Friday - December 2, 2011

So today the sun came out ***celebration*** and fairly early in the day at that… so just after 10am I was out and getting to work on our bedroom cabinet. I had about 5 hours of work before the cold began to set in. I am happy to say that, though there is still much work, the first pieces are already coated with a first layer of boiled linseed oil. The new finishing room is, for now, our living room. The BLO has a much stronger smell indoors then it does outdoors. So, I am grateful that Andreea moved us to living almost full time in the bedroom (both because we still haven’t build the couches in the living room so it’s not that comfortable to sit, and to cut back on firewood). I wasn’t very happy about the change but it immediately revealed its true purpose – wood finishing!

So today is also the first day that we’ve fired up the rocket in the morning … and wow what a difference that makes. It was running for 3 or 4 hours this morning and the room as warm throughout the day. Its burning again … and I am very curious to see what the night and following morning will be like. It seems to be much easier and more effective to keep a room warm then to warm it up from cold temperatures time and again. Our rocket is not very comforting when the room is cold because it doesn’t have a radiating heat barrel so- it takes 2 or 3 hours to effect the space. But it’s thermal mass does seem to be working for us once the room is warm.

I found the flash-card reader in our storage space (see why we need a cabinet?) … so I am off to have a look and process the pictures from yesterdays pig slaughtering … story and images coming soon to a website near you 🙂

Noapte Buna 🙂

 

Shit

I think that on the previous time-line post I made an error. The first wood-working project was not the temporary poultry cage – it was our composting toilet.

It’s nothing glamorous but it was a huge relief to have a more decent and comfortable place to shit then the dirty wooden-shack-over-a-hole-in-the-ground behind the house (a common Romanian outhouse). It was dirt-cheap to build and to the best of our knowledge we are almost the only people in the village (a rather large village that does not have a sewage system, though I am guessing there are a few houses that may have septic tanks installed) who do not need to go outside into the freezing cold when we have to pee or poop.

This can be a long post, but I am going to try and keep it short … mostly because the sun is coming out today and I want to take advantage of it to make progress on our cabinet. The bottom line is this:

  1. We shit in a bucket set in a simple wooden box. There is no smell, no flies and most importantly no sound of fresh water being flushed at the end.
  2. A bucket fills in about 4 days.
  3. We have numerous buckets so they can be emptied once every week or two.
  4. The buckets are dumped into a composting … structure.
  5. I do try to pee outside as much as possible … good for the plants and less weight to carry away (pee is surprisingly much heavier then poop).
  6. We dump all of our organic waste there too.
  7. The structure has two containers. One container is filled for a year and then left to rest for another year during which the second container is filled.
  8. In two years (actually 18 months as we’ve been active for 6 months) we will begin to harvest excellent fertilizer.

The choice to use composting toilets kept us on edge for many months while we were planning our house. Though it made sense and seemed like the simplest and most sustainable solution we were very disturbed by it. Ultimately the universe solved the dilemma for us by placing us in a situation where we had no alternative other then building and using a composting toilet.

It wasn’t as easy to build as it should be because, like almost everything else here in Romania, we had a hard time finding materials we needed to build it. We do not have access to affordable plywood. We could not find properly sized, proportioned and lidded buckets. We could not find a toilet seat that would fit and seal. Anything we do here that is outside the far-from-sustainable main-stream requires much effort, time and patience. We eventually found plastic buckets that fit (though they need to be carried carefully  because the lids cannot be fastened down). We built the toilet from sanded OSB. We just barely found a simple and cheap toilet seat that didn’t have raised notches that would prevent a seal between the seat. and bucket.

We have done (and continue to do) much research and have pretty much come to know most of the available alternate solutions. If money is not an issue then there are alternatives that remove the need to carry buckets of waste to the compost pile. But for us money is an issue and more importantly simplicity and self-build are core values. So honestly, even if money was not an issue, we would mostly likely still be using simple bucket-based composting systems.

If you want to know all you need to know (actually much more then you need to know) then all you need is the “Humanure Handbook“. Other then maybe curiosity you won’t need anything else besides this book (probably only a third of it will do).

