To Find Our Place

“One of the most joyous things we can do is to find our place, the land where we belong. Having found our place, we snuggle into it, learn about it, adapt to it, and accept it fully. We love and honor it. We rejoice in it. We cherish it. We become native to the land of our living.”

Carol Deppe

Earthbag Cellar – Ventilation Chimney

This seemingly small part of the project turned out to be a place where I immersed myself more than I expected.

The initial objective was to protect the ventilation exhaust pipes from sun (they are made of plastic), rain and rodents. But as it came into being I felt it was a surprisingly prominent aesthetic element  that invited me to give it more attention.

I was not able to give this all the attention and quality I wanted because of numerous constraints, especially, in this case, the position of the pipes makes it difficult/precarious to reach.

The first step was to build forms in place (no pictures) and to pour a concrete base.

The next step was to build a brick chimney. I felt comfortable with bricklaying from my experience with rocket stoves. I did experiment with a new (to me) mortar mix (1 lime : 1 concrete : 6 sand).  I quickly gave up on trying to lay the bricks  perfectly  level because of the limited access to the work. I tried to incorporate some anchoring mechanisms into the chimney.

Then it was off to figure out how to design, build and install the head of the chimney. Originally I wanted to create a triangle-shaped roof. But as the chimney came up and took on character in relationship to the cellar, that felt wrong. A more soft and round form appeared in my mind and I set out to draw it … make cutting templates … and finally into the workshop to make it.

First came the base:

… and on top of it … the arch form I envisioned.

After a dry-assembly failed I made a change that would make assembly of the two parts easier … then it was off to char and oil all the wood surfaces:

Next was partially fixing the wire mesh onto the base:

… and initially assembly of the base (to get a sense of progress and make space in the workshop):

Then came the metal-roof preparation. First measuring real sizes and cutting the sheet to size and bending it. I’ve got a slightly tedious but fairly reliable strategy for bending:

In reality it was a sequence of bending and cutting actions that led to a sheet that could be bent and folded onto the curved arch.

… and then mounting it and nailing down the mesh and:

I am not confident that my anchoring strategy has worked ou well … so we will see if this thing holds in high winds or if it will need some reworking next spring!

Tomorrow we hope to get some wood boards that I need for working on the front door … and the earth-floor has set enough that we can carefully walk on it … so it may be possible to also approach the inner door and shelves (without putting them in place yet) … so that when the floor does set we’ll be ready to go!

Earthbag Cellar – Structure Done(-ish)

When I thought I’d finished with the internal walls I decided to play around with some of the cracks by filling them with clay-slip. What started out with a small local (small spot) experiment became another layer of finishing on all the walls. In the small room (sorry no pictures!) that experiment was expanded to include colors using metal oxides (readily available in our village shop). Though the colors are visible, I expect they will change drastically as the underlying clay substrate dries and becomes much lighter.

We are running a fan that is circulating air (and pulling humidity out of the small room).

With that done (ish – I expect another round of work with the cracks when the walls set … again because I am curious to see what kind of results we can expect with the clay soil under our feet!) I started alternating between a finishing layer on the earthen floor and experimenting for the first time with a lime-based finished for the external and retaining walls. It was interesting working with the lime but only time will tell about the results. Though the work is done, the walls still need to be uncovered (they are covered with tarps) and watered once or twice a day for around two weeks (the time it supposedly takes the lime finish to set).

This is what it looks like now (under the unfairly glorious light of a sunset). The walls turned out grey (and will probably be painted a tan color with a lime-wash in the coming days).

I decided to use the typical lime available in hardware stores. The quality of this material is questionable. Ideally I would have liked to use  aged lime-putty which I know who to ask to try go get – but that is not as easily available. So in the spirit of experimentation (that permeates this entire project) I went simple and local first (and that is just one of many variables that can effect the quality of the lime-based work). If that fails ( = does not survive the elements) it may need to be redone!

Though the work is “done” … it isn’t really. In the coming days I hope to be able to burnish the floor (make it a smoother finish), water the walls … and get started with working on the outer door.

