Sunday, December 16, 2018

How to Build DIY Ultra Low-Cost Homes




I am writing a book about sustainable living. It will be published as an ebook on Amazon in May, 2019. Here is a list of the contents and the Introduction.

How to Build Ultra Low-Cost Homes
and the Art of Living Free

Hugh Morshead

Contents

1.      Introduction to building.
2.      Building an Earthbag Hobbit House.
3.      Building a Yurt.
4.      Water Wisdom.
5.      Composting Toilets.
6.      Sauna
7.      Worm composting.
8.      Intensive Veggie and Herb Growing.
9.      Energy – The Currency of Life.
10.  Foraging to Freedom
11.  Living Free.

Introduction
We have driven ‘Old Blue’, our planet, into the ditch by driving backwards into the future on a road we’ve already trashed. Mother Nature wrote the rules of the road and we can only hope she will give us a tow. In the meantime, here’s a guide book for those who feel stranded, it’s also the story of how I turned off the highway onto a forgotten byway and created my own hobbit land.
Ten years ago, I moved into a one-room cabin in the woods, I thought that I would be living a life of voluntary simplicity with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st - after my first summer the bank called. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk I faced two sets of arched eyebrows, their concern was my sudden wealth. I told the bank ladies that Charles Dickens wrote the book of finance, his stories are about keeping your head above water in hard times. I paraphrased the money lender in David Copperfield - disposable income or happiness equals income minus expenses. I went on to say that neo-liberalism had turned the necessities of life into commodities. Not for me though… I get free electricity from the sun, free heat from my woodlot, free water from nature and free food from my garden. The bank ladies smiled and so did I, by wiggly my toe in Thoreau’s Walden Pond I had jumped up an income level. Now, for the first time in my life I had the affluence of time and money. I left the bank as chagrined and mystified as I had entered and began picking away at the threads and tangles of off-the-grid living. How come other people can’t unleashed their inner Bilbo Baggins? I came up with four insights.
1.      Going green is a money mission from a banker’s viewpoint. My life energy would no longer be sacrificed on the hamster wheel of work and debt. 

2.      Clarity of thinking. Every aspect of this lifestyle must be thought out and acted upon. You think, plan and do. Mainstream life is digitalized and automated – including thinking patterns. In contrast, to make this work I used my emotional intelligence for critical and creative thinking. I became innovative.

3.      Location. It was easy for me to make this transition because I could harvest the discarded treasures from the crawlspaces and slip steams of the consumer society.
4.      Turn Abraham Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs on its ear. Like a winning jockey, you bust free from the pack and hit the front. Forget about meeting basic needs, that’s easy, instead connect with the mystic or spirit world. I don’t mean disappearing down the rabbit hole of esoteric practices, but rather, roadster the contours of life with nature in the passenger seat. When travelling in the wilds under your own steam you feel a slight spiritual undertow that sweeps you closer to nature and further from mainstream society. The veil between myself and other dimensions and its denizens was a heavy broadloom until I met my Gandalf while cycling through Ireland. It was a winter’s day in an empty Youth Hostel on a wild shore. He was in his sixties, had a massive head of shaggy hair and beard, his face was as furrowed as a ploughed field. He was walking across Europe.  He told me to go to St. Jean Pied de Port in the Pyrenes and walk the Camino de Santiago. Adventure is bred in my bones and bicycling the emptiness of Patagonia, Iceland and Newfoundland along with sauntering the Camino pushed my reset button. The physical and spiritual world have always been one for indigenous people and if you can tap into that you discover something wonderful that you didn’t know you’d lost. Desolation, uncertainty and change dominate our world; building resilience and optimism into our lives gives us buoyancy and fills our sails on this Homeric adventure.

If my DNA could be unraveled like an old wool sweater the three dominant threads would be -   swinging a hammer, snapping the synapses with a good book and roaming forgotten byways. Having the affluence of time means you put your feet up, sit back and ponder the big questions. How much is enough? What do we need? What do we want? What are our responsibilities to each other and the planet?

It’s about co-sufficiency, rather than mere self-sufficiency. As soon as you bale out of the rat race; you jump right back in with your skills and enthusiasm to help create a strong and vibrant community - we all need someone we can lean on, as the old song goes. I wriggled my way into the local community with my vermicomposting business. A farmer’s market had just opened, and they were looking for vendors. Spending Saturday mornings selling bags of worm poo and partially composted manure full of worms might not excite entrepreneurs, for me, it was dirt into dollars. My neighbour grazes his cattle on my rough pasture. Red Wriggler worms give manure the Midas touch turning it into ‘black gold’ compost. At the market I would plunge my hand into a bag of compost and brandishing squirming worms tell tales of sustainability. 

Whether folks want to admit it or not we face an inevitable collision between two mutually exclusive ways of doing things. Our economy depends upon infinite growth, our lives depend upon the finite and sustainable systems that govern the planet. Once you know something it’s hard to unknow it. We need to adapt now so that we are not so far of the mark that it becomes impossible to adjust later. Living ahead of the pack calls for confidence and being at ease in challenging the norms so that we can share often simple solutions to problems when they arise.






