Cob Construction

Summer Kitchen Renovation Part1: Destruction

For the past few months Iulia has been clearing out the summer kitchen in preparation for renovation. We haven’t started because I’ve been reluctant to get into this project. During this period of my reluctance we did get more clear about the general plans for the renovation. We also got a set of 4 used windows that helped us make some design choices.

Then on the weekend of the July 20th Alin came to visit with us again. I was still reluctant to start, so on the first day we cut some firewood together. His presence and ability to help with physical work did bring us to a point of “critical energy”. I walked around the cellar and found clarity about where to start. The next day we started.

The small space in the summer kitchen had a baking stove built into the rear wall. We started by taking it apart. This image was taken after the exterior (sticking out the back of the structure) part of the dome was disassembled. This the inner half of the oven dome with the metal door opened and looking into the space.

This is after Alin went inside and collapsed the chimney and other inner parts:

The base of the oven was filled with dirt, stones, broken bricks … and plenty of broken glass:

We discovered three kinds of bricks: regular fired clay bricks, unfired (we are guessing home-made) cob-bricks and large flat slabs of fire-bricks (shamota) that created the baking base. We tried to organize materials for later to re-use. We had to set aside the materials that were mixed with glass (we tried sieving but small glass parts got through). We kept the whole & semi-whole clay bricks close to the opening with the intention of reusing them to rebuild it:

Behind the pile of cob-bricks in the above picture there is a similar pile of whole clay-fired-bricks and not far away accumulated a pile of broken bricks:

That was completed on our first day of work and on the next day we moved on to breaking down some cob-wall and converting the small window into a doorway between the small space and the main space of the summer kitchen.

Alin climbed up on the roof and started taking the wall apart from the top

… and (to my surprise) the rest came down fairly quickly (even though we did not have the right tools for the task!):

By the end of this day we had an opening all the way to the ground:

During the demolition we were getting nice chunks of cob. On the first day I put a few of them in a bucket of water to see if the cob could be re-activated … and it worked beautifully. So we created a cob-bath and loaded it up with what we considered to be re-usable cob materials. I was a bit naive about the size of the bath … it filled up very quickly. We soaked it all in water and let it sit and it has become beautiful, ready to use cob:

There is already a second larger pile that we are gradually dampening to bring it closer to work-readiness:

The next day was planned to be a work day with the excavator … but life happened … so we are on hold for a while … we hope to start moving again next week.

Water Infrastructure

Rainwater Harvesting Swale

This project was seeded 3 or 4 years ago. I think it was early spring, following a wet but warm winter. This means that snow melted quickly and saturated the soils. So that when spring rains came there was a lot of runoff. This effect was amplified greatly by the almost bare surfaces of the rest of the valley due to over-grazing (leaving the land bare and increasing runoff).

For the first time at Bhudeva I witnessed for almost 48 hours a strong current of water flowing past our land, onto the road (eroding a large ditch in it!) that leads down to flatlands at the entrace to the valley (where there was once, I’ve been told, a lake). It was heart-aching to watch all that precious water flow away. But I watched closely: I watched where the water was coming from and where it was accumulating and I hatched a plan. At the time I only placed on the ground some scrap wood to mark a certain place … the rest took a few years to manifest.

Sidenote: I often do this: when facing a project that I don’t know how to tackle, I look for something small to do, a gesture of intention and an invitation for a project to come into being.

Actual work started last summer when the Belgian Scouts visited us and took on the task of moving the large pile of scrap wood behind the barn and to form it into a kind of hugelkultur raised bed. I guided the shape from the point of origin (I had marked in my small gesture) and all the way to where it would end and outlet. It was a bit counter-intuitive because it was not on contour.

A few months later, when we hired the excavator for finishing the Earthbag Cellar, we also did the swale excavation and burial of the raised bed. At the beginning of the swale is a small catchment basin (situated to catch most of the water that comes from the land above us where the sheep graze):

Then the rest of the swale started as an overflow from that catchment hole:

The swale goes all the way around our well and drains into a field. The bottom of the swale is flat-ish and it has, near the end, a small damn (a hump of soil basically) that keeps a certain level of water in the swale. If the water accumulates in the swale and rises above the level of the “damn” it overflows into the end of the swale and drains into the field.

