Category Archives: alternative building

the bedroom is done! Or, what it feels like to finish building your own house, finally, after a decade of work

Last week, we moved into the bedroom.  (Pics below!)

In order to really understand this MONUMENTAL SIGNIFICANCE of this, please step into the Way Back Machine for a brief retrospective.

My wonderful husband/builder broke ground for the yurt in spring 2005.  (A post with some pictures from ground breaking day, so cute.) I was pregnant with Luc and Sophie was this tiny thing.  Ten months later, we moved into the yurt and its attached bathhouse and I had a baby.  Life was full.  A year passed.

In 2007, he built a Goat House and a Chicken Coop (made out of the box the yurt came in) because I had the idea that the toddler kids and I ought to keep goats and chickens (which turned out to be awesome).  He also installed our waterstove system.  In 2008, he built a gorgeous tool shed for his Building Stuff, because this was a construction site we were living in, make no mistake.  Where to put all the tools? Then, surprise, in early 2009 my cousin, Noah, gave us his tiny house and we had it disassembled, transported, and reassembled here, adding to our little compound.  The Noah House needed all new interiors, so my dear husband got to it, hanging sheet rock, laying floors, trimming it out, until we moved into it in August.

(Here is a post I had forgotten about, about building with recycled stuff, which is what all these structures were, except for the yurt itself, kind of cool.)

That was our first five years here.  Don’t forget, my builder also had a full time job, an hour commute, and two babies.  When I look back at all he did, it’s pretty impressive.

But, when we first moved in, we said, “we’re on the five year plan.” Meaning, yes, we knew this yurt/bathhouse combo we started with wasn’t going to work forever for the four of us, and yes, we knew the difficulties of moving into a house, that is, living in a house, that you are currently building…  But within five years, for sure, we’d be done.  We’d be in The House that we had always envisioned.  The yurt was temporary, like a trailer, only prettier.  Five years.  That was The Plan.

But, sheesh, by 2010, after those first five years, we had precious little energy left for house building.  Supercoolhusband was tired.  And he hadn’t even started a “house” yet.  Actually, that idea had eroded away completely.

Lesson learned—and this is important! pay attention future self-builders!—people who want to build their own house themselves have a crap-ton of enthusiasm for the task when we start.  There are Dreams and it’s so Creative and there are so many choices to make and building methods to try.  I know this because that was me.  It’s fun!  But listen: with time, that enthusiasm wanes.  At some point, a year, ten years down the way, you won’t care any more.  You’ll say, “let’s bail on this and buy a condo.” And it will sound like a really good idea.

When I came up with the Goat House idea in that second year, I didn’t know I was burning a limited resource (his energy) and that that energy probably  should have been going into primary structures for us.  Building the animal houses withdrew Building Energy from the building-energy bank account that once spent, was gone.  I didn’t realize that.

You must pace yourself on a project as monumental as hand-building a house. And if it’s primarily one guy doing it, he WILL run out of steam.  Plan accordingly.

Anyway, 2010 rolled along, we were at the five year mark, and we had accrued this strange compound of tiny buildings, but still no house, no finished structure, no done.  And we desperately needed more space.  The kids weren’t babies anymore, they had their own stuff, their own needs for privacy, the piles were threatening to take us over, not to mention our own privacy, and just where the heck does all this stuff come from anyway?

But it was clear, at that point, that building a HOUSE was not going to happen.

So instead, we got to work building a bedroom.

A room away for the adults would make room for the kids to have their own space, it would double the closets, it would solve tons of problems while still having us live in the yurt as our central structure.  One room, 12×12, totally doable, right?  It would be done in a year.  New plan!

Here is a post I did about the groundbreaking for the bedroom in January 2011.  Working on weekends, progress was slow, but it was coming along.  Here was a post one year later featuring some nice pics of the timberframe bones he had built.  That was when we figured out what the heating system would be.  Six months later, in the summer of 2012, he put on the roof.  Okay, maybe it would be two years….?

Next comes what I like to call the Three Little Pigs method of building a house.  Fist is the slipSTRAW north wall going in and getting stuccoed in 2013.  Here is a nice view of that in April when it was completed.  Then the STICK-built west wall went in, a traditional studs, sheetrock, cedar shingle siding, because he was sick to death of straw at that point.  And here is some STONE work on the east wall very pretty.  After that we captured the wolf in the soup pot as he came down the chimney and we ate him.

I swear we did plan to do the Three Little Pigs, it just happened.

