Learning to Read Plans

I’ve been spending the last few weeks immersed in reading about wood-framing. I’m really enjoying the experience of feeling that it really is possible to self-build a home. It’s logical, straightforward and building with hemp simplifies it even more.

I recently came across these sample PDF plans of an eco-house from Studs – a UK timber frame design company. I am happy to say that it isn’t all giberish to me anymore 🙂 I still can’t read it all – and some parts are a bit overwhelming – but I think it’s good practice to start looking at such plans. They provide house design ideas, they teach structural lessons and they prepare you to communicate with other professional which we expect to be doing.

What does Ecological mean in Romania?

We just got back from a meeting at the school of architecture in Cluj. It was a good meeting with some followups to look forward to. But we did meet with some skepticism – “ecological building is a fashionable thing” … I agree that there is a lot of fashion in ecological building – even intellectual/academic fashion. I couldn’t possible put it better then George Carlin did:
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But, I also think it’s important to be able to discern between the bullshit and the real shit. Ecological building should have direct impact on quality of life – otherwise it really is a fashionable indulgence. So I thought to take this opportunity to share some of the things I consider to be ecological in the context of building a rural house in Romania.

Warmer

My general impression of homes in Romania (actually Israel too!) has been that they are cold in winter (public spaces are generally much warmer then homes I have visited). This is a combination of poorly insulated homes and fairly expensive fuel resources.

In cities gas is the primary source of heating energy – it is very expensive and building-blocks built of concrete are poor heat containers. We are struggling to keep our gas costs under control and can just manage to keep the apartment at 19-2o degrees celsius.

Village homes are usually poorly insulated (despite super thick mud-brick walls) and even though firewood is relatively cheap, it is expensive when you live on what you can grow … and you can’t grow money. So those that do have fire-wood used sparingly – again, just enough to keep out the cold.

Hemp is said to be one of the best insulating construction materials. This means that the same quantity of fire-wood that a village home uses ine year to just-barely keep the cold out can be sufficient for keeping the same house comfortably warm for 2 years (if not more!).

Better Air

I’ve mentioned before that almost every apartment or house I’ve visited in Romania suffers from humidity problems. Humidity is locked inside the house and it’s walls (you have to see it to believe it – water running down the windows and accumulating in pools on the window-sills). It turns into mildew which leads to respiratory problems.

Hemp is also said to be a healthy building material. It creates a permeable wall that absorbs excess moisture on the inside and releases it on the outside. It does this without any insulation or sheathing materials. It is a natural quality of a properly built and well ventilated hemp-masonry house.

Self Grown Homes

Romania used to be a major supplier of hemp-fiber – which means that the land here is good for it. As a rule of thumb one hectare of land yields enough crop to build a house. Oh and hemp requires no herbicides or pesticides, kills weeds and renews the land in which it grows. Oh and it is said to have huge potential in world markets for zillions of applications. Oh and its seeds can be used for food and oils which are magically healthy.

Almost every Romanian farm has vast farm lands – which means that most Romanian farmers can potentially grow the hemp they need to build/rebuild their homes.

Simple to Build

Hemp masonry is poured around a wooden frame – which a small group of people with basic coordination and tools can build in a week or two. Romania is gifted with vast amounts of excellent and afforable wood.

Hemp building requires the most rudimentary frame building skills – many framing complications involving insulation and sheathing are completely obsolete do to the nature of hemp construction.

Bringing the Toilet Home

Our new friends, Ina and Sabine, eloquently described the challenge of reviving the image of village homes in Romania “Bringing the toilet – a freezing outdoor shack with a hole in the ground – indoors”. The ecological implications of technologies (they are so simple – that calling them technologies, though true, can be misleading) such as dry-compost make this easy and afforable to do. Running water is used to evacuate waste from the home and then a simpleto-install and super-easy-to-maintain mechanical system separates water and waste and converts the waste into dry and usable compost. So much cheaper and easier then digging a hole in the groun and installing a sceptic tank that needs chemicals, can demand unpleasant maintenance to run and a periodic evacuation service.

