Cob Workshop Approved!

Come and build a cob workshop with us! This summer we are offering an opportunity for learning about building with cob while constructing a woodworking shop on Pender Island.  Details about registering are at the end of this post.

During the last month, Colin has been working on drawing the plans for his woodworking shop that we are building this summer.  He has been using a small area in his dads workshop for a long time, and the limitations of that space are more and more apparent. Since his business ( www.thujawoodart.com) is what pays for all our land and home building projects, it was obvious to us that the next thing on the list would be a permanent space for him to expand into, with proper space for wood sorting and storage.  Since we are building within the Capital Regional District (CRD), everything we do needs to be permitted and inspected for compliance with the building codes.  Colin’s dream of building a load bearing cob workshop was thus dependent on the engineer that we have been working with throughout the construction of our strawbale house.  For the past three years, Colin has been giving him a heads-up about this plan, and sending along information and history about the processes and strengths of cob.

From Home Work, an inspiring sky lit workshop

The design that Colin has imagined was inspired by a photo in Lloyd Kahn’s book, Home Work, showing a workshop with a huge central skylight.  Colin’s design entails a large skylight, (8×12), supported by a timber frame in the center of the roof, with the posts coming down into the center of the room, and the roof rafters fanning out from the skylight to rest on the cob wall.  In this way, the walls are supporting a slightly less load than if the roof had no posts at all, and our engineer was happy to approve the designs without any other additions besides some re-bar within the stone foundation and a concrete stem wall beneath the stones for reinforcement of the foundation for seismic standards.  We sent him a video that was filmed at UBC showing a cob building built on to a seismic shaker platform, and given the equivalent shake of a 7 earthquake.  (Ask An Expert-Cob Construction).  A city engineer was witness to the demonstration, and after the building showed minimal cracking, it was subjected to a 9, at which point a wall section crumbled but the roof remained entirely intact.  Seismic qualifications are important considerations in this area, and our engineer was quite satisfied to approve our project with the information we were able to pass on to him.   We are pretty excited about this approval- there are not many engineer approved load bearing cob buildings out there yet.

a cob wall on a stone foundation

We hope that the more exposure alternative building has in the world of construction, the more it will be seen as a viable option in certain circumstances with a understandable set of guidelines and standards in place to keep the buildings safe, healthy, and affordable.  I don’t imagine that cob houses will become a “normal” way of building, but we would love to see the doors opening so that those who wish to build with cob can do so without unnecessary expense and obstacles for something that is really so easy and widely applicable.

So now,  we are organizing some cob workshops for building the cob workshop!  Here is what we are offering this summer:

camping will be in the meadow beside the swimming pond

Join Colin and Wendi, with Tracy Calvert of Cobworks, www.cobworks.com to learn and build load-bearing cob walls onto a stone foundation.  Besides covering the basics of cobbing, we will include the finer details of working around door and window frames, constructing arches and niches, using wood lintels and exploring creative bottle and glass placement designs. Discussions will provide opportunities for questions and further site specification points, as well as other aspects of natural building.  Camping sites are available in the meadow beside the swimming pond, with an outdoor shower and composting toilet. Vegetarian meals will be provided, please inform us of any special food needs ahead of time. Two positions are available for intensives covering both workshops and extra time between and/or after, as self-directed opportunities to learn more. Also, cabin facilities are possible for any needs of circumstance. It is our hope that cob and natural building construction can be widely available methods of building for a diverse, creative, and compassionate community.

the site of the future workshop will be where the pile of logs is, against the rock slope

August 10-13 (Friday to Mon. encouraged to arrive thursday night)

August 17-20 (Friday to Mon. encouraged to arrive thursday night)

Intensive including both courses and 3 days in between with extra instruction at $950 (with possibility to volunteer and stay later afterwards.)

Early bird pricing at $380 until July 27/ Aug 3, then full price of $420 after that.

Comment on this post to register, and we will be sure to email our reply.

