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Raised Earth Foundations

 
Jay C. White Cloud
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(note: Many of the "Kanji" and text in blue or underlined have links to them...)

Hello Everyone,

It has come up, as of late, the topic of "foundation vapor barriers" which is commonly recommended by many facilitators and schools now teaching natural building methods. Especially those of earth, (i.e. cobb, adobe, etc.) This common thinking is logical, and also based on what could be called a "normative constructure behavior of modernity." In other words...its a habit based more on, "everyone does it." When asked, "why do you do it?" the most common answer is to stop moisture from coming up into the building. In that respect, these barriers "try" to work, and often do...for a while. Yet few ever ask themselves..."what did humans do before plastics?" I assure you they did not live in wet or damp houses, many (most?) in history and today being built this way are very comfortable and beautiful natural homes.

Humans have been constructing dry earthen forms of architecture and other structures for thousands of years without "vapor barriers" and they still do in many less "modernized" areas of the world that build naturally with earth, or have unbroken "knowledge lineages" that go back millennia, as you can still find in the Middle East, Africa, and Asia. So the question isn't do we need to add more plastic and modernity to the equation (not a permies solution) yet rather...what did our ancient and current successful users do to accomplish this. the answer is proper design and well planned and executed...DRAINAGE...and the many forms this can take. From roof (which is part of the drainage system so many forget about) to the way the foundation is designed (what with?) and construction modalities, which are the key elements here...not plastics and other "attempts at reinventing the wheel."

One that has not been shared yet (that I know of) at Permies.com is a common one among many earth builders. It is the "platform style" foundation systems (there are many forms of this...such as a dais, platform, or podii, which are common english terms for this element of a structure) Please note, I provide the "kanji" for the words so folks can do better quality image searches to get ideas if they wish to. I may link certain kanji to these pages for your viewing pleasure, and better understanding of how these different architectural elements may work. I will share one very classic (and classy ) form of this found in the vernacular houses of the Japanese Minka 民家 (which basically means folk, or farm house.) In the area of the house that would be the kitchen, rice processing and work area there is often (almost always) an earthen floor called a "doma" 土間, this and the entire structure often sit upon a foundational podii of tamped stone and packed earth.

As with many aspects of building forms, there are formal and informal styles, much of this came from the mainland of Asia over the millennia (i.e. via Korea by way of China) and the Japanese further perfected the methods. They advanced many and adapted them to their different regions...some very wet and windy...some very cold and mountainous...all subjected to terrible tectonic events of all types; so these foundation systems had to be strong, flexible, and enduring. To have the oldest wooden structures in the world (2000 years and counting) last, the building systems of this culture had to be very advanced, even 2000 years ago. In the following paragraphs I will attempt at shedding some light on some of these foundational methods.

The podii system (i.e. a low wall serving as a foundation) is very old and like berming, swales and terracing has ancient, and well thought out origins. Like many regions of the world, the first building methods could be seen as very rudimentary (though much of what we do today is based on these venerable systems.) Unlike the advance to come of the podii, humans simply would drive pilings into the ground, and raise a floor off of this. "Hottate" 掘立て (Ho-date 掘建て Ho-ritsu- 掘立) are all vernacular systems that predate most podii styles. With the Hottate method the posts "Hottatebashira" 掘立柱, or hashira-no-nemoto 柱の根元, are embedded directly into holes in the foundation earth, which of course most often leads to a shorter life span to the structural foundation (not always...depending on the method employed) rather than placing the post "bashira" on plinth stones "soseki" 礎石, or ground sills "dodai" 土台, that may (or may not) rest and bear on a series of stones laid in a line beneath hazama-ishi 狭間石. The hazama-ishi may be a single course at grade level, or multiple courses above and below grade. These stone start the formation (very often) of the podii system or "kidan" 基壇. As stated earlier, there are formal and informal examples of this in many styles of Asian architecture.

The most thoroughly studied and documented is those of more prominent structures such as temples, shrines, and castles...yet, the simple Minka too have a kidan, which allows the doma to stay dry. It is also worth noting that many of these Middle Eastern and Asian earth building cultures often did massive amounts of earth work to a location that later looks very natural. They took great strides in studying the flow of water through drainage systems to better understand high and low water levels and how these may effect agricultural and architectural elements. Dorui 土塁 or "Earthworks" of all types dot the lands through the Middle East and Asia, and contribute greatly to the success of many of the different styles of architecture and their longevity. This larger scale earth work Dorui 土塁 is followed by the preliminary foundation work Djigyō 地業 that in turn forms the final foundation or Kiso 基礎, which comes in all forms contemporary and traditional (or natural.) This preliminary foundation work Djigyō 地業 is performed through the process of Warigurichigyō 割栗地業. This process, which is the heart of this post discussion, is why they did not require modern plastics to keep the inside of a structure from becoming too humid and damp. The proper employment and application of gravel jari 砂利, foundation sands (when applicable and/or available) sunajigyou 砂地業, and often hand placed rounded stone Tama Ishi 玉石 and/or angular stone kuri-Ishi 栗石 and/or broken stone Wariguri ishi 割栗石 then tamped into place.

Lots to take in, and try to understand...yet the effort to understand these systems, and how to build them is well worth the effort if you are considering a Permie or natural build.

Regards,

j
 
Topher Belknap
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Location: Midcoast Maine (zone 5b)
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Jay C. White Cloud wrote:Hello Everyone,

It has come up, as of late, the topic of "foundation vapor barriers" which is commonly recommended by many facilitators and schools now teaching natural building methods. Especially those of earth, (i.e. cobb, adobe, etc.) This common thinking is logical, and also based on what could be called a "normative constructure behavior of modernity." In other words...its a habit based more on, "everyone does it." When asked, "why do you do it?" the most common answer is to stop moisture from coming up into the building. In that respect, these barriers "try" to work, and often do...for a while. Yet few ever ask themselves..."what did humans do before plastics?" I assure you they did not live in wet or damp houses, though some experts suggest that is the case.


I agree they did not live in damp houses, but they did have lots of air movement through the house, and used lots of wood to heat it. (And weren't as picky about how warm they were.) I think we can do better.

The answer is proper design and well planned and executed...DRAINAGE...and the many forms this can take.


Drainage only works on liquid water. Much of what we (at least here) get is moisture, evaporating from moist ground (at ground temperature). No amount of drainage can remove water vapor. In order to get it back into liquid form we would need something colder than ground temperature, which implies energy usage.

Thank You Kindly,
Topher
 
Kevin EarthSoul
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Great post, Jay!

Is there a resource we can learn more about these? I understand the concepts, in principle, but I would like to see more of how they are implemented.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Kevin,

There is Kevin...quite a bit of info, some even with diagrams, yet most of it is still passed down via an apprenticeships and all the documentation (some of it well over 2000 years old) is of course in other (and often dead forms of it) languages. So much that could be of great use to us is outside the Western world. I am (trying really hard) to translate and create a document (book?) on the subject of natural building styles as found outside the United States. I have scattered notes, text, and stuff that rattles around in my head, and most thankfully for the speed at which I am now able to assimilate, transfer, studying and correspond with others on through the internet has truly sped everything up for me over the last decade. I have been really lucky to find and meet great people in this subject and luckily they either speak english or are computer savvy enough so we can communicate with one another on these many subjects of natural and traditional architecture.

So if you see something of interest or have deeper questions about a link or concept, I would be glad to do my best in sharing what I know of it, and how it is meant to work. Your questions, I am sure, will actually help me, and one of the reason I came to Permies. These "questions" and "conversations" broadens my understanding and ability to relate and share the info in English. Much of it I have seen first hand, and a fair amount I have practiced in some form or another. I know if a reader just went through all the links and just looked at pictures, it could take a great deal of time and they would learn a great deal (and have more questions I am sure.)