So, All Fashion Aside …

We are still beginners when it comes to ecological building – but we are committed to this path. We have a very limited budget to create our home. A limited budget comes bearing gifts of simplicity – complicated, expensive indulgent technologies are just not an option. Ecological means simple solutions, many of which are do-it-yourself (or do-it-with-your-friends), based on and respectful of natural available resources.

That’s it, direct simple things that come together to make life good.

Modece Architects

It’s been over a week that I’ve had the website for Modece Architects open in my browser. I really enjoyed the website – it feels like an authentically green site – one that actually walks the walk. Particularly I’ve browsed back and forth endlessly in the sustainable-construction gallery which has been quite an eye opener. For example …

This image hints at the potential of using quality timber framing together with hemp construction – which I was just wondering about…

or this image that demonstrates that loose hemp!!! can be used in floor insulation:

… or this image of a do-it-yourself solar panel:

… honestly, every picture in their gallery is like a magical doorway into knowledge.

But what really tickled my fancy was that as I was revisiting that must read book on hemp-lime construction I recommended a while back – I made the connection that the hand-drawn illustrations starting on page 31 were contributed by Ralph Carpenter of Modece Architects … and I am thinking “yeah, that’s the website I’ve got open in my browser” … so it seems that the world of hemp-lime construction is still a nice and intimate community 🙂 Great fun!!!

A Sustainability Confession

The more we dig our hands into the endless details of creating a sustainable home the more I realize that it isn’t really sustainable. How is that possible?

No matter how you do the math the most sustainable and cost-effective way to generate electricity is together, not every house for itself. Given our very low electricity bills and the high costs of the cheapest of available green-electric solutions (hydro and solar) – I doubt we will offset the costs in our lifetime. The same holds true for running water and I am guessing for most of the other infrastructures we take for granted in day-to-day life. There’s a reason we live on shared infrastructures – it’s the best way to do it.

At the heart of my preference for an independent sustainable home is an uncomforting thought about togetherness. I simply don’t trust the huge “we” mechanism to continue facilitating food, warmth and shelter. I don’t trust “we” to facilitate the growth and supply of healthy, nutritious and non-poisonous food. I don’t trust “we” to supply me with consistent and affordable eletricity or gas.

I don’t trust the “social we” because it is dominated by corrupt motivations (that come in many flavors – some raw and in your face, others subtle and devious). I don’t trust the “intellectual we” because it is ignorant towards so much freely available knowledge on how to do things better.

I belong to a miniscule percentile of people on the planet who can indulge in not trusting “we” to do a good job, and to do so from a warm apartment with food on my table. But I have also seen, over recent years, how those things are slipping away. I saw that unless I do something about it I am heading towards a point in time in which I will be to cold and hungry too indulge in criticizing “we”.

So I decided to do something about it. I have come to Romania where there are plenty of natural resources with which I believe I can do much better then “we” seems to be doing. It would be wonderful if we could meet with a few other like-hearted people with whom we might be able to create a better “we”. But when I say sustainable I am being selfish … I am building my own little Noah’s ark because I don’t want to feel like I am drowning anymore.

House Heating Requirements (revisited)

IMPORTANT: this note was added after the post was published but seemed important enough to be inserted at the beginning of the post. I am just now realizing that my perception of heating requirements are based on experience of poorly insulated homes. This is why I expect stoves to be lit numerous times a day. But, in a properly insulated home the need for heating should eb drastically reduced. If this is true – then all our elaborate plans to use stove-heating may be irrelevant – since the stoves may not be lit long enough to generate hot water. Having a super-energy-efficient home may lead to us to simpler, existing ready-made solutions. We don’t know, and we don’t know yet someone who knows … so for the time being it’s all up in the air.

Some weeks ago we described an imaginary-heating system and since then we’ve come across numerous resources and refined our understanding a bit.

