Water – Digging

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.

Pump Box

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.

Trenches

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).

 Junction Box

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.

 

 

Is It Possible to Build an Earthship in Moist, Freezing, Expansive Clay Soil?

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.

Possible Solutions

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.

Backfilling

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.

Gravel

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.

Drainage

On the gravel I would place a french-drain system made up of:

  1. A perimeter drain pipe.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

Living Roof

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

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.

Insulation

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.

Summary

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.

Brats, However …

Sam (an American living in Cluj) wrote an excellent post about Romanian people. Sam is a city dweller while we live in the village – so sometimes I feel that his take on all things Romania is a bit tainted by his perspective. This time I think Sam nailed it:

There are a few tough old bastards living in this country but by and large this is a nation of spoiled brats, who were given the gift of living in one of the most beautiful and abundant countries on the planet and yet they never appreciate it. Foreigners come here and immediately love it. Romanians are inevitably shocked by it when I tell them and ask me why. Open your eyes, dumb ass! It’s obvious why.

But when the little princes and princesses get their country handed to them, when they get all that territory and all that democratic freedom as a gift, when they get free tuition and free health care, when they get their cities beautified by free money, when they get their roads built by others, when they get their trendy clothes made by others, when they dance to music made by others, when they sip on drinks made by others, when they consider going to McDonald’s a cool thing to do on a date, when entire forests are logged to be sold abroad but all the toothpicks in the store are made in China, you get a nation of spoiled little brats.

When we moved out the village I was under the impression that I was going to live amongst “tough old bastards” … and though there are a few, for the most part, it seems that I am surrounded by spoiled lazy people. It can be hard to miss in the village because by western standards a lot of the people here live poor-lives and work all day in the field, so it can be hard to think of them as spoiled. However there is always excellent fresh food (plenty of land and water) on the table and their houses are warm in winter (fire-wood is pretty abundant here and mostly harvested greedily, illegally and unsustainably).

People are content doing boring and unchallenging work (sitting in the field watching cows graze and grass grow) and suckling on the tit of yearly EU funds (we recently learned that growing tobacco is highly rewarded by the EU!). They show no signs of motivation to improve their lives – unless it is handed to them on a silver platter.  There is a lot of superficial behavior of keeping appearances and very little appreciation of the natural abundance  inherent in the setting of their lives (I learned that I am better off going to the market in my work-clothes – while most of the people, ahum, villagers dress up in their “nice” clothes). As the winter sets in and most of the intensive work (harvesting and preparation for winter) is done, there is much more free time – a void largely filled with dumb staring at a TV, drinking and ensuing drunkenness (more amongst men though women too).

We don’t have TV or cable at home but on the 1st day of the new year we were with our neighbors and they do have a TV and while we were there, there was a rerun of one of the celebration programs that was broadcast live during the night. It was setup as some kind of game show with two teams of celebrities (I am assuming they are celebrities since neither Andreea nor I have any idea who they are or who are Romanian celebrities at large these days) with other pop-stars coming and going. It was a pathetic display of a culture of idiots – butch men and their bitch women … a very very sad expression of popular Romanian culture. It is a mish-mash of the most superficial and destructive expressions of fashion the western world has to offer. Very sad.

HOWEVER I am happy to say that this is NOT a complete image of Romania. Like all things good, the good stuff is shy, doing its thing quietly and peacefully and mostly content being away from the spotlights of the superficial mainstream public eye. Unlike Sam I only know a handful of Romanians each of which are human gems. This took me by surprise – not because I knew about or had an opinion about Romania and Romanians but because of my past experiences in life. I didn’t come to Romania thinking it’s a great country – it isn’t – but I think that the very idea of a country sucks – so Romania just happens to be another sucky country (I paved my own road, I don’t have any medical insurance and my children will not go anywhere near formal education systems).

