There was quite a bit of digging (manual and machine) involved in our water infrastructures. I can point out for distinct efforts: (1) a cement box for the pump; (2) a cement box for main supply valves; (3) a long trench for a water pipe and electricity; (4) getting water in and out of the house.
Having decided to go with a surface pump we needed to create a freeze-proof space next to the well to install the pump. I suppose it’s possible to build some insulated box above surface but the recommended solution is an underground cement box. I started digging this hole by hand before we moved out and it was loads of difficult physical work.
In this image, taken while the well was being prepared for cleaning, you can see the hole in progress.
When this dig was completed there was a hole over 1 meter deep and 1 meter square in the ground. It needs to be large enough to accommodate the pump itself, some plumbing and a person who can move around inside for installation and maintenance work. In the image you can see the hole into the well and the beginning of an exit trench towards which the main water supply pipe will be installed.
A few small tips and things I would have done differently:
- Make the hole into well in line with where the pump will be installed so that the pipe from the well does need to bend (beyond coming out of the well).
- Do not begin the ditch for the pipe before completing the cement box. The earth walls form the outer form for the cement box. By starting the ditch I complicated the form work since a part of the earth was missing.
The inner forms for the cement box were built outside
… and then lowered into the hole in the ground followed by rebar to give the cement walls structural integrity.
Here you can see the layers of the inner form-work, the concrete rebar, and the outer earth.
The cement was poured in (mixed in an electric mixer and carried over in a wheelbarrow) and when the forms came off we had a nice box.
Complete with holes fitted with 10cm PVC pipe into which smaller feed pipes will be fitted later.
And then immediately work began on the box cover. A wooden frame was created at the top of the box.
On that frame they laid down a wooden “floor” (if I remember correctly they also put in some posts inside the box to further support the “floor” form). Then added some more rebar. On top of the rebar they added a manhole cover (which is supported on another partial wooden frame and ultimately set in the concrete) and an outside form to contain the poured cement.
Our concrete mix was a bit thin because we did not have gravel on-site and there wasn’t enough justification to bring in a truck load (even a small one). We did however have a large pile of sand with very small rocks in it leftover from the concrete floor that was placed inside the house. This meant that we needed more cement in the mix (gravel provides much of the volume in typical cement mixes).
The whole thing is supposed to be setup with a slight slope to the side and back (away from the well itself) to drain water away … I am not convinced that they put in enough slope.
And this what the result at the end of the concrete work.
A few days later (during which we watered the concrete numerous times) they came and hacked through the manhole opening with a chainsaw and pulled out the remaining forms.
The floor of the box remained pack-dirt so that excess moisture could soak away. Inside the floor they dug a hole 30cm deep which served as a foundation for a small concrete platform (~15 cm high above ground) upon which the pump itself would be installed.
Then came another precious lesson about working with professional, especially Romanian professionals. The pump is anchored with anchor bolts (bolts that are set in the concrete). I had already given some thought about how to place those bolts precisely enough for the pump base (which has very little tolerance). The solution I came up with was to comfortably (outside the cramped space of the concrete box) create a simple wooden template which would mark correct placement of the screws. Then the screws would be attached to the template, leaving as much as needed sticking out and the template would be placed in the concrete.
Still sounds like a good plan to me but they didn’t think so and I (through Andreea’s translation) was not demanding enough. So they did it “professional Romanian” style. They carried the pump out to the well and measured the distance between the screw holes and “copied” those measurements to the fresh concrete.
It was particularly disconcerting when, after rough measurement they placed the anchor bolts in place and jiggled them around a bit to get them to set well in the concrete.
When I came to install the pump I could just barely get two of the screw-holes onto the anchored screws. Of course it didn’t fit – why should it? Luck? By then the professionasl were already paid and too busy to come back and fix their work (hold on to your money in Romania until work is completed to your satisfaction) so I finally had to purchase a disc cutter (which has been an extremely useful tool, much more then I expected it to be) and cut the existing bolts, purchased bolts that could be drilled in (rather then set in the fresh concrete), drill holes for new ones and cut the new ones to size
Note: if you want to be able to get a nut onto the bolt you better cut it straight and level … not a trivial thing to do crouched in a confined space in the ground. I definitely paid for their stupidity – but as always I got a precious lesson in return.