Saturday, December 1, 2018

The Yurt before Plastering




How to Build a Yurt


How to Build a Yurt.
Yurts are simple and quick to build compared to other alternative homes. The traditional Mongolian yurt is brilliant in its simplicity. Physics rather than brawn provide structural strength. The lattice wall leans slightly out, a steel cable holds it in place enabling the wall to support the roof. The drawbacks are: poor ventilation, no windows and perhaps having to cuddle up to sheep for supplemental heat. These can be easily rectified by framing in windows, installing an airtight woodstove and fitting fiberglass insulation into the earth plaster covering the wall frame. A two-foot roof overhang, along with a coat of lime wash protects the wall from rain.  A cedar log in the center supports the roof. The bones of the building are Mongolian, the skin is Iron Age Celtic. The timeless challenge is to turn the dream into reality when you’re clinging to the margins of society. There is also the spectre of building permits and bye-law regulations. These are there to protect us from our own and our neighbour’s follies and misfortunes. Building codes are based upon what has pasted the test of time. Imagine Monty Python as a Roman building inspector facing down the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan… “Yurts?!!!... Nooooooo…  you must have proper buildings.” Building an alternative home is a Homeric journey – you can make it to the distant shore with sweat, research and a smidgeon of luck.
Kindness, helpfulness and sociability are all marketable skills. Baby boomers are now in their dotage and many elderly people are living alone on beautiful rural properties. Some of them would welcome the comfort and security of having a supportive couple living close by. Local government is edging in this direction. To help this trend we need to build things right.
There is a long list of parameters to consider when choosing a site. Southern exposure, protection from prevailing wind, avoiding low ground, water management and vehicular access to name a few. This is going to be your home, make it so magical that you never want to leave. Luckily, creativeness and frugality go hand in hand. There is a bibliography at the end of these notes, these books will give you the knowledge and confidence you need. Take comfort with the thought that these building techniques and materials have proven successful for thousands of years, unlike the modern suburban home which is experimental and decidedly dodgy to live in with off-gassing, flammable materials and stale air. Before going into the details of construction it helps to have an overview so that you can have a picture in your mind’s eye.
The yurt is built on a two-foot high platform of packed sub-soil with a top-dressing of limestone screenings. In my experience, a twenty-foot diameter starter home with a 315 sq. ft. floor is the right balance between economy, structural strength and liveability.  The rounded door is framed by fitting two curved logs together, the window frames are attached to posts dug into the ground. The lattice wall is covered on the inside and outside with an earth plaster, fiberglass insulation is sandwiched between the plaster. The chimney for the woodstove passes through the wall. Three of the five window open and this ensures good cross-ventilation. The cedar poles for the lattice wall are seven long and five inches in diameter. The poles for the roof are twelve long and six inches diameter at the top. The roof poles are two feet apart at the wall. Roof strapping is done with salvaged 1” by 6” planks. Three layers of tarps cover the roof, the middle one is 100% waterproof, the other two protect it from the rough edges of the planks and from UV radiation. The roof is covered with a thin layer of compost; this holds down the tarps, helps to insulate and looks natural.
All houses need to be higher than the surrounding land to protect them from surface run-off.  Building on packed sub-soil rather than on a timber frame prevents having cold air and critters under the floor. The platform needs to be at least six feet wider than the yurt. Driving over the dirt with a front-end loader tractor as it is being built will pack it hard. Then, add a top dressing of six inches or more of limestone screenings. Wet screenings packs hard.
Before building the wall, the center post needs to be set in position along with posts for the door frame and the main south-facing window. The posts for the other windows are smaller and they are fitted after the wall is up. The trick to digging holes by hand in hard ground is to use water. Dig as deep as you can be using a digging bar, spade and digging clams. When you hit impossibly hard ground pour six inches of water in the hole, twenty minutes later the ground will be soft enough to get down another few inches, repeat this until you reach a depth of at least 2’9”, preferably 3’6”. I’m fortunate to have cedar logs available which are resistant to rot. An alternative method is to place the post in a plastic bin to protect the wood from moisture.
Curved and irregular shaped doors and windows have charm and character. Hanging the door and fitting the two curved door posts takes ingenuity and chainsaw skills. I scout my woodlot for a pair of curved logs at least eight feet long and no less than eight inches in diameter. These are dug into the ground on the east side to form an arch. The door is roughly four feet wide and five feet high, big enough for furniture and a full-size mattress to fit through. The trick is to have enough of one door post plumb so that the door doesn’t open like a gull’s wing. The door opens outward so that bears at least knock before entering. Next, set a pair of 8” posts on the south side to frame the window, measure the width of the window and allow for the 2” by 6” planks that will frame it. It is easier to frame the window if the posts are half-rounds.
A 20’diamerter circle has a circumference of just over 62ft. My yurt has 32 roof poles, each one is supported at the wall by the crossed wall poles. The first step is to make about thirty pairs of crossed poles. The dimensions are: 7’ poles that are five to six inches in diameter, crossed 9” from the top with the base 52” apart. Fasten them together with 6” or 8” nails. Mark the position of the wall by laying a rope on the ground. Place the first pair of crossed poles in position on the line of the wall and support them temporally with a 12’ roof beam. Add the next pair of crossed poles so that the tops are two feet apart. Follow the same pattern with the remainder of the wall poles, for example, the right leg of one pair cross over and in front of the left leg of the next pair. This maintains the curvature of the circle. After a few pairs are in place, only every third or forth with need to be supported. Lean the wall poles out approximately five degrees. Thread 3/8” steel cable through the joins of the poles and attach the ends with a turnbuckle. Adjust the poles so that you now have a uniform lattice wall that leans slightly out. Tighten the turnbuckle. Wire the legs of the poles tightly together wherever they cross. The roof poles can now be placed in position to form the roof frame. The thin end of the poles rest on the wall. The roof overhang above the south window may need to be adjusted to maximize the heat, winter sunshine and sprouting salad greens.