I look forward to your other questions, and thanks for enjoying the post,

j
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello Topher, et al,

I think we can only glean a glimmer of understanding of how many (not all) these people lived in there homes in the past. I think the people of a hundred years ago preferred 72 degrees as much as we do now, and did not tolerate drafts any less than we do today...I could be in error, yet compared to those still living this way and building these structures for themselves, I think I can conclude that my shared observations are accurate to a certain degree. There is some agreeance that our forbears perceptions could well be more hardy and enduring of temperatures than what we find today in ourselves. As have been postulated by many of us...Folks from a hundred years ago would be less complaining about a 65 degree room than the average American today." That may not be something we could call a fact, yet perhaps is a logical conclusion. Without actually being there to do comparatives we will never know for certain.

I would also ask what experience and knowledge you personally have and could share about these vernacular architectural forms of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that would suggest that they are not as good or perhaps superior to what many "modern builders" are practicing? All that I have studied, witnessed, and practiced suggest great success in avoiding modernity within a current build. Readers can follow the links I provided within the Kanji of the different terms and note that these practices thus shared as an alternative are still being used today...they have not fallen out of favor in any way, and are as germane today as they had been 4000 years ago...It is just that many...especially here in the West, have lost so much of this "vernacular and ancestral knowledge and skill sets," which luckily they have not. Could we not from that all learn a great deal?

The conclusion about "condensant moisture" and "earth perspiration of moisture" is often made by many not well indoctrinated into traditional building systems. It is a fair observation yet often a bit out of context, as the entire foundation design (including drainage) does affect what some may mistakenly call "rising damp." If "all ground" radiate moisture in the degree suggested by many there would indeed be considerable interstitial issues with vapor moisture condensing in many builds. Yet, if this was the case, to the degree suggested WOFATI systems, historic Grain Mills, and other masonry structure next to and in waterways, etc would not function as well as they do, and are typically very dry inside (when well designed, and maintained.) Again the majority of moisture, comes from the sky in liquid form, and improper drainage exaserbates this issue for many modern architectural forms. Most that is in vapor form, in my experience and observation, is generated from within the home by cooking, washing, breathing, and general presence of living things which is the source of a great deal of humidity...ergo vapor moisture....this too would benefit from the modality of foundation work suggests in the above post. I would also suggest that drainage and earthwork, as describe in the above post, does indeed affect and mitigate vapor as well by providing a mitigating and caching effect as does timber frames, paper plasters, log homes and any other medium within the roof, wall and foundation diaphragms that can take on and hold "free water."

Regards,

j
 
Topher Belknap
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Jay C. White Cloud wrote:Hello Topher, et al,

I think we can only glean a glimmer of understanding of how these people lived in there homes in the past. There is some agreeance that our forbears perceptions could well be more hardy and enduring of temperatures than what we find today in ourselves. Yet, to state definitively as what they could and would tolerate is folly unless we can time travel and observe them for ourselves.


Fortunately, my fore-bearers left written records.

I would also ask what experience and knowledge you personally have and could share about these vernacular architectural forms of the Middle East, Africa, and Asia that would suggest that they are not as good or perhaps superior to what many "modern builders" are practicing?


Vernacular or Modern, old or new, the laws of physics don't care. I would ask in return what knowledge you personally have about moisture transport in building materials, psychrometery, and vapor pressures in buildings.

The conclusion about "condensant moisture" and "earth perspiration of moisture" could be a little generic in nature and conclusion.


Details are always important, which is why I carefully qualified my comment with reference to MY location. The accusation of making a generic conclusion seems not to follow from what I wrote.

If "all ground" radiate moisture in the degree suggested by your post there would indeed be considerable interstitial issues with vapor moisture condensing in many builds.


And such do exist. Should I provide pictures?

Condemning modern buildings because they are modern is just as big a fallacy as condemning old buildings just because they are old. Similarly with praising them. Specific details are what matters. Generic statements like " The answer is proper design and well planned and executed...DRAINAGE...and the many forms this can take." are always wrong for some conditions, and should thus be avoided. There is no 'The Answer'.

I would love to have a discussion about moisture transport in buildings with the forum-participants.

Thank You Kindly,
Topher
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Topher, et al,

Topher Belknap wrote:Fortunately, my fore-bearers left written records.


Wasn't quite sure what I wrote that got that response?......but would agree that most (not all) of my ancestors did not have a written language...we just relied on very good memories, oral traditions, passed down through the millenia. Our cultural knowledge mindsets that served us (and countless indigenous cultures) very well for millenia to live in much closer harmony with the planet than what many today (and in the past) have or did do, for the most part...has served us very well. I don't believe we can discredit these valuable memories and lessons. This is not a devaluation on the great writings of antiquity on architecture...not at all. I recommend anyone that loves architecture and practices to read (or try to read... ) the 4000 year old building codes of the Shang Dynasty 商朝 that are still referenced today or the very useful and insightful writing of Vitruvius, the Ten Books on Architecture which really is a must read for any student of architecture both tangible and historical. So we are in agreeance...written knowledge too is of great worth!

Topher Belknap wrote:I would ask in return what knowledge you personally have about moisture transport in building materials, psychrometery, and vapor pressures in buildings.


You got me on that one...

Naturally, I don't believe anyone has to provide such knowledge to have a deep understanding or position on architecture. I guess I am impressed with your knowledge in this space and am hopeful that it is richer than mine. I tend to look to the "empirical" and when a "finer point" has to be placed on one of my designs I turn to the many PE I have collaborated with over the decades. So in closing this section my knowledge of your referenced aspects is probably not as technically adept as yours is, that is why I rely on the many PE that help me, and is only limited to what I studied over the decades in historical restoration work of means, methods and materials used through the ages.

Topher Belknap wrote:And such do exist. Should I provide pictures?

Condemning modern buildings because they are modern is just as big a fallacy as condemning old buildings just because they are old. Similarly with praising them. Specific details are what matters. Generic statements like " The answer is proper design and well planned and executed...DRAINAGE...and the many forms this can take." are always wrong for some conditions, and should thus be avoided. There is no 'The Answer'.


Pictures (if they related directly to the referenced modality) would be a great thing to see...and appreciated by all that would read this...thank you

I am very sorry if it sounded like I was "condemning" all modern buildings...I did not mean to infer such. I was only trying to reflect (as this is a permaculture forum) that many "natural and traditional" modalities are equal and some can indeed surpass these of modernity.

So for clarity...I did not meant to suggest "The Answer" only that there are natural and traditional "answers" that are equal to the task and some can surpass it.

Regards,

j
 
Rebecca Norman
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Hi Jay,
By chance I heard someone talking about this very thing just yesterday here in Ladakh. We were admiring a friend's newly repolished wooden floor, a clever traditional interlocking system where individual pieces can be removed. The owner happened to mention that it is good to pack under a wooden floor with gravel, not with sand, because sand can draw moisture up. The owner is illiterate and their family remains rather traditional organic farmers despite living in the middle of a booming town, you would be pleased. The house sits in the middle of fields and gardens that are well irrigated, but like other houses, the foundation is stone, extends about two feet above the surrounding terrain, and is normally filled up with earth. Floors used to be packed earth but now more commonly a concrete surface, and only the best room gets a wood floor. The walls above the stone foundation are adobe, nowadays in a concrete frame of pillar, beam and lintel.

By the way, he also observed that our other friend had used Fevicol brand synthetic glue to stick the pieces of a wooden floor together but that caused cracking elsewhere in the wood, whereas his unglued floor lies nice and flat with no cracking.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Rebecca, et al,

OH BOY...!!!

Thank you so much for sharing your story...that is a great addition to this conversation, and you have provide a perfect example of a vernacular architectural style, and area that does indeed use many (if not most) of the system modalities this post references. It has been many years since being in that region of the world...I would love to come and visit someday. I do plan a return to help restore some temples and folk houses to give back to the wonderful teachers I have met in the past. Many folks, including many scholars of architecture do not (or did not) realize that India is the "birthplace" of so much that is "Asian" in architecture. From the great Sutra Halls of Japan, and back through time to India. The floor you have described has many permutations through out Asia, the one that comes to mind most often (that I love and practice...) is the traditional Korean maru (maru=floor.) These traditional floors, Cheongmaru 청마루 I remember as being very similar in design and intent in many examples through Asia. I do not remember the exact name of the form you are describing...I would love it if you could share that with us! These floor systems with interlocking joints are perfect for a "harder" surface that still is warmer than stone and lifts the occupants a bit higher off a 'clay bed.'