… and that was that … I forgot about it … until early spring when I started my morning visits to the Linden tree

I walk past the well and suddenly the ground under my feet feels unusually soft … I look around and see this:

I’d forgotten about the swale … so for a few seconds I was wondering what happened here. Then my eyes start to look up and around and I realize that a delta-like pattern had formed at the end of the swale … which meant that there had recently been a good flow of water came out of it. It worked! I walked around to the collection end of the swale and saw clear evidence that water had pooled there recently:

Now, whenever it rained I started paying closer attention. Sure enough in the following weeks I went out, sometime (an hour or two!?) after rain stopped and I found this:

Textbook performance. The water is captured, slowed down and given space to meander on our land. It has time to soak into the soil and its overflow continues into our field where it continues to soak into the soil and in the future can be directed toward gardening in that area.

Back when this story started, when a continuous current of water flowed down our road, I recall the enchanting sound of water flowing (we do not have running water around us). That is why I felt delighted, when, AFTER the rain had stopped, I stood next to the catchment basin and heard water flowing in:

Construction Natural Finishes

Shiny Clay Wall Finishing

I enjoyed this video very much – it made me want to get back to clay:

  • It gave me confidence that my experiments in the earthbag cellar were in the right direction – and that with additional refinement, wonderful results can be achieved with earth!
  • It confirmed how important the material mix is in achieveing a good finish (though in our experiments I tried to lean as much as possible on the natural clay-soil we had on site – and in retrospect it needed even more sand than I put in).
  • It made me a bit jealous of people who have access to refined materials … though I am glad to explore with the stuff underneath my feet 🙂
  • It made me reconsider how thin the finishing layers (after base layer) can be – which means much less material to mix, carry and apply! Maybe that also makes it more accessible to bring on-site more specialized materials (I am used to working with tractor loader quantities)?
  • It made me even more curious about experiencing first-hand good tools (like Japanese trowels), I only had the basic DIY concrete-oriented stuff typically available here in Romania.
  • It confirmed my impression that the clay in the mix dominates in terms of color. We experimented with some coloring additives (metal oxides, also readily available in Romania). But it was unpredictable because of the dominant color of the clay. It seems that clay color is key to good, full bodied color!?

Some useful links from the maker of the video:

Does anyone know of a source for Japanese trowels in the EU?


[Webinar] Building with Earthbags: our experience with the cellar

Dear friends,

In the last 2 years we built our cellar from earth bags. It was mostly the two of us… helped along the way a bit by volunteers and friends.

We learned a lot, people started to ask questions. This is how Iulia started the Romania: EarthBags Building / Constructii din saci umpluti cu pamant group on Facebook. The group grew, now around 450 people.

Many of you continued to ask questions, talked to Iulia in private about details.

From all your inquiries we want to make one more step now to share our experience with those who are really interested in earth bags building. Now, as winter is upon us and we are more inside, we invite you to sit next to the fireplace and join us in an open conversation – a webinar on earth bag bulding – questions and answers from our experience.

So, put the fire on (we will be next to one of our own rocket stoves that we also built), grab a cup of hot tea and join us!

When? Tuesday, 15th of January, 19:00. We estimate to spend around 1,5 hours together, depending on your interest and group dynamics.

What? We will build our conversation based on how participant’s interests are related to our experience. Ronen already wrote a summary of our journey with the cellar (again, please read all the posts he wrote along the two years here) an we are interested to converse with those who have specific questions. We learnt and lot and still learning. 🙂 We do not pretend to hold the absolute truth, yet we realize – from your questions, from all the conversations and debates Iulia is following on the natural building and off grid groups on Facebook – that you want to know more and we have things to share.

We will not lecture you on earth bags building, you can read a lot on the internet.

Where? Online, we will give the connection details for those who want to join. We will use Zoom.
The webinar will be held in English – Ronen, the facilitator of the webinar, does not speak good Romanian. Translation can be offered by one of the participants (volunteering). Iulia will be moderating the conversation.

How to join? Please fill the form below to let us know that you want to be in the conversation.

Exchange. We suggest a starting donation of 50 lei (15 Euros for people outside Romania, by paypal) / participant, for this meeting, paid upfront. In the spirit of gift economy, we also encourage our to adjust (to increase or decrease) your contribution, based on the experienced value, at the end of the webinar. The details for offering donations will be provided for those who want to join.

Looking forward to meet and talk to you all! :

Iulia & Ronen

PS: after the form below you see a selection of pictures along the way of bulding our earthbag cellar 🙂

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Shelves and … Food!

