Brad Vietje

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since Jan 15, 2013
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Country boy science geek trying to grow, can, dry and store food through Permaculture and Hugelkultur.  15 Acres in northeastern VT (zone 4) with western slope, spring, stream and waterfall.  Land is 2/3 wooded, with a few old sheep pastures.  New straw bale house (2011) with recycled 160-year-old timber frame from a house that was being torn down.  Wood heat supplemented by passive solar design.  I'm also an experienced woodturner, telescope maker, and astronomy teacher.
Newbury, VT (Zone 4)
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Recent posts by Brad Vietje

My issue was much, much more serious:  two porcupines, mom and 2-year-old son, were absolutely destroying my trees.  First the leaves and fruit, then bark and whole branches.

If you are raising fruit, get porkies off your property ASAP.

I’ve tried catching the big mama, and taking her for a ride across town, but no luck, so far.
4 months ago
There are ICF forms up to at least 20” wide, and possibly 24”(?)

I see another issue if you are in a hard freeze location.  If you get frost in the “cantilever space”, for lack of a better term, it could exert significant upward force, which might damage the structural bond between your wall elements and the footer.

I’ve seen an old house with a stone foundation with a smooth(ish) wall on the inside, but a very uneven surface on the outside.  The wall was eventually ruined by frost getting between the stone projections below grade, and forcing them apart, like little hydraulic jacks.  I would plan for a sheet foam skirt angled away from the wall to help move moisture away, and prevent some of the frost penetration.

I could be wrong here, but I would check into that.
5 months ago
Figured out how to log in with my phone, so I can now access a few photos (I hope) 😜
5 months ago
I'm struggling with how to attach photos, especially if they're cloud based and not on my hard drive...

5 months ago
Just discovered this thread today, some 3 years after the OP...

I'm sitting in a 12-year-old straw bale home in northern Vermont (serious winters), and my experience has been NOTHING like that of the OP.   While I'm hoping the originator of this thread has resolved these issues, I agree with Dustin that something is wrong here.

Our home is a straw bale wrap, with the bale walls around a recycled 1850 timber frame from about 30 miles away.  Great attention to detail went into the interfaces between walls and wood frame, so the different expansion and contraction wouldn't open up gaps and cracks.  The lime plaster is about 1.5" thick on both inside and out, applied in 3 layers -- Steen coat, scratch coat, and finish coat, with increasing levels of lime to the outside, and increasing proportion of clay to the inside.  Lime wash on the exterior, and milk paint on the interior.  Bales are supported by a 20" wide R-22 ICF (concrete) beam over 4' x 4' rubble filled trench for drainage, and an insulated concrete block toe-up to keep the bales 24" off the ground.

We have a 5" thick black stained concrete slab with radiant tubing in place, but we've never used that to heat the home.  (The original design/hope was for a pounded earth floor, but we needed to get into the house, and the added labor would have been more costly, so we took a big hit on embodied energy footprint for getting the house finished on time and within a reasonable budget.)  We have heated exclusively with a small wood stove, and only need 2 to 2-1/2 cords of wood for 1450 square feet and 8,000+ heating degree days.  A boiler could be hooked up at any time, but we've never done that.

We had one mouse get in -- it scrambled in through the door while we were shuttling a laundry basket -- and caught it in a mouse trap within about 10 days.  Besides that, no pest or vermin issues.  This year, for the first time, we have either Mason- or Miner bees forming little tubes around the 6" square vent for the HRV unit we never installed, and they appear to have tunneled under the flashing above one window.   The lime paint may be thinner in these places.  I found this thread while looking for others with similar experiences.  I'm trying to decide what action to take regarding the bees, which so many people actively cultivate.

I do wonder if many of the critter issues are from staged construction, and animals finding there way into a partially finished structure, before the plaster and lime are complete, etc.  I've seen some straw bale houses that were built by well meaning first-time builders who were learning on the fly, and left quite a few gaps in the wall structure.  That's probably what would have happened to me, too, but I got the bright idea to start a small solar company the year before deciding to build a straw bale house, so I was far too busy to put in all the labor, so we hired a very experience alternative builder in the area.

Its really disheartening to read how many have struggled with straw bale homes, since we have had a wonderful experience with ours.  I'm very keenly interested in the resale and bank financing issues, since we're about to put this house on the market (very reluctantly) so we can be closer to our family, especially our two grandsons.
5 months ago
I've used the on-demand propane showers, and they work very well, though they do use fossil fuels and require water pressure -- ether from a hose at household pressure, or a gravity feed with adequate head.

The solar heating options are all more in line with the OP questions.  I've installed around 3 dozen solar hot water systems, plus a few designed for space heating.  The only time hot water can go BOOM! is if its a closed system that can develop pressure.  If you circulate water in a tank or other vessel, make sure its either open to atmospheric pressure, or there's a pressure relief valve in your design.

For a thermosyphon system, the solar collector must be lower than the tank.  I've seen -- but not designed or installed -- a small system that used a small home-made solar collector (black plastic tubing in an insulated box with a plexiglass cover) plumbed in series with a 55-gallon barrel supported by a wood frame structure about 3' higher than the top of the collector.  There are small 12-volt circulator pumps that can be purchased online and powered by a 10-20 Watt solar (PV) panel, so the system only runs when there is enough sunlight to heat the water, and runs faster in bright light than dim -- a nice feature.

Probably the best tubing choice is standard black plastic water pipe, commonly available in hardware stores and building supply businesses here in the US;  hopefully, in France, too!  It is stable in direct sunlight, not very expensive, and will last for many years.
5 months ago
Haven't posted here in forever...