I came here thinking I could simply fade into the background and live my life in peace – which IS possible and one of the great things about Romania. But instead I kept meeting beautiful people. People who have often traveled and lived outside of Romania, people who have questioned the core values of life they inherited, people who are spiritually endowed, people who have grown to appreciate, love and protect the natural wonders of this country. Some of these people are actively involved (via a large national volunteer-based youth operation) in inspiring new young generations of passionate, hard-working, open-minded and open-hearted Romanians who are and will continue to slowly but surely change the face of this place. But you won’t see it on ProTV … and that’s a good thing 🙂

How to Avoid Spacer Blocks in Earthship Tire Walls

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.

 

 

Rocket Stove Water Heater

I’ve been looking at lots of applications for Rocket Stoves. It is a beautiful and simple DIY technology I want to use as much as possible in our new house. This includes heating water. We currently have a simple (purchased) wood-based boiler that does an OK job and I suspect even has an inherent “rocket” effect … and mostly prooves that it can be done. So I’ve been looking around for hot water solutions based on Rocket Stoves.

Before I go into the details of the one I found I would like to point out one piece of advice about Rocket Stoves that I came across, stuck with me and is exemplified by it. Rockets work best when they are designed with one primary purpose in mind. This means that a rocket designated for hot water will probably be more feasible and work better then a rocket that is used to heat a space AND heat water. I can testify that it can be very tempting to build a supreme-do-it-all rocket … but it just doesn’ work.

With that in mind I came across the following Rocket-based hot water system. The project is documented with a set of images and a blog post.

Rocket Stove Hot Water Schematic

It is a rocket-stove dedicated to heating water and does nothing else. Because it is a single task rocket it is actually simpler then the basic rocket-stove since there is no heat exchange barrel and the water tank itself is the thermal mass. The key element is a heat-exchanger that sits on top of the heat-riser. It is a metal box within a box – where the heat from the rocket is transferred into the water. Depending on the position of the water tank flow is either achieved either passively via thermo-siphoning or with a pump.

The heart of this solution is the heat exchanger and at the heart of the heat-exchanger are small plates of metal welded into it, which increase the contact surface between the hot exhaust and the metal itself. With these plates a 1 meter tall heat exchanger can be designed to have 6+ meters of contact surface (as if the exchanger itself was 6 meters tall!). The trick is to size the internals in such a way that the surface area of air-flow will not become smaller then that of the heat-riser so that the exhaust can flow smoothly out. If designed optimally then, as with most good Rocket Stoves, there should be very little exhaust heat left in the chimney pipe.

We don’t have (yet) the skills to make this kind of heat exchanger but I am confident we can find a metal-worker who can create one for us. My thoughts are to connect a 6 inch rocket to a 300 liter tank of water and that should provide a simple and efficient and backup for days where the sun does not provide enough heat for the solar hot water panels to kick in.

Bhudeva Tour 2011

So we’ve planning for some time to summarize what we’ve done since we’ve moved out to the village 7 months ago so that we could share it all with friends and family – we’ve too busy working so we skimped on sharing. We kept putting it off till more stuff gets done but we’ve really slowed down and are proud to be doing less and resting more and these are the last hours of 2011 – so now seemed like a good time to do so. The list is really long and would probably tiresome for most people. Some of the things we’ve already written about extensively (to which we’ve added links in the text) and some we will write about in the coming weeks and months as we’ll spending much more times indoors. This post will be a visual tour of the house and around it so it will probably touch on most of the big things. A lot of the stuff will be revisited with more detail – so if there’s anything that interests you please do stick around 🙂

The images start yesterday morning when we awoke to the first real snow – the kind that stuck out an entire day and then some. The first thing we saw when we opened the door were of course (left to right) Indy, Loui and Harry excited to express their love and for breakfast:

Then, we looked up and a our winter-wonderland came into view.

And this is what it looked like outside

Half of the barn was converted into a residential palace for the poultry (ducks and chickens). The dogs are always passionate about helping with the flock because they are dying to get at their food (they love it even though they can’t digest it  … their poop is simply filled with yellow corn … which the flock take apart and eat … so in the end it doesn’t really matter).

The flock is kept indoors either because of weather (rain or fog … pour visibility gives hunters an advantage … and we’ve already lost a few chickens) or in this case because a new chicken has been introduced to the flock and we want her to get used to the place.

