I have a question and I'm looking for resources and general advice.
My land came with a house built around 1921. It's been kept in pretty decent shape overall, and this year I'm putting a new roof on it. I'm very new to construction and maintenance of any kind. But having a comfortable, safe shelter to live in is important to me. Looking forward, I'm finding that a lot of modern building and maintenance seem beyond me, either because of skill or money. I think that as time goes on (and even now) homeowners are having a hard time maintaining their homes conventionally. As energy prices rise the price of these inputs will continue to rise also. I've seen a lot of really awesome examples of people building their houses out of natural materials, and obviously, my life is full of examples of people living in conventional homes repairing (or paying to have repaired) their homes in conventional ways.
Now that that's been introduced and described, here's my question. Are there examples or media of people maintaining their conventionally built homes using natural techniques? Does anyone have experience with this sort of transition? I think that, theoretically, it should be possible for me to phase in natural building over time. For example, thatching a roof when it needs replaced instead of using shingles, or replacing walls as they need to be replaced with natural filling and insulation.
First off, I do a lot of home remodeling and building and learned it all myself or with friends. You'd be surprised at what you can learn to do with a few videos and watching some educational tv. Doing the work yourself saves a ton of money.
Now to the thrust of your question. Whatever type of "maintenance" the house needs would likely dictate if there's a natural option to change over to.
Need new shingles? Replacing them is a big job but you can do it yourself. Upgrading to metal roofing is a big job that I'd pay to have done. I believe changing over to natural thatching would be pretty hard to do correctly with a high risk of leaks. I saw a BBC show on thatching and it was a neat process but one you had to learn from an experienced person. Unless you live in Europe I bet you'll have trouble finding an experienced mentor.
Siding is falling off? Replacing is a long job but you can do it yourself. Upgrading to a natural and similar material (cedar shingles) is a longer job and probably more expensive with more skill needed. But very doable. Upgrading to a cheap and natural solution (plaster/cob/who-knows-what) could be very cheap and just as easy/hard as doing shingles. But it could change the way the wall works (vapor transmission, waterproofing, etc) and you'd want to be sure it isn't affecting the rest of the building unintentionally.
Need new water heater? Replacing it is pretty doable. Upgrading to high efficiency is a bigger job but probably doable. Switching to a permie-ish solar system is a bigger yet job but probably doable.
When remodeling, we implement some natural methods in our construction. We disassemble pallets and use the wood as interior paneling. We did a paper bag floor in the laundry room. So far, finished surfaces were the easiest way we found to use natural methods.
We've also paid to have things done. We had all our windows and doors replaced and we paid for that. Since then I've replaced every door we paid to have done. They were done so poorly. At this point we've decided if we are going to be disappointed in the work we might as well do it ourselves.
I think use recycled stuff when you can but I didn't skimp on the framework. I bought 2x4's for that.
I wish that we had used milk-based paints instead of latex paints when we repainted, but honestly, the unnaturalness and toxicity of latex paint wasn't something that occurred to me 6 years ago. I also wish that we had chosen a more eco-friendly floor when we replaced the flooring. But, once again, it hadn't occurred to us--we just used laminate flooring (the kind that looks like wood and snaps together).
I know that, when we need to replace the carpets, we'll be choosing wool carpets, and when we have to replace the cabinets, we'll be going for solid wood, unstained ones made locally. But, these things aren't broken yet. To toss them out and replace them with natural options would be bad for the environment. (1) We'd be adding things unnecessarily to the landfills, and (2) We be using up natural resources unnecessarily. Now, of course, if we had health issues that required us to get rid of the toxic materials, than I think the renovations would be warranted. But, as it is, it makes more sense to just change things to natural options as they break.
I'm going to brainstorm a list things to "upgrade" to natural options when/if they break:
And, just because I'm thinking of it, here's things for the home decor:
It got me thinking about the most recent upgrade we did on our house, the countertops. We ended up with granite. Fortunately living in NH (the granite state) it was quarried somewhat locally, but I really didn’t even think to research the environmental impact of that choice. I’m thinking it’s probanly better than the fiberboard/laminate option, but I’m wondering how it compares to say concrete or butcher block? I’d love to hear some input on this from people.