All of these forms of construction, are being found to be not only germane in modern practice, but often exceed current expectations in durability and endurance when faced with the tectonic events so many of the regions of Asia face, often...very often...exceeding the load and resistance capacities of modern OPC and other designs. Whether we are discussing Dhajji Dewari, Kath Kuni (which means "wood corner" - aka Koti Banal) or the many other building styles from the Middle East and throughout Asia, all rest upon foundation systems similar to the ones I have presented in this post...as they have for thousands of years and have endure centuries of seismic events. Many of these temples and farm houses are over 500 to 1000 years old...and still enduring well. That is sustainability by my definition... built with local materials and lasting many, many generations.

Your post reminds me of a mentor and great Architectural teacher from that region, Didi Contractor, and her wise words:

Architect Didi Contractor wrote:Sustainable design and ideology which embraces the natural processes of the earth as its reality MUST replace conventional design practices...


Though retired, she still can be found (in here 80's) still teaching not far from you at Dharmalaya, for anyone that would like to see a modern designer and facilitator of incredible earth based architecture that embrace natural and historical building modalities as well as many through the ages.

Thank you for reading this post and I look forward to further exchanges...perhaps you could share more than just the name of that flooring system, as I would love to have someone currently there to check out certain "bits of info" I have not discussed in years...

Warm Regards,

j
 
Philip Nafziger
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Most of your post was way over my head but I think I got your point which would be: modern manufactured building materials are unnecessary to build a solid, comfortable, and attractive building. I already knew that was true but I didn't know in what ways it could be done. Thanks for the post and links to pictures! Unfortunately I couldn't exactly understand why/how this system works. Would you be able to elaborate a little more? Thanks, Phil
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Philip, et al,

Philip Nafziger wrote:...modern manufactured building materials are unnecessary to build a solid, comfortable, and attractive building...


Thank you so much for that!! I feel very pleased and warmed, as you have gotten the most important part of the message...and the "other stuff" you think (it really isn't...I promise) is over your head is of little consequence in the "big picture." I feel you got, and understand, the most important part perfectly. The details (in time if necessary) will coalesce inside your building skill sets you are developing...both physical and mental.

In the interim, if there is specific questions, or applications you would like help with...I will do whatever I can to facilitate a deeper understanding. Most of these methods have been practiced for millenia and are more a matter of attention to detail...common sense..."true" understanding of your chosen materials...and "listening" well to the tools, materials, and building environment you are attempting to place architecture into. The "means, methods, and materials" of natural building (permaculture building) can be all natural (or very close to all natural-sustainable) and still meet or exceed current building expectations...

I have, as of late, been told that just because some method is old and has been around a long time...does not make it superior. Well, that could be true (I find it seldom is) yet I point out that just because something is "modern" does not make it either logical or good practice...just "new"...and in my experience, seldom superior.

I look forward to any info or help I can provide.

Regards,

j
 
Jay Peters
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While going through Jay's initial post for the second time to try and glean as much as possible from it, I happened upon this after some copy and paste googling of my own:
The page has a photo with many of the individual parts referred to in the post labelled in english and assembled in context. Not only that but there are individual entries with descriptions and photos for all kinds of traditional japanese architectural terminology.. worth a look!

j
 
Jay Peters
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Hi Jay,

Thanks for this thread - I do love having my eyes opened to tried a tested methods that buck the contemporary need for contemporary materials in construction..

A few questions:

I'm getting a pretty good picture of what the Djigyō consists of..but am having trouble understanding exactly what the process of Warigurichigyō is. Generally it looks like making a very well drained, raised area. Is it that simple?

About this rising damp thing...at least it seems to be generally accepted as being a thing though not without its detractors: wiki

Why does Warigurichigyō work against rising damp AND vapour or moisture inflitration? Am I to understand that to combat the latter it condenses water vapour in the maze of packed stones and allows it to drain away? Or are you and several thousand years of happy customers saying that moisture/vapour rising is just too little in the context of Djigyō to be a significant enough source of moisture to cause problems (health or structural). I DO know that many older traditional north american stick frame homes (let's say 80 years or older) have stone and mortar foundations with dirt floors either in basements, crawlspaces or elsewhere, and many have never had vapour barrier installed since. They still stand, and didn't seem any more or less sick or damp than other places I've lived. I will also say that I've lived in a few places that we're built in low lying areas, one in particular near a river in a lush south western ontario climate that was always damp.. The foundation and basement were concrete and I'm sure vapour barrier was used as well but it certainly didn't help to keep out the damp. What I'm interpreting after sitting here writing this post and trying to find the right question to ask is that in the case of the house by the river, the damp found its way in because there was so much liquid water under and around the foundation (full basement) being fairly near the water table by my estimation and in a very humid climate. Following that in the case of the Djigyō moisture never becomes an issue due to the extreme care taken to drainage around the structure via earthworks, the build up of the foundation above the original ground level, and the techniques employed in the Warigurichigyō ..any dampness issues are fully mitigated and liquid water drained off.

Is that all there is to it? I am definitely not a pro, but have a lot of interest in traditional building techniques with natural materials...

THANKS!
j
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Boy Jay P....another big thank you for joining your voice and thoughts to this thread...I really appreciate it, as each positive contribution and question makes the post that much more useful for folks!

I am so glad you found the JAANUS web page. I often just provide the "generic" to clients and students, as finding sites like JAANUS is more rewarding and educational if someone finds it on there own accord. There is so much out there of value and further learning (some not so accurate...yet most is )

Jay P. wrote:I'm getting a pretty good picture of what the Djigyō consists of..but am having trouble understanding exactly what the process of Warigurichigyō is. Generally it looks like making a very well drained, raised area. Is it that simple?


I believe you are getting it really well. Try to use the kanji with the "anglicized" word...as the spelling is not as searchable or accurate in context. Example: 地業 is Djigyō, Jigyō, and Chi-gyō.

Warigurichigyō 割栗地業 in literal translation means "assigning (placing) chestnut stones to clay soil well packed"...so I think you are understanding it very well...

Jay P. wrote:About this rising damp thing...at least it seems to be generally accepted as being a thing though not without its detractors: wiki


Oh Boy...this is a can of worms both in the sciences and "normative culture" of the U.K.

"Rising Damp" is really a misnomer, and some authorities have gone as far as to write books and papers about the "fallacy that is rising damp." I am colleagues with and affiliated to several that counter this industry (racket/con-game?) and some of the tangible realities behind it. Like the premise and poor understanding of "capillarity" (even in the sciences) within the interstitial matrix of walls. In the true sense and understanding of the word "capillarity" (as explain in material science) there really isn't any...there is "cohesive diffusion." This entire aspect is academic and exhaustively debated...especially in the U.K. to the point of million dollar lawsuits. True capillarity can not be achieve without the cellular and/or (rare) geo-crystalline structure to achieve it...so one of the key elements of the "alleged" rising damp really does not exist as typically understood. With the gravel bed and the packed clay soils you do not achieve efficient or effective "cohesive diffusion." The "go to" empirical way of thinking of this is really simple and brilliant...(thanks again to those that came before us...) if "rising damp" was as "real and prevalent" as claimed...and...if just building on "wet ground" without ANY drainages would lead to a "wet building" inside....then...Mills and other structures constructed in or near water like the city of Venice, Italy would not function and all or be habitable. Having been a restoration Artisan on and off for the past thirty years, and seeing, studying, and examining many of these places and there structures has afforded me a much deeper appreciation and understanding that many may have.

We don't want saturated soils under our architecture...but the reason is well beyond just possible moisture issues and into expansive clays, deteriorated angle of repose, potential for liquefaction, etc. With the foundations as described and discussed in this post...all of these factors...including moisture is highly mitigated if not removed entirely.


Jay P. wrote:Why does Warigurichigyō work against rising damp AND vapour or moisture infiltration?