The shelves felt like  a small scale “industrial” project … mass production and assembly of parts.

I had already charred a few boards in preparing for the shelves. Now it was time to cut them up and make them into frames.

Then piled them up for charring the remaining parts at the “charring station” just outside the cellar.

After charring I moved the frames into the cellar and over a few days applied two layers of linseed oil to them … both for additional protection and so that we wouldn’t get dirty from touching the charred wood.

After that I prepared the 104 shelf supports and then install them onto the frames (the layout is designed to let us setup different shelf sizes to accommodate the different sizes of jars we typically use).

Meanwhile the temperature in summer kitchen was rapidly dropping uncomfortably close to zero … so While I was busy with the construction Iulia was already busy moving our food from the summer kitchen into the smaller cellar room.

And then came assembly … one frame and then another …

Until we had a skeleton standing and ready for contents:

And just to get a feel for it … I placed a few of the old shelves (I designed the new shelf-frame to use the same size shelves as the old one)  in place and stacked on some tomatoe sauce bottles … and it felt good 🙂

Then lots more packing stuff from the summer kitchen, moving it to the cellar, cleaning the old shelves and moving them also to the cellar, cutting new boards into more shelves (the new frame takes many more shelves), making the rear board for each shelf with a small backing strip to act as a rear stop … LOTS more wood processing.

We got a large roll of plastic-ish table cloth and started covering all the shelves.

… and the shelves started to come together and fill up

… and we brought some root vegetables and cabbages for storage … and they joined some apples and last local pepppers in the small room.

… and then more shelves and more jars and more shelves …

… and the cellar has become a place … the place we imagined it would be.

We started the shelves when the ground was frozen solid (very convenient). Then it got warmer and we had to carry lots of stuff through the mud (very inconvenient). The temperatures are now comfortably parked around zero. We have snow up to our knees … a sight we haven’t seen for 4 or 5 years:

There is still the grainery and another storage cabinet to make … but I don’t know when I will get around to them. The critical things are done and we are settled in for winter. They may wait until spring.

It was 7 years ago that the old shelves were built and loaded (just before winter) with our first winter supplies:

I was and continued to be moved by the site of the old shelves, now standing naked and almost empty.

I feel like I have witnessed a major cycle … and the empty field of the summer kitchen is now available to become something new.

The days are short and cold … and another year is ending … and also … in a way … this feels like an end of this journey. If you’ve been following this Earthbag Cellar chapter of our journey, thank you for your interest. If you’ve visited with us during these two years to lend a hand, thank you also for your material support.

We hope to be back in spring with new projects. Wishing you a warm and peaceful winter 🙂

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Cellar Doors

If like me you enjoyed Donnie Darko then you know that Cellar Door is arguably the most beautiful expression in the English language. This is a story of not one, but two cellar doors!

It started with a vision of a nice arched door that fills the arched doorway. I built the frame, stuggled to shape a rough template for the arch:

I Made an actual arched header (required laminating two pieces of wood) … I don’t have a picture because the result was depressing. The door couldn’t open … it is basic (duh!) geometry when you see it up close and personal. The arch of the door and the arch of the doorway collide.

I remember having to decide where, in the depth of the door opening, to install the framing for the door … I decided to go with the middle. That was a mistake. The framing should be on the side towards which the door opens.

So I had to scratch that option and went for a fixed arch and a rectangular (and slightly low) door (I’ve since banged my head a few times, hopefully I’ll learn).

Then preparing all the boards that would enclose the door … here they are laid out right before charring.

I assembled one side of the door … then filled it with an insulating layer of leftover styrofoam:

… and then closed it up (the frame was charred, brushed and oiled with linseed oil, the filler panels were charred and brushed strongly in preparation for a colored finishing).

… and we hung it … and voila … cellar door #1:

We’d already done a lot to protect from rodents, Iulia asked for more … and so the arched header was covered with a hidden metal plate

on top of which were installed the arch panels:

Because this is the outside door, I took advantage of the spaces in the arch to stuff in more insulation:

… closed it up and then it was time for experiments with color:

The final touches were rodent protection on the bottom of the door and … handles:

… and rinse, repeat (though not exactly the same) … and the cellar door #2 (separating the two rooms) came into being:

All of this was possible because the floor, though not yet completely set, has hardened enough for us to walk on it … which meant, that with doors in place we could also start moving in.

