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Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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I wish to build a small off grid cottage for myself on our land. I have been living with my father in our large family home as he recovers from surgery, after moving back from the city, but I would like to have a small place of my own now that he is getting slowly better. As someone who has never built...anything (well, I made a really crooked plywood door to replace the old one on our chicken house, once)...I am a bit daunted, but I would like to understand more about vernacular architectural traditions and eventually gain enough understanding and skill to build my own home (preferably over the next couple of years). I really want to use as few purchased or imported inputs as possible and make good use of local resources (naturally occurring and perhaps repurposed from other structures).

I really like the aesthetic of cob cottages from the UK--you know, stuff that looks like a hobbit lives there--but I also want to look into any vernacular traditions that exist in my area or similar climates.

I am in the hot, humid sub-tropics, and we are prone to both drought and heavy rain in fits (and some slight and/or slow rains as well, of course). We get about 44 inches of rain per year, and the heaviest rains are usually in the summer months, although our climate has been increasingly variable in recent years. It almost never snows here. Passive cooling is more of a concern to me than heating, since summer temperatures are frequently over 100F for weeks at a time, and in winter it rarely gets below freezing more than a few days out of the year. Also, I also just find heat uniquely miserable.

Most of our land (beneath the topsoil, which varies from good deep river bottom to shallow rocky slopes) is deep clay with a layer of sand over the top, but it varies across the property. We have about 550 acres, so there are a few options for building sites. It is impossible to dig down to solid bedrock anywhere that I know of.

I do not intend to have any indoor plumbing or electricity in the house, including photovoltaics. I have plenty of experience living out of doors to know that I am comfortable with this lack of amenities.

I would greatly appreciate any guidance or suggestions from the more experienced to help orient me as I pursue this project. I am currently reading a couple of books and watching videos, as well as exploring various sites on the property, and I will post updates and possibilities as I progress.
 
Paul Andrews
Posts: 155
Location: Cornwall UK
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I would look at building a roundhouse with a reciprocal roof. insulated with straw and rendered with cob. This would be very cheap to build using materials that may be obtained on site if you have woodland.

Check out Simon Dale

And Tony Wrench for inspiration and information. There have been plenty of these house built here in the UK and beyond so they are a proven idea.

Talk to Tony Wrench. He may be up for running a course on roundhouse building in the states using your house as the teaching project which means you get a load of people come over and help you build your house and you all learn.

Good luck and I really hope it comes off

Paul
 
Mike Cantrell
Posts: 555
Location: Mid-Michigan
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Jennifer Richardson wrote:I really want to use as few purchased or imported inputs as possible and make good use of local resources (naturally occurring and perhaps repurposed from other structures).

I really like the aesthetic of cob cottages from the UK--you know, stuff that looks like a hobbit lives there--but I also want to look into any vernacular traditions that exist in my area or similar climates.


To me, that says, "adobe," even if you're maybe not in PRIME adobe country. (Prime country I suppose would be New Mexico.) Cob and adobe are quite similar. In fact, in your part of the country, you might even encounter people who don't know the term "cob", but they do know "puddled adobe" or "coursed adobe."

You might derive some value by choosing one over the other, because having some local help can make a big difference in how easy your project goes.


The place where you'd want to deviate from the adobe tradition would be in your roofing choices. In an extremely-low-rainfall area, you can just have a flat clay roof, and both rainstorms in a given year will run right off without any lasting harm. Sounds like you get quite a lot more rain than that, so you'd want a pitched roof with wide eaves. Perhaps you can make clay tiles for it? If not, they'll be available around you.

Best of luck, and keep us posted!
 
Jay C. White Cloud
Posts: 2413
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Hello Jennifer,

It is daunting taking those first few steps, but it will be a great adventure. First I would suggest, if possible, building something small first like a garden shed or related structure. This can help you develop skills sets and learn to understand your medium better.

I commend you for trying to go as "natural-traditional" as you can. It maybe more time consuming, yet I can think of no other more rewarding way to build than within the vernacular systems.

As for "earth based" architecture and your region, I think that is an excellent possibility. Perhaps not the easiest to work with, yet more than achievable. I would take this opportunity to stress Mike C's point about what type or form of earth structure to build. The U.K. does have beautiful examples yet that environment evolved an entirely different form of earth based vernacular systems from what a Texas biome has to offer. One of the most wide spread "novice" mistakes in architecture I see is trying to "make something work" instead of selecting something indigenous to the area or at least the environment. The next question/comment I usually get along these lines is..."but...it can be made to work...can't it?" the answer is often yes...almost anything can be "made" to work or at least somewhat. That should never be a goal with architecture that is meant to be enduring and in balance with the environment around it. I would also suggest, that "structural cobb" is not a project I have ever recommended to the novice DIYer.

Besides one of the Adobe styles that can be found in Texas, there are a number of Creole and related archetypes that could be more applicable to your region of Texas. Bousillage, Taipa, and Bajareque styles all fall within the indigenous forms found in your region historically. Of the more "contemporary" forms of earth architecture there is Slip Clay Straw/Chip styles of cob. 小舞壁 (Komakikabe or wattle and daub) styles of Japan's warmer regions would also work well in Texas.

In short I would recommend an Adobe or Bousillagestyle over any of the U.K. cobb forms, and not a structural cobb for a first time builder.