I think there are two core ideas that shape and guide our understanding and wishes of a heating system:

  1. Most of the time we can shower when hot water is available – though it’s comfortable we don’t really need hot water to be available on demand.
  2. Enough direct heat is generated by our wood-stoves to indirectly supply most if not all of our heating needs.

So what we can say about our envisioned heating system?

  1. It will be an integrated water-based system – the same systems is used to generated running hot water and water for a radiant heat system.
  2. The system relies as little as possible on electricity – we would like to have a warm house and hot water even during a complete power-out (though it may run better when powered with electricity).
  3. The system will include an indoor cold-water container that will bring the water to room temperature.
  4. The system will include a central hot-water tank (not a boiler!) that supplies both the radiant heat water and flowing hot water to facuets and showers.
  5. The primary source of heat will be classic Romanian-village-style terracotta wood stoves. We expect to have one or two primary stoves in the living-space and kitchen. We both work from home a lot and cook a lot so these stoves will already be working.
  6. We would like to design and build the wood stoves to include an efficient coiled water pipe that is connected to the radiant heat water circuit and feeds back into the central hot-water tank.
  7. We would like to install a on-demand gas water heater on the running water hot-water circuit as a backup in case the water in the hot-water tank is not yet hot enough.

Following are someuseful web-resources:

Timber Framing

Introduction

A few weeks ago when I began exploring the world of framing it (and I) was dominated by a fairly straightforward technique of wood-framing – using standard 2×4 lumber with nails and metal connectors to construct a home frame. But then I came across a blog where someone spoke of another building method – one that relies on creating elegant joints between wood joints that are fastened together with wooden pins (kind of like huge nails) – an all wood structure.

I encountered all kind of terms I didn’t know like dovetails and tenon joints. So I did some more searching and came across this abundant resource that had way more information then I could possible want about techniques for joining together pieces of wood. I discovered an entire art of wood-joints … which actually blew the wind out of my sails. I thought that was just too much to attempt to muster on a project with limited time and resources. So I set it aside.

Timber Framing

I am now entering a second round of inquiry into wood framing – the straightforward “nail and connecing plates” kind this time going into more detail. Then, a  few days ago I came across Northern Lights Timber Framing and a single image on their home page blew my mind. This is what timber-framing looks like:

Most of the structure (except for some of the supports) is made from massive timber beams that are crafted into a carefully planned puzzle. There is an entire carving process that takes place away from the building site during which all the pieces are meticulously crafted and tested. Then they are brought to the building site site and with the help of cranes, assembled into a monolithic structure. It is an artful process shimmering with quality and inspiration. It is very different then wood-framing. Here’s another images from Northern Lights – this time an indoors view of a timber-framed house:

The Northern Lights site listed a link to the Post n Beams blog, written by a student that trained with the folks of Northern Lights. It is a great and informational blog to read with excellent, detailed and informative images. This images from the blog further demonstrates the elaborate art of Timber Framing:

This is very different from wood-framing:

We Will Probably Build with Wood Framing

From where I stand now I am somewhat sad to say that we will be building our house with wood-framing and not with timber framing. There are a few reasons for this:

  1. The overall framing process, as I understand it, seems to be more complicated and longer then wood-framing.
  2. It seems like a more expensive building method (tools, materials).
  3. It requires refined skills and workmashinp – making it less relevant as a do-it-yourself project.
  4. Most of our wall-framing will remain hidden from sight as it will be emdedded inside the hemp-lime walls.
  5. Hemp-lime masonry needs studs to support it.
  6. Except for a living-kitchen space, energy concerns are leading us to smaller more heat-efficient spaces – so the benefit of an open-floor structure are marginal.
  7. Most of the roof will also be highly insulated with hemp and other materials.

Yet …

I would love to incorporate into our building process some of the qualities of timber-framing. There is more to it then meets the eye. I wonder if, for example, similar joint techniques can be employed when framing with 2×4 lumber?

