(Very) Passive (Not) Solar

The only place we’ve seen sunshine for the past … oh … I don’t know … at least a week, maybe two … was on a video call with Annelieke in Portugal. And this is what the 10 day forecast looks like:

This is that time of the year where the sun can be absent for weeks and the temperatures drop … and the theory of passive solar design simply cannot deliver. We simply cannot rely [for warmth during our winter months] on a daily cycle of solar charging and discharging.

That shortcoming hit me during the first winter at Bhudeva … and that is why I got excited when I discovered Passive Annual Heat Storage which is about creating a YEARLY cycle of charging abundant summer warmth and discharging it during winter.

Earthbag Cellar Level 10, 11, 12 and 13 … soon arches

We had one weekend of construction at the beginning of June with the help of Adi and Dan … we got 10 and half of 11 done.

We then paused because of my allergy-period and because we were busy finishing and launching the new Cutia Taranului website. In recent weeks we got back in the saddle, we finished 11 and 12 … and its feeling more and more like a place.

We’ve also put in velcros to which we plan to attach a grain storage and dispenser (planned to hold ~100kg of grains):

Sia, a new puppy who has been with us for a few weeks is getting acquainted with the site … and also has manifested a destructive quality … it seems she enjoyes tearing into earthbags and digging soil out 🙁

Today we started 13 which brought us to the levels of the rectangular door frames …. which means that soon we begin to form the arches on top of the doors.

And finally we have out overall progress indicator. This pile of soil is like an hour-glass … if my calculations were correct it should have enough soil to bring us to completion. When we started construction this year the pile reached out to where the mixer is currently standing so we’ve taken quite a bite out of it. It is nice to feel the space starting to open up and reconnect with the world beyond it.

I estimate we are going to end up with 19 or 20 levels.

And lastly some number I’ve collected:

  • We are currently mixing batches with a ration of 4 shovels of sand + 12 shovels of clay soil. This fills an 80 liter wheelbarrow.
  • A wheelbarrow is roughly the amount of soil that goes into a sack (1 meter long when flat, 80cm when filled to the max) … though we are using mostly tubes (not sacks).
  • Each batch includes 2 wheelbarrows.
  • Each wheelbarrow contains ~25 cans (3 liters in a can) … so it takes ~25 tosses to “move” a wheelbarrow of soil up the wall.
  • Each batch (of 2 wheelbarrows) translates into ~1.5 linear meters of wall (we are using 50cm wide – when flat – tubes and bags).
  • Which means that each can holds about 3 linear centimeters of wall.
  • At the current rate Iulia and I (neither of us particularly strong) are doing ~2 linear meters of wall an hour (though we will slow down as we move higher up the wall).
  • At this rate we can do a level in 3 or 4 days (we work at most 6 hours a day in two sessions … morning and evening).



First Steps in Woodworking

Following a lengthy study-journey on wood-framing as a basis for hemp-lime construction I have recently begun looking into carpentry as a preparation for outfitting our future home with custom made furniture.

At this point I am approaching woodworking with a practical outlook – we’re going to need kitchen cabinets to place our sink so that we can have running water and we are going to need a simple raised-platform to place our sleeping mat. Practical means we’re going to need some things during the construction process itself – they have to be simple for us to build on site.

This is an important point because woodworking also has an artistic and meditative side to it and though we may eventually have a space for this kind of woodworking – this will only come at a later time. Right now I am focusing on extracting the most practical, feasible, accessible, efficient and affordable information I can find. This includes design, materials, tools and techniques. I believe this is important because I have found that if I lose sight of this objective I can get pulled in different directions that dissipate my energy and focus.

This is a list of some of the online resources I have been spending time with:

Though I try to avoid anything Google wherever possible, Sketchup keeps coming back as a useful tool so:

One of the most basic tools in wood-working is a workbench – and as many seem to have done, I too plan to design and build my own. There are tons of designs and ideas out there – but again I am finding myself having to filter them out through my needs, abilities and priorities. Following are a few resources I have set aside (I have rejected many more!) to use when I get around to building my workbench:

Visiting Suncuius

Around 3 weeks ago we joined Ina and Sabin on to see Suncuius where they purchased land for their house. It was an exciting first – not only because of the prospect of becoming land-owners but also of creating a life with friends and neighbors like Ina & Sabin.

Lesson1: Romania is Beautiful

I’ve not yet had an opportunity to travel and spend time in the vastness of Romania. This was another glimpse into how simple, direct and beautiful it is. A set of landscape images from the area was published separately on my personal-blog.

Lesson2: 4 x 4

Ina and Sabin’s land is in the higher and more remote area of Suncuius. Getting to it from the lower area of the village is about 7 km out most of it on un unpaved road. We had a beautiful sunny day but the road was snowed over. On the way up we got stuck on our way up on an icy part of road we failed to negotiate. Ina and I got out and sat on the hood of the car (it was a two front wheel drive car) to give it more traction while Sabin attempted to get us past the hump in the road. These are my legs hanging over the car:

This is the wonderful view that opened up when we got past it.

… and this is where we moved back into the car

… and this is the breath-taking space we arrived at.

If you are going to be living in an elevated place in the mountains then you may want to consider getting a 4×4 vehicle – it makes getting around safer, more reliable and more pleasant.

Lesson3: Generosity

We arrived at the house of the family who’s land Ina and Sabin purchased. I was quickly reminded of the welcoming generosity that seems to be typical of Romanian villages. Though the homes are often old and run down – home-grown and cooked food and drink is always offered. An abundant life reaches my consciousness from village life here.

