Construction Lime

Lime Demonstrated

I recently encountered these two videos which gave good visual demonstrations of things I’d read about but not understood as well as I wanted to.

The first video demonstrates the lime-cycle. I’ve tried to wrap my head around this numerous times but had a hard time doing so without a background in chemistry. This video demonstrating Roman concrete shows how limestone is converted into hydrated lime and clears up, amongst other things, why a fluffy dry powder is called “hydrated”:

The second video shows the different stages, layers and tools of a lime plaster applied onto a cob wall. Lets just say that a hurling trowel is now on my shopping list!

Construction Natural Finishes

Clay Sculpting

… and from the same sweet youtube channel as yesterday’s lime plastering video comes this demonstration of clay sculpting:

Construction Natural Finishes

Polished Lime Plaster

Continuing the beautiful work done with clay plaster … this time with lime. I was surprised to see powdered lime being used instead of matured putty (though I’m guessing you can use putty instead … if you have it) … I wonder how it will hold up over time.

One advantage, at least for us, is that lime is easier to colorize then the local clay we use … though I still don’t have a good source for pigments.

I would like to have better tools (= Japanese trowels) for my next plaster experiments.

Construction Earthbags

Reinforcing Cellar Retaining Walls

The exposed parts of the cellar retaining walls were in dire need of attention:

  1. The lime finishing experiment was informative but not holding up to the elements.
  2. The incomplete water-shed umbrella meant that water was collecting into the retaining walls and together with the clay soils exerting pressure on the retaining walls. That pressure met the weak curvature of the walls (where one wall also was out of plumb) and caused the earthbag walls to push outward.

We decided to build a secondary concrete wall alongside the exposed parts of the earthbag retaining walls. This will hopefully reinforce the earthbag walls and weather proof them and prevent further degradation. We also decided to use concrete blocks (that would be filled with rebar and concrete) instead of attempting to build formwork to support heavy concrete walls.

The first step was to dig the trenches into which the concrete walls would be set. We did this when the excavator was here to work around the summer kitchen.

The next step was to find construction materials: concrete blocks, cement and rebar. We have construction material shops in the village that do delivery. But they do not have a truck with a crane for offloading. On a good day, I do not look forward to manually offloading 120 concrete blocks and 20 sacks of cement. My spine was healing from a back strain so manual off-loading was unimaginable. We did some internet hunting and found a supplier (further away) with better prices for the items which compensated for the additional expense of long-distance delivery with an offloading crane:

The first step was to complete and level the trench.

Next was lining it with geotextile and covering it with a drainage layer of sand and gravel:

… and then seeing how the blocks would fit and how far they would go:

and then running into the extension of the ventilation intake pipe and figuring out how that should meet the wall:

This gave me a first opportunity to shape concrete blocks … roughly possible but not a good idea.

I soon realized that it was not possible to continue dry stacking because it would not be possible to elaborately fill concrete around the pipe. So it was already time to finalize the placement of the pipe … some cob “joined” it to the existing pipe (which had been deformed by the weight of the earthbag walls):

… and backfilling (this felt like a point of no return):

A bit of improvised form work to complement the poorly-shaped concrete blocks:

… and the first vertical rebar … added initially just around the pipe where I intended to poor concrete:

… and then a first concrete pour … at the time it felt more dramatic then it may look:

… then more vertical rebar and a continuing cycle of concrete, block laying, back-filling … and a wall grew:

… and the cat discovered the pipes and playfully enjoyed hiding from the dogs … not really hiding because she is being indoctrinated as a member of our dog pack:

… until the (first phase) of the first wall was completed:

Iulia joined me for some of the work on second wall:

… until it too was “firstphase completed” (forgot to take a picture!). This was already a relief since now the earthbag walls were protected from further collapsing. We now had massive retaining walls made up of a core earthbag wall, some backfilling (where there were gaps) and a concrete wall.

We deliberated quite a bit about options for the top of the wall. We ended up deciding to “cap” the wall with a concrete top that would lean slightly away from the cellar entrance area. And so began another adventure. Finding a way to keep in place formwork, backfilling (with earth and bricks) to reduce the amount of concrete that would be needed … and putting in some lengthwise rebar that would lock it all together (I think it may have been good to put in some short rebars set into the width of the top … but I cut that corner):

I tried to mix a thicker concrete (with less slump) so that it would build up and hold its form better:

I worked my way up in segments:

… and then moved to the second wall (though between the two walls we seeded another recovery project, also related to the cellar … more on that in a future post) to apply the same strategy to its slightly different shape:

This is where we are now:

The concrete work needs to be continued, but to do that we first have to interface between the ends of the concrete wall and the cob walls:

We will do this with cob … and that will lead us to the final form of the wall and allow us to complete the vertical parts of the concrete and the “cob bridge” that sits on top of the entrance.

Nights and mornings are getting cold and the days are getting shorter … curious to see how much further we’ll be able to go this season. I am content with where we have arrived and feel it will hold up well in winter. I do look forward to reaching a state of completion where we can let the place settle and help it transform back into an undisturbed green space with a passage into the earth.

I’ve come to (somewhat) better appreciate the qualities and potential of concrete.

Cob Construction Floors

Earthen Floors with Sukita Reay

Sukita wrote “the book” on earth floors and it was sweet to watch her at work in this short video demonstrating the making of an earth floor:


Summer Kitchen Renovation Part3: Electric Post

Our connection to the electric company currently runs through the summer kitchen and from there to the house. It is embedded in the structure.

  • The main above-ground cable runs from the road to a post sticking out of the summer kitchen roof. (top foreground)
  • A main cut-off switch is installed on the outside wall (bottom front – small black box on pink wall)
  • The line to the house also protrudes from another spot in the roof (top background)

The meter and antiquated main fuses are in the small hallway of the summer kitchen (right under the post in the background of the top image):

This interferes with our ability to renovate. The wall on which the meter is mounted is going to be torn down and so is the roof. So we’ve had to create an alternative path.