I will try my best to be of assistance should there be any specific questions I am answer.

Regards,

j
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Thank you guys so much! I am very pleased to find that there are so many options to look into that are appropriate to my climate--I hadn't even heard of some of these building styles before.

To organize my thoughts as I try to figure out which building tradition will work best here, I thought I'd make a list of resources that are available (or not) to me:

Easy access:

Clay. There are huge piles of it (acres and acres stacked more than two stories high) where gravel pits were once dug out. I will never, ever lack for clay.

Sand. Not as easy to access as clay, but there are substantial pockets of it on the property, and there is a sandy layer under much of our topsoil in the back pasture.

Cow dung. I live on a ranch, so plenty of cow manure.

Low quality trees. We have tons of small diameter trees, including our native willow, sycamore, and huisache (sweet acacia) as well as the invasive Chinese tallow tree.

Smooth gravel and fist-sized rounded stones. There's still an operating gravel pit on our land (which I despise, but there it is) and I can easily gather these sorts of stones.

Prickly pear / Nopales. I wouldn't even have thought of this as a resource for building, but I happened to see when I was googling some of the styles y'all mentioned that the fermented cactus pads can be used to make an excellent binder for plastering. We have plenty of these on drier, sandier parts of the property. Prickly pears are awesome--edible fruits, edible pads, gorgeous blossoms, a will to survive, and applications for natural building.

Grass. Parts of our property are prairie, so I can get lots of grass if I want it.

Reedy water plants. We have lots of gravel pit holes and ponds, so I can easily get reeds, cattails, etc. in addition to the prairie grasses.

Hay. We have a barn full of hay, if it's good for anything, but everything seems to call for straw so far.

Ball moss. I have no idea if this can be used for anything, as its texture and form is quite different from the Spanish moss that I'm reading is sometimes used in Bousillage, but I thought I'd throw it out there.

Time. I don't work off the ranch, so although I spend a fair amount of time taking care of the property and my dad, I have no shortage of time to muddle with the building and there's no rush for me to move.

Space. There is no shortage of space to store or mix materials or to build on.

A truck. It's what I drive. So transporting loads of material that way won't be a problem, if it becomes necessary.

Moderately accessible:

High quality trees. I don't really want to cut down many of our better trees of moderate diameter, such as oaks, because so much of the land was already cleared for pasture and gravel mining, but I imagine I could find a few to cut. I will not cut down old large trees.

Extra labor. I can find people to help when I need them, but we live kind of out of the way and it's just me and my dad on the place, so for the most part it would be much more convenient if I can do most of the building myself.

Rice straw. Lots of people here farm rice, so although I'd have to buy the rice straw, it's local and cheap.

Tools. We own a fair number of tools already and I would be willing to purchase hand tools, but I do not care for power tools, especially loud ones and/or ones that could potentially cut off parts of my body, and would be reluctant to purchase them. I would much rather spend two days doing something by hand than five minutes with a chainsaw or similar.

Animal hair. Seems like a few traditions use this as a binder/added fiber for plasters and such. We and a lot of people we know deer hunt in winter, so I could probably scrape the deer hair off the hides and use it (I've never tried this, though).

Problematic/difficult to access:

Flat, stackable rocks with faces or corners. All the rocks here are smooth and rounded. There's a rock yard nearby, but it's not local stone--it's trucked in from who knows where--and it's expensive.

Crushed, "sharp" drainage gravel or rock. Again, everything I have access to is smooth and rounded.

Shell. My dad has a fishing place on the coast and I could gather moderate amounts of shell from the beach there if necessary, but I feel like this is against the spirit of the project to some degree, since it's from hundreds of miles away, and I'm not sure it's great for the beach.

Lime. No local sources of this that I know of; I'd have to buy it from somewhere.

Wheat straw or other forms of straw besides rice straw. I'd have to get these from far away. I wonder if you can mail order straw...

Spanish moss. This used to grow here abundantly, but in recent years had gradually almost disappeared, although it might be making a slow come back. What little there is, I'm afraid to mess with, because I really like the look of it and don't want to kill it off.

Cypress. It seems cypress was often used for Bousillage, and my dad says that the long-lasting old cabins he knows of here were built from cypress, but it's another case of something previously plentiful in our area being eradicated, to our detriment.

Wool. No local sources.

Heavy equipment. We actually own some and can access others' probably for free or cheap, but I don't like it and don't want to use it if I don't have to. Plus I can't drive or operate it, although I could learn, I'm sure. The exception to this is our tractor, which I can operate and am willing to use upon occasion.

Money. I can afford to spend some money if I need to, but I don't really want to, and it kind of defeats the purpose of the project if I'm having to buy a lot of stuff or spend lots of money.

---

A couple notes on aesthetics and design:

I really love the roundedness of cob structures, so although I'm now looking at more appropriate options than UK-style cob, I'd love it if I could build in a style that doesn't require sharp corners and 90-degree angles, if possible, although I'm not ruling anything out absolutely.

Also, although we do have dry, sandy areas on the property, the most appealing sites for a house are mostly near creeks or ponds with large oaks and other trees, so that's something I want to keep in mind so that my house blends in with its surroundings and doesn't end up looking like it's been transplanted from the desert or some other location.

