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Construction Earthbags

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).

Categories
Construction Earthbags

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.

 

 

Categories
Construction Earthbags

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.