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Restoring Old Root Cellar

 
pollinator
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I’m in the process of restoring the root cellar built by my great grandpa. As far as I know, no one has even been into it since the early seventies. Aside from 17 wheelbarrows of debris and pack-rat nesting material, a cleanup crew excavated 100’s of clamp-style mason jars and 2 old 400 egg incubators, seemingly heated by coal. They used to be cool, now they’re a bit decrepit. At least the copper tubes may be useful in future projects.

But regarding the cellar, I’m learning a lot along the way, about root cellars, roundwood building, living roofs, and a lot else. I thought it would be cool to post progress here and invite the permies collective consciousness into the journey. Input welcome!
 
master pollinator
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Years ago I reclaimed a root cellar that had been filled with coal ash.  It was quite the experience.  If I remember correctly, the ash ended up on the driveway.  And yes, there were many buried treasures.  Oddly, the timbers holding the roof were in good shape.
 
Beau Davidson
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John F Dean wrote:Years ago I reclaimed a root cellar that had been filled with coal ash.  It was quite the experience.  If I remember correctly, the ash ended up on the driveway.  And yes, there were many buried treasures.  Oddly, the timbers holding the roof were in good shape.



I would suppose wood ash to be an excellent wood preservation method. Very cool.
 
Beau Davidson
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First round of pictures.

It is a 10ft x 20ft interior, poured cement covered in earth and lawn. There were two rooms, the front being a storm cellar and the rear storage area behind a partition wall was 2 feet lower. There is a stairwell of cement between two retaining walls. 5 mature trees (mulberry, walnut, and peach) were growing from the sides, but thankfully there are no signs of damage.
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After tree removal, prior to cleaning out.
After tree removal, prior to cleaning out.
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Original partition wall and door. I’ll use this as a template for the new wall.
Original partition wall and door. I’ll use this as a template for the new wall.
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Finishing clean out, testing acoustics.
Finishing clean out, testing acoustics.
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Looking down from rear vent shaft. I am curious the original purpose of this space. Emergency egress, should stair become unusable in a storm event? Warmer storage of fruits?
Looking down from rear vent shaft. I am curious the original purpose of this shaft. Emergency egress, should stair become unusable in a storm event? Warmer storage of fruits?
 
Beau Davidson
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First task is to rebuild the stair roof to keep rain and debris out. I’m kind of winging it, using remnants from the tops of Eastern Red Cedar from our mill. First time building a roof of roundwood, so input welcome. My current plan is to clad in billboard canvas and create an earthen roof.
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Rafter joint
Rafter joint
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The wee one, testing structural integrity with a mallet made for the PEP roundwood badge.
The wee one, testing structural integrity with a mallet made for the PEP roundwood badge.
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New wall plates going on.
New wall plates going on.
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Joint guidelines for step-lap rafter seats.
Joint guidelines for step-lap rafter seats.
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Rafter seat rough-our, started with electric chainsaw, to be finished by hand.
Rafter seat rough-out, started with electric chainsaw, to be finished by hand.
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Rafters going up.
Rafters going up.
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Notches to seat perlins.
Notches to seat perlins.
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Perlins going up.
Perlins going up.
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Perlins up, ready for panelling.
Perlins up, ready for panelling.
 
pollinator
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I am curious about the need to take those trees out. Would they have shaded the ground and been useful for their produce?
 
Beau Davidson
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John C Daley wrote:I am curious about the need to take those trees out. Would they have shaded the ground and been useful for their produce?



I had quite a pause before taking them down. However, the possibility of root pressure against and through the 120 year old cement convinced me in the end.  I have currently left a peach and a mulberry at coppice height while I evaluate the need to take them out entirely. But seeing as how I have a half dozen peach trees and hundreds of mulberry trees in more desirable, non-liability locations, I am leaning toward eliminating them entirely. There is one earthen part of the floor near the bottom of the stairs that has mulberry roots presenting, which is enough reason for me to eliminate - unless I can become convinced they won’t pose a threat to the structure long-term. If you have information on mulberry roots and their uneqivocal habit of avoiding man-made underground obstructions, I would love to hear it!
 
master steward
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Looks like you'll have a great Oddball BB submission with this project.  Or Homesteading Oddball would give you even more points...

Isn't roundwood kinda fun?
 
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I think it's awesome that you're rehabilitating this structure and hope you're successful. Our water table is too high in the winter to make an "underground" root cellar, but I would sooo... like to build an earth-bermed one for keeping garden produce longer without electricity.

Beau Davidson wrote:

Looking down from rear vent shaft. I am curious the original purpose of this shaft. Emergency egress, should stair become unusable in a storm event? Warmer storage of fruits?

All of the above? You definitely need air flow for both people during a storm and to stop the build up of gasses given off from some fruits that encourage ripening, and airflow will decrease the risk of mold.
Sepp Holzer has pipes coming in through the earth so that the air temp is stable and it vents up high to get that air flow in his root cellars.
Different fruits and veg respond better to different temperatures with onions and squash liking it warmer, and carrots and cabbages being happy at 32F (0 C).
Some things like it dryer than others also, so the storm-shelter part could possibly have some shelving for things like canning jars which are happy dry, and behind the door, it can be more humid for root veggies (depending on how many people need to fit in for how long!) In many areas storms are getting bigger and longer, so having the basics to stay comfortable seems like good planning to me.