Iron Age round houses had a roof angle of 14 degrees. Steep enough so that rain flows off, but not so steep that it becomes a torrent eroding the platform or the living roof. The inside height is eight feet in the center and six feet at the wall. The center post supports over thirty poles with seven-inch tops. Ideally, find a tree trunk that has a fork or large limb that can be used to support some of the poles. Alternatively, fit four poles on the trunk and lay the others on top of these. Anchor the poles with eight-inch nails. The roof is then covered with 1” by 6” planks, preferably hardwood. Fit the planks close together, otherwise the tarp can bulge through the gap. Dumpster cowboys are center stage during roofing when scrap timber and trashed tarps are golden. There are many options for the waterproof layer. A heavy-duty agricultural tarp costs about $400 and polythene vapor barrier $40. Then there are all the hi-tech liners used for tailing ponds. My choice was polythene vapor barrier sandwiched between old worn tarps and this works fine. The vapor barrier comes in eight-foot widths and is taped in position. Fasten the edge of the tarps to the underside of the roof overhang. A wood frame of light poles holds the tarps and the ‘black gold’ compost in place. Take a pair of seven-foot poles (left over from the wall), attached the ends together six feet apart with wire, place this over the peak of the roof, do the same with another pair of poles in the opposite direction. The peak should now be ringed by four poles approximately three feet from the top of the roof. Attach more poles onto these until there is a spider’s web of poles covering the roof. This ‘deadman’ style of construction enables a fabric to be anchored to a roof without punching nail holes in it. Next, shovel a three-inch layer of compost onto the roof.
Windows provide ventilation, heat in winter and year-long daylight. It is easiest to fit standard recycled windows. If you have the time and ingenuity, rounded plate glass table tops, car windshields or even a car door can be fitted into the wall. I drive pick-up trucks until they drop, the doors are reincarnated into hobbit homes. There is something about winding down the window, feeling the fresh summer breeze, tunes taking you down memory lane and you’re still on the couch. The main south-facing window is a full-size glass patio door set sideways. Three other windows are timber-framed and have hinges on the upper side, so they swing open from the top. They are framed into posts dug into the ground, the frame must be sturdy enough to support a section of the roof because one pair of wall poles is removed to fit the window.   A smaller window on the west side allows the late afternoon sun to stream in. Quality of life inside the yurt is dependant upon good ventilation, plenty of daylight and scenic views.
The lattice wall is covered with fabric and chicken wire, this will later be covered with earth plaster. An alternative is to weave branches or lathes between the poles to hold the plaster. Landscape fabric provides a cheap breathable barrier, house wrap is a more expensive option. The fabric provides a layer between the plaster and the fiberglass insulation.  The wall has five layers: a lime white wash, earth plaster, chicken wire, fabric, fiberglass insulation, fabric, chicken wire and earth plaster. The fabric and chicken wire are nailed to the lattice wall. Thread 12-gauge wire through the chicken wire to give it extra support. The fiberglass insulation is fitted into the lattice wall. The result is a weather proof breathable wall at minimal cost. Planet loyalty, aesthetics and breathability is why you should use earth plaster and not cement stucco.
The floor is paving stone or interlocking brick. These are easy to embed into the limestone screenings. Master scavengers can source these from the detritus of construction projects. The stone floor is a heat sink for sunshine and the woodstove. A wood floor and area carpets can be added later. A small airtight wood stove provides heat and is used for cooking. The chimney passes through the wall where it is protected from the weather by the roof overhang. Anchor the chimney to the roof for support. Read the building code before installing the stove.
A 40-watt solar panel with a charge controller and a 12- volt battery will power LED lights and charge a smart phone or tablet. Ideally, have two batteries so that there is backup for overcast winter days. The cost jumps substantially if you add more panels and an inverter for AC current. In practice, it’s cheaper to have a top- quality generator for when you need more power, such as, running a vacuum cleaner or a vehicle block heater. Generators must be run regularly to remain reliable.
Earth plastering is where you really connect with the planet - mixing sand, clay and water together, squishing straw into it and then massaging gobs of it into the wall. It takes time, ingredients can be varied, mistakes can be rectified, and the results are deeply satisfying. It’s more important to grasp the principles and variables than rigidly follow a recipe or technique. First, do a simple test to learn the percentage of the ingredients in the proposed earth you plan to make the plaster out of. Half fill a jam jar with dirt, fill it water add a spoonful of salt and shake. Sand, silt and clay will separate out enabling you modify the mix so that you have roughly a 50-70% sand to clay mix. Earth plaster is clay, sand, fiber and water mixed so that it’s soft and sticky. Adapt what you’ve got to what you need. Here is an overview; clay is the glue, sand gives strength and reduces shrinkage and straw reinforces. It’s best to have three layers, the first gives a rough layer that is pushed into the wire mesh to form a strong base. The second layer smooths out the unevenness and the final layer is finer, thinner and less likely to crack. It can take a week or more for each layer to dry. To help the second and third layers stick, wet the plaster with a lime wash. Longer straw is stronger than short. Plastering is unleashing your creative genius; it takes you off on wild riffs improvising with shredded paper, animal manure, hair, sawdust – the list is endless. Mastery comes practice or to borrow a line from Van Morrison - ‘you have to do it for real, anytime, anywhere’.
Barefoot Architect by Johan Lengen                                     Copyright 2018, Hugh Morshead                                                                                          Earthbag Building by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer                                                           Building Green by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan
