We Won’t Be Building with Romanian Hemp, but …

After weeks of observing a sample of the hemp-shivs we found piled up in Carei we decided to use it for construction. But, for reasons too boring to go into here, we had to move the hemp from the huge outside pile into a temporary storage (we could not yet ship it to our house because heavy trucks cannot get there yet and insufficient storage space). Yesterday we headed out to Carie together with Sabin to move our hemp. With the help of our local supporters we managed to find a construction company that agreed to both transport and store the hemp for us.

We started the day (after a 3 hour drive to Carei) by visiting the storage place – which was ample but needed to be cleared out and cleaned a bit. It was south facing which was great as air and sn would have continued to dry the hemp (not to ourselves: Andreea had a bad feeling from whn we arrved at the storage facility).

We thendrove back to the hemp-pile where we met again with Rodica Maxi. It took some time for things to get moving (a tractor for loading and a 30 cubic meter truck for moving transporting the hemp). By this time we were preparing ourselves for an extended visit including one night. It was etsimated that each truck load (including loading, driving and offloading) would last 40-60 minutes. We were planning to move ~14 trucks (for 2 houses) which meant that the job wasn’t going to be completed in a single day.

Finally (at around 12:00) we got a call that the truck was arriving so we headedot to greet and direct it. Here are (left to right) Andreea, Rodica and Sabin waiting for the truck (note o ourselves: a dog got hit and badly injured by apassing truck right before our eyes – we saw it coming and couldn’t do anything about it).

The truck arrived and we headed to work. The top layers of the hemp pile were clearly rotten (not good for construction) and they needed to be pulled off. But as the tractor came in and started moving it around we realized that the rot went deeper.

Though there was plenty of usable material it was mixed in with many rotted pockets and there was no clear or consistent pattern that we could work around. Also, it seemed that the tractor’s gross action was actually messing up what good pockets of material that were still there. So we attempted some manual intervention.

But it just wasn’t meant to be. We looked around, touched the material, dug some holes and there was no feasible way to separate out the good material. The only solution we could come up with involved lots of careful ad caring manual labor (10 people over a week) to create a potentially usable pile of material. That, together with other considerations such as the weather (expected rains) and logistics (loading, moving and storing) piled up to an unattractive solution. So, content with our effort to build with Romaian hemp we decided to abort. Here is Sabin taking one more trip around the pile before we walked away.

This hemp can be a wonderful fertilizer but not much more. In fact Rodica took with her a sack of what looked like beautiful half-composted humus to use in her flower garden (I envied her, I would have loved to have this pile as compost for our land!).

We were only slightly disappointed – as we knew from the start it was a shaky upill effort. We were really hoping to salvage the last available hemp in Romania for the first hemp-lime construction but it didn’t work out.

It was agreat opportunity for us to spend some more time with Rodica who refused to give up, harnessed our passion and energy, made a few calls and an hour later (as were having a late lunch together in a restaurant in town) she informed us that she has probably found an alternative source in Hungary (close to the Romanian border). It is going to be more expensive per ton (minus all the transportation and storage overhead we were ready to endure) but much cheaper then most of the industrial hemp we found in Europe. It is a better quality material, clean and probably packaged. Rodica said she wll be visiting the manufactrer in the coming weeks, she will see the material and send us a sample and also offered assistance in arranging shipping (when we need it, where we need it) through her company. How wonderful 🙂 and the journey continues 🙂

Have we found Hemp Shivs for Construction in Romania?

On Feb 23rd Andreea and I went to see some hemp. Two people sent us to Carei in the northern area of Satu-Mare where once (until ~3 years ago) there operated the last decortication (the process in which hemp fibers are separated from the wooden core which we need for construction) in Romania. It was a 5 hour train ride in each direction – and on the way there I was amused as I realized how far my life had come – I was excited to be on a 10 hour journey to see … hay!

This was also a wonderful opportunity for us to meet with Dorin Pop, a construction engineer who works with Teodor Pop of Lux Perennial. Dorin met us at the train station together with his friend and together we drove off to see hemp.

The picture below is what greeted us – deserted tanks where water used for retting (partial decompisition of the glue-like materials that holds together the fibers and the wooden core). In the background are fields where hemp was once grown. At the turn of the century in the area of Satu-Mare alone there used to be 8,000 hectares of hemp (for fiber) crop.