I am no expert but my instincts tell me that timber-framing delivers a superior structure (to that of wood-framing) and the fact that it is all-wood (no chemical interactions with metallic parts) give it a better shot at longevity (though in our case this may be mitigated by the hemp-lime encasing).

A part of me hopes that we come across a magical local timber-frame builder that will change my mind 🙂 I would love to live in a structure that was built with such masterful craftsmanship.

What About Growing Hemp?

Following is a transcription of this article from November 1942 by A.H. Wright, published by the University of Wisconsin, Madison – College of Agriculture, which to date is the most informative, accessible, freely available online guide about growing hemp that I’ve encountered (I found it stashed away here). I liked it and thought to make is easier to access by transcribing it.

Wisconsin farmers are the leading hemp fiber producers in America. They are using methods based on thirty years of experience and experiment in growing and handling the crop. The American navy and army need hemp – vast amounts of it for rope, cordage and threads.

Four hemp mills are running in Wisconsin – at Markesan, Brandon, Beaver Dam and Juneau. Although other parts of Wisconsin have soil adapted to the crop, all the hemp in the state has larely been grown around these mills.

Hemp yields well under favorable conditions. On suitable soils in the state, hemp has rarely failed to produce a good crop. Yields have usually ranged from 700 to 1000 pounds of fibre for the acre. The average yield of dry stalks after dew retting as the farmer delivers them to the mill is from two and half to three tons an acre.

Hemp is seeded in solid in the spring; is harvested and spread out on the stubble in the early fall; the straw (stalks) is allowed to ret (partially rot) while still spread out; is picked up, bound and shocked after retting, then hauled to the processing mill where it is stacked.

What the Hemp Crop needs

  • Fertile soils
  • Plenty of moisture
  • Rotation with other crops
  • Complete fertilizers
  • Good seed bed
  • Early seeding
  • Early harvesting
  • Proper retting

Fertile Soils

Dark prairie silt loam soils – uniform and fertile – are best for hemps. Reasonably level clay loams are good. A plentiful supply of organic matter is very important and thorough drainage is necessary. Not suitable are peat and other marsh lands, or sandy, gravelly and rocky soils, heavy clay soils and bottom lands.

Plenty of Moisture

Hemp will not withstand drought and so does best on soils that do not dry out quickly. Dry areas are decidedly unsatisfactory. The stunting of hemp by dry weather results in low yields and low quality fiber. Hemp needs much the same moisture as a good crop of corn.

Because hemp grows rank and luxuriant, it is often incorrectly thought that it is hard on the land, but experience shows that it has about the same effect as a good crop of corn. Hemp leaves the soil in excellent condition crop crops that follow.

Rotation with Other Crops

Hemp should not be grown continuously on the same field for the same reason that corn or grain should not be repeated on land. It does best after corn, alfalfa, clover or bluegrass pasture. It does not follow timothy satisfactorily, and often does not do well after small grains. The usually practice is to plant the hemp after corn, followed with a small grain seeded down to clover, then the clover is followed with corn. On very fertile soils, hemp may be grown two years in succession.

Complete Fertilizers

Barnyard manure is ordinarily the best fertilizer for hemp but commercial fertilizer can well be used to supplement six to eight loads of manure to the acre. On most soils a complete fertilizer – containing nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium – is most likely to give the best results. Such standard commercial fertilizers as a 3-9-13, or 3-12-12 have been used to advantage. The usual amount is around 200 pounds an acre; the use of 300 to 400 pounds an acre of 20% super-phosphate alone has given good results on typical dark prairie soils in Wisconsin. Commercial fertilizer alone will not make up for lack of manure or lack of natural fertility. Lime, at three to four tons an acre, may well be applied on acid soils.