As for siding we have grooved red cedar shingles. We had to re-shingle the south side of the house last year and the red cedar shingles are crazy expensive. Fortunately our house is small and the south side has a lot of windows so the total area wasn’t large, but we could not have afforded changing over our entire house to cedar shingles.
It does seem like a lot of the “natural” materials are more expensive. Cedar shingles, granite counters, solid wood doors instead of the hollow laminate doors... you get the point. But that said most of these options also have a much longer life. So the investment could be worth it financially speaking.
It really is amazing what you can learn to do by watching a few videos. We have done nearly every project ourselves. This is our first home so we had little to now experience before hand, and yet we have now done floor installs, retaining walls buildt with wood, stone or prefab blocks, wiring, painting interior and exterior, building and finishing new walls, patching holes in walls, replaced light fixtures, replaced faucets, re-shingling exterior walls, and removed old counters. The only things we have hired for was the window replacements and the new counter install both of which were required by the manufacturing company for quality assurance. If you just have some patience, attention to detail, and some faith in yourself, you can do more than you may think. Doing the labor yourself has the added benefit of freeing up more funds to spend on quality materials. Certainly a worthwhile benefit in my book.
I had the same question about the paper bag floor. This is the link I found when I googled it: http://www.instructables.com/id/Paper-Bag-Floors/
This site has good pictures to go along with the instructions.
I generally followed Ruby Bloom's directions with varnish suggestions from Domestic Imperfection. Read her newest varnish updates if you want to get more uncertain about your choices
We used actual paper bags which the missus liked but I wouldn't do again. If you do that, go with bags without writing on them. Tearing the written-on parts off was a pain and led to some repeating paterns. If you don't remove the writing you may see Piggly Wiggly on your floors forever. The seemingly identical paper bags we got ended up being three different colors once wet. Luckily they ended up pretty random so it was ok.
We just balled up the paper, dunked it in the water/glue mix, spread it out on the floor and used a brush to get more glue in dry spots. Flipped it over and verified glue on that side and stuck it down. They say to have good overlaps. I didn't see any shrinkage but we did have spots not glue down and when we sanded them or cut them off we were happy to have paper underneath. Once it was all glued down we fixed bumps, folds and bubbles by sanding, sanding and slicing/gluing (respectively). The paper seems to swell up as the glue dries so a little folded edge will feel 4x as thick after the glue dries.
Then we used the BONA varnish and put two coats on. No stain in our case.
Hope this helps
Even finish materials have functions. For home interiors, drywall is 'expecting' a coat of latex paint, to complete its function as the interior vapor barrier/vapor retarder.
We did most of our bathroom ceiling in gypsum instead of green board (an iffy choice), and did not initially install a vent fan (recommended).
Then, we used milk paint instead of latex on most of it.
Now that we are using the bathroom more for physical therapy/soaks and long showers, we have a major mold problem in the ceiling, that will be a pain in the butt to fix.
Options for improving it:
1- Toxic gick retreatment: Bleach to kill mold, then latex paint, to see if the original drywall would have been fine if we'd finished it 'properly.'
2- Conventional upgrade: Mask up, tear out the moldy drywall, replace with green board (a water-resistant and mold-resistant sheet material, similar to drywall or cement board), then paint with a vapor-retarder paint. (Could go to linseed oil instead of latex at this last step, if we want a more costly / more natural finish layer in our space with us.)
3- Old-school upgrade: Replace or treat and cover the moldy drywall with tile backer, and tile the bathroom with ceramic tile. Could try a lime grout instead of plastic goop, but would want to research that option thoroughly so we don't end up with mold again.
4- Casbah natural upgrade: Replace the moldy drywall with cement board, or lime plaster-and-lath (both water-resistant, and firm). Plaster with lime, finish with burnished lime 'tadelakt' made with local dolomite and type S lime, and natural soap.