Short and not complex answer...insufficient capability to facilitate "cohesive diffusion." Or, the wet just can not rise up as its too quickly moved out...and/or stopped.


Jay P. wrote: Am I to understand that to combat the latter it condenses water vapour in the maze of packed stones and allows it to drain away? Or are you and several thousand years of happy customers saying that moisture/vapour rising is just too little in the context of Djigyō to be a significant enough source of moisture to cause problems (health or structural).


Hmmm...?....well....I think I would say "yes" to both. The podii of packed clay and stone also creates a barrier of sorts...depending on the system used. In areas of "permafrost" often rafts of stone and logs are used to create sub foundations, or in places like Venice...they ram wood pilings into the mud and sand to create a foundation for the stone to be laid on...Yes...wood...then stone...and it has been that way for well over a thousand years...and very stable.

...concrete foundation...a very humid climate...


This is what I key in on all the time with students and clients...which to me reads..."sponge" and "naturally very wet air." Building in those location require a very permeable wall matrix design and probably also being up off the ground completely onto a plinth and post fondation if need be to facilitate further circulation...or a really good and well designed podii (platform.)


Is that all there is to it?


My friend...you do indeed have it down...it is simple... and not as complex as so many would like to make it. Are there complexities and mysteries...of course...yet many have been well examined and most have been surmounted eons ago...if we would just stop reinventing wheels and listen well to our Elders....

Warm Regards,

j
 
A Tabor
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One thing that everyone should remember about vapour barriers is that there are more things that are vapours than just water.

Your basement being dry as a bone isn't going to help you if it is flooded with hydrogen sulfide, Radon, or some other hazardous gas. H2N is especially nasty if allowed to pool because of how little it takes to kill and how quickly it can happen, and can kill half a dozen people in a basement. One example I've seen quoted in training material a few times was a couple who built a new house, finished it, then went on vacation for a month. During construction they associated the faint smell to just churning up the damp clay. But then then the house was finished and the basement sealed up to pool the gas slowly being squeezed up out of the earth. Couple came home, one of them went down into the basement and was overcome by the gas. The other probably heard a thud, went to look, and then rushed down to help...

Family friend drops by, finds the couple laying motionless at the bottom of the stairs, and rushes down to help. Someone else finds the three of them, calls 911, and promptly rushes down to help. First responder on the scene went down to 'help' before the fire department finally came in to carry out the bodies.


While it is highly unlikely to be an issue in most cases, the other uses of a properly installed vapour barrier are important to consider, and the issue should addressed in any regions where such risks are of higher probabilities.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello A Tabor, et al,

Thank you for your observations...

I would like to, if you would not mind, ask a few questions, and perhaps share some of my own conclusion about "vapor barriers," as they are very different than what you seem to be saying...

I am not sure what H2N is? As chemically that does not balance ...nor is it an amino...which is harmless in most cases...

H2S (Hydrogen Sulfide) on the other hand is very nasty stuff indeed...yet quite rare to find in most architectural applications and one that would be dealt with way before an appropriate build would ever start. It also smells horrid and would give great alarm to any before they approached.

CO (Carbon Monoxide) is a potential major danger...yet the application of a vapor barrier, as recommended by most build spec would not mitigate this event, but exacerbate it...

Rn (Radon) too is not mitigate (effectively) by vapor barriers for any duration of time, and in many applications additionally compounds the issue by "pooling" and concentrating the Radon to even higher levels of concentration, requiring even more dependence on additional technology to make the "modern architecture" work and/or be safe for occupation. Again, this seldom (if ever) last for very long before needing alteration, repair, replacement or abandonment completely before more time and money must be spent to make the "modern" work even at a base line level.

So in general, it has been my experience, and observation, as is the premise of this OP, that vapor barriers are an element of modernity with a very short history, and no real substantiated evidence of long term success...even in contemporary architecture there are clear indication that they contribute to moisture build up in many wall systems they are supposed to be "venting" through there alleged "permeability," and overly aggravating the already clear issue of "building sickness" because we are building to the misnomer of "air tight" and not "draft proof." This entire concept of "air tight" IMO, only needs a step back and a little common sense to realize we are living things...and the clothing we put on (which includes our architecture) needs to "breath freely" as "air tights" is a contraindication to healthy life for most aerobic organisms...which we happen to be a member of...

Seldom (if ever) really, does this "concept" add any value in designing and implementing the structural diaphragms (ie floor, walls, roof) within architecture...other than perhaps the roof. Even within the roof system this element (ie, vapor barriers) can effectively be omitted in most traditional and natural builds...which has thousands of years of successful history behind its modalities.

Apologies if I have mistaken any of your meanings or misunderstood them...

Regards,

j
 
Brian Knight
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Water vapor, Radon and other soil gases are the main reason modern construction recommends and requires vapor barriers/retarders. Polyethelyne is very affordable, available and proven to be effective to separate the ground from our built structures. Our elders and ancestors did not know about Radon and we may be in our infancy in beginning to understand its impact on our health. According to the American lung association, radon is the second leading cause of lung cancer. EU countries have action levels 2x lower than here in the US.

There are many ways that these raised foundations can address radon and other soil gases. However, I think that the amount of materials and labor needed to build them need to be balanced especially when it comes to the on-going monthly energy costs of doing so. Plastic vapor barriers are dirt cheap compared to some of those methods, more proven in my opinion and readily accepted by building codes and future buyers.

Many building sites make sense to berm/bury some of the exterior walls/building envelope and there is an energy and performance advantage of doing so. I think a layer of plastic is better for the environment than some of the material intensive techniques above depending on what's available on site. Some building sites make a lot of sense for raised foundations many do not. Raised foundations also tend to complicate access and outdoor living areas.

To say that old structures perform better by breathing or not being airtight ignores the fact that most people in the modern age use un-renewable energy sources to condition their structures and keep them more comfortable.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Brian Knight wrote:Water vapor, Radon and other soil gases are the main reason modern construction recommends and requires vapor barriers/retarders.


Agreed, this is the reason this method has recommend their use...and indeed it is often erroneously required (or they try to require it yet it can be resisted.)

Brian Knight wrote:Polyethylene is very affordable, available and proven to be effective to separate the ground from our built structures.


Sorry, this is a very subjective statement...discovered by accident in 1898 and not actually understood productively until 1933...then not truly incorporated into much tangibly until the 1950's then didn't see any substantial use (or understanding) till the 1970's...I do not think either the industry or those that employ the systems can claim "proven to be effective,"...not really...compared to the countless traditional systems we know can and does either mitigate or circumnavigates the troublesome issues now brought up.

Brian Knight wrote:Our elders and ancestors did not know about Radon and we may be in our infancy in beginning to understand its impact on our health.


I have heard myself first hand elders speak of "bad air" and read in many old and poorly cited works the reference to same...this was the "swamp gases", "devils breath" and "stone gas" (Radon) that they (the Elders) referenced. They did in deed know of these many issues, and also often presented much wiser choices in selecting places to build there structures with this wisdom...wisdom today lost and/or overlooked by the "developer" and "industrial builder," as they will inevitably force their will upon nature and the building sight... Modern building hubris once more...

There are many ways that these raised foundations can address radon and other soil gases. However, I think that the amount of materials and labor needed to build them need to be balanced especially when it comes to the on-going monthly energy costs of doing so.


Having over the last 30 plus years experienced and studied both vernacular and "allegedly" better systems of modernity (and in respect to the nature of this forum) I think and strongly recommend to readers that the vernacular is not only equal...when all factors are weighed (and thoroughly understood) but often superior in so many ways.

Brian Knight wrote:Plastic vapor barriers are dirt cheap compared to some of those methods, more proven in my opinion and readily accepted by building codes and future buyers.


Hmmm........per the comment above, considering the "big picture" and the fact we are actually talking about "dirt" I think "dirt" and the stone of a building site is much, much cheaper as is will give a foundation that will last much longer that what modern man is currently building...yet that is just my opinion and only backed up by several thousand years of empirical evidence...I leave to the readers (or a site focused on permaculture) to which they would choose...natural...or...modernity...