How to Build a Yurt.
Yurts are simple and quick to build compared to other alternative homes. The traditional Mongolian yurt is brilliant in its simplicity. Physics rather than brawn provide structural strength. The lattice wall leans slightly out, a steel cable holds it in place enabling the wall to support the roof. The drawbacks are: poor ventilation, no windows and perhaps having to cuddle up to sheep for supplemental heat. These can be easily rectified by framing in windows, installing an airtight woodstove and fitting fiberglass insulation into the earth plaster covering the wall frame. A two-foot roof overhang, along with a coat of lime wash protects the wall from rain.  A cedar log in the center supports the roof. The bones of the building are Mongolian, the skin is Iron Age Celtic. The timeless challenge is to turn the dream into reality when you’re clinging to the margins of society. There is also the spectre of building permits and bye-law regulations. These are there to protect us from our own and our neighbour’s follies and misfortunes. Building codes are based upon what has pasted the test of time. Imagine Monty Python as a Roman building inspector facing down the Mongol horde of Genghis Khan… “Yurts?!!!... Nooooooo…  you must have proper buildings.” Building an alternative home is a Homeric journey – you can make it to the distant shore with sweat, research and a smidgeon of luck.
Kindness, helpfulness and sociability are all marketable skills. Baby boomers are now in their dotage and many elderly people are living alone on beautiful rural properties. Some of them would welcome the comfort and security of having a supportive couple living close by. Local government is edging in this direction. To help this trend we need to build things right.
There is a long list of parameters to consider when choosing a site. Southern exposure, protection from prevailing wind, avoiding low ground, water management and vehicular access to name a few. This is going to be your home, make it so magical that you never want to leave. Luckily, creativeness and frugality go hand in hand. There is a bibliography at the end of these notes, these books will give you the knowledge and confidence you need. Take comfort with the thought that these building techniques and materials have proven successful for thousands of years, unlike the modern suburban home which is experimental and decidedly dodgy to live in with off-gassing, flammable materials and stale air. Before going into the details of construction it helps to have an overview so that you can have a picture in your mind’s eye.
The yurt is built on a two-foot high platform of packed sub-soil with a top-dressing of limestone screenings. In my experience, a twenty-foot diameter starter home with a 315 sq. ft. floor is the right balance between economy, structural strength and liveability.  The rounded door is framed by fitting two curved logs together, the window frames are attached to posts dug into the ground. The lattice wall is covered on the inside and outside with an earth plaster, fiberglass insulation is sandwiched between the plaster. The chimney for the woodstove passes through the wall. Three of the five window open and this ensures good cross-ventilation. The cedar poles for the lattice wall are seven long and five inches in diameter. The poles for the roof are twelve long and six inches diameter at the top. The roof poles are two feet apart at the wall. Roof strapping is done with salvaged 1” by 6” planks. Three layers of tarps cover the roof, the middle one is 100% waterproof, the other two protect it from the rough edges of the planks and from UV radiation. The roof is covered with a thin layer of compost; this holds down the tarps, helps to insulate and looks natural.
All houses need to be higher than the surrounding land to protect them from surface run-off.  Building on packed sub-soil rather than on a timber frame prevents having cold air and critters under the floor. The platform needs to be at least six feet wider than the yurt. Driving over the dirt with a front-end loader tractor as it is being built will pack it hard. Then, add a top dressing of six inches or more of limestone screenings. Wet screenings packs hard.
Before building the wall, the center post needs to be set in position along with posts for the door frame and the main south-facing window. The posts for the other windows are smaller and they are fitted after the wall is up. The trick to digging holes by hand in hard ground is to use water. Dig as deep as you can be using a digging bar, spade and digging clams. When you hit impossibly hard ground pour six inches of water in the hole, twenty minutes later the ground will be soft enough to get down another few inches, repeat this until you reach a depth of at least 2’9”, preferably 3’6”. I’m fortunate to have cedar logs available which are resistant to rot. An alternative method is to place the post in a plastic bin to protect the wood from moisture.
Curved and irregular shaped doors and windows have charm and character. Hanging the door and fitting the two curved door posts takes ingenuity and chainsaw skills. I scout my woodlot for a pair of curved logs at least eight feet long and no less than eight inches in diameter. These are dug into the ground on the east side to form an arch. The door is roughly four feet wide and five feet high, big enough for furniture and a full-size mattress to fit through. The trick is to have enough of one door post plumb so that the door doesn’t open like a gull’s wing. The door opens outward so that bears at least knock before entering. Next, set a pair of 8” posts on the south side to frame the window, measure the width of the window and allow for the 2” by 6” planks that will frame it. It is easier to frame the window if the posts are half-rounds.
A 20’diamerter circle has a circumference of just over 62ft. My yurt has 32 roof poles, each one is supported at the wall by the crossed wall poles. The first step is to make about thirty pairs of crossed poles. The dimensions are: 7’ poles that are five to six inches in diameter, crossed 9” from the top with the base 52” apart. Fasten them together with 6” or 8” nails. Mark the position of the wall by laying a rope on the ground. Place the first pair of crossed poles in position on the line of the wall and support them temporally with a 12’ roof beam. Add the next pair of crossed poles so that the tops are two feet apart. Follow the same pattern with the remainder of the wall poles, for example, the right leg of one pair cross over and in front of the left leg of the next pair. This maintains the curvature of the circle. After a few pairs are in place, only every third or forth with need to be supported. Lean the wall poles out approximately five degrees. Thread 3/8” steel cable through the joins of the poles and attach the ends with a turnbuckle. Adjust the poles so that you now have a uniform lattice wall that leans slightly out. Tighten the turnbuckle. Wire the legs of the poles tightly together wherever they cross. The roof poles can now be placed in position to form the roof frame. The thin end of the poles rest on the wall. The roof overhang above the south window may need to be adjusted to maximize the heat, winter sunshine and sprouting salad greens.