We hired a local excavator to dig an ~80 meter long and 110 cm deep (well below the freeze-depth of about 80 cm) trench then went from the pump-box to the back of the house where eventually a pipe entered the house. The dig started from behind the house.
Down towards the road
… and then across it
and across to the well-box
Not long after that a 32mm HDPE pipe and a protected electric cable were laid in the ditch which, for the most part, was quickly backfilled.
A protection measure can be taken for the pipe and cable – and that is to place them over and cover them with a layer of builders sand which is better draining and also acts as a cushion against the heavy and expansive clay soil. We didn’t do this mostly due to costs – we would have needed another truck load of sand and would have to pay for more excavation time (for lining the trench with sand before laying the cable and pipe and then covering them with another layer before backfilling the trench).
A second concrete box was excavated and built to house both a main filter and a junction point from which the water supply could be split to numerous destinations (including the house, a future connection to the summer kitchen, a future new house and an outside water supply in the area surrounding the house). This time, and in a matter of minutes, the tractor completed the excavation and the concrete construction process was repeated a second time.
Stay tuned for a closer look at the actual pump installation, plumbing and electricity.
We have beautiful, heavy, clay-rich soil. It’s great for cob (which explains the local proliferation of cob houses), great for earthen plasters and earthen floors but it seems to pose some challenges when it comes to underground construction such as Earthships. I hope in this post to outlines the challenges and what solutions I have come across to deal with if. If you’ve built in an Earthship with such soil then please stop by and share your experience with it. Midway into writing/editing this post I came across this thorough description of expansive soil and their potentially adverse effects on construction. From reading it and a few others resources I feel is it important to note that:
- Almost all mentions of expasive soil issues are in relation to foundations. An Earthship has no foundations.
- Almost all mentions of expensive soil relate to hard-concrete responding to intense uneven pressures. An Earthship is inherently a “softer” structure (then concrete) embedded in the earth. We intend to embrace that concept and even our floor will be a “soft” earthen floor and not a rigid concrete slab.
- Expansive soils are not inherently a problem – fluctuations in their moisture content is a big problem. If moisture content is stabilized then the problem is largely diminished.
- An Earthship is inherently a massive structure (even more so with a living roof we intend to add) and as such an Earthship is capable of “pushing back” against the forces of surrounding expansive soils.
In addition to all this we have had an opportunity to observe how things behave in real life which is an excellent teacher – especially as I am about to get into a lot of theoretical ideas. We live in a cob house that was built in 1934 and it is structurally sound. It has partial peripheral stone foundations and is holding up find sitting on expansive clay. Other houses in the village were built with without any foundations and have been standing for many years. Of course there are also decayed houses … but I cannot say what kind of role soil-expansion had to play in their history. Though they have not yet withstood the test of time, we have built two underground concrete boxes (with manhole access) for our water infrastructure. Their walls are ~10cm thick with rebar – and they have shown no signs of stress problems. We have had a few ditches open over recent months and they have seen many transitions from wet to dry and they also showed no structural decay.
Expansive Clay Soil
It took me time to understand what all the structural fuss and warnings are about “Expansive Clay Soil” and it all went back to understanding the structural qualities of the soil itself. The soil composition itself is considered clay-rich and my first misconception was that that meant it was mostly clay. This is incorrect … clay rich soil has a relatively small percentage of clay particles in it – typically ranging from 10% to 25%. While the clay is not a major quantitative element it is a dominant qualitative one.
Clay particles in clay-rich soil expand when they come in contact with water. As it absorbs water it becomes sealed and much less penetrable for water. This makes saturated clay-rich soil slow-percolating. We witnessed this clearly when we dug a small hole in the ground and filled it with water. The small pool stayed in place for quite some time, percolating into the ground very slowly.
This makes clay-soil a structural force to deal with when building an underground house. There are two phenomena that lend a hand to the expansive behavior of clay. The first was mentioned above – clay absorbs moisture and expands. So, for example, the fall season rains saturate the soil and the clay expands. Then winter brings into play the second phenomena – freezing. The saturated and already expanded clay soil is now exposed to freezing temperatures which cause even more expansion.
These forces are insignificant in a bucket of clay but can translate into potentially thousands of tons of force pushing up against a house that is buried in the ground. After carefully internalizing the “expansive” behavior of clay it seems to me that the problem is not the clay rich soil itself but it’s exposure to moisture.If it’s kept dry then clay rich soil is actually an excellent structural soil – it dries into a very solid earth – ideal for rammed earth tires … IF you keep it dry.