Brian Knight wrote:I think a layer of plastic is better for the environment than some of the material intensive techniques above depending on what's available on site. Some building sites make a lot of sense for raised foundations many do not. Raised foundations also tend to complicate access and outdoor living areas.


Again Brian...I really have to push back on your assumptions. I so often have to face exactly what you are writing/stating coming from design builders with little or no vernacular experience of any kind nor have they even tried to apply these modalities for any length of time to know when the may (or may not) be effective. As for the "outdoor living space" it is actually the complete opposite of what you just stated...they do not "complicate" they actually facilitate naturally the use of outdoor space...this is one of the primary reasons they evolved.

Brian Knight wrote:To say that old structures perform better by breathing or not being airtight ignores the fact that most people in the modern age use un-renewable energy sources to condition their structures and keep them more comfortable.


I will leave you to your opinion on that...I and many others observe differently, and only time will tell which is better for the environment, yield more enduring and healthy architecture, as well as, give back in aesthetics, form, function, lower costs fiscal and otherwise...and overall comfort over the centuries. I prefer natural and traditional over man made...as seldom does man improve things as much as human ego suggests...

 
Brian Knight
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Fair enough Jay and let me apologize on not thanking you for the education. Ive enjoyed learning, looking and trying to understand from my computer and hope to experience the real thing someday soon. You present much good info here that is a lot to learn.

I guess starting your post with bashing foundation vapor barriers is what lured me in. I can understand the concerns with above grade construction but why go to such lengths to avoid them subgrade? Is it possible in your views to allow them on sites that may have higher vapor drive and radon? Plastic vapor barriers are featured in many pictures of the Warigurichigyo which you say is the heart of why they are avoided? They are very cheap and use very little resources so what do you gain by not using them at least as cheap insurance in grade contact situations?



 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello Brian, et al,

Now that I have been here at Premise.com for a while, I have come to understand certain things about the "normative culture" that is at the core of this forum...(one that I now fully support and strive to honor)...Inasmuch as it is dedicated to the essence of permaculture, and all things related to it as much as possible...not only in just the way to grow food...but trying to observe and understand everything that humans do...or...are doing to this planet.

I am still taken back, when I post threads like this one, how much effort is made by some members to try and justify modernity...not that all things modern are bad...as I don't really think in black and white...bad or good...but I do look to homeostasis...the balance of things. If someone really feels that modern modalities are superior...why come here and try and prove it to folks that are openly trying to avoid such things as chemicals, plastics, and products of industry as much as they possibly can in their lives...I also try...very hard...to consider all facets, possibilities, and the "larger perspective." I own this, of course, from a view as seen through "eyes" grown within the permaculture, and traditional social construct from a very early age.

Your last post...once again...gave me pause...as your comment below...sent me back to re-read my initial comments...

Brian Knight wrote:I guess starting your post with bashing foundation vapor barriers is what lured me in.


I wrote:

"...It has come up, as of late, the topic of "foundation vapor barriers" which is commonly recommended by many facilitators and schools now teaching natural building methods. Especially those of earth, (i.e. cobb, adobe, etc.) This common thinking is logical, and also based on what could be called a "normative constructure behavior of modernity." In other words...its a habit based more on, "everyone does it." When asked, "why do you do it?" the most common answer is to stop moisture from coming up into the building. In that respect, these barriers "try" to work, and often do...for a while. Yet few ever ask themselves..."what did humans do before plastics?" I observed, and discovered through literary research that suggests they did not live in wet or damp houses, many (most?) in history and today being built this way are very comfortable and beautiful natural homes...."


"Bashing"was not in my mind, nor does it seem to be in my words...at least to me. I do not believe, as much effort as I placed in forming that opening paragraph, I could be more neutral, and simply stating observations based on my experiences. I am sorry if that paragraph seemed "bashing" of anything.

I can understand the concerns with above grade construction but why go to such lengths to avoid them subgrade?


Again, Brian, there seems as strong a compalsion to justify and insist on construction materials and methods of modernity, and industry, as I am trying to explain, demonstrate and suggest why they may not always (ever?) be necessary. So, I "go to such lengths," because this is a forum and website dedicated to permaculture, natural, and traditional building systems...that is why try to share what I share. I would further suggest that in most designs (virtually any I have experienced...especially on a domestic level) could very well be done in a much more natural, sustainable, and enduring way...modern methods are not "better"...just modern, and perhaps at times just more convenient...neither of which makes them sustainable, nor enduring...and I will own that it may just be the opinion of folks like me that these industrial methods are never superior...

Brian Knight wrote:Is it possible in your views to allow them on sites that may have higher vapor drive and radon?


Traditional, and natural home selection is as critical as (if not more so) than the methods I suggest. I do not condone "dominating nature" (or the false belief of humans to think they ever can for very long.) Design and build with a location...not against it. Secondly, other than perhaps an area with multiple pressurized artesian springs (which I have incorporated into a few designs and observed many in traditional ones)...I have never experienced a site that "higher vapor drive" is an issue. This term is really no different than "rising damp," and I already shared my views and observation on that in this post. If radon is a major issue (very common here in New England with our Granites) then the site or building modality must be adjusted, not adding layers of plastic...which will...not if...eventually fail. This is a huge industry...with many trying desperately to either "con" their way through it...or...place one patch on top of another to make a system work...Again, all heavily dependant of technology and/or industrial materials. Case in point...the many projects I see where a "green contractor" convinces there client to "blast" granite ledge (further exacerbating the Radon issue) to build a basement under the modern architecture they are suggesting for a site...why? This makes no sense...yet it happens all the time...as that is the "modern mind set" of how it "must or should be done." Once more...we find the modern builder trying to dominate the "nature of the building site," instead of living within what it has to offer.

Brian Knight wrote:Plastic vapor barriers are featured in many pictures of the Warigurichigyo which you say is the heart of why they are avoided?


Where? I do not see the "many" in any of the photos referenced either in this link ( Warigurichigyō 割栗地業. ) or when I have been there. Does it happen...yes...many Diaku are suffering the same push of industry as we are. There is a huge issue with "westernization" in some companies that are trying to employ these modern modalities and often having issues with them.) I don't mind folks asking questions...that is good...but I don't think it's possible to just look at a build site photo and clearly interpret what is going on, or "think" we are observing. The blue plastic that is in some of the photos is to resist the torrential rains that come in some locations from washing the soils away until they can either pack in more stone and/or (to the chagrin of many Diaku, pour concrete. The Japanese, Korean, and Chinese often wrap everything in paper and plastic to protect it from dirt. Even entire timber frames are very often warped in paper (or now sometimes plastic) for the same reason. They have a much more fastidious concept of what "clean" is (or should be) compared to Westerners.

Brian Knight wrote:They are very cheap and use very little resources so what do you gain by not using them at least as cheap insurance in grade contact situations?


"Cheap," "convenient," "easier" and more all seem to be a "modern" mindset of many contractors. Should frugality be part of the thinking of a designer...yes...at times...yet this in not the focal point. I would further suggest, that it (plastic) is just not required. It really doesn't do anything, and is often structurally compromised as soon as it is laid done, being torn and punchered. I have seen wetted new paper and/or cardboard...or even old felt carpet padding do a much, or more superior job of protecting the soils from displacement, and again this placement of plastics because of the misnomer of "rising damp" is just kinda silly IMO...Put in the proper foundation system (drainage...in other words...and the topic of this OP) and there is no issue.

Regards,

j
 
Brian Knight
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Sorry, you didnt really bash plastic vapor barriers at all. I guess you are just saying some traditional building methods dont need them. For modern homes not on piers and in contact with the ground my vote is yes but its interesting to explore why some may not.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Dear Brian...as usual...our banter of such things does us...both of us...and the reader... much good. I do know your work (as much as one can...with older eyes) from what I have seen of it...to be excellent within the style it is. You are a fine (and developing sustainable builder) that anyone would be lucky to have on there team and behind them on a project...as even if there is disagreement about a modality...I have found that your mind is always open and seeking...more...about this craft of architecture.