Iron Age round houses had a roof angle of 14 degrees. Steep enough so that rain flows off, but not so steep that it becomes a torrent eroding the platform or the living roof. The inside height is eight feet in the center and six feet at the wall. The center post supports over thirty poles with seven-inch tops. Ideally, find a tree trunk that has a fork or large limb that can be used to support some of the poles. Alternatively, fit four poles on the trunk and lay the others on top of these. Anchor the poles with eight-inch nails. The roof is then covered with 1” by 6” planks, preferably hardwood. Fit the planks close together, otherwise the tarp can bulge through the gap. Dumpster cowboys are center stage during roofing when scrap timber and trashed tarps are golden. There are many options for the waterproof layer. A heavy-duty agricultural tarp costs about $400 and polythene vapor barrier $40. Then there are all the hi-tech liners used for tailing ponds. My choice was polythene vapor barrier sandwiched between old worn tarps and this works fine. The vapor barrier comes in eight-foot widths and is taped in position. Fasten the edge of the tarps to the underside of the roof overhang. A wood frame of light poles holds the tarps and the ‘black gold’ compost in place. Take a pair of seven-foot poles (left over from the wall), attached the ends together six feet apart with wire, place this over the peak of the roof, do the same with another pair of poles in the opposite direction. The peak should now be ringed by four poles approximately three feet from the top of the roof. Attach more poles onto these until there is a spider’s web of poles covering the roof. This ‘deadman’ style of construction enables a fabric to be anchored to a roof without punching nail holes in it. Next, shovel a three-inch layer of compost onto the roof.
Windows provide ventilation, heat in winter and year-long daylight. It is easiest to fit standard recycled windows. If you have the time and ingenuity, rounded plate glass table tops, car windshields or even a car door can be fitted into the wall. I drive pick-up trucks until they drop, the doors are reincarnated into hobbit homes. There is something about winding down the window, feeling the fresh summer breeze, tunes taking you down memory lane and you’re still on the couch. The main south-facing window is a full-size glass patio door set sideways. Three other windows are timber-framed and have hinges on the upper side, so they swing open from the top. They are framed into posts dug into the ground, the frame must be sturdy enough to support a section of the roof because one pair of wall poles is removed to fit the window.   A smaller window on the west side allows the late afternoon sun to stream in. Quality of life inside the yurt is dependant upon good ventilation, plenty of daylight and scenic views.
The lattice wall is covered with fabric and chicken wire, this will later be covered with earth plaster. An alternative is to weave branches or lathes between the poles to hold the plaster. Landscape fabric provides a cheap breathable barrier, house wrap is a more expensive option. The fabric provides a layer between the plaster and the fiberglass insulation.  The wall has five layers: a lime white wash, earth plaster, chicken wire, fabric, fiberglass insulation, fabric, chicken wire and earth plaster. The fabric and chicken wire are nailed to the lattice wall. Thread 12-gauge wire through the chicken wire to give it extra support. The fiberglass insulation is fitted into the lattice wall. The result is a weather proof breathable wall at minimal cost. Planet loyalty, aesthetics and breathability is why you should use earth plaster and not cement stucco.
The floor is paving stone or interlocking brick. These are easy to embed into the limestone screenings. Master scavengers can source these from the detritus of construction projects. The stone floor is a heat sink for sunshine and the woodstove. A wood floor and area carpets can be added later. A small airtight wood stove provides heat and is used for cooking. The chimney passes through the wall where it is protected from the weather by the roof overhang. Anchor the chimney to the roof for support. Read the building code before installing the stove.
A 40-watt solar panel with a charge controller and a 12- volt battery will power LED lights and charge a smart phone or tablet. Ideally, have two batteries so that there is backup for overcast winter days. The cost jumps substantially if you add more panels and an inverter for AC current. In practice, it’s cheaper to have a top- quality generator for when you need more power, such as, running a vacuum cleaner or a vehicle block heater. Generators must be run regularly to remain reliable.
Earth plastering is where you really connect with the planet - mixing sand, clay and water together, squishing straw into it and then massaging gobs of it into the wall. It takes time, ingredients can be varied, mistakes can be rectified, and the results are deeply satisfying. It’s more important to grasp the principles and variables than rigidly follow a recipe or technique. First, do a simple test to learn the percentage of the ingredients in the proposed earth you plan to make the plaster out of. Half fill a jam jar with dirt, fill it water add a spoonful of salt and shake. Sand, silt and clay will separate out enabling you modify the mix so that you have roughly a 50-70% sand to clay mix. Earth plaster is clay, sand, fiber and water mixed so that it’s soft and sticky. Adapt what you’ve got to what you need. Here is an overview; clay is the glue, sand gives strength and reduces shrinkage and straw reinforces. It’s best to have three layers, the first gives a rough layer that is pushed into the wire mesh to form a strong base. The second layer smooths out the unevenness and the final layer is finer, thinner and less likely to crack. It can take a week or more for each layer to dry. To help the second and third layers stick, wet the plaster with a lime wash. Longer straw is stronger than short. Plastering is unleashing your creative genius; it takes you off on wild riffs improvising with shredded paper, animal manure, hair, sawdust – the list is endless. Mastery comes practice or to borrow a line from Van Morrison - ‘you have to do it for real, anytime, anywhere’.
Barefoot Architect by Johan Lengen                                     Copyright 2018, Hugh Morshead                                                                                          Earthbag Building by Kaki Hunter and Donald Kiffmeyer                                                           Building Green by Clarke Snell and Tim Callahan