I would also like to incorporate multiple rooms, if possible, rather than just one big round one--I'd like to have a larger middle bedroom with an offset bathroom and kitchen to either side. I'd like the bathroom to have its own door to the outside and a door between in and the bedroom that closes, so that if I have friends out camping or later build another detached guest structure, they'd be able to come in and use the composting toilet in privacy without having to traipse through my bedroom to do it. An outside door from the bathroom would also be convenient for emptying the composting toilet. I'd also like it if the kitchen had an outside door as well, since I like to go out constantly and pick food and empty compost, and I might do a little outside porch area or something where I could drink my morning tea and relax.

Here is my superbly artistic rendition of my ideal house. The dark rectangles are doors; the dotted line is an interior wall.
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Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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I have a great deal more research to do before I settle on a method, but here is one of the more interesting and detailed papers I have come across on bousillage--an analysis of samples of the bousillage infill from surviving vernacular buildings in Louisiana, as well as some oral history interviews, descriptions of the architectural styles and elements of the buildings themselves, etc.

http://www.creoleproject.com/2014/10/louisianas-bousillage-tradition.html

I wish I had better access to Spanish moss. I think I will do a more careful survey of our property and surrounding areas to see if it has become more abundant again while I have not been paying attention. Since this will be quite a long-term project, if I do decide to go with bousillage, I may be able to collect the moss slowly from dispersed areas over time and store it as I work on the timber frame, so that I do not negatively impact the moss too much.

I also see that in France, they often used a stone and mud mix instead of the clay and moss mix used in Louisiana. One source said this is simply because Louisiana doesn't have many rocks, so they borrowed from a Native American tradition which used moss. But I do have a bunch of rocks, so perhaps that would be a better option for me, to avoid putting pressure on the recovering moss. However, if the moss has unique properties suited to this Gulf Coastal climate, that might not work.

Another option might be substituting some other vegetal matter (such as straw or grass), but again, I'm not quite sure what effect that would have. I read in some places that such substitutions of grass, etc. were made sometimes in bousillage, but then the article I linked above seems to indicate that it was pretty much invariably a mix of clay and moss in the historical buildings they sampled, except for one (apparently successful) use of straw, although some of their oral interviewees reported hearing about use of pine needles and "rice industry byproducts" being used, although nothing much was known about the truth of this or how it worked out. I can easily get pine needles and/or rice straw, but it sounds a bit iffy. I must look into it more.

[EDIT: Actually I was just going through their glossary and it had this to say: "In French settlements of the Upper Mississippi River Valley and Canada, straw or hay, not Spanish moss, was used as the vegetal binder as in France. Acadian buildings of Nova Scotia also used marsh grass as the binding plant fiber." So these may be viable options.]

I am also becoming less wedded to the idea of round buildings, and am losing the prejudice about right angles not fitting my mental image of the ideal house. I am trying to be open to the architecture as it has traditionally been practiced, rather than being too attached to my preconceptions. I must confess that I am pretty intimidated by the idea of timber framing, but I plan to defer to the experience of Jay C. White Cloud and follow his suggestion to avoid structural cob for this build.

If you happen to read this, Jay, I wonder if you could comment on timber framing for adobe brick structures, as opposed to puddled adobe or cob--I read that it has been done, with adobe bricks infilled into a timber frame, but most of what I see and associate with traditional adobe seems to be unframed. Are you more comfortable with forgoing a timber frame and building structural walls with adobe brick as opposed to something like cob, or would you still recommend a frame?
 
Jay C. White Cloud
Posts: 2413
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Hi Jennifer,

If I miss anything, please feel free to let me known...

The land infrastructure and resources availability to this project is way more than some folks have. This alone is a huge plus in achieving any goals. Another major positive is a willingness to conduct good research and planning, while there is time taken to develop an appropriate design. This type of an approach to any project usually yields very positive outcomes.

As I went down the list of asset resources, here are just some base impressions...

"Old large trees," if of use to the project, should be put back on any resource list.

I too love trees, and it could be said that I have a particularly special relationship with many of them, so do not think me callous when I suggest cutting them down. "Old trees" are just that..."OLD." They are at the end of a life cycle, and probably part of an apexing biome type. It is easy to love them, yet we should NOT think of them any differently than any other plant we harvest for use. This does not mean clear cutting or even taking many, nor indiscriminately just cutting down. For vernacular architecture of a small size, one big tree can often yeild much more than many smaller trees being cut down. This project may not take any of the old trees, but do not take them off a list.

Photos of what trees there are would be helpful...

If one takes their time, does all the work themselves, is seldom of issue, yet the time to learn and do this as a singularity of effort may take a couple years, or even stretch to over a decade. It will all depend on so many factors that currently I wouldn't worry about it. The vernacular form being considered is a type of timber frame that one alone can cut, and raising it is often considered a party, usually called a "raising party." These smaller frames go up in just a few hours, and the finishing is left to the time one cares to take with it...

Rice straw is one of the best forms of the straw materials, along with winnowed rice haul (a.k.a. chaff.)

I would much rather spend two days doing something by hand than five minutes with a chainsaw or similar.


Of all those I have taught and will teach...the ones with this attitude never fail to amaze me and themselves....It seems to always reflect a level of patients and dedication beyond the norm.