The Earthen Floor

burnishing the floor at the "leathery" stage

The south room floor is the one spot in the house where we continued with our plan for laying out an earthen floor, in hopes of capturing the heat of the southern sun that streams in during the winter months.  The rest of the house, which was originally intended to be an earthen floor, became cork flooring due to some time pressures and uncertainties regarding the success of the earthen floor process. (See my previous post titled The Layers Beneath Our Feet for a total description of the floor.)  We found lots of information, tips, recipes, ideas, things that didn’t work, and things that did from a variety of resources, some of which contradicted each other, or were from climates very different from ours, or which used materials that were unavailable or too expensive for us.

lots of considerations and discussions

Figuring out what to do was challenging.  Tracy joined us again for the experience of mixing and laying our earthen floor, and we are grateful to her for sharing her observations and experiences of working with natural plasters.  (Tracy is our natural plaster and straw bale teacher.)  We wanted to use what we had and we felt most comfortable with techniques that were familiar to us from the wall plastering that we had just completed.  Cracking seemed to be the biggest common result, and one that is difficult to fix without a very messy look.  We heard of filling the cracks with different coloured plaster to create a marbled look, but we never found a source of a good example of this method.  A certain amount of experimentation, intuition, applied knowledge and trust was going to be needed.  This was the point at which we were grateful that it was now only a small 200 square feet that we had to do.

clay slip

We decided to follow (loosely) a set of well laid out steps and recipe ideas from Anne and Gord Bailey, of Eco-Sense on Vancouver Island, ecosenseliving.wordpress.com.  We adapted the recipe to what we had available, which was screened clay mixed into a slurry, red clay mixed into a slurry, stucco sand, horse manure, straw, and some red pigment.  We started by laying down a cob sub floor at a depth of 3/4 inch using a mix that resembled our second coat of wall plaster.  When that was dry we mixed up the top layer in 5 gallon buckets, then tried a technique we saw on the internet of laying burlap all over the floor area, wetting it and slopping clay slip as a binder then troweling on the 1/4 inch thick top layer.  I am breezing through the details here because it didn’t work.  We thought that the burlap would help reduce the shrinkage factor of the clay that leads to cracking, but it didn’t at all, and it also prevented the top layer from bonding well to the layer below the burlap.  We think it dried too fast, the layer was not wet enough, the burlap wasn’t soaked well enough, or there was just too much clay content in the mix to begin with.

troweling on the top layer

So we ripped it up!  Just chipped through to the burlap and pulled, and it lifted too easily.  We crumbled it back into the buckets, then worked out a few new ratios of higher sand and straw contents.  We laid out some sample areas and let them dry to see how the cracking went, and decided to make the mix with 4 parts sand, and one part clay slip.  Because of the remixing, it is hard to say what the quantities were for the various other ingredients.

sifted manure

Fibers (manure and straw) were around 1 1/2 parts, and water content was based entirely on feel and how the mixer spun.  Not too wet, not too runny.

This time we left out the burlap.  We also poured buckets of water all over the floor the night before to keep the cob subfloor cool and to prevent it from sucking moisture out of the layer we troweled on top.  We hung blankets over the windows to try to keep the summer sun from hitting it right away.  It took a whole day of two people troweling on hands and knees to get our 200 square feet covered once again, then while it slowly dried we lay planks across the floor so we could burnish it, giving it a polished look while compressing it more, and hoping to prevent too many cracks.  The outcome was 90% better than the first try.  We had a few thin cracks, mostly where it dried the fastest, and no lifting.

The recommended method for fixing the cracks was to use some left over plaster.

the worst of the cracking after the second try

We dried it out, crushed it, screened it through window screen, then sprinkled it into the cracks while wetting the area with a mister and troweling it smooth as best as we could.  There was a bit of texture difference for sure, but we decided that it was a natural floor overall and a bit of texture was fine!  Then we began with the oiling and waxing.  This was another reason we were glad to have done only a small portion of our floor- we brushed on 3 coats of boiled linseed oil, and two coats of Land Ark oil, which contains beeswax, tong oil, linseed oil, citrus extract, and pine rosin.  Land Ark is made with only natural, non-altered ingredients from sustainable resources, without chemical processing, bleaching, or harmful additives.

oiling with linseed oil

We have also used it on the timber frame,door and window trims, the baseboards, and the ceiling boards.  It actually feels great to get on my skin, and I love the smell of it as I have done much of the staining.  For more info on a great product- www.landarkwoodfinish.com.  The cost of this oil runs at about $85 a gallon, so we were hesitant about what it may have cost in oil to finish a larger area of floor, since we didn’t know how many coats the floor would take.  We read that it could be anywhere between 3 and 10, with at least 2 being the straight linseed oil.  Then we waxed the floor, using another natural wax from Land Ark, and then buffing it hard with a buffer.  The golden flecks of straw suddenly jumped out, and the places of various texture and colour deepened and settled in.

