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The Story of the Affordable Natural House continued...
by Day Host-Jablonski
(taken up by Lou Host-Jablonski)

 

July 13, 2002
The roof over the little house is fully framed and sheathed. Bill and Anthony shingled the south 12/12 portion in just over a day. We have a few bundles of EcoShakes to spare. We re-used the old roof decking boards as wall sheathing on the gable end.

Will trimmed out the first window, the west one in the 2nd floor bedroom, in preparation for Bill and Anthony to side with the asbestos shingles we salvaged off the "Old House". (See photo at left.)

In the meantime, Bill and Anthony placed another layer of earth flooring at the bedroom & hallway. They have perfected the technique, from the proportions of the mix -- 10 parts pea gravel, 10 parts "torpedo" sand (coarse sand that includes small pebbles), 6 parts clay loam -- to the correct moisture content.

The material is very interesting. In consistency, it resembles a quite dry concrete mix. When dumped from the wheelbarrow it does not flow, it sits in a pile. After spreading with a shovel, they walk on it in a slow, bouncing shuffle.

 

The material is then that it changes consistency, into a semi-plastic, gravelly "mud pie," jiggling into a compacted, level mass. To achieve a consistently level floor, we use strings stretched horizontally as in an archeological site. No laser levels for this crew. Days later after the floor is fully dry, we are very pleased with the solid, crack-free results. It's always nice to get it right the first time.

I also tested the temperature sensors with the Fluke 8010M multimeter; all were operational except the "concrete core" location. This one must be replaced.

September 15, 2002
We've have near-freezing temperatures two nights in a row. I'm wearing 3 shirts and drinking hot chocolate as I write because there is no heat. This little house no longer has any ceiling insulation -- we removed it when we dismantled the original roof framing and replaced it with new trusses. So the ceiling has an R-value only a little better than a tent, and I'm unwilling to "heat the great outdoors" as my father would say (yell, more like) when we'd leave a door open during winter.

The pressure is on us all to get the main house fully closed in and heatable. Another goad is the approaching solar tour (October 5th) that MREA [Midwest Renewable Energy Association] is coordinating. We'd like several big things to happen before then or soon after: a heating system installed, the roofing at the living roof installed, and the louvers and insulation at the main-roof vent installed.

We've made a great deal of progress since I last took time to journal. This morning Anthony and Bill are plastering 2nd coat at the interior. We want 2 coats on all the interior and exterior walls before winter. We've rented a paddle-style mortar mixer for the week, for the quite reasonable price of $135. It's electric, almost new, and very quiet. We've also begun using the "Tirolessa," a stucco sprayer made in Mexico. It is a sturdy well-designed tool that looks like a long-handled scoop with a nozzle for an air hose at the end of the handle. Our compressor keeps up, just barely. It's a plaster-delivery system only; we still have a lot of hand troweling to smooth the plaster and fully cover every edge and cranny. Nevertheless , it's saving time and giving us a good bond by "throwing" the mix against the wall. And to improve the bond a bit further, Anthony uses a drywall texture spryer to spray a coat of pure slip onto the straw-clay wall first.

Will, in the meantime, is keeping ahead of the plasterers by fitting the door and window trim at the exterior. Which means hanging the rest of the doors and windows too. He reluctantly pulled off stair-building duty to hang trim. The stair has been frustrating him (and me) because it is taking so long to complete. In truth he is doing a very careful, thoughtful job on the most challenging part of the framing. He has to contend with my requirements for open-frame design (to use the space between studs for shelves) which means the framing must be unusually accurate and careful.

Other progress:
Week before last we poured the foundation for the front screened in porch, the last "heavy" work. Prairie has returned, and he and Bill constructed the formwork. This foundation is a grade beam on piers, a technique I used to save on (energy-intensive) concrete. In fact it cost quite a bit of money to save just a small amount of concrete.

The sequence went like this: Dig the piers, place the steel reinforcing, then fill the piers (using a hand-mixed sack-crete, because there was too little concrete to place a readi-mix truck order.) Then build the formwork, (including an expanded polystyrene crush layer at the bottom to prevent frost-heave.) Place more reinforcing steel, and finish bracing the forms.

All this took over a week. We added a few nice touches too. A chamfer strip at the top and some decorative insets. The forms were very ragtag in appearance because we used every bit of old, odd-sized lumber we had left over, trying to be efficient and save resources. I was concerned about the strength of a few spots, but decided to proceed with the concrete pour.

 

 

 

 

 

Pouring day arrived, and so did disaster. Our same friendly concrete-truck driver from Voit (a few blocks away) maneuvered expertly into position. When no more than the first cubic feet of concrete were in place, our first blow-out occurred. The form bulged badly, and began to spill concrete. We scrambled to add bracing. The driver waited patiently and so it went, for over an hour. We continued to scramble, bracing and rebracing, trying to keep ahead of the implacably setting mix. Finally the concrete was all in place, the forms held -- kind of -- and we had barely enough time to trowel the top edge before the hard set.

I declared this our first major failure -- a good thing I suppose, since it had taken us over a year to produce one. I had a new respect for concrete formwork, even for such a low wall -- learned the hard way. When we removed the forms, the flaws in the wall made it look amateurish. There are obvious bulges. The walls curve along their length. In spots the wall leans from vertical. I considered my options: 1) sledge-hammer it down and start over, 2) commence extensive remedial work, including cutting and grinding off bulges and parging afterwards or 3) make minor repairs, adjust the future framing above, swallow my professional pride, and live with imperfection.

After some days of agonizing, I finally chose #3. I figured my ego was cheaper than the other two options, though it will take longer to deal with. In fact the concrete itself is a good, sound pour, and the problems with the wall are mostly aesthetic. In any case much of the wall will be below grade, and some of the exposed portions can be concealed by plantings. (And no, I don't forget the remark attributed to Frank Lloyd Wright: "Doctors can bury their mistakes; architects can only plant vines").

Yesterday, Day and I consulted on exterior colors. The weather is turning colder and we need reasonably warm days to be able to paint. In addition we'd rather have a coating on the wood trim before spraying the exterior stucco, because it eases the task of cleaning off overspray. We'll be using OS/One Color stain for the cedar trim and AFM's paints for siding and fiber-cement trim. Today Jane Ann Morris stopped by to volunteer and stayed the whole afternoon to finish staining the window trim. A wonderful gift.

Continue with the story...

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