Implications for Earthships
I can identify numerous implications of working with/in rich-clay-soil when it comes to Earthships:
- Construction work – wet clay soil becomes a heavy muddy substance very difficult to get around in let alone to work with.
- Rammed Earth Tires – if a tire is packed with clay earth that is not dry (enough?) then when it will dry it out the earth in it will get compacted some more. That could be a structural nightmare.
- Drainage – clay rich soil has no drainage – it saturates with water and seals itself. Period. Though I haven’t seen this acknowledged in any written materials (off and online) my impression is that that is actually a welcome feature to one half of the water drainage problem of a house – surface water (once the soil is saturated) will simply flow away – so all you have to do is divert it to make sure it flows where you want it to go (preferably away from the house). The other half of the water drainage problem comes from below … and that problem isn’t unique to clay-rich-soil. It simply means that you need to have good drainage beneath the floor and around the house.
- Structural Pressure – now we that we have figured out that the earth around the house may be pushing up against the house with tremendous force – something needs to be done about it.
- Insulation – wet earth sucks warmth out of the house. The Earthship is bermed with earth all around and so to maintain energy efficiency any contact with wet earth must be avoided or mitigated.
Tire Walls Inherit Strength
In a typical underground house the forces of the soil would be acting directly on standard earth-proofed walls (usually concrete). The first main difference about Earthships is that the walls are massive … twice the width of typical walls. The tightly packed tires offer much more structural resistance then their counterpart typical walls. In addition we are planning to have the internal walls also be tire walls for additional mass and structural support. In addition, outer Earthship tire walls are designed to lean back into the surrounding earth which offers even more lateral strength.
Use Dry Clay Soil
This is easier said then done (at least in the Romanian climate which can rain any time and for any duration of time):
- The building site would have to be setup with a large area which is arranged to dry soil.
- This area would have to be sheltered from the rain.
- It would also need to have exposure to sun and open-air circulation to promote drying.
- It would need to have a large surface area so that a substantial quantity of soil can be dried sufficiently for use in both tires (slow and continuous consumption of soil over a long period of time) and backfilling (rapid consumption of soil in a very short period of time).
I suppose that if the excavated earth was placed in a narrow (north-south) and long (east-west) mound and that if that mound was covered with a slightly elevated clear plastic cover while enabling comfortable access for both wheelbarrows and a tractor – that soil could be reasonably dried!?
This also means that the tire walls themselves need to be kept dry throughout the project. Since Romanian weather includes rain-showers throughout most of the year (except of course in the subzero temperatures of winter) – this means that there need to be plenty of cover materials on site and a quick response when rain showers do appear.
Bring in Alternate Soil
Though it can become a substantial expense it is possible to bring in sandy, good draining soil for both ramming tired and backfilling. The supply of soil can be regulated as needed so it can be kept reasonably dry. Also, since it doesn’t suffer from expansion it would be OK to use it when moist knowing it will eventually dry out.
This is something I would prefer to avoid because (a) it is costly and (b) it goes against the core idea of using local materials for construction.
The design of the Global Model Earthship introduces a perimeter wall of insulation and moisture barrier set about 1 meter away from the outside of the tire walls. This creates two distinct backfill areas: (1) between the tire walls and the insulation; (2) outside the insulation and moisture barrier. The first backfill area between the tire wall and insulation/moisture barrier is a space that can and I believe should be completely covered by a moisture barrier. This means that this soil humidity is going to be relatively stable. If it is filled with mostly dry soil then it will also not change much, if it is filled with moist soil – then it may shrink as the envelope of the house dries over the first years of operation. Either way that part of the backfill is relatively stable and becomes and extends the fabric of the house. To my understanding it should absorb most of the additional pressures that come from the surrounding soil BECAUSE it isn’t structurally packed liked the tires – it is a more dynamic wall up against the more static tire-wall. Then there is the second – outer backfill – the one that is outside the moisture barrier. For this backfill I would prefer to use a good draining soil. It is a smaller volume of backfill and therefore less expensive to do so. It would serve two purposes. One is faster draining of any moisture that comes near the fabric of the house. The other is an additional pillow against the pressures of the surrounding earth. So already there is plenty of support against the potential pressure of the surrounding expansive clay soil.