Our original wish was to install a completely new three-phase system with all cables buried in the ground. However, after consulting with an electrician we decided to stay with an upgraded single-phase installation that will be moved out of the summer kitchen.

As you can see in the previous post, we’d already buried a new cable that runs to the house from this hole in the ground (next to the summer kitchen):

We leveled the floor of this whole and stacked in it cement blocks to create an initial form:

The PVC pipe carrying the cable through the concrete was placed inside this form:

We had a large (and heavy) metal pipe (7.5cm diameter, ~7 meters long) lying around (it’s been here since we moved to Bhudeva) and it is going to become the post. It was quite a project for the two of us and these pictures don’t do the effort justice … but we managed to get the metal post into the concrete form and to orient it vertically straight in place:

The next step was backfilling (and tamping) and putting in rebar:

This is after the initial concrete pour (the rebars laid on top were moved aside for the pour and placed returned later):

Then we added a frame for the top part which would encase the form created by the blocks. Originally the form was placed as you see in the picture below – oriented with the blocks. On second thought I re-oriented it a bit (no picture) to be better aligned with its surroundings (I realized just before the next pour that we had not given any attention to its orientation … we’d simply followed through with the orientation the excavator was able to create while digging the hole):

And the 2nd concrete pour took place the next day:

While that was setting we completed a penetration under the wall of the summer kitchen for a new main power line from the house to the summer kitchen – inside:


and to the house:

… and runs all the way to the electric fuse box (another project that felt like way more than 9 words worth – those are two hefty cables … they don’t do stretching!) that is at the entrance to the house where they will be patched in after the electricians install the new main box on the pole (planned for this Wednesday):

And today we stripped the forms and our electric seems ready to go:

and it seems to be close to the same height of the existing pole:

… electric pole … check!


Re-roofing the Deck

We finally went on a (planned) detour from the summer kitchen renovation. We had been planning to re-roof the deck. The original roof was planned to be simple metal sheets but we decided to go instead with clay tiles. However, the angle of the roof is shallow and is not suitable for the tiles. Because of the overlapping of the clay tiles, they ended up in an almost horizontal orientation. When it rains, water accumulated in the tile channels (especially when there is debris on the roof) and leaks all over the deck.

It took us time to figure out what kind of roofing we wanted to put on. We started by defaulting back to metal roofing but ultimately decided to go with bitumen-based roofing that seems to be abundantly available in Romania.

We started by taking down the tiles:

We noticed (some months ago) that the vertical posts had come out of vertical alignment and decided to add re-infrocing diagonal supports. Using ratchet strips we pulled the structure back into alignment:

And installed 4 diagonal supports:

Iulia and I had already discussed the possibility of making part of the roof transparent, to let light in. When we started taking down the tiles and light came in we both agreed we wanted that. We originally planned a whole strip (running the length of the deck) of transparency but settled instead on a partial opening.

With everything ready for the new roof, Alin arrived to help. We started at 8 am what would become a long day. Iulia went to the village to purchase the transparent part of the roofing (the actual decisions and dimensions became clear only that morning). First came the wood decking of the roof (with the transparent part already simulated in place):

Then it was onto the bitumen roofing material. It comes in strips that overlap and bind together through sticky surfaces that meet:

We finished around 9pm, when we could barely see (one of those rare times that the LED light on the wireless drill is actually useful!) or take pictures. So the next day we found this:

The transparent plastic overlaps the roofing on all edges to safely shed water (and there is a metal flashing underneath the plastic running down the two sides):

… and the resulting feeling on the deck is indeed much better … there is more light and the space feels … lighter 🙂

We are waiting for a run to test the new roof 🙂
… and we are still left with the task of finding a place to store the tiles and to move them!

As I was preparing the pictures for this post I looped back to the beginning of what this space looked like when we just started building the deck … quite a journey 🙂

Construction Electricity

Summer Kitchen Renovation Part2: Water & Electricity

When I started healing from my strained back we invited the excavator back to do the work we halted a couple of weeks earlier. I offered guidance, Iulia did the work!

We started working on a water line. There was already a second pipe (the first being the one that feeds into the house) coming out of our water infrastructure. We decided to extend it and attempt to bring it into the summer kitchen (I felt this was the best time to try this, before burying the electric power cable). We excavated parallel to the existing water line to avoid injuring the working pipe:

Iulia promptly continued with some manual digging around the existing pipe, to loosen the soil around it enough to bury it in full depth (~80cm deep):

While Iulia was doing that Florin created the channel from right up against the house until we had a full path:

We then patched the existing pipe to a new segment, placed it in the ground and very quickly the excavation was closed off (except for the part near the structure where we would need to manually dig to get the pipe inside):

We then moved on to burying a new main electric cable (more on that project as it unfolds). This is a fairly massive armored cable (4 lines of 16sqmm aluminum wires). We started by excavating a channel between the house and summer kitchen (which will be connected to the house). It is shaped as two diagonals because of limited space for the excavator to maneuver):

Then we began to dig the line out and away from the house:

… and around the summer kitchen. The cable is buried ~50cm deep, so it crosses over the water pipe:

We then moved our attention to the other end of this cable, to where a new electric post would be installed. We first transplanted a plant that was occupying the location of the new post:

We then continued the ditch to the post location:

Then we came to the hole for the post itself:

then the cable went in:

… and once again everything was quickly buried again:

This kind of infrastructure work doesn’t leave much of a trace … the materials and work simply get swallowed and converted into potential value!

… this was completed ~3 weeks ago … to be continued 🙂

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: