Suceagu

Our architect (so wonderful to be able to say that, deserves and will be treated to a separate post) Horatiu sent us to see Suceagu. We were taken on a tour of the village and area by his friendly and generous friend … and so our land-finding journey and education continues.

Suceagu is rather large village 12 km north-west of Cluj. It’s hidden in a valley that actually worms back in the direction of Cluj – it’s about an hour walk from the city limits to the village. It is half Romanian and half Hungarian village. The part of the village closer to the main road and train station is Romanian dominated and deeper inside and higher up is Hungarian dominated – though there is some intermingling. The lower, Romanian part is very crowded – houses felt packed together. As we traveled deeper into the village there was a bit more sense of space. Towards the end of the village there actually was space. I am guessing its crowded because of it’s proximity to the city – and from what we were told there is a movement of people from the city to the village.

Once we got to the top we got out and this is the view that appeared before us (click the image below to see a larger image):

This image is looking back in the direction we came in – facing north (on the left side is west, on the right east), it is ~10:00am – you can see the sun shining from the east – brighter on the western side. We liked this area very much – rounded and spacious hills with plenty of light.

Though it looks fairly flat – it has good north-south orientation – if you look closely you can see that on the left the hill rises gently to the north – creating a subtle but effective potential shielding from the north (if a house is properly sited).

Also, the left (west) side is very accessible by road, the right (east) side is less so and in some parts there is an additional valley that needs to be bridges to get to it.

Our host made a stop on the way down to ask about these lands. It seems that, typical of Romania, the lands are very fragmented – small plots (2 or 3 acres) owned by different people. This makes it difficult to purchase a larger area of 1 or 2 hectare. The village is also growing and creeping up the road – which means that in the future it may not remain so spacious. From what we can tell lands prices are currently ~10euro per sqm – way beyond our budget.

Our host then took us to see lands on the other (northern side of the main road) a couple of minutes drive out of the village.

We loves this land even more. These are deserted (from the 90’s) fruit tree orchards with excellent north-south orientation. The land here is clay-heavy (maybe good for people interested in building with cob?) and therefore less suitable for diverse farming. Otherwise a nice place, great view, spacious and close to the city.

How to Measure Common Rafters

A nice 3 video sequence on measuring common roof rafters (the wooden beams that make up the surface of the roof):

Visiting Suncuius

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

Lesson1: Romania is Beautiful

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

Lesson2: 4 x 4

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

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

… and this is where we moved back into the car

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

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

Lesson3: Generosity

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

Lesson4: Plentiful Land & Water

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

Lesson5: Draw in Snow

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

Lesson6: Classic Construction

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

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

Lesson7: Do Your Homework

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

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

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

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

Hydro Electric Barrel

In a country like Romania it is not unheard of to live on a property of land that has running water – so we’ve put that on our wishlist. In such cases hydro-electricity can be a very appealing source of electricity (though I have asked myself what would happen in case of freezing). With that in mind have a look at this interesting invention – the hydro-electric-barrel:

Chronological Images from Nauhaus

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

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

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

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

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

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

Self Grown Hemp for Construction

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

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

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

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

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

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

Building with Hemp

There is only one book (worthy of being called a book) I know of (in English) – Building with Hemp by Steve Allin. It isn’t the one and only book you will need to actually build with hemp – but it provides the best overview, explanations and images I’ve encountered so far on doing so. It touches on many hemp-effected aspects of construction. You will still have to do a lot more inquiring and apply your own common-sense but this book will be an excellent road-map for you on your journey.

Building Green

“… it’s not the materials but the builder that makes a building green”

Clark Snell,Building Green

I first saw a preview of Building Green (I think it was on Google Books) and wasn’t impressed by it. Then Ina & Sabin introduced us to it and loaned us their copy and I was really surprised by it. I have been immersed in the book and gained a lot from it. It doesn’t mention hemp-construction in any way. It does cover many other green building techniques and materials. But most importantly it is written with an appeal to common sense and with plenty of educational images which demonstrate that common sense really does work. Though I will probably not be using any of the building techniques mentioned in this book directly, I will be using a lot of my own judgement to make design & engineering choices and relate to solutions offered by professionals.

To me, the spirit of the book is best embodied in this quote which I have frequently brought up in conversations since it came to me:

“One the biggest sources of our environmental woes is the constant and polluting movement of humans about the planet. To create a sustainable lifestyle, we need to stay put more of the time and derive more of our social, physical and spiritual sustenance from our own backyards. For example, it takes a longtimeto build healthy soil to grow food; to build a network of friends and compatriots that will be the basis for community; to nurture the trees and other plants that will be part of a house’s cooling strategy. These things simply won’t happen if you aren’t sufficiently seduced by your home to stay there for the many years it will take to turn it into a real place that nurtures both its inhabitants and the environment. A “green” house, then, needs to be beautiful, a place that is as hard to leave as a lover and as unthinkable to neglect as your own child.”

As someone who has lived in rented apartments and houses all of my adult life and am now heading towards creating what may be our first and only house in this lifetime I can completely relate. I have been a tourist in most of the places I’ve lived – never quite made it to become a resident of the place.

Growing is Forever

This beautiful work comes to us as we prepare to manipulate trees and other natural resources to make a home for ourselves so that we too may grow.