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Design concepts | Site | Workshop | In-progress | House Details | Research | Interview w/ Lou


The Story of the Affordable Natural House continued...
by Day Host-Jablonski

October 2001, Week 1
This week was spent getting ready for Scott and Dennis, the carpenters. Poured little piers that will eventually be embedded in the earth floor, for the beautiful 100 year old Doug-Fir posts and beam we bought from Glenville Timber Wrights. Installed an ACQ-treated top plate around the foundation, and in doing so discovered that, not only are DC's walls not straight (they bow out in several places), but they aren't even level. I don't know what kind of problems this will cause later on, but right now we are all dumbfounded by the bad work allowed to happen in this world.

 

October 2001, Week 2
Preparing for the workshop has reached some kind of fever-pitch, I feel like I am communicating more with potential participants than with my friends or family. But everything's coming together really well, and even though it looks like it will be one of those down-to-the-wire productions, I'm feeling pretty optimistic about it. The one big worry is that I can't find wheat straw, and that I've been so wrapped up in the framing of the house going up, I haven't really looked for it. And, it's only like 80% of what we need to make the workshop go successfully, and to get the straw-clay finished in time. Oh, my.

Framing has got to be the most satisfying part of house-building. In less than one week, poof!, there is almost a whole house skeleton in my yard. The repairs on the little Old House, the excavating, and the foundation all dragged so. This is like instant gratification. I'm very impressed by Scott and Dennis; I think they could have gotten this thing done in just a few days, but they had to pay attention to the "innovative oddities" in the blueprints. Working with people who matter-of-factly go about doing really good work is such a good feeling.

October 2001, Week 3
In the classic style, we were feverishly preparing right up to the last minute, but everything went like clockwork. Bamboo shipped from Ohio, Keleny Topsoil delivered the sweetest pile of shredded clay, and after exhausting the alternative-lifestyle grapevine, I got ahold of a farmer just outside of town with wheat straw to burn. He even loaned us his wagon to drive 200 bales very slowly back to town. And the feed-mixer turned straw-clay-mixer was delivered with a couple hours to spare. Just in time, there was a well-stocked straw-clay pantry in the front yard.

The Workshop was so successful! 12 participants joined us, including a family of four who are moving to Wisconsin soon, two people who attended our MREA [the Midwest Renewable Energy Association autumn fair] session, a college student each from Minnesota and Wisconsin, and two neighbors. The day-time work was slower than I hoped, but a lot of time was spent with Lou teaching workshoppers about house-building methods, and by working out effective straw-clay systems. I think that learning and experimenting will be more valuable to the participants than a few more hours of straw-clay packing would have been to us.

Click here for more on the Workshop...

The evening sessions were very well attended; everyone I had been in contact with, and more, joined us, and one night our number was almost doubled. The presentations were really engaging to the participants, and each night we stayed about an hour later than we had planned. Most of the discussions tended towards the technical and the specific, and though everyone was at a different place with their interests, it was pretty clear everyone was somewhere along a spectrum of thinking about building their own house, and ideas eagerly bounced off one another.

What I'd do differently/again:
• Good food during the workshop really is a must. It was so wonderful to have Vic and James cater and bring the food for the midday meal. However, I think we should have made more a point of breaking work and taking the meal together, maybe having a discussion then. During lunch it felt like a lot of momentum was lost, and with people stopping and starting working at different times, the group alternately felt pressure or disconnection. Also, I would make a point of only having food brought for the midday meal; it was a nice treat to get muffins in the morning and cookies in the afternoon, but people didn't seem really hungry, and it was a little distracting for the folks that weren't intensively involved in a task.
• The evening lectures were an essential part of the Workshop, and if anything, I think I underestimated that. The first night, instead of just introductions, I now think we could have hosted a more in-depth discussion about our project in the context of natural building, or in some other way set the tone of the Workshop. That was really covered in the second night, which was most attended by non-participants. That lecture, I think, could have been more tailored for a larger audience (people who weren't necessarily already committed to natural building) and could have addressed some broader issues. The discussion seemed dominated by specific interest from the Workshop participants, and I think the non-participants could have felt like they were in a more sophisticated discussion than they were prepared for.
• Though it really wasn't possible with the time constraints we had, it would be great to get more guest speakers and specialists to present to the Workshop
.

October 2001, Week 4
This week Bill, Prairie and I set about getting the rest of the straw-clay installed. After some experimentation, Bill devised a system whereby he makes barrels of slip beforehand, and then adds that (as opposed to separate buckets of shredded clay and water) to the straw. The result is a MUCH higher quality straw-clay mixture, free of the "dirt bunny" clay-lumps we found in so much of the Workshop's mixture. (Those dirt bunnies, though are excellent for patching the voids in a packed wall. The clay readily sticks to the existing wall and, if kneaded into the rest of the straw-clay, doesn't separate and fall off when they dry.) Even with just the three of us for working the mixer, putting up frames, and securing the window headers, we got as much done this week as the Workshop did last weekend (about a sixth of the wall footage).

October 2001, Week 5
Another 1/6th of the straw-clay finished between the three of us this week, and the work is about halfway done. On Friday, Richard joined us to concentrate on packing the straw-clay. He is a little too careful with the stuff, gently packing it while the rest of us stomp away, but he is getting better and hopefully with his help next week we can finish the house. With just three of us, there is always a little lag time between mixing and using the straw-clay, or between the framework and packing. I hope that one more body will help us close that gap.