We also did not plan grad school, which is what my builder went and did for the next two years.  Because life goes on, no matter that you haven’t finished building your house yet.  Your kids grow up.  Your housing needs change. What sounded like a good idea when you started fails to meet the current needs by the time it is finished.  It’s hard to factor that in when your time table is so slippery.

So, while he was getting his grad degree (and still working full time), building  downshifted to dribs and drabs, quite understandably.

In 2015, Sophie moved out of the yurt and into the Noah House, now Sophie’s house.  It was starting to be ridiculous, this Mythical Bedroom, an unfinished hulk over on the side of the yurt. The kids were going to move out entirely before the damn thing was finished.  I’m sure it felt like an albatross around his neck.  We even talked about taking a loan out to pay someone to finish it.  But he had a break at school in 2015 and got the south wall up (glass) with some help from my cousin Noah of the Noah House, which gave us all some hope.  I posted this with the very-nearly-finished bedroom.  It was so close!

We held our breaths at the precipice of nearly-done all winter last year while he finished school and….

If you haven’t lived in a partially finished house, which we have been doing since 2005, let me tell you, it’s…weird. For years we said “when the house is done” and later “when the bedroom is done” we would do all these cool things…like move Luc into his own room in the back of the yurt, or have enough closets so there wouldn’t be piles everywhere, or move stuff out of Sophie’s House so she could have her own space, plus a half-dozen other important things…so that it began to feel like So Many Problems were going to be solved by the Mythical Bedroom whenever it finally arrived.

As a result, life felt on hold.

Like when you’re camping.  You make do.  You solve a problem (like where to put your dishes, or where to sleep) for now, because you know it’s only temporary.  You’re camping!  It’s all going to change when you pack up anyway, right?  You put up with less-than-great solutions, or even fairly shitty solutions, because it’s fine, it’s just for now.

That was us, camping in the yurt.  But when For Now goes on for years, you forget that you’re on hold, you forget what it feels like to NOT to be on hold.  The builder feels the pressure the most.

Moral: Don’t let your building projects go on too long!

But sometimes you can’t help it.  It just happens.  You can’t know what building a house yourself is, until you do it.  You think sure, I can do this while working a full time job, raising children, living a life.  So you just have to stick with it, plod along, break tasks down into manageable chunks, but keep at it!  Self-building is a slow process, a marathon not a sprint.  It can be hard on relationships so you have to cut each other a ton of slack.  I  know too many couples broken up by the shiny-eyed plan of “building our own house together.”  Be kind.


And then….last week…he finished.

My other cousin, Tracie, happened to be here when suddenly in he comes into the yurt saying, “We’re moving the bed.  Here, take a corner.”  We were like, what? What? Today?  We’re moving the bed today???? Holy shit—it’s really happening?

Here’s a shot of the inside after we got the bed set up.

bedroom 1 400

So pretty!  Exposed beams, recycled casement windows, found (i.e. free!) glass doors for windows, stucco and lime plaster, jute rugs.  Look at the cool light fixture—he traded something for it at a junk shop, he doesn’t remember what now.  It’s, like, two feet across, huge:

bedroom 2 400

We slept in it that night even though there were still some tools, the new closets empty.  Here’s the view when I woke up in the morning:

bedroom 3 500

It smells like raw cedar.  The light is lovely.  The thick walls make it cool and quiet. A gorgeous space.  I love it!

But, see, this isn’t just finishing the bedroom, this is finishing the House.  Our weird, atypical, house/compound made of rooms-that-don’t-touch-each-other, sure, but whatever, it’s DONE.  No more building project hanging over us.  Let me say that again.

He’s been building a house FOR A DECADE.


It’s….well, it’s a miracle.

So, I’ve said some things about the downsides of self-building, but what about the upsides?

What we get with a handmade house:

A gorgeous, one of a kind, Art Structure.  Details tailor-made to fit us, our bodies (like cabinets that are at the right height for us shorties), our preferences (like a closet/clothes-washing combo, because why carry baskets when you can have it all in one place?), our tastes (unpainted wood, tall ceilings, funny details).  We also get a tiny mortgage (ours is mostly from the initial purchase of the land itself) that will be paid off in a couple of years.  And there’s the creative expression, a family project that everyone has worked on, a place like no other.  Memories.