Seeding the Hemp Crop

Hemp Needs a Good Seed Bed

The seed bed must be well prepared. Although spring plowing will give fair results, fall plowing is best. The soil should be worked up thoroughly before planting but should also be firm. A corrugated roller used just before and just after will do much to put the seed bed in proper shape. on soils that are inclined to crust, broadcasting usually gives better results than drilling.

While hemp is one of the best smother crops know yet weed infested soils must be prepared so that the hemp will outgrow the weeds. Canada thistles and quack grass will choke out the hemp unless they are subdued before the hemp is planted. Any method which will put the soil in good shape and check the weeds is satisfactory. Hemp will not smother out weeds on unfertile or poorly drained soil.

On average hemp soils in the north central states, from four to six pecks of good seed to the acre seem to give best results. On very fertile soils, five to six pecks are advisable. On soils less fertile then average, four pecks are enough but less than four pecks is rarely advisable. Hemp seed weighs 44 pounds the bushel.

It is very important and necessary to leave an unplanted strip (turn way) all around the field. This turnway, 16 to 20 feet wide, should be left on both sides and both ends of the field. The hemp harvesting machine requires such space at the edges of the fields in order to make the first round. After the field is sown the turnways should be filled in by planting them to small grains, soybeans for hay, canning peas or a similar crop. Corn for silage, early potatoes or other early rowed crops may also be used, but thickly seeded crops, such as small grains are best because they usually prevent a rank growth of hemp around the edges of the field.

a good field of hemp nearly ready to harvest - desirable height and thickness

a good field of hemp nearly ready to harvest - desirable height and thickness

Kentucky Hemp Seed Best

All hemp seed recommended for the United States is grown in Kentucky. Hemp seed from foreign countries cannot be relied upon. Most of the hemp grown in this country is from seed from adapted selections and has proved decidedly superior to that from other countries.

cutting and spreading hemp with modern harvester - hemp is both cut and spread for retting with this machine

cutting and spreading hemp with modern harvester - hemp is both cut and spread for retting with this machine

retted hemp straw is picked up and bound with a special machine - the hemp picker

retted hemp straw is picked up and bound with a special machine - the hemp picker

Early Seeding is Best

Results vary in different seasons but in most years early seeding is best. While some plant hemp almost as early as oats, yet the usual practice is to sow just after oats are sown and before corn planting starts. Under emergency conditions hemp may be sown as late as the first week in June.

While good stands of hemp have followed the use of a broadcast seeder, yet a grain drill is decidedly better on soils not apt to crust. The seed should be sown not more than one inch deep.

Harvesting the Hemp Crop

Early Harvesting is Best

Hemp should be harvested when the pollen bearing (male) plants are in full or late bloom. At this stage, the lower leaves have mostly fallen and the upper leaves are yellowing. Generally, hemp harvested early has the best season for retting, consequently it is better to harvest a little on the early side rather than to wait until it is too mature. So far as the quality and yield of fiber are concerned, the crop may be harvested any time in the four weeks between blossoming and early seed forming. Over ripe hemp does not produce good quality fiber.

Hemp must be harvested with special machines. In very small fields, the self-rake reaper is used to advantage. Fields of five acres or more are cut with a special hemp harvester which is now standard equipment and is usually furnished on a rental basis by the processing mill. It harvests the hemp and spreads it in one operation. The hemp harvester operated by a tractor will harvest from 5 to 10 acres a day.

Proper Retting Important

Retting is the most important item in handling hemp for the kind of retting determines the quality and value of the fiber. The green stalks, after they are spread on the stubble by the harvesting machine, remain there until they rot enough so the fiber can be readily separated from the woody part of the stems.

The time varies with the weather. If the weather is warm and moist just after the crop is spread, retting may be complete in seven to ten days. If it is dry, retting may be delayed until late in the fall. Usually the early fall is moist and warm, so early harvesting is best. In unfavorable retting seasons, there is a tendency to life the hemp before it is retted. This should not be done. The hemp should be left spread out in the field until the outer layer of fiber can be taken off easily. Unless very quick retting occurs, the straw should be turned over in the field during the retting period so that an even ret is obtained.