Great job on the round-wood woodworking - and a cute supervisor you've got!
 
John C Daley
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As a Civil Engineer I need to remind you the walls are made of concrete, cement is an additive to concrete.
Not withstanding, those walls do not look damaged at all from tree roots.

The photo of the other outlet is poor, what is it actually showing?
 
Beau Davidson
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John C Daley wrote:As a Civil Engineer I need to remind you the walls are made of concrete, cement is an additive to concrete.
Not withstanding, those walls do not look damaged at all from tree roots.

The photo of the other outlet is poor, what is it actually showing?



Thanks, John, noted! Concrete.

I’ll grab some better images this weekend. It is essentially a 2-3 foot square shaft, connecting the above ground to a small doorway high at the rear interior wall. Interestingly, this shaft has an earthen floor. Or possibly it goes down significantly deeper than the small passage door. I know it had a hatch over it, as well as an interior ventilation grate. There is also a separate, small 8-inch diameter port immediately in front of this shaft, seemingly a vent from the rear of the cellar. I am uncertain how this functioned, as it has simply been covered with a terra cotta pot fitted to the upper opening as long as anyone can remember.

One thing I’m wondering is if I may need to consider adding air flow vents at the entry door, or in the partition wall between chambers, or if I even need to consider separate dedicated intake and exit points for each chamber. It doesn’t seem to have incorporated intentional venting originally. I have found out that this cellar was designed and construction overseen by a great great uncle who was very knowledgeable, and it seems like they did a bang-up job. So I want to keep with the original function, improving only where modern knowledge, tools, and best practices dictate.
 
Beau Davidson
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Jay Angler wrote:Great job on the round-wood woodworking - and a cute supervisor you've got!



Thanks Jay! She means business, that’s for sure.

And airflow is a main area of study as I plan the interior - I’m hopeful some folk with some direct knowledge of similar early 1900’s systems can point me in the right direction.
 
Beau Davidson
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Mike Haasl wrote:Looks like you'll have a great Oddball BB submission with this project.  Or Homesteading Oddball would give you even more points...



Great thought, Mike. Will do!

Mike Haasl wrote:Isn't roundwood kinda fun?



Super fun. This is actually a learning and practice project preceding to a small home addition I want to build this fall with similar materials and techniques.
 
John C Daley
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I think you will find there will be enough leakage around the doors.
Otherwise just monitor it.
 
Beau Davidson
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Here’s some detail shots of the rear access shaft. It seems it was a later modification, judging by the cement cuts and block retaining walls, as well as the redundancy of the small vent port just in front.
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Rear access shaft from mid-cellar
Rear access shaft from mid-cellar
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Rear access shaft.
Rear access shaft.
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Rear access shaftfrom above.
Rear access shaftfrom above.
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Access hatch and vent port, plugged with clay pot.
Access hatch and vent port, plugged with clay pot.
 
John C Daley
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That opening may very well encourage a flow of air through the cellar.
Proof would be if there is no pools of water and mould on the walls.
 
Jay Angler
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It's hard to tell from the photos how large it is. Do you feel it is large enough for people to use it as a back-up escape route? I am aware that here in Canada, a number of underground structures were condemned strictly because the law requires two separated exits. It is quite possible that the root cellar was retrofitted when the need for the "storm shelter" purpose was seen as more critical than when it was first built, but to serve both purposes, a back door is worth having!

Regardless, if you're going to be storing food, that opening has to have some sort of "door" ideally with some sort of air control that can be adjusted based on the time of year, and it will need to be vermin-proof!
 
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That rear access may be a great back saver, set stuff in there to store on the shelves instead of humping it down the stairs.
If it’s big enough.
 
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Wow this is amazing! Im glad you're restoring it, most people would just have left it and forgot about it. Good luck on this project!
 
Beau Davidson
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For the time being, I’ve secured the roof with corrugated plastic sheathing. Still to do is:
1) permanent back hatch roofing
2) entry door
3) intermediate partition wall and door
4) shelving
I’ll get back to this project periodically, and in a more focused way in the winter, after our wee home addition is finished. That process thread is here:
https://permies.com/t/145209/Microhome-Addition#1135152
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dang that's one heck go a root cellar, reminds me a lot of fallout shelters people built in the 50's and 60's. can double as a tornado shelter too
 
Don Fini
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We were watching a show on Netflix that’s made in Poland, there was a scene of a church cellar and briefly I saw the same opening in the back wall as yours. I searched old polish root cellars and an image popped up titled old rectory cellar that had one, and one that had an opening in the buttery room that monks used in the old days.
I thought it was interesting and if you ever searched it out the info may help.
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Cellar
Cellar
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Buttery
Buttery
 
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