Construction Earthbags

Summer Kitchen Renovation Part6: Cob Wall Moved

It hasn’t stopped raining since we took down the roof so we focused solely on completing the “wall moving”. Now that the roof was out of the way and we were moving up the wall we could tamp the earthbags from above, standing on the remaining walls and beams.

I had just removed the rain gutters and found Kiwi confused. She has a growing repertoire of Parkour moves and one of them was jumping from the tree to rain gutter and on to the roof. Here is she is deliberating what to do with the rain gutters gone:

she didn’t make the jump!

In this picture the “moving wall” is becoming increasingly clear. The wall in the foreground is shrinking while the one in the background is growing:

… and working under the tarps while it is raining (soon it is my turn to go out into the rain to tamp down those earthbags.

As we reached the top of the window frame it was about time to complete the window header. I went with a design of a reinforcing grid sandwiched between two layers of solid boards. The grid was already built but needed charring:

… and then packing the gaps with insulation:

… and installing it in place … gave the window more presence and wholeness … and started to feel more like a picture frame to the outside:

During one of the sunny spells Kiwi climbed up and parked herself in a folded tarp close to where we were working:

Watching her there reminded me of George Carlin’s line “why are we here? PLASTIC!”

When we finally arrived at the old door frame the feeling of “we moved the wall” became real:

We reached the top of the window. We installed the boards that completed the window header. We used cob-bricks we set aside from the “destruction” phase to rapidly fill the space above the window. We used cob to fill in the remaining spaces (when there was no more space to work with earthbags) … and the new wall was suddenly done:

In designing the window I was working with the “Window Place” family of patterns from Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” … and even amidst the mess of construction, the window does indeed feel like a welcoming place:

.. and the old neighboring mullberry tree feels like a friendly neighbor:

We then had some “easy” earthbag work (compared to the constrictions we’d encountered in the window wall) rebuilding the base of the opening we took down during the “destruction” (where there was a traditional oven):

The window frame that goes into this opening is almost ready and we can fill this wall out.

.. and today we took delivery of almost 7 cubic meters of wood for beams, a 2nd story floor, stairs and roof framing. Just moving and organizing this was an equivalent of a work-day for us:

Cob Construction Earthbags

Summer Kitchen Renovation Part5: Moving a Cob Wall

After last year’s preparations (a bit of deconstruction, preparing for water and electricity, installing an electric post and reconnecting electricity), this spring we started renovating. I’ve been less regular about pictures so this is an overview of what we’ve been doing.

We stripped the small “porch” of its flimsy wooden covering and window. Given our slow and sometimes unpredictable work progress, we decided to keep the roof on as long as possible (so as not to leave the structure exposed to the elements). We decided to build the new external wall around the existing wood frame. Here is Iulia creating a base of cob on top of which the new earthen wall will be built.

With the frame out of the way we could decide upon the new window location (not what we thought it would be). This required putting in two new posts and removing an existing one:

Meanwhile I was experimenting with the new workshop tools (thickness-planer and table saw – maybe deserves a separate post) to see if I could build a reliably straight and correctly sized window frame (for used windows we got last year) … and I was to get a decent result. After three layers of earthbags … the frame found its place and we continued to build up around it.

We are reprocessing cob by crushing it and remoistening it. We started using the soil from last year’s deconstruction using the cob-pools we also prepared last year. When we finished that soil we started taking down the internal wall … again resuing the materials … so “moving a cob wall”:

and discovered some rotten beams … this one in particular … it had the an electric pole sticking out above it that, I’m guessing, acted as a reliable water collecter that drained above the post.

It is a clear testimony to how tolerant cob is to water (absrobs it, gets stronger with some of it while releasing the rest into the atmosphere) and how intolerant wood is (especially the basic pine we have available to us here).