The best part of the finishing of the floor was not anything that we read or heard about in all of our earthen floor research, and so here I would like to add it in as a recommended part of laying an earthen floor.  Don’t move in any furniture, but set up the stereo.  Lite some candles, build an altar, and invite as many people as can dance on your floor.  Put on a rocking playlist, strip off the socks and stomp, swirl, boogie, laugh, and send all that energy of celebration, gratitude, and joy through the soles of your feet  into the hard work and beauty of the earth.  That’s what we did, quite unexpectedly.  We felt warmly supported by our friends, and happy to finally be able to open our space for gathering together and sharing what we have.

Final Plastering

This summer, we have finally completed the last layers of the inside wrap of the house, including all the flooring and the final coat of clay based plaster on all the walls.  This last layer of clay plaster was much more particular in recipe and in application than the rest of the rough layers, and calls for it’s own chapter in explanation.  (I have already outlined the procedure for the rough coats of plaster in a previous posting, Natural Plaster.)  I would like to express my understanding of our process in openness to the many other recipes, methods, and materials that have been used with success throughout time and in many different places.

My experience is limited to our one house here on the west coast of Canada.  However, we have also been guided by our friend Tracy Calvert who has compiled her own knowledge and experience and has willingly and generously passed it on to us throughout our journey.  The ingredients in the recipe that we used are kaolin clay, stucco sand, fine straw, whiting (calcium carbonate), paper pulp, rice flour, and a small amount of borax and white glue.  The Kaolin clay is a fine powdered porcelin clay that was purchased at a pottery supply store, as well as the whiting, which is basically a chalk filler.

We used finely chopped straw left over from baling, but we also used an alternate fiber material of bulrush down, the fluffy insides of cattail heads harvested before they turn inside out.  The sand is just fine washed stucco sand, and the rice flour is mixed with hot water and made into a glutinous paste.  We soaked newspaper overnight and then pulped it up with our paddle mixer, which we used to make the plaster in buckets.  Ratios are as follows :  6 parts sand, 4 parts clay powder, 2 parts whiting, 1 part straw, and 2 parts paper pulp, 3/4 part rice flour mix,  a handful of borax, and two or three glugs of glue.  One part for us was a 1 1/4 litre bucket.  First we dry mixed in 5 gallon buckets the sand, clay, whiting and straw, then added the paper pulp and enough water to make the mix spin easily but stiffly.

Because we were going to wait to plaster the next day, we left the mixes at this stage overnight.  When we were ready to plaster, we added the rest of the ingredients and any colour pigment we were using, then compiled three of the buckets into a big tub and mixed them thoroughly together.  This helps with consistency of ingredient quantities as well as getting the bottoms of the buckets mixed in well. For colour pigments, we did some test samples using tablespoons of pigment to 1 litre of mix, then allowed the samples to dry to the finish shade.  We then multiplied the tablespoon quantity for the amount of litres in the 5 gallon buckets (some estimating was definitely relied upon) and added that amount of tablespoons of pigment per bucket.  Finally we were ready to put it on the walls!  We sprayed the walls with water to help bond the two layers together, then considered how to plaster each section without stopping or ending up with long edges of plaster that are left a little too long and begin to dry out.  Unlike the regular clay plaster, there is only so much re-wetting that the plaster can take before it is too difficult to smoothly work new plaster up to it without leaving lines or smudgy areas.  This sensitivity to time makes considerations of temperature and air flow quite important, and usually requires two or three people working together for smooth going.  We had two of us plastering, and one person in charge of mixing up new mixes, moving ladders, bringing coffee, keeping the music flowing, and generally making it possible for us to keep working our lines until a section is done.  We spent almost five days in total plastering the whole inside of our house, which worked out to be about 1200 square feet of wall and used approx. 27 buckets of mix  (one mix being one recipe.)  We used japanese trowels, bought through the internet, and homemade hawks (rectangles of plywood with a handle on one side), as well as a few smaller tools for tight corners and edges, and yogurt lids with the rim cut off for shaping curves. Generally, we covered an area with overlapping rainbow swipes, then flattened them all down in larger sweeping motions.  We plastered over drywall as well, which we had prepared with glue and sand to provide a grippy surface.