November 2001, Week 1
The straw-clay is finished! (Except for bits of the east wall, which has doors that need reframing.) Richard became comfortable and adept at packing this week, and with his help, the rest of us were able to concentrate on a single task each; Bill and I rotated between mixing the straw-clay and putting up forms, while Prairie finalized the framing. I think we hit our stride.

 

We officially ran out of money this week. I knew it was approaching, but we were all caught off-guard. We're worried now about buying more materials, but we need to order trusses, so Brunsell has enough time to fabricate them and get them to us to install before the weather turns cold. (Some days are currently still hitting 60 degrees, but I can't believe this will hold out for very long.) Fortunately, we can do this and pay for the trusses later with money we get from the construction loan Lou and I are putting together; and at the moment we don't need much more material.

Bill was only going to work with us through the end of the straw-clay process, but through the rush of the past few weeks, and this sudden financial drop-off, there doesn't feel like much closure to his time with this project. Until we receive the construction loan, I'll be loaning Lou the money to keep paying Prairie and buying small amounts of material, and we will use the leftovers of what we already have to finish the first floor and get ready for the second.

November 2001, Week 2
Since we needed to reframe the east wall anyway, we decided to hold off finishing the straw-clay for a couple of days in favor hauling in gravel (3/4" clear rock, specifically--and you need to be that specific, or you get mushy gravel-n-sand fill mixtures) to be the subbase of the earth-slab floors. Ramesh's delivered the rock, and Bill bobcatted it into the house. Those were a difficult-to-watch couple of hours; he had very little maneuvering room in a very fragile space. But his work and care paid off immensely. By the time he was finished, Prairie and I only had a dozen wheelbarrow trips and a lot of gravel smoothing ahead of us. Heavy, definitely, but possible.

Then for the remainder of the week, Prairie and I finished the straw-clay. We ran out of pre-mixed slip, but had so few loads left we decided to revert to tossing buckets of shredded clay on the straw in the mixer, and then hosing the mixture down to consistency. This was how Acorn originally taught us to use their mixer, but we found we could make higher quality straw-clay, quicker, by first mixing slip and adding that to straw. When we went back to the dry-clay method, it was really obvious how much better the consistency and stickiness is with the slip method.

November 2001, Week 3
Thanksgiving was this week, and not much happened. The mixer was passed on to Chuck Learned, the hay knife was returned to John's brother, and as far as I know, everyone ate several times their body weight.

 

November 2001, Week 4
The roof trusses were delivered at the end of this week. Unfortunately, the delivery truck didn't have a crane attachment as I'd hoped, so we couldn't lean the trusses against the house. Hopefully we will be able to get the up next week, so they don't have time to sag or loosen any of the nail-plates while they rest horizontally. They are about 11 feet tall ( 3.3 meters) on the inside, but on the ground, its hard to imagine they will make much headroom for the loft.

December 2001, Week 1
We spent the week getting everything really ready for putting up the trusses, and for winter, which I'm sure will be along eventually. Laid subflooring for the loft, and suddenly the first floor is inside. Only the subflooring making up the 1st floor bedroom ceiling is permanent, and it is glued down with AFM's non-toxic adhesive, which spreads a little like cream-cheese frosting.

We also finished securing the workshop deck, which had begun to warp from the rain. Now it is nailed as securely as possible, and covered as much as possible from the weather. Below, the basement is half-insulated, and we have worked out a way to concrete-screw drywall nailers between strips of insulation, to finish the work.

December 2001, Week 2
Monday the trusses went up, so much quicker than I expected! The rented crane from Ideal kept us at an optimum speed, and blocked off half the street (which I've been secretly wanting to do ever since Krupp [the contractor putting up a nearby office building] started blocking their alley with big machines!). While the crane took all the heavy work, Prairie, Lou, Roger, and Judy positioned and braced trusses on top of the house, and I prepared trusses for lifting on the ground, and ran gopher. It was done, except for minor adjustments, in under three hours.

The rest of the week was spent finalizing the bracing of the trusses, and finishing the insulation on the north wall of the basement, with the hope that Lou will be able to put in the basement stairs during the weekend. Hopefully, next week everyone will be at full power again (Prairie and I both were sick this week, and Judy couldn't work due to a puncture-wound in her foot from Monday) and we will finish framing the roof and get some sheathing up. Still no sign of real winter, but it's getting a lot colder.

December 2001, Week 3
Kind of a slow one, compared to the excitement of last week. We finished the basement insulation, and Lou installed the basement steps. Prairie and Judy also started finishing the roof skeleton, constructing the peak of the roof and at the same time, the attic space where the solar water heating system will live. Unfortunately, roof sheathing did not go up this week, due some to running out of time and some to the lingering wisps of money-worry. We did get our construction loan (whew!) and will have the first draw of that money sometime next week.

This is my official last week, though I have agreed to make orders and phone-things next week while I pack up this little house to pass it on to Lou. After this, work will become much more detail-oriented, and more directly in Lou's hands. Prairie and Judy are still up for working here, but I think it will take a little time to sort out everyone's roles now. I'm hoping to leave a fairly organized "desk" for someone to take up, it's good that we are really at a turning point now--moving the work indoors, I guess you could say--so there won't necessarily be many hanging threads.

Even though we haven't gotten as far as I hoped (no roof yet, or windows and doors) we got a lot farther than I feared (the trusses are all up, and the house at least has its own body) and I think there is a lot of closure for me in stepping out here.

December 2001, Week 4
I'm working on finishing this narrative to date, for the future website...

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Design concepts | Site | Workshop | In-progress | House Details | Research | Interview w/ Lou