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 πŸ™‚

We are waiting for a run to test the new roof πŸ™‚
… 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 πŸ™‚

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 πŸ™‚

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:

Construction Natural Finishes

Shiny Clay Wall Finishing

I enjoyed this video very much – it made me want to get back to clay:

  • It gave me confidence that my experiments in the earthbag cellar were in the right direction – and that with additional refinement, wonderful results can be achieved with earth!
  • It confirmed how important the material mix is in achieveing a good finish (though in our experiments I tried to lean as much as possible on the natural clay-soil we had on site – and in retrospect it needed even more sand than I put in).
  • It made me a bit jealous of people who have access to refined materials … though I am glad to explore with the stuff underneath my feet πŸ™‚
  • It made me reconsider how thin the finishing layers (after base layer) can be – which means much less material to mix, carry and apply! Maybe that also makes it more accessible to bring on-site more specialized materials (I am used to working with tractor loader quantities)?
  • It made me even more curious about experiencing first-hand good tools (like Japanese trowels), I only had the basic DIY concrete-oriented stuff typically available here in Romania.
  • It confirmed my impression that the clay in the mix dominates in terms of color. We experimented with some coloring additives (metal oxides, also readily available in Romania). But it was unpredictable because of the dominant color of the clay. It seems that clay color is key to good, full bodied color!?

Some useful links from the maker of the video:

Does anyone know of a source for Japanese trowels in the EU?


[Webinar] Building with Earthbags: our experience with the cellar

Dear friends,

In the last 2 years we built our cellar from earth bags. It was mostly the two of us… helped along the way a bit by volunteers and friends.

We learned a lot, people started to ask questions. This is how Iulia started the Romania: EarthBags Building / Constructii din saci umpluti cu pamant group on Facebook. The group grew, now around 450 people.

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 winter is upon us and we are more inside, we invite you to sit next to the fireplace and join us in an open conversation – a webinar on earth bag bulding – questions and answers from our experience.

So, put the fire on (we will be next to one of our own rocket stoves that we also built), grab a cup of hot tea and join us!

When? Tuesday, 15th of January, 19:00. 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 here) an we are interested to converse with those who have specific questions. We learnt and lot and still learning. πŸ™‚ 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? 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 (15 Euros for people outside Romania, by paypal) / participant, for this meeting, paid upfront. In the spirit of gift economy, we also encourage our to adjust (to 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: after the form below you see a selection of pictures along the way of bulding our earthbag cellar πŸ™‚

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Shelves and … Food!

The shelves felt likeΒ  a small scale “industrial” project … mass production and assembly of parts.

I had already charred a few boards in preparing for the shelves. Now it was time to cut them up and make them into frames.

Then piled them up for charring the remaining parts at the “charring station” just outside the cellar.

After charring I moved the frames into the cellar and over a few days applied two layers of linseed oil to them … both for additional protection and so that we wouldn’t get dirty from touching the charred wood.

After that I prepared the 104 shelf supports and then install them onto the frames (the layout is designed to let us setup different shelf sizes to accommodate the different sizes of jars we typically use).

Meanwhile the temperature in summer kitchen was rapidly dropping uncomfortably close to zero … so While I was busy with the construction Iulia was already busy moving our food from the summer kitchen into the smaller cellar room.

And then came assembly … one frame and then another …

Until we had a skeleton standing and ready for contents:

And just to get a feel for it … I placed a few of the old shelves (I designed the new shelf-frame to use the same size shelves as the old one)Β  in place and stacked on some tomatoe sauce bottles … and it felt good πŸ™‚

Then lots more packing stuff from the summer kitchen, moving it to the cellar, cleaning the old shelves and moving them also to the cellar, cutting new boards into more shelves (the new frame takes many more shelves), making the rear board for each shelf with a small backing strip to act as a rear stop … LOTS more wood processing.

We got a large roll of plastic-ish table cloth and started covering all the shelves.

… and the shelves started to come together and fill up

… and we brought some root vegetables and cabbages for storage … and they joined some apples and last local pepppers in the small room.

… and then more shelves and more jars and more shelves …

… and the cellar has become a place … the place we imagined it would be.

We started the shelves when the ground was frozen solid (very convenient). Then it got warmer and we had to carry lots of stuff through the mud (very inconvenient). The temperatures are now comfortably parked around zero. We have snow up to our knees … a sight we haven’t seen for 4 or 5 years:

There is still the grainery and another storage cabinet to make … but I don’t know when I will get around to them. The critical things are done and we are settled in for winter. They may wait until spring.

It was 7 years ago that the old shelves were built and loaded (just before winter) with our first winter supplies:

I was and continued to be moved by the site of the old shelves, now standing naked and almost empty.

I feel like I have witnessed a major cycle … and the empty field of the summer kitchen is now available to become something new.

The days are short and cold … and another year is ending … and also … in a way … this feels like an end of this journey. If you’ve been following this Earthbag Cellar chapter of our journey, thank you for your interest. If you’ve visited with us during these two years to lend a hand, thank you also for your material support.

We hope to be back in spring with new projects. Wishing you a warm and peaceful winter πŸ™‚

Construction Earthbags

Earthbag Cellar: Cellar Doors

If like me you enjoyed Donnie Darko then you know that Cellar Door is arguably the most beautiful expression in the English language. This is a story of not one, but two cellar doors!

It started with a vision of a nice arched door that fills the arched doorway. I built the frame, stuggled to shape a rough template for the arch:

I Made an actual arched header (required laminating two pieces of wood) … I don’t have a picture because the result was depressing. The door couldn’t open … it is basic (duh!) geometry when you see it up close and personal. The arch of the door and the arch of the doorway collide.

I remember having to decide where, in the depth of the door opening, to install the framing for the door … I decided to go with the middle. That was a mistake. The framing should be on the side towards which the door opens.

So I had to scratch that option and went for a fixed arch and a rectangular (and slightly low) door (I’ve since banged my head a few times, hopefully I’ll learn).

Then preparing all the boards that would enclose the door … here they are laid out right before charring.

I assembled one side of the door … then filled it with an insulating layer of leftover styrofoam:

… and then closed it up (the frame was charred, brushed and oiled with linseed oil, the filler panels were charred and brushed strongly in preparation for a colored finishing).

… and we hung it … and voila … cellar door #1:

We’d already done a lot to protect from rodents, Iulia asked for more … and so the arched header was covered with a hidden metal plate

on top of which were installed the arch panels:

Because this is the outside door, I took advantage of the spaces in the arch to stuff in more insulation:

… closed it up and then it was time for experiments with color:

The final touches were rodent protection on the bottom of the door and … handles:

… and rinse, repeat (though not exactly the same) … and the cellar door #2 (separating the two rooms) came into being:

All of this was possible because the floor, though not yet completely set, has hardened enough for us to walk on it … which meant, that with doors in place we could also start moving in.

After finalizing measurements of the planned shelves we built a couple of frames to mockup the size … and were happy with the result (4 meters long, 2.26 meters tall, 60cm deep)

The day before yesterday we moved some things from our summer kitchen into the smaller inner-room of the cellar as transition storage:

… and that was in preparation for today when we moved the freezer into its new home. It was somewhat of a balancing act for the two of us relatively small-folk … but with the help of the wheelbarrow we got it done. Here it is out in the sun where Iulia defrosted and cleaned it.

It was a freezing day … so the frozen contents stayed frozen:

… and here it is in place, plugged in and fully loaded.

And the cellar is becoming an actual place!

Next are the shelves … and the last project on my list (thankfully since the days are getting short and freezing cold) for this year is the grain-storage.