Sunday, September 9, 2018

The Sacred Womyn's Camp and Mayan Adventure


The Sacred Womyn’s Camp and Mayan Adventure

Plan was to help my Camino friend, Nash, with her dream of creating an eco-tourism center in the Mayan jungle near Valleoidad. Then two weeks before leaving, Sharon, founder of the Green Beautiful Foundation begs me to come to Australia to be a guest speaker at the upcoming Blue Flame Dreaming festival and build a hobbit house at the Sacred Womyn’s Camp near Byron bay, New South Wales.
The Sacred Womyn’s Camp is a collection of tents in the bush surrounding a tarp-covered kitchen area with couches around a sacred fire burning in the centre. It is home to Lois Cook, the eldest surviving member of the local aboriginal tribe and designated as Custodian of Country. There were half a dozen people living there, including visiting elders from across the country who were going to speak at the festival. The oppressive 40c heat, jet-lag and worries of how I was going to build a house in four weeks with no apparent tools or help had me asking myself - ‘why did I let myself get talked into this’. From my Celtic viewpoint, I was barefoot in snake city and couldn’t tell whether the spider darting around my tent was poisonous or not.
I sat outside the local radio studio waiting to be interviewed. “This is 99.1 Byron Bay …facted up radio” came over the speaker. The surfer twang made it sound rude and I smiled. The host was disappointed that I didn’t have hairy feet, other than that, it went well and a handful of enthusiastic volunteers appeared the next day along with an excavator. I had underestimated Lois’s resourcefulness.
The site was low lying scrub bush bordered by tea trees, dense jungle separated us from the pounding surf. Dead cyprus trees were felled and logged out with a small SUV. A venomous red bellied black snake slithered out from a rotten stump as I wrapped the chain around a log. Sand from the thirty-foot wide excavation was shovelled into horse feed bags, these were then placed on the wall and pounded rigid. Despite no shade and relentless heat, the building slowly took shape. At lunchtime and in the evening, we’d go to nearby Lennox to plunge into the ocean and then cross the road to wallow in the warm water of the tea tree lake. Floating in the restorative water the Elders would generously answer my questions. Some things I could understand, but I was an outsider looking in and could only appreciate that their grasp of the universe that was way beyond me.  
The Blue Flame Dreaming festival was three days of music, dance and lectures about indigenous culture and the cosmic shift in consciousness. It took place at the ultra-modern Byron Bay community theatre. My contribution was less than noteworthy. I’m center stage with my image projected onto a huge screen behind me. I nonchalantly click the PowerPoint controller, then frantically stab at it unleashing my inner Mr. Bean. My hobbit house had been lost in the ether.
We came close to getting it built, but minor setbacks slowed construction, not least because of a bush fire on the final weekend. We had to pack everything up and evacuate the site overnight. The next day I stayed at the camp while the others took the tents down and ferried the gear back to camp. This was my first experience fighting a bush fire and I suspect my attire of sandals, shorts and a straw hat would not have met with approval, however, I did use my spade to good effect. I quickly learnt to avoid the burning tea trees which would randomly crash in any direction.
I think that I gained more from the experience than they did from the construction and came away with a smile when told we’d built it right on a song line. It’s now part of the never-ending story.
The next stop was Valleoidad, a colonial town in the Yucatan. My friend Nash’s property was in a small Mayan village deep in the jungle. We stayed for a week with the family next door, slept in hammocks and lived on beans and tortillas. Nash’s house was three-quarters built and we worked on the roof and framing the door and windows. I quickly realized how difficult it is for people in less affluent countries to improve their lives. Low wages, no scavenging of free construction materials or even topsoil for growing food. We returned to Valleoidad were Nash was the receptionist at a boutique hotel. In the evening I would chat to Basilio at the bar, sipping margaritas with my Spotify playlist coming through the PA system. Buddy Guy with Otis Spann tickling the ivories never sounded so good.
I was watering the garden at Nash’s house on a sunday morning when I noticed lycra-clad runners going past. I felt like a jog, so I followed them. After a kilometer or two and close to the town center, I was alarmingly alone in the middle of an empty street lined with cheering spectators. The side streets were sealed off by police cars, a motor-cycle cop on a huge Harley pulls out in front of me and escorts me towards a giant inflated triumphal arch in the town square. The runners ahead are struggling, I quicken my pace and pass them.  The crowd roars encouragement and I go through the arch arms aloft to the deafening boom of a massed drum band. A beautiful girl steps down from the podium and tries to place a medal around my neck. I graciously decline, “No gracias, soy canadiense.”

Monday, January 9, 2017

Live Free - a handcrafted life



                                   Live Free – a handcrafted life       
                                          

We are driving backwards into the future on a road we have already trashed. Six years ago, I took the road less traveled with the thought of wriggling my toes in the local equivalent of Henry Thoreau’s Walden Pond. I moved into a one room log cabin in the woods and lived off the grid anticipating a life of voluntary austerity. I yearned to weave resilience into my life and make sense of the gathering certainties in the world. At the time, it was merely the economy and climate swinging on their hinges, now we have the added threat of a rising tide of extreme right wing populist politics. Building strong, diverse and inclusive communities has never been more important.

I must admit to jaywalking through life, for every year of formal education, I have almost spent one year backpacking - scanning distant horizons rather than a flickering screen. A fondness for distant beaches and mountain trails kept me from being sucked into the gaping maw of the 9 to 5 world. I had time to sit, think and watch from the margins. 

The world stopped working for ordinary folk when Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism took hold in the 1980s. The necessities of life became commodities, environmental and social safeguards were whittled away and potential careers morphed into precarious employment. Then society was swept up by the digital revolution and an ideology that glorifies ultra-individualism and competitive self-interest. Shopping and the consumer lifestyle made it easy to block out the daily struggle of those on the margins, bicycling through the barrios of South America tells a different story.  

Meanwhile, back in the cabin I was happily adjusting to a life with one boot in the 19th century and the other in the 21st Century. Then, one day at the end of my first summer, I received a summons from the bank, they insisted that I come in for an interview. The manager met me at the door and asked if she could sit in on the meeting. Across the desk, I faced two sets of arched eyebrows.
“Did I know how much was in my account”?
Well, it had jumped by a several zeros. I suspected that they thought I might have a grow-op, I do, but not what they thought – more about that later. I told them that Charles Dickens wrote the book on finance. His stories are about how ordinary folk keep their heads above water in hard times. The moneylender in David Copperfield said it best: disposable income equals income minus expenses. No matter your career, your salary is at best a slight incline, however, everyone’s expenses are way up or way down depending upon lifestyle choices. All the things that come with an invoice can also be had for free or nearly so.

Every square meter of the earth’s surface gets 1.4 kw of solar power a day, a sauna insures unlimited hot water, drinking water comes out of the ground, raised bed gardening provides food, a root cellar’s temperature is a stable 55F degree, dead trees provide heat. Then there. are all the other opportunities to save money; local libraries are my office and when I go to the office the challenge is choosing which movie, music or book to give my attention to. The local Salvation Army thrift store has a tractor trailer load of upmarket city clothes delivered every month, nobody dies when you shop at the Sally Ann, unlike the cheap fashion outlets in the Mall tainted by the recent death of 900 garment workers in Dacca.