Lesson4: Plentiful Land & Water

The fertile lands and plentiful water in Romania is a big part of why we are here. Having land and the skills, tools and knowledge to work it is a unique, if not the most sustainable form of richness I can imagine. This is where we are heading.

Lesson5: Draw in Snow

While Sabin was off making some arrangement in town Ina took us to see their land. While we were there we made some markings in the snow to simulate what their thoughts for a house would feel like. This was a really useful exercise – seeing the house oriented on the land, experiencing distances, room sizes can be very eye opening – much more then many drawings. The snow makes it very easy to make markings, if you don’t have snow use sticks and rocks … but don’t miss out on doing this.

Lesson6: Classic Construction

We are building the first hemp-lime house in Romania. I took great pleasure in seeing this classically built Romanian house. I don’t know how old this structure is but it shows signs of durability.

Though we aim for something much better, more resilient and more ecological there are a few things I liked about it: simplicity, basic do-it-yourself construction, reliance on local materials, practical wood-joinery and stone foundations (instead of todays popular concrete).

Lesson7: Do Your Homework

A few months ago we had no idea what to look for in land and who to ask. Since then we’ve accumulated a list of things we’d like in our land to support us and make our life pleasant. We will probably have to compromise on some of the things – but with this list we know what it is we are compromising on and what we are getting.

Though the place was beautiful and we would love to be neighbors with Ina & Sabin we realized there were a few things missing:

  1. As we intend to extend our home into a place of learning, retreat and eventually birthing – this part of Suncuius is too remote and inaccessible. Suncuius is great if you want to retreat to a remote and intimate life – but we still have work to do engaging other people. To do this we need to remain accessible.
  2. We are planning to do diverse farming to provide for ourselves. Suncuius is in a high location making it too cold for growing grains. Suncuius also sits on top of many caves (there are sink holes all around) which effects the fertility and versatility of the land.
  3. To do the caves below water isn’t found in near-house wells. There is a spring in the area from which the village gets its water. Connecting to it may be a challenge.
  4. Accessibility may be an issue in winter months and also during construction when materials need to be brought in.

Had we not thought about these things in advance and known our needs and preferences we could have easily fallen in love with the place and overlooked them. Sabin is asking around for us about lands in the lower area of Suncuius (closer to the road, train station and on flat-lands).

Chronological Images from Nauhaus

It seems that Clark & Tim, the guys who wrote Building Green, moved in the Passivhaus direction. They have a project called Nauhaus where they are attempting to bring together their past experiences with the Passivhaus standards.

I believe, as I have written before,  that the Passivhaus standard is not a practical nor sustainable form of construction – though there are some excellent and applicable ideas and inspiration to be drawn from it. The Nauhaus was built with hemp, which from the theoretical (at this point) knowledge I have gathered simplifies, ecologizes and reduces costs of many construction aspects. Yet because of Passivhaus standards Nauhaus also reintroduces many complications which I find … uninspiring. Just this morning I was reading their chapter on building a green roof, then I came across the massive, industrial insulated crane-lifted panels they used in the Nauhaus project. Though I can appreciate their efforts to move forward and improve … it feels to me like they took a wrong turn somewhere … I think Passivhaus had something to do with it.

I was surprised to see in some of the images the Tradical procucts and then to learn that the interview I posted with Ian Pritchett was actually from the Nauhaus project.

Amongst the information on their website is an educational set of posts with images showing the contruction chronology – from foundations to a completed building. At this point in my education, these documented processes are extremely useful and rewarding. The chronology starts at the end of this page – from where you can scroll up and forward in time to see the project progress.

My main take from these images is on some thoughtful tricks on how to efficiently prepare and install formwork for the hempcrete as you can see here and here:

And also this super-simple ingenious carpentry lesson from Tim – as he creates a simple tool for measuring and placement of formwork from here.

Self Grown Hemp for Construction

Wouldn’t it be ideal if you could grown your own hemp and then use it to build your home? 1 or 2 hectares of hemp stalk is potentially all you need to harvest enough building materials to build a house. Imagine that – growing your own house!  … but it isn’t a simple thing to do.

The hemp plant has four elements: seeds, leaves, fibers and a wooden core. The part you need for construction is the wooden core – also called the hurd or shiv. Separating it from the other elements of the plant requires effort. You need to grow the hemp, deffoliate it (remove the leaves) before harvesting, harvest or remove the seeds, harvest the stalk, let it ret (start decomposing so that the fibers can be separated from the hurd) and then decorticate it.

This finally step of decortication seems like the greatest obstacle – this is the process of separating the fiber and the wooden core. It can be done either through massive manual labor (of which I don’t yet have all the details – but it involves collecting the harvested stalks into small bales and then beating them to separate the fibers and wooden core) or in an industrial process. The indutrial process is usually designed to extract the fibers, the actual wooden shiv is simply a left over of that process.

It would be so much easier to grow your own construction hemp if decortication could be avoided – and this may be possible but my understanding is that it depends on the climate you live in. This research paper on Hemp-Concretes claims that it is possible to create hempcrete using both shives and fibers – BUT it is important to note that the research focuses on the structural aspects of the resulting hempcrete. It does not address the effect of fibers on insulation and breathability of the hempcrete.

Introduction of fiber to the hempcrete mix can cause humidity problems. When fibers are clumped together they tend to draw moisture and that is not something you want to happen in your wall. According to Steve Allin it is possible to add 5%-15% of fiber to the mix but not much more. This may be less of an issue in a hot and dry climate – but otherwise the risk seems unwarranted.

Maybe when the hemp industry matures it will be possible to cultivate stalks with very little fiber and a massive wooden core – which could then be used in whole? For now though it seems that self-grown hemp is not a feasibly reliable option for construction unless you have the means to decorticate it.