I will write a separate post about our Humanure Hacienda – that “structure” where  we dump all of our waste. It too is taken from the Humanure Handbook.

As I make the final edits to this post I am smiling to myself  … it has been a process of maturity and expansion that brought me to the point where I can freely write about “pee and poop”. Somewhere in the history of society (at least those societies I have lived in) we took a wrong turn and moved away from practical honesty for the sake of some superficial social appearances. We all pee and poop and we all do so on the same planet that we all must continue to be able to inhabit for a long time. I know what happens with my shit … do you know what happens with yours?

 

What is different about “Global Model” Earthships?

The modern incarnation of Earthships seems to be going under the banner of something Earthship Biotecture calls the “Global Model”. There is very little documentation of the “Global Model” (I’ll get to that point a bit later on in this post), so here’s what I’ve been able to piece together. I am sure there are many more details, but what follows are strategic issues that matter to me. If you know more about the “Global Model” you’re welcome to add more insights in the comments to this post.

 Evolution

The most important lesson I’ve learned in tracing the Global Model is that Earthships, as designed and built by Michael Reynolds and Earthship Biotecture, are a work-in-progress. They keep changing, removing past mistakes, improving on old ideas, introducing new ideas, etc. This implies that there is no “ultimate” Earthship design – it changes (and must change) with context (cultural, economical, ecological, etc.). It is ultimately up to me to make the choices that best fit within my life context and best serve my needs. Don’t go looking for a manual on how to build an Earthship – there is no such thing. Even the original Earthship books by Michael Reynolds (though packed with valuable information) have obsolete information in them. You are better off understanding the underlying principles, studying as many Earthships as you can find and then taking responsibility for filtering and applying that information to your build. My interest in the Global Model is not as a(nother) template but rather as a reflection of changes and refinements Earthships have undergone. I am curious to see how the underlying principles have been challenged and how those challenges have been met.

 One Big U

I think that the most prominent change has been in the core structure of the Earthship. Originally an Earthship was built using connected U’s built from rammed tires.

Global Modal Earthships seem to have done away with that and instead are built with one large encompassing U built of rammed tires creating one large internal space. Then, that one large space is further divided into smaller spaces using internal walls (usually from concrete-can walls).

I can think of numerous reasons for this:

  1. Architectural Design Freedom – rammed tire walls are not a flexible design element – they are massive and structural – they are an overkills for internal non-structural walls. Removing them from the inside makes it easier to divide the internal space.
  2. Less Work – rammed tires are hard work much more difficult then concrete-can walls. They take longer to build (given the same manpower).
  3. Faster Closed Building Shell – there are two main phases of construction – before there is a closed shell (roof + glazing + skylights + doors) and after there is a closed shell. Less tires means you can get to a closed shell faster – much faster. Since Earthship Biotecture also build Earthship shells in blitz-projects – it makes sense for them to strive for a quick-closed-shell.
  4. More Floor Space – Though it isn’t a drastic difference – replacing thick tire walls with thinner concrete-can walls leaves more open floor space.

The price:

  1. Concrete Buttresses – concrete pillars attached to the rear wall have now been introduced (instead of the massive rammed tire walls) to provide structural support for the long rear wall – this is a whole new skill set (suddenly there are stories of forms breaking and concrete flowing around the building site).
  2. More Concrete – much more concrete is now used in the project – both in the buttresses and in the internal walls.
  3. Thermal Mass – though I don’t think it is a high price I do believe this results in less thermal mass in the house (though I may be wrong here – because concrete may be more dense and therefore have the same thermal mass as a thicker earth wall!).

This change seems to be coupled with additional and interesting structural changes.

Greenhouse Separation

In the original Earthships the greenhouse was bordering on the living spaces.

Though it is mentioned only in passing in the original Earthship books it seems that in the Global Model the Greenhouse corridor is almost always separated from the living spaces by an additional (mostly glass) wall.