(0) - do nothing.... mold is 'natural,' right?
Time & money: We have already purchased the vent fan, which was about $100, and the wiring and switches to install it. Awaiting a final decision about ceiling replacement to proceed with the whole project.
1) looks like about 1 day's work, 1 person. Maybe $50 in supplies.
2) looks like about 3 days' work for 2 people, maybe $500 in supplies?
3) Looks like about a week's work for 1-2 people, depending on skill, and maybe $2000 in supplies?
4) Looks like a week or two of work for 2 people, high skill level to accomplish crack-resistant and water-resistant detailing; maybe $1500 in supplies? (plaster & lath is more time & skill vs. cement board which is more conventional coatings)
Budgets are very approximate. Things usually take longer, and cost more, than you think.
Natural materials that will handle the levels of humidity produced by warm indoor showers, without growing mold, are a bit of a technical specialty.
Let alone how to handle flexing (which happens with heat, moisture, & building movement) without cracking, peeling, or delaminating.
When looking at returning to 'natural' finishes and materials, it's worth looking at the traditional lifestyles that accompanied them.
Most pre-industrial areas did not have anything like our warm showers. Bathing (if it was regularly practiced at all) might be by washcloth and rinse, or by sit bath, or by a full-immersion pool.
Some cultures (medieval Europe) believed bathing was unhealthy; possibly due to disease transmission in public baths. Some cultures (various native American, middle Eastern) believed in daily bathing, which might be anything from a dip in the river to a scented indoor wash. a "japanese bath" is a tiled area where you sit or squat to bath, pouring water over yourself with a dipper; variations on this method have been used in many areas including Moroccan village-style 'hammam', American pioneers with washtubs by the fire, and re-invented by campers and RVers wherever the main source of warm water does not come through a tap but through a fire or stovetop.
Separate buildings or areas for bathing were and are common in many parts of the world (sauna, sweat lodge, hammam, 'Turkish' baths, Roman hypocaust baths, mineral hot springs, etc.). In some cases, this separation was known to alleviate concerns about fire, steam, hot water, etc. which might be expensive or dangerous to handle for ordinary homes. A bath attendant and/or maintenance specialist could assist in making sure both bathers and building had their needs met.
For our purposes, to maintain a walk-in shower that allows a 6'6" Ernie to stretch his injured leg under warm running water, we will probably be fitting out most of the bathroom in mold-resistant materials, one way or another.
Because the bathroom has suspended floors over drainage, as an addition, we will also need to pay good attention to frost protection for the crawl space plumbing, repair/replacement access for when attention falls short, and detailing corners and joints so that any flexing of the wood-framed building does not crack brittle finishes, allowing water to enter the walls and condense against colder surfaces.
Similar issues arise in greenhouses, especially those connected to living spaces. And, to a somewhat lesser degree, in kitchens where cooking and washing produces a lot of steam.
The older and more experienced I get with buildings, and their building issues, the more I respect the skills and knowledge embodied in a traditional trades apprenticeship (3 to 7 years, in Europe), and the value of experts' time and attention.
Sure, you can spend less money at a time to alter things yourself, but you might cause permanent damage/degradation, and dramatically reduce the lifespan of the building.
According to "001 The Perfect Wall," the priorties for any shelter are:
1) Control water - Keep out rain and snow, control drainage and groundwater exposures
2) Control air - Keep wind out or allow cross-breeze, manage ventilation, separate indoor air from structure ventilation (wall, attic, crawl space). This step also implies controlling critters: mice, spiders, bats, etc.
3) Control vapors - they move water and other stuff into/through your walls; all walls need at least 1 way to dry out, preferably 2 ways.
4) Control thermal transfer. If you don't have all 3 of the above handled, insulation won't do much for you, and may become an attractive nuisance/trap for condensation, mold, & critters.
The roof and foundations are your primary tools for #1.