All the kickboards and window and door trim were put in place first so that the final plaster came to meet the trim and seal any spaces.  We also tiled the sills of some of the windows before hand.  At a certain time of dryness, we went over the whole wall with a damp sponge to blur any lines and troweling marks, then at another certain point in dryness we burnished the whole wall with a yogurt lid.  This brings up the clay and pushes in any sand, and gives the plaster a certain polish that makes it more durable and smooth.

We are so happy about our earthen walls, from the clay slip through the rough coats and finally plastered with the finished layer.  I began this house knowing absolutely nothing about natural plaster, and although it took lots of work and patience, it provided a full scope of learning the art of earthen plaster.  There is always more to learn, and I look forwards to continuing on and developing my methods and skills throughout the second half of the house.  I am so very grateful to Tracy for leading us on this path and providing support as well as space for us to take it on and call it our own.  The passing on of this type of skill is important to her as we share and expand our self- sustaining abilities for building beautiful and healthy homes.

Eco-Homes Tour and Symposium

A comment that we hear regularly from those visiting our strawbale house is that not everyone who wants to have a naturally built house is capable of doing it themselves.  Indeed, it takes a lot of hard work, research, material searching, building skills, tools, and time to go through the process as a home builder of any type of project.  Anyone without such prerequisites but with a desire and willingness to learn certainly can go for it, but there are many out there for whom it is more realistic to hire someone else to build them a home.  This is prevalent within the conventional building industry, but where does one look to find a straw bale crew?  A natural plaster expert to source materials and use their knowledge of crafting healthy walls?  What about an architect who will consider the natural light and water conditions of your chosen spot?  All of these job positions are readily available for the standard house, but difficult to find for alternatives.

On Pender Island, a group of people wanting to promote various aspects of natural building have formed the Eco-Homes Network, in hopes of being able to provide services and information for anyone seeking to build a healthy home, as well as networking with other builders in the community to create a greater awareness of alternative materials and systems.  Education for clients as well as builders is a large step towards integrating healthier building practices into any house or project, whether it is classified as “eco-friendly” or not.  Why limit ourselves with labels and categories?  Any system that takes pressure off the resources of the earth and saves money in the long term is just a good idea to consider.  The Eco-Homes Network consists of Rob Zuk – a solar systems consultant, Ken Rempel – an architectural designer, Garrett McLeod – a traditional timber framer and carpenter, Colin Hamilton – artistic woodworker and natural builder, Tracy Calvert – an extensive natural builder and master of earthen plastering, and Jude Farmer –  a woodworker and man of many skills.  In fact, everyone in the group has many crossover skills and knowledge spanning many years of different experiences within the building industry, including roofing, tiling, stonework, workshop leadership, landscaping, flooring, and planning.

For two years, the Eco-Homes Network has set up a demonstration zone at the Pender Fall Fair and has hosted an eco-homes tour as part of an effort to educate people about natural building practices, and to showcase the many beautiful homes around us that incorporate different aspects of the industry.  At the Fall Fair, everyone has been invited to squish their toes in cob and plaster mixes, and try their hands at spreading the mix over a demonstration wall of bales in a timber frame.  There also has been many books to gaze through, knowledgeable people to talk to, and a photo board of projects to look over.  Many people get a good sense of the simplicity, creativity, and beauty that encompasses the building of a natural house.  The Eco-Homes tour, which takes place a week later on Labour Day, is a self directed tour of up to 10 houses around the island, and has showcased houses made with chip-slip walls, strawbale, cob, cordwood and Faswall blocks (compressed recycled wood chip blocks), and including features such as earthen floors, living roofs, natural plaster, rain water catchment systems, hydronic in-floor heating, solar hot water, passive solar, composting toilets, and countless other details and creative touches that make up a complete picture of a natural house.  Some of the houses have been in the construction phase, allowing visitors to see the layers of some of the processes.  There have been over 150 people from the locals to travellers from the mainland and Vancouver Island each year, asking many questions and hopefully taking some ideas back to their own homes.  All proceeds from the previous tours have gone to the Pender Community Hall and to the Pender Island Farmland Acquisition Project.  This year, proceeds will help the growing Pender Community Transition movement, to build a more sustainable island.

