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.

Earthbag Cellar – 21 Belgian Scouts

Iulia arranged for a group of 21 Belgian scouts to visit with us to work on the cellar (numerous such groups visit Romania every year). The initiative was supported by our local municipality who provided the group with the sports hall as a residence and a kitchen where they could cook and eat.

The weather was not on our side for the first couple of days it was rainy and muddy … unsuitable conditions for working with earth. On the first day we held a circle in the sports hall.

The mayor then sprung his first surprise and, to celebrate his birthday, invited the group for a meal of traditional Romanian food and … Tuica!!!

Later, when the weather cleared we made a decision to visit Bhudeva and see the work site (they had a 45 minute walk to get from the village center to Bhudeva).

The next day we focused on secondary, wood-related tasks we had prepared. One was to move into the woodshed the piles that had been drying outside for the better part of a year. It was a joy for me to see the woodshed full again.

Then there was moving a large pile of junk/rotting wood from storage next to the barn and out into a field. The pile now marks a swale line that will be excavated in the near future. The swale will start with a water hole to capture runoff water coming down the valley floor, water will then overflow into the swale and into another field (instead of flowing down and eroding the road). The swale itself will be a hugelkultur bed (once covered with the soil excavated for the swale).

And the 3rd wood-project was peeling acacia logs that are intended to become the roof cover for the small cellar room.

To my pleasant surprise, on the third day these tasks were mostly completed and we were able during the second half of the day to experiment with cob-mixing (to see if the soil was workable) … and it was 🙂

… and we were able to build a kind of cob-bond-beam that went all around the cellar – filling the spaces between the beams and wrapping them all around the periphery. The next day the soil was also workable enough to fill the (almost!) last earthbags.

In the evening the mayor joined again with another authentic taste of Romania. A local council member donated a freshly butchered sheep and the mayor guided the group in cooking goulash in a traditional large-copper pot over an open-fire.

Belgian teens singing scout songs in French alongside a Romanian Goulash.

… while the food was cooking some of the Belgian teens joined a local soccer game.

The next days was all about cob … two dance-mixing teams and the rest carrying it up onto the wall and laying it in place. Bhudeva had never been so active!

When the work was flowing reliably I invited a few of the guys (who did not like the mud) to char the acacia logs in preparation for putting them on the roof … they soon discovered that though fire is exciting … the work itself … when the novelty wears off … is not 🙂

The last day was short because everyone (them and us) was tired … so we finished up the cob work and did some preparation for finishing the walls.

… and a group photo brought that part of our journey to an end.

Later in the afternoon there was a cultural exchange gathering. Some kids came for a weekly rehearsal of local traditional dancing. The Belgians watched … then joined … and everyone seemed to have a good time 🙂

After the dancing the Belgians introduced the kids to some games 🙂

The next day was about clean up and departure. The mayor provided yet another traditional lunch of Mititei which was again much appreciated by the group as they were heading out to a long day of travel.

It was an intense week. Bhudeva, which is usually a quiet, meditative place, became a place of party and play. That alone was exhausting for me. There was also a language barrier that made me feel awkward and unable to sense them as individuals or as a group. Fortunately they had 3 group leaders (in their early twenties) who did a great job in keeping the group together (and translating).

We encountered a fundamental conflict of values that was interesting to me. We (Iulia and I) invited everyone to inhabit a space of personal freedom: be where you want to be, don’t be where you don’t want to be – if someone didn’t want to work, they were welcome, as far as we were concerned to sleep in the grass somewhere. Yet, amongst themselves ,as a group, they agreed that, no matter what, they stay together.

It was also intriguing for me to see how plenty of working hands can be coordinated to make good progress in work. It was also intriguing to be reminded that any task, no matter how simple can be done well if there is care and attention, or poorly if there is a lack of interest.

Adventure #2 for summer 2018 is behind us 🙂

Next up … completing the roof and completing the the cellar burial.

Earthbag Cellar – Roof Forming

We are off to a late(r then I would have liked) start this year. This was primarily because of my allergy and a very rain season. It was also because we got stuck with the roof!

Our primary plan to make a roof out of acacia vigas was deserted when we failed to source logs.  We tried using some logs we had lying around. When we did … I stepped back and felt a clear “no” … I felt they were not uniform enough to build a good roof.

I then decided that we would use standard (easily available) soft-wood boards to create beams (charred to preserve and protect them).