This one was a hard nut to figure out. My understanding is that this configuration provides better climate control in the living spaces. What follows may be totally wrong … but this is the best I have to offer so far. The greenhouse, besides it’s inherent function as source of food, is also a heating device – especially in the winter when it gets direct sunshine (when it can it heat up more then it does in the summer). When the Greenhouse and living spaces were one – whatever happened in the greenhouse directly effected the attached living space. Separating them introduced a better level of climate control. My gut tells me that the greenhouse also had at least two unwanted effects. One is increased humidity due to the abundant plants. The other is obnoxious smells due to the grey water presence (I am guessing that smell problems come not so much from the grey water processing but rather from the attempt to store it for reuse – flushing toilets). So by separating the greenhouse from the living spaces all three problems were mitigated:

  1. Heat – the heat in the greenhouse can now be controlled by (a) letting cool air in from the low-placed operables ad (b) by letting warm air out through skylights. Heat in the rooms can be controlled by (a) windows in the separating wall that let warm air in from the greenhouse and (b) skylights which let warm air out and (c) ventilation tubes that let fresh air in from the outside (more on later on).
  2. Humidity – increased humidity in the greenhouse can be vented out through its skylights without automatically effecting the living space.
  3. Smells – can also be mitigated through ventilation before they take over the living space (though personally I would not contain grey water … more on that in a future post).

The Price:

  1. More construction – a new wall requiring footings and framing has been introduced.
  2. More Glazing – assuming you will want to let as much light in to the actual living space be prepared to pay for a lot more glazing (I still haven’t decided if simple one-pane glazing is enough or more thermal-double-pane glass should be used).

 Roof

There are two changes I have noticed in the roof. One seems to be more consistent the other less so.

The first is the direction of roof rafters. In the original books rafters ran in an east-west direction.

In the Global Model it seems that rafters are now being installed in north-south direction.

This change seems to be related to the One Big U approach – which have a limited depth but unlimited length. So now rafters can be laid to enclose a space of almost any length – the longer the space the more rafters are installed.  The price is that- north-south rafters need a front (south) frame onto which they can be laid – that frame comes in the form of the wall that separates the greenhouse from the living space.

The other change that seems to be prevailing is that the roof now has single slope – it seems that new models no longer have the raised greenhouse lip that was originally described and implemented almost as a trademark of Earthships.

I am not sure this is a change in design strategy but with the north-south oriented rafters it makes sense (to me) that the roof is one single slope. Also, I have to admit, I never really understood the importance of the original design – other then create a larger opening – which, to my understanding, can be achieved with roof that slopes down to the north – so that the south end is raised.

 

Experimentation

To summarize and re-iterate the process of evolution of Earthships I feel it is important to highlight that Earthship Biotecture seems to be a group constantly exploring new directions seeking new solutions that further complement their core direction. Some of these experiments may never find widespread adoption, some may only lead to further inquiry. I haven’t seen things such as indoor cisterns and jungles (Earthships Volume III) in many Earthships. I personally feel that their solar toilets are way too complicated and expensive compared to the dirt-cheap (and renewing) composting toilets we are already using.

The point  is that everything about Earthships needs to be filtered and contextualized. There are no “global” solutions, there can be no “global” Earthship model, there shouldn’t be. There should be constant striving for creating better and more sustainable solutions and open sharing of build attempts (both failed and successful ones).

This post is a first in our effort to understand and process the latest and greatest that Earthship Biotecture have to offer. We continue to explore other self builds and their experiences. Ultimately this will lead to an adaptation of an Earthship that will be best suited to us.

If you have any further insights into “Global Model” or other core Earthship workings, please do take the time to leave a comment. We would appreciate it greatly 🙂

 

Friday - November 25, 2011

It was a mostly uneventful day … as it is dreary and cold and we’ve indoors almost all day … until …

Andreea came back from feeding the chickens dinner with a chicken having difficulty breathing … wheezing (kind of like I do when I get asthma). We did a quick search and came up inconclusive … there were no other symptoms indicating severe or flock threatening illness … but Andreea displayed surprising clarity and took him to our neighbors prepared for a butchering. She came back shortly and was told that it may go away – especially since there we no other signs of illness. Meanwhile I continued to search around and found that it may be as simple as something stuck in its throat (the sack thingy where they store food) … so we poured some oil down its throat (Andreea opened its beak and I poured oil from a spoon) … it was fairly cooperative and Andreea massaged it a bit … and now its back in the barn … we’ll see tomorrow morning how he is.