Like this.  First I’ll show you the finished rocket mass stove:

bedroom heater 500

The small fire is built on the right, then the heat/smoke goes up into that iron barrel and down through channels inside the cob bench, warming everything as it goes.  The bench radiates warmth long after the fire is done.  Also, there’s that weird gourd on the barrel for the moment, just for fun, because it looks cool.

And for the memory: here are our kitty, MoMo’s footprints in the cob:

momo footprints

She came by to check it out while he was doing the final plaster.  So cute!  We’ll have those prints long after she’s gone.  You don’t get that sort of thing in a contractor built house.  There are dozens of little things like that, all over the place.

Anyway, for the last two weeks, we’ve been in the process of moving all our stuff.  Like one of those puzzle games where you slide this tile over, making room for that tile, making room for that other tile—Luc got a loft bed ($50 on craigslist WOOT), that is, a room of his own in the space that had held the big bed in the yurt.  It’s like a pirate fort, full of his things, arranged the way he likes it.  So cool!  The cedar chest in the yurt got moved, opening up space for a leather chair in Sophie’s house that had been in the closet, which means now she has a closet, which means her Table Of Stuff in the yurt is out in her place now, freeing up that table…you get the idea.  The futon that had been at the foot of the bed has moved, making room for the lego boxes that were under the piano stool, making the piano playable again.  Etc etc. It’s crazy!

What’s funny, things that don’t have even anything to do with the bedroom, like storing dishes, say, or laundry piles, suddenly are Getting Solved.  As if the whole house had been under a spell of Waiting, like the kitchens and stable-hands and courtiers when Sleeping Beauty pricked her finger and everyone fell asleep.  Suddenly they are all awake and yawning and thinking about lunch and getting back to LIFE.

I didn’t even realize we have been waiting.

The place is a MESS while we do all of this, of course.  It really is like we’re moving, although we’re only moving ten feet away, and mostly it’s in the same house, but all shuffled around as each space is retasked.  But seriously, this is it, this is our House.  Not For Now, this is IT. (Until we decide to sell (would anyone buy? but that’s another post) and go for that condo after all). It’s an amazing feeling.

Have some champagne with me and let’s raise a toast to my wonderful husband who stuck it out all the way to the end, even though it turned out to be a much, much longer project than any of us ever thought.  There is a still a bunch to do, mostly outside, turning a work site into a Yard.  But forget that, because it’s done, the house is done.  We are no longer building a house.

I just go over and sit in the quite, beautiful bedroom and feel amazed that its finally here.  Leaving things on hold for years until you forget that’s what you’re doing—and then being NOT on hold anymore…it feels like arriving, I’m here, this is it.

It’s so weird.

Bonus: Here’s the walkway from the yurt to the bedroom.  Because if you have to go outside to get to another room, you ought to at least have a lovely path to walk on while you get there.  (Cut glass circles by Sophie.  So is the mosaic on the front of the bedroom in the top pic.  Granite and bricks are all free scrap.)

bedroom 4 400

in which the nearly-finished bedroom is gorgeous and we do some final swimming

Long time readers will recall that our “house” is really more of a compound of small buildings, clustered around the yurt.  It’s bizarre, really, a strange way to build a house, but what are you going to do.  We’ve bootstrapped this thing and our mortgage is tiny, so there is that.  Unfortunately, this method of building is also long and drawn out and our primary builder has had to slow down over the years due to such setbacks as gradschool, old-freaking-age, and just being sick to death of building preferring to “sit in my leather club chair and watch tv for godsakes.” (He’s not that old, I jest.)(He is old-er, though. Forties is definitely not early thirties.)

Nevertheless, Supercoolhusband had a break from grad school a few weeks ago and got some work in on the bedroom.  Yay!  And I’ve got to say, it is looking so good!  It’s very close, now completely closed in, waiting only on the closet, the heater getting finished up, and a tiny bit of trim.  But look at that beautiful picture up there!  The front door is in!

And it’s a seriously amazing door, five feet across, stained glass, pretty damn cool.  He got it for nothing—he can’t remember, guesses $20 bucks—used, of course, and so cheap on account of a couple of cracks we can fix with freaking duct tape if necessary, because dude!  Door!  Someone threw it out rather than fix it!  He’s a master of the salvaged treasure, if you ask me.

He’s also a master of beautiful trim work.  Look what he did around the casement windows (also used, for cheap):
bedroom 2I suggested bead board for that section below the window, he went with a similar effect with cedar wood.  So pretty.