The Eco-Homes Network is adding a new element to the tour this year.  On Sunday, September 4th, The Building Around Water Symposium will be a day  focusing on water systems and living roofs as well as a mini tour featuring houses with such systems for viewing.  The six houses on the tour will be open for visitors in the morning, then symposium events will be commencing at the community hall in the afternoon.  All the homes are located along Port Washington road, within a few kilometers of the hall, and would make a beautiful morning walk, jog, bike ride, or car stop!  Lunch will be available for purchase at the hall at noon, with speakers beginning at one o’clock.  Water on the gulf islands, as well as in many other climates world wide, is a concern needing immediate addressing and rethinking in terms of efficient usage and collection systems.  Droughts and shortages have become more widespread as our climates shift, reminding us of the valuable place that water holds in our lives.  Adam Scheuer, president of Water Tiger Rainwater Harvesting, will give a talk and answer questions regarding rainwater collection systems.  Living roofs are a great way to incorporate water catchment, as well as maximize water absorption and minimize water evaporation while providing more habitat for birds and bees.  Living roofs are gaining lots of attention as features of large commercial scale developments, but they are also beneficial for residential homes, and so there will be a presentation on the installing and maintenance of green roof systems.  In our marine climate zone, there is much concern around the use of vapour barriers.  Many alternative wall systems, such as strawbale, cob or chip slip, provide a breathable wall which does not require a vapour barrier but does now require an envelope engineer such as Ben Martin, who will talk about designing and building with thermal mass wall assemblies, vapour barriers and codes.  Starting at 6:30, there will be a show and tell slideshow by our local builders demonstrating their own creative, recycled, sustainable, and artistic projects.  Anyone wishing to add their 5 minute, 10 photo presentation to the line-up can contact Colin Hamilton at 250-629-6608.  This part of the day will be free to all.  The rest of the days’ events are $20 per adult, children under 18 are free.  The Eco-Homes Network has a new website to help promote the vision of building healthy homes.   www.ecohomesnetwork.com

The Living Roof- One Year Later

I like to imagine the view of my house from all the places in which any living thing may be gazing.  Before the population explosion of humans and the development of the shelters we build for ourselves, the view from the sky would have been quite a different scene.  With uninterrupted tracts of habitats absorbing the sun and the rain and providing possibilities of nesting places and food, birds and insects had much more to choose from.  Roofs, of course, aren’t the only dead spots in bird and plant habitat, but they are thankfully gaining recognition as an important factor in green building design for homes as well as for commercial and industrial scale buildings for many reasons.  Despite their centuries old history in Scandanavian countries, green roofs are just coming into modern construction as cutting edge eco-design around the world.  In 2008, the Vancouver Convention Centre installed a six-acre living roof of indigenous plants and grasses on its West building, making it the largest green roof in Canada.  Combating the urban heat island effect is one reason for creating a green roof –  traditional building materials soak up the sun’s radiation and re-emit it as heat, making cities at least 4 degrees Celsius (7 °F) hotter than surrounding areas. On Chicago’s City Hall, which features a green roof, roof temperatures on a hot day are typically 1.4–4.4 degrees Celsius (2.5–8.0 °F) cooler than they are on traditionally roofed buildings nearby.  As well as adding insulation value, green roofs decrease the total amount of runoff and slow the rate of runoff from the roof, retaining up to 75% of rainwater and gradually releasing it back into the atmosphere via condensation and transpiration. 