Another first 🙂

All of our new books have arrived and I am again exploring diverse realms of construction looking to formulate a path towards building our house 🙂

Wednesday - November 23, 2011

Yesterday we finally got word that the package my sister sent from the USA arrived in Cluj and was waiting for us to come pick it up following a quick customs check. So we decided, after waking up to another dreary day to head out to the city.

The drive to the city was fairytale beautiful – everything is covered in white – still just frost no snow …. but oh so beautiful and delicate.

We picked up the box and went through another short shopping spree. This time the main theme was collecting the things Andreea would need for furnish couches for us. This included fabrics which we will fill with straw to make home-made mattresses, simple fleece blankets to cover the mattresses and and make pillow covers, 6 large pillows, 4 small pillows, buttons and a few other small sewing thingys. So now we have this huge pile of a couch-kit in the living room 🙂

We got Andreea a pair of decent non-work winter shoes and a pair of padded boots for me (the existing boots are not enough for my feet in the freezing temperatures we’ve been experiencing).

We purchased a small pine tree which will be our Christmas tree for the coming years. We are thrilled to have started a healthy (and reversed) process where a tree grows with us until it is planted outside instead of getting and throwing out a tree every year.

We also stopped on the way back and filled four large containers – two with diesel (which we use for lighting our stoves) and two with refined gasoline which runs the chainsaw.

I looked at the car as it was packed full again – this time with mostly fluffy things and I laughed. Every time we come back from the city the car is packed … and every time with a funny mixture of things … and every time I think I’ve seen it all … and then the next visit to the city we come up with another weird combination 🙂

We got a glimpse of the sun in the city (haven’t seen it in almost a week) and the sky are now crystal clear – we are hoping to be blessed with a sunny work day tomorrow 🙂

And finally, we made a stop at neighbors in the village (we brought them grapes from the city market) and we got an offer to buy a pregnant goat for a really good price … it just keeps getting better and better and funnier and funnier 🙂

From Hemp to Earthships

I believe and have passionately shared my belief that hemp-lime construction is one of the best methods of construction available today (at least in the Romanian climate in which we live). We were planning to build with hemp-lime and our architect designed a magnificent house for us – unfortunately we could not afford to build the house so the project stopped and we are living in the slightly renovated traditional Romanian house on our property.

Hemp Difficulties

Building with Hemp was going to be an uphill effort. It was difficult to source materials (we finally found some hemp in neighboring Hungary) and natural hydraulic lime (NHL) is also a rarity here (we found it imported from Italy and Germany). It also seems we would have had quite a challenge mixing the hemp-lime mortar since the best suited tool (pan mixers) are not to be found here. We also had a relatively short window-of-opportunity to build since hemp-lime needs to set (~8 weeks) before the first frost appears – and it arrives early here. So despite our passion and investment in hemp we can say in retrospect that there were many cues pointing us away from it.

Foundations

When we realized that there wasn’t enough money to build the designed house we started looking at ways to scale down and simplify the house so that we could build it. One of the things we explored were the foundations. Though we had relatively cheap foundations they were still a major expense in the project.

Our house is to be built on a gentle south-facing slope and the plan was to excavate so that the back of the house the excavation was about 1 meter deep. Then we would fill the entire surface with rocks – starting with large rocks (~40cm) and then adding layers of smaller and smaller rocks until we arrive at gravel and sand. On top of that there would be a concrete slab which we preferred to avoid but was required due to the green-roof planned for the house.

With these foundations planned and in mind I first came (about a month or two ago) across two new (to me) themes: rammed-tire construction & underground houses.

Rammed tires is a method of construction where used car-tires (abundantly available is modern garbage) are packed full of dirt and stacked to create a thick monolithic wall that is its own foundations. These need to be built on undisturbed soil and no additional foundations are required. Inside they are finished with earth.