And look at this beautiful piece he did over the door.  Another used leaded glass window (with cute diamonds!) that was given to us when a friend was cleaning out his basement:

bedroom 3Here’s what it’s like when the door is closed:bedroom 4It’s still a construction site, as you can see in this corner where the rocket mass heater isn’t quite done.

bedroom heater areaBut it won’t be long now.  Something on the floor, rugs, sisal mats, something like that.  I’d love wood, but we can’t afford it right now.  Maybe later (which probably means never, haha, once the bed gets moved in, it’s all over).  It’s been a long time coming (first post where I mentioned it in 2012 in post on rocket heaters, but he had already been working on it for a year or two by then).  I’m kind of nervous about moving in.  What if I can’t sleep in it?  I’ve gotten used to the yurt!

Just kidding.

But look, here’s a couple of shots of one of sthe last swim of the season (probably, unless there’s a heat wave) just because they are awesome and because I am total denial that summer is actually over.  Where the heck did August go?? I mean, what the heck?!

luc jumping sophie jumpingThey’re such a couple of goof balls.

sophie says byeBye!


the east wall of the bedroom gets some stonework

Paul has been working on the east wall of the soon-to-be bedroom, giving it his usual creative touch.  Here is the area around the front door.  Cedar shingles and masonry, with windows above.


The timber frames make such nice borders around the various patches of materials. It’s like ADHD building, where the builder can’t stay focused on one material for longer than one 3×4 foot section.

Sophie made some little gargoyle-like faces to scare off bad luck spirits.  Here’s a close up of the right side of the door.


If I were a bad luck spirit, I would definitely assume this bedroom was already occupied and go elsewhere, wouldn’t you?  I suppose this method is predicated on the hypothesis that Good Luck is what is leftover after the Bad Luck has gone.  Whatever works, I say.

The cedar shakes are left over from the west wall, acquired years ago from Craigslist, left overs from some huge job sold for dirt cheap.  The rocks are from our land, the cost of these sections being only the bags of mortar (cheap, especially if you buy the damaged bags for half off).  And the damage to Paul’s hands and lower back.  So maybe factor in the cost of hand lotion and massage.

The the upshot is, the bedroom is this close to having four walls!  Sheetrock on the interior back wall and the ceiling is next.  Then maybe a floor.

Handbuilding a house is a slow, creative, potentially inexpensive, slow, did I mention slow, process.  Will we move the bed in in 2014?  Let us hope.

south wall is 95% up!

My cousin Noah, of Noah House fame, came to help Paul work on the bedroom for a few days.  It’s so cool to watch progress being made!

Here are the guys at work on the east wall.  Windows!


I liked this next shot because the trees were reflected in the glass….


Here is the inside of the West wall, the one with the cedar shakes outside.


It’s waiting for insulation and drywall (which I think is what Paul has decided to do with this wall).  It’s the only wall with studs and a more typical building style.  Rebellion from the slip-straw wall, I think.

For the south wall, the plan was All Glass.  But just as they were getting ready to get to it, Paul realized he only had one 4 foot wide sliding glass door—the others were all 3 foot wide.  Drat!  What to do?

We talked about closing in a foot on each corner and putting the 4″ one in the center.  Not ideal, but perhaps a reasonable compromise.  Noah suggested calling a local glass place and seeing just how much it would cost to buy sheets the size we wanted.

What?  Buy brand new materials?  Huh?

Paul scoffed.  “Time for some Craigslist-fu,” he said.  He got out his laptop and I swear to god, in ten minutes he had a line on a guy selling two 4″ sliding glass doors for $20 total.  Dude lived 20 minutes from here.  You couldn’t dial it in any more precisely than that, it was exactly what we needed.  Paul went and picked them up.  He and Noah installed them that afternoon.


The south wall!  So pretty!

I say the south wall is 95% done because there is a strip of open space still, underneath the glass that still needed to be closed in.  Window boxes maybe?

Here’s the thing: there is SO MUCH building material out there, gobs and gobs of stuff being thrown out every day.  Harvesting other people’s scrap has saved us thousands of dollars.

It takes flexibility in your approach, for sure—this isn’t going to Lowes Hardware and choosing the precise materials that define you as a person.  (Fight Club reference there.)  This is seeing what you’ve got on hand, what you can get cheap or free, and what you’d like to build, and finding some creative way to bring these things together.  Paul is a master of this.