I went into that meeting fearing a Little Red Riding Hood experience, instead I came away thinking that my Fairy Godmother had sprinkled fairy dust over my cabin. It set me thinking – instead of a life of voluntary austerity my greening was, from a banker’s viewpoint, a money mission. For the first time in my life I had the affluence of time and money; I could handcraft my life to be myself 100%.  The three big cogs that put the smile in my stride are books, building stuff and travel. I now divide the year into three so they all chimed together. Travel alternated each year between cycling and long distance walking.

I was bicycling across Ireland when I met a retired Frenchman who was walking across Europe. He had with a deeply furrowed face, wild wavy hair and bushy beard. He was my Gandalf. He told me to go to St. Jean Pied de Port in the French Pyrenees and travel the ancient Camino de Santiago pilgrimage route. Ten days later I was there, I have since returned twice to walk the Camino. Pilgrimage pushes your re-set button. Shouldering a backpack also discourages shopping. Which brings me to my grow-op.

My background in horse racing and equestrian sport taught me that turf matters. The challenge was to have optimum conditions with limited time and resources. Red Wriggler worms give the Midas touch to farm manure. The resulting ‘black gold’ compost is magic for turf and gardens. The horse world’s response was a disappointment; however, the local farmer’s market was happy to have me as a vendor. Raised bed and container gardening with vermicompost can make a gardener out of anyone. Food security and ultra-low cost house are the bedrock to building communities. Building things is what makes me tick. DIY hobbit houses popped up on the internet, I couldn’t resist. A library book on earthbag construction enabled me to turn a dream into reality. My currency of construction is barter, recycle and goodwill.  My hobbit house cost $56. Plastering the interior added another $400 because I used a mortar and lime mix rather than an earth plaster (it was 20 below outside and I sacrificed clay on the altar of expediency). The roof and walls are covered with my ‘black gold’ compost, kale grows on the roof and beans climb the walls. Yes, Virginia, you can build your house and eat it too.

Friday, January 6, 2017




Building a Hobbit House

I built my first hobbit house for $500, it began as a dream and I just kept going. Although I have a beautiful 1870s log cabin close by, I moved into the hobbit house. It is not just because it is so warm and comfortable, it has a magical quality that I’d never experienced before, it’s like finding something wonderful that you didn’t know you had lost.

 I have since built a second one and that too surprised me how good it was, it also gave me a clear idea on costs and construction time. Both are built using earthbag construction techniques and have living exterior walls and roof. By happy accident I stumbled on the answer to ultra-low   cost housing and food security. Affordable housing and abundant local food are essential components to building vibrant and diverse communities. It is for that reason that I share my thoughts and experiences.

Hobbit houses work because they align perfectly with nature. The sun provides passive solar heat and solar electricity, the earth adds geothermal heat and cooling, earthbag construction insures excellent insulation and structural stability, finally, the living walls and roof become the garden. The core principles work anywhere, however the actual building materials and construction technique must be adapted to the climate and culture in which you live. My hobbit house is in central Canada. If I was building elsewhere I would blend the same mindset with the indigenous architecture of the region. The construction materials should be locally available, ideally free or at very low cost. The only caveat is that it is essential to have a practical and intuitive understanding of the core principles of construction and architecture. Ballast dreams with pragmatism.  Oh, I should mention, earthbag construction is hard work, there are about 900 bags, they weigh up to 110 lbs each and the tamper weighs 30lbs.

The four gods of architecture are: air, water, earth and sun. The ideal site is on a slope facing the sun with half the building dug into the hillside. The fill from excavation provides material for the walls. Good ventilation is essential, that means fresh air flows through the house. Cold air is heavier than warm air so site the house a third of the way up a hill, this avoids waking up to damp misty mornings. Water goes where water wants to go, read the plants and the terrain so that ground water isn’t a problem. Earth acts like a liquid not a solid, it heaves, pushes and can flow in a mudslide. The concave shape gives added strength to the building. Excavating down to bedrock or until an excavator can no longer dig prevents future subsidence. Orient the building to take full advantage of the sun. Then there is gravity, the glue of the universe, it keeps us and everything else grounded. Make gravity work for you, not against you. Earthbag buildings can be monolith structures or have a timber frame with the earth bags filling between the posts. The advantage of a timber frame is that it is uncomplicated to build and facilitates fitting door, windows and shelves. The downside for me is that I believe trees are sentient beings and killing them is a dilemma I have not resolved.





Design

The beauty of earthbag construction is that you can build in any terrain and climate, that said, choosing the optimum site saves cash and adds magic. Intuition and a feeling for a place are critical components to buildings that make people feel good. The front of the building has a rounded door and windows for that storybook look, however, the south-facing windows (northern hemisphere) are recycled quality windows that can be opened, have screens and are double glazed. The opposite wall also has a small window for cross ventilation. The airtight woodstove is also on this side with the chimney going out the wall. The interior dimensions are 20ft diameter (314 sq. ft.), the walls are 8’6” rising to 9’6” in the center (allow at least 6” for the floor). The frame is nine posts on the outside and one in the center supporting the roof. The frame design I borrowed from the traditional North American bank barn which have floors that support the weight of tractors with wagon loads of hay. The interior layout is a nod to Lao Tzu and sailboat design - it is the empty space that makes things useful. 

The bed frame is built 4ft off the floor and against the wall opposite the door so that you can wake up and watch deer grazing in the garden (no worries when the kale grows on the roof and the root veggies are safely underground). Furniture fits around the walls except for an armchair in the center facing the stove. Electricity is a 12volt DC system powered by a 100-watt solar panel. A 1.5-watt bulb is amble for lighting. Phone, tablet and power tools are recharged using a car accessory fitting wired to the battery. Convivence matters and so I built a commode by chainsawing the center out of a plastic lawn chair, zip tying a toilet seat over the hole and placing a bucket half filled with worm compost under the chair. In practice, this is more of a conversation piece, with the composting outhouse getting the daily business. Three hundred square feet living space is perfect when the blizzard howls outside, however, summers are best spent outdoors. On the south side of the hobbit house is a patio for eating and entertaining along with a woodshed, rainwater is collected off it’s roof. There was a damp spot in the floor, I busted through two feet of bed rock, filled a section of 10” water pipe. This now provides the champagne quality drinking water for half the year.   