We reached a point where work on the sacks was becoming uncomfortable … we were crouching and banging our heads on the beams and ceiling. So we decided to take off the roof despite god laughing at us with a 10-day forecast with plenty of rain in it. Iulia’s sister and her partner came out to visit and helped us get the tiles off:

We responded to god’s challenge with plastic tarps which are doing a reasonable job (while also efficiently pooling water). We continued to take the framing apart .. from small to large members:

Then we took off the gutters and peripheral wood sufaces. We still have a ceiling to take down over the internal room (a layer of wood boards covered with a few centimeters of cob) … and then the large beams that go across the entire structure … but that will wait for the weather to clear a bit. Meanwhile we are back to “moving the wall” and loading the cob-pools in preparation for resuming construction:

Construction Earthbags Webinar

[Webinar] Building with Earthbags: our experience with the cellar

Dear friends,

In 2017-2018 we built our cellar from earth bags. It was mostly the two of us (Iulia and Ronen)… helped along the way a bit by volunteers and friends.

We learned a lot, people started to ask questions. This is how Iulia started the Romania: EarthBags Building / Constructii din saci umpluti cu pamant group on Facebook. The group grew, now more than 1000 people.

Many of you continued to ask questions, talked to Iulia in private about details.

From all your inquiries we want to make one more step now to share our experience with those who are really interested in earth bags building. Now, as traveling is a bit more complicated, we invite you to sit at your place and join us in an open conversation – a webinar on earth bag building – questions and answers from our experience.

So, grab a cup of tea or water join us! 🙂

When? Tuesday, 19th of May, 19:00 Romanian time (check your local time here). We estimate to spend around 1,5 hours together, depending on your interest and group dynamics.

What? We will build our conversation based on how participant’s interests are related to our experience. Ronen already wrote a summary of our journey with the cellar (again, please read all the posts he wrote along the two years we built the cellar) an we are interested to converse with those who have specific questions. We learnt and lot and still learning. 🙂 We do not pretend to hold the absolute truth, yet we realize – from your questions, from all the conversations and debates Iulia is following on the natural building and off grid groups on Facebook – that you want to know more and we have things to share.

We will not lecture you on earth bags building, you can read a lot on the internet.

Where to we meet? Online, we will give the connection details for those who want to join. We will use Zoom.
The webinar will be held in English – Ronen, the facilitator of the webinar, does not speak good Romanian. Translation can be offered by one of the participants (volunteering). Iulia will be moderating the conversation.

How to join? Please fill the form below to let us know that you want to be in the conversation.

Exchange. We suggest a starting donation of 50 lei for Romanians (Revolut, BT Pay or BT payment) / 15 Euros for people outside Romania (paypal) / participant, for this meeting, paid upfront. In the spirit of gift economy, we also encourage you to adjust (increase or decrease) your contribution, based on the experienced value, at the end of the webinar. The details for offering donations will be provided for those who want to join.

Looking forward to meet and talk to you all! 🙂

Iulia & Ronen

PS: the pictures below are a selection of pictures along the way of building our earthbag cellar 🙂

PS2: the post picture is with Iulia sitting on our first completed earth bag arch.

Construction Lime

Lime Demonstrated

I recently encountered these two videos which gave good visual demonstrations of things I’d read about but not understood as well as I wanted to.

The first video demonstrates the lime-cycle. I’ve tried to wrap my head around this numerous times but had a hard time doing so without a background in chemistry. This video demonstrating Roman concrete shows how limestone is converted into hydrated lime and clears up, amongst other things, why a fluffy dry powder is called “hydrated”:

The second video shows the different stages, layers and tools of a lime plaster applied onto a cob wall. Lets just say that a hurling trowel is now on my shopping list!

Construction Natural Finishes

Clay Sculpting

… and from the same sweet youtube channel as yesterday’s lime plastering video comes this demonstration of clay sculpting:

Construction Natural Finishes

Polished Lime Plaster

Continuing the beautiful work done with clay plaster … this time with lime. I was surprised to see powdered lime being used instead of matured putty (though I’m guessing you can use putty instead … if you have it) … I wonder how it will hold up over time.

One advantage, at least for us, is that lime is easier to colorize then the local clay we use … though I still don’t have a good source for pigments.

I would like to have better tools (= Japanese trowels) for my next plaster experiments.

Construction Earthbags

Reinforcing Cellar Retaining Walls

The exposed parts of the cellar retaining walls were in dire need of attention:

  1. The lime finishing experiment was informative but not holding up to the elements.
  2. The incomplete water-shed umbrella meant that water was collecting into the retaining walls and together with the clay soils exerting pressure on the retaining walls. That pressure met the weak curvature of the walls (where one wall also was out of plumb) and caused the earthbag walls to push outward.