By the way, to upcycle sliding glass doors into fixed windows like this, you want to take them apart and reverse the glass and then build new frames for the resulting glass sheets.  There is a gas between the panes in glass doors that, when the seal breaks down (which it will) lets in moisture which causes condensation between the panes.  Not good.  Plus there is a coating on the interior of the glass in glass doors that fogs over time. Turning the panes inside out lets you scrub the coating off and rebuilding a frame lets you seal it all up with new silicone to prevent condensation. You don’t want foggy windows five or ten years down the line.

So there you have it. The south wall (mostly) and some of the east wall.  Next, I think, is the masonry and cordwood in the east wall, plus this super fancy stained glass door Paul got from somewhere.  Then, the interior!  Could we be in by the end of the year???  That would be cool.

west wall of the bedroom is up!

Paul continues to build us a bedroom, a separate building from the yurt, go Paul!  We’ve started calling it, this future bedroom,”The Love Shack.”  Heh heh.  Sometimes it’s these little sillinesses that get one through the day.

The north wall was slip straw construction and you can read all about the process of doing this very inexpensive building method in my posts here, and here.  But, you see, it turns out Paul really hates doing slip straw.  So that’s a problem.  Solution: only one wall of the bedroom will be that!  Moving right along.

Along these lines, the west wall has been framed in with studs and covered with cedar shakes Paul got from a guy on Craigslist who had an extra bundle left after a huge job.  Dirt cheap, he can’t remember how much.  He’s had them in the mold pit storage shed for years.  Less that $50 he says.  And I must say, in comparison with the slip straw, this wall went very quickly.

It is super cute.

You can see the funky straw/stucco wall on the north there, then turn the corner and Boom!  It’s a whole different house.

Remember in John Crowley’s terrific novel Little, Big, the house that was a half-dozen (I can’t remember how many) houses put together?  You could walk around it and find yourself facing a Greek facade with formal gardens, turn a corner and it was an English cottage, turn a corner and it was a stone castle…

This is something like that.  Only more…humble.

You can see clear through it at this point (no east wall yet, just the timberframes), right through to our turquoise bus parked on the other side.  I think I just decided I would name that bus Santorini!  Grimmly knows why.

While I was taking these pictures of the new wall (it’s starting to feel like an actual building now!) Mochi, our cat, found a visitor on a rock right behind where I was standing.  In fact, if she hadn’t been staring so oddly, I probably would have backed up and sat right down on…

…a snake!  Yikes.

But I’m fine.  And my cousin Noah is coming over tomorrow to help with the south wall, which is to be ALL GLASS.  Recycled sliding glass doors, actually, that we also pulled out of the mold pit storage shed.

Stay tuned.

the north wall of the bedroom is finished! 3 more walls to go….

You might recall that Paul has been working on a bedroom for us and did most of the north wall in slip straw, or a clay/straw mixture, that is cheap, easy, and neat looking, but, according to Paul, and I quote, boring as fuck to do.  Anyway, he had gotten nearly through one wall, the north one, before he decided he couldn’t take it anymore, no matter how cheap it was, and he quit.

So last weekend he filled in the remaining spots with…other things.

You can see a bit of the yurt off to the left there.  I can almost touch both the bedroom and the yurt at the same time if I stand at the closest point between them and stretch my arms out.  I imagine this corridor will be walked regularly when going from the front to the back of the place. I’m thinking a little path, a few cute plants, I don’t know.  But the point it, we’ll probably be looking at this wall quite a bit as we walk by. I’m glad it’s so cool looking!  Like a patchwork quilt.  Classic Paul.

I love the little rocks he put in the masonry section here, in between the big rocks.

And this corner section with the bricks reminds me of a bookshelf.  Luc had a great time breaking the bricks into pieces to fit into the shorter rows.  He used a giant hammer.  I couldn’t watch.

But this is the best part…

Up in the corner, someones is watching us.  Hopefully this fellow will help scare away any gremlins that come by for a visit.

Next, the West Wall.  A big, recycled window has gone in already, and some plywood, plus a glass brick.  Pictures to come.

stuccoing over slip straw

I wrote up a post in December about slip straw construction, wherein an enterprising (and broke) builder might construct solid, durable walls out of nothing more than straw and clay.  Which we did, or Paul did, in the north wall of our bedroom-in-progress.  Recently the weather finally got nice for applying stucco and so Paul put the outer coats on over the straw.  It looks nice!

