The hole in the wall window (we left off with last time) healed fairly quickly:
Once we put in a properly dimensions and straight frame in we learned how un-straight the wall is. As a result the frame sticks out and will require some “integration work” … to be dealt with in the future.
With that done we have set our sights on going up to the second floor. After “shaving” the top of the structure flat(ish) we had some placed that required mending and filling in with cob:
The water level is a simple, beautitul but somewhat cumbersome tool to use … we got pretty close to level.
We continued to have a rainy season and we’ve gotten pretty good at covering the walls with tarps. The pigeons also seem to appreciate our efforts:
While the cob-on-top-of-the-walls was setting and in between rains I experimented with wood charring over an open fire. I usually use a gas torch for this, but we have LOTS of wood to char … and we have leftover scrap wood. After some fiddling around I came up with a system that works pretty well, makes for good paced work and creates a good char (deeper than what I would typically do with the torch):
It felt nice re-cycling the “waste wood” we’d just torn down into fuel for preparing the new wood … which will hopefully protect it and give it a longer life!
Then it was time to build the formwork into which we will be pouring a concrete bond beam. We used a combination of new (and charred) beams, boards, and re-used materials. We started with a peripheral frame:
… and then moved on to constructing two internal frames:
… and according to the water level one corner (the one in the foreground of the image above) is 1.4cm higher than the other 3 corners … and we decided that was close enough for us.
The formwork also provided us with a clear reference for the cob walls. Gaps in height were clear and easy to tend to … so it was another round of cob-on-top-of-the-walls to level and seal all around the formwork.
Meanwhile, I’ve also been spending a few full days in the workshop preparing the window frames for the second floor … so that the framing, when we come to it, will flow well. The thicknesser has been working overtime … and the dogs love it 🙂
We’ve put in some rebar … and if all goes well … tomorrow will be concrete day. We are hiring help for tomorrow … aiming for two people … unclear if both will show up. Concrete needs to be poured in one continuous effort … so tomorrow will be an early start … and hopefully pleasant work … with correct effort!
After completing the “wall move” we moved to the hallway to convert the gaping hole in the wall into a window frame:
This was put off until we decided on what kind of window. We finally resolved that and I could build a frame to build in and around:
All this time the rain was unrelenting. It was raining almost every day (some days less some days more). This is a screenshot I took of the forecast during this period … basically “rain forever”:
One day this is what I found – Litsa making good use of the small pile of (now soaked and useless) straw for cob in what otherwise felt like a miserable scene:
We were having a difficult time protecting the walls (new and old) with tarps because the remains of the roof were in the way. We decided to try a different approach. Instead of trying to cover the structure with tarps (which acted as excellent water collectors that drained into the structure) we decided to remove the remaining roof elements (beams and board) so that we could drape tarps over the walls. Water would get in (and help to recycle the dried cob by soaking it) but the walls would be protected.
So on a “clear” day I went up and started pulling apart and tossing down the ~7cm layer of rough cob that was placed on top of the ceiling boards and then it was time to take off the roof. It was an unpleasant job, mud, rot, and increasingly (as the work progressed) unstable footing.
At one point it became so unsafe to be on top that we pushed off the remaining boards from the inside of the space … until only the beams were left:
The beams … oh the beams … some had scratching went into these … it took some figuring out how to approach them … but we found an approach (I am not inclined to get into … too much work just to explain the challenge). The chainsaw played a key role … and we started bringing them down:
… and we were left with a truly naked structure … felt like a ruin … with tarped walls:
Then it was back to the completing the hallway window:
… and it too became a place … with a framed view … it looks out to sunsets:
The finish level of the cob above this window became the reference level for the entire structure. This is in preparation for a concrete bond beam that will carry us up to the second level (my primary objective in navigating and prioritizing our work is to get a new roof on). So we started “shaving” and patching the rest of the structure to this level (using a simple water level). This was tedious work.
The last wall we did was the one that still had the old window in it. I was hoping to put off replacing this window until after the bond beam. But there were some questions marks that led us to give it priority. We were wondering if the ~25cm of cob above the window opening (~1.2m) would hold if we removed the window and if we could expand the opening to receive the new window frame. We carefully dug out the wall around the window … gradually released it … got it out … and were left with the rough header – some roundwood pieces that were layed across the opening. We pulled them down carefully … and got our answer:
NO! It came crashing down … at least saved us the work of slowly working it down! We were left with yet another gaping whole (and the bond beam moved a few days further into the future).
