I felt inspired to share my experience with natural building as my partner and I were reviewing the past two years of establishing our homestead. This details the process of skill set building, meeting our structural needs and gaining many valuable skills along the way. I started from having built nothing on my own, to building a trapezoidal gazebo, a composting toilet, and solar-storage shed that we are proud of. While managing the gardening program at a permaculture demonstration site, I was hanging with one of the Cobfathers, Pat Hennebury, when he told me, "Building is just about knowing the tricks." I've certainly learned a few since then.
I grew up in a city with almost no exposure or awareness of how things went together. In college I took my PDC and had some exposure to natural building through WWOOFing, but most of my focus was on plants. I later participated in a couple of short straw bale building workshops (2 and 5 days), where we erected and plastered walls. I spent a few months on a homestead where I helped a little with some building projects. Then I moved to a piece of raw property (no previous inhabitation or buildings) with my partner and needed to learn how to build.
Initially we bought a gently used 15 ft yurt to live in. We moved on to the land in January and needed a home quickly. We sunk 4x4 pressure treated posts two feet deep and built an octagon to support the floor joist system. To avoid moisture issues, we built 3 feet off the ground. With help and tools from the neighbors (we had almost no tools then and no electricity), we built the deck to support the floor obtained from previous owner. It was already cut to size and consisted of 3/4 in plywood under 14 in wide reclaimed poplar tongue and groove from a barn in Ohio. The neighbors showed up in cold winter days without us even asking. They said, "Of course we're to help- we're neighbors." That was our first taste of the awesome Ozark hospitality. I got a feel for laying out and sinking posts and the basics of attaching joists. We built the platform according to plans offered by the yurt manufacturers, Laurel Nest Yurts out of North Carolina.
- Ask for help. Often people are happy to lend a hand or tools and offer advice.
- Borrow or obtain all the tools you need. Having the right tool for the job makes a big difference. There may be the right tool in the neighborhood or at a local auction or garage sale. Tools can get expensive.
- Triple check post layout! My partner had just finished digging a 2 ft deep hole (not easy in rocky ground), when I realized I'd made an error and needed to redo the hole. She was not happy about this!
- Avoid pressure treated lumber. I would not make this choice again due to the toxic polluting nature of these products. In this case, I didn't know any other options and needed a shelter pronto. In later projects we used locust and cedar posts or concrete piers.
- Insulate the floor. We did not do this until recently and the floor always felt cold and was not pleasant. We have since attached 1 in rigid polystyrene under the joists (11 inches away from floor), effectively creating an air gap under the floor. Although this product is NOT environmentally friendly, it does make a huge difference in the livability of the structure.
Round 1 "Fert Lab" Composting Toilet
Being guided by permaculture ethics, conscious of reducing our carbon footprint and needing structures, we sought to:
- Prioritize reclaimed building materials
- Use local and natural materials
- Consciously design the project and build it to last.
Our building journey started in earnest with a composting toilet as we needed a place to safely and comfortably transform our humanure into soil fertility. We didn't have any water (or electricity) and didn't want to mess with buckets. Also, there are no building codes where we live.
We also needed an introduction to building a structure from start to finish without any onsite help. We had done a fair bit of reading and knew to include a good set of boots and hat to keep water away from building from below and above. We built it primarily out of reclaimed barn wood (often ripped to remove rotten bits). We opted for a stud framed building with slip straw infill covered with clay plaster. We set the building on concrete piers and included lime-mortar stone composting bays (2). The gable roof was sheathed with reclaimed corrugated metal with a 2 ft overhang on all sides. The door and windows were from the Habitat for Humanity Restore (a place we have found many treasures!).
- Using rough sawn reclaimed wood as structural members is very slow and challenging as dimensions vary, they're often crooked and limited supply inhibits design. It's also not worth it as the character of pieces is hidden (better to use character wood for cabinets and accents). It's also tough as sin to drive nails or screws into seasoned oak. (We now purchase rough sawn local lumber from a family mill 20 miles away.)
- Using oddly shaped and sized rocks is difficult. We picked up a variety of rocks from road grading. It made making a stable wall in a particular shape time consuming and challenging. In addition, we still had to set a concrete bond beam on stones to provide level surface for a sill plate. In the future, we will select more uniform "building block" stones for building.
- Hammer impact drivers are amazing! Before starting the building, I didn't own a drill or driver. I purchased a 20v Dewalt drill and hammer impact driver combo and was blown away by how useful they are. Game changer. I had to drill a pilot hole to even get a nail in and forget about getting a screw in without the percussive strength of the impactor.
- When including horizontal bottles in slip straw, wait til after the wall is set to place them. Then cut through the slip straw with a hole saw. My partner placed them as we went and it was overly time consuming. After the fact, I saw a builder's post online that gave is this idea for the future.
- Insure good adhesion of clay over studs. We used sand and wheat paste over wood and a year and a half later, we're finding the plaster's coming off the wood. Mesh or hardware cloth would work here.
These first steps have been incredibly valuable on my journey to empowerment through natural building. In Part 2, I'll share my process and things I learned while building a trapezoidal screened porch in our garden area, basically an outdoor living room.
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