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 : 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.

Thursday, July 9, 2009

Poor prior planing leads to...

I just talked to Joe about the wood I need. The good news is that he can cut the lumber I want, and he is totally sustainable. Joe has milling equiptment and he takes trees that would be trashed or turned into mulch and he makes lumber for people looking for an alternative to the big box stores. This is awseome. Also the price is right. He said it would be about $600 for the framing lumber, which is less then it would cost to buy the wood from lowes, home depot, or a big mill (between 700 and 800). But, and here is where my poor planning comes in, the lumber needs to dry for about 4 weeks, which means I can't even start building until august 10th.

So now I need to either wait for the wood, or find another option. I think that I am just going to have to wait. I looked at the wood sources I received from the ecoSupply person and they are all out of state, which means that the wood would need to be shipped which I don't want to do for both ecological and financial reasons, and I would still have to wait. I am learning that there are three factors affecting every decision I am faced with: time, money, and sustainability. I can get two of the three were I want them and have to compromise on the third. If I want something fast and cheap it tends not to be sustainable, if I want something fast and sustainable it is not cheap, if I want something cheap and sustainable then I have to wait for it. Since this project and my personal inclinations are toward sustainability and my funds are limited I need to wait.

This means that I need to start doing some serious planning, which I should have done more of in the beginning. I have been playing too much of this project by ear, waiting for this or that variable to fall into place before I make a decision. Some of that was inevitable since I have never built a house before, but some of it could have been fixed with better research and planning. If I am going to wait an entire month for the wood I need to have everything else ready so that I can just build when I get it.

The first step is to have a proper detailed drawing. I have done a bunch of sketches, but nothing to scale and nothing concrete because I have been unsure about how to frame the house. It has finally sunk in that I need to solve my problems on paper rather then in the real world. Once I have my drawing I need to do make a list of the things I need to do to prepare the site. I also need to order my bales and check them to make sure they meet the requirements I need. I think that if I gather all of the materials I need and completely prepare the site that it will be possible to be done only a little after the beginning of September.

Buying lumber

I got a call back yesterday from Joe (Cobra's friend) asking what exactly I needed as far as lumber goes. I think this means I have found my source. Should this fall through I also got an email from some one at EcoSupply, a sustainable building store here in town focusing on interiors, and they gave me some sources of earth friendly lumber.

Now that I have some ways to get wood, i need to order it. I spent the morning figuring out what I need. I'm going to build the frame like a deck with concrete footings then simple posts and beams. I should be able to build the frame for the roof with:

24 - 2"x10"x14'
4 - 2"x10"x20'
3 - 6"x6"x12'

That is the lumber just to frame the roof. I will need some more for the door and window frames, but I'll use the scrap wood I've collected for that. I'm hoping that if I get in an order today I will be able to get the wood by Monday. I think that once I have the wood at the site the framing can be done by the end of the week. At the moment I am about a month behind where I wanted to be, but I am hoping that I will be able to pull it together and have a finished house by September the 1st.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

lumber leads

Last night was fairly fruitful in the lumber department. First I got an email from a man named Cobra who mills old logs that have been cut down already. I got his email from a post on craigslist about "green" lumber. It is a little strange because when he emailed me back, he said to call this other guy Joe and say that cobra sent me. Hopefully I'm not getting myself tangled up in something sketchy. I called Joe and left a message so maybe I'll hear back today.

I also got an email from a family that had a pile of old lumber that was previously the deck of an above ground pool. They told me that they weren't sure how much was useable, but I could have whatever I wanted. I drove out there last night and got a fair amount of lumber. There were about six usable 12 ft long 2x6s and a few shorter 4x4s. I had to sort through some rotten and bug covered wood, but it I got some good pieces and all it cost was the gas to drive out there. I think that if I can get anything from cobra/joe and maybe a few more piles of scrap wood then I'll be set.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009


Lumber has been an unexpected headache. I want to frame out the roof with wood so that I am not using the bales structural members. When I thought about this initially I was going to use standard framing lumber from a mill. It was going to be straight forward, 4x4s as posts with 2x6s as the cross members. I priced them and everything was great and then I started thinking.

Buying newly milled lumber is in direct opposition with the basis of this project. I am not ready to declare that all logging and milling of wood is a bad thing, I have bought my share of 2 x 4s, but I want to to research an environmentally freindly building method and I feel like that means that I need to do some problem solving instead of going to lowes. I know there is too much wood out there in the world that is being thrown out for me to need to buy new.

So I have been hunting, thought not yet in the right places. I started on craigslist, which I check several times a day for any posts for scrap lumber. I have also put up a post of my own looking for any used or re-claimed lumber. I have also been calling the trash collection agencies in the area to see if they have an area for building materials. That has been a bit of a wild goose chase, I haven't found the right lead. The city of richmond has a special recycling area for yard waste and thinking this might lead me to recycled building materials I went to check it out. The place is like a tree grave yard. Massive tree trunks are piled on top of each other some are 30 feet long and probably 4 feet wide. Then there are seperate piles of branches and leaves. Though not what I was looking for I feel that place has possibilities. There is the option of hiring some one with a portable mill to come cut a trash trunk in the lumber for my home. My only worry there is about the wood being properly cured. I know very little about wood drying except that it generally takes years.