Rebecca Norman

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since Aug 28, 2012
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Rebecca has lived in Ladakh in the Himalayas since 1992. She's a bit of a crabby, grumpy character but is trying to Be Nice on Permies.
Ladakh, Indian Himalayas at 10,500 feet, zone 5
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Recent posts by Rebecca Norman

Good idea, thanks. I'll go back and throw some other compostable stuff in there along with the wood chunks.
2 days ago
About screening the drainage hole, my friends and I here came up with an idea recently. In the wood chip chamber we recently made to filter our institutional kitchen greywater, we put a piece of rigid metal mesh welded to a frame, vertical about 6 inches back from the drainage hole, but I'm sure it will rust out soon. Later I got a brainwave, we can use one of the many slightly broken plastic crates we have around here as the rigid non-degradable vertical holder for whatever mesh we decide to put in after the metal mesh rusts out. Otherwise I was stumped.

By the way, don't use wood shavings! We asked our students to collect wood chips from around our construction site, but they filled the tank with wood shavings instead, so for the first week or two it smelled great and the water coming out was quite clear, but then the shavings clogged up so the water was backing up a bit in there, and it went anaerobic and started smelling bad in the whole area including the kitchen and dining hall. So I dug out all the wet stinky shavings and we filled it up with wood chunks from construction (no, nobody uses any pressure treated or chemical treated wood here, and minimal plywood was used in this project so the chips seem pretty clean). It's only been going another 2 weeks so I don't have anything meaningful to report yet.

5 days ago
I'm sorry, I am interested in this topic, but I would find a diagram helpful. Otherwise I can't quite understand your design.

(I am also in the process of designing a couple of greywater processing tanks, so I'm interested in hearing different ideas)
1 week ago

William Bronson wrote:
My favorite way to make one is to cut slits all over a 5 gallon bucket, flip it upside down in the bottom of a half barrel planter and cut slits in the side of the planter at an inch below the height of the bucket.
Fill with top soil, add water till it seems out the side slits.
For trees, use a whole barrel, just cut one end off.
Either way, cut some hand holds into the sides, the planters will be movable but very heavy.

Wow, your sub-irrigated planter sounds great! Have you posted instructions? Please give us a link, or if you haven't yet, please do, with pictures!
2 weeks ago
Yes, still here! I don't really see what I would call "seed pods", and if there are seeds all, they are minute, like powder. So no, I haven't tried that.

Stewart just writes of eating the plant fresh

Does she recommend boiling and soaking to leach the bitterness out, or some other way of preparing or eating it?
2 weeks ago
Thanks for the praise!

The little rocks are no big idea. Just kind of mulch to keep moisture in the soil so I don't have to water often, since that would seem a bit wrong for capers. I have these stones I collect, so that's a way to use them where I get to look at them. 
2 weeks ago
I agree with the above.

But for my personal experience, our school has several different buildings that are passive solar heated and made of earth. Off the top of my head, here are some pros and cons that come to mind.

Adobe bricks <-> old-style Himalayan rammed earth (like formed cob) <-> modern rammed earth (denser) <-> big straw-clay bricks <-> cob <-> stone masonry

Trombe walls <-> seasonal attached greenhouses <_> direct gain south facing sunrooms

Adobe bricks:
- Available for sale here, so from idea to finished construction can be very fast.
- If you're making them yourself, they dry faster than monolithic rammed earth or cob walls, due to more surface area.
- But you have to mix, make them, turn them, dry them, transport them, and then build, as compared to rammed earth or cob, which you only mix and form.
- Structurally and thermally can be less wonderful than rammed earth for various reasons, unless done very meticulously (which is not the case here).
- The mix seems to need more clay than some of the others, in my experience.

Old Himalayan rammed earth:
- My favorite. I just had my new house built with this.
- The mix is a little wetter than modern rammed earth, so once it dries it's more porous and insulative.
- Less densely packed than modern rammed earth, so may require less material, but then again we made the walls very thick at our school. Which is wonderful for every possible reason, but uses a lot of material.
- Takes longer to dry. I complained about my house taking two seasons (ie years) to build) until my friend finished hers and moved in in a single season, and then had a big moisture problem all winter.
- Seems very forgiving of a variety of materials. At our school we misidentified some fine silt as clay, and built the whole huge two-story building out of a mix that had this fine silt as the binder. Turns out to work fine, the walls are very strong still 22 years later, and when we need to bust a hole through, it's extremely tough and strong.

