***We hope to share building updates on this blog every week or two. While it may sound like Beth is writing it (using “I”), it is a compilation of all of our experiences- the construction, people-connection, and design perspectives of Tim, Kate and Beth. We hope you’ll join us in our natural building adventure – through this blog or, better yet, by digging in with your own two hands!
We are so lucky to have terrific people involved in this project.
Gary Blankenship of Lucourt Contracting will be in charge of the foundation, framing, and roof. He is willing to try his hand at some unconventional building shapes- spirals, curves, cones- instead of the typical 90-degree angle. Gary and team built our perfect yellow house two years ago- so we have complete faith in him! And Tim, with all his years of home repair and carpentry projects, will be on Gary’s team- problem-solving and offering a hand.
Our daughter Kate is the project manager. Traveling all the way from San Diego, she brings a basket full of skills: construction experience from rebuilding in New Orleans with Americorps; managing events and guests as hostess on a shark-diving boat; organization skills from being a personal assistant.
And I’ll be choreographing the process (and pitching in everywhere I’m needed) Definitely a generalist, not a specialist !
Sigi Koko, natural building guru, drew up the design of our little cottage after a year of asking great questions and listening deeply to my vision of a tiny artist oasis. She will now lead each of our building workshops- teaching workers the skills they need to help us complete each phase of construction.
Our tiny building is going to be big on passive solar design.
The south-facing wall will be full of windows- letting the sun shine in to be absorbed into clay walls and floor. Large roof overhangs will block the too-hot summer sun, while allowing warming rays in from the winter sun lower in the sky. On the west side, a few small windows will allow in light but prevent the extreme late afternoon heat from spiking the interior temperature.
On the north side there will be almost no windows- just a few key “zen” views that allow a peek at the river and ventilation when needed. Uninsulated glass is the mostly likely place for precious warm/cool air to escape.Lastly, the east side will include a moon window (to enjoy the early night moon “rise”), morning-light window over the sink and two high windows over the sculpted sitting nook. Both east and west sun can provide nice light (especially east) but are too unpredictable to use in a big way for heating and cooling. South is king in passive solar design.
While Gary was on the phone renting equipment, we looked over our “shopping list” of supplies from our own property. This winter I began hauling field stone from the hedgerows to use for the base of the cob oven and the studio. Tim located a good spot for a pond and will dig up the soil from there. Hopefully we can also find a fallen tree with a curved limb to serve as the entryway arch. Straw bales will arrive from a local farmer.
Sigi showed us how to assess the soil on our site for its cob suitability. Cob will be the clay mixture we use to mortar stone, sculpt walls and then thinned for clay plaster to seal the strawbale walls. Tim dug up a bucket of soil (excluding any organic matter in the topsoil) from the pond spot. After seeing how reddish-tan it was, we were optimistic it was full of clay.
Then we took a blob of soil and rolled it into a ball. It quickly formed a little cannon ball that did not crumble when dropped. Only clay can do that! Yep, we have clay. And looks like we won’t need a liner for that future pond- it’ll be more like a clay fish bowl!
Lastly Sigi set up a shake test in a canning jar. (see more about cob to learn about cob and soil testing).
A simple shake test determines relative percentages of clay and sand contained in the soil. It works because clay remains suspended in water, whereas sand and silt sink in water. 1. Fill approximately ¼ of a glass jar with crumbled soil (free of visible stones).
2. Fill to the top with water, close the lid, and shake well, until all of the clay is dispersed.
3. Set the jar down on a level surface and watch for 10 seconds. All of the sandy solids will settle to the bottom. Draw a line on the jar at the top of the sand. The water remains cloudy with clay.
4. When the water becomes completely clear, draw another line at the top of the settled clay. The ratio between the height of the sand and the height of the clay represents the ratio of sand to clay in the soil. Note: it is difficult to differentiate silt in this test, as silt is similar to sand, only smaller and spherical.
Therefore our final cob mixture will be made up of approximately 1 part Taproot soil, 1 part sand, and lots of straw. Straw will provide the tensile strength since stalks of straw resemble little trees- strong and stretch resistant.
As you can see, we are truly building our little studio from the ground up!
Next Steps: Digging the rubble trench foundation next week; framing/roof in late April and May; and setting up the May- Sept. building workshops to train our workers.