So those reading do not find me a complete luddite...(or just made as a Hatter...)...the methods I suggest may not always be the fastest, easiest, or mainstream compared to what we are going to find in the building market today...Nor are they something that most builders are going to be able to facilitate as rapidly as most "modern methods" (and profit from as well.) This "ship" of architecture took a long time to get moving and when the "powers" (iceberg?) of the IR (industrial revolution) appeared on the horizon we couldn't get turned in time to avoid smacking it just a little... All is not lost, we (many any how) are slowing turning (I believe) away from calamity and doing our best to embrace the brilliance of millennia's worth of "good practice" in architectural design and implementation...which is just as germane today as it was 2000 years ago.

Regards,

j
 
Chris Pyle
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Jay,

Do you have any suggested books, hyperlinks, etc. that detail the grading process for raised earth foundations? I'm doing google searches but the majority return the typical grading process and I don't know how much land modification is made while digging the trenches for these foundations.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Chris P. wrote:I'm doing google searches but the majority return the typical grading process and I don't know how much land modification is made while digging the trenches for these foundations.


In many cases it is just regular old "dirt work" to prep a building site. Whether you do it with a village and traditional tools, or with a small crew and machines...not a big difference. With that said, it will depend on the site, its topography, soil types, etc. I typically now go down to mineral soils without any organics, and/or bedrock, lay down a lift (~250mm) of 50mm+ size crushed/broken "washed" stone, then filter cloth (roadbed cloth) and/or recycled felt carpet padding, then a lift of 20mm to 30mm washed crushed/broken stone to "terrace things out. That is the basic for most jobs the we augment accordingly from there. If there is a lot of clay and the site is level we may well create a podii of some form as well as the stone work. We seldom use drain piping anymore unless we specifically what to run take water from one location to another for a targeted reason; other wise just stone.

As for your searches, to refine them you must do it in the language of research...in this case...Japanese, Korean, Chinese...etc. That is why you find me so often providing the "kanji" for a word or phrase, so you can expand your studies, if you wish to. Should you, or any member, ever have a project, they want to post and ask questions about, I am more than glad to give it the "fuzzy eyeball" and add my 2 cents.

Regards,

j
 
Rufus Laggren
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Jay

I'm getting educated greatly. Thank you for your exposition. You write very dense, though. <g>

For other readers, after searching many of your google hits, the following one has pretty good specifics on Dhajji construction. Ie. pole & beam, rock infill in plaster with comments on foundations and water breaks and various other details. The appendix A has lots of meat.

http://www.arup.com/~/media/Files/PDF/Publications/Research_and_whitepapers/Arup_International_Development_Report_Dhajji_Dewari_2011_10_09.ashx

I continue to meander through the info as I find time and if you think it appropriate I can post similar links that seem particularly germane; edited into this post if possible, else just posted as I find them. Your thread - want me to post links that seem rich? Or I could just pm you w/candidates as I notice them, you post anything looks good.


Regards

Rufus
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello Rufus, et al,

Thank you so much for joining the conversation and adding such an informative link. You are correct in your observation about "my writing," it is "very dense," (sometime perhaps too much...)

I actually edit out a great deal (hard to believe...as the "rough drafts" are scary... .) So when folks like you post stuff I have in my files, I get excited and pleased!!! As a teacher/facilitator, when someone brings me "more," that means they are really "thinking about the topic," and trying to develop a richer understanding...Your link is a good example of that. Even in the region of orgin Dhajji Dewari was (because of the U.K. and Westernization of the culture during the U.K. occupation) was "looked down at" as primitive and ineffective. Now they know better, and there is a huge resurgence within these regions to return to vernacular forms and all their benefits including sustainability, and grass roots methods of construction.

So please add whatever you would like to the conversation, and should it be to off topic...we will start another to address it or the question posed, no need to wait for my editorial, as I would prefer to do that "on the fly." I will repost the below, as it should be in this OP as well as the other places I have placed it. As I have written already, to get through all that is in this OP would take weeks if not months to read, and years to understand it all, yet the basics are more than germane for a "permie build," and I am glad to "fill it blanks" wherever I am able.

for additional reading and understanding related to this OP:

Opus Craticium

Taq Construction

Dhajji Dewari Construction

Kath Kuni aka Koti Banal

Koti Banal Construction

Peruvian quincha construction

bahareque or taquezal construction

Hımış construction

Colombage Construction
 
Bill Bradbury
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I have lived in a 120 year old adobe with a stacked stone foundation and clay floor for the last 20 years. I have no vapor barriers at all, inside or out and have found this completely reliable. The key is no insulation. That's where water vapor condenses and causes problems. I am a BPI certified energy nerd, and have performed all the tests on my own uninsulated house that I perform on modern ones. The new ones are usually inferior in every aspect to what a few farm hands built in the 19th century!
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello Bill B.!

Thanks for joining the conversation, and for joining Permies!!

I like that "BPI Nerd" stuff...followed by..."no insulation." Which probably makes many sit up and take notice....

"What?...NO insulation?...that can't work!"

Well it all depends on your understanding of insulation, and how architecture can and does work in different regions. I live in a very cold climate, and at the moment I have NO INSULATION in my walls at all...or what some would call insulation...as I am living in a "log cabin." I have a very "needy family" temp wise (thought the house only averaged 65 degree F last winter...which was brutal here in Vermont I might add) yet we only used 2 cords of wood, and our collective hot water and heat bill (icky natural gas) was less than $1500 dollars. Not good by my standards, yet for a family with only one (me) hard core Permi...not bad...plus no window curtains, and lots of "too big" windows. Very pretty light...yet not efficient. It is a good study on exactly some of the points of Bill's about how this "all works."

I would add (or perhaps adjust?) his point...we (folks like Bill and I) think of insulation in a different or perhaps "whole architecture" concept. I would also suggest that when you get into some of the "complex" wall designs that mix "mass material" with "high R materials," Bill is also correct about interstitial moisture really becoming a problem on most builds. Few (very few) pull this off well, and it is a rather complex (it can be done) system to design. That is why I have focus on traditional systems that use "mass" not only in the walls themselves but the entire structure...and if a more "insulative" form is used...such as wool, light straw clay, SB, etc....the wall must "breath," and not be "air tight," but "draft proof."

Thanks again Bill for joining in!

j
 
Rufus Laggren
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Bill, Jay

Contemporary anything always has a lot to do with manipulated trends (advertising, marketing muscle), money making opportunities for big players, young barbarians lusting to pull the rug out from under old dinosaurs (eternal transfer of power as "2nd sons" churn for position) and lots of other input from forces not directly valuing quality. However...

I believe there _is_ a lot of good knowledge being pursued and developed out there. But this society provides (for most of us) a very different ecology than most traditional dwellings evolved for. _Our_ contemporary ecology is that of energy intensive densely populated urbanity where we hunt/gather from the big box stores and warehouses. Our habitat resources MUST be "gathered" from major corporations - there is simply no other source/distribution system available that will meet the demands of our current population. Thus knowledge and practices, to be applicable to "real" people, must draw on products available in the mass market place.

I absolutely don't mean to dismiss traditional methods. I'll take a guess about where Bryan may be coming from: While drawing on traditional knowledge, we must "make do" and apply that knowledge using available current products. And the principles and concepts underlying traditional building are far more important than the specific material and material-methods used. Thus his reference to plastic vapor barriers as a (possibly good) way to do a job in out present world; the present world including practicalities of code compliance, available skill sets, currently _tested_ systems of modern materials. Although I don't necessarily agree. At the moment plastic sheeting is "traditional" for us, even though it may turn out to be like the architecture of Nepal - vastly inferior than methods available just across the river (or over the hill). <g>

But a Q to Bill and Jay: Perhaps you can clarify "no insulation"? And then I have other Qs but I gotta run for an appointment just now.


Regards

Rufus
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Rufus, et al,

I will let Bill address his view of this (and look forward to it) yet for myself, it is kind of a play on the meaning of "no insulation."