I am thinking of starting the build by placing (on the excavated undisturbed soil) ~30cm of gravel (with built in drainage – see below). My thoughts are to excavate in such a way that the resulting surface will be slightly downhill (more elevated towards the back of the house. A level layer of gravel would then be placed on it. The gravel would cover the entire construction area up to and including the perimeter insulation wall and future tire walls (which will be built on the layer of gravel).
Common sense tells me that the gravel layer may also act as a flexible absorption layer should their be any excess pressure due to expansive soil from below.
On the gravel I would place a french-drain system made up of:
- A perimeter drain pipe.
- An inverted U drain pipe in every U module – with a T joint which leads out of the U and into the greenhouse/corridor (I feel it is better to avoid running any pipes under the tire walls). The corridor connections would need to eventually pass through the stem wall of the inner corridor wall.
- Two main main drain pipes which collect flow from the U-drains and lead out to the two sides of the house and connect to the perimeter drain.
This would both remove excess moisture should it ever accumulate and create (as our architect suggested) a pleasant and mud-free work zone.
Our intentions are to install a living roof instead of a rain-collecting roof. The weight of the living roof as carried by the all the (inner and outer) structural tire walls is an additional counterweight to pressures from the surround soils. Most of the weight of the roof will be transferred down into the ground below the house. Some of the weight will be transferred to the side walls to do their outward leaning angle. This is unexpected and welcome benefit of the living roof.
Moisture barriers are, I believe, a given in Earthship design (and any other well designed overground/underground house). Though in an Earthship I believe there are two aspects to this challenge. One is during construction (which in a self-build can take years) and the other is the typical finished house. My thinking is to start with the moisture barrier from within the tire walls – so it would be placed on top of the gravel. I think that a 4 meter wide would sheet would be enough to go from within the wall, underneath the tires & the the inner backfill and over the top of the first layer of insulation panels. Then each course of insulation would be covered by another overlapping sheet. In the end a top sheet of moisture barrier will extend from the roof and will overlap the top course of insulation sheathing. During construction a temporary cover will be needed to cover the breadth of the tire-walls + infill area + insulation panels. The floor area can remain uncovered as rain water will be diverted by the drains.
Though insulation is not directly related to the structural aspects of expansive soils it can effect the thermal performance of the house within these soils. Expansive soils hold a lot of moisture content and wet-earth can suck warmth from a house much more then dry earth.
Thorough insulation (as would be required in the Romanian climate), in my opinion, has not yet been achieved in Earthship designs (based on freely available information online). This is a testament to the fact that Earthships do not originate in cold and soggy climates and soils. Insulation was added in later Earthship designs and is now standard in the Global Model, but I believe it is still not up to the task of dealing efficiently with the Romanian climate. First, as designed in the Global Model, the insulation panels are better off protected from moisture – so it is sensible to install them within the moisture barrier sheath. In addition to that I would like to extend the insulation to close off additional energy bleeds from the house:
- Floor insulation will be added throughout the house – above the gravel drainage layer and beneath the earth floor.
- Floor insulation will also extend beneath the tire walls – it will be laid out around the perimeter and beneath the inside walls before tires are put in place and filled with dirt.
- Floor insulation will also extend beneath the inner backfill area and through to the perimeter insulation panels.
- The stem-wall for the inner corridor wall will also be insulated beneath ground level with R5 insulation panels to prevent energy bleed through the concrete.
- Similarly the concrete footers for the front wall (living roof load bearing) posts will be insulated below ground.
- Roof insulation will continue and meet the perimeter insulation panels using R10 panels (this insulation is closer to ground-level and therefore exposed to more sever ground-frost).
- On the front face wall frost-blocking (45 degrees) insulation panels will be installed.
I am still debating what to do with the planters. I believe that the presence of composting soil and living plants and solar gain makes adding ground insulation in the planters redundant … we’ll see. Together with the bermed earth and living roof this should provide an effective shell of insulation that should prevent energy bleeds from the core of the house to the surrounding earth.
It seems to me that if properly dried soil (still no clear idea on how to achieve this) can be created and maintained on the work site, together with uncompromising moisture barriers and insulation should make it OK to build an Earthship in clay soils. I would be grateful to hear other opinions and other experience on this issue.
I came across these two excellent illustrations of how spacer-blocks can be almost completely avoided in rammed-tire walls. It’s one of those cool smart and simple things. It comes complement of Earthship Belgium from an excellent post on how to efficiently organize and build rammed-tire walls.