Actually, I just talked to Paul (“have you got any tips you want to put into my post?  any comments?” “No.” “Ah, come on…”) and he said he wants to put another layer on to make it look white instead of grey and hit the timbers with a sander to get the blotches off.  Basically make it all pretty-like.  I think it looks good as is, but he has higher standards than I do, I guess.

But I’m getting ahead of myself.

You might recall that the walls themselves went in for super cheap, around $20 a panel (there being three panels on this wall).  He did find some shrinkage around a couple of the edges, enough that he filled the gap with some spray foam insulation.

This shot is from before he quite finished, you can see the gaps at the top waiting to be filled with straw.  Those aren’t the gaps he filled with spray-insulation!  The insulation-filled gaps where the straw had shrunk as it dried were less than an inch wide.  Just thought I would clear that up.

Okay, once the straw/clay was dry enough, Paul put on lathe, a wire mesh layer, to make sure the stucco bonded well to the straw.  He also said it made the whole thing feel more tied in and solid. It took 6 panels of this, at $7 a panel.

Next came the first scratch coat.

Then the next layer.  You can actually see some of the new layer going on the lower half of this triangle, and the older, rougher layer in the upper area.  Paul says he used basically the same mortar mix for both of these layers, a combo of Portland cement, sand, and water.  We already had the sand, so hard to factor that into the cost but he said it took about two bags of Portland at $13 bucks a bag.

On the first layer, he did get some cracking in one section, so he sprayed it down with water for a day or two to make it dry more slowly, which seemed to work.

This is where it is at the moment, sans white layer and timber sanding.  It feels really solid.  I’d say, if you hit it with you hand you’ll definitely hurt your hand, although, if you hit it with a sledgehammer, you’ll hurt the wall. But sturdy.  Not a flimsy feeling wall by any means.

Oh, why is that final triangle empty?  Because Paul decided he hated this method of building so much he couldn’t bear to do even one more section of it.  As I reported in my previous post, he said, and I quote, “it sucks donkey dicks.”  Care to be more specific, my husband?  “It’s boring as fuck.”

There you have it.

He has some rocks picked out for those two smallish square sections, plans to do some stone masonry there.  I’m not sure what the plan is for that empty triangle on the far right.  Something more entertaining than slip straw.

To tally up: $60 for the straw + $0 for the clay + $40 for the cement + $40 for the lathe = $140 for this wall so far.  I like this number so much, I think the boredom factor should be irrelevant.  But…I’m not the builder.  If I was willing to do the work myself, I’m sure Paul would be all for it.  But I’ve got novels to write, you know.  I’ve got things.

When he finishes it up, I’ll post a final beauty shot.  I think it will look cool with the other panels in their own materials, kind of a crazy quilt of building methods.  What will he do next, I wonder?


slip straw construction

I posted not long ago about the timber-frame bedroom Paul has been working on for us, over on the south side of the yurt. Now that the roof and the timbers are up, he’s starting to fill in the walls. And in his usual fashion (see his tool shed for an early example), he is doing it in crazy quilt style, patches of different natural building methods depending on moisture, aesthetics, and material availability. The south wall is mostly glass, the east wall will be masonry and cordwood, the west wall I think he said something about some kind of tiles?

And for the north wall, its slip straw.

Slip straw, also known as light straw or clay straw, is mixture of clay and straw, compacted into forms until it is tight and strong and stable—remove the forms and, poof! you have a wall. Slip straw comes in somewhere between cob, which is mostly clay with chopped straw as a stabilizer, and strawbale, which is mostly straw with clay (or other stucco) as a covering. The finished wall of compacted straw, glued together with clay, before it is plastered over, looks like this:

When my mother first saw this wall, she got this look of profound distaste on her face and said, “Why would you do this?” Cracked me up. But it’s a fair question. Number one reason for building with slip straw? $$$$$. The whole north wall, not including the timbers or the plaster (don’t know the cost on the plaster until he buys it) is about $25. Yeah, I’m not missing any zeros there. Twenty-five bucks for some bales of straw. The clay is free from a hole in the ground, because North Carolina soil around here is primarily red clay.

Another reason to choose slip straw is on account of how low-tech it is. Sophie, eight years old, can, and has, helped put up these walls. It doesn’t take fancy tools or a lot of know-how. Puts building into the hands of the people, yo!

Another reason is that the walls have a really nice feel to them—I don’t mean to the touch, although they probably will once they are plastered. I mean that they are made of natural, breathable materials. You don’t feel like you are in a plastic room, breathing formaldehyde fumes from the off-gassing building supplies. Because you aren’t.