There are a number of variables here:

* Making a walking stick (or anything) from the full diameter of a "stick" of green wood with the pith running through the center makes checks/cracks likely as the wood dries.  Small diameters will be fine, but above a certain size (depends on species and use) they will crack.
* For walking sticks, where durability and strength really matter, consider picking a really tough, hard wood from your area (Osage Orange, Black Locust, Teak, etc...).  Some woods are naturally rot resistant (like Locust), so those might make be a good choice.
For a walking stick, no finish is also an option, allowing it to develop a patina from use.  If you want to protect carvings and such, read on...
* Ideally, a wood finish would penetrate INTO the wood and harden as it cures INSIDE the wood, and not form a dipped-in-plastic coating on the outside.  If you actually WANT a glossy, dipped in plastic look, there are many polyurethanes or "wipe-on poly" products available at local hardware stores.
* Oil finishes should utilize a "hardening" or "drying" oil -- one that polymerizes as it dries/cures to form a sort of organic plastic-like substance that protects the wood.  Some are very slow to dry, so chemical agents, or driers, are added.  These often contain lead or other metals and can be very toxic.
* One school of thought is that ALL wood finishes are food safe once they are fully cured; I'm not 100% convinced of that.  It depends on the use and the finish.  I tend to stay away from anything with toxic driers in it -- your experience may differ.
* If you want a non-toxic finish you can use for these products as well as other bushcraft items (spoons, bowls, cutting boards, etc...), consider what sort of stuff you would be willing to put in your mouth.  Some companies only make non-toxic finishes (Tried & True -- a favorite -- was mentioned earlier)
* "Boiled Linseed Oil" is generally not boiled.  Many years ago it was, but heating raw linseed oil to the boiling point (to help it polymerize and harden more quickly) is dangerous, and there were too many shop fires and burn injuries to continue the practice.  "BLO" contains heavy metal drying agents.
* Oil finishes have to be used properly to avoid forming a sticky mess.  Many of them instruct you to apply liberal amounts of oil, then after a 15-minute wait, to remove as much of it as you can with a towel, rag, or paper towels.  If you don't do this, you'll have a mess.  Some say to use multiple very light coats, and wait for drying between each  -- just wipe on with a rag or paper towel, then wipe off.
* Rags used in oil finishing should be considered a fire hazard!  The drying (polymerizing) process releases heat, and under some conditions, they can self ignite!  I tend to burn all these items in a wood stove or fire pit.
* Some oil finishes are very water repellant -- others are not.  Pure Tung oil resists water, but takes a loooong time to cure -- like months.  Many nut oils are so-so, but dry much faster, and are very easy to re-apply.
* NON-TOXIC HARDENING OILS:  Walnut oil, Hempseed oil, Linseed oil, Safflower oil, Tung oil (careful here -- many so-called Tung oil finishes contain no actual Tung oil), and a few others.  I especially like Mahoney's Utility Oil (pure heat-treated Walnut oil), Tried & True Original (Linseed oil plus Beeswax), and Tried & True Danish Oil (just pure Linseed oil with no hardeners), and have found light applications of Hemp seed oil from the health food store to work very well.
* Linseed oil is very common in Scandinavian countries for all manner of woodworking.  It can be "cleaned" with water (look up on-line) which helps it dry faster, smell better, and darken the wood less, though that process takes a few weeks.  Cleaning usually involves mixing with water, sand and salt (below).
* Most raw cold pressed nut oils found at your local health food store or food co-op are OK, but generally won't harden as quickly or completely as those which have been heat treated (kinda like boiling) and cleaned to remove impurities.  They may remain sticky due to all the good stuff for salads that's not-so-great for polymerization.  Oils intended for wood finishing will usually perform better.  I haver not seen Hempseed oil that's been treated for woodworking, but the organic salad oil stuff does seem to work quite well.  I may try cleaning some I have on hand...
* Scandinavian oil cleaning method here:

That's all for now, folks, hope there's something helpful in here for you.
5 months ago
Meant to attach a photo, but had trouble... maybe things will work this time

Our house was completed in 2010, a straw bale wrap with a reclaimed timber frame from an 1850 home that was dismantled about 35 miles away in New Hampshire.  Passive design (needs lots of active management in this climate!) with black stained radiant concrete slab.  We use roll-up thermal shades to manage heat loss through the large south windows.  Nothing hooked up to the radiant tubing at the moment; we’ve been heating with a small wood stove.  Fuel consumption is about 2 cords against about 8200 Heating degree days.
3 years ago
Hello Jim and Bob!

I wanted to chime in earlier, but couldn’t remember my password after a hard drive crash 🙄

I’ve lived in a straw bale home in Vermont for 9 years, with the bale/plaster work done by the authors of The Natural Building Companion — another great book in the trade.

I haven’t seen Bob in many years, but waaay back in the mid-sixties, we were next-door neighbors!  What are the chances that 2 random kids start life in a tight little neighborhood (Gerrymander Drive, if you can believe it 🤪), grow up, live on opposite coasts 3000 miles apart, and both end up involved in straw bale homes?

I’m no expert on the matter, but have learned s good deal working through design and implementation issues.  My involvement in solar energy systems led me to work on a team offering design, engineering, and construction management for clients looking to create zero energy buildings.  That partnership has dissolved, but I’m still working in solar electricity.

I wish you great success with your book, and many sunny days to come!
3 years ago
Darryl and Sean have raised some excellent points, and I’m glad Bob Theis chimed in what I was going to add.

Moisture management is everything in straw bale structures.  You might be wise, in the long run, to hire a consultant with expertise in thermal envelope performance, moisture management (incl. drainage planes, condensation issues, capillary breaks, etc...) PLUS the needs of straw or light straw clay.

Maybe this forum could help you find a skilled person, or a green building group near you that could help.  Otherwise, you could end up with brick walls surrounding a pile of compost 😨
3 years ago