Reflections on November, 2017

We’re now moving into the 5th year of building our home.  At the beginning, I assumed it would take 2-3 years.  However, my mother’s death, the birth of 2 baby boys, finances, and weather set us back months at a time.  I know now more than ever what kind of dedication, attention, and especially time it takes to build a home from the ground up.  When I worry that we’ve spent 4 whole years rearranging dirt in the middle of nowhere, I like to ponder what we’d be doing otherwise.  I can imagine we would be working some kind of 9-5 living in a house that sucked up most of our paycheck each month.  We may have had more time to focus on our careers, but the yearning for a home we built ourselves would eat away at our bored, underworked souls.  To be honest, I think we were destined to do this.

The years go by fast, but the days can go slow, so what’s important is how we spend our days.  It is ultimately gratifying to know that my days have been spent with my best friend and my children on a project that we’ve literally built with our bare hands.  A project that we have all contributed to and will enjoy and appreciate for years and years.

So Aaron got to work on designing the solar array including its placement, angles, and projected costs for materials.  We secured some discarded oil-field pipes to use for the frame and borrowed some tools from ol’ gramps, like the welder, cutting torch, and post-hole diggers.  We agreed to disagree on the placement of the array.  Aaron wanted to put it to the west of the house.  I thought it would obstruct our only nice view of the landscape, but Aaron assured me that it would be tall enough to see the view underneath.  Aaron also said that the array was The View and if it didn’t have to face south it would be turned around and pointed directly at the front of the house so we could see it from the front door.  But, with a little prodding from some trusted sources, Aaron finally agreed that east of the house would be a proper placement for optimal sun exposure without hurting my view.

solar array placement earthbag home

Aaron wanted it here, to the west of the house

 

solar array placement earthbag home oklahoma

Why not here? East of the house

 

solar array placement earthbag home

We agreed with the east placement

 

Working on the array has been slow but steady.  As usual, we are mixing on plastic tarps and not a wheelbarrow.  We mix in a bucket of chipped up granite scrap for each bag of concrete.  (This saves money on concrete).  Each 6 foot hole holds around 4 bags of Ready mix concrete, 4 buckets of scrap, and of course, the pole.  Genius hubby decided to set up the scaffolding to hold the larger poles in place while I mix and add the concrete and tamp it in.  Mason, the little builder, loves to help wet the concrete and even shovel it in.  We manage two pole-placements a day and Aaron welds the cross beams up there in what seems to me like record time.  Our only hold up is that we are running out of small granite scraps. So, we break up the bigger chunks down to gravel size with a hammer.  We might need to visit our granite dealer soon.

solar array placement

Marking the solar territory and digging holes

 

solar array pipe oilfield concrete

The first two posts for the solar array

After we set the outer posts in a row, Aaron used the car jack to hold up the cross-beam so the middle post would be level with the ends, while we concreted it in.  We thought it looked pretty comical way up there.

pipes solar array home farm

Mason climbing the scaffolding to weld the pipe.

 

car jack solar array oil field pipes home farm off grid

See the car jack up there?

As per November, it is chilly most nights.  Our first freeze was actually the last week of October.  It killed off the remaining basil that I forgot to harvest.  But then it was warm for a couple of weeks.  We moved the barrel stove back into the house; this time in the west room.  It has the tallest ceiling so we had to locate more stove pipe.  We thought long and hard about where we’d be constructing our permanent rocket mass heater and cut a hole in the roof in anticipation of that.  It puts the giant hot barrel in a ideal spot to create convective flow throughout the house.  Really hot stoves aren’t compatible with free range infants so we have to keep him out of that room unless he’s being held.  He’s only crawling at this point, but walking is in the very near future.

We got the Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide from the library and the boys have been studying it.  We first heard about rocket mass heaters through Paul Wheaton and his permaculture podcast.  He has several discussions with Erica and Ernie Wisner, the rocket mass heater gurus and authors of the book.  It contains all the basics, the theories, the what-ifs and a plethora of diagrams to get you well on your way to efficient home heating.  We highly recommend it.

book rocket mass heater erica wisner earthbag home

Super efficient radiant heater!

At this point, we’re thinking of building the mass heater into the bathroom wall.  As in, the wall will be made of cob, because that is mass.  The authors stress that location of the barrel and bench should be in an oft-used room, while allowing plenty of walking space around the people sitting on the bench.  If we build it into the bathroom wall, the mass can help heat the bathroom and bathtub, as well as create a sitting area on the bedroom side.  I must have a bookshelf with rolling ladder.  I must.  So, we are thinking the cob wall will only reach up around 5 feet, and a stick-frame 2×12 wall will become the bookcase with ladder.

It is funny how much our ideas change about the home.  We start out with one idea and then after designing some other area, the first plan is completely blown out of the water.  If you’re planning a build, keep in mind your plans, but be flexible!  Ideas, concepts, and opinions change frequently.  The earth is malleable and so can be the realization of your dream home.

My poor hands!  I feel like the before picture on a commercial for hand cream.  Between working with concrete for the pillars, portland cement for the soil-cement floors, and the cobbing and earthen plasters, my hands are so rough and scratchy.  I can’t even stand to touch sweaters because my hands feel like Velcro, catching on the fuzz.