Okay, let me show you the process. It starts with clay. And water.

You dig up some clay and you soak it to let the clay particles absorb as much water as they can hold. Some people do a bunch of filtering and shaking it through screens and such, but we (and by “we” I mean “Paul”) didn’t mess with all that. We don’t need a refined wall here because 1) its exterior and 2) the other side will be behind a wall of closets.

Okay, so you soak and stir the clay until you’ve got a nice slurry, about the consistency of heavy cream.

Then, while that’s soaking, you install “keys” onto the timberframe slots. These are bits of wood running along the inner edges of the timbers that the straw will be pounded around to kind of lock the straw into place. Here’s a picture of the keys in one spot of the wall:

This shot was taking after he had done one tier of straw packing, but you can see the keys sticking out from the sides of the timbers. As the straw dries over time, it shrinks, so you don’t want to be able to just push the whole straw wall through! The keys will help with that. Actually, Paul forgot the keys in one section and you can already see a bit of light around the edges as the straw has shrunken in. Hmmm. Might have to do something about that.

Anyway, next, you mix the straw and the clay slurry together. Paul used a wheelbarrow full at a time.

You want the straw evenly coated with the clay. Paul experimented with various ratios in different parts of the wall. We’ll see over the long term, whether one recipe or another works better, but in the short term, they all seem about the same. As long as you have enough clay to make it all stick together, you’re good.

Next you screw plywood sheets up over the space to create a form in which you are going to pound the straw.

You dump, then stuff, the clay covered straw into the wall-shaped space made between the plywood sheets…

…and then the primary work of slipstraw begins. The pounding.

Basically, you use a piece of 2×4 and you bang it into the straw, adding more straw by the handful as you go, pounding and pounding and pounding to compress the straw as much as possible.

Slave labor helps.

Seriously, little kids can do this! Easy peasy.

After you’ve hammered the heck out of a section, packing it with straw, you get to the Fun Part: taking off the forms and seeing the wall you made.

You then take those same piece of plywood and screw them in one tier higher up and repeat the filling/pounding procedure.

As you go up the wall, you need scaffolding or ladders in order to get to the higher sections of wall. And when you get to the very top, you have to figure out tricks to pound UP into the remaining hole, or sideways, until there is just a small hold left.

The last hole in that triangular section! This is the same wall from the inside. Paul filled that hole, by the way, with a glob that was higher in clay content, more on the cob side of things, and smoothed it into place.

Here’s how the wall looks at present….

Paul tells me he has a single rock that fits into one of those lower rectangles, and he plans to brick in the other. Leaving one triangular section and the top bits to go in slip straw.

When it’s dry, it will get the plaster layer and hopefully look all pretty and cool like this:

Straw, clay, plaster and timberframe can last for centuries!

All right, thats all the pluses, how about the down side? Paul says: it’s boring. Boring boring boring. Actually his exact words were, “it’s fucking boring and takes for-fucking-ever.” he clarified this with, “if you are unskilled and have a lot of time and not much money, it’s great. But if you are skilled and don’t have much time, its a pain in the ass.”

There you have it! He’s been surviving the boring with “This American Life” on the radio (i love that show) and mixing it up with other building tasks. But this is why the bedroom will have only one wall of slip straw. The price is right but Paul needs power tools to keep his interest. So be it!

Here are some other folks doing slip-straw construction and blogging about it, here, here, here, and here. Here is an interesting thread on the permies (as in permiculture, I think) forum. And here is a cute video of a guy and his kids doing the walls in their house. Very informative! It’s the same guys as in the second link in that list of blogs.

More posts on this when he finishes the wall and starts plastering. It’s exciting to have some walls going in, makes it feel like an actual building, like maybe we’ll have a bedroom one day. Cross my fingers!

the jerry rigged life

After yesterday’s “poor-me” post I got several emails from people who were worried that the kids and I were wrapping our feet in rags and huddled around a candle flame to keep warm, a la The Little Match Girl (one of THE most depressing stories I ever had the misfortune of reading as a child, landed on it right in the middle of a fairy tale book, damn thing sprung on me like I had just seen a grown man kick a puppy, don’t read that story!).  But hey, listen, we’re fine!  We’re warm!  We have a ginormous propane heater that isn’t nearly as nice as the radiator but it works and plus we have down comforters and silk long underwear!  I just like to complain a lot, its a sickness, we all have our crosses to bear and I am my family’s!  Please don’t worry.  Really, we’re fine.