After finalizing measurements of the planned shelves we built a couple of frames to mockup the size … and were happy with the result (4 meters long, 2.26 meters tall, 60cm deep)

The day before yesterday we moved some things from our summer kitchen into the smaller inner-room of the cellar as transition storage:

… and that was in preparation for today when we moved the freezer into its new home. It was somewhat of a balancing act for the two of us relatively small-folk … but with the help of the wheelbarrow we got it done. Here it is out in the sun where Iulia defrosted and cleaned it.

It was a freezing day … so the frozen contents stayed frozen:

… and here it is in place, plugged in and fully loaded.

And the cellar is becoming an actual place!

Next are the shelves … and the last project on my list (thankfully since the days are getting short and freezing cold) for this year is the grain-storage.

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar – Ventilation Chimney

This seemingly small part of the project turned out to be a place where I immersed myself more than I expected.

The initial objective was to protect the ventilation exhaust pipes from sun (they are made of plastic), rain and rodents. But as it came into being I felt it was a surprisingly prominent aesthetic element  that invited me to give it more attention.

I was not able to give this all the attention and quality I wanted because of numerous constraints, especially, in this case, the position of the pipes makes it difficult/precarious to reach.

The first step was to build forms in place (no pictures) and to pour a concrete base.

The next step was to build a brick chimney. I felt comfortable with bricklaying from my experience with rocket stoves. I did experiment with a new (to me) mortar mix (1 lime : 1 concrete : 6 sand).  I quickly gave up on trying to lay the bricks  perfectly  level because of the limited access to the work. I tried to incorporate some anchoring mechanisms into the chimney.

Then it was off to figure out how to design, build and install the head of the chimney. Originally I wanted to create a triangle-shaped roof. But as the chimney came up and took on character in relationship to the cellar, that felt wrong. A more soft and round form appeared in my mind and I set out to draw it … make cutting templates … and finally into the workshop to make it.

First came the base:

… and on top of it … the arch form I envisioned.

After a dry-assembly failed I made a change that would make assembly of the two parts easier … then it was off to char and oil all the wood surfaces:

Next was partially fixing the wire mesh onto the base:

… and initially assembly of the base (to get a sense of progress and make space in the workshop):

Then came the metal-roof preparation. First measuring real sizes and cutting the sheet to size and bending it. I’ve got a slightly tedious but fairly reliable strategy for bending:

In reality it was a sequence of bending and cutting actions that led to a sheet that could be bent and folded onto the curved arch.

… and then mounting it and nailing down the mesh and:

I am not confident that my anchoring strategy has worked ou well … so we will see if this thing holds in high winds or if it will need some reworking next spring!

Tomorrow we hope to get some wood boards that I need for working on the front door … and the earth-floor has set enough that we can carefully walk on it … so it may be possible to also approach the inner door and shelves (without putting them in place yet) … so that when the floor does set we’ll be ready to go!

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar – Structure Done(-ish)

When I thought I’d finished with the internal walls I decided to play around with some of the cracks by filling them with clay-slip. What started out with a small local (small spot) experiment became another layer of finishing on all the walls. In the small room (sorry no pictures!) that experiment was expanded to include colors using metal oxides (readily available in our village shop). Though the colors are visible, I expect they will change drastically as the underlying clay substrate dries and becomes much lighter.

We are running a fan that is circulating air (and pulling humidity out of the small room).

With that done (ish – I expect another round of work with the cracks when the walls set … again because I am curious to see what kind of results we can expect with the clay soil under our feet!) I started alternating between a finishing layer on the earthen floor and experimenting for the first time with a lime-based finished for the external and retaining walls. It was interesting working with the lime but only time will tell about the results. Though the work is done, the walls still need to be uncovered (they are covered with tarps) and watered once or twice a day for around two weeks (the time it supposedly takes the lime finish to set).

This is what it looks like now (under the unfairly glorious light of a sunset). The walls turned out grey (and will probably be painted a tan color with a lime-wash in the coming days).

I decided to use the typical lime available in hardware stores. The quality of this material is questionable. Ideally I would have liked to use  aged lime-putty which I know who to ask to try go get – but that is not as easily available. So in the spirit of experimentation (that permeates this entire project) I went simple and local first (and that is just one of many variables that can effect the quality of the lime-based work). If that fails ( = does not survive the elements) it may need to be redone!