We decided to build a secondary concrete wall alongside the exposed parts of the earthbag retaining walls. This will hopefully reinforce the earthbag walls and weather proof them and prevent further degradation. We also decided to use concrete blocks (that would be filled with rebar and concrete) instead of attempting to build formwork to support heavy concrete walls.

The first step was to dig the trenches into which the concrete walls would be set. We did this when the excavator was here to work around the summer kitchen.

The next step was to find construction materials: concrete blocks, cement and rebar. We have construction material shops in the village that do delivery. But they do not have a truck with a crane for offloading. On a good day, I do not look forward to manually offloading 120 concrete blocks and 20 sacks of cement. My spine was healing from a back strain so manual off-loading was unimaginable. We did some internet hunting and found a supplier (further away) with better prices for the items which compensated for the additional expense of long-distance delivery with an offloading crane:

The first step was to complete and level the trench.

Next was lining it with geotextile and covering it with a drainage layer of sand and gravel:

… and then seeing how the blocks would fit and how far they would go:

and then running into the extension of the ventilation intake pipe and figuring out how that should meet the wall:

This gave me a first opportunity to shape concrete blocks … roughly possible but not a good idea.

I soon realized that it was not possible to continue dry stacking because it would not be possible to elaborately fill concrete around the pipe. So it was already time to finalize the placement of the pipe … some cob “joined” it to the existing pipe (which had been deformed by the weight of the earthbag walls):

… and backfilling (this felt like a point of no return):

A bit of improvised form work to complement the poorly-shaped concrete blocks:

… and the first vertical rebar … added initially just around the pipe where I intended to poor concrete:

… and then a first concrete pour … at the time it felt more dramatic then it may look:

… then more vertical rebar and a continuing cycle of concrete, block laying, back-filling … and a wall grew:

… and the cat discovered the pipes and playfully enjoyed hiding from the dogs … not really hiding because she is being indoctrinated as a member of our dog pack:

… until the (first phase) of the first wall was completed:

Iulia joined me for some of the work on second wall:

… until it too was “firstphase completed” (forgot to take a picture!). This was already a relief since now the earthbag walls were protected from further collapsing. We now had massive retaining walls made up of a core earthbag wall, some backfilling (where there were gaps) and a concrete wall.

We deliberated quite a bit about options for the top of the wall. We ended up deciding to “cap” the wall with a concrete top that would lean slightly away from the cellar entrance area. And so began another adventure. Finding a way to keep in place formwork, backfilling (with earth and bricks) to reduce the amount of concrete that would be needed … and putting in some lengthwise rebar that would lock it all together (I think it may have been good to put in some short rebars set into the width of the top … but I cut that corner):

I tried to mix a thicker concrete (with less slump) so that it would build up and hold its form better:

I worked my way up in segments:

… and then moved to the second wall (though between the two walls we seeded another recovery project, also related to the cellar … more on that in a future post) to apply the same strategy to its slightly different shape:

This is where we are now:

The concrete work needs to be continued, but to do that we first have to interface between the ends of the concrete wall and the cob walls:

We will do this with cob … and that will lead us to the final form of the wall and allow us to complete the vertical parts of the concrete and the “cob bridge” that sits on top of the entrance.

Nights and mornings are getting cold and the days are getting shorter … curious to see how much further we’ll be able to go this season. I am content with where we have arrived and feel it will hold up well in winter. I do look forward to reaching a state of completion where we can let the place settle and help it transform back into an undisturbed green space with a passage into the earth.

I’ve come to (somewhat) better appreciate the qualities and potential of concrete.

Cob Construction Floors

Earthen Floors with Sukita Reay

Sukita wrote “the book” on earth floors and it was sweet to watch her at work in this short video demonstrating the making of an earth floor:


Summer Kitchen Renovation Part3: Electric Post

Our connection to the electric company currently runs through the summer kitchen and from there to the house. It is embedded in the structure.