When I am challenged by some about power tools being faster, I ask..."based on what information?"

I know that sounds "snarky," yet I have learned that 90% of the people that state that power tools are faster usually have ZERO experience with real traditional hand tools, so they don't really understand how slow or fast they actually are... I can expand this and state that "some" power tools are faster...IF...in the hands of a professional that actually knows how to use them to their fullest potential. Often the crafts person that can use power tools fast can also use hand tools fast as well...and we do use a lot of hand tools... So...just using hand tools to do a project (or at least 90% of it) is very plausible.

WARNING: Hand tools can take of body parts just as fast (sometimes much faster) than power tools...so don't think they are without this risk...I think for some hand tools it is about equal to power, and for others the hand tool can do it much faster, yet the cut is much cleaner if the tools is kept properly sharpened. Nice part, the Doctors have a greater chance of sewing something back on or together...I still have my left hand because the tool was very sharp...and it wasn't powered except by me...

Hog hair and horse tail hair seems to be the best. Some have used feathers. Deer hair has potential but is hollow and presents as perhaps too brittle, yet may have application.

What type of stone and gravel comes out of your quarries? Is there any local limestone quarries? What are the largest "rounded rocks" available?

Processing shell into Tabby, and "hot limes" is a lot of work...doable, but usually more work than just purchasing...It all depends...Finding a source or vender will not be that difficult when the time comes.

Shipping straw very far is not cost effective nor a positive environmental use for the material.

As Spanish Moss has been too heavily harvested in the past and is in decline in many areas, I would not recommend it in those areas. If you can find an area close by with and excess, then a selective harvest is fine. I collected SM as a kid for money by the pound that was sold to the upholstery and related industries. I am sure you could find a source if you really need to. I was just in Katy, in March and saw a few healthy groves driving into the area.

Cypress is a great wood to use. We may even be able to find a small sawyer that does selective harvests of it. This may be more cost effective and time efficient than taking trees from the project area, or at least for the primary frame and board stock materials...

A tractor should be all that is needed...or some very heavy back work and a lot more time...it all depends on what is finally built and how much time one has...

The money you spend should be on good hand tools, books and perhaps training. There will be some specialized materials that may need to be purchased, but that is hard to tell of what and how much, at this time...

What I say to most students beginning to consider a design that is round...

"Round is Romantic...it is seldom practical..." Now that is not meant to dissuade, yet to warn, as rounded "hard materials" are not as logistically and ergonomic as many "think" they are. I also suggest that historically only "transient" vernacular forms are round in design, (i.e. tents, yurt/ger, structures of short or seasonal life span etc.) Often, round is also meant for only "spiritual" structures in many cultures...not to be lived in...

So, if round is what is selected, then make it round...this can be done, yet not often as easy as more rectilinear shapes.

Building near or even in water has merit in the Creole and Native traditions of architecture. Both are achievable.

What was submitted for a floor plan is called "bubble layout" and is standard form to start working through design features and flow of a structure. The one offered is more than achievable.

I don't believe a Bousillage, or related Native/Creole style would dissatisfy you at all. They are beautiful in layout and design, have a very long and deep history, as well as, being a proven form and style for the region.

Rocks don't replace "binder fiber" like moss in either the French or Native mixtes to fill wall voids. More on that later...

I wonder if you could comment on timber framing for adobe brick structures, as opposed to puddled adobe or cob--I read that it has been done, with adobe bricks infilled into a timber frame, but most of what I see and associate with traditional adobe seems to be unframed.


Much of what we see in "contemporary" and what I call "new age" styles of "cobb" are anything but traditional. Many are fine buildings, yet many more are not, nor well built or designed. In the vernacular styles that are "all cobb" most are in very arid areas, not in areas with other resources to build with. Most of the cobb in the U.K. is employed in "infill methods" not in stand alone structures, and of the stand alone structures many have timber frames attached and all have timber framed roofs.

As for a timber frame infilled with adobe block in your area...that is very achievable yet will need a more robust foundation than perhaps one of the "pole foundations" some forms of Bousillage architecture may have in the wetter building locations.

Are you more comfortable with forgoing a timber frame and building structural walls with adobe brick as opposed to something like cob, or would you still recommend a frame?


I personally will not teach or facilitate "structural cobb-adobe" buildings unless they are historical restorations, or fully built by myself and other professionals in the trades, or by students well versed and taught in the craft. In some areas a "true adobe block" structures is appropriate, while in many others locations there are just more applicable vernacular forms. I always lean toward timber frames if I see trees in the biome where the structure will be built. Your area has a rich and ancient history of wood structures way more so than just earth alone.


Regards,

j
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Jay, thank you so much for your incredible generosity with your time and knowledge. I appreciate it more than I can say.

I think I am going to go with bousillage. The more I look into it, the more appropriate it seems for my needs (especially passive cooling) and the more I like it. And yes, in a rectilinear form...I will not try to do some sort of strange round version of it.

I have been thinking a lot about the timber for the project. I would really like to harvest the timber from our place if possible...I like the idea of being involved in the whole process from harvest to finish, and of having the house sort of grow out of our land...but this is maybe overly sentimental thinking. It may be a challenge to find enough trees of appropriate size and quality to remove without negatively impacting the property and that the rest of the family are okay with me harvesting (my father, uncle and cousins are also protective of our trees, haha.) I will try not rule out any possible resources, though.