Though the work is “done” … it isn’t really. In the coming days I hope to be able to burnish the floor (make it a smoother finish), water the walls … and get started with working on the outer door.

I am curious to see if the floor sets hard enough soon enough (the walls can take their time) to be able to move our food in for this winter!

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Earthen Finishing

A couple of months ago Iulia posted on a local (our village) Facebook page that we are looking for help with the cellar construction – women only! One woman expressed her interest and finally, in the last stretch of earthwork the circumstances matured for her to join us. Speranta was with us for a few days and was a great help (much more on the implications of that that in a separate post). She helped Iulia mixing the batches of cob and applying the base (rough) layer of finishing.

When we finished the large room and moved into the smaller one, we realized that the earthbag walls were disappearing and decided to put in a “vanity window” that is typically put in to prove to people that the structure really is made of earthbags (or straw bale or whatever you build with) … but mostly it will enable us to reconnect with the vast work hidden under the surface .

The vanity-window also became a kind of “finish line” as Iulia and Speranta converged around it.

… and converge they did 🙂

We also made some repairs to the retaining walls, where we did not apply enough material (say it with me: cob is a structural material):

While they were applying the rough layer I focused on the next layer, adjusting mixes, techniques … experimenting to see what I can achieve with the natural clay subsoil under our feet. This image shows different stages of work and different results:

There is a lot I can say about earthen finishing … but I don’t know if I will ever be able to put it in words. It is a physical learning … and I feel like a beginner. Seeing and feeling and working with the material is immediate and intuitive; it is subjective yet clear. Describing it is hard to do. It can be an immersive and meditative work (and physically demanding). I am realizing that in future projects I want to give it plenty of space. Right now we are in a bit of a race (though still working pleasantly and spaciously) as the temperatures are rapidly falling (we’ve already had nights with almost freezing temperatures).

We’ve already made more progress than these pictures tell:

  • The internal finishing is technically complete … though I am still playing around and experimenting with a finer finish.
  • The electricity work is done … we have lights and power and a fuse-box installed (another first for me).
  • I’ve begun filling the cracks in the earthen floor.
  • Today I did a first experiment with the outside, lime-based finishing. I’ve been preparing for this for some-time, it is the last major known-unknown for me. The experiment felt good … we will see in the coming days and weeks how it settles.

It is unclear yet when we will be able to use the cellar. The biggest question is when the floor will settle hard enough to support a load. Soon we will clear everything out, we will install a fan, I will lay the finishing layer on the floor … and then we wait (while I attempt to create the outer door).

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Cob Bench, More Earth Finishing & Final Burial

We finally got around to converting the three stumps of wood in the retaining wall into a bench.  Long pieces of wood were laid length-wise (and some anchored down with bent nails).

… and then covered with cob:

… on top of which another layer of cuttings was laid out (to extend the width of the bench):

… and on top of that another layer of cob (no picture yet … imagine the same picture as above just thicker).

There isn’t much to show in terms of cobbing … lots of sieving soil, mixing cob, loading it into buckets and applying it to the walls (first layer to fill in the spaces between the levels, second to flatten the wall). This is what it looked like inside when we stopped work to focus on the final burial … more than half way through the rear wall in the large room:

We invited the excavator for one last time (we thought) to finish the burial: this time to cover the umbrella and restore the part of the hill that was excavated behind it during the previous (pre-umbrella) burial. This is what the ready-for-burial umbrella looked like before we started:

We were too busy to take any pictures when the cellar itself was being covered, but this is what it looked like when that was done (the top is now a flat area):

This was done with subsoil from behind the cella (from a depth we’d already excavated from/to). We decided we did not want to use existing top-soil since ours if full of weed-seeds. We will try to build new top-soil on top of and around the cellar (maybe more on that in a separate post).

Then we started filling the back. We used this opportunity to clear out of the field two small hills (that we created years ago). Here Iulia is guiding the driver to the piles:

… and he cleared a path and started moving earth (lots of it):

… and that wasn’t nearly enough (I’ve given up trying to estimate soil quantities … I keep under/over estimating quantities when it comes to soil) … and so we started excavating from a hill not far from the cellar site:

… and then the driver informed us we were done for the day (he too underestimated the work) … he returned a couple of days later and finishes the job:

… and the tractor went back and forth …. until the back of the structure was filled:

… since then we’ve been doing LOTS more earth-finishing … today we completed the large room and moved into the smaller one … and applied a first test of final fine finishing.