dry well.

When the water is in the dry well, which is just a big hole that will be covered in landscaping fabric then filled with rocks, it will slowly be absorbed into the surrounding ground.

Thursday, August 6, 2009

measure twice, dig once

I finished the foundation trench today. it is about 2 ft deep, 1.5 ft wide, 15 ft on the long side, and 10 ft on the short side.

It was a good day to work because it was cloudy, and then rainy. I would much rather do hard work in summer rain then summer sun. Unfortunately I had to dig the front trench twice. When I marked the site originially I had it in my head that my size limit was 200 sq ft, and that my plans called for the long side to be 15ft arbitrarily. 15 ft seemed a little small so I uped it to 17 ft. Of course, my actual size limit is 150 sq ft, (this is the maximum size you can build a structure in the city of richmond and not have a permit) and my short side is 10 ft, so I had to move my front trench back 2 ft. Moving the trench flet like it went really quickly, maybe I was just in the grove and the temperature was nice, or maybe I had gotten better at the digging, probably a combination of the two.

Wednesday, August 5, 2009

How to dig a hole

Today I excavated half of my foundation trench, and I had some revelations about digging. For one thing, I've had the wrong idea about shovels. I always thought that a shovel was a perfect digging tool, but digging a hole, especially a big one, with just a shovel, is misery. Shovels are good for scooping and moving loose materials, and terrible for digging into compacted soil. In my opinion, you need two tools to dig a hole without breaking your back. You do need a shovel, but you also need a pick axe.

I started my foundation digging today with just a shovel and it was terrible. To get the shovel into the ground you have to use a lot of muscle, you thrust the thing into the ground, and then you have to stomp on it to get it properly wedged in. It is a lot of work. With a pick axe you lift it up and then pretty much let gravity do it's thing. It is a pointed weight on the end of a lever, a prefect design for breaking up earth. The energy input is minimal compared to the gain. With a shovel there are no mechanics increasing the energy you put it. You just have to work hard.

Once I figured out the digging secret, the work went pretty quickly. I would take a few swings with the pick axe to break up an area then shovel out the dirt. It took about five hours to dig half the foundation trench.

Saturday, July 25, 2009

Almost ready to dig

I was driving down the road this afternoon, thinking about calling my friends to organize a foundation digging party, when I passed a construction site and realized the big mistake I was about to make. I was going to just start digging tomorrow, until I remembered that I need to call Richmond city and have the utility lines marked. If I just go out and start digging up the yard there is a chance I'll hit a water line or phone line or something, and if I damaged it I would have to pay for repairs. Since it is saturday I'll have to wait until
Monday to call, and I've been told that someone will come mark the site within two days. That puts me into the middle of next week before I can start digging. That time line isn't terrible. I'm still on track to be done before I get my wood.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

life is what happens while you're busy making plans

This week has been a busy one, and not in the way I had hoped. I was hoping to have the trench marked and begun by tonight, but I forgot that I need to do some other practical things, like moving out of my apartment. I've spent the week so far packing, moving, and showing my apartment. I'm going to have to spent tonight and tomorrow finishing that. That means that I can start marking out the trench on Thursday (I hope). I am however going to be able to go to the farm tomorrow morning to test the straw bales, and put in my order.

Having the right bales are very important in a straw bale house. The bales should be tightly packed, enough so that you can swing it around by the strings without the bale shifting around. I also need to cut one open to make sure the bale is dry and free of mold. It is also preferable that the bales are fairly freshly cut. I already know that my bales are from this season, so that is not an issue, but I need to check on everything else.

Sunday, July 19, 2009


I have finally made a decision on my bale foundation, I'm going to do a rubble trench. Lets hope I made the right choice.

My foundation needs to have many functions. First it needs to get the bale wall away from water. Water damage can be detrimental to a bale wall. If moisture is able to get inside the bales the wall will rot from the inside out. This is one of the reasons I cannot just put the straw bales directly onto the ground. The next function of my foundation is going to be to keep water from seeping into my house. I want to have my floor be in direct contact with the earth in order to take advantage of the thermal properties of the ground. If I do not have a proper foundation my floor will be cold and wet. I need my wall foundation to provide a water and thermal barrier between the outside ground and the inside ground. The last function of my foundation is to provide stable support to the bale wall. The reason I listed this function last is that the way that my foundation can do this is determined by it's other functions. I need some sort of wall around the perimeter of my house to keep water out and the support of that wall needs to go below the frost line.

The top most layer of the earth is very soft. it is made of lightly compacted decaying organic matter. I would not want to just put a foundation wall on this because it would sink. On a rainy day I can depress the soil with my body weight, I can only imagine what a whole house would do. I want my foundation to be below the fluffy top layer, sitting on more compacted soil. This is where the frost line comes in. If i dig a hole 1 foot deep I will probably find some well compacted soil, but I might not want to just stick my foundation on it. If in the wintertime it gets cold enough to freeze the ground below that one foot deep hole my foundation will raise up, and could cause my walls to fall. I believe this is called ground heave, but don't quote me on that. When the water in the soil freezes it expands, if there is something like a concrete pier sitting on top of the freezing ground it will move around with the expanding soil. For this reason I want my foundation to sit on compacted earth below the level that will freeze in the winter time. This is called the frost line. In richmond the frost line is some where around 18", so my foundation is going to be at least 24" deep.