Retted Straw is Bound and Shocked

As soon is straw is properly retted, it must be lifted and bound in bundles. This is done with a special hemp binder (picker) which is supplied on a rental basis by the hemp mill.

The bound bundles are placed in shocks a little larger then those used for corn. When the bundles are well cured they are hauled to the hemp mill and stacked. Great care should be taken in building stacks as too much invested in the retted straw to stack it carelessly. Each layer of bundles should have a pronounced pitch; and the center should always be kept high. In lapping, very little of the butts of each layer should be exposed to the weather, as such parts will decompose if left long in the stack. Hemp straw, properly stacked, will keep for many months with very little loss.

the retted and bundled hemp straw is stacked and the hemp mill - either round stacks or ricks are used

the retted and bundled hemp straw is stacked and the hemp mill - either round stacks or ricks are used

Hemp

  • gives good yield on suitable soil
  • usually not damaged by insects or disease
  • is not “hard” on the land
  • helps to control weeds

Hail Causes most Damage

Hemp in the north central states is nearly free from insect damage and fungus disease but cut worms and white grubs have caused some damage. Grasshoppers will destroy hemp leaves around the edges of fields near freshly harvested small grains. Stem borers, including the European corn borer, have been known to attack hemp plants.

But hail is the most serious enemy of growing hemp. While the total loss has been very little, yet there have been serious local losses. Wherever a hail stone strikes a growing hemp plant, a weak spot occurs, thus damaging the fiber. Hail insurance is commonly used.

Hemp Straw Must be Milled

At the hemp mill the retted straw is dried, crushed and the broken material is cleaned by brushing and combing with a hemp scutcher. The fiber comes from this machine in two forms. The long straight fiber is line and that is by far the most valuable. The short, tangled, snarled fiber is known as tow. This fiber has much less value. Hemp grown on good hemp land will generally produce around 55% line fiber and 45% tow. Hemp grown on poor hemp soil may produce nearly all tow and very little line. This is one reason why the selection of proper soils for hemp culture is extremely important.

What Happened to Hemp in Romania?

Hemp is currently our preferred method of construction so naturally we are looking around to see where we can find it. Eventually we also hope to grow it for personal uses for food, oil, fibers and to provide building materials for other Romanians who may wish to build with Hemp.

Here is what we know:

  1. There used to be a promising Hemp industry in Romania – very little remains of it.
  2. The soil and moisture conditions in Romania are excellent for growing hemp.
  3. We tried contacting Advantages (hemp naufacturer from Timisioara) and were told they no longer exist.
  4. There is an impressive international! Romanian company in Solanta called Canah that manufacture wonderful hemp-based food-products.
  5. Though they would like to rely on local (Romanian) supply Canah imports most of its raw materials.
  6. It is (theoretically) possible to grow hemp in Romania – for which you need an approval in advance and additional monitoring while you grow and harvest the crop.
  7. Every year, just before Christmas, hemp seeds appear in Romanian markets – they are used to bake a traditional holiday-cake – it is unclear where these hemp-seeds come from (one speculative theory is that it comes from Moldova).

One of the (numerous) ecological aspects of hemp is that it can be grown (and processed) close to where it is actually needed. This reduces the need to transport it across great distances. Transporting it leads to carbon emissions which defeat it’s ecological benefits. We are making an effort to find a Romanian farmer from whom we can purchase the hemp we need to build our home.

Though we will do our best to leave as little ecological damage in getting our hemp it would be an ironic-shame if we had to take our money elsewhere (Hungary, Germany, Austria, Sweden, Holland, UK, etc.).

So my question to anyone who happens to read this and know something about it is what happened to Hemp in Romania? Why was it illegalized? Why was a promising industry shut down? Who could possible havy gained from this? What can be done to fix what looks like a tragic mistake for the Romanian economy?