I applied another big batch of earthen plaster to the middle room’s south side.  It is extremely difficult to shape the front door pillars with cob and equally hard to get good photos of them.  They bell out and the bottom because the bags there stuck out further than the upper ones.  The surfaces extending out from the windows taper, and there are rounded archways above each pillar and the door.  This means there are lots of angles to skew.  And I have.  I have added cob, scraped it down, and added more cob.  I’m trying not to be perfectionist about it, but dammit, I’m going to have to look at these symmetrical pillars for a long time!  And smoothing all the edges with the trowel is really tricky too.  Every little peck is progress, I keep telling myself.

pillars earthbag front door earthen plaster cob

Front door pillars

Little pushes of progress have happened on the middle room’s floor too.  The area where the refrigerator will reside is completed!  Aaron is creating a radial pattern with the granite scraps.  This photo shows the scraps after leveling and before the soil-cement fill in.

soil cement granite scraps earthen floor home farm

Granite scraps are leveled and anchored in place with soil cement

 

Other areas of our floor are totally cured and cleaned up.  We are totally happy with our soil-cement floor!  And it gets less dusty and dirty each month!  Baby prefers crawling on the finished floor as opposed to the dirt.  I don’t blame him.

granite scraps soil-cement floor

Touching up the granite scraps in the floor

 

A lot less dust and dirt can also be attributed to the finished walls.  We are totally pleased with the earth paint we’ve got on our earthen plastered walls.  We’ve added sifted granite dust to our paint to lighten it up.  I call it sandstone color for lack of a crayola crayon box.  Here’s some of the color variation.  The red on the left is with one coat of typical earth paint and scraping to remove the rough spots.  The middle brown color has no paint, just manure plaster and scraping.  The right light color has 1 coat of earth paint with granite dust.

clay paint earthen paint cob earthbag home oklahoma

Earth paint and plaster colors scraped to level the surface

 

walls earthen plaster alis paint

The same wall as the above picture, taken a little further to the right.  It looks like a real wall!

clay paint

The sandstone color really brightens up the room

Let’s zoom in on that photo real quick so you can see one of the fabulous attributes of cob.  We installed the fancy high-tech super duper futuristic light switch into the wall.  Then, after cobbing out that beautiful archway, we decided that the light switch should reside inside the archway cubby.  So, we chiseled it out, rewired it, and stuck it in the archway.  Then we cobbed back over the spot.  Ah, the beauty of cob.

chiseling cob to remove lightswitch

Removing the super duper futuristic light switch

lightswitch cob chisel

Moving the super duper futuristic light switch

I’ll show you the finished archway… when it’s finished.

Now, something that is driving me crazy these days.  Mason is 3.  At this age he has a stupendous vocabulary and he’s extroverted, so he talks.  A lot.  His latest thing goes like this, while I’m busy with the baby, or cobbing the wall and only halfway paying attention to him.

Mason: “Mommy, Darth Vader is strong enough to hold this granite.  Mommy he is.  He is mommy.  Mommy he is.  He is!!”

Me: “Okay, I hear you.”

Mason: “Mommy, I can use this bubble gun to give you powers.  I can Mommy.  Mommy, I can.”

Me: “Okay. Cool!”

Mason: “What kind of powers do you want Mommy?”

Me: “Oh, probably patience.”

Mason: “Okay. Pew Pew! Pew!!  Mommy, I gave you patience.  I did, Mommy.  Mommy, I did!”

“Okay! I have patience!”

And this happens around 5 or 8 times a day, every day.  Whew.  Fortunately, I found these.  They are called Playaways and they have pre-loaded audiobooks on them.  You get them from the library, insert a triple A battery and Bam! instant storytime.  He loves the stories and figured out how to operate the little devices really fast.  1) No screen-time worries.  2) Building vocabulary by hearing quality language.  3) An activity that keeps him quiet and gives me a sanity break.  Check check check.

playaway pre-loaded audiobooks

Playaways for preschool

Julius (11) has been reading ravenously again.  Here’s what he knocked out this November:

An Assassin’s Creed series: The Last Descendants by Matthew J Kirby (Aaron is reading this one too.)

Gary Paulsen’s The Voyage of the Frog

The Boxcar Children #3

Agatha Christie’s And Then There Were None for school.  We used Bravewriter’s free Boomerang along with it.

Spindle Fire by Lexa Hillyer

Diary of a Minecraft Zombie book 2 by Zack Zombie

The Young Elites by Marie Lu

And he and Aaron are reading the Rocket Mass Heater Builder’s Guide as mentioned above.

As for myself, I am still having a heck of a time getting through any books with all these kiddos in the dirt.  However I did finish Wonder by R. J. Palacio and loved it.  I think anyone could find enjoyment and compassion through this book.  We’ll be seeing the movie soon.  I am trying to get caught up on my 2017 Reading Challenge, so I’m working on Tina Fey’s Bossypants and Dreamland Burning.  Wish me some free time to get through those because I am enjoying them.

I hope you all had a happy Thanksgiving.  This year I expressed my gratitude for my family and friends, and for the dirt.  I appreciate the dirt that gets under my nails, in my laundry, and even in my dreams, because we have done so much with it to make our home.

 

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