Our little 900 square feet of living roof is certainly small scale compared to the big picture of global sprawl, but it falls into our value of every little drop creates the ocean.  We still have two more roof sections when the rest of the house is built, and we plan on planting those up as well.  For a description of how we constructed our green roof, please see the older post in the Natural Building category called The Living Roof.  We planted the plants one year ago and I have been pleased with the growth of the many varieties, which have spread considerably and seem to be greatly enjoying the view as they take turns flowering.  We used many clumps of stonecrop which were growing on the rocks where the foundation was to be built, as well as hens and chicks, sedums of varying colourations, ice plants, and a few other varieties of winter hardy succulents that I am not sure what they are.  All the plants were propagated from friends’ gardens, given as gifts, or collected from the property.  I haven’t done any watering and I figure that whatever doesn’t survive in the natural climate just won’t have a place on the roof.   Along the center spine of the roof, I set the stonecrop in a large infinity symbol, with the hens and chicks filling in the circles.  Most of the stonecrop flowered, creating a lovely yellow outline, and I hope that in the next few years this symbol will become more defined as an offering to the element of the ethers, and to the winged creatures that I hope will stop for a rest during their journeys across the skies.      


The Truth Window

A traditional feature of strawbale houses is the truth window – an opening through which one can see the straw inside the walls.  Like every strawbale house, truth windows are unique and creative, providing a little peek into the golden stems.  Truth windows often take on the role of an altar, bringing gratitude for the sources of our materials and reminding us of the reasons for the choices we have made.  We have seen truth windows as elaborate wood frames, recycled metal grates, little doors that open to reveal the straw, and anything in between.  We went through a few different designs before we finally settled on the simple use of the clay plaster as a sculpting medium in which to frame and hold in place the piece of glass against the bales.  I decided to build out the bottom of the frame to create a small ledge in which to place little treasures, much like the objects that adorn an altar.

First we trimmed out a recessed area of the bales by about 4 inches and set the glass in place.  I used a pair of chopsticks to help hold up the plaster that would shape the top curves of the frame, then applied a first coat of plaster.  With the second coat of plaster, I built up the shape that I wanted in the curves, and added the little reveals above and below the frame.  The beautiful thing about such a sculptural style of building is that you can really make it up as you go, erasing and starting over, correcting and being surprised by what happens.  I haven’t done much sculptural work in my past, so getting the picture of what was in my head on to the wall was an interesting challenge of dexterity and a good lesson in flexibility.  What the truth window ultimately ended up being was a combination of a vague idea and surprise.

For the finish plaster,  I used the coloured plaster that Tracy and I had made up for our colour samples for the front room.  We ended up with a beautiful orange that was too dark for the whole room, but would make the truth window stand out against a lighter shade of the same colour.  We haven’t done the rest of the room yet, but we are working on getting all the other prep details done so we can do the final plaster sometime in July.  So for right now, our finished truth window sits lovely and peaceful amongst the strew of construction and chaos.  We look forwards to sitting just below it, eating our meals and rotating our treasures in gratitude for the soil, the sun, the rain, the seeds and the hands that cared for what has become the walls of our home.      

Have Bales, Build Walls

Colin and I explored and learned about many alternative building materials, but strawbale construction was not one of them.  The closest we came to seeing them in use on the west coast was as a north wall in a hybrid house with a southern cob wall.  It made sense- cob being a poor insulator but with beefy, heat sink mass wall, and bales being great for insulation in places that receive little sun.  Strawbales have been reported to have an R value (insulation measurement) of anywhere between 30 and 60 (with code minimum being 25 here).  We also learned that such decisions should ultimately be made when the land is chosen and the building site has been  observed for weather patterns, with an open mind free from any construction type bias.  We first considered strawbales when we began asking around to people in our community, and found a few existing strawbale houses, and one friend in particular who has built with many different types of alternative materials.  Tracy soon became our walking resource.  (Yes, the same Tracy I mentioned in the natural plastering post.)