I anticipated we may need to take care of this window/wall and had already built the frame for it … here it is in fitting just before assembly:
… and just before a nut came loose in the relatively new thicknesser rendering it useless (it has since gone to service and returned yesterday):
I spend the better part of a day finishing all the other parts needed for the complete frame … including charring them … and today we were able to fit it into place. Here it is, after the last fitting test, just before it went finally went in, on the pile of rubble which was the cob that came crashing down (all of which will be re-used!):
… and here it is fit in place … plumbed and leveled:
We’ve already cobbed around the base and in the coming days will finish rebuilding the wall around it and complete the frame itself and the header which will bring us almost to the top of the wall (~2cm of cob will be required).
It hasn’t stopped raining since we took down the roof so we focused solely on completing the “wall moving”. Now that the roof was out of the way and we were moving up the wall we could tamp the earthbags from above, standing on the remaining walls and beams.
I had just removed the rain gutters and found Kiwi confused. She has a growing repertoire of Parkour moves and one of them was jumping from the tree to rain gutter and on to the roof. Here is she is deliberating what to do with the rain gutters gone:
she didn’t make the jump!
In this picture the “moving wall” is becoming increasingly clear. The wall in the foreground is shrinking while the one in the background is growing:
… and working under the tarps while it is raining (soon it is my turn to go out into the rain to tamp down those earthbags.
As we reached the top of the window frame it was about time to complete the window header. I went with a design of a reinforcing grid sandwiched between two layers of solid boards. The grid was already built but needed charring:
… and then packing the gaps with insulation:
… and installing it in place … gave the window more presence and wholeness … and started to feel more like a picture frame to the outside:
During one of the sunny spells Kiwi climbed up and parked herself in a folded tarp close to where we were working:
Watching her there reminded me of George Carlin’s line “why are we here? PLASTIC!”
When we finally arrived at the old door frame the feeling of “we moved the wall” became real:
We reached the top of the window. We installed the boards that completed the window header. We used cob-bricks we set aside from the “destruction” phase to rapidly fill the space above the window. We used cob to fill in the remaining spaces (when there was no more space to work with earthbags) … and the new wall was suddenly done:
In designing the window I was working with the “Window Place” family of patterns from Christopher Alexander’s “A Pattern Language” … and even amidst the mess of construction, the window does indeed feel like a welcoming place:
.. and the old neighboring mullberry tree feels like a friendly neighbor:
We then had some “easy” earthbag work (compared to the constrictions we’d encountered in the window wall) rebuilding the base of the opening we took down during the “destruction” (where there was a traditional oven):
The window frame that goes into this opening is almost ready and we can fill this wall out.
.. and today we took delivery of almost 7 cubic meters of wood for beams, a 2nd story floor, stairs and roof framing. Just moving and organizing this was an equivalent of a work-day for us:
We stripped the small “porch” of its flimsy wooden covering and window. Given our slow and sometimes unpredictable work progress, we decided to keep the roof on as long as possible (so as not to leave the structure exposed to the elements). We decided to build the new external wall around the existing wood frame. Here is Iulia creating a base of cob on top of which the new earthen wall will be built.
With the frame out of the way we could decide upon the new window location (not what we thought it would be). This required putting in two new posts and removing an existing one:
Meanwhile I was experimenting with the new workshop tools (thickness-planer and table saw – maybe deserves a separate post) to see if I could build a reliably straight and correctly sized window frame (for used windows we got last year) … and I was to get a decent result. After three layers of earthbags … the frame found its place and we continued to build up around it.
We are reprocessing cob by crushing it and remoistening it. We started using the soil from last year’s deconstruction using the cob-pools we also prepared last year. When we finished that soil we started taking down the internal wall … again resuing the materials … so “moving a cob wall”:
and discovered some rotten beams … this one in particular … it had the an electric pole sticking out above it that, I’m guessing, acted as a reliable water collecter that drained above the post.
