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.

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!

Earthbag Cellar – Walls Done!

After winding down from the full-house weekend … we got back to our “regular schedule”. Marta stayed with us a while longer and helped us get almost to the finish line.

We were excited to finally get to level 21. Here we are passing over the front arch for the first time:

When we finished that wall segment we finally got to pull out the forms … and … it was exhilarating to unveil the self-supporting arches … so simple, powerful (the more we weight we put on it – and we will be putting on quite a bit – the stronger it gets!)and beautiful (I’m really glad we decided to give arches a try!):

Yesterday we finished, with Marta’s, help going all the way around the structure and were left with only with two small segments of the outside wings.

Today Iulia and I went out and completed those two small segments – counting down the last of 6 sacks … and suddenly the the last can is tossed up, the last sack is placed down … the last tamping … earthbag walls were complete!

Fascinating journey from a crater to a structure… made of the same earth we dug out!

We are now waiting to see if we can get the acacia logs we want to make into a roof (our preferred option). If we do, they will be freshly cut and will need some time to cure … meaning that we won’t be able to place them on the structure before winter. If we don’t get the logs we will rever to plan B: regular 2×8 to build a flat roof. That may still happen in the coming weeks.

Depending on the weather we may be able to get some more primary rendering work done … but that is optional … maybe continue with the electrical wiring …  I am relieved and satisfied we got this part done … much to share … too tired to do so now.