I am including some pictures of trees I took in the back pasture this morning, where the house will probably be located. Mostly the only trees of note in that pasture are oaks. There are also what we call "cedar" trees but are actually (I am 90% sure) ashe junipers, none with trunks any bigger around than my forearm, that I could find, and not many of those. We also have a lot of yaupon holly back there, but it's just a shrub. As for the oaks, I talked to dad, and he said that a cabin that he and some friends built when he was young from post oak (probably our most common oak and the one which replaces itself fastest) started rotting within a few years, but the cabin was just a slap-dash sort of job, built more for fun than anything, and not preserved or protected from weather in any way...he said that live oak can be "cured" and will last longer, but I'm not exactly sure what that entails. If various oaks could be used for timber, I could probably harvest a couple dozen young oaks between 2 and 6 inches in diameter; maybe half a dozen, give or take a couple, between 6 inches and a foot wide; and maaaaybe one or two in the one to two foot diameter range. Anything bigger than that, and I'm pretty sure my family will veto it. We do have quite a few fallen trees, some quite large, but many have been there a long time and I don't know if fallen wood is ever an option to use as timber or not.

I will take some pictures of the trees in our bottom pasture today, since I will be down there fixing our well. It's a different mix of trees, for the most part, including a lot of willow, sycamore, and huisache (sweet acacia) as well as pecan and the invasive Chinese tallow.

Another thing Dad mentioned was the foundation, which I want to make a note of before I forget--he said things here need a solid slab foundation, and that houses on blocks or similar shift too much here and none of the doors will open/close correctly, etc. In his mind this means a solid concrete slab, which I am not willing to use, but I need to address the shifting issue somehow. The bousillage structures I have looked at had a few different styles--posts in the ground (poteaux-en-terre), posts on a plank/sill (poteaux-sur-sol), and what they called "half-timbered" or colombage. Colombage often leaves the timbers exposed on the outside, which looks great, but I fear may expose the wood to more weathering and decrease its lifespan, especially if I end up using a wood from the property that's maybe not as resistant as cypress--if it's plastered/rendered over, I wonder if that might work better. I don't know anything about putting posts directly in the ground, but it seems like ground contact would also speed up decomposition of the wood. Posts on a sill seems like maybe the most feasible, in my untutored opinion. From looking at pictures, it seems that sometimes they did this with a stone foundation--I don't know if that would be as solid as a concrete slab, but maybe it would address the shifting concerns, and it seems to me that a stone foundation might be a good idea to prevent against flood damage as well. Ugh, I am trying to speculate on things I do not understand well; it is frustrating not to have a good mental framework for what I am doing/talking about to make good decisions. More research!

By the way, I am now planning to re-plant some of our native bald cypress around the sloughs and abandoned gravel pits. I remember my dad taking me to see a gorgeous old cypress on our neighbor's property when I was little before it was removed for another gravel pit. That was the last one I ever saw here. If I plant some now, maybe in a couple generations the people living here will have an easier time finding timber for their houses, or just enjoying the beauty of the trees.

As for the gravel from our quarries, it is a mix ranging from pea-sized to about four inches across, and everything in between. There are two distinct layers, the top one being "road gravel" that is embedded in clay, and the second being "wash gravel" that sits in sand and water (this layer is below the surface of the water table). But the rocks themselves are the same mix in both layers, it's only the surrounding earth that differs. There are not many stones available with more than a four inch diameter--you might find them occasionally, but not enough to do much with. And as I mentioned, these are all rounded and smooth, nothing really stackable. I don't actually know what the gravel is in terms of what kind of rock or mineral it actually is. They are many different colors and types. The only one I can identify is quartz. I think some of it is flint. I will try to find out more. There are no local limestone quarries in my immediate area (we have sandstone instead), but my mom lives a couple hours away in Austin, and there's all kinds of limestone up there in the Central Texas Hill Country.

I didn't even think of hog hair, but that's actually even easier for me to get than deer hair. We have a much-despised invasive feral hog here on which there is no hunting limit (its population and subsequent destructiveness increases every year), and the meat is very palatable and often used for sausage-making, roasts, and barbecues by locals (including us), so it will not go to waste.

And I am excited to hear that the vast majority of such a project will be feasible with hand tools! I have always found them beautiful, and I find the process of doing things by hand to be very pleasant and rewarding. And I must admit to a certain avarice when I think of having a legitimate reason to purchase new tools and books. Are there any books you would especially recommend?

Again, thank you so much for your help and advice.
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Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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More pictures from this morning
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Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Yet more photos (3 attachment limit is annoying)
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Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Gravel soil in back pasture
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Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Jennifer,

You are most welcome, and if I had known, I would have come by for a visit when I was down there.

I just told a story about old Bousillage architecture from my childhood here. You may enjoy reading it. I can almost guarantee even without meeting you that this style of vernacular architecture will captivate you. It is half a millenia old, with roots that go back even further, is known to work well in all the Gulf Coast states, uses materials and resources effectively and is very adaptable to current amenities should they someday be desired. I am excited for you...!