I am curious to see if the floor sets hard enough soon enough (the walls can take their time) to be able to move our food in for this winter!

Earthbag Cellar – Earthen Finishing

A couple of months ago Iulia posted on a local (our village) Facebook page that we are looking for help with the cellar construction – women only! One woman expressed her interest and finally, in the last stretch of earthwork the circumstances matured for her to join us. Speranta was with us for a few days and was a great help (much more on the implications of that that in a separate post). She helped Iulia mixing the batches of cob and applying the base (rough) layer of finishing.

When we finished the large room and moved into the smaller one, we realized that the earthbag walls were disappearing and decided to put in a “vanity window” that is typically put in to prove to people that the structure really is made of earthbags (or straw bale or whatever you build with) … but mostly it will enable us to reconnect with the vast work hidden under the surface .

The vanity-window also became a kind of “finish line” as Iulia and Speranta converged around it.

… and converge they did 🙂

We also made some repairs to the retaining walls, where we did not apply enough material (say it with me: cob is a structural material):

While they were applying the rough layer I focused on the next layer, adjusting mixes, techniques … experimenting to see what I can achieve with the natural clay subsoil under our feet. This image shows different stages of work and different results:

There is a lot I can say about earthen finishing … but I don’t know if I will ever be able to put it in words. It is a physical learning … and I feel like a beginner. Seeing and feeling and working with the material is immediate and intuitive; it is subjective yet clear. Describing it is hard to do. It can be an immersive and meditative work (and physically demanding). I am realizing that in future projects I want to give it plenty of space. Right now we are in a bit of a race (though still working pleasantly and spaciously) as the temperatures are rapidly falling (we’ve already had nights with almost freezing temperatures).

We’ve already made more progress than these pictures tell:

  • The internal finishing is technically complete … though I am still playing around and experimenting with a finer finish.
  • The electricity work is done … we have lights and power and a fuse-box installed (another first for me).
  • I’ve begun filling the cracks in the earthen floor.
  • Today I did a first experiment with the outside, lime-based finishing. I’ve been preparing for this for some-time, it is the last major known-unknown for me. The experiment felt good … we will see in the coming days and weeks how it settles.

It is unclear yet when we will be able to use the cellar. The biggest question is when the floor will settle hard enough to support a load. Soon we will clear everything out, we will install a fan, I will lay the finishing layer on the floor … and then we wait (while I attempt to create the outer door).

Earthbag Cellar: Cob Bench, More Earth Finishing & Final Burial

We finally got around to converting the three stumps of wood in the retaining wall into a bench.  Long pieces of wood were laid length-wise (and some anchored down with bent nails).

… and then covered with cob:

… on top of which another layer of cuttings was laid out (to extend the width of the bench):

… and on top of that another layer of cob (no picture yet … imagine the same picture as above just thicker).

There isn’t much to show in terms of cobbing … lots of sieving soil, mixing cob, loading it into buckets and applying it to the walls (first layer to fill in the spaces between the levels, second to flatten the wall). This is what it looked like inside when we stopped work to focus on the final burial … more than half way through the rear wall in the large room:

We invited the excavator for one last time (we thought) to finish the burial: this time to cover the umbrella and restore the part of the hill that was excavated behind it during the previous (pre-umbrella) burial. This is what the ready-for-burial umbrella looked like before we started:

We were too busy to take any pictures when the cellar itself was being covered, but this is what it looked like when that was done (the top is now a flat area):

This was done with subsoil from behind the cella (from a depth we’d already excavated from/to). We decided we did not want to use existing top-soil since ours if full of weed-seeds. We will try to build new top-soil on top of and around the cellar (maybe more on that in a separate post).

Then we started filling the back. We used this opportunity to clear out of the field two small hills (that we created years ago). Here Iulia is guiding the driver to the piles:

… and he cleared a path and started moving earth (lots of it):

… and that wasn’t nearly enough (I’ve given up trying to estimate soil quantities … I keep under/over estimating quantities when it comes to soil) … and so we started excavating from a hill not far from the cellar site:

… and then the driver informed us we were done for the day (he too underestimated the work) … he returned a couple of days later and finishes the job:

… and the tractor went back and forth …. until the back of the structure was filled:

… since then we’ve been doing LOTS more earth-finishing … today we completed the large room and moved into the smaller one … and applied a first test of final fine finishing.

