Humaure Hacienda

The Humanure Hacienda is a term coined in The Humanure Handbook to describe the place where humanure and other organic waste is collected and left to compost. It is a 3 chamber structure. Two side chambers are for alternate composting – one is filled for a year and then left to sit for another year while the other is filled. The middle chamber is used to store hay which is used to cover the compost piles – it can be a roofed chamber to both keep the hay dry and to collect rainwater which is useful in washing the buckets that are emptied into the compost pile.

By the time we moved out I had the instructions for building a humanure hacienda memorized. When I sat out to actually build it I encountered a series of humbling and priceless lessons. When I finally got around to building it we had already accumulated some waste (in an old wooden box that we placed near where the hacienda would be built) from the compost toilet which we had already built so we really needed to get it done.

Size & Location

We have chambers that are approximately 1.5 meters square. It seemed like an overkill (I was rounding up the sizes in the book as I was converting them from feet to meters) but it isn’t. We have been using the chamber for just over half a year and it has filled very nice. The pile slowly sinks down as the lower levels are decomposed but is still a hefty pile. Since we eat lots of vegetables we add to the pile a lot of organic food waste.

Taking out buckets of waste is something I do once every week or week and a half. It is a task that takes about 20 minutes. I usually make two trips: (1) two buckets of humanure; (2) a bucket of organic waste and a bucket of water (we still don’t have a water collecting roof over our hacienda). The location we chose took into consideration both the existing house and the new house we plan to build. It is a bit far (and a bit uphill) from the existing house for my liking, but at an excellent location relative to where the new house may eventually be. I have yet to travel to the hacienda in the snow … so we’ll see how that goes.

Another thing to keep in mind when choosing location is where you will be using the compost. We still do not have a clear view of what and where we will be growing things so we could not incorporate this into the location. It now looks like we will be hauling compost in a wheel-barrow. But, I am happy with the location because I didn’t want the hacienda in my face … it’s set aside in a functional location.

Excavating

The location for the hacienda is on a slight slope so some excavation was required to create a flat space. I began doing this by hand and that’s when the first lessons hit me in the face:

  1. I haven’t decided what is harder to dig out – impenetrable hard clay or wet, muddy and heavy clay. Both are very tough work.
  2. Digging is hard enough work, it is that much harder without good tools. At the time I didn’t know what good digging tools were and the ones I had were definitely not good. If you’ve never done this kind of work before you cannot begin to imagine what a difference good tools make. Also, at least here in Romania, good tools are hard to find … so that in itself is an undertaking.
  3. A tractor with a backhoe is a superior digging tool. It can do in an hour what would take two strong men (me does not feel into this category) a day to do.

Fortunately we had a tractor on site digging a trench for our water supply so we asked him to help out and indeed, in about 45 minutes, I had a level surface AND holes for the posts. These holes were another hugely humbling lesson. Reading the instructions was very easy … one of the steps was to dig 8 holes in the ground. In the spirit of reading (and maybe watching movies where other people dig) I was thinking “OK, no problem”. Then you take your lousy digging tools and poke them into the ground and the ground says “no thank you” … and you realize that one step “dig 8 holes” is about to become an unexpected project of unknown scope.

A large part of me – the part that spent a couple of hours of futile digging – felt like an idiot when the tractor came and leveled the ground  in no time. But fortunately there is still a part of me, no matter how small, that is grateful for the lesson learned.

Cement

To this day I have avoided working with cement. We’ve had to use cement but hired help has done that work, not me. I am turned off by it and though will eventually get around to working with it I am happy to have stayed away from it so far.

In the hacienda this will probably turn out to be a mistake – how big a mistake only time will tell. The instructions call for a cement mix to set the posts. I didn’t to this – the posts are simply buried in the ground. The instructions also call for a rot-resistant wood – we didn’t have any on hand so we had to use pine (which is abundantly available and used for almost everything here) General wisdom is that these posts will rot in a few years. I guess I am OK with that because (a) I think that the structure itself may continue to hold up because it isn’t a load-bearing structure; (b) I am pretty sure this can, with some effort, be fixed; (c) I am OK with eventually having to (re) build a new hacienda. I have learned that I do pretty much everything better the 2nd time around so … 🙂

Walls

We used almost all used wood that was either lying around or from demolition work we did around the place. We had only a little available at first so I put up just enough to give the structure support and to make it possible for us to start collecting waste.

I then added more as more wood became available.