Many "traditional" forms of architecture (and even many since the IR) have used only "mass" in the wall and roof matrix, with little or no form of "lofting" material to trap dead air space (ergo the higher R factors.) In the U.K. they don't even use R factor for the most part in determining thermal efficiencies, which is the reciprocal of U factor (thermal transmittance.) U factor is better for determining "storage capacity" of a medium, and/or rate of heat transfer. As mention, log architecture, does not have a high R factor yet can perform well, as does adobe and cobb in the correct location and/or design.

I also agree with most of your thought on "consumer ecology" and the "normative culture" behind it, as presented. I believe, where I would adjust the perspective is in the misnomer that "they" (the big box and related consumer) do not have an alternative, or the ability to build naturally...most do, and either don't know this...or choose to ignore it for reasons of familiarity, and/or lack of challenging the current "norm."

Regards,

j
 
Brian Knight
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I do love these discussions of society and technology. I think people possibly had more enjoyment of life in hunter gatherer times. I fantasize often of living in the old days or ancient times. Given the choice though I would stick it out right here in our awkward transition to cyborgs or the teetering collapse of our current world civilization. I think its mainly the indulgent and delicious food selection that would be so hard for me to give up.

Surely the best buildings are yet to come and will represent a symbiosis of old and new. There is so much to learn from the old ways and if one wants to live as an ancient or older society then what Jay shows us are shining examples to be followed. I like my modern conveniences though. Indoor plumbing and electricity, windows, comfortable temperatures at the flick of the switch. These things have made our lives better and worse at the same time. Until we get off of un-renewable energy and combustion appliances inside the living space then I dont feel that ignoring insulation in favor of thermal mass is a wise move for individuals or society. Alrighty then, have a perfectly ripe organic peach calling my name..
 
Rufus Laggren
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Brian

Sorry about mangling your name spelling.

Jay

> [consumers] ...have an alternative, or the ability to build naturally...and either don't know this...or choose to ignore it......

Maybe in theory that could be true, at least for particular small classes of people, but I suspect it breaks down when looking at large numbers in dense urban areas. I'd be happy to be wrong here but:

Problem 1) This is a paradigm change and change is expensive in time, effort and emotion. My own experience is that "life" pretty much takes over 25 hours a day w/out even trying. The dancers, grocers, electricians, clerks, CEO's, teachers, etc. don't have the time and social resources to push through an alternative life style. They may be able to choose it if the path is right there but not create it themselves. They have jobs to get to, children to raise, spouses to keep happy, stuff to do.

Problem 2) Urban populations don't have any natural resources (or really _any_ material resources) w/in them. Out to a density of, say, 1500/sq-mi they replace all natural space with "developed" space of which probably 75% or better is either concrete or structure. This implies that all needed resources must come from somewhere else - people can't just go down to the river bank and get clay, can't go cut poles, etc. So life style depends on a supplier, not just an end user; finding suppliers for traditional building materials (or their equivalents) is not a no-brainer. Takes real blocks of time and that's back to #1 above. Not to mention skill sets and social barriers.

My point: Any established technology is not _just_ the techniques and material. There are myriad social and environmental factors that enable and cause a particular technology to spread and succeed, become appropriate to that area. Technology is part of and depends on its eco system and w/out its eco system a technology becomes an artificial curiosity; it can be saved, serviced and maintained but it doesn't serve it's original purpose. To bring this back to the topic: There may not be enough traditional materials available in quantity at low prices to allow them to be widely used in urban areas. This means traditional methods might be relevant but would need to be applied using non-traditional materials.

Observation: Traditional technologies established because they were the clear winner in their time and place, being effective enough at a low enough cost to benefit many people. Ergo, as interesting as various technical solutions can be, enabling a real winner requires recognizing a clear and real problem then finding and bringing together the combination of affordable resources and effective technologies which solve that problem. I would say the technical eco system we're looking at will be resource driven/constrained (once given the problem). Resources are the key - find the resource, then select a method.

Traditional materials were mostly local materials. Today finding competitive local resources is challenging, both because we've "developed" over everything for miles eliminating all resources that may have been there but also because our transportation system allows "imports" to undercut any local resource. Anything cost sensitive that can be transported will effectively drown the local version and eliminate it.

Thus it looks to me like traditional building methods, or more exactly materials, may not be applicable w/in large urban centers, regardless of their technical efficacy, because they have become too costly to compete. Unless alternative modern (ie. available cheap and in quantity) materials can be substituted into the traditional methods. To mix & match effectively we need to actually understand the traditional mechanism, why it works, what it's various parts do, what the critical issues/constraints are.

Rufus
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Brian Knight wrote:I think its mainly the indulgent and delicious food selection that would be so hard for me to give up.


And...these wonderful and rapid discussions that only technology can provide and support...yet...why do so many feel they must give any of this up?

Much of modernity (if it can all survive itself) is a great thing, and well on its way to becoming...dare I say it...a "Star Trek"...like future. Where "nature" is finally appreciated and can be embraced at the same time as being able to manipulate matter down to the sub atomic level (when we want to..but with consciousness, respect, and forethought...not greed.) When we will have the technology to work in concert with nature and actually "grow a house" that works in symbiosis with us...not us parasitizing the materials and the planet it is grown on. For ...I am not a luddite in reality...not by any stretch of imagination...yet do not see the current trends in architecture as "brilliant" as they will be (or many think they are now)...as humans themselves aren't that much more than "baboons" with clothes, and bank accounts...Much like our current "modern" building materials. The future is bright...I am an optimist...but we have just entered the tunnel and it is a long one...with pitfalls.

Its funny, as I was writing the above, I had not yet read the second paragraph Brian had written...and our words are close in thought...yet differ in perspective. I don't really believe the "best buildings are yet to come," as much of it can be had today if "we" will get out of our own ways and stop being the lazy, greedy, ill mannered apes we are, and embrace what is before us in a compassionate way. Much of the symbiosis can be had today. One absolutely do not have to live like a "primitive" or even in the "old ways" to embrace the best of both worlds. One must shed preconceived notions, actualize a paradigm shift in their thinking and actually get out and experience more of the world around them that 95% of the Westerners I meet ever will in their lives actually do. This "knee jerk" reaction that one has to "wear a loincloth and live in a mud hut" with out the amenities to live a "holistic" or "permaculture life" just reflects much of what I have just written about the limits to "Western thinking," and the "box" so many put themselves in...both in thought and in the tangible affects as well. I understand a great deal Brian of what so many say they "don't feel" such as insulation...that is why I have dedicated the latter half of my life to teaching so I can...if only...to crack the door just a bit to folks so they may possibly see "just a few" of the countless alternatives available to them which so many "don't feel," or "don't think," they can achieve. As usual, when I am confronted by someone that doesn't think something proposed won't work of the ancient methods being applied today...I ask...Have they done it...or seen it done? Have they lived in it to understand it better? Have they been taught to create it so it maybe internalized in all the different elements? So few have, and those that have...only smile, and say...yes...that makes sense...doesn't it.

Regards,

j
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hello Rufus,

I am not really sure if what I just wrote to Brian will make sense to any of the readers, yet I feel much of it addresses many points made thus far.

When I read the word "theory" I am often taken that the person using it is claiming an understanding that perhaps I am not getting... Yet when I take a step back and re-read what so many write or think about the overwhelming thoughts that cross my mind is where their "root mind set is." Which is all to often that of a "Westerner" looking at what they think they have, don't have, think they need...or don't want to lose.

City, urban, or otherwise...so much of it is mind set, and culturalization...not actual, and tangible limitations of any great degree, no where near what many in third world nation (like Haiti face) yet so often they do more for themselves with less than we have just in our garbage cans, and growing and living in the backs of allies.

It is a paradigm change...yet in many (most?) cases expense has nothing to do with it...or 3rd world folks (and homeless I have worked with) would not be able to do it so often better than we ourselves do. Western capital...be it fiscal or emotional...is so coveted by so many that it blinds them to the possibilities that are all around them....including how they use, and experience time. I know folks that live in New York that are living a more "permaculture" lifestyle than folks with 3 acres, but no skills sets, and/or imagination. I know homeless that hunt, harvest and grow while they fight their individual demons that bind them to the city, and the lifestyle they struggle with. Resources are what we make of them...most that don't are limiting themselves...not the world around them doing it to them.