Underground houses (though they may conjure up uninviting images of war shelters) is an approach to building houses that are to some degree (many options here) surrounded by earth. Though there are numerous advantages to this the one that stands out in my mind (as we are living in a small and inefficient house that consumes loads of firewood and the work involved in it) is energy efficiency. Regardless of how you deal with the house fabric (insulation, thermal mass, etc.) when you build a house above ground and its freezing outside then you need to deal with subzero-temperatures surrounding the fabric of the house. When you build a house underground and its freezing outside then you are dealing with a relatively warmer (~10 degrees Celsius) and steady (a couple of days ago I witnessed an almost 20 degree Celsius shift in 4 or 5 hours!) surrounding. In the summer when its hot outside the earth is relatively cool so that works for you too.

So, with that in mind, I’d like to qualify my initial statement in that hemp-lime construction is one of the best methods of construction available today IF YOU ARE BUILDING ABOVE GROUND.

Earthships

You can’t get far reading about rammed tires without coming across Eartships. An Earthship is a concept developed (if I am not mistaken – way back in the 70’s) by Michael Reynolds – an American architect. His vision is to create an autonomous house generating its own electricity (solar/wind) and water (rain run-off collected from the roof) all built with waste materials that mankind has generated in abundance (tires, beer-cans, wine bottles, etc.).

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Ironically my first (and still leading) impression is that it is an impressive vision (amazingly elaborate and thorough) but also one that is anchored in the indulgent and abundant USA mentality (a recurring symptom in most of the “green” construction methods I have come across). Though Earthships are designed to be owner built they are still very expensive and a far cry from becoming something anyone on the planet can afford to live in.

We could not afford to build an Earthship based on the template described by Michal Reynolds and we are very well off compared to the general population of Romanian villages. So bringing Earthships into our context is quite a challenge.

Gradual Self Build

There are numerous benefits to Earthship construction compared to hemp-lime construction and though I will mention some of them there is one that outshines all of the others.

Earthships are designed to be owner built and indeed my searching and reading online seems to indicate that Earthship is one of the most popular self-build techniques for non-professional builders.

But in addition to being suitable for owner-built houses, Earthships can be built gradually. With relatively low costs we can start next year to pound tires that will make up the shell of our house. It may 2 or 3 years (unless we get help) but we can start and as we do that we can continue to develop our income stream and as funds become available invest more and more in the construction. Given that we have a temporary house to live in there is no need to wait, no rush and no pressure at all.

Earthship – Hemp Comparison

Beyond self build there are numerous points of comparison I’d like to make a note of in comparing hemp-lime build to an Earthship-like build. It should be said that what follows are things that matter to us including choices we may make that are not directly true to the core Earthship concept.