Another precious lesson hit me when I got around to using some old beech (a hard and rot resistant wood) planks. I failed miserably at hammering nails into these planks. My first assumption (from above mentioned humbling lessons) was that I was doing something wrong … and I lived with that guilt for some time (because I couldn’t figure out what I was doing wrong) until a neighbor mentioned in passing that it is almost impossible go hammer nails into dry beech. Hah!

Roof

I was really looking forward to building the roof over the middle chamber. It is a small roof and therefore a good learning project. I only got as far as putting up two girders to support the roof. Another lesson here – such things are better cut to actual size then planned size. I tried to be efficient and cut them in advance (according to plans) but I cut them to short.

I didn’t get much further because we didn’t have more wood on hand and then I didn’t have time to get around to it. So the structure is now pretty much closed (sorry I don’t have a recent image) off and roofless. We have nice pile of rich compost building up … we started it in June, we will switch over to the second chamber this spring and we will harvest our first compost in Spring 2013 🙂

Together with our composting toilet it is a superbly simple,cheap, sustainable and hugely rewarding method of handling with organic waste and converting it into a precious resource.

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.

Learning to Read Plans

I’ve been spending the last few weeks immersed in reading about wood-framing. I’m really enjoying the experience of feeling that it really is possible to self-build a home. It’s logical, straightforward and building with hemp simplifies it even more.

I recently came across these sample PDF plans of an eco-house from Studs – a UK timber frame design company. I am happy to say that it isn’t all giberish to me anymore 🙂 I still can’t read it all – and some parts are a bit overwhelming – but I think it’s good practice to start looking at such plans. They provide house design ideas, they teach structural lessons and they prepare you to communicate with other professional which we expect to be doing.

Timber Framing

Introduction

A few weeks ago when I began exploring the world of framing it (and I) was dominated by a fairly straightforward technique of wood-framing – using standard 2×4 lumber with nails and metal connectors to construct a home frame. But then I came across a blog where someone spoke of another building method – one that relies on creating elegant joints between wood joints that are fastened together with wooden pins (kind of like huge nails) – an all wood structure.

I encountered all kind of terms I didn’t know like dovetails and tenon joints. So I did some more searching and came across this abundant resource that had way more information then I could possible want about techniques for joining together pieces of wood. I discovered an entire art of wood-joints … which actually blew the wind out of my sails. I thought that was just too much to attempt to muster on a project with limited time and resources. So I set it aside.

Timber Framing

I am now entering a second round of inquiry into wood framing – the straightforward “nail and connecing plates” kind this time going into more detail. Then, a  few days ago I came across Northern Lights Timber Framing and a single image on their home page blew my mind. This is what timber-framing looks like:

Most of the structure (except for some of the supports) is made from massive timber beams that are crafted into a carefully planned puzzle. There is an entire carving process that takes place away from the building site during which all the pieces are meticulously crafted and tested. Then they are brought to the building site site and with the help of cranes, assembled into a monolithic structure. It is an artful process shimmering with quality and inspiration. It is very different then wood-framing. Here’s another images from Northern Lights – this time an indoors view of a timber-framed house:

The Northern Lights site listed a link to the Post n Beams blog, written by a student that trained with the folks of Northern Lights. It is a great and informational blog to read with excellent, detailed and informative images. This images from the blog further demonstrates the elaborate art of Timber Framing:

This is very different from wood-framing:

We Will Probably Build with Wood Framing

From where I stand now I am somewhat sad to say that we will be building our house with wood-framing and not with timber framing. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The overall framing process, as I understand it, seems to be more complicated and longer then wood-framing.
  2. It seems like a more expensive building method (tools, materials).
  3. It requires refined skills and workmashinp – making it less relevant as a do-it-yourself project.
  4. Most of our wall-framing will remain hidden from sight as it will be emdedded inside the hemp-lime walls.
  5. Hemp-lime masonry needs studs to support it.
  6. Except for a living-kitchen space, energy concerns are leading us to smaller more heat-efficient spaces – so the benefit of an open-floor structure are marginal.
  7. Most of the roof will also be highly insulated with hemp and other materials.

Yet …

I would love to incorporate into our building process some of the qualities of timber-framing. There is more to it then meets the eye. I wonder if, for example, similar joint techniques can be employed when framing with 2×4 lumber?

I am no expert but my instincts tell me that timber-framing delivers a superior structure (to that of wood-framing) and the fact that it is all-wood (no chemical interactions with metallic parts) give it a better shot at longevity (though in our case this may be mitigated by the hemp-lime encasing).

A part of me hopes that we come across a magical local timber-frame builder that will change my mind 🙂 I would love to live in a structure that was built with such masterful craftsmanship.