Rufus wrote:Not to mention skill sets and social barriers.


Now that is really true...yet has little bearing on location, as the locus of control here is from within.

Rufus wrote:There may not be enough traditional materials available in quantity at low prices to allow them to be widely used in urban areas. This means traditional methods might be relevant but would need to be applied using non-traditional materials.


Hmmm...only to a very limited point. Most "traditional materials" are not expensive accept in time to gather and process...again a construct and choice. Small urban example...not mowing the yard and/or tearing up the lawn to let it go "natural." Taking a discarded plastic bucket to the closest patch of clay earth and teaching themselves to make alis clay paints. Harvesting pigeons to make a meal. Learning to tan a hide...even if it is road killed squirrels to make the best gloves you have ever owned. Perhaps working part time for a tree company to use there "trimmings" and "junk logs" to make wood for certain projects...this list just keeps on going, as the "control and choice" is internal not external...most of the time...especially in this country where we have way more than so many others, and are so very blind to that.

Rufus wrote:Observation: Traditional technologies established because they were the clear winner in their time and place, being effective enough at a low enough cost to benefit many people.


Is this really the reason? This is only a small part of it in so many cultures (present and past.) Yes, function is part of it...and available materials...yet there is also aesthetic choices and very strong belief systems as well (very often) intense ties that bind them to the "natural world," around them. Spend any time with a Shinto Priest and/or help repair a shrine and one rapidly learns this. So I agree, you must find the resources...(the important one are inside you...not outside)...such as the natural (or recycled) building materials...but first...learn to really see them, where they are...and what they can be.

Regards,

j
 
Charlie Rendall
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Location: Lake Atitlán, Guatemala
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Hi All,
Thank you for everyone's contributions on this thread, which I'm finding very useful for consolidating my knowledge of foundations. Foundations used to bother me as a natural builder because most rubble trench foundations I found on the Internet seemed to need a reinforced concrete beam that floats on top of the rubble, and I wanted to make foundations without any cement, and without the ubiquitous underfloor plastic sheeting too! In particular, I wanted to build a couple of small natural cabins on my land here in Guatemala.

We have high rainfall for half the year and I'd seen too many poorly built local houses literally sucking up all the water from the ground around them and causing all sorts of moisture-related problems like black mould, rusted rebar, blistering paint and rotting wood, and indeed health issues for their residents - asthma and chronic respiratory conditions in particular.

So as a largely self-taught builder, I found out about french drains and acquired a simplistic understanding of the basic principle that moisture isn't very well transmitted through air, at least not well enough to be a problem for buildings. Rocks do a pretty good job of stopping moisture transfer too, or at least the non-porous ones do.

I live in a valley that is made up of mostly debris from landslides, which means lots of rocks, gravel and sand of all sizes. "Use what you have" being my first principle for starting designing, I had lots of big rocks and my pet monster: a Milwaukee rotary hammer drill. So I figured I could put each of the four columns on top of a large rock and tie it in with a piece of 3/8" rebar set into the rock with a negligible amount of concrete mix (less than half a soda can of it). I shaped the top of the rebar into a hook that hides inside the bamboo and then drive a long 1/2" bolt through the bamboo and the hook, so as to stop the whole cabin from lifting off in high winds. Many folks fill the first couple of internodes of the bamboo with concrete but I really don't find it necessary or even desirable for such small constructions.

It took a while to dig the holes and get the big foundation stones level (each one weighs around 200-400lbs), and yet longer to dig out all the dirt from around and under the house and then replace it with small rocks covered by a layer of gravel, but once it was done I realised I'd come up with a very low-tech and effective way of insulating my house from the very damp earth beneath it. It didn't take too long - nor a huge leap in humility - to realise that many others before me had probably come up with exactly the same solution.

This was a couple of years ago now, yet I didn't come across some concrete examples (pun definitely intended) of this kind of foundation until reading Jay's first post on this thread, which came as a big vindication of my reinvention. So a big thank you for that Jay, not to mention all the excellent kanji image searches you provide.

Nonetheless, I have some further questions about these foundations, in particular: we have a LOT of hills and mountains here and I'd like to know how to build this kind of natural foundation on a steepish slope. One idea I have is to excavate a large hole, dump a load of gravel followed by a big thick, flat rock, pop the wooden post on top of that and then fill in the rest of the hole with a thick surrounding layer of gravel - is that how it's done? Does anyone have any other ideas? Previously I would just do it with a big concrete footing, but I'm determined to cure myself of this addiction! (Much as I love it…)

Furthermore, how long do these rock and gravel foundations last? Obviously that depends on rainfall and soils, but won't it eventually silt up? Does the soil creep into the gaps, eventually touching the building's other components and compromising their dryness? Is it worth putting geotextile down? I'm broadly against using synthetic materials but accept that sometimes they prolong the life of a building so effectively that its carbon footprint might even be halved.

One more difficulty I have with foundations is that I can find very few pictures and people's descriptions are often ambiguous and confusing. I would love to see more cross-sections of natural foundations, so here for starters is a diagram of the cabin foundations that I built (with the help of several others!), and a photo of what it looked like a few days before we built on top of it. You can just make out the four corners. The big rock in the middle was removed and the dirt replaced with gravel.

Regarding the discussion on modernity, I am at times a wilderness-loving hermit and at others a technology-marvelling geek. I lived the best part of my life in the heart of London in a century-old brick house with lime and rock foundations, which developed problems because of all the concrete applied around and in them in later additions and modifications - a good example of poor application of modern innovations. I've also watched the extraordinary spectacle of whole tower blocks built in the 1950's being dynamited and disappearing into dust in a second (only to make way for yet more tower blocks!) So I like to think we can still build relatively naturally and well in urban settings, and it's more a question of challenging ourselves to do so.

One further line of enquiry that I'm longing to pursue is reinventing Roman cement - their cement was much longer lasting than Portland cement and yet we continue to use Portland cement in vast quantities instead of developing a more stable version of it. This has been posted elsewhere but it seems relevant to post it here again: http://phys.org/news/2013-06-roman-seawater-concrete-secret-carbon.html and http://www.businessweek.com/articles/2013-06-14/ancient-roman-concrete-is-about-to-revolutionize-modern-architecture

That said, I am looking forward to building lots more concrete-free foundations and learning ever better ways in which to do so. Thanks for your help with this.

With best regards,
Charlie
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Cabin Natural Foundations Section
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Cabin Natural Foundations Photo
 
Rufus Laggren
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Hey Charlie! Most welcome - especially since you come bearing gifts! <G> Sounds like you have pearls of wisdom and knowledge to share. How long has the house you built been on the job?

> use geotextiles...

Moderation in all things sounds right to me. Most modern methods and materials bring trouble because they are (over)used w/out any moral balance or perspective. Not just individual morals but institutional and societal morals. The marvelous inventions and techniques that we are killing our world, including ourselves, with are not themselves necessarily bad. The gun doesn't kill anybody... (Big argument anybody? <g> I see a personal and cultural problem, not a technical one. I don't think geo-cloth is bad per se.


Rufus
 
Rufus Laggren
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Jay

Quick Q: I find _many_ hits in your initial search links in the first post where text is all kanji. Most of the pics would benefit hugely from some comments but google gives only a crude and sometimes poetic hint at translation. Do you have any other sources (than translate.google.com) to help extracting the language? Much of the value depends on the commentary but it's prohibitively time consuming and clearly error prone to pick through google's versions.

Rufus
 
Charles Tarnard
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One of these days I'm going to get some property, and when I do I'm going to set up a mock up of 5 or 10 "houses" with various methods of foundation, drainage, and barrier. Then I'm going to inundate the test site with water.

Until then I'm going to post here as a bookmark for this thread.
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Thanks for posting Charles T., and hope you get to do something just like that...or if you ever need/want to bounce 'ideas' off someone...glad to do that with you too...

Regards,

j
 
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