The garden on the roof is essentially a raised bed filled with ‘black gold’ worm compost, this is worm castings made by vermicomposting organic waste with Red Wriggler worms. The exposed walls are also covered with this and climbing veggies like beans grow up the sides of the hobbit house. It takes several months to make this compost (only a few weeks in optimum conditions) and should be implemented before construction begins. The best website for info on how to do this is: wormdigest.org The 300-sq. ft. garden on the roof feeds the hobbits.









Construction

Hobbits may ramble, but their homes are solid and secure against the elements. It is essential to understand the dynamics of structural stress, water management and gravity. My dream didn’t come with a blueprint, there are times when you need to stop and think; for example, the weight of dirt bags on the window frames was a concern and so here I switched to straw bale construction. To insure a tight fit, I double bagged loose straw into used plastic wood shavings bags. The bags were sandwiched between two stands of tight twelve-gauge wire which were then cinched together. The roof has a 2ft overhang, this allows winter sun to warm the building and shades out the summer sun.


  • Excavate into a hillside with a southern exposure. The excavation is thirty feet wide and the face is approximately six to eight feet high. The back half of the building is below ground and the two south facing windows are above ground. The fill should be evenly piled around the outside perimeter so that it is easier to fill and lift the bags of dirt.
  • Mark out a twenty-meter circle and the nine post holes around the perimeter. Dig the post holes. The holes should be not less than four feet deep and have a firm base. The posts are locked in place from three different directions and this gives structural strength and stability – the posthole, the beam from the center post and the walls on either side of the post. There is inherent strength in a concave shape. It is critical to use massive timber that will not rot in the ground. I hit bedrock at 2ft, in this situation pound a mix of limestone screenings and dry cement around the post. This is stronger than using regular wet cement.
  • Earthbag building takes tenacity. It is worth all the effort because of the advantages it has over other forms of construction. Rodents and rain aren’t an issue, insulation and structural strength far exceed building codes, the material is free, the technique is easy to grasp and you can do it on your own (my first helper lasted a day and told me I was mad).
  • The trick to easy posthole digging is to use water. Dig a few inches until the ground is hard and then pour water in the hole. Do the same with the other holes, by the time you get back to the first hole the subsoil will be soft and easily broken up with a digging bar. Set the inner most poles first so that you can drop all of them in the holes with a tractor. Use a tight mason’s line and line level to mark the outer posts at 9ft and the center one at 10ft. Cut the posts to the correct length.
  • The nine radial beams from the outer posts to the center post are lowered into position. Only four will fit on the center post. The first four beams form a star pattern, the remaining five then lay across the first ones.  Spike them all in place with 12” nails. It is cheaper to buy eight foot lengths of 3/8” rolled steel rod and cut it to length to make the nails. The radial logs will need to be notched so that they fit snuggly on the posts.
  • It is easiest to build all the sections of wall up to four feet, except for the front section which is kept open for the door frame. The walls are built with staggered joints as in a brick wall. There are different ways to fill the bags, this worked for me: I’d fill a heavy-duty animal water bucket with soil and dump it in the bag, when the bag was half full I’d position it on the wall and fill it three-quarters full. Fold the top over and wedge it tightly against the previous one. Then pound it into a rigid rectangle with the thumper. The thumper is made by setting a pick-axe handle in a plastic tub (8” by 8”) of concrete, it weights about thirty pounds. After the bag, it is hard, solid and rectangular give the exposed end a few whacks so that it fits tightly against the previous one. Before fitting a bag against a post scoop, the soil away from the middle of the top of the bag, this enables the bag to fit with a concave shape around the post locking it into position. Occasionally the sides will need to be smacked with the sledge-hammer to maintain a vertical curved wall. The text book method of anchoring the bags in place is to lay two stands of barded wire between each layer of bags. In my hobbit house the bags were tightly wedged between the posts and I had scrap rebar. I pinned the bags together with 4ft lengths of this rod.  Stagger the bars so that the wall becomes one unit.  Earth bag construction is hard work and the integrity of the building depends upon effort and attention to detail.
  •  The top two-feet of the wall is built with straw stuffed into plastic shavings bags. Wedge the bags tightly in place and then secure them between two strands of wire, one on the inside and one on the outside of the wall. Clinch the wires tightly together with baler twine in two places equidistance apart.

The roof has five layers. First, the nine radial 10” beams connecting the outer nine posts to the center post, then cedar poles form a lattice like a spider’s web over the beams. Oak planks, recycled from a paddock fence, are nailed to the poles and completely cover the roof. To prevent the roof timbers puncturing the tarp or waterproof membrane it is necessary to use at least two tarps. I used two old farm tarps, a trampoline deck an inflatable raft and old tents to soften the dips and sharp edges. These were then cover with a heavy-duty industrial tarp. The tarp is then covered with a layer of old hay to give protect from potentials pebbles in the worm compost. Finally, the roof is covered with 12” of worm compost. A rim of timber prevents the compost falling off the roof.

 The exterior wall is protected from moisture, by the roof over hang and by Tyvek or building wrap. This is then backfilled with soil or by compost on the exposed front wall. A double layer chicken wire holds the compost in place. Grading around the building directs rain water away from the house. flow.


The inside wall is parged with plaster. Chicken wire holds the plaster in place. Two thin layers prevents cracking.  Ideally, the plaster is an earth plaster made on site. I did mine when it was -20c outside and had to sacrifice clay on the altar of expediency. Instead I used a lime and mortar mix. The plastering took six weeks and added $400 to the cost, the final cost was $500. The plaster dries quickly and is then whitewashed. The floor is interlocking brick set in 3” of limestone screenings.