  • The main above-ground cable runs from the road to a post sticking out of the summer kitchen roof. (top foreground)
  • A main cut-off switch is installed on the outside wall (bottom front – small black box on pink wall)
  • The line to the house also protrudes from another spot in the roof (top background)

The meter and antiquated main fuses are in the small hallway of the summer kitchen (right under the post in the background of the top image):

This interferes with our ability to renovate. The wall on which the meter is mounted is going to be torn down and so is the roof. So we’ve had to create an alternative path.

Our original wish was to install a completely new three-phase system with all cables buried in the ground. However, after consulting with an electrician we decided to stay with an upgraded single-phase installation that will be moved out of the summer kitchen.

As you can see in the previous post, we’d already buried a new cable that runs to the house from this hole in the ground (next to the summer kitchen):

We leveled the floor of this whole and stacked in it cement blocks to create an initial form:

The PVC pipe carrying the cable through the concrete was placed inside this form:

We had a large (and heavy) metal pipe (7.5cm diameter, ~7 meters long) lying around (it’s been here since we moved to Bhudeva) and it is going to become the post. It was quite a project for the two of us and these pictures don’t do the effort justice … but we managed to get the metal post into the concrete form and to orient it vertically straight in place:

The next step was backfilling (and tamping) and putting in rebar:

This is after the initial concrete pour (the rebars laid on top were moved aside for the pour and placed returned later):

Then we added a frame for the top part which would encase the form created by the blocks. Originally the form was placed as you see in the picture below – oriented with the blocks. On second thought I re-oriented it a bit (no picture) to be better aligned with its surroundings (I realized just before the next pour that we had not given any attention to its orientation … we’d simply followed through with the orientation the excavator was able to create while digging the hole):

And the 2nd concrete pour took place the next day:

While that was setting we completed a penetration under the wall of the summer kitchen for a new main power line from the house to the summer kitchen – inside:


and to the house:

… and runs all the way to the electric fuse box (another project that felt like way more than 9 words worth – those are two hefty cables … they don’t do stretching!) that is at the entrance to the house where they will be patched in after the electricians install the new main box on the pole (planned for this Wednesday):

And today we stripped the forms and our electric seems ready to go:

and it seems to be close to the same height of the existing pole:

… electric pole … check!


Re-roofing the Deck

We finally went on a (planned) detour from the summer kitchen renovation. We had been planning to re-roof the deck. The original roof was planned to be simple metal sheets but we decided to go instead with clay tiles. However, the angle of the roof is shallow and is not suitable for the tiles. Because of the overlapping of the clay tiles, they ended up in an almost horizontal orientation. When it rains, water accumulated in the tile channels (especially when there is debris on the roof) and leaks all over the deck.

It took us time to figure out what kind of roofing we wanted to put on. We started by defaulting back to metal roofing but ultimately decided to go with bitumen-based roofing that seems to be abundantly available in Romania.

We started by taking down the tiles:

We noticed (some months ago) that the vertical posts had come out of vertical alignment and decided to add re-infrocing diagonal supports. Using ratchet strips we pulled the structure back into alignment:

And installed 4 diagonal supports:

Iulia and I had already discussed the possibility of making part of the roof transparent, to let light in. When we started taking down the tiles and light came in we both agreed we wanted that. We originally planned a whole strip (running the length of the deck) of transparency but settled instead on a partial opening.

With everything ready for the new roof, Alin arrived to help. We started at 8 am what would become a long day. Iulia went to the village to purchase the transparent part of the roofing (the actual decisions and dimensions became clear only that morning). First came the wood decking of the roof (with the transparent part already simulated in place):

Then it was onto the bitumen roofing material. It comes in strips that overlap and bind together through sticky surfaces that meet:

We finished around 9pm, when we could barely see (one of those rare times that the LED light on the wireless drill is actually useful!) or take pictures. So the next day we found this:

The transparent plastic overlaps the roofing on all edges to safely shed water (and there is a metal flashing underneath the plastic running down the two sides):

… and the resulting feeling on the deck is indeed much better … there is more light and the space feels … lighter 🙂

We are waiting for a run to test the new roof 🙂
… and we are still left with the task of finding a place to store the tiles and to move them!

As I was preparing the pictures for this post I looped back to the beginning of what this space looked like when we just started building the deck … quite a journey 🙂