We met with Rodica Maxi who was the founder and owner of the decortication plant. The plant has been shut down for over 2 years, now there are just a couple of offices which are also in their last days. Rodica is one of the people responsible for recent legislation that lays out a simple legal process for acquiring license from the government to grow industrial hemp. She is looking forward to rebuilding the hemp-industry in Romania. Here is Rodica proudly showing and explaining to us abou hemp.

This image of a picture Rodica shows us standing proudly by fields of hemp seems to hold an entire history of hemp in Romania.

After a pleasant conversation we went to see the hemp. We were disappointed to find that the hemp is kept outside. A large venting pipe used to run from the plant and into this field where the leftovers from the decortication were dumped. We were surprised to learn that a form of hemp-construction has been going on in Romania for quite a while – that churches often purchased the hemp-shivs and used them as a stucco-sublayer for renovation and decorative paintings.

According to Rodica it is a pile of approximately 200 tons of hemp with about 10% fibers. This next image with people in it can give you some idea of the dimension of the pile.

We were extremely excited to be standing next to this pile of hay. This is the first time we’ve seen hemp and in such large quantities! The top layers are wet and rotted and therefor useless to us for construction though they would probably make an excellent fertilizer. But the middle layers looked very promising and we took a sample with us.

On the way home I kept playing around like a child with the material we took with us. As hours passed on the way back we realized that there may be a problem with the material. Outside is was probably frozen and therefore  looked and felt dry. But after spending some time in a sealed plastic bag it warmed up and began to sweat and a moldy smell began to form. We’ve been monitoring it for a few weeks and though visible mold has not appeared the smell is still there.

Rodica has offered us to take as much as we need at a symbolic price. It would be our responsibility to package and ship it to our land. It is a magical opportunity but we are still not sure about the reliability of the material for construction. We don’t want to build a house only to find after a couple of years that the insulation and breathability of the walls has been compromised and that they are rotting.

Stay tuned for more 🙂

My First Workbench Revisited

I’ve still not found peace regarding a work-bench. Though at first I’ll be busy more with wood-framing then wood-working – building a kitchen and a bed are also on my mind. So I am still hunting around for information and ideas on work-benches – and it is these findings that I want to share in this post.

However before I do I’d like to mention saw-horses. These are temporary stands we are sure to need during wood-framing and will probably form the basis for any initialwoodworking I may end up doing – including building a more comfortable workbench. Saw-horses are one of those things that people with experience take for granted – but I can’t. So I did some searching around and found lots of advice and options. As always I kept searching until I found this design which is quick, simple and cheap to build. A simple I-joist from 2×4 sets all the dimensions and angles:

So I figure that my first workbench will be a couple of saw-horses with some 2×4 stretched across them. With that out of the way let’s get back to work-benches.

The most important resource I came  across this time around is this article at the Wood Whisperer. The bottom line is that a work-bench involves a lot of personal choices that reflect how you like to work. A good work-bench is the bench that best supports your work. So at this point in time I have absolutely no idea what a good-bench is for me because I have absolutely no experience working. So I will set aside my work-bench aside and allow myself to grow into it rather then speculate about it wildly.

Having said that here are a few more resources I have come across and would like to note for future reference:

  • A series of 4 pod-casts at Bob Rozaieski Logan Cabinet Shoppe which in addition to demonstrating a work-bench construction process actually explains some of the reasoning and considerations that should go into desinging it. This series was also an eye opener for me because Bob works almost completely with hand tools rather then power tools – which was an excellent lesson for me (though I will be taking the power-tools path). Keep in mind that Bob’s design and method of construction (including creating his own wooden-vice including custom wood-screws) are therefore better suited for hand tools. I’d love to see a similar series by and for a power-tool worker.
  • If you really want to dig into this there a book aptly titles Workbenches which Marc (the Wood Whisperer) recommended.
  • The Wikipedia page for Workbenches helped me figure out what bench-dogs and hold-fasts are (key elements in holding work-pieces down ont a workbench) are.
  • I’ve been looking (I now know) mostly at work-benches by and for wood-workers and this video offered a a much appreciated and simple work-bench – not a great bench but a great reminder that there are simpler options.
  • This video is of a more robust table and an excellent example of using building-blocks as a simple way to get around more complicated joinery.
  • Finally I found these (PDF download) simple and robust looking plansat WoodSmithShop.

That is all for now.