The red-caped…person? alien? entity?…from Journey.

Besides, we downloaded (after much swearing on my part, who designed this stupid system?!) a game on the ps3, “Journey,” which is very beautiful and interesting and we stayed up Way Too Late playing it, waiting for Paul to get home from his trip.  Which he did, finally, yay!  And he built a fire and now all is right in the yurt once again.

But see, we’ve got one of those held-together-with-spit-and-string housing situations, you know what I mean, it comes of hand-building your house a room at a time with no mortgage, boot-strapping as you go, using recycled materials and used parts and just generally making shit up.  Most houses have a few of those tricky items, like, you have to turn the hot water tap backwards, or the thermostat is broken so you have to guess the temperature, or that door knob sticks

If Kaylee could keep Serenity flying, maybe she could have helped me make the stove work.

Except we’ve got oodles of them, the way the on-demand hot water heater turns off if you don’t have enough water pressure, and the front door knob that has to be twisted the right way, and the sink faucet that is stuck, and wires that have to be switched out to go from gaming system to dvd player, and the way to prime the front burner on the stove, and the special way to hold broken handle on the dish-washer.  It’s hilarious.  Duct tape is our friend.  It’s what I imagine living on the Serenity was probably like in “Firefly.”  Kaylee was the ultimate Make Do with what you’ve got kind of gal.  You set up a work around, you fix it good enough for now.  “For now” being a range from one to ten years.

MacGyver is so cool!

And our water stove (old blog post on this crazy contraption here) is a giant heap of these little tweaks and quirks.  The fan switch is iffy so you have to unplug it to turn it off.  The temperature gauge is blackened over so you just have to know where the numbers used to be.  If you stack the wood inside just so, it will light better because of the draft from the fan hitting it, once the door is closed. The pump will trip the circuit if you don’t prop this piece of metal over it when it rains.  Etc.  I only know a few of them, to be honest.  Paul is, I’m convinced, the only human who can really run the thing, because he’s the guy who put all these work arounds in place. He is the MacGyver of wood stoves.  Without the mullet.

And THAT is why I couldn’t get a fire going.  I was doing something wrong in the intricate web of Making the Heater Work.  I didn’t have the Secret Knowledge.

But its fine.  You just have to have good cheer about these things.  Yes, I believe that some people have houses and cars that work perfectly all the time and they just get someone in to fix everything back to 100% whenever they need to.  But, barring that impossibly shiny fantasy, we smile and do whatever we do to keep the ball rolling and the plates spinning in the air a little longer.  It’s a superpower.  It’s the Kaylee-MacGyver-Paul superpower.

And now I am going to go write that scene (see previous post) or DIE TRYING.

when building yourself a house by hand, the tortoise wins the race

Paul has been working on the soon-to-be bedroom and has just passed the milestone of getting the roof dried in.  This is carpenter speak for “it’s okay if it rains on it now.”  It’s going to be a living roof, meaning it’s going to have plants growing up there.  I don’t know what kind yet.  Maybe strawberries.

Here he is, standing on high density foam stuff layer that keeps the screws that hold the plywood (underneath the black stuff) from piercing that rubbery layer he is about to spread out.  These are all technical terms, you know.

How does he know how to do all this?  I have no idea.  Probably google.

Here he is spreading out that rubbery layer that he got for a song on craigslist:

That rubber layer weighs a TON and I have no idea how he got it up there all by himself.  It involved a winch and a ladder.  And a bunch of swearing.  Anyway, that layer is impervious to UV and water and all of that, and you just put the dirt right on top of it and plant stuff in the dirt.  Cool, huh?

Anyway, he was pleased as punch to finish this step. Here he is, resting from his labors:

Building by yourself, with no budget, and no help, while holding down a full time job, is a slow process.  You eek out a bit of progress whenever you can, inching towards the finish line.  The result is a handmade building with art in all the details, plus mistakes from your learning curve, slow progress, but no mortgage.  Everything has its pros and cons.

I went up there to take these pictures and nearly had a panic attack when it was time to climb down.  I am such a pussy.  Paul, on the other hand, used to be a rock climber, so he likes to stand on the edge and dangle himself half off just to scare me.  Men.

But look at the lovely timber-frame work he’s been doing down in the actual room.  The bays with the peaks will be glass and the others will be filled in with straw-clay.  He keeps saying the kids and I will be doing that part, so clearly he is nuts.

It’s going to be beautiful.  One day.