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.


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: The 300-sq. ft. garden on the roof feeds the hobbits.


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.

Tuesday, December 27, 2016

                                         Dinner in Santo Dominico
                                         Handcrafted home in the eco-village
                                          The trail to the eco-village
                                         Another albergue dinner
                                          Joe and Alessia at the Yuso monastery

                                          On the road with Sunhee

Monday, December 26, 2016

                                          Endless changing landscape
                                          On the road

Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Bicycling Iceland

Bicycling Iceland

My Iceland saga was soggy, very soggy. The plan was to bike the Ring Road around the country. I was half way around the Snaefellses Peninsula when rain and gale force winds chilled me to the bone. This was expedition biking with places for hot food and warm shelter few and far between. I was pushing the bike up and down hills with vehicles stopping to tell me I’m mad and it’s too dangerous to bike. I returned to the city by bus and did two loops of a few day’s duration when the wind and rain let up. Iceland is magical and I will be back. It was a learning experience, here are some tips.

Go during the tourist season when campsites are open and clothes can be dried. Membership in Hostelling International cuts the cost in many hostels and campsites. Go the extra mile or two when the weather is kind and hunker down when the wind howls. The North Atlantic is one of the stormiest regions on the planet, think twice about doing loops along coast roads. That said, much of the Ring Road is narrow with minimum shoulder and is busy. Prices are almost double Canadian, luckily there are shelves of free food left behind by campers in the campground kitchens. The Reykjavik City Campground and Hostel is the best starting point. It is a caravanserai of fellow travellers and you can really stock up on free food, gas canisters and camping gear (replace broken tent poles). Downtown is within walking distance and at the weekend the city parties until dawn. GoogleMap is essential to navigate the bike routes in and out of the city.

An intriguing possibility is to bike half way around the island to Seydisfyordur on the east coast and take the Smyril ferry to Denmark.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

The Tao of Hobbit Land

The Tao of Hobbit Land

Hobbit Land is all about the unity of all life and living in cooperation with the universal laws of nature. It is an island of the flowing, the unified and the braided in an ocean of the contained, the distinct and the separate.

Here, opposites are in harmony, not in rebellion. In a world of dynamic change, we go with the flow by cooperating with events rather than fight them. It’s a world where less is more. It's about a dream that was locked inside and flowered by removing the excess dross.

The hobbit house is built into a hill and it’s the shape within that makes it useful. Gaps were left in the walls for a door and windows. It is these holes that make it a home, usefulness goes from what is not there. It was built with intuitive life skills, rather than formal knowledge. 

Transformation and change are essential features of nature. Change is not a force, but rather a tendency innate in all things, it’s about following one’s own intuitive intelligence and handcrafting a life.  Cedar logs became the building’s bones and the dirt excavated filled the bags to become the walls. In time, they too, will melt back into the hillside. By following the natural order, we drift downstream carried by the current of the Tao.

In Hobbit Land we refrain from doing things that are contrary to nature. Everything is allowed to do what it naturally does, so that it’s true nature will be satisfied. Life becomes spontaneous and is spiced with serendipity and synchronicity – chop firewood, draw water, eat when hungry and sleep when tired. We become what we were from the beginning and transcend concepts and categories.
Since the cradle we are taught to divide our world into separate objects and events and this may get us through the day. But, that’s not the way of nature, rather it’s an illusion based on our Western legacy. The oneness of the universe is central to the mystical experience, it is where string theory and the Druid cord come together.  By dancing barefoot on the hobbit house grass roof we slip slide into the universal cosmic dance of energy.