Finally, the ruble trench. A ruble trench foundation uses a concrete beam on top of gravel filled trench that goes down below the frost line. The idea is that the gravel will not compact like soil and will not retain water and therefor will not heave. The reason that I choose a ruble trench over a poured concrete foundation, which is a more typical method of building, is that concrete has high Embodied Energy. This roughly means that a lot of energy and resources are required to make concrete, and as a result I would like to use as little of it as possible.

Friday, July 17, 2009


I got a call from Joe yesterday afternoon. I had left a message for him at the beginning of the week asking to add some more wood on my order. I was a little concerned about the structural integrity of the roof and I wanted to have another set of posts. Joe told me that he was planning to cut the wood today, he was waiting to get some longer logs. He told me that he got few big trees at the beginning of the week. He said they were really nice ones, not many knots, and very straight, and they were going to just be trashed. Since he had not cut my beams yet, I upped their size to 4x12s instead of 4x10s. Joe said that with the extra wood and size my total would be $770. I thought that sounded fair. I'm going to see if I can price the wood retail just to see the comparison.

I also emailed my shop teacher to get some information on the strength of wood. The information he has will enable me to do calculations to see if the roof I've designed will be strong enough. I should have done this in the other order, but seeing that I am so far behind I ordered the wood and I'll get more if I do not have enough. I'm going to pick up that info monday morning and then I'll see if my roof will hold up.

In other news, I'm researching plasters and adobe floors. As with the other phases of this project, I have a lot of choices. There are many ways to make a plaster and I'm going to have to try out a few mixes and see what works for me. There is the same situation for the flooring. I've found a lot of guidelines, but there does not seem to be a universal way to do it.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

A door and some window info

I bought a door at the re-store yesterday. I gave some misinformation earlier in the blog. I said that the re-store was run by the salvation army, but what I actually meant was the the re-store is run by Habitat for Humanity. There is a direct link between demolition work they do and the stock at the re-store.

I'm very happy with the door I bought. It is nice and solid, 36"x80" and only $42. I was at home depot this morning taking a look at the door jambs to better understand them, and the smallest most basic exterior door was about $180.

Here is my door in the back of the truck.
I also looked at windows while I was at the re-store, but there were only a handful of complete windows. I did not fully understand how windows are installed so I did a little bit of research. I found this website which explains window anatomy : http://www.arellanoswoodwindows.com/wst_page4.html. There I found this diagram:

It turns out that most of the pieces I saw at the re-store were stiles. The window pictured above is a double hung window. That is the most common type of window around here. It is composed of two stiles. The upper style is stationary and the lower one moves upwards.

For my house I would prefer to find some casement windows which swing open like doors on hinges. Casement windows are able to form a better seal then double hung windows and allow for less air flow when the window is closed.

Monday, July 13, 2009


After a month and a half of doing things the dumbest way possible I think I am on the right track. I downloaded google sketch up, which it a great little 3-d modeling program, and put together a model of the house.
From this model I figured out that I will need 165 bales plus probably 5 bales worth of filler for places where there are small gaps. This number probably change a little depending on the actual windows and door I get. I used a standard door size and 3'x3' windows in the model. My plan is to get the door and windows from the salvation army's Re-store, which means they might be strange sizes it will depend on what is in stock. The re-store is a store for building supplies salvaged from demolition projects and left overs from building projects. It is a great place for buying doors, windows, sinks, counter tops, house paint, blinds, and light fixtures. They also have some lumber, but it is not really priced so you have to haggle to get a good deal. The cashiers usually just kind of guess at the price and it tends to be higher then buying new lumber and you are getting some roughed up wood.

At the moment I have ordered the wood for the frame and everything else is waiting to happen. My plan in order is as follows:

- write up procedure for roof frame construction
- Buy the door and windows
- call the farmer to check on exact dimensions of bales (I am about 90% sure that I have those correct)
- adjust the 3-D model for accuracy
- Order the bales
- model the roof covering
- order wood for roof covering, water proofing materials, ect.
- write procedure for roof covering/water proofing
- Model the foundation for bales (i need to do a little problem solving with the type of foundation)
- Make bale foundation
-dig and pour post foundations
- Make templates for cuts needed in lumber
- buy lumber hardware
- procure materials for plaster mix cover bales
-write up procedure for plastering
- procure materials for adobe floor
- write up procedure of adobe floor

I think if I do all of these things in the four weeks it is going to take the wood to dry I will be able to move very quickly once I have the wood.