 

 

Earthbag Cellar: Lots of Earth Finishing and … finally … an Umbrella

So (this post is already a few days too late to be written in the present tense … especially since we’ve more progress since then … but I will do so anyway) we had Razvan visit with us for 5 full days of work and we got lots done.

We had already started applying finishing (first two layers) on the left retaining wall and started looking nice:

Part of it was already “scratched” in preparation for receiving the final coat (a soon-to-come) experiment with lime finishing.

My attention  was constantly reaching one step ahead, making preparations so that Iulia and Razvan could continue working fluently. In this case that included applying a protective (mouse and rat proof) wire-mesh on the opposite (right retaining wall).

… and then one side started to take on its final form: it connected to the small retaining wall on top of the entry-roof … and the image I had been holding for two years started to come to life.

… and we crossed over the arch

… and so I finally had to take action on another small experiment … creating a “foundation” for the cob on the arch using bent branches:

… and I looked down and decided to finally liberate the form that was holding the earthen floor (which is cracking!):

… and to protect this new edge I decided to finally complete the concrete (again: protection against digging animals) entrance … which has a small “step” which is hopefully going to act as part of the door-stop.

… and in the back of my mind I started realizing we may be moving inside soon …. and so I started thinking about bringing electricity … and soon the first pieces of that sub-system were in place and we had (temporary) lights on in the cellar:

… and then it was time to face the outer end of the right-retaining wall. It was not in good shape: earthbags had torn and eroded (I wish I had taken more pictures … because this was quite a rescue). It is also the most difficult back-fill area … because it had limited access and a very steep incline (much learning taking place in this project!). So the first challenge was to gain access to the wall … and that took some careful digging:

… then after much cleaning, wetting, re-activating clay, carefully applying cob, adding a large mesh (a small part of which was needed anyway as the entrance to the ventilation pipe) … the wall was rescued. In this picture you can see the last three sack-edges peeking out … waiting to be covered with the cob rolled up at the bottom-center of the image:

… and then, suddenly, the full form that I imagined came to be … an earthen funnel that leads into the hill:

… here Razvan and Iulia are simulating the bench, soon to be incorporated into the wall:

We also added a bit more height to the top-retaining wall:

… and the arch was calling to us :

… and working on it inevitable led us to the inside:

While Iulia was cobbing inside, Razvan and I got to working on the water-shed umbrella (another experiment I was looking forward to encountering). This involved more physical labor, so I was grateful to have Razvan’s help with it.

We started by digging a slightly sloped trench around the back of the cellar.

The trench was planned to go all the way around, but because of the steep front slopes it couldn’t (not effectively). So we went around one side slightly, and connected a small trench on the other side.

We then laid out plastic that covered the structure and stretched over the trench and filled the trench with large gravel which should act as a drain:

… with an outlet to daylight (and will stay that way after the final burial):

We then folded the plastic partially back over the gravel (to hold it together):

and then came a layer of geo-textile that will prevent soil from clogging the gravel (and in the hope that it will offer some protection to the plastic layer from the roots of plants that will come in the last layer of soil that will complete the burial):

But the true highlight of this visit was that Tana (our 6 months old puppy) finally got a few great days with a playmate because Razvan brought with him Hera (his very large! one-year old puppy) and the two had a great time together (despite some conflicts between Hera and Indy who plays the role of the Bhudeva badass):

It was a very productive week … moving inside was a big step forward … we can imagine the cellar complete and filled with an abundance of food for the coming winter.