Both of these solutions rely on the use of one-tire size throughout the project. The idea is to make the corner out of a tire who’s center is aligned with the faces of the two tire walls. Though the image display a 90 degree corner I believe that the same idea would work for any angle.
The same principle can be used for T or Y junctions of two U modules. In this case two tires are used to create one level of the Y and a larger diameter tire is used to overlap the three tires below.
This takes care of everything except end-blocks (which you will inevitable get if you use tire walls for the inside walls as well). Earthship Belgium provide another article about spacer-blocks – at the end of which you will find an explanation on how to create half-tires. I have encountered half-tires in my online searches before and though it is an appealing solution (no cement on site until later in the project) – it seems to me that cutting tired can be difficult unless you have the right tools for it.
I came across a lot of online hints that spacer blocks could be avoided (less concrete and much less hassle) but I couldn’t find a clear explanation of how this is achieved. Now I know … and now you do too. Thank you so much Willy and friends at Earthship Belgium.
It seems that Earthship Biotecture have put together a wonderful animation of how a “Global Model” Earthship is built. It is beautifully executed, very educational (many subtle details) and answered a few questions I still carried with me.
Solar systems such as hot-water heaters and solar-electric panels are an almost obvious component of any Earthship. These are systems we would love to embrace but simply cannot afford to buy given their market prices. However, we can and intend to go about building our own. We have been researching do-it-yourself systems for quite some time and we have viable options.
My point in this post is not to go into detail about do-it-yourself solar projects. If you are interested in these things then I strongly recommend you bookmark and spend time at BuildItSolar which overflows with DIT solar projects. My objective is to suggest, in regard to solar hot water and electric photo-voltaic panels, an interesting potential feature for do-it-yourself-ers in an Earthship – bringing the systems indoors. This is something that would be more difficult to achieve with off-the-shelf systems which come in standard sizes, but self-builders can create panels in practically any size.
In an Earthship these systems are typically installed either on the roof or on, in “Global Model” Earthships what appears to be a dedicated and sloped (optimized for solar gain?) surface on the front face of the house.
One of the greatest challenges when it comes to building your own panels is weather-proofing. The frame itself, glazing, insulation materials … all have to be weatherproof. In addition the electronics need to be properly insulated from moisture.
Bringing the panels indoors makes all these problems go away. I am thinking that if the glazing is extended all the way up with continuous wood-framing it should be pretty convenient to install panels inside.
The DIY panels can be sized to practically any size. We are planning an Earthship with a front face of over 20 meters long, so a 50cm high strip of panels allows for almost 10sqm of safe and protected solar panels.
Solar Hot Water Panels
A solar hot water system is slightly more complicated since it involves other elements depending on the overall system configuration (boilers, storage tanks, heat exchangers, etc.). Though I will focus on the solar panels themselves I believe that bringing these panels indoors may potentially simplify the overall system.
In Earthships Vol.III Michael Reynolds introduces Mechanical U’s (“U” shaped spaces are the basic building block of an Earthship). These are U spaces which are used for functions that do not necessarily need direct solar gain (such a laundry, storage spaces, etc.). I am thinking of incorporating a Mechanical U with sloped glazing (continuous with the rest of the front face of the house) and to use that glazing as a space for installing the solar panels.
This of course solves the basic weather proofing issues shared with the electric panels. But I believe there may be a huge extra benefit – I wonder if having the hot water panels inside the greenhouse/corridor space solves the problem of water freezing in the pipes. I don’t know if this will actually work, but if it will, it can tremendously simplify the system. If freezing is no longer a problem then the hot-water panels can be connected directly to the hot water storage tank without any need for antifreeze (a liquid that prevents the water in the pipes from freezing) & heat exchange mechanism or drain-back solutions (that empty the water pipes in the solar panels to keep them from freezing).
In both cases placement of the systems indoors reduces the need to penetrate the outer fabric of the house for pipes and cables and also makes the panels theft-proof (I’ve come incidentally across two reports of stolen solar panels from Earthship roofs!). In both cases it is not possible to optimize the direction of the panels as the seasons change, however a winter-optimized angle of the glazing inherently comes with an added benefit of some degree of protection from over-heating (by not facing the sun directly).
It seems to me that DIY indoors solar panels are in alignment with Earthships which are designed to be owner built. It seems that doing so comes with both huge financial savings and added-functional-value and simplicity. Too good to be true?