The other half of the barn is an improvised workshop.

In the barn attic we have wood stored for future projects. We decided to purchase a lot (6 cubic meters) so that it would season (dry) over time and be better suited for furniture use (yes, almost all of our existing furniture was built with green wood, we couldn’t get our hands on dry wood – this here in the Transylvania region of Romania knows for its abundant woods). Please excuse image quality – it’s pretty dark up there … and it was a hell of a job hauling all that wood up there (much easier to send back down).

The garage is still an ad-hoc storage space with everything from cardboard boxes, dried corn cobs (which we use for lighting the stoves), dog food, chicken feed, sacks of whole wheat (hung from the ceiling so the mice can’t get at them), one new barrel we managed to get our hands on for future rocket stoves, insulation materials and on and on.

We’ve summer kitchen (small one-room structure) into a winter pantry. We insulated the windows and placed in it a small radiator on the lowest setting to keep it from freezing. It’s got sacks of root vegetables (carrots, potatoes, parsley, celery, beetroot, onions, one last pumpkin) along with walnuts, white beans, a 120 liter plastic barrel with cabbages preserved in brine on top of which are a few pots (mice can’t climb the smooth metal surfaces) containing smoked meats.

Then there are the shelves containing … well loads of stuff … we made loads of preserved cooked vegetable-dishes (called Zakuska), pickles of various kinds … we’ll write about everything we made including recipes.

Then there is the freezer which contains lots of frozen vegetables, meat and backup bread (in case we are too lazy to bake any or don’t get to the village to buy some).

And finally a refrigerator lying on its side used as a mouse-proof storage box for everything that … well needs to be mouse-proofed (vegetables, dried fruits, cereals, wheat, corn-flour … and assorted things).

To complete the tour outside the house there is the humanure hacienda (which still isn’t dog-proofed) and the hay piles we are sinking because the dogs like to climb up and oversee their territories from up high.

The wood pile which includes scrap wood from demolition work, some uncut logs and some cut logs awaiting chopping.

Loui (the little puppy is growing and taking up a dominant position in the pack) popped into the frame as he heard something in the hill behind the house … he ran off and shortly after Indy and Harry joined him … they are odd bunch but they are definitely a pack … it’s sometimes amazing to see their instincts throw them into organized pack behavior.

We keep chopped wood in varying degrees of dryness stored in piles along the perimeter porch of the house.

Which concludes our outside tour and brings us to the house. You walk into a small hall (approximately 3×2 meters) which we’ve converted into a kitchen. In front of you is the door to our bathroom (used to be a pantry)

to the right our living room

and to the left our bedroom.

In our living room the large couch (left of the image) is a new one we built and Andreea temporarily furnished with a temporary mattress, some pillows and fabrics we purchased to make the final furnishings (we also got a sewing machine … so Andreea has her hands full on these winter days). The other “couch” is an old traditional Romanian bench again with Andreea’s superbly improvised furnishings. It too will be replaced by another home made couch. We still don’t have a table – so for now we have a tree stump.

We built two large shelves with large counter-tops to hold all of our books. The LCD screen is for the time being in the bedroom because we spend more time there (it’s very difficult = much work and much wood to heat both rooms … so during these cold days we spend most of our time in the bedroom!!) but it’s place is on the left-hand shelf unit … and it’s Christmas 🙂

Though the walls were painted fresh white, this room suffered from a very smoky stove … so the walls are … well an elegant smokey grayish color 🙂 This is culprit stove which Andreea sealed very well with heat-resistant silicon:

The bathroom is a very small space (1×2.5 meters) – we are very proud of the optimal use we’ve made of it. Front and center is a washing machine:

On the right is our hot-water boiler (wood-based with electric as backup) and our composting toilet.

And on the left is our shower stall – also home made with wood protected by yacht lacquer and a home-made drain built on a wood frame with a pond liner surface (much more on this project in a future post).