It is a clear testimony to how tolerant cob is to water (absrobs it, gets stronger with some of it while releasing the rest into the atmosphere) and how intolerant wood is (especially the basic pine we have available to us here).
We reached a point where work on the sacks was becoming uncomfortable … we were crouching and banging our heads on the beams and ceiling. So we decided to take off the roof despite god laughing at us with a 10-day forecast with plenty of rain in it. Iulia’s sister and her partner came out to visit and helped us get the tiles off:
We responded to god’s challenge with plastic tarps which are doing a reasonable job (while also efficiently pooling water). We continued to take the framing apart .. from small to large members:
Then we took off the gutters and peripheral wood sufaces. We still have a ceiling to take down over the internal room (a layer of wood boards covered with a few centimeters of cob) … and then the large beams that go across the entire structure … but that will wait for the weather to clear a bit. Meanwhile we are back to “moving the wall” and loading the cob-pools in preparation for resuming construction:
Many of you continued to ask questions, talked to Iulia in private about details.
From all your inquiries we want to make one more step now to share our experience with those who are really interested in earth bags building. Now, as traveling is a bit more complicated, we invite you to sit at your place and join us in an open conversation – a webinar on earth bag building – questions and answers from our experience.
So, grab a cup of tea or water join us! 🙂
When? Tuesday, 19th of May, 19:00 Romanian time (check your local time here). We estimate to spend around 1,5 hours together, depending on your interest and group dynamics.
What? We will build our conversation based on how participant’s interests are related to our experience. Ronen already wrote a summary of our journey with the cellar (again, please read all the posts he wrote along the two years we built the cellar) an we are interested to converse with those who have specific questions. We learnt and lot and still learning. 🙂 We do not pretend to hold the absolute truth, yet we realize – from your questions, from all the conversations and debates Iulia is following on the natural building and off grid groups on Facebook – that you want to know more and we have things to share.
We will not lecture you on earth bags building, you can read a lot on the internet.
Where to we meet? Online, we will give the connection details for those who want to join. We will use Zoom. The webinar will be held in English – Ronen, the facilitator of the webinar, does not speak good Romanian. Translation can be offered by one of the participants (volunteering). Iulia will be moderating the conversation.
How to join? Please fill the form below to let us know that you want to be in the conversation.
Exchange. We suggest a starting donation of 50 lei for Romanians (Revolut, BT Pay or BT payment) / 15 Euros for people outside Romania (paypal) / participant, for this meeting, paid upfront. In the spirit of gift economy, we also encourage you to adjust (increase or decrease) your contribution, based on the experienced value, at the end of the webinar. The details for offering donations will be provided for those who want to join.
Looking forward to meet and talk to you all! 🙂
Iulia & Ronen
PS: the pictures below are a selection of pictures along the way of building our earthbag cellar 🙂
PS2: the post picture is with Iulia sitting on our first completed earth bag arch.
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!
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.
The exposed parts of the cellar retaining walls were in dire need of attention:
The lime finishing experiment was informative but not holding up to the elements.
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.
A few days after completing the post the guys from the electric company came out to do their part. They were quick … done in less than two hours. They put in the new electric box and moved the meter into it:
… and moved the main supply wires from the summer kitchen to the new post:
While they were doing that and power was out I was making some arrangement in the house-electric-box for hooking up the new line.
They connected the new main line to the box and finished up some work connections I didn’t have time to do … and pretty soon power was back on and running:
All the old parts became bare and desolate (and ready for tear-down):
A few weeks later I got around to completing the job. First by putting in a new box in the summer kitchen. This was a first taste of carving into cob with an SDS hammer (easy!) to make a channel for the cable and a hole for the box.
Then I created two deadmen with scrap pieces of wood and nails, screwed the box into the deadmen and set the whole thing into fresh cob I placed in the hole:
This box now has a main fuse and a second fuse that is attached to a socket that we can use when working in the summer kitchen.
When that was done we finished arranging the main-box by connecting the summer kitchen, re-arranging some of the main fuses and finally re-connecting the cellar directly to the same fuse box (no pictures).
This, I hope, concludes this years adventures in electricity. Everthing is properly hooked up, no more of those pesky ceramic fuses that had to be replaced … and the summer kitchen is ready for more demolition WITH a new power line installed and working.