Waste Management

Most of my life I didn’t really give any thought to what happens with waste – it was all somehow transported away from the home and magically disappeared. Moving into a village home changes that. Nothing happens magically – everything needs to be consciously handled.

Waste Basics

Garbage is pretty easy. All food leftovers are either fed to animals or tossed into a compost pile. Glass containers are all kept and used for storing preserved foods. Plastic containers are used sparingly, and when possible used for short-term storage (like milk!). We haven’t had any aluminium cans in our lives in many years and we don’t expect a comeback.

This leaves three kinds of waste:

  • Grey water is water that comes from sinks, showers, washing machines, etc.
  • Black water is water that comes from toilets (discernible from grey-water due to the potential presence of feces or feces-related bacteria).
  • Solids that comes from toilets (including toilet paper).

The most common solution to these three wastes in standalone houses is usually a septic tank with an optional leach-field. A septic tank accumulates all the waste and needs to be emptied periodically. If liquids are filtered out of it using a leach-field then it can be emptied less frequently.

Grey water can be treated separately using either mechanized filtering systems or with organic solutions such as constructed-wetlands (or marsh fields) where a combination of soil and plants are used to clean the water to the point that it can be either reused (the uses depending on the level and quality of filtering) or simply released back into the ground.

Composting Toilets

The most simple and ecological solution for toilets are composting toilets. Basically these are storage containers with a top that looks like a toilet. There is no flushing mechanism – waste drops directly into the container. The basic premise of composting toilets are that if (1) liquids need to be separated from the solids; (2) there is proper ventilation; (3) the remaining solids are allowed to settle (in a cycle that takes 12-18 months – which means that fresh materials shouldn’t be added to it) then they will decompose into an excellent compost materials (about 10% in volume from the original waste).

Simple composting toilets can be self constructed. Their containers need to be manually emptied out into composting piles. Ready made composting toilets come with engineered containers that make the emptying process at least psychologically easier.

There is a very wide range of products and solutions under the name of “composting toilets” – I recommend you look around – it is an educating inquiry. One interesting solution I came across is called a trench-arch (explained in this PDF) – it is an improvised solution that was created by Nick Grant of Elemental Solutions for churches that do not have sewage access . I contacted Nick to inquire about the trench-arch and he replied that it is not suitable for the capacity of waste generated by a household.

Composting toilets are super ecological since no water is wasted on flushing and there is no waste – just compost. But the greatest challenge for us has been a mental one – the lack of flashing and having to carry out waste is, at this point in time, not appealing to us. So we are seeking a middle-ground to combine flushing and composting – which brings us to composting systems.

Composting Systems

In this section I will be describing a certain kind of composting system – a kind that I have grown familiar with and that we are considering for our house. There are other solutions out there and I encourage you to do your own research – and would be grateful if you come back and share your discoveries in the comments of this post.

Had money not been an issue we would probably go with a solution called an Aquatron (a complete system will cost us ~2500 euro). In this kind of system the toilets are unchanged – they standard water-flushing toilets (though we will be trying to find water-efficient “low-flush” toilets. The Aquatron system is made up of three strategic parts:

  1. At the heart of the system is a patented separator that uses centrifugal force to separate liquids and solids – the genius of it is that is requires no electricity and has no moving parts.
  2. The solids are then deposited in a rotating container that is separated into 4 chambers. The container is rotated once every 3 or 4 months so that filled chambers are isolated and allowed to rest and decompose. The decomposition process is accelerated by adding earth-worms.
  3. The liquids are funnelled through an ultra-violet filter and can then be treated as grey water.

Disclaimer: There is an excellent video of an installed and working Aquatron system – complete with the resulting compost (and other interesting videos!). I do however feel obliged to point out that I feel that the project to which I am linking, despite demonstrating some of the most advanced ecological systems available, is anything but ecological. It is a hugely wasteful construction project that does not in anyway exemplify my understanding and experience of ecological awareness. So … onto the video.

For us money is an issue so I am looking for a way to use just the Aquatron separator (~600 euro) with a self-built container. This video of an installation of another composting product demonstrates the core concept of a rotating composting container:

I also came across this website which offers detailed plans for creating your own rotating container. I haven’t purchased the plans yet – but it does seem like a reliable and feasible solution which will enable us to benefit from an affordable and ecological – part purchased, part do-it-yourself – composting system which together with a reed-bed system will provide us with an encompassing solution.