As for "rounding" things out...or..."bubbling" as some of my younger students always seem to come to use as a term...which has grown on me over time. This is more often achieved in perhaps the elements themselves (logs, stones, etc) and in furnishings of the interior elements (woven furniture, upholstery, cobb ovens, RMH, etc.) The "yin and yang" of the two concepts can be worked nicely together over time if facilitated well. The concepts of "hard and soft" edges is part of the concert in harmonies...

After seeing the pictures of the trees you have...small and large, and considering how big your house "isn't" going to be...I think using your own trees is more than achievable. I even saw a few dead ones that have promise and a few of the "older trees" growing in groves that really should be thinned out to give more robust like and growth area to the strong members of the grove. Just these trees I noted in your limited photos would probably build two structures the size and type you have suggested. I will see if I can locate a "custom sawyer" in your area to put you in touch with. They will come with a portable band saw and process the wood you need. If you were closer I would lend you one of my smaller band mills, or chainsaw mills. The other option is "hewing" and "pit sawing" the timbers yourself...but this would take you to full time work for at least the next 8 to 10 months...8 hours a day, and 5 to 6 days a week...


As for "curing" that isn't really necessary as 99% of all traditional woodworking is done in green (wet) wood. The beeswax, and oils can take care of most of the "treating" that will be done, along with perhaps some lime and milk paint washes. I am sure once you have a more "put together" plan to share with family, not only will they get behind it, I usually find very soon they want something just like it...

Another thing Dad mentioned was the foundation, which I want to make a note of before I forget--he said things here need a solid slab foundation, and that houses on blocks or similar shift too much here and none of the doors will open/close correctly, etc.


Hmmm....Well, I would (if there) sit him down and have a cup of tea or coffee while discussing "traditional wisdom" compared to "modern I think concepts." He is partially correct, in so much as buying materials from a local "box store" and building a 2x house or making something out of CMU (concrete masonry units.) Most of these do get set on slabs and related "nastiness" of the modern "consumer society." I can guarantee none of the "slab built" houses will last two hundred years...most won't last even a single generation without major work in remodelling. The oldest "Bousillage" architecture in the Gulf states is well over two hundred years, and I guarantee it doesn't sit on a concrete slab but actual plinths of stone, brick or wood pier...with very workable doors and windows that some are original forms of. You can have this conversation indirectly with him as this is what you are going to be learning to do, or get help from those that can. He can always give me a call, and I will be glad to explore these ancient systems with him to put his mind at ease...

I simply love that you are already learning the language of this architecture!! "Poteaux en terre" (earth poles) and "poteaux sur sol" (poles on ground) methods are a very proven system and will outlast many of the OPC slabs poured today...not to mention can actually be repaired, replaced and worked on much easier than a slab can while under a house. Most slabs, when they go bad...not if...must be broken up and removed first. I would, at this time, via you, remind your father that the oldest wooden building in the world is over 2000 years old and just sits on stone plinths resting on the gravel and clay mound of earth. This building also sits in a region that has worse wind storms than Texas and earthquakes/tremors on a monthly (if not daily) basis...

True Colombage or "timbered" architecture is the vernacular architypes as it came from the Iberian peninsula, France and Germany. These systems have merit, yet are only "borrowed" from and employed in Creole architecture which has as much to do with Native American traditions and African traditions (maybe even more) than it does from the French alone. Zafimaniry and Iberian Horreos probably have just as much bearing on the Bousillage styles as perhaps anything else...not to mention Chickee and Palapa architecture of Native Americans...

You are doing great with your "framework" of thinking and well ahead of what many achieve in such a short conversation. I too agree that stone plinths or columns would be my first choice to build on, yet it will all depend on the final site selected, and what can be achieved. Wood in the ground, if not facilitated properly can rot, yet if the correct type and done well could last 300 years or more depending on other environmental issues. Remember, wood under "fresh water" never rots, and only the wood above and at water line decays. There is a lot to learn, but you don't "have to" learn all of it. There are other "strange people" like me that have done that...

I have seen I Bald Cypress I planted as a kid in Northern florida...they are now of harvestable size, so it won't even take a generation. many can reach good size in less than 60 years...

Now, considering the size structure you plan on building, 30 bigger stones maybe all that is needed (perhaps less.) We will have to see. Harder sandstone is more than acceptable. Shipping those in, if need be, is not a bad thing considering all the other positive things you are doing. If the quarry manager can start saving large stone for you (the bigger the better) that might be a good thing, or at least you can look at them. Rounded doesn't matter...if the correct jointing methods are used...

Here are a few photos of work I or students have done in a style that is part of the considered traditions.







Dan Snow's work


I use to guide hog hunting down in the Carolinas...they are a very invasive species, yet very useful and tasty as well. Good leather too...

Here is a book list I have started for folks that ask about what to read...this is but a tip of the ice berg that can be started...Book List To the left of the page is more of the lists I am working on which covers timber framing...

Till later,

j

P.S. Send me an email so I can create a contact file for you...
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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I am so pleased to hear that I will be able to use my own trees! I took a few more pictures yesterday evening. There are a couple of dead pines in our yard that really need to be dealt with; it would be wonderful if they could be used for the building somehow, but they probably died of either lightning or pine beetles, neither of which seem like they'd result in good quality timber...there are also a bunch of trees in our bottom slough that I could use; Dad is pretty sure they are ash trees, but I must confess that the last three generations of us have just always called them "those trees that grow in the slough" and not bothered to check on the proper identification. The pictures of them are sort of blurry (although they looked fine on my phone when I took them, grrr) so I don't know if you can tell much.