Modern rammed earth:
- Mix is considerably sandier than wetter methods like adobe, old rammed earth, and cob.
- Needs to be packed very densely, possible by hand but better with a pneumatic tool.
- In ideal conditions, with perfect planning, and good experience, it can be so smooth and attractive as not to require plastering, which avoids an additional step. I'm not fond of this though, because the conditions and planning are never ideal, and without plaster it's harder to put up with chips and bang-ups.
- Less insulative, but more thermal mass, so at a recent building in our school we used it only for the internal wall.
- Moderates temperature best of anything, having both thermal mass and insulative qualities, and giving its stored heat in a slow comfortable way. Moderates humidity, which turns out to matter more than you thought, and is really nice, which is true of any earthen building. Moderates sound too.
- Supposedly has even better structural qualities, so can be built thinner than some of the other methods. Good for saving space, which isn't our issue at the school or my new house, but could be an issue in a denser or urban environment. But also combines with less insulative to make it less suitable for external walls in an extreme climate. I saw several of these used in Australia but their climates were rather temperate.

Straw-clay blocks:
- We like to think we came up with this ourselves. It's a mix of a good local sticky clay (true clay) and straw. We use it as insulating external north, east and west walls.
- Probably not great compressive strength but we're using for one story walls anyway (load bearing).
- The block shape means it dries faster than monolithic walls.
- Straw works well and makes a good block whereas wood shavings are not very good at all. But here, straw is not a waste product and we have to buy it, whereas wood shavings are pretty much the only biomass waste product that can be gotten for free in the whole region.
- If we can get it together to make the blocks ahead of time, construction is very fast, maybe faster than adobes because they are bigger but still liftable by one person.

Straw bales:
- We haven't used this because bales are not made here, but I have some opinions anyway.
- Very thick walls, so take up a large area which is a problem in some places, eg not good for urban areas.
- Mice can get in and make large runs inside, usually near the bottom, which is structurally bad.

- Fun for a small project by people with time to spend. Our students have made some fun structures.
- Not as easy or fast as you thought it would be.
- Lovely, charming, flexible, shapeable.
- Probably shares all the wonderful qualities of old-style Himalayan rammed earth that I love: moderates temperature beautifully, as well as humidity and sound.

Those are the ones I know much about. I live in a dry climate with very cold winters and warm summers, so thermal mass and earthen walls are great here. Other climates may require different materials or offer different materials.

Oops, I didn't even get into the passive solar methods, and my battery is dying. But my favorite is the attached seasonal greenhouse. I've written about that elsewhere on Permies.
4 weeks ago
You could try out a few cobs using different proportions of your available materials, let them dry, and see how you like them. Kick them, rub them, pour water on them, see if they crack while drying (though a drier mix may help), etc. That's generally a good way to prepare for earth building on a new site.
1 month ago

Benjamin Bouchard wrote:Not sure I've come across ground truly too rocky for a scythe yet. How do you mean it's rocky?

She said the grass is up to your waist now, so maybe she means that she knows the area has jumbled rocks sticking up, and if she tries to mow with a scythe she might not see the rocks, and could keep hitting the scythe on rocks.
1 month ago
Hi Eddie,
Nice to hear about your ideas and plans. I hope they succeed! I like Malaysia, have visited a couple of times.

I'm a big fan of earthen building, but there are just a few places where I think it might not be the best. You said "small vegetable garden using Ecobrick and Cob to make the raised bed" but cob is not great for holding up garden earth, because when it gets wet it's just mud, and a garden has to be wet pretty often. For building, earthen buildings are less than perfect in hot humid climates, I think. Chiang Mai has a chilly winter so probably earthen buildings are good for staying warm there, but most of Malaysia has warm to hot weather all year round. Do you have some ideas on how to keep a building cool? I don't have any experience in designing or building for a tropical climate, but I guess ventilation and shade would be key. Or are you in highlands?

You've got a lot of amazing fruit trees and perennial vegetables to choose from in most of Malaysia's climates, and I envy you those. You should be able to produce some amazingly delicious and productive food there, and polyculture will probably be really successful. Oh my god, now I'm thinking of mangosteeeens....

There must be a lot of people doing interesting things with natural building and permaculture or related things in Malaysia and neighboring areas who you could learn from. I wish I knew some to recommend to you.

Best of luck and keep us posted! And now I'm going to just drool off thinking of all those crazy wonderful fruits you can grow.
1 month ago