The walls, ceiling (sealing!), trim, and finishing materials can all be important for #2.
The finish materials, including plasters, paints, drywall and its finishing, contribute to #3. (Unfinished wood may warp or crack, causing it to be useless as a wind/vapor barrier; so finishes to wood are also functional at this stage)
Thermal materials generally means insulation (foams, fiber, board or batt, straw-clay, or blown materials such as cellulose or chaff); but the construction and thickness of walls, ceiling, roof, and foundations can also play a role in final results.
Any given building material has a function - for example 'siding' generally is a weather- and UV-resisting layer, with good ventilation, that goes over the rest of the wall. So swapping an oil-painted wood siding for vinyl can work out fine.
Plasters are generally a wind and vapor barrier; they require fairly dry conditions for good performance, and if plastering both sides of a wall, you want to be sure you know how any trapped vapors are going to escape. You also need a decent roof overhang to protect most types of exterior plaster, if it's the kind that can dry outwards it can also suffer from excessive weather trying to penetrate inwards. (If it's not the kind that allows water to dry outwards, a new, impermeable exterior plaster can cause major damp problems inside of cold-climate walls.)
So replacing siding with plaster might be asking for trouble, unless it's the perfect match where their different functions are not critical to building performance.
Roofing materials have specific types of slopes, weights, and support systems.
Replacing a lighter roof with heavier (slate, tile) or with something that holds onto snow and moisture more (living roof), you'd need to give some consideration to the roof and building structural/load bearing capacity.
Steepest to shallowest, I'd guess the order is something like thatch, wood shake/shingle, slate/tile, metal (wide range), asphalt shingle, membrane /living roofs.
There's a lot of overlap, but if you try to put thatch on a flat-roofed building you will have a non-functional mess, or you'd have to build a new, steeper roof over the old one.
There is at least one good thatching training program in the US, Deanne Bednar at Strawbale Studio in Michigan hosts workshops and internships where folks can learn a lot about these methods (and help keep invasive Phragmites reeds in check).
As my own house shows, there are significant gaps in my understanding and workmanship.
I'm not claiming to know better than anyone else - just learning from the pitfalls of my own former optimism.
Houses are expensive.
One other thing that people used to do differently, was to have more adults sharing a home. That would in theory also provide more hands, and/or more income, to share the burden of housekeeping, maintenance, and repairs for a given house.
Being the 'head of the household" was a position of added responsibility and status.
I find the cost of repairing/remodeling daunting in both time and materials, but it's hard to convince Ernie (or any of our other relatives who also feel the pinch) to combine households.
Culturally, that seems to imply some sort of social failure. "I'm not 20 anymore."
But by living alone through our most productive years, and only rooming together when we are very young or old - is our reluctance to live together a sort of social failure in itself?
Shared bath-houses had a lot of social functions, as well as the basic function of keeping people clean and healthy.
Food for thought, anyway.
Tyler Ludens wrote:I just want to mention that I think this is a really great topic! Most people live in conventional homes and I don't think it would make sense to abandon those homes with their embodied energy in order to build new, natural homes. Transitioning to more natural, less destructive maintenance techniques is very important, in my opinion.
Thank you :) This is a good way of summarizing some of what I was trying to convey. Reusing is at least as important as recycling, and in a way we're just reusing these structures that are already here
If you install insulation directly under the roof, fibreglass wool and silver lined paper, you will improve the insulation on the house.
Maybe you can practise learning building skills by helping somebody else and then have them help you.
Building is not hard, just knowing the tachnquies is the trick and it can be learned by reading or doing.
I am so glad to see all the folks willing to learn to do their own repairs, and even help on habitat projects and friend builds to learn, so much can be done with a bit of mentoring, reading, watching. But mold can be pretty sneaky and pretty virulent, causing a wide array of health problems, hard to detect, doctors never look at your environment, they just push symptom pills, which just adds to your body's toxic load. So just my grammotherly, old nurse advice, please take time to learn the correct way to get rid of mold!
Happy homesteading to all : )
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