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:

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.

Learning from Passivhaus Building

The people of Green Building Store (UK) have generously produced and published a freely available online movie about some of the challenges they faced in a Passivhaus construction project in the UK. Though I am wary of taking on the Passivhaus standard as is (reservations I’ve written about in posts about Passivehaus and Rural Studio) I am also trying to be careful not to pour the baby out with the water. There is a lot of common sense in Passivhaus and much of it is excellently communicated in this movie. You can view all the parts here or possibly start with this embedded video and then continue to each consequent part:

So, with much curiosity and interest I watched the movie (reviewing some of the chapters numerous times) and made some notes of things that I hope to incorporate into our building process. This list does not include the core-issues of Passivhaus construction (insulation, minimal thermal bridging, air-tightness, ventilation and passive solar gain) which deserve careful context and consideration – especially when it comes to hemp-lime construction which introduces unique qualities to both the construction process and the resulting structure.

Design & Details

It is invaluable to spend time designing and paying attention to details before the actual construction process. Construction is an established process and skill which carries with it a taken-for-granted attitude. Professionals have a way of doing things and will prefer to do things the way they’re used to doing them – which may lead to cutting corners in design and to on-site improvisation.

This can be destructive in a project where new standards of building, new materials and new techniques are involved. Taking the time to plan things in advance, to drawing diagrams & making calculations creates a thoughtful path towards a desirable result. Of course it is inevitable that unforeseen challenges will arise during construction and that some changes and improvisation will be required – in which case a plan gives some indication of how far you’ve deviated and what you need to do to get back on track.

Special attention should be given to details. I’ve been working on a wall-to-floor detail for weeks – compiling all the information and knowledge I have come across, reconsidering it in the context of hemp-construction, our house design, minimizing costs, minimizing the use of concrete and relying on locally available materials. There is no ready-made template for what we are doing, there are many options to choose from, there are many considerationt to incorporate. We could take the easy path and hire foundation contractors and let them do their thing – but that would lead away from the kind of warm, pleasant, ecological and efficient house we hope to live in and bring us to the standard cold and humid house that contractors have been building in Romania for may years.

Team Work

A typical construction process tends isolate and compartmentalize knowledge and skills. We would consult with an architect to design our house. Then we would pass the plans to an structural engineer who would need to figure out how to support our house. Then we would pass the architectural and structural engineering plans to a heating engineer who will try to provide an adequate heating solution within the existing constraints.

This kind of approach can lead to an inefficient process and an inefficient house. A good engineer can provide a structural solution to meet almost any need – but at what price? How much extra work, materials, construction effort and waste may be required to implement the engineered solution? Similarly a heating engineer can theoretically heat any space – the question is how expensive and complicated will the system be and how much energy will it consume? This is a brute force approach.

We are trying to put together a team that will work together during all phases of the project. We’d like everyone to be there to provide input at every stage of the project. We’d like the architect to provide input on choosing good land and on siting of the house on it. We’d like the structural engineer to make suggestions on architectural decisions that may lead to simpler and more efficient construction using less materials. We’d like a heating-engineer to review the size of our spaces and to make suggestion that may improve the energy-efficiency of the house.

It takes integrated and out-of-the-box thinking to create the kind of integration that leads to a house that facilitates an “eco” existence.

Opening Details

I have been wondering about how to go about properly insulating openinsg like windows and doors. The movie offered some very useful tips about these issues and these are the ones I noted:

  • Windows should be placed at the center (depth) of the wall.
  • Windows should open inwards – placing the thicker part of the frame on the outside for better insulation.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Contega FC) should be applied between the rough structural opening and the internal wall and then covered by the the internal render.
  • Special sealing tape (such as Pro Clima Tescon) should be applied between the window frame and the rough structural openings.
  • A concrete slab should not extend to the door opening to prevent heat loss through it.
  • The door opening slab requires an insulated and weather resistant material (such as fiberglass).

A big thank you to the people at Green Building Company. This movie has been very educative and helpful.

Where to Place a House?

So you purchased some land and you are wondering where and in which direction to place your home?

We currently know of three considerations which pretty much answer this question:

  • We sleep with our heads in the east and our feet in the west.
  • We’d like to benefit from passive-solar heat – which means most of our windows (and thermal mass considerations) will be facing south
  • We’d like to have a great view

The order they are in is not random – it reflects our priorities. It’s hard to enjoy a nice view from a cold house. It’s also hard to enjoy a nice view in a warm house unless we sleep well. So sleep, warmth and view is how it goes.

Once that is set it can be useful to get more specific about the actual position of the sun over the months and seasons of a year. You can then place the sun relative to other natural elements in the landscape (hills, trees,etc.) and then decide where is best to place windows to make the best of what sunlight is available.

One way to do this is to actually be on-site for a year and make measurements. When this is not possible there are solar calculators to do the trick for you.

To do this you will need a solar map calculator – a few of which are available online:

  • I think the easiest and friendliest calculator is at PVEducation – where you can easily shift the time of year to see the solar path change.
  • A simple and useful charting tool I found (so far) is SunPosition Calculator which has basic free functionality and extended paid options.
  • A more complex and elaborate tools can be found at SunEarthTools.

To use these tools you will need to find the latitude and longitude of your site location. You can do that here or just search the Internet as there are many freely available online options.

Heating Resources

We want to have a really pleasantly warm house when it gets cold outside. Building with hemp insures that we enjoy a wonderfully insulated home. Now we need to deal with heat – which includes both environmental heating and water heating.

In typically built houses which tend to be cold when it gets cold outside it’s more a brute force challenge. With an ecological house it is actually more complicated because it’s easy to design a system that overheats the house. We still don’t have a clear picture or understanding of our heating needs – though we are working at it.

In the meantime I wanted to share with you some great resources that we are using to educate ourselves:

  1. Stoves Online (UK) – it s great resource for learning about the different elements that make up a heating system with a very rich offering of solutions if you happen to live in the UK.
  2. Boiler Stoves (UK) – seems like a sister website which specifically explains how boiler stoves work and can be incorporated into a smart and efficient heating system.
  3. Radiant Design Institute – though not an appealing website has a lot of really well-grounded and useful information I believe can be very useful especially to do-it-yourselfers.

You may also want to visit these two pages:

  1. An animated demonstration of a boiler-stove at work
  2. An article that debates whether radiant-floor-heating is at all appropriate in well insulated eco-buildings

Concrete Basics: A Guide to Concrete Practice

I’ve been struggling to understand on if/why a concrete slab is necessary. I completely understand the need for footings and foundations – but slabs are not that clear. It’s somethinge eveyone seems to take for granted … but I am undecided on it.

Anyways …  I did come across this excellent free eBook generously published by Cement Concrete & Aggregates Australia – which seem to have many more freely available resources on their website. IF we do end up building with concrete foundations (yep – that’s an if!) we will probably hire a contractor for it – it’s one of those jobs where DIY doesn’t seem to have much point/value. Even so – this eBook is a must read because at least I know what to expect, to relate to engineering/design choices and to make sure things are getting done right on site.

I will probably be spending some time with their resources – I’ll let you know if I find anything interesting 🙂

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.