… and after we got the beams onto the large room and sat inside it … we felt the structure gained a whole new dimension of life … the shadows were striking:

Beams now stretch across the entire structure and are ready to take on a roof.

We’ve decided to conduct an experiment:

  1. The roof on the large room (intended to be dry) will be built using the same standard soft-wood boards.
  2. The roof on the small room (intended to be a moist room to store root vegetables) will be made of small acacia logs (long-lasting and rot resistant).

And so we embarked on a first-of-its-kind-for-us adventure into our small acacia forest to cut down some trees (while thinning a dense and overgrown forest). I thought I’d seen this car do everything … today it did this:

Tomorrow ad midnight a group of 21 Belgian youth are arriving at our village to spend 8 days with us (that may be more than all the people I’ve met face to face and interacted with during the last year!). If the weather permits (we’ve had a very rainy season), by the time they leave, the roof will be complete and the walls will be covered with an earthen finish and we will be ready for the final burial (so that the structure will no longer be eroded by the elements).

Let’s do this!

Our Second Second Rocket Mass Heater

We finally decided to go ahead and rebuild our second rocket stove (the one in the living room). My primary wishes were to rebuild the core (better) and to convert the relatively useless mass into a (small) bench. Iulia decided to make it a workshop and …  3 interested people showed up.

During the first day we settled into being together. I left the existing rocket mass heater in tact so we could review its shortcomings together and learn from that. We talked about the basic workings of a rocket stove while talking about the existing stove.

… and then we took it apart:

We had only one wheel barrow of waste which was non-toxic and we dumped it as back-filling at the earthbag cellar.

Though there was some soot in the rocket (sometimes it didn’t burn completely clean) there was very little of it given that it worked for 6 winters. There was a 1cm layer of light and fluffy ash sitting at the top of the heat riser (accumulated over the same period of time).

Until we reached the brick platform upon which the rocket was built.

We then layed out the expansion of platform for the new rocket.

… and started building it … giving everyone their first experience at working with mortar and laying bricks.

The next morning we finished it!

With the platform done we built a mockup of the core (while learning about dimensions and sizing using standard brick sizes) and its place on the platform (and relationship to the bench).

We then settled into a rhythm in which two people were laying bricks (one working on the core, the other working on the bench) and two others were preparing soil for mortar and cob (and doing other support tasks such as cleaning bricks so that the brick layers could work smoothly).

As the chamber that is under the bench started to take for, I figured out how we were going to close the top of the chamber  (close from the chamber that makes the bench. The plan I came up with involved recycling two concrete slabs we had lying around together with some bricks. Next I had to figure out how to create a structure that could support that top while allowing a good flow of gasses through the chamber itself. It was a bit of a puzzle but we solved it.

… and the core was rising up

… and the chamber was rising up … and we were starting to apply cob (especially on the back side where access would become more difficult as the construction grew):

… and I think this is where we finished up on day 2:

On day 3 as most of the riddles were behind us and everyone had a better sense of the materials and the work, progressed flowed and accelerated. The core was completed and the chamber layout finalized. While the chamber was being closed up the heat riser was growing.

Pretty soon we were insulating the core with  perlite in a clay slip (recycled from the previous rocket) in the chamber built around the core:

… and then the insulation sleeve around the riser was put in place (recycled from the previous rocket) … and also filled with perlite:

… and finally the barrel came on (for the last time – we had quite a few fittings), we sealed all around it with cob … and lit the stove … and despite adverse conditions (a new rocket filled with moisture, on a warm summer day) we all smiled when we saw the flames getting sucked into the rocket and the dragon came to life. Very soon we were in an overheated room with a warm bench (that nobody wanted to sit on).

… in the excitement (and a bit of rush to accommodate the schedule of one of the participants) I missed taking a picture of the barrel on the “raw” rocket … but the next day (today!), with Liam’s help preparing soil and mixing cob, we were able to get much of the cob work done (and we may complete the rough structure tomorrow).

Even though it is using the same floor area as the previous rocket, the footprint of the new build is much larger … and it dwarfs the room … which feels a bit off. That is a price we’ve paid for having a warm bench to sit on (without taking on a much larger renovation).

It was an intense weekend. I’m glad to have had an opportunity to share rocket stoves with Tudor (missing from the picture below because he had to leave before we took it) , Dan and Liam and Iulia. I’m glad to have a good core with hopefully a comfortable bench for next winter.