I have been looking into hewing and pit sawing, and it does look like a lot of work (and a lot of skill to develop)! But it's so beautiful, too. I would really love to try it, and if I prove hopelessly inept and/or am too overwhelmed by the labor, I could look for a sawyer. But to imagine seeing all around me something I had created myself is too appealing not to try. Plus I would have bragging rights forever! I'd also have to find someone willing to pit saw with me, and I feel like my friends would all discover pressing obligations after the first day or so, haha. I don't suppose there are any one-woman hand tool alternatives to the pit saw?

For anyone who's interested, I found some neat videos on hand hewing and pit sawing (although in these the pit saws are above ground frames and not actual pits).





I don't think that standing on top of the log with bare feet a couple inches from the axe will ever be something I am willing to do, but this was still a really cool video. And the colors of the wood are really beautiful:







I really like the description you linked to of the bousillage home you stayed in to weather that hurricane--I've been in a few hurricanes myself, so I can appreciate the difference between the experience you describe and the experience in a conventional building--and hearing about some of the architectural details gives me ideas for my own plans.

The way those stones are joined to the wood above them in the pictures you included--I had no idea you could even do that! I love it. The Horreos you linked to are amazing, too--I am beginning to appreciate gravity as a force for holding things together in buildings--previously my impression was that mortar and such things did most of the work where things weren't nailed/screwed/pegged together but it seems not. I ordered a book from your list of recommendations (for which I thank you!), called How Structures Work: Design and Behaviour from Bridges to Buildings by David Yeomans. It should be here in about 12 days, so hopefully at that point I can start getting a better idea of how buildings really support themselves and respond to stresses--right now I feel like I am learning a lot in my research about various "components" of buildings but I want to understand what makes a structure sound and how to achieve it (obviously, since I'm going to live in it!). I am also lucky in that my godfather lives nearby and visits a lot and he is a mechanical engineer--and although he has no experience or interest in natural building and does more industrial work, he has designed and built a couple of conventional houses for himself, and I will be glad to have someone to double check me and give input about the soundness of anything I am building, although I will have to take some of his prejudices about construction materials with a grain of salt, I am sure.

I will send you an email so you will have a contact file for me. Thank you for all your help!

 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Annoyingly blurry pics of the possible ash trees
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Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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And the dead pines
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Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Jennifer,

I am not sure from just the photo what those trees in the slough are. Get me photos of the leaf and any flower/fruit, as well as a bark close up and I am sure I or others can give you a good guess.

The fellow in the video from Japan is an acquaintance of mine. Kunihiro San (雨宮国広) is probably one of the best at the trade in his country. Here is his web page: Amemiya-daiku This is a google page of him working...Kunihiro San

There are many different ways to traditionally process wood. Mix some of these up, if you understand them (like saw kerfing) and the process of hewing can go much faster. The Japanese are probably one few cultures left in the world that still has craft people sawing wood by hand...IT IS very hard and long work...compared to a saw mill. Even if you don't do it for the entire frame, I always try to finish most wood off by hand and/or do a few beams fully from scratch. It is one of the ways a home becomes a home, and gains "soul."

Gravity has probably done more for "good architecture" than any other joining or strengthening method. It must be understood well, but it is not difficult to master the basic concepts. The book you ordered will give you a much deeper understanding of such things.

Regards,

j
 
Jean Becnel
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Hello, I own and run www.creoleproject.com - ie where you found the article on Bousillage construction. I am happy to see that you found it informative. The gals that put it together are very thorough and one of their husbands if a friend of mine and accomplished timber framer and preservationist, John Blokker. I envy your project, it sounds like a lot of fun.

I was contacted by J about this conversation and have briefly skimmed through it. I wanted to make a few comments if I might.

First, hewing and sawing is not so bad. You are not looking for perfect timbers merely functional ones. What I mean by that is that pretty is only so useful in keeping water off of your head and pretty makes modern construction easier but has little effect upon your needs. Timber framing and log building techniques do not care about pretty so long as the timber works for the location. Joinery methods are rarely affected by winding, tapering, irregularities etc.

Also, Cypress and Pine are by FAR the easiest timber to hew for construction. I will not personally set to building timber structures from anything outside of the conifer family. They are generally straight, small branches (small knots) and easy to work.

Functional open style pit saws may be purchased from Frog Tools or I believe Thomas Flynn & Sons in Sheffield England may still have one for sale as when they custom made one for me they made a small production run. Overall, invest in good tools whether in terms of money or in sweat equity cleaning up good old ones.

The second thing to note is that Bousillage serves two main purposes - It is a quick and dirty means to achieve separation and thermal mass. It is not rocket science. Mud/clay/sand is still earthen and will break down with time / exposure. Sand is the least important component of bousillage. The real reason I was eager to post Laura's research upon Bousillage was primarily because it dispelled many myths about the careful and tedious preparation of such.

Fibrous reinforcement in bousillage or adobe is a must but it is not a recipe worth being too picky over. Early buildings are composed of materials that were on hand - do the same. The Bousillage needs protection from the elements to last, consider lime wash or much better still is wood clad of any fashion.