Feature Hemp Earthship
Foundations Like all natural fiber based walls hemp needs to be lifted above ground level so that it does not come in contact with water that may drain past the building. In our case the green roof required a foundation that could carry and distribute the load of a roof structure, earth, plants and snow. No foundation is required. The walls themselves are a foundational structure. The tires, when rammed with earth way over 120kg each (they have to be packed in place because they cannot be moved). In addition the tire walls are either completely immersed or bermed with earth which adds additional support (and load on the walls!).
Floors Both building systems can incorporate a variety of floor systems. In both cases, in our climate, there needs to be good thermal insulation (our floors can get to be very cold) and good vapor barriers
Walls Hemp-lime is a non-structural material which means that it is not load bearing. Therefore hemp-lime walls are an infill for wood framing (usually either stick framing or post and beam). There is also need for shuttering (during construction) into which the hemp-lime mortar is cast. Used tires pile up as garbage almost everywhere in the world – so besides the effort of finding it, sorting through it and transporting the tires to your build site there are no additional costs. It’s as simple as laying them on the ground and then the (very) laborious of pounding them with dirt. As we are not in a rush … we don’t mind taking the time to pound tires.
Finishing Hemp-lime walls are porous and therefore breathable walls so they require a breathable finishing (usually lime-based). On the outside, regardless of finishing, the walls need to be protected with generous eaves. On the inside tire walls are finished using natural earth finishes they I am assuming that lime can be used as well. This finishing is actually more critical in tire walls because the wall itself is not porous or breathable – so the finishing layer needs to be (for humidity responsiveness). The finishing is a pretty thick layers because first the gaps between the tires need to be filled to achieve a smooth surface – and only then can actual finishing layers be added. As for the outside there is no finishing issue since the walls are either buried or bermed (there is however an insulation issue – see below)
Doors Our hemp house had quite a few doors designed into it. In that sense it was a typical house. The original Earthships were, except of course for the entry to the house, without internal doors. They have evolved to the point where more elaborate internal design can lead to doors – so I’d say it’s pretty much the same as a regular house (although there is the option to build with much less doors.)
Windows Windows in an above ground house are a pain. They are expensive (if you want good windows). They need to be installed with careful flashing to avoid leaks of water into the house. They need to be constructed and installed with precision so that they are also air-tight. In a do-it-yourself build they can be quite troublesome. Earthships have no side windows – all the glass is in the front wall which is all glass – it is a relatively expensive element that requires basic wood framing, double-pane glass and very good flashing. The more modern Earthships actually have two glass walls – one is the outer wall which delineates the greenhouse and corridor to rooms; the other is the internal wall which encloses the rooms which is also mostly glass because we want as much sunlight to penetrate into the rooms. I have a feeling that the Earthship is somewhat simpler in this sense then a regular house – though I think the costs maybe similar if not higher.
Earthships also incorporate skylights primarily as a ventilation but also as a light source. This is something that can be self-built so the expense can potentially be somewhat reduced compared to ready made skylights.
Insulation Hemp walls need no insulation – they behave wonderfully both in terms of thermal mass and insulation. They do, as mentioned above, need to protected from moisture on the outside – wet walls are not good insulators. Originally Earthships were built without insulation under the working assumption that they should interact with the earth itself. The modern evolution of Earthships in cold climates (where the earth, though warmer then the air, is still colder then a comfortable living temperature and could therefore suck heat out of the house) include insulation – usually rigid foam insulation (not very ecological) that is installed at a distance of about 1 meter from the wall itself (the space between the insulation is filled with earth).
Roof Hemp homes can be built with almost any roof system. We were planning to build a green roof. Insulation is required and again can take on many forms. Standard Earthship roofs are designed with a primary function (besides shelter of course) of rainwater harvesting. Here too insulation is a must and can take on numerous forms though standard Earthships use rigid foam insulation. We are currently leaning toward a green roof. This will deserve a dedicated post so stay tuned 🙂
Space Heating Hemp homes can be very energy efficient if they are built properly which includes: airtightness, ventilation, passive solar, etc. But my intuition tells me that they still require heating which is can be a very challenging and complicated and expensive issue. Still they are above ground houses and need to cope with the dynamics outside environment (though the hemp walls, being constantly dry, tend to this very well compared to other wall systems). Earthship heating requirements are probably much lower even then that of Hemp:

  • Air-tightness is almost a natural consequence of burying your house in the ground … only the front wall deals with air leaks. Though these air leaks are not very critical because (a) the front face is a greenhouse which gets very warm (when the sun is out); (b) needs ventilation; and (c) is separated from the living area by another wall system.
  • The house itself is embedded in a drastically warmer temperature – that of the earth (at coldest freezing), then houses above ground level (at coldest subzero temperatures).
  • The entire south face of the house is a glass wall which utilizes passive solar to the maximum
  • A basic Earthship is designed so that the house is not deeper then one room – so most of the space directly benefits from solar energy.
  • The earth has inherently vast thermal mass because of its (a) thick earth rammed walls; (b) an additional 1 meter thick earth mass; (c) a layer of insulation; (d) the rest of the earth acting as a relatively stable thermal mass.
  • The internal walls, earth wall finishes and potentially earthen floor also add valuable thermal mass which can store heat and gradually release it back into the space.

Joy

We are continuing to study and investigate Earthships and how they can apply to us. It feels promising.

We have been blessed with a temporary house in which we can live yet it is not a house which can become a house that supports and embraces us. This house is a wonderful shelter which can make building our new house a pleasant and healthy process.

The thought that we can begin a building process next year from mostly salvaged materials and then gradually move on with construction as work progresses and more money becomes available … and maybe move into a wonderful and pleasant house in 3 or 4 years is … joyful!