Our bed was one of the earlier woodworking projects as sleeping well (and healthy – on the floor there are humidity problems) was high on our list of our priorities. We want to add two dressers and a headboard – though that will wait to next spring.

The cabinet was a huge relief when it was finally completed (doors will be added eventually) since we finally had an accessible, orderly and safe place to store our things. Together with the living room shelves this is where almost all our (non-kitchen) stuff is stored. The stove (on the left) was our first experiment at rocket stoves and it has worked out great. It consumes much less wood (due to very efficient – high temperature burning) then regular stoves and because it is built from firebricks it has lots of thermal mass (unlike metal) – which means it acts as a battery and stores heat which is radiated into the room over an extended period of time. We’ve had subzero temperatures for many weeks and we light it twice a day for a few hours (it needs to be fed regularly) and we have a very warm room all day and all night long.

… and there is the LCD screen sitting on another traditional (and very elaborate) Romanian bench which will also be replaced in the future (it stinks of old and dying … and we are not so passionate about antiques – so it will probably not have a place in the house).

To put all of this in perspective it helps to revisit what all this looked like when we got to work in June – this is what the wall (behind the screen) looked like then:

I particularly like the views across the house – from the living room to the  bedroom

… and from the bedroom to the living room.

They give me a sense of wholeness that … feels good 🙂

Some other things you can’t see in the images:

  • We have running water … we started writing an ongoing series of posts about that process.
  • We use almost exclusively home-made ecological soaps (the rest are ecological, not yet home made).
  • We consume almost exclusively local produce … most from neighboring farmers (we don’t even visit the local market much) … even an excellent home made wine.
  • We’ve planned a beautiful hemp house that we couldn’t afford to build – but are now looking at an Earthship as a more feasible approach to construction for us. You can see what an Earthship construction process is like in this beautiful animation.
  • We’ve collected many seeds for our first food growing efforts in the coming spring – we are planning to try methods that are very different from local traditional practices. Everyone here has tilled the land and we haven’t … so we are pretty committed to our experimentation 🙂
  • We’ve arranged 200 meters of access road to our property with 40 cubic meters of stones.
  • We’ve collected huge piles of hay from a field and transported them home with a horse and carriage.
  • We’ve witnessed the slaughtering of pigs and have had to slaughter one of our chickens that showed signs of illness.
  • Andreea’s website Feminitate is nearing three years of online presence and will soon cross 1 million page views.
  • Andreea has attended and supported two home-births (both without a midwife present) … one of which I attended as a photographer.
  • Andreea has produced in collaboration with a close friend and fellow-doula a weekend Doula course which has been taught once in Cluj with excellent feedback … and a second (and maybe 3rd) course is booked in Bucharest this coming February with women in other cities taking an interest.
  • I can follow a conversation in Romanian but I don’t get enough practice to speak fluently … though I manage a bit here and there.

The last 6 months have been some of what of a race as something had to get done before winter set. We made it, with the grace of mother nature, in time. There is still endless work to do … but we can now find a pace that is pleasant and healthy. We have a home to live in and hopefully will have a much better home in a few years. We have grown stronger in mind, body, emotionally and spiritually.

In less then 3 hours this year will come to an end. It isn’t a significant event to us. Many times we don’t know what day it is and we have arrived in a life where for the most part it doesn’t matter. Whenever we get tired and need to rest we make it a weekend – regardless of the day of the week. We haven’t been to the city in weeks and look forward to not going there for many more weeks. We go there to take what we need and rush back to our little corner of the world and work to make it better and better.

Andreea had plans for us to go to the village to see the local firework display but those plans have changed. We have both showered. We had a wonderfully simple meal of rice and lentils, home made pickles and beetroot. We are in bed in a warm room in a clean house. We will soon hold a cup of dark red home made wine and, like many other days, watch something – a movie or a few episodes of Weeds … and then go to sleep … until tomorrow morning … when the calendars will show a new year but we will continue living our peaceful, abundant and constantly improving life 🙂

We feel blessed (and tired – which are not mutually exclusive) and wish you all find your own passionate paths of inspiration 🙂