Earthbag Cellar – Guests, Roof, Floor & Burial

Iulia asked for a few pictures of the cob process … so: first we make a dry mix (we call a lasagna) of sand and our (clay rich) soil in a wheelbarrow … dump it on to a tarp and add water while dancing it into a consistent mix:

We then add straw and dance that in … then roll the mix into a sausage by pulling the tarp (we repeat all this twice … so that the straw is mixed in well and not clumped):

… and that results in cob (which can take on various textures depending on the specific recipe and what we want to do with it):

… and for us it has been many batches going on to the roof … we previously completed the roof on top of the small room (relatively thick cob layer to fill and seal round acacia logs) … and then moved on to the large room (relatively thin and uniform cob layer to cover and seal flat boards):

… and if I recall correctly after 10 batches of cob the large room was also covered:

… we then had an unexpected visit from Alin who stayed with us for a couple of days … his help meant that we finished the entrance segment of the roof earlier then expected (forgot to take pictures of that … but basically more cob).

… and we decided to take advantage of Alin’s presence to tackle the floor. The floor was originally planned for later in the project (after the walls  were done!) … but since we had Alin’s help, and since the floor takes a few weeks to set, and since we are going away for a couple of weeks … we decided to do the floor …. another first experiment for us … another cob recipe … and another application technique … and I am blown away by the versatility of this natural material:

We were then in for another surprise. Alin’s friend Sandu (a high energy athletic person!) decided to also stop by for a short visit on his way home. He arrived late (~21:30) just as we were winding down. He jumped out of the car, changed into work clothes and started cob-dancing … “one more batch” he said … again … (Iulia hung some lights) and again … and again …. and again …

….and we worked almost until midnight … got a large part of the floor done!

… then the next day Sandu called Alin again in the morning … he wanted to see the place in day light and help some more … and he came out with his wife and Alin’s wife:

… and we finished the floor!

The next day (monday) we were planned to have the excavator over to do the burial, but he was only able to get here on Teusday (yesterday). While Iulia was doing our weekly market shopping I completed the plastic covering (if you are wondering about water draining and a flat roof … there is more to come!).

… but then the weather got cloudy with potential for rain … and so I placed tarps back on the plastic to protect it

… fortunately the weather cleared and we were on for burying the cellar.

and the first corner started going under.

… and then the back was almost filled

… and I stopped taking picture because we needed to get involved in moving and directing soil (careful to avoid overloading the roof).

The front sides were a bit difficult because they ended up being very steep (it was a tight construction area). When we excavated into the hill I felt that we dug in too deep … it turns out deeper would have been even better.

the last part was the inner front corner … and that proved the trickiest place to fill (limited access for the excavator).

… and after ~3 hours the cellar was buried … and, as planned, only the opening into the hill remained.

we are going away for two weeks … while we are away everything will have a chance to settle: the newly placed earth, the structure itself and the earth floor. When we come back we will create the water-shed umbrella and do the final burial … then electricity, plenty of finishing work, doors, shelves … healing the surrounding earth … still quite a journey ahead!

We are both tired from the last intense weeks … so glad to be pausing the work and taking some time to relax and breathe.

Earthbag – Roof: Wood & Cob

The roof on top of the large room is made of wood planks that have been charred in place.

With the planks in place we started cobbing around the edge of the roof.

In the smaller room we were still on a journey to see if we could make acacia logs work as a cover.  It was not an easy task, I found it to be frustrating … you can see in the background of the picture above that we were still working on that puzzle. But eventually we figured it out (after I surrendered and let Iulia make and own some of the decisions).

We were not able to get a uniform height, and as you can see below there were some gaps which were larger than we would have wanted.

We also placed acacia beams over the entrance … and in this picture you can see all three parts of the roof in place.

… and for quite a few days now we’ve been cobbing and cobbing and cobbing. First we finished the entire edge of the roof and have now started covering and sealing the entire surface.

There isn’t much to show in terms of pictures because cobbing is repetitive work. Also, the structure is usually covered in tarps and we only uncover the area we are working on … and usually at the end of a session when we are tired and muddy we are not inclined to take pictures.

Below you can see the last of acacia logs from the small room getting swallowed by the cob surface. It took almost 12 batches of cob (a batch starts as a wheelbarrow of dry material).

The small room is now in complete and cool darkness  – it works!

The other roof sections (the large room with the planks and the entrance) should be easier and quicker work. We hope to finish that in the coming days and then the burial of the entire structure … finally protecting (most of) it from the elements.