Our building site is perched on the top of a bedrock slope facing due south, but with a longer east/west side, so while we have full sun all year, we also need lots of insulation to capture the rays with as much passive solar practices as possible.  The rectangular shape of the space available between the outcrops of rock made the use of bales easy to apply.  The bales provide infill walls only, as we designed the timber frame structure to hold the weight of the roof, which extends out with a 2 and a half foot overhang on all sides to keep our rainy climate away from the walls.  All the strawbales came from Mitchell’s, a family owned farm on the Saanich Peninsula.  They had an excess of barley bales that year, and as we inquired about 700 bales needed for our house as well as for a workshop that our friends were building at the same time, they were happy to help with a reduced cost and extra arms loading them into the moving truck that we rented to move them over to the island.  We used the structure of our roof and timber frame as a place to stack all the bales together while we worked on a few things that needed to be in place before the bales went into the walls.

We constructed the toe-ups for the bales- a step of sorts that the bales sit on.  This is a path of 2×4 lumber on it’s side, bolted into the foundation, and filled with drain rock.  We heard of people using crushed glass (from recycling depot), or corks (lots of trips to the recycling depot!) or anything that provides fill with air gaps.  We also used these toe-ups as a course for our electrical wiring, running the wires inside the lumber then up to our electrical outlets that were posted at the required height up from the 2×4, and being essentially free standing from the bales.  We protected the wires from the drain rock with a small piece of rigid foam insulation.  We did this for a few reasons, the main reason being that the electrical inspector wanted to see the rough wiring before the bales potentially hid them from view, and we didn’t want to get partway through our wall stacking then have to wait for him to make his visit, which can be the case if wires are run between bales.  We also wanted to run the wires up the backs of the timber frame to the places that would need wiring up high.  We stapled strips of burlap all along the places where the bales would come up next to wood, and a strip of building paper on the outside of the burlap.  This was more for the plastering stage, but it was essential to do it before the bales went into place.   We then posted bamboo poles on one side of the toe-ups up to the height of the top beam.  This was to be a part of our exterior pining system.  After the bales were in, we placed bamboo poles on the other side then sewed them together with a giant needle and baling twine through the bales, inside to outside.  We also put in place all the window bucks, securing them to the timber frame and the toe-ups so that they would not shift with any settling of the bales.  This created more detailing of the bales around the framing, but we had heard stories of frames shifting out of square and plaster cracking, so we decided to go with the rigid framing to avoid potential problems.

Finally we started building the walls, and with lots of eager hands!  Many of our friends had asked to come and take part, so we invited anyone who wanted to help.  We had a rotation of 4 or 5 people everyday for the week that it took to fill in the walls.  Although it was now november, we had a beautifully dry and sunny week to work in.  We learned how to reshape the bales to fit smaller spaces, either with a small electric chainsaw, or by splitting them and retying them with that giant needle.  We used zip-ties to tie the bales together end to end through the baling twine, and the fact that the twine on the bales was so tight it was hard to slip a zip-tie under them was a good sign that these tightly baled bales would be good insulation and might not settle too much.

We were even able to incorporate the enthusiastic pleas of our little ones, giving them lots of jobs with the small bales we created for the small spaces, and with the continual cleanup of loose straw everywhere.  They mostly settled into playing on the constantly diminishing pile of bales, but it was with great satisfaction that I could say that our building materials double as a healthy play fort.  I was also grateful for our decision when I spotted flocks of chickadees foraging through the litter for seeds and nest building material.  I loved finding the occasional sprig of dried wild chamomile bundled up into our walls, adding an element of calm to the energy of the house.

The last job was trimming.    Colin used a grinder and gave every inch, inside and out, a careful haircut to get a smoother surface on which to plaster.  Then we did a bunch of stuffing- making little twists of straw and shoving them into any little cracks that are created between the bales or around the window framing.

I am really grateful for the process we went through that arrived at the decision to build with strawbales for this house.  It has been a satisfying experience all along, from the many people that walked in and smiled with memories of family barns in their childhoods, or the soft cushiony sound of the acoustics as we played music perched on bales as benches, or knowing that any excess will go onto my garden paths or as summer mulch.  It is a building material that fits beautifully into the harmony of natural world, and creates those wide, adoring window sills that frame such glorious views of the world we honour and respect. 

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