Have you considered roofing yet? That would be a good place to put any white oak you may have - otherwise Cedar, Cypress or as a last resort earthen, thatch or Pine.

In regards to foundation, it's tough to beat the advantages of a raised structure for cooling but also for longevity. In a wet climate such as South Louisiana, raised structures last far longer as air is allowed to circulate under and around the structure keeping mold / mildew / rot to a minimum.

I have not yet set a date for it yet however I will have a lumbering and building class coming up at LSU this year. Following the web site will keep you informed upon that if you are interested.

Regards and much luck and learning on your project.

Jean
 
Jay C. White Cloud
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Hi Jean,

Thank you so very much for accepting my invitation and joining Jennifers post!!...

She will benefit, as will we all, by your thoughts and presence. Hope you enjoy the rest of Permies as well.

Your addition to this conversation, with just this first post, is most helpful.

You have gone and added info (tooling) I did not get to yet and stressed some other rather important aspects to consider as well.

Most of the timber frames cut in history and still today around the globe are cut in a "conifer species" not in hardwoods. Some experts would say about 2/3 or more. I have done both most of my career, and yes there are regions like the U.K. and vernacular forms like many New England-Appalachian, Barns, Mills, cabins, etc that may be hardwood, and even some Bousillage that are as well. Yet, overall, this is the exception, and conifers have the lion's share for just the reason thus shared.

I also fully agree that White Oak can create a roof shake that is hard to match for durability, and have seen some that are well over 150 years in age. Pine to, with the correct roof pitch and treatment can last almost as long or longer depending on maintenance and finishing modalities.

Thanks to for driving the "foundation aspects," about this vernacular form. I know from offline conversation with Jennifer that she has faced some resistance by "mainstream" building experts that a "pier" foundation of any type is not the way to go. Which I strongly disagree with in many vernacular forms. I don't know of a single Bousillage, or related Creole/Native vernacular of enduring archetype that is not "up off the ground."

Regards, and again, welcome...
 
Jean Becnel
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Thanks for the welcome, and I haven't much oportunity to poke around much yet but ut looks like the topics are certainly in my wheel house.
 
Jennifer Richardson
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Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Jean,

Welcome, and thank you so much for your input (and thank you Jay for helping connect us)! This is very helpful and addresses a lot of what I've been turning over in my mind. It's good to have confirmation that raising the building off the ground is the way to go, and that I don't need to be too finicky about the bousillage composition. Thank you also for the advice about where to find pit saws--I was figuring on having trouble locating them.

My thoughts on roofing had only gotten as far as "some kind of wooden shakes," so it's good to know that my white oak will be ideal there! I will also see where I stand with local sources of pine for the build--we have piney woods a few miles from here, but the people I know well enough to beg trees from had theirs completely wiped out by fire a few years back. But there might still be some folks willing to sell me a few trees. I am looking forward to trying my hand at some of the hewing and sawing--it is a great relief to know that I won't have to do a perfect job cosmetically to end up with usable timber; I was having visions of legions of massacred, mangled trees left in my wake as I tried to get good enough to create perfect lumber. And I will definitely keep an eye out for the workshop you'll be hosting at LSU! I have greatly enjoyed reading what you've shared on the Creole Project site.

On a personal note, I also wanted to thank you for bringing the Little Angels foundation to my attention and others' via your website. My only sibling, my sister Rebecca, died a few hours after she was born, and my mother especially still grieves for her many years later. I sent a small donation to Little Angels; I only wish I could do more.

Again, thank you, and I hope you enjoy the Permies forums--I have found them to contain lots of really friendly people and great projects!
 
Jennifer Richardson
Posts: 166
Location: Columbus, Texas, USA (Colorado County). Zone 8b, verging on Zone 9. Humid subtropical, drought prone
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Just wanted to update folks and say that I have settled on a building site! The bottom pasture was eliminated mostly because of flooding issues, and a fair amount of the back pasture is taken up by a gravel quarry, so I was left with a little under a hundred acres to work with, and chose a site amidst some live oak trees on one of our creeks. The next step is to dig a test pit about 10' cubed to see if I encounter any water (hopefully not!), which will become my future root cellar if things work out, as well as a drainage ditch out the back to the creek. Here are some photos of the site for anyone following along at home!
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Jasper Beardly
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Location: 8b; Coastal Mississippi
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A bit late to the party it seems!

Hello All, Jennifer, Jay, Jean!

I find this thread especially fantastic. I have a familial history with bousillage and tabby construction, and can attest to longevity of its design (one of the oldest structures on the MS gulf coast). Unfortunately that being the case those relatives are long since enterred.  The idea of using these construction methods has accordingly died or been dismissed as pure non-sense. I have a vision to utilize these methods in an effort to create a sustainable identity in this area lacking in such. A means of reclaiming culture and roots of creation. I was hoping for and update on @ Jennifer's project and i Hope the cosmos have seen fit to aid you in you're goals!

As well as anything in the way of Education opportunities on the topic of bousillage/tabby. I find it offers many of the benifits of cob and mitigates for a few draw backs in a wet hot rainy humid environment.
This is a great discussion and there is